The human mind is an absolutely amazing thing. Our frontal lobes, cerebral cortex, allows us to recognize patterns and ascribe meaning to phenomenon. It gave us certain, unique survival skills during our evolution, allowing us to recognize recurring weather patterns and animal behavior of both predator and prey. To codify these behaviors, humans started anthropomorphizing other animals and natural phenomena–ascribe human-like motive and intent and nature to non-human creatures and events. From this feature of our larger brains, we’ve gotten the fascinating stories on the native Americans about Raven, and Coyote, and Rabbit, as myths which served to explain curious natural events as well as teach cultural values and lessons. We have the very ancient Babylonian stories of the Elohim, the family of gods such as Yahweh and Baal and Tiamat to explain the events of their desert culture and pass on their morality. The Greeks, the Maori, the Chinese, the Australian aboriginals…wherever there is human beings, there are myths and stories which they use to explain natural events and patterns, human and animal behavior.
The human mind is awesome!
But our amazing capacity to find patterns and devise explanations for things which we don’t understand doesn’t stop at the ancient world. This ability is what allowed Copernicus to map out the orbits of the planets, Issac Newton to develop his Laws of Conservation of Energy, Einstein to figure out relativity, and every other scientific and medical development from vaccines to that drug that stops “restless leg syndrome.” As a species we’ve used our powerful minds to create gods and monsters, and cure disease and alleviate suffering.
But that ability of pattern recognition, imagination, anthropomorphizing, can also be a hindrance. What once allowed us to track prey, successfully grow crops, and avoid being eaten ourselves, is still alive and well in all of us and threatens the progress and advancement we’ve made as a species from tribals to moderns. People are seeing ghosts in lens flares, UFO’s in street lights, angels in reflections, religious icons in toasted bread. Harmless enough, I suppose. But then there are those who take advantage of our bigger human brains to fool us with psychic surgery, fortune telling, talking with dead loved ones, homeopathy. And then there are the innocent dupes who are victims of nothing nefarious but basic logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and want vaccines to be the cause of their kid’s autism, wish that teen sex was stoppable via ignorance, that peace can be achieved through superior firepower, that all of life’s existential problems can be solved through buying all the right consumer products.
In the realm of our brain’s fertile imagination and pattern finding, the bridge between myth and fantasy, and advancement and progress, is “critical thinking.” It’s a skill that allows us recognize when we’re making false conclusions, finding patterns where there may not be any, seeing form in the formless, attributing the wrong cause to an effect. It keeps us from being lead down primrose paths at our own expense, being taken advantage of by both the crook and the misguided. It allows us to make clear and considered decisions and choices in our lives that have a better chance of being for the improvement of ourselves, our family, our society, humanity. Whether it’s the decisions we make in the food we buy, healthcare we choose, paper or plastic or reused canvas bag, the people we elect to manage our public policies and military, or the morals and values we pass on to our children–the value of good, critical thinking is immeasurable.
All that is to preface this short but wonderful essay from The Skeptoid podcast:
♦ The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking
(That page has the entire transcript of the article, but I prefer to listen to the program; the “listen” link is near the top of the page.)
A skeptical approach to life leads to advances in all areas of the human condition; while a willingness to accept that which does not fit into the laws of our world represents a departure from the search for knowledge.
Host Brian Dunning does a fantastic job in explaining the necessity of critical thinking, but more than that, how it should be taught and how important it is that the message gets across. He discusses how so often the concepts of logic and Socratic reason are taught in a dry, boring manner that seems unrelatable to the lives of students. If we’re to minimize the pain and suffering of reliance on “alternate medicine,” the foolishness of relying on astrology and divination and New Age “Secrets” to make decisions in life, the waste of money and emotional dependence on psychics and faith healers, and eschew real potential in medical advances and ecological protection, we must teach and promote good critical thinking in our children! I’ve learned, it’s never too late to become a critical thinker, but it’s also never too early to encourage it.