Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

Class lecture

Bob Corbett
Summer 2000

The tools of reasoning, the methods of critical thinking and science often disappoint students, let them down, give them results of a lesser nature than they expect. I want to address this difficulty which often leads to an anti-intellectualism or serious level of disappointment with the tools of reason.

I am reminded of a situation where someone comes to believe that if he or she will only invest a couple of thousand dollars in a certain stock, then they will become multi-millionaires in just months. So they make the investment. However, they don't become multi-millionaires in months. Rather, within two years the investment pays off at a decidedly higher rate than any other stock in the market by double, but the result is still not multi-millionaire status.

Thus the investor, who has gotten the best return in market history, is still sorely disappointed. The investor expected so much more.

I think the analogy is accurate. Science and critical thinking education at all levels, from elementary school through the university often lead the student to false expectations. Common culture does the same thing. Scientists are portrayed as those who know the TRUTH. Now, if only one can learn their methods, then surely, TRUTH will be the result.

The problem is not that critical thinking and the scientific methods are not the best possible for the most reliable results, they are. The difficulty is that the students often have absurd expectations fostered by bad educations and a inattentive and uncritical public.

The difficulty is a complete misunderstanding of the process of knowledge and what we can and should expect. What is below is toward a more humble view of what one can expect from critically thinking about the world. As in the analogy above I think we purveyors of critical thinking can offer the student a tool which will outshine all other tools by a decided margin, but we cannot offer truth, absolute knowledge, certainty or even close to it. The tools are not the problems; the expectations are the problem. They are inhuman.

Let's look at the situation: there is a physical world out there independent of our minds. We have contacts with that world via our senses. From the sensory data that we take from the world (which includes words and ideas), each of us builds up an inner picture of a world, or, better several worlds, often in conflict with one another.

Some of this matching is modestly easy. Though observation and hearing about it or reading, I come to think that red juicy tomatoes come from these mainly green plants in a growing process which we can obverse. We can attend to this process in such a way that it seems we really get the truth. Tomatoes come from tomato plants. There is overwhelming agreement, virtually no one SERIOUSLY and actually disagrees, though people might play act at disagreement.

But many other things require much more than mere sensory observation. They require that the knowledge claim we make (the thesis) is imbedded in some larger theory of how the world is. Thus many, I would say MOST of the interesting claims we make about the world are theory bound and tied, for their truth or reliability, to a much larger frame of theory about the nature of the cosmos, about our knowing tools and so on.

These theories are neither directly observable, nor are they ever perfectly reliable.


1. they are CONSTRUCTIONS of an inner world from outer clues and

2. they are fallible. They don't yield TRUE claims, but relatively reliable ones.

When in critical thinking someone makes the claim:

x is so for reasons and considerations z, q, r and t.
and then holds to it firmly -- this happens every day in science and everyday life -- what is technically being claimed is this.

"I have constructed a world in which x is the case, and I have done it because of the reasons and considerations z, q, r and t, and I AM CONFIDENT THAT FOLLOWING THE RULES OF CRITICAL THINKING, I can show that this construction is rationally to be preferred to all known competing theories."

However, the claim is heard by the world as simply the thesis: X is true.

But the reliability of a claim is ALWAYS theory bound and theories are things we simply make up, construct, to help us understand the world using our basic observations of the world and what we have learned of theories in general.

Thus the simple claim: "X IS TRUE"
when understood in its fullness is not a claim about the WORLD independent of our minds, but is a claim about the relative reliability of competing constructions of the world.

To go back to my analogy: It is not becoming a multi-millionaire of truth within the week; but, it is getting the very best return on one's intellectual dollar as can be gotten given the status of knowledge at the moment. And, the tools of critical thinking are quite excellent for allowing us to arrive at such judgments.

Now, having said all that, I'm now going to get even more humble and back away from this to some extent.

When we make claims about the world (again, always understood within the rules of critical thinking, or rational thought, or science), they will usually fit into one of three categories:

  1. A claim which virtually all serious thinking people accept, and thus something that just isn't controversial at this point in time. (That tomato plants produce tomatoes.)
  2. Controversial or "cutting edge" issues in which there is no such decided view and about which very serious and intelligent observers disagree, and for which there are very plausible contradictory theories available.

    Every science has such issues, many many of them, but let me hope that each of you is familiar enough that you can follow the example concerning the most general notions of the field of psychology.

    How can we understand the psychology of human beings? Well, there are seriously competing theories: psychoanalysis; behaviorism; physiological psychology and so on. Leading thinkers in the field, followed by whole "schools" of thinkers adhere to one theory or another and the theories themselves are incompatible, at least in part, with one another.

