This morning’s election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian with no political experience, brings the problem of critical thinking to—pun intended—a critical level.
As if the election of Donald Trump were not enough to get our attention.
Mr. Zelensky has absolutely no political experience. He played the role of President in a popular Ukrainian comedy show; he performs stand-up comedy throughout the country. As a result, he’s an extremely popular person in Ukraine.
And, as of this morning, Mr. Zelensky is their new President, elected through a fair democratic electoral process.
Perhaps he’ll do an excellent job.
Ronald Reagan had no political experience when he became governor of California. But at least he learned a great deal about politics, and leadership, in that position.
And, when Reagan was later elected president of the United States, he brought what he learnt to that high office.
I use these historical facts to focus intensely on one simple issue:
What does it mean?
It means every time you encounter a thought, reflect on it carefully, deliberately, critically.
You don’t blindly believe in it.
You consider alternative viewpoints.
You always doubt the assertion.
Here are a few examples:
Most of us were taught that elementary particles exist behind the materialist world—protons, neutrons, and electrons.
But physicists now study what might lie beneath these concepts.
String theory has been proposed, for example. It suggests that sub-atomic, vibrating strings of some sort create the illusion of these particles. The theory assumes the existence of multiple, parallel universes. It is so complex that no extant mathematical or computer model exists for proving or disproving it.
Therefore, these particles we’ve come to assume create our computers, desks, coffee pots, and dishes may turn out to be untrue.
Other physicists believe these commonly understood elementary particles are just a manifestation of some kind of structure better understood in terms of information, as in information processing.
In honor of Easter and Passover, consider some assumptions lying behind these holidays.
For the Christians, Easter represents the resurrection of Jesus. He was the son of God.
No problem if you believe that.
In fact, I’d add, good for you if you do. You enjoy the embrace of a religious ideology which likely helps hold your world together.
But is it true?
No way exists to prove or disprove it.
And, remember, beliefs can be dangerous. Many innocent, non-believers were killed by Christians during the Crusade.
The problem of religious violence is not the result of religion.
It is the result of tribalism, of an extreme sense that your group is good and the others are bad.
Even if not raising to such a radical level, please note that, as soon as you value any one viewpoint, Christianity for example, you are necessarily devaluing others. Implicit in your belief system is the heightened valuation of your own and parallel devaluation of others.
What about Passover?
For the Jews, the holiday celebrates the Pharaoh’s freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt. It includes the story of Moses parting the Red Sea and the subsequent 40 years of wandering through Egypt.
Did Moses part the Red Sea?
Is the monotheism of Judaism true, and are Jews indeed the chosen people?
(The immense problem with that latter aspect of Judaism, of course, is that it overtly proclaims special status upon that one group).
You get the point.
I only discovered critical thinking in my 40s. Until then, for example, I’d read a nonfiction book and assume what it contained was fact.
Even a nonfiction book is filtered through the subjectivity of the author. It therefore, and necessarily, contains all sorts of biases.
What features of the nonfiction topic did the author choose to highlight?
What level of research went into the creation of the book?
As of this morning*, here is where I stand regarding truth:
- The vast majority of what we experience is way too complicated for us to ever understand. We have tomes of information about every imaginable subject. Those tomes likely account for less than one percent of the world. Astrophysicists know, for example, that most of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy. They have no idea what those things consist of.
- I hold certain belief systems, like the Golden Rule, for example, or the idea of social democracy, dearly. I heartily believe in them. Even a full understanding of them will evade my complete comprehension. I have to surrender, with humility, to the limitations of my knowledge base.
- I love my family and friends dearly; I even feel love for my patients. But do I understand love? Not really. I know it when I feel it. But precise definition has thus far escaped five millennia of philosophers and theologians who have tried to define it. Many offer definitions, but they often overlap or contradict one another.
Enough about me.
My point here is to encourage readers to UP THEIR GAME when it comes to critical thinking.
As the late Tom Hayden said,
You’ll have to face more anxiety. You might be a Ukrainian who wakes up to learn his or her country is run by a clown like Donald Trump.
But this world is an anxiety provoking place. Chaos constantly threatens to destroy the tentative orders we have created, from cities to novels, from apartment buildings to skyscrapers.
Finally, as Jacques Lacan wrote,
Certitude is the hallmark of psychosis.
Really, now, who wants to be psychotic?
*I write “this morning” because who knows how my beliefs might change by this afternoon, or tomorrow, or in five years.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP