Any description of Brian would be simplistic and reductionist. It is precisely for this reason that I think Brian is worth paying attention to. Cultural norms, ideologies and other forms of orthodoxy lead to people — and their ideas — taking on a more homogenous form. Brian attempts to live his life orthogonal to this; he is interested in the grey. Breaking the mould in the quest for truth. In a professional sense, Brian has a background in law, but as a switched-on citizen of the 21st century, Brian recognises that a multidisciplinary, forward-looking but historically-informed approach is required for reasoning, acting and living in the best way possible. Brian is a practitioner of one of the most spoken about, but under-implemented, skills in the modern world: critical thinking.
I encourage you to check out Brian’s website, his writings on Medium and any other content that you can find of his on the internet. I enjoyed my conversation with Brian, and I hope you do too.
Thanks for joining me here. I have been looking forward to this conversation for a while. It seems we have many shared interests and I am looking forward to exploring those more thoroughly and finding out how far our agreement goes (or how quickly it ceases).
I think a good place to start would be our mutual interest in the — admittedly rather nebulous — topic of critical thinking (of which I provided some of my own thoughts here).
So, with that in mind, let me put the following questions to you:
1 – Generally speaking, what do you think critical thinking is or how would you define it?
2 – What skills, habits or dispositions make someone a better critical thinker?
3 – What is the practical relevance of critical thinking? Do you think your endeavour to become a critical thinker has yielded meaningful improvements in your life or your impact on the world?
Thank you. I am very humbled by your invitation to engage in this correspondence. I really admire your intellectual rigour, epistemic humility, and commitment to thoroughly self-examining your own thought processes as a means of making sense of the world. I’ve learnt a lot from reading your work so it’s a privilege to be able to engage in this dialectical process. As a concept, it’s something I would love to see more of in general.
I would define critical thinking as the ability to filter and process information through an objective framework, one which systematically checks and accounts for our inherent cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Critical thinking places more weight on the correspondence of information to reality than other factors like emotions, ideologies, or preconceptions.
For me, a critical thinker possesses at least some – if not all – of the following traits: intellectually rigorous; logically consistent; epistemically humble; ideologically neutral; reasons from first principles; sceptical, whilst remaining open-minded and deeply curious; avoids binary projections; comfortable with ambiguity, cognitive dissonance and uncertainty; self-aware of their own ignorance; and agnostic about potential sources of truth.
In terms of the practical relevance of critical thinking.
On a personal level, I think that metacognition – thinking about how one thinks – is a form of empowerment. To some, discussing and debating critical thinking may sound esoteric and irrelevant, maybe even elitist. It is anything but. I view critical thinking as anti-elitist. It is wonderfully egalitarian. One of my highlights of 2020 was reading The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class by Jonathan Rose. Highly recommend. This book affirmed my belief in the liberating power of knowledge and education – particularly, autodidactic learning. Since knowledge is power, then power depends on preserving inequalities of knowledge. This is partly why I would like to be able to contribute, in a small way, to the dissemination of better critical thinking tools and to deconstruct their perceived opacity. Ultimately, I think that intellectual emancipation from one’s ignorance (well, partial alleviation!) can lead to emancipation in other areas of one’s life. This has been my anecdotal experience, at least. Thinking about how I think has been one of the most significant, rewarding, liberating and fruitful changes in my life.
This leads me onto why I think critical thinking is just as important from a societal perspective. I believe we have a civic duty to be informed and engaged citizens. Applying scepticism, reason and critical thinking – even simply being aware of the litany of cognitive biases and logical fallacies we all succumb to – can guard against manipulative media and advertising, political doublespeak, misinformation/disinformation, and enhance one’s ability to construct sound arguments in favour of just and equitable causes.
Finally – regardless of one’s profession or career path – an ability to think critically will endow a significant competitive advantage. Artificial intelligence is vastly superior to human beings in areas like computation, efficient and accurate document review, and physical labour. This chasm is only going to grow exponentially. However, AI is nowhere near replicating human’s ability to apply judgement to complex and novel decision matrices, particularly value judgements. It appears to me that the ability to reason and think critically will continue to be a highly valued skill in the 21st century. However, I do want to caveat my assertion about human judgement by referencing Philip Tetlock’s counterintuitive findings about forecasting (although, interestingly, the ‘superforecasters’ were those who gathered evidence from a variety of sources, thought probabilistically, and were willing to admit error and iterate accordingly).
I would be interested to hear if you had any modifications or alternative conceptions that expands upon my definition of critical thinking? The skills/habits/dispositions I listed above certainly aren’t exhaustive, so I’m sure I’ve omitted other key characteristics.
Thank you Brian, those are very kind words. I have thoroughly enjoyed your own work — as you know — so this correspondence is no doubt an enjoyable opportunity for me also. With that said, there was a tremendous amount I enjoyed throughout your previous passage, so let me highlight a few things that jumped out at me.
By far, I think the most intriguing — and important — thing you said was that you “view critical thinking as anti-elitist. It is wonderfully egalitarian.” I wholeheartedly support this notion. This belief was one of the single most motivating factors for me when it came to creating this website; I wanted to share ideas — hopefully good, useful, significant ones — and give people not only the opportunity to engage with the universe of ideas, but simply the confidence that they can understand and wield powerful ideas, no matter their background. I know your own views of the world have led to similar conclusions and actions, such as the creation of your own website and the critical thinking syllabus you are working on.
This, which we might consider as the “socially liberating impact of critical thinking” is without a doubt important, but as you touched on, there are benefits relating more directly to the self as well. Considering these benefits specifically, I must say that it is not the instrumental value of critical thinking and how it can lead to more beneficial real-world outcomes — however you choose to define those terms — that most impassions me. Of course, this is still a significant attribute and it has continuously enhanced human-welfare (most notably since The Enlightenment), but I tend to think — logically or not — that there is a deeper, more important reason to undertake the act of critical thinking.
It goes a little something like this…
The thing that makes me such a large proponent of critical thinking is the reflective, recursive and introspective functions of the mind are what make it so staggeringly unique. As you said in your definition of critical thinking, “one which systematically checks and accounts for our inherent cognitive biases and logical fallacies.” I think this is one of the most amazing aspects of the mind. However, while this is a highly useful property, it is the rarity of this property that most excites me personally. I can’t help but feel that analysing your mind’s model of itself is one of the must-do activities, if you are so fortunate to possess a mind to begin with.