    To be in this middle category is to be in an area where there are existing theories, which have adherents, each of which claims his or her theory is the preferred one, but there is no general agreement within the community of scholars.

    This is not good, bad or indifferent. It's just a description of where things stand with an idea or theory.

  3. The third area is where there really aren't any seriously formed theories of critical thinking or science at all. It's just something which is currently beyond the realm of existing critical thinking or science. Are there other intelligent beings existing in the cosmos? We simply don't know. People, intelligent and less intelligent, may well speculate and even passionately believe, but critical thinking, science, reason, is basically silent on the point, just not having been adequately developed in that area yet.

As if things were complicated enough with this, at any given time some claims are in transition from one category to another. Things that perhaps for 1000 years were thought to be well known, move into the camp of the controversial with some new theory or discovery. At the same time, some problem which was very controversial and had several "schools" at one time, gradually gets "solved," which simply means that in FACT the theorizing moves from a situation in which there are serious and competing theories to where one theory simply wins the day and other schools fall away.

Things that are in category three, the unknown and seemingly unknowable become knowable or at least discussible and move into camps one or two and so on.

Knowledge is always in flux, never certain, always comparative: how does this theory stand up against that theory? Which of two solutions to a problem is preferable or can we tell?

If we understand the nature of the beast, and this level of uncertainty is beastly at times, then we can grab this marvelous tool of critical thinking and do a much better job of avoiding error than if we don't use it. But, if we go into it demanding or expecting TRUTH itself, then it will terribly disappoint and we will miss the whole joy and excitement, but essential ambiguity of the search for knowledge.

Perhaps the most important notion to understand is this:

To say that knowledge is uncertain is NOT in any way to say that any answer is just as good as (read that to mean: as rational as) any other. To think that way is to not understand the comparative nature of knowledge claims.

Rather, critical thought will allow us often to say: while we can't know for sure, we have excellent reasons to believe that x is much more likely the answer to y than is z (some other candidate).

Thus within the universal world of uncertainty, we can have a high degree of preferability of one claim over another. To the very trite claim: "well who can say" the reply is: "he or she who has the most rational argument, that's who." And how do we know that? Often (in category one) we have come to learn this in human history most often via critical thought. In category two we may not know, but we can have strong reasons to know that the answer is somewhere in the area of three or four possibilities and other claims can be dismissed with confidence. In category three we can have excellent reasons for knowing that at this point in time any serious claim is beyond our state of knowledge and thus not to be trusted.

The life of reason and critical thinking is demanding. Solutions to serious problems take serious work. They demand several things, among them are:

  1. A significant degree of knowledge of and skill with critical thinking.
  2. A significant degree of factual and historical knowledge about the problem being investigated.
  3. A great degree of intellectual discipline and even "art" in coming to understand the relevant data. We may well have both 1 and 2, but without number three, we'll simply miss the boat.

I think 1 and 2 can be learned much more successfully than # 3 by most people.

At this closing point I'll go back to an analogy I used at the outset of this course. How do we make a soccer player? Well, what do we mean? Certainly if one is not playing by the rules of soccer one is not a soccer player. Virtually any modestly intelligent person can learn those rules. Then, one plays with and against others. There exists a HUGE variety of leagues and levels of play. Most anyone who tries can find some place where they may play and play competitively.

Assume, however, that one wants to play soccer among the very best. Well, here there simply can be no guarantees. One might go to schools and have the best training available to human kind. One might have inner discipline and do all the things coaches could recommend: do this and that for your physical well being; work to improve your ability to make this move or that and so on.

But there comes a point where following rules will not take you UP the ladder of competitive soccer. It then will be the "art" or "talent" or "gift" or whatever one calls it. The situation is no different with critical thinking.

I've been in those situations where I'm with someone who either in GENERAL (the most discouraging thing), or in SOME PARTICULAR AREA (much easier to face!) is just so much better at critical thinking about a problem than I am that the difference is virtually palpable. The data is before us both. We take the same time, we have similar energies, we care. But, this other simply produces a solution, an advancement, a criticism, that I realize I would not have stumbled upon in for a hundred years of trying. In this case, the other just has more of the "art" than I.

And this is recognizable by most keen observers.

What I have hoped to do in this essay is bring your expectations and understandings of what critical thought can and can't do, can and can't be expected to do to a point where they are seen in a more realistic light than I generally find students to have.

The tendency is an all or nothing attitude. If critical thinking is done well it should yield certain truth. Otherwise, any opinion is just as good as another.

That view leads to a complete misunderstand of the nature of critical thinking and a misunderstand of the power of human intelligence.

Questions, comments and puzzles are most welcomed.

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Bob Corbett