“Ubi dubium ibi libertas: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”
– Latin Proverb
From the moment that I decided that I would dedicate my life to scientific skepticism, critical and creative thinking; I have faced many incidents of dissent, profanity, threats, insensitive ad hominem, indecency, wrongful allegations, accusations of being condescending, trying to stir unrest, and many ruined relationships with people, young and old. People consider skeptics like me arrogant and proud, a know-all, a cynic. Their reason: we simply dare to disagree with established notions and claims.
|Charvaka/Lokayata is the ancient school of Indian materialism. Charvaka holds
direct perception, empiricism, and conditional inference as proper sources of
knowledge, embraces philosophical skepticism and rejects Vedas, Vedic ritualism
and supernaturalism. So if anyone says that ‘science’ and ‘skepticism’ are purely
‘western’ concepts, then they are mistaken. Many other independent skeptical and
empirical schools have been known to have risen across many different and
isolated human cultures at numerous instances in ancient history.
I admit that it is hard to become a skeptic. Many people choose to live their lives not wanting to invite argument and trying to become as amiable and affable as they can be, saying arguments have ‘no point’. And I confess that I still have much to learn and maybe I’ve made mistakes in the process of all this, but if I stop with what I’m doing, it will prevent me from further improving my reasoning skills. If I become discouraged, I will loose confidence in all other aspects of my life. And out of everything else, sound reasoning skills and clarity of thought are of utmost importance not only in my daily life to obtain untampered, unbiased information; its important even in my career as a nascent practitioner of (scientific) medicine.
|Aristotle, pioneer of the scientific method.
Argument is an important entity of human civilization. Both on philosophical and practical levels. I just do not agree with those people who back off, trying to avoid imminent outcries against dissent, by avoiding arguments. I believe that people who think arguments ‘have no point’ have failed to understand the very definition of the term itself. An argument happens when someone doubts someone else’s assertion, claim or idea. An argument, if logically sound and backed by observable and reproducible evidence, may help to denounce or disprove established notions for them to be replaced by new credible ones. But an argument just for the sake of quarrel, blinded by ignorance and belief-preservation, may be able to convince quite a many for a certain length of time, but in light of overwhelming evidence and reason, will eventually perish. It’s the latter type of argument that have ‘no point’, the former type are full of viable points. And that is what skeptics like me try to do. We argue, we doubt, we express opinions all trying to stay within the forever-expanding boundaries of reason and science.
Take this lesson from history as a case scenario. For centuries majority of humans and majority of cultures held the belief that the Earth was the center of the universe, and all the heavenly objects including the sun and the other planets revolved around it. From a common sense perspective, it was valid. At every dawn the sun came up from the east and at every dusk, it set towards the west. And observers on the surface of the earth remained stationary. So it was obvious that the sun was moving wasn’t it? Common sense. That idea had remained unchallenged until the time of Copernicus, when he proposed a ‘heliocentric’ model for our ‘heavens’ which stated that it was the Earth (and other planets) which revolved around the sun, and not the other way round. He established the element of doubt, and started an argument. He backed his claims with evidence, observations and calculations based on changes of seasons and transitions between day and night and parallax. And about a century later, Galileo argued with the Roman catholic church backed by his observations trough the telescope and his calculations. Though Galileo was forced to recant his postulations by the Pope, the idea of Heliocentric model for the solar system flourished as other scientists and observers realized the ample evidence in favor of it. We can realize the importance of argument and skepticism to human beings from this historic example itself.
|Heliocentric model of our solar system [Not to scale].
One of my favorite intellectual personalities, late astronomer Carl Sagan, explains about the nature of skepticism and relation of skeptics with the public, in his book The Demon Haunted world (Chapter 17 ‘Marriage of Skepticism and wonder’).
“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public
concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore
the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and
pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the
skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what
our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant
with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they
need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with
kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.
