Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On Thinking

The concept of intelligence (as in I.Q.) has garnered far more perceived importance than it deserves. Edward De Bono in his book “Thinking Course” described the act of thinking as a malleable, teachable skill that should be considered more important than ones level of intelligence.

By improving this learnable skill we can better navigate the often confusing flood of information that is processed by our minds. According to De Bono “…perception is by far the most important part of thinking. Perception is how we look at the world, what things we take into account, how we structure the world.”

There is an imposing quagmire of socioeconomic, historical, religious, and political factors that create huge barriers to establishing an optimum environment for developing thinking skills. If this is not taken into account, we run the danger of being off balance from the very start of our thinking as De Bono notes: If your perception is limited then flawless logic will give you an incorrect answer.”

Through the ages, patterns of social organization have developed and grown into ethnic groups, religious paradigms, local and regional institutions that basically , no matter their particular makeup, have an over arching interest in general survival. Many important benefits including organizational structure, protection, and food distribution have come to pass because of these burgeoning forms of human cooperation.

However, as De Bono points out these structures can have disadvantages: “It now seems very likely that perception works as a “self organizing informational system”…Such systems allow the sequence in which information arrives to set up patterns. Our thinking then remains trapped within these patterns. So we need some way of broadening perception and of changing perception (creativity).”

The elements of a free thinking populace have been slow in reaching the masses. Even today, most people are not skilled in the discipline of thinking about things and are basically conditioned early on to identify with a certain social framework. The following is a scorching description of a sociological mentality that we are all guilty of participating in one way or another. This quote from “A thinkers guide to Fallacies: the art of trickery and manipulation” bluntly summarizes many of the barriers to clear thinking: They (we) are unreflective thinkers. Their minds are products of social and personal forces they neither understand, control, nor concern themselves with. Their personal beliefs are often based on prejudices. Their thinking is largely comprised of stereotypes, caricatures, oversimplifications, sweeping generalizations, illusions, delusions, rationalizations, false dilemmas, and begged questions.”

Philosophical and religious interpretations during the compilation or translation of works including the Tao Chi Ching, Biblical scripture, and the Qur’an, have tended to be influenced by the particular views of an author or translator in the context of their lives.

Stanley Rosenthal eloquently describes this phenomenon in his introduction to the Taoism Information Page in this way: There are already at least forty-two English translations of this work…, each, I am sure, carried out as ably and honestly as was possible. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, for any person not to be influenced by the philosophy, beliefs, culture and politics of their own society, historical period and education system.”

The bible is a confusing litany of different authors, from differing times, concerned about different things. In "Rejecting Pascual's Wager" Paul Tobin states that: "The Bible is an interesting and valuable collection of Middle Eastern myths, history, and literature...far from being inerrant, the Bible is filled with contradictions, mistakes, amd scientific errors common to other cultures of that era."

On a similar note, but focusing on language, Wikipedia notes that the translation of the Qur’is and has been “ an extremely difficult endeavor, because each translator must consult his/her own opinions and aesthetic sense in trying to replicate shades of meaning in another language; this inevitably changes the original text…Just as Jewish and Christian scholars turn to the earliest texts, in Hebrew or Greek… so Muslim scholars turn to the Qur’an in Arabic.”

However, even turning to the earliest sources can be challenging; “…as Islam burst out of Arabialanguage rapidly changed…losing complexities of case and obscure vocabulary. Several generations after the prophet’s death, many words used in the Qur’an had become opaque to ordinary sedentary Arabic-speakers, as Arabic changed so much, so rapidly.”
Today the importance of the disciplines of Arabic grammer and lexicography are responses to the need to explain and clarify the Qur’an utilizing older and more original (Quranic) speech (Interestingly, this illustrates the natural tendency for change to inevitably affect events through time in spite of Herculean efforts to prevent it).

Layered on to this foundation are the “real time” teachers, preachers, and rulers of different periods that further color and relay additional interpretations and beliefs to a populace. Many of these earlier leaders, influential individuals, and organizations tended to foster paternalistic, or top to bottom structures that provided little room for flexibility. These have been historically more rigid societies less open to critical evaluation and prone to preconceived notions of reality. Even today, in an era replete with republics and democracies these patterns persist (It is revealing that many CAM modalities, while claiming a certain openness, actually have similarly rigid and inflexible structures).

It is not difficult to see how many of these organizational structures, including those of the present, tend to become stoic ideologies and dogmatic beliefs providing an illusory foundation with a heavily filtered and altered world view. This fairly inflexible societal hierarchy gives little opportunity for open inquiry and change.

Even Plato stumbled over the concept of open inquiry as he held to the belief that only a few need be “enlightened” with knowledge facilitating the creation and formulation of a “wise elite”. Indeed, this world view may in part, have given rise to the imposing concept of separate “magesteria” eloquently described by Stephen J Gould as he made the case, I think erroneously, for separating religion and science as individual bastions of knowledge.

Critical thinking skills to this day have yet to be acknowledged as indispensable components of an inquiring and open society. Notwithstanding we, as a society, need to find effective techniques for teaching these important skills to our youth. Creating models and methods that stimulate people to learn and think effectively under varying conditions may help reduce some confusion within the context of, for example, science based medicine and open venues of understanding and tolerance.

Unfortunately, this implies that the society from where true thinking springs and thrives is indeed an open one. Not all societies fit this description. Such an open society has the resilience and confidence to evaluate itself, sometimes quite critically without resorting to suppression. There have been some encouraging advances and perhaps our current democracies will give way to ever superior open societies.

From humanities perspective, attaining a truer understanding of the balance and evolution of science, medicine, culture, religion, and government becomes a necessary and achievable goal in an increasingly global world. Indeed, this may be our only ticket to survival as a species.

De Bono, Edward. Thinking Course. Barnes & Noble. New York. 2005. Rosenthal, Stan. Introduction. Taoism information page. Accessed 4/27/06. The Rejection of Pascal's Wager. Accessed 5/29/07 wikipedia The thinkers guide to fallacies. 2004. Accessed 2/14/06.

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