The Value of Critical Thinking & Uncertainty

“A willingness to be uncertain is not weakness, but a sign of intellectual honesty.”

This is to me a principle virtue of both good philosophy and good scientific skepticism — a tolerance for ambiguity, for not yielding to the immediate temptation for subjective certitude, and being satisfied with something at best only close to complete closure in our knowledge instead of actually, finally getting there, because…

“If ever we convince ourselves we have found completely certain scientific or philosophical truths, then our best thinking has failed its purpose…”

…and I believe that the purpose of our best thinking is to keep us thinking, to keep us from ever stopping our inquiry, to prevent us from ever saying to ourselves, “We finally know all we’ll ever need to. We can stop looking now.”

Keeping ourselves thinking is good, for even doing it when we don’t seem to immediately need to lets us do it better when we do have the need.

For if we collectively convince ourselves of having obtained final knowledge with nothing left to learn, our intellectual growth as individuals, and the accomplishments of our species will end, to be replaced with a new Dark Age, and what I see as the death of freedom of thought and of government.

I see that kind of outcome in the most dogmatic religious fundamentalism, and in counter-reality doctrinaire politics.

Small wonder that the authoritarians of both dislike the very concept of democracy without having easy manipulation of both its process and rights of participation.

In my view, it’s a mistake to demand that our knowledge consist of absolute truths, outside of pure mathematics and formal logic, and even more of a mistake to convince ourselves we’ve ultimately found it, especially when our alleged truths lack or fly in the face of demonstrable facts and testable evidence…

…and there are tests even for reason itself, logical tests of validity or strength, relevance, soundness or cogency, and non-circularity, for starters.

Even reason is fallible, and we humans fail at it frequently, even the smartest of us.

I think it’s naive to suppose that unaided reason can tell us anything about contingent matters of fact, when experience has shown that our most productive knowledge of the world, the best we can have of how things are outside our heads and the workings of our computational tools, has consistently shown itself open to revision or rejection when better facts, data, and arguments make themselves apparent to our scrutiny.

Unfortunately, that naivete seems increasingly common.

The failure of unaided reason in telling us anything about matters of fact around us, outside the formal conventions that give them meaning in their own realm of application is one reason I don’t take religious apologists too seriously — either the logic of their arguments is fallacious, the truth of the premises questionable if not false, or both.

I’m worried, as Carl Sagan was when he wrote The Demon Haunted World, about the future of my country, of my world, when ignorance of science and what it brings is the norm, and the democratic process eroded by a lack of, even disdain of clear thinking skills by the general populace, or the suppression of such by our leadership is active and ongoing, when our education systems in the disastrous wake of No Child Left Behind have failed us, and jobs are being moved overseas…

What will become of us when we cannot even attempt to question, not just ourselves, but those who hold power over us through our own abject ignorance and gullibility for their own gain…

…What indeed?

2 thoughts on “The Value of Critical Thinking & Uncertainty

  1. Pingback: The Weekly Gnuz & Lynx Roundup for October 19, 2012 « The Call of Troythulu

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