“Clearly there are limits to the uses of skepticism. There is some
cost-benefit analysis which must be applied, and if the comfort,
consolation and hope delivered by mysticism and superstition is
high, and the dangers of belief comparatively low, should we not
keep our misgivings to ourselves? But the issue is tricky. Imagine
that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in
the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and
inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep
quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent? Or is it your
moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to
leave the cab – because you know that every silent assent will
encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause
him next time to think twice? Likewise, if we offer too much silent
assent about mysticism and superstition – even when it seems to
be doing a little good – we abet a general climate in which
skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous
thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate.
Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.”
With relation to his idea, I do not expect to influence and make aware a whole lot of people at once. I tend to be realistic. But in my opinion, even if I can successfully influence at least two people in my entire lifetime, I become successful in showing them their hidden ability to think for themselves and to question everything, even established beliefs and scientific theories with reason and evidence at their disposal. I do not expect skeptics like me to change the world overnight, but I think that to change even two people’s way of thinking is a big achievement. The same two people could at least influence other people in their lifetime, and teach them how to think. And the idea of critical thinking could grow like a cell through mitosis. And of course it’s not just about spreading ideas, its about teaching the people the ‘art of being right’ by being able to think for themselves, to question everything and anything and to put up logical arguments. That is what critical thinking is about. To learn to remove our biases, to learn from our’s and others’ errors and to substantiate any claims with reason and evidence. Self-improvement of the mind.
Skepticism is not a belief. Its an efficient and fool-proof method to acquire sound knowledge with the use of critical as well as creative thinking. Critical aspect to acquire unbiased information and Creative aspect to be able to apply that knowledge and to be able to think out of the box. And everyone needs this skill. From simple home-makers to make a decision on efficiently finishing household chores, to scientists while doing their research; when buying a pen worth the cost and comfort of your fingers, to buying a satisfying used vehicle for the right price, all for good reasons. It teaches us to question everything, from politics to religion. Skepticism and science are vital tools for any democracy and democracy always thrives on freedom of speech which in turn is essential for critical thinking and science. There’s a triangular relationship between Science, Critical thinking and Democracy. One of them could not exist properly on its own without the other two. Science needs absolute honesty and transparency for it to function properly, and that can only be achieved with freedom and clarity of thought. And freedom needs logical evidence-based arguments and rational decisions to protect itself, and that can be effectively achieved with the help of science and rational thinking.
|Thomas Jefferson, one of the key architect of free-speech and modern democracy.
Let me quote a relevant notion put forward by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and engineer of the constitution of the United States of America, in his Notes on Virginia:
“In every government of earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved…… “
He intends to tell us that people’s minds must be ‘improved’ for the proper functioning and preservation of any free and just democratic society. As Thomas Jefferson was a well-known rationalist, a free lance scientist of his time and an advocate of free speech, we can be almost certain that the ‘improvement of minds’ he talks about, is actually a reference to our critical thinking capabilities. And why not? If there is anything that can guarantee the improvement of human cognition, this is it. So let us all keep asking questions, try to find out the answers on our own and think rationally as well as creatively. Maybe one day human civilization will be equivalent to the Vulcan civilization portrayed in Star Trek? We never know….
“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy
ONLINE COURSES ON CRITICAL & CREATIVE THINKING
I’m leaving with several links to free online courses on critical and creative thinking. If any of you are reading this blog, please do consider taking any one of these courses. If online courses are not for you, then do read these two books any time in your life (‘You are not so smart’ and ‘You are now less dumb’ by David McRaney). Trust me, critical thinking is eye-opening and life-changing. I suggest all of you to give it a shot. It’s not rocket science! (However rocket science requires it dearly!).
1) Critical Thinking Web, Hong Kong University (My personal best!)
2) Foundation for Critical Thinking (criticalthinking.org)
3) Oxford’s free course, Critical reasoning for beginners
4) ‘Future Learn’ Free online course on Logical and Critical thinking – From university of Aukland