Critical Thinking & Limits Of Certainty
Thinking is an activity of the mind which is common to all people, although it seems to be done by some almost thoughtlessly. Critical thinking however is both a disposition to judge the information one is thinking about, as well as a skill set that allows one to make those judgments with in the appropriate contexts. This requires two things. First it requires a breadth and depth of knowledge that boarders on expertise and therefore is hard to come by, though not impossible if one is willing to put in the effort to accomplish it. Second it requires that one have enough self-awareness and integrity to set aside their biases and look at the information for the sake of truth alone. This is of course a hare in the briar patch, because although critical thinking is presented as the ability to set one’s biases aside and evaluate information objectively one’s assumptions about the utility of the apprehension of knowledge form the basis of all thinking that follows and therefore can not be set aside, despite what the experts and elitists would have us believe.
Even with all the growling about unbiased science and unpolluted religious dogma, once you peel back the layers of propaganda you find a bunch of old men, scared of losing everything if someone should peek behind the curtain. This is true not only of science and religion but of every area of life; politics, education, economics, social theory, etc. In all of this, the only thing the men behind the curtain fear more than not having all the answers is that their cover will be blown by a ragtag bunch of misfits. So the disinformation campaigns begin, steering people in the wrong direction, vilifying those who dare dig past the surface, all to protect the status quo.
Knowledge is power, and knowledge of the Truth has the power to set Men free, but to get there we must first grapple with how we understand the utility of the apprehension of knowledge.
In the course of time Plato asserted what is known as Idealism, the notion that the raw knowledge of the reality of things is latent in the mind of the individual and that this knowledge of reality is drawn out of us as we interact with the world around us. His was something of a Gnostic approach to knowledge, highly subjective, and emphasizing the metaphysical over the physical. Plato’s student Aristotle went the other direction asserting what is known as Realism, the notion that things are what they are and a rational apprehension of the knowledge of them clears the way for an individual to gain a deeper knowledge of the metaphysical as well. His was a more balanced approach to the utility of knowledge for it was predicated on the basis that things are what they are thus emphasizing the importance of scientific inquiry and reason in the uncovering of deeper metaphysical knowledge.
With the advent of the Enlightenment the Realism of Aristotle morphed into Scientific Rationalism. Similar to Aristotle’s Realism, Scientific Rationalism emphasizes what one can experience with their senses as the utility of the apprehension of knowledge, but it also went a step further by discounting anything that could not be sensed as unreal. The problem is that Scientific Rationalism as a philosophy of life offers no viable insights into Life’s purpose, relocating universe to nothing more than a fantastic machine with Mankind as nothing more than a cog in that machine. From this we have inherited the blessings of Darwinism, Determinism, Utilitarianism, and Behavioralism.
Despairing of a life without purpose and meaning culture turned to the Existentialism which has become the hallmark of Post-modernity. Where Scientific Rationalism claims objectivity due to its supposed reliance on only what can be sensed and observed, Existentialism embraces subjectivity by imposing meaning upon experience regardless of the facts. In some cases this emerges as Nihilism, broadly understood as the idea that if nothing matters and all choices are equally valid, then hope is a myth and freedom means making yourself happy while you live. At other times Existentialism emerges as Romanticism, a superimposing of hope and purpose onto the meaninglessness of life, an embrace of what can not be real for the sake one’s sanity.
Thus both Scientific Rationalism and Post-modern Existentialism come up short in their explanation of the utility of the apprehension of knowledge because neither sufficiently speaks to the issue of objectivity, the former presuming that all that is knowable is able to be apprehended by Mankind’s faculty of reason and the latter presuming that reason is unnecessary as a basis for the answer’s to Life’s biggest questions. Thus we come back around to the distressing realization that objectivity is an illusion.
When one comes to this point, the moment where they realize that all knowledge offered to them is predicated on a degree of subjectivity that fundamentally calls into question the validity of every supposed fact, when they grow weary of being told to stop asking the questions which have been answered by the experts, they have reached the intellectual crossroads, a crisis of belief if you will. Here is where one decides if they are going to invest themselves in finding a way to ignore the lack of reliability, or if they are going to invest themselves in the journey of discovery. The former takes many forms – religious dogma, scientific dogma, addiction, apathy, Utopian idealism – while the latter is what is defined as Skepticism.
Skepticism is the conceptualization of the utility of the apprehension of knowledge that essentially sees knowledge itself as impossible for Man to apprehend with absolute certainty. This Agnostic stance is not so much antagonistic toward knowledge but simply exercises a degree of ontological humility because the only thing the skeptic is really certain of is that no one and no thing in this universe can be trusted absolutely. It is worth noting that this differs from the actual thinking of most self professed skeptics in that they are usually just Scientific Rationalists hiding behind the name of Skepticism because it makes them sound more unbiased. True Skeptics are intellectual Gypsies, not bound to any one ideology or dogma, unwilling to cast their lot in with any one until respect is earned through relationship.
In Human society, true skeptics are outcasts because they will not march to the beat of any drum but their own. They are called dissenters and traitors, subversives and revolutionaries, fools and conspiracy theorists. Yet the Judeo-Christian scriptures calls these who have cast aside every other answer as insufficient, the most blessed of all Men for the Kingdom of Heaven is meant for them (Matthew 5:3). This is because the Faith which is the key to the Kingdom of God is anchored in two premises. First, that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are not the writings of men about God, but rather the autobiography of God dictated to His prophets (2 Peter 1:20-21). Second that God establishes the trustworthiness of His objective account of reality through the experience of covenant relationship (Psalm 103:7). Thus the 20th century pastor and author AW Tozer used to remark that the Christian must be the most critical of all thinkers, for only the Christian has come face to face with their own utter inadequacy and cast themselves upon the author of every story who is intimately acquainted with the details of Life in a way that we can never be.
For we were created in the image and likeness of God, designed to live life to the full, but because of the corruption passed down from father to son from Adam to now, the deadness in our spirits clouds our minds, numbs our hearts, and enslaves our wills so that even our most pious choices carry the stench and stain of blood. We are utterly lost, utterly broken… utterly incapable of knowing God. It is not until He digs the holes for our ears and unveils our eyes by His previenent grace that we will even hear His voice and see His hands stretched out to us. Thus we find again and again that God graciously initiates covenant with Mankind and they respond in Faith. Through covenant relationship God reveals Himself and His design for creation, for us, for eternity. Thus the divine revelation and the covenant relationship culminate in the Advent of Yeshua as YHWH puts on skin and dwells among us, God with a face (John 1:17-18).
This then is the testimony of Yeshua the Messiah: God has done what only He could do. He has spoken into the darkness of ignorance and brought forth the light of knowledge, He has invited us to come and find our rest in Him and to learn what it means to live in that light. So don’t fear the wilderness of Skepticism, for it is the path to true enlightenment if you are willing to listen to the quiet invitation of grace.