I think of it analogously to driving a sports-car. Take a Lamborghini Aventador for example. Roughly speaking — and ignoring such factors as increased social status and perceived wealth — the primary use of an Aventador is to get you from point-A to point-B. This is also something that can be achieved using a Toyota Corolla, or a pushbike.
What makes the experience of driving an Aventador unique, though, is that it has properties which cannot be mimicked. For this reason, should you ever get the chance to operate one, in order to experience it fully, you should make use of these special functions — in a safe manner, of course. It appears to me that there is little point in having an Aventador, if you operate it in the same way as you would a Corolla. Or, analogously to the body, what good is a ball-and-socket joint, if you just move it back-and-forth like it were a hinge-joint? It is the possession of additional, unique dimensions that give something near-magical properties.
I think the same logic applies to the mind, only many orders of magnitude above that of a Lamborghini Aventador. The human mind is the most complex thing in the known — a universe which we know through the use of our mind — and no other instrument has the ability to model itself, from within itself, and then hold that model aside in a detached manner and analyse how effectively the model functions. As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, the mind is the lens which can see its own flaws.
“… if you can understand your mind as a mapping engine that has flaws—then you can apply a reflective correction. The brain is a flawed lens through which to see reality. This is true of both mouse brains and human brains. But a human brain is a flawed lens that can understand its own flaws—its systematic errors, its biases—and apply second-order corrections to them. This, in practice, makes the lens far more powerful. Not perfect, but far more powerful.”
I think this captures my view succinctly. If you are human — and, therefore, in possession of a super-powered, human-version of a brain — yet you aren’t using its unique, reflective properties, then the question could be asked: How fully are you experiencing being a human?
Again, I really do appreciate that a brain can be useful for improving one’s experience, but unless you are going about that in a manner that utilises human-only functions, then what separates you from the mouse, water-buffalo or any other non-human animal? Essentially every species on Earth undertakes activities aimed at escaping stressful stimuli, consuming food and finding a mate — humans too share these ideals, among others. However, we have other dimensions we can access. We can not only reflect on how effectively we are achieving our goals, but reflect on the goals we have chosen to begin with. It is the possession of these unique abilities which makes us a unique species.
Critical thinking, in my view, is very close to the core of what being a human entails.
“Critical thinking, in my view, is very close to the core of what being a human entails.”
Spot on, Lyndon. I’m glad you’ve highlighted the intrinsic value of critical thinking as an end in and of itself, supporting the idea that optimising and actualising our unique capacity to reason ought to be viewed as a moral imperative. I, too, like viewing critical thinking within a virtue ethics framework.
To run with your car analogy a little further, acquiring the skill of thinking critically is akin to learning to drive. Initially, the process is frustrating and any progress unseen. You are operating within the field of conscious ignorance. With practice and intention, you move towards conscious competence. Eventually, you can drive a car from A to B on autopilot in a state of unconscious competence. Take the relatively simple examples of an ad hominem argument and the correlation/causation fallacy. When I first learnt about these, I had to consciously check for these argumentative devices in real time. Eventually, these systematic checks and balances became encoded into my operating software, so that this filtering now largely occurs subconsciously. Honing these skills tends to compound over time and can be easily transferred from one domain to another.
“If you are human — and, therefore, in possession of a super-powered, human-version of a brain — yet you aren’t using its unique, reflective properties, then the question could be asked: How fully are you experiencing being a human? How human are you?”.
I think this is why we find self-awareness such an attractive trait – whether that force of attraction is romantic, Platonic, or intellectual (well, at least, I certainly do!). There’s something very serene and comforting about a person who is self-aware, someone who has fully accepted and integrated their own Self. The beauty of self-awareness is that it transcends any form of human hierarchy – it can be attained without any prerequisites of wealth, status, race, gender, aesthetics – in the same way that, as you lyrically put it, learning to think critically “…gives people not only the opportunity to engage with the universe of ideas, but simply the confidence that they can understand and wield powerful ideas, no matter their background”.
I’m reminded of Victor Frankl’s observation in Man’s Search for Meaning that the prison guards in Auschwitz had the ability to take away everything from him, except for his autonomy to choose how he reacted to such external events (a very Stoic mindset). This ties back to our prior discussion about the egalitarian nature of critical thinking. To learn how to think critically – a skill which can be then turned inwards as a means of introspection – is to learn intimately about oneself. Therefore, it embodies Socrates’ call to “know thyself”.
You said that “It is the possession of additional, unique dimensions that give something near-magical properties”. From a metaphysical perspective, you’ve hinted at an intriguing idea there. The uniqueness of our ability to reason is what separates is from other animals, and in doing so, endows us with god-like qualities. Anything that exists in the world today was once just a seed of an idea in the mind of someone – it was their capacity to reason that brought it to fruition.
One caveat I would like to include – which I’m sure you presupposed – is that neither of us are claiming that critical thinking is a panacea that will save the world in and of itself. It is a tool of enormous leverage, but in the same way a hammer is a tool, it is neutral and amoral. Whether it’s used for good or bad purposes is dependent upon the subject leveraging the tool.
Also, I recall Daniel Kahneman saying that – despite his decades worth of research on human behaviour and cognitive biases – he didn’t believe that he was necessarily a more reasoned thinker. I find it slightly hard to believe that a person of his intellect and experience hasn’t been influenced in some non-trivial way, although I suspect the point he was trying to make was that he still succumbs to logical inconsistencies relatively frequently. Which, again, we are presupposing. After all, it is also our flaws and imperfections which make us human. Critical thinking is just one of a number of traits we ought to aspire towards. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s quote exemplifies that – we aren’t looking for perfection, rather enhanced and better cognition that actualises our uniquely human gift of reason (preferably, for good ends).
I think you highlight the double-edged nature of the human mind well there, Brian. Like you mentioned, with practice and intention, you can develop the ability to detect rhetorical devices with ease, in the absence of conscious effort or attention. Acquiring the ability to think critically, without necessarily being intentional about it, is truly a desirable skill. Conversely, however, it is this very same capacity of the mind, implemented in a slightly different way, that also hurts us. These properties of the mind and how it hides the nature of its calculations from our conscious awareness is, as you know, where many of our biased, irrational and irresponsible actions arise from.
