Who are we anyway?
Are we just a collection of atoms? That may or may not be but this collection of atoms has risen to form a complex being which can have beliefs and experiences. As the beliefs we have influence the experiences we face, what we believe seems very important. What we think about the issues we face influences how we spend our time on this earth. While I don’t believe in a second in the absolutism of ‘you attract what you are’ because it is partly blaming the victims of abuse for their experiences, we should not deny the impact of our beliefs on our experiences. If you believe in multiculturalism, for example, you’re probably more likely to hang with a diverse group of people and have the benefit of access to a variety of viewpoints.
But how do we gain our beliefs? How do we come to think about things a certain way? What makes us who we really are? Is it something that we heard from our parents at one point, possible while we still were very young and never bothered or dared to question it?
And why does it even matter? Should we even bother to hold an as little amount of contradictory beliefs as possible? Should we try to well, even if our education system has not taught us how to think but what to think?
The unexamined life is not worth living
Sure, we might consider the quote above elitist, as we have families, jobs, responsibilities. And we need to sleep. We’re not kings or emperors who have time to vile away in reading philosophy or poetry. We are all busy. But does that mean we should take what preachers and Hollywood tell us for granted and never question it? Does that mean we should let others decide how we are to live? You will most likely appreciate your own ideas and points of view more if you took the time to read and think about them carefully.
The internet has made the world a global village. In earlier times, people were living in villages and smaller towns and that meant that the village preacher had a monopoly on a person’s moral and spiritual life. Same as today, there were a huge number of religions, worldviews and philosophies. But to be informed about all the various options a person must have had a lot of time and means to gain books as higher education was not valued as much as it was today. And even if a person pursued higher education, their options and availability of knowledge were more limited when compared with what we have today.
Today things are much different. There are still a lot of philosophies, religions and worldviews but the information super-highway has enabled everyone to access the questions and answers about each of the philosophies. People no longer must go to great lengths to get access to information. The village preachers have lost their monopoly. That is good.
Was it easier to concentrate in the good, old days?
Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay
But a new age also offers new dangers. The danger today, ironically, is that too much information could lead to decision fatigue and subsequently, to a person avoiding deciding and falling back to what their parents or the proverbial village preacher taught them. And that would surely be a great shame. In earlier times, people could legitimately say that it's not THAT easy to get new information. Today, a simple two-minute Google, DuckDuckGo or even Bing search can answer a lot of your questions or at least point you in the right direction.
So, if we don't have the will to think for ourselves and decide our own life-philosophy we have no-one to blame but ourselves. Sure, that is not true, as we could blame our employers for making us work extra-long hours or we could blame Facebook for making the app so addictive that we cannot let go of our phones for more than a few minutes and immediately feel the urge to look for that +1 notification. And true, we would have a point as there is still progress to be made on separating personal and work life. In my opinion, there's also still progress to be made on the issue of app addiction–I feel that politicians should take a deeper look into protecting the people from the greedy app and service developers. Sadly, until we do more on those and similar fronts, it is us who should try to concentrate enough to decide what our worldview should be.
Why even care so much?
Ok, but WHY, say you? Why should we care about knowing ourselves and the world? Wouldn't we just as satisfied with the superficial beliefs we get from the preachers? A lot of religious people seem thrilled with their experiences in life, So, superficially it may seem that our experiences might be good enough without thinking deeply about the issues.
We should feel more confident in debates, interactions and life in general if our beliefs are on the firm ground.
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The answer is obvious but still worth spelling out–because it is likely that each of us will consider themselves a more complete person if we know ourselves if we know where we stand. We will fill more fulfilled and have a true sense of accomplishment when we learn something new about ourselves. That should lead to more worthwhile experiences because we’ll know that we took the time and that our beliefs are near rational as possible at a moment in time.
