Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Critical Eye – Reason and Rationality in Service to Humanity


I recently went to a lecture at Boston University as my eldest daughter will be attending the school this fall. I was impressed by the number of speakers who were there to tell the students and parents that the hefty price of tuition will certainly pay off over time. This, as all the speakers concluded, was because a BU education; be it in-class learning, research and the social opportunities of campus and community living, will grow students during and after they attend the institution.  I remain deeply impressed with the school; its faculty, administration and staff. 

One of the first speakers, Dean Virginia Shapiro, gave a wonderful talk about what it means to learn and gain knowledge.  As an educator myself, I thought her address was perfect if only half correct. Half true in that Dr. Shapiro focused on knowledge related to new discoveries. That is, how research and information help humans grow, to gain new knowledge from asking questions, testing hypothesis, and developing new technology and answers without a context for the past. A push for innovation without history, but to make history.

There was no discourse in her speech on the other part of the equation.  The importance of not just braving new frontiers, but of also reviewing and testing older ideas and current practices. This, to ensure that what we know remains truthful, that it is accurate,  that it is unbiased and  for the sake of history and discovery, that the information, ideas and knowledge are timely.

Challenging “old knowledge” to confirm, enhance, displace or dispose of what might be known facts is centrally important to our human ability to know what is real and unreal, tangential or superfluous, rational or superstitious, and accurate in the context of research methods and outcomes.  Without a baseline or strong research method, how would we know that even the best controlled experiments are indeed yielding results which they themselves are testable and factual? This is an issue for all experimentation since we must control bias and hope in research and look just at the facts and the results.

To me, replicating experiments is essential to finding truth for changing the world. From the point of view of anthropology or biology, this is a “one step at a time” Darwinian model of the slow accretion of traits and differences. That is, we know what we know and we test “it” to improve or change a situation by varying its inputs to create or change something into something new.  We actually use these methods in most disciplines and they can be seen in our art, in the social and behavioral sciences, in biology and the physical sciences, in medicine and certainly with technology.

Rarely do humans have those punctuated equilibrium moments which create true paradigm shifts of thinking or ways of being that haven’t been built on previous knowledge or other ways of doing things. Perhaps the exclusion here would be the control use of fire, development of language, or the printing press. But I’m sure there are many others. iPad anyone?

One could argue that Darwin depended intellectually on Larmarck, Linneaus, Hutton and Lyell, Erasmus Darwin and so many others to ultimately develop the concept of descent and change over time. That is both the essential reality for both Darwin's theory of Natural Selection and the Enlightened 19th Century. That humanity was open for such a theory to come along because we were intellectually ready for it from a critical thinking and reasoned point of view.

Indeed, had it not been Darwin, it would have been Alfred Russell Wallace who would be considered the father of the same scientific theory. This beautiful and simple theory so satisfies our curiosity about the natural world and our place in it. In a sense Natural Selection, like all scientific wisdom comes from manipulating the Rubik’s Cube of our imagination by using the brain’s ability to reason and ask questions, which makes both science and knowing a process without an end.

Since many human cultures have moved from animism, to polytheism to monotheism, my assumption is that we will continue to move from gods being everywhere, to just a few gods, to one god to eventually no god.  This bodes terribly for religion, organized faith and superstition. But in the course of thousands of years of faith imposing its unconditional need for respect, we are moving with our common humanity and critical thinking away from the shackles of non-evidenced based reason, to the security of each other rather than placing our hope and future in a non-existent external father figure; or guilt- or prayer-based form of social control which is certainly not needed or warranted.

The surety of faith is its own demise since the act of believing defies logic and replaces knowing with a circular set of beliefs which always end with the same conclusion. As god is not provable except for those who do believe and take supernatural existence on faith, the subject can be left open to just those who need faith in their lives. And so long as the faithful do not force their subjective morality or values on my secular life or others, I am fine with people needing to believe, especially since one has such a choice in a Constitutional democracy.

But do we really need theology for us to gain wisdom or truth? Should we study the "truth" of a a single faith or do so comparatively? What can this subject really teach us about the human condition? In my view and to many others in the free-thinker community, the answer is religion can teach us nothing. Whose theology and god is best suited to explain the world or universe? Why not investigate the realm of fairies, or leprechauns, or Big Foot or magic, using the same supposedly “divine” texts? In the end we know that we can have social justice and be good without god or theology. Even the Catholic Church has recognized this fact.

By using our critical mind we can and do change the world.  It was Carl Sagan who said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” So if critical thinking is essential in finding new knowledge.  It is equally important to use those same tools to examine knowledge already expressed by our understanding of the world. In this way, we learn more about our natural lives, pulling back the curtain of ignorance, or conventional wisdom, or taking us out individually or collectively from our comfort zones to change our science, art, and philosophy. To expand what it means to know, what it means to be human as well as be a good citizen of the universe. 

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