Now, let me turn to your statement, “I think this is why we find self-awareness such an attractive trait … There’s something very serene and comforting about a person who is self-aware.” Overall, I would echo these sentiments, but I would like to try out my own interpretation on you. It appears to me that we enjoy self-awareness in others, because, generally speaking, it gives their behaviour a physical, deterministic quality. Whether we classify that behaviour as right or wrong is another matter, however. When someone is self-aware, they have a model that — from our perspective — approximates their actual behaviour within their own conscious awareness. Because this model of their behaviour is not hidden under the covers of the subconscious, we have an ability to interact with this model and can possibly reason or urge them, knowingly, towards different outcomes should we so desire them — and we often do. Alternatively, behaviour that arises or transpires unconsciously is, in a sense, incorporeal or nondeterministic. From a game-theoretic perspective, this poses us problems; it is like trying to predictably manipulate the future behaviour of someone amidst a fugue state. This, to me at least, is roughly what the attractiveness of self-awareness is.
The next point of yours that I would like to focus on is the following: “… neither of us are claiming that critical thinking is a panacea that will save the world in and of itself. It is a tool of enormous leverage, but in the same way a hammer is a tool, it is neutral and amoral. Whether it’s used for good or bad purposes is dependent upon the subject leveraging the tool.” This is a very interesting point. I am tempted to go out on a limb here, however, and argue against this claim. This would, of course, depend on how we are defining the term “critical thinking”; but I would say that in my conception, I’m not sure if I consider it amoral. Tell me what you think about this: If critical thinking is the means by which we uncover (moral) truths — and I would vouch that it is — then I am uncertain that we can strip it of its moral essence and classify it as orthogonal to morality. On one hand, though, if we consider critical thinking as something like clear reasoning about how to achieve a specific goal — for example– then the moral-worthiness of the goal determines the moral-virtuousness of the critical thinking in that instance. This conclusion, that it would depend on how the tool is being used, speaks to your point about it being a neutral endeavour. I’m not sure if this is an accurate representation of your view, but alas, I shall push on and lay out my thoughts, and you can rectify or disagree where necessary.
When it comes to my own critical thinking framework (and how it relates to morality), what I would call “critical thinking,” is what psychologist John Lambie calls “critical open-mindedness.” In his book How to be Critically Open-Minded – A Psychological and Historical Analysis, Lambie outlines that two abilities are necessary for performing critically open-minded thought: open-mindedness and criticality. What this translates to is an ability and willingness to consider multiple points of view as well as the recognition that, of the various viewpoints, some can be better or worse — on ethical or scientific grounds — but all are ultimately fallible. In Lambie’s own words, “critically open-minded thinking is any kind of thinking in which more than one point of view is seriously considered and in which all points of view, including one’s current preferred one, are open to critical and rational re-evaluation.” So far I would imagine this is something you are onboard with.
However, when viewed in this manner, critical thinking/open-mindedness appears to me to go beyond moral neutrality — and this is what I would like to get your take on. Undoubtedly, I will grant that all kinds of actions and behaviours, both morally upstanding as well as morally reprehensible, can be executed in the name of or under the guise of critical thinking, suggesting it is amoral in nature. But, even with this said, I cannot reason myself into a conclusion where critical thinking is amoral. In my view, when it is distilled all the way down, critical thinking comes up as net-positive from a moral standpoint (while, again, any particular and narrow instance of it has the capacity to be neutral or even negative). However, if critical thinking/open-mindedness is composed of the two factors described above, giving us the means to consider alternatives, as well as a framework for determining which of our options is superior, then — when viewed on longer timescales — I cannot see critical thinking as anything other than virtuous.
I shall once more defer to Lambie to further expound on this thought:
“Part of the psychological explanation for human progress must be our intelligence and our “imagination” – but these are both much too general to be the answer we are looking for. We can imagine manifestly false theories and imaginatively devise cruel tortures just as much as imagine accurate theories or kind ways of treating people. Imagination is underlain by working memory – the ability to hold information in mind and manipulate it – and although this may be necessary, it is not sufficient to be the psychological mechanism underlying progressive development in the domains we are concerned with [namely scientific and moral progress]. … What else is needed? At the very least people must be able to hold the critical attitude that the “what is not” of imagination may be better or worse than the “what is”. The “what is not” – the alternative theory, or the point of view of the other – may be more accurate than my theory or my point of view. In other words, people need to be aware of the limitations and the fallibility of what they currently believe; they need a notion that their current beliefs are improvable. … This openness to questioning and revising one’s point of view is what I am calling “critical open-mindedness”. Thus, progress comes about when people are able to detach from and criticise their own points of view, provided this is carried out socially with others and with empirical feedback from the world. It is not imagination per se, but critical imagination that is the driver of human progress.”
If this view is correct, where critical imagination and thought are the driver of human progress, then it cannot be the case that they are morally neutral. It would be like saying that the engine in a car is independent of or unrelated to the cars ability to get from point-A to point-B. If the car depends on the engine to move, then it cannot be considered neutral in matters relating to the car’s movement. In a similar way, if critical thinking is the source of power that fuels moral progress, then it too is inextricably linked to morality. Now, again, I will grant that a human mind can be used to justify immoral endeavours and reason about how to achieve them; but doing so requires the shrinking of one’s cognitive view and the ignoring of other, extremely relevant pieces of information. In doing this, one almost by definition, ceases critical thought. Yes, critical thinking places high value on reasoning, but this is not sufficient to determine one a critical thinker. When you are “reasoning” towards an already determined and inflexible conclusion, then you are only rationalising. In one way or another, I think all amoral or immoral reasoning requires a degree of rationalisation, hence my belief that critical thinking is, to a degree, intrinsically moral.
It was refreshing to read your thoughts on the attractiveness of self-awareness. It’s not a perspective I had ever really considered or heard articulated in such a manner, in particular within a game-theoretic framework and in the context of controlling one’s fate (to the extent that that’s possible).
I come at it from a slightly different angle. When I say that I find self-awareness attractive in another human being, it’s because to me it suggests that they are on the path towards self-actualisation and enlightenment (which are, granted, loaded terms and have different meaning for different people). Reading Carl G. Jung in my early twenties left an inalienable impression on me and, at least in my own opinion, enabled me to become a more ‘whole’ person through a conscious process of integration. I think such a process endows one with a great deal of humility and compassion because you come to recognise that the irritable qualities that annoy you about another person can just as easily show up within oneself. So when I meet someone who is self-evidently engaging in a journey of inner work, I am immediately drawn to them because I sense that they have tapped into a part of the Self that is relatively uncommon, given that our culture doesn’t necessarily encourage or facilitate that nowadays (to the degree that myth and coming-of-age rituals used to in former times). It strikes me that the double standards and hypocrisy modern public intellectuals and ‘thought’ leaders often display can to some degree be explained by an absence of any serious form of introspection, or awareness of their own capacities for the same traits they crusade against.