But not only that. There is a certain urgency in the present. It seems democracy doesn't work as good as it used to work. There are a lot of prominent politicians (come on, you know who they are) who would like nothing better than to replace democracy with some form of dictatorship. And there are people who don't believe that would be such a bad idea. It also seems that people have stopped listening to scientists and listen to their like-minded peers instead. in this present climate, staying outside, not caring and not sharing our opinions is like not caring about our own futures and the future of those who come after us.
If we do not take part, they decide things for us. Nobody will care if we were too busy when it mattered. We did not bother to know the issues; we did not debate or voice our opinions; the votes have been cast and we must live with the consequences of those decisions.
But to participate, we need to know ourselves, our opinions and our biases. And in order to really know them, we cannot rely on what they taught us years and possibly even decades ago. The stakes are too great. Each of us can improve the world by knowing ourselves and expressing our opinions bravely, without fear. But we need to be sure we're not speaking from a position of profound ignorance or arrogance. The cure for all that is thinking and exploring ourselves.
It's not only about the 'automatic' thinking we normally do. It's about critical thinking. As with everything these days, there's a lot of definitions of critical thinking. But what I think it comes down to is–we should not be quick to jump to conclusions and instead we should deliberately stop and think about the issue at hand. So, we approach a piece of news or information with an open mind and scepticism, stop and really think about it for a few minutes or even research it for a while if it seems important. And if it makes us particularly angry or emotional, it is important. If it makes us, let's say, too certain about something, it is important because we might react out of bias.
How do we think critically about an issue after we have determined it's important?
What is the issue?
Well, we need to fight the urge to reach the decision about it in the first few seconds. Then, we need to understand what the issue is or what the article we're thinking about is REALLY saying. Maybe we completely miss the point of an article or that we are looking at the wrong issue completely and the real issue is something else. This is one of the favourite tactics of the right–to muddy the waters and distract from the real issue–but her emails–her emails have no impact on what he did at that moment. The issue is the issue.
What other information we might miss? What is important about this issue? We need to think about the issue and ask the right questions. Right questions are usually characterised by focusing on the things that are quantifiable and scientific method can discover. We usually focus wrong questions on things like the author’s personal history, which football team they are a fan of or other things which can lead to personal attacks.
Look for answers
There are many explanations for an issue. Sometimes we can find the final correct answer. Sometimes not yet. We can suspend judgement in those instances, yet feel we have thought deeply about an issue and did not fall back to believing something without evidence.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Asking questions is important. An argument can sometimes be dismissed (note: NOT disproved. DISMISSED) by asking questions which do not seem to have an answer but that is not really how we gain beliefs. That might be how we suspend judgment on an issue but to gain belief properly we would need to look for an answer that would satisfy us and then decide if we're satisfied.
Take flat Earth for example. Some conspiracy theorists argue that since there's no oxygen in space, the rocket fuel cannot burn and therefore nothing could have left earth. Because of that, all images from space are fake. So, the question is–how does rocket fuel burn in space? The answer is that the rocket fuel contains an oxidizer–like liquid oxygen. That burns in the combustion chamber and creates expanding gas which propels the rockets.
We had an issue; we looked at one aspect of it, asked questions about it and got an answer. Sure, conspiracy theorists would dream up entirely new issues now but that is beside the point. For each of those, we would undertake a similar process.
Separate opinion from fact
This one is pretty much self-explanatory. While opinions are very useful tools they do not carry the same weight as facts. In the ideal world, we would derive a huge percentage of opinions from facts. Sadly, a lot of them are derived from tradition, tales and other opinions. So, while opinions can be a precious source of information we should not skip that extra step and verify that the opinion you're considering not only makes intuitive sense to you but that it also has a solid foundation in facts.
Our beliefs matter because they influence our experiences. But we should not be quick to accept just about any belief just because it seems like less work or because it makes us feel good. Thinking about what our beliefs should be is in a way its own reward because it fills our time meaningfully. It also enables us to feel better about ourselves and makes our actions and experiences more genuine and enjoyable. Critical thinking is the best way to gain and from time-to-time to re-examine our beliefs. Critical thinking is hard but the entire process is worth it as it will bring more confidence and theoretically even more happiness. Let's get to it.