Thinking about thinking

A recent telephone conversation with a colleague gave me the opportunity to hear first hand what having Covid was like. To say that it did not sound pleasant is a bit of an understatement. Apart from the obvious symptoms like breathlessness I was given a description of what he called a brain fog, the inability to think coherently, with associated panic attacks. I find the wide range of differing symptoms described by people who have contracted this virus disturbing. With most viruses, even the flu, you know what to expect. But this uncertainty, not knowing whether (if you caught it) you would be asymptomatic, have mild symptoms, severe breathing problems, and /or some other unexpected symptom, adds a whole new dimension. But even more disturbing than this is the prevalence of people who claim that the Covid pandemic is a hoax. I really do fail to understand how or why someone would deny the reality of this illness. They must obviously buy into some conspiracy theory. If you know of anyone who does believe Covid is a hoax I can only suggest that they speak to my colleague and try explaining his symptoms to him.

Is it my imagination, or are there more conspiracy theories about now than ever? Apart from those related to Covid (that it’s a Chinese plot, a plan by Bill Gates that allows him inject a vaccine into people that tracks their movement, that it’s a hoax that allows the government to get away with restricting our movements) there are those related to the rollout of 5G technology (which again for some reason is related to the Chinese government). There are actual fake news stories doing the rounds on social media, and there are politicians who dismiss any news they find inconvenient or don’t like as fake. This situation, together with the sheer number and variety of news and information sources, makes deciding on the truth of any situation very challenging. So how do we navigate this information maze? My suggestion is that we all start learning critical thinking skills. This is a topic that you will hear a lot more about from me in the coming weeks. I’m fast arriving at the conclusion that we all, even those of us who are convinced that their thinking skills are spot on, perhaps especially this last group, could do with giving some thought to our thinking.

The research that I’ve just started into critical thinking has thrown up an essay that explains where I’m coming from rather well. Written in 1877 by the American philosopher and father of pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The Fixation of Belief’ describes four ways in which we tend to come to the beliefs we hold about the world. One way is to simply believe whatever makes us feel most comfortable. Another way is to believe what our favoured authority (our priest, parent, tradition, Donald Trump) tells us to believe. A third option is to tenaciously hold onto which ever belief first entered our thinking because we just can’t entertain the notion that we may have been wrong. None of these methods, however, are recommended methods for establishing the truth of the matter. If this is what we seek, Peirce recommends a fourth method, the scientific method. This method, contrary to the beliefs of many, regards all beliefs as conditional. Having arrived at a theory that we consider may explain whatever situation we seek an explanation for, we set about testing or challenging that theory, and in the process slowly move closer to the truth. In other words, we become critical of any fixed belief, even our own.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that in terms of social, political or economic phenomena no absolute or definitive truths can or do exist. To fully explain this assertion would involve a long digression into systems thinking, and in particular an understanding of how dynamic systems work. The short (and probably inadequate) explanation is that all phenomena of this type are just too complex to be condensed into any single theory. This is the main reason why, in politics, I argue we need some form of proportional representation. As it is impossible for any single person or political party to have a complete and infallible understanding of any situation we first need many different perspectives to come together. And having come together it then becomes necessary for each person to at least attempt to understand the other perspectives before agreeing to a provisional solution – a solution that will be modified in light of further evidence. This requires politicians to become continuously critical of whatever beliefs or theories they hold, and be prepared to admit they were wrong when the evidence suggests so. Am I being too idealistic here? Maybe. But I’m more than happy to debate the matter.

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