In relation to your point about the morality of critical thinking, I’m very glad you went out on a limb! I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment that, in totality, “critical thinking comes up as net-positive from a moral standpoint”. When I talked about critical thinking being analogous to a neutral tool, I was indeed referring to critical thinking in its guise as clear reasoning about how to achieve a specific goal – implying that, yes, the moral-worthiness of the goal determines the moral-virtuousness of the critical thinking. Although, as you succulently put it, “when you are “reasoning” towards an already determined and inflexible conclusion, then you are only rationalising. In one way or another, I think all amoral or immoral reasoning requires a degree of rationalisation, hence my belief that critical thinking is, to a degree, intrinsically moral”.
Empirical and anecdotal evidence can be found in the fact that both you and I have and are devoting a significant portion of our time and cognitive bandwidth to promoting critical thinking, which presupposes that we believe it will aid in moral progression (based upon a whole host of priors relating to us acting in good faith etc). Critical thinking as a virtue makes sense when you consider that almost all imaginable discrimination is based upon arbitrary and irrational factors. If one were to reason from first principles – which critical thinking systematically encodes – then these discriminatory views would most likely be refuted, our circle of compassion would be expanded and moral progression achieved.
Of the two traits of critical thinking you specified, I think open-mindedness is the lower hanging fruit in that it is paid a lot of lip service in our society and is seen as a virtuous trait. You defined open-mindedness as “an ability and willingness to consider multiple points of view as well as the recognition that, of the various viewpoints, some can be better or worse — on ethical or scientific grounds — but all are ultimately fallible”. It appears to me that the full application of this definition of open-mindedness is generally diluted by the hegemonic pervasiveness of pluralism – with only the first half of the definition (which I underlined) adhered to. Isaiah Berlin, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, defines pluralism as the belief that
“genuine values are many. They may – and often do – come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it is not because one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another.”
The second half of this definition of open-mindedness – that some points of view can be better or worse – doesn’t tally with the recent loss of belief in objective truth, and the embrace of subjective ‘truth’ that pluralism has brought about (notwithstanding that people will still board an aeroplane and trust that the engineers relied on the law of gravity in their calculations, founded upon the objective formula F=G(m1m2)/R2). For me, this is why mathematics and physics are so beautiful and offer an insight into the fundamental nature of reality. They stand above human subjectivity.
Therefore, as I understand your definition to mean, a truly open-minded person will consider all viewpoints equally before subsequently filtering them based upon the following suppositions:
- All genuine questions must have an objectively true answer; all other responses are errors.
- There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answer to a question, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown. The dependable path we leverage is the scientific method of falsification, being conjecture and refutation.
Since some people derive their opinions from particular group membership – meaning that they identify with a pre-ordained bloc of opinions that can be neatly categorised across domains – they fail the test for what constitutes a critical thinker. For example, if we were to ask someone about topic X and, based upon this one data point, we could accurately extrapolate their viewpoint for topics A, B, C, then – barring a complete coincidence – it is almost certain that this individual’s reasoning capacities have been absorbed into an ideology. My point being that perhaps we need to reconceptualise and expand our conventional idea of what open-mindedness truly entails to align with your definition.
In conclusion, you’ve done both myself and anyone reading this a service by emphasising the virtuousness of critical thinking, and in defining two of the characteristics of a critical thinker. I would be interested to hear your thoughts: to what extent you believe critical thinking can be taught? And why isn’t it a staple of modern educational curricula?
I appreciate your classification of my description relating to the attractiveness of self-awareness as “refreshing.” You reveal your grasp of the English language with that single statement as “speculative” or “misguided” were likely more apt descriptions. This does bring me to a point of personal interest, however, which I shall now explain.
My reason for describing the attractiveness of self-awareness in such a way is a result of me attempting to distil it down to a more evolutionary explanation (with my conception somewhat mapping onto the Machiavellian Intelligence hypothesis). I personally think it is important to be aware that what we experience enjoyment from — in present times — almost certainly stems from something that provided survival-value throughout our evolution; regardless of the gloss we put on an alternative, modernised explanation. The point of interest for our purposes here is that there is almost certainly an evolutionary biology/psychology bias in my thinking. Undoubtedly, the evolution-informed fields provides powerful reasoning tools for clearer and better thinking, in certain circumstances; though, it is still quite possible that I over apply this style of thinking and succumb to the proverbial issue of “when all you’ve got is a hammer…”. The possession of powerful mental models is useful for critical thinking, but only when they do not become dominant and excessively steer our thinking in a certain direction, resulting in us distancing ourselves from the truth. Understanding when a mental model becomes a bias is a tricky thing, no doubt, but it is an interesting issue nonetheless. Please do let me know if you have thoughts on any of this.
Next, to your point about when you “… meet someone who is self-evidently engaging in a journey of inner work, I am immediately drawn to them because I sense that they have tapped into a part of the Self that is relatively uncommon, given that our culture doesn’t necessarily encourage or facilitate that nowadays (to the degree that myth and coming-of-age rituals used to in former times). It strikes me that the double standards and hypocrisy modern public intellectuals and ‘thought’ leaders often display can to some degree be explained by an absence of any serious form of introspection, or awareness of their own capacities for the same traits they crusade against.”
To this I have little else to say other than: I concur. Admittedly, though, I am abysmally under-read when it comes to Jung, but from what I understand of his work, he is a great mind to stumble across during your early-twenties. I will give one additional thought, though, to accompany my general agreement: I am somewhat sceptical of the idea that modern culture doesn’t facilitate self-exploration in the way that previous cultures did. I will definitely accept that there is a dearth of introspective messages in the zeitgeist, but I personally feel that we do not know enough about previous times to regard them as superior purporters of introspective ideas. I tend to think that we over glorify historic practices and can easily succumb to the biases of declinism or rosy retrospection. The spiritualism, mythology and importance placed on coming-of-age practices seems attractive to us now (as they are mostly absent), but I’m not sure we can conclude that these were superior mediums for transmitting notions or inducing certain behaviours. Admittedly, that is all a minor technicality and my broad agreement with what you said still stands. I would just like to hear your thoughts on this, though.
For instance, how impactful, when it comes to crafting a person, do you think a coming-of-age ritual would be? On one hand, it could be life changing. On the other, it might simply be like attending a weekend workshop on “Discovering Your Inner Leader,” where the experience is barely even internalised and a week later you are no different to what you were previously. What do you think about this? I am not trying to suggest you are wrong, I am only admitting that I am unsure. It is quite possible both conceptions are correct; in that we do overvalue historic sociocultural practices, but also, in some objective sense, they are still better than what we do currently.
Following this, you said: “Critical thinking as a virtue makes sense when you consider that almost all imaginable discrimination is based upon arbitrary and irrational factors. If one were to reason from first principles – which critical thinking systematically encodes – then these discriminatory views would most likely be refuted, our circle of compassion would be expanded and moral progression achieved.” I think this is a phenomenal passage and would like to say nothing further. I could do nothing but detract from your words.
I must say as well, that your distinction between the kind of open-mindedness we have — which seems to result in pluralism — and the kind of open-mindedness that we need is extremely perceptive. I couldn’t agree more (unless I am misconstruing you). To your comment “this is why mathematics and physics are so beautiful and offer an insight into the fundamental nature of reality. They stand above human subjectivity.” Not only do they stand above, but within, human subjectivity — they are pervasive and impact all human knowledge, subjective and objective. Our conscious experience, so far as modern science can tell us, is constructed by these very properties of reality.
In relation to your two-part criteria for my description of a “truly open-minded person,” I would just make two small adjustments. Firstly, I would like to avoid the term “truly.” The important point I was getting at, was that critical open-mindedness required (at least) two distinct traits: the criticality and the open-mindedness. In my view, to be a critical thinker, it is necessary, but not sufficient, to be open-minded. As such, one can be “truly” open-minded and still not be a critical thinker — that only satisfies one of the requisites. The second amendment I would make is just the addition of Bayesian epistemology to the second criterion. A unity of the deductiveness of Popperian Falsifiability and the inductiveness of Bayesian Epistemology is how I conceive the pinnacle of critical thinking, and science, to appear.
Finally, to your questions: 1) To what extent you believe critical thinking can be taught? And 2) Why isn’t it a staple of modern educational curricula?
I think it is very likely that we can effectively teach critical thinking. This is not to say that it will be easy, or we are close to knowing how, but I certainly think it can be done — and already is, to some debatable extent. This thought actually follows logically from the two-part criteria just discussed. I believe a useful and efficient way of teaching critical thinking undoubtedly exists. Our task is to know it — or at least discover more and more of it. Do I think we can, and will, do this? In short, yes.
To your second question, I think I could take this in two directions. Unfortunately, as I am somewhat unsure about the question, I cannot give you a concrete answer. Instead, I will offer you both versions of my thoughts; hopefully this completeness is an adequate substitute for certainty.
First, if I accept your premises, then I would say that critical thinking is not taught for a number of reasons. These include, but are not limited to:
One – It is pedagogically difficult, both in regards to teaching it (we know little about inducing it, even if we can spot it once it emerges) as well as testing it (even when we can intuitively spot it, we struggle to know what to objectively measure);
Two – Education is a relatively conservative field (almost infamously so) and while the particular methods are heavily influenced by what’s in vogue, the core of the content does not much change, and;
Three – Of the content that does change, it, like many things, tends to be politically influenced or motivated (and with the nature of politics being almost antithetical to the nature of critical thinking, this doesn’t bode well).
Those are some of the reasons why I think critical thinking is mostly absent from modern curricula.
Now, let me give you my second thought, which is a caveat to what I just said previously. I think that is quite possible that critical thinking is, in many ways, already being taught within the walls of the classroom — does a subject have to cover cognitive biases or logic in order to promote critical thinking? As I see it, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that maybe you cannot actually directly teach critical thinking. It is possible that because critical thinking shares many properties with metacognition, essentially we need to first teach cognition and thinking before we can encourage metacognition and critical thinking. We must have thoughts before we can have thoughts about those thoughts. So, while I said that I believe that there is an objectively correct method for teaching critical thinking, I cannot rule out the possibility that the objectively correct method may actually require a student to complete all their schooling without ever sitting a subject called “Critical Thinking 101.” In this sense, critical thinking is possibly an emergent property that arises when sufficient amounts of specialised knowledge exist within the mind of someone for long enough, amalgamating with their life experiences.
To be frank, though, I don’t think that this is entirely true. I think elements of it are — such as critical thinking being a kind of emergent property — but I do also think we can do better in how effectively we prompt it to emerge. Or, even the importance we place on it eventually emerging (rather than getting a good job with a good salary etc.). With all that said, I would like to hear your thoughts on this matter. I know you have a project you are working on in this area, which excites me greatly, and I would love for you to elaborate on it more so.
Your reflections upon your use of evolutionary biology/psychology as a framework for making sense of the world is a wonderful example of metacognition and should be commended. Continuing our theme of self-awareness, I’m impressed by your ability to recognise and articulate how you might sometimes overuse that frame – a frame which I have a great deal of respect for. This is a real risk during the process of learning; we might think of it as the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. When one discovers a previously unknown framework, one’s confidence in the efficacy of the frame can be thought of as an inverted U-shaped curve. One begins to view everything through this frame, thus succumbing to the anchoring and attentional biases. Daniel Kahneman observed that “what you see is all there is”. It could be argued that any frame is better than no frame i.e. blind information processing.
My sense is that the challenge is to continue through the learning process – whereby one comes to appreciate the nuanced nature of reality and realises that an absolute application of any frame is overly simplistic and reductionistic. Otherwise there is a risk of becoming stuck in the frame, like the psychoanalyst who wonders what his doorman really meant when he said “Good morning”. Perhaps this is why Socrates said that knowledge is knowing that one knows nothing – such a disposition requires a prior (false) belief in the totality of one’s knowledge. I think the optimal approach – easier said than done – is to oscillate between multiple frames, applying the appropriate one based upon the level of abstraction required. The goal is to have a synthesis of interdisciplinary frames become so ingrained into one’s cognition that, a posteriori, they seem glaringly obvious and common-sensical (not realising that one is succumbing to the hindsight bias).
With respect to your insightful rebuttal of my comments concerning the role of ritual, this is a great example of why writing one’s thoughts down on paper and engaging in bona fide dialogue separates truth from falsehood. When you challenged me about the utility of rituals, I realised that I didn’t fully believe what I had said either. I thought I was being stringent with my choice of words and ideas but, evidently, not entirely. We think we possess ideas, but they often possess us. You write that “…I tend to think that we over glorify historic practices and can easily succumb to the biases of declinism or rosy retrospection. The spiritualism, mythology and importance placed on coming-of-age practices seems attractive to us now (as they are mostly absent), but I’m not sure we can conclude that these were superior mediums for transmitting notions or inducing certain behaviours”.
There is definitely an element of my succumbing to Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ fallacy and viewing these practices through the lens of rosy retrospection. My belief in the efficacy of the role of ritual derives from my reading of Joseph Campbell. He emphasises the importance of formally marking the transition from dependent childhood to independent adulthood, and my point was that the demarcation between these distinct stages of development have become blurred because – from an evolutionary biology perspective – for many privileged people there is not the same survival pressures for maturation that there once were (not that I wish to replicate the exact particulars of those rituals, which were often traumatic for the initiated). Maybe this loss is offset by the abundance of freedom and opportunity that you rightly point out we now enjoy, whereby we can engage in exploration of both our interior and exterior worlds to a degree unimaginable to previous generations, and therefore the scope for self-exploration has simply found new outlets that have replaced rituals.
However I don’t necessarily think the a priori assumption should be that modern practices are objectively better than ancient ones, even if I were to estimate that they probably are in the vast majority of comparisons. As a counter example, I’d point to pagan traditions and indigenous tribes’ intimate and symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature and their local ecosystems. Our modern ecological degradation and biodiversity loss can partly be attributed to the fact that almost all of our individual (and, especially, corporate) actions are now decoupled from their environmental consequences. Techno-optimists would contend that technology can alleviate climate change – a view I partly agree with – and without our space exploration and the extra-terrestrial images of Planet Earth, the modern environmental awakening and movement that started in the 1970’s may not have pierced our collective consciousness until it was too late. As with most things though, there’s probably an optimal synthesis between the modern and the ancient. Excuse me from moving the goalposts slightly away from ritual, but I’d welcome your thoughts on this.
Referencing Joseph Campbell ties in nicely with our discussion of Carl Jung, because I was reading both of their work around the same time. When I look back on it now, I don’t think the current iteration of my post-rationalist, sceptical self would have been anywhere near as receptive or open to their ideas, and I know that in some quarters both of them would be viewed as pseudo-intellectuals (despite the extraordinary depth and breadth of their thinking). Exposing myself to their work greatly enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for the role of mythology, theology, archetypes, narrative, and metaphysics. We know that the problem with religious fundamentalists is that they interpret their religious texts literally. Yet, very often, atheists who criticise and mock these groups also succumb to the same mistake of literal interpretation. Through a metaphorical lens, Jung and Campbell deconstructed the myths and archetypes that – still to this day, in some cases – act as fundamental building blocks of Western culture. We’re just not aware of them because they are so embedded into our culture e.g. Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, or his idea of the Scapegoat. I’m glad I read these authors in my early twenties, but that’s not to say it was easy or comfortable to do so.
I like your slight modification of mathematics and physics, that “not only do they stand above, but within, human subjectivity”. The objectivity which we strive for through empirical observation can of course only be perceived through the subjective lens of the mind. It begs the (somewhat academic) question as to whether mathematics is discovered or invented. Any thoughts on that? I have seen mathematics described as a process of reverse engineering the source code of the Universe, which I think is pretty mind-blowing.
With respect to your conception of criticality, I have not come across a definition of critical thinking and science quite as brilliant as your observation that it entails “a unity of the deductiveness of Popperian Falsifiability and the inductiveness of Bayesian Epistemology ”. Tying this back to our earlier discussion of frames, I personally experienced an over-reliance upon initial introduction to Popperian falsifiability. It was such a revolutionary framework for establishing truth about the world that – in conjunction with Karl Popper’s fairly outright dismissal of induction as a methodology – my sensemaking apparatus was incomplete, unbeknownst to me. What negated this incompleteness was my subsequent study of Bayesian epistemology. Interestingly, lots of very smart individuals within the rationalist community self-identify as a ‘Bayesian’, which shows that we are all prone to over-applying particular frames and becoming overly-identified with them.
Your analysis of the relationship between critical thinking and formal education is extremely perceptive and insightful. “We must have thoughts before we can have thoughts about those thoughts”. That is beautifully put. The idea of critical thinking as an emergent property makes perfect sense when you consider the complexity of human cognition. Karl Popper spoke to the necessity of dogmatism as a stepping stone on the path towards becoming a critical thinker. It could be that one must become ideologically absorbed by a way of viewing the world, and then go through the process of realisation that there is no one theory that can explain everything completely, for the person to then begin to question their other beliefs and consciously rebuild the axioms that inform how they filter information. Assuming this, then I would agree that it may not be feasible to teach Critical Thinking 101 per se, or at least that it may not be the optimal way to facilitate the emergence of critical thinking.
I do agree that we can do more in education to emphasise “the importance we place on it eventually emerging (rather than getting a good job with a good salary etc)”. The modus operandi of schools is to produce workers that can function and contribute as economic actors. This is a legacy of our education system having not fundamentally changed in structure or scope since The Industrial Revolution. Undoubtedly there are individual teachers who view education as intrinsically valuable as an end in and of itself, but the incentive structures promote a rigid focus on ‘gaming’ the system as a means of passing exams, obtaining a good degree, gaining acceptance to the top schools etc. Within this context, critical thinking is likely an afterthought, despite the paradoxical fact that critical thinking – whether as an emergent property or otherwise – would, in theory, enhance a student’s ability to excel within these domains.
With respect to the project that I am working on within this space, I think it’s too early to specify particulars because we are still in the exploratory phase and trying to figure out how we can provide the most value within our given set of parameters. However, to my great pleasure, I have discovered that there are some fantastic initiatives and organisations providing excellent programs on information literacy, depolarisation, and applied rationality. To the best of my knowledge, the majority are private non-State actors working outside the realms of official national curricula. I suppose this is the usual trajectory of innovation and progress – as you rightly point out, education is a relatively conservative field. My perception from the research I have engaged in, and from speaking to people working in this space, is that young people are a lot more sceptical, inquisitive and informationally literate than other generations might give them credit for. This fills me with hope and optimism for the future of our sense-making, for the depolarisation of our politics, and for the continuing trajectory of our moral progression.
I like a great deal of that Brian. In an attempt to be systematic, however, I shall start from the top.
Your sense that “the challenge is to continue through the learning process – whereby one comes to appreciate the nuanced nature of reality and realises that an absolute application of any frame is overly simplistic and reductionistic” is one I share. With this in mind, I would echo the thoughts of many prior thinkers and rehash the idea that nature is continuous — it is only us humans who project categories and concepts onto it, along with the boundaries that are innate to compartmentalisation constructs. It is this line of thinking that reminds us that all models and frameworks diverge from reality to some non-trivial extent (“the map is not the territory”), however, we can still make good use of well-produced models and frameworks; perfection is not required for progress. I really like your point about oscillating between multiple frames, though, as you said: easier said than done.
I greatly appreciate your honesty and rethinking of your points on historic practices. As I hope is abundantly clear, but I will state regardless, by no means am I authority on the issue (or any, for that matter). It may turn out in time that I was erroneous for pushing back on your sentiments and Rousseau’s ‘Noble Savage’ is less fallacious than some might currently suggest — our state of knowledge is far from complete, even if we have come a long way in the prior few centuries. I think your line, “We think we possess ideas, but they often possess us” is a truthful and terse description. At the end of the day, one could quite reasonably argue that we are little more than genetic and memetic transportation devices.
Building off that thought, though, leads me to applaud your point regarding bona fide dialogues. It is no doubt easy to think that one knows a lot about a subject, or that we have adequately thought through a concept, simply because we hold it in mind for significant periods of time. However, the trap we must be wary of is that the same mind that holds the knowledge or conceived the idea, cannot adequately test it. As you mentioned, this is the significant value that discussions, dialogues and some debates hold. Not only does the uniting of two minds amount to greater computing power, but also, the programming of each individual mind is different. What this translates to — in my view, at least — is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The exploration of an idea by two minds is more than twice as effective than if the same activity was undertaken by a single mind (or two minds separately). I think this is very important for making ideas as antifragile as possible and, thus, better controlling for their implications.
To address your next lot of ideas, I must say that your fifth paragraph resonated very strongly with me. I really, really enjoyed that. I think you summarised my own view very well when you said “I don’t necessarily think the a priori assumption should be that modern practices are objectively better than ancient ones, even if I were to estimate that they probably are in the vast majority of comparisons.” Every word in that sentence is important. I also agree with your statement “As with most things though, there’s probably an optimal synthesis between the modern and the ancient.” Finally, I am not all tempted to accuse you of moving the goalposts. I think, if anything, you have laid out many a great topic for future conversations.
To your question of whether mathematics is invented or discovered, I have no strong intuitions here. I recognise there is a tension that exists here (as numerous others have), and that makes it difficult to convincingly rule one way or the other. If I were to stick my stake in the ground at any point, however, I would say this: Mathematics was invented as a mechanism to allow us to discover. The predominance of my thinking about this comes from Richard W. Hamming and his chapter dedicated to mathematics in The Art of Doing Science and Engineering, which I shall briefly describe for you.
In this chapter, Hamming overviews the five main schools of mathematical thought — Platonic, formalist, logical, intuitionist and constructivist — and describes why, “not one has proved to be satisfactory.” Hamming’s view is that there are real mathematical phenomena that exist — as evidenced by our ability to interact with, predict and alter the course of reality — however, that does not mean that mathematics is, categorically, discovered. Evidence to this point is that mathematics has changed over time, and how these changes have tended to produce new, previously unpredictable, results and improved ways of doing things. In essence, Hamming suggests mathematics is essentially a field of (human created) analogies that we use to reason about objective reality with (which seems to align closely with your “process of reverse engineering the source code of the Universe”). As such, Hamming posits that new forms of mathematics will need to be invented in the future in order to more effectively reason about an increasingly complex world.
While I no doubt misunderstood (hopefully only) some of what Hamming wrote, of the accounts I have read on the topic, his has spoken to me the most. So, I will give that as my answer. It is not original; though, it is the one that seems to make the most sense to me. What are your thoughts on the topic, Brian?
Moving onto your discussion of deduction, induction and identity, I do agree that there is certainly an abundance of identifying as “Bayesian” in the rationalist community. I am unsure about where I stand on this, however. To some extent, I love the idea of identifying as a Bayesian. To me, that far exceeds identification with star signs or exercise protocols, among other trivial or pseudoscientific factors. With this in mind, there are few groups that I would rather belong to, or identify with, than a group that attempts to see the world as it is and considers updating their belief as an inherent part of who they are. On the other hand, however, doing so possibly (or probably) comes with all (or some) of the issues that group-identification brings about.
It is around this mark that I reach a junction in my thinking. When we identify with a group, is that an indication that we think that group possesses all the answers, or that the group is generally undervalued in broader society.
For instance, are Bayesians suggesting that induction is all that matters? Or that, in general, the need for induction in the scientific community (loosely defined) is under-appreciated? I, personally, think there are people who fall into both camps. If Bayesian epistemology was more widely discussed and used, I would predict we would see a much smaller community of people who outwardly identify as Bayesian. However, there probably would still be a few “Bayesian Fundamentalists.” The indefiniteness we see between: This is the direction we collectively need to update towards and This is the one true ideal, when we observe someone identifying with an ideology is a complex one. No doubt there are many Theists and Atheists who have savagely criticised members of the alternate tribe, mistakenly thinking said members were advocating for the latter, when really they may only have been proponents of the former type.
Taking all this and putting it aside for a moment, though, let me ask you a few questions as well as recount some of my own changes in thought. The questions are such: Do you think we can possibly not identify as anything? And, if it were possible, is it the ideal? If not, where do you think the optimum lies in this regard?
In regards to my changes in thinking, I will say this: I previously undervalued signalling and outwardly identifying as something. Signalling can provide a strong filtering process and can bend your stream of experiences towards a more enjoyable variety. A simple example is in relation to the “nerdy” t-shirts I often wear. For better or worse, I am a relatively careless dresser and often prize function over aesthetics. To this end, I own many t-shirts that my family and friends do not appreciate me wearing when I am in public with them. These t-shirts include slogans such as: “Introverts Unite!”, “God-Busters” and “When I wear this t-shirt, I am in my element” (accompanied by a picture of the periodic table) as well as the stereotypical collection of Rick & Morty, Spider-Man and Batman apparel — though, not Superman; a terribly overrated and boring character if you ask me!
When I wear clothing such as this, anytime I get a comment on it, what follows is almost always a pleasant and enjoyable conversation with someone who shares many values or interests as I do. This biases the kinds of interactions that I have in a manner that feels net-positive to me. However, there is still something I must be careful in this area. As Information Theory would predict: Randomness represents the maximum amount of possible knowledge; the more we bias and control our experiences, the less we can learn from them. Does any of that draw up thoughts on signaling, group- or self-identity for you? I would love to hear them, if so.
In relation to your last two paragraphs, there’s not too much else I can add without detracting substantially. To start with, your second-to-last was beautifully worded in its entirety and I agree with your observations wholeheartedly. There are obviously many advantages to schooling that is aimed at creating effective economic actors — and I’m not suggesting you were saying otherwise — however, like we discussed earlier, some kind of synthesis between the old and the new is probably more optimal.
Finally, to your terminal paragraph, here I would, again, agree — especially regarding this statement: young people are a lot more sceptical, inquisitive and informationally literate than other generations might give them credit for. This fills me with hope and optimism for the future of our sense-making, for the depolarisation of our politics, and for the continuing trajectory of our moral progression. I would just like to note that your efforts and passion for this area should be commended. It is heartening for me to observe your conduct, as well as to have the opportunity to engage in a conversation, like this one, with you. We clearly both think these are important issues, and I think you are doing well to influence them in a positive manner. Well done.
So much to digest here, Lyndon.
“It is only us humans who project categories and concepts onto it [nature], along with the boundaries that are innate to compartmentalisation constructs”. This reminds me of Richard Feynman’s story that, as a child, his father would ask him about a particular species of bird. Feynman would proudly regurgitate the human imposed name of the bird; but his father would retort that this categorisation told them nothing about the essential characteristics of the bird itself.Tying this all back to our earlier discussion, this is why I find myself often falling back to disciplines such as mathematics and physics as an outlet. In a time of seeming chaos in our world, exacerbated by the proliferation of relativism and subjectivism, I like that these bodies of knowledge stand above human imposition. The integrity of an engineer’s beliefs are tested on a daily basis by the laws of gravity. Whether an aeroplane takes off and lands safely cannot be fabricated. To quote Feynman again – during the investigation into the NASA Challenger accident – “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled”.
I really like your observation that “perfection is not required for progress”. I would contend that this is applicable both with respect to collective societal progress and in our evolution and maturation as individuals too.
“The exploration of an idea by two minds is more than twice as effective than if the same activity was undertaken by a single mind (or two minds separately). I think this is very important for making ideas as antifragile as possible and, thus, better controlling for their implications”. I couldn’t agree with this anymore. This emergent property of the mind is probably one of the most significant discoveries of The Enlightenment. The relevance of concerns about censorship and free speech today are justified by exclusive reference to this fact of emergence. In my opinion there is extraordinary hubris displayed by those who wish to regulate the transaction of ideas, because they are implying omniscience with respect to Truth by proposing that they ought to act as its custodian, in a manner inseparable from the hegemony enjoyed by the aristocratic or theological elite of history. The synthesis of bona fide dialogue – most especially with people to whom we vehemently disagree – is something we ought to cherish. My sense is that this is a privilege that we will only truly appreciate when it is taken from us through piecemeal eradication.
“Mathematics was invented as a mechanism to allow us to discover”. That is beautiful. When I read this, it made me think that there is an exquisite dialectical interplay taking place between us and the Universe. Our empirical investigations can be seen as a trial and error with the foundational structures of the Universe, by which we iterate our sensemaking apparatus and seek to create models that can map the territory. I don’t have much more to add here – as I’m beginning to venture into unchartered territory – although I will say that both Eric Weinstein and Stephen Wolfram have posited very interesting hypotheses in this area around a Unified Theory / Theory of Everything.
I applaud your insightful analysis of group identification, particularly framed from a Bayesian perspective, and I wholeheartedly endorse your view that “to some extent, I love the idea of identifying as a Bayesian. To me, that far exceeds identification with star signs or exercise protocols, among other trivial or pseudoscientific factors”. Here are my thoughts, merely supplemental to your excellent summation.
Fortunately, I too identify with the Rationalist/LessWrong/Effective Altruism communities – they are the only online communities I consider myself to be a relatively active part of. Rather serendipitously, this fact was reinforced to me just this past week. I’m not sure if you saw The New York Times hit piece on Slate Star Codex, but I observed that it invoked a visceral reaction in me. Notwithstanding that the journalist’s straw-manning of the Rationalist community and Scott Alexander was ethically reprehensible, journalistically corrupt, and factually incorrect, I think my sense of outrage derived from my group association with this community, especially being one that, as you rightly point out, “attempts to see the world as it is and considers updating their belief as an inherent part of who they are”. Surely at such a precipitous time in our existence as a species, we ought to be championing a community whose methodology for making sense of the world has consistently outperformed more mainstream and traditional models. Alas, the despair.
I fully appreciate the value that groups provide individuals and I did not mean to suggest that groups were unnecessary or always negative. I would go so far as to say that the individual cannot survive without group membership – whether that be for psychological well-being or physical security. Being part of a group necessarily implies sacrificing a part of one’s individuality and autonomy, but in exchange for positive benefits that arise from communal kinship. However, the caveat I suspect we are both cautioning against is group membership that demands a full renunciation of individuality. The group as an entity is an abstraction that cannot incur harm; it is the individual members of the group that suffer if free thinking and free association are restricted.
I really like your observation that “If Bayesian epistemology was more widely discussed and used, I would predict we would see a much smaller community of people who outwardly identify as Bayesian”. For a novel idea to infiltrate society and culture, it makes sense that those promoting it are likely incentivised to accentuate the differences and to apply a somewhat radical approach to spreading those ideas. As mainstream adoption takes hold, this need wanes. This may partially explain why Bayesians over-emphasise induction because, as you highlight, it is still an underappreciated epistemic methodology.
Part of me wonders whether there is an element of an anti-establishment, counter-culture streak to the expression of individuality that comes with identifying with a fringe group. For me, this is perfectly healthy when it corresponds to a group that strongly questions its own beliefs, promotes heterodox thinking, and stringently applies reason to problems. Unfortunately we have ample evidence for where such zealousness can fork in the wrong direction. It is usually self-evident in the first instance whether a group subscribes to one of the two versions you perceptively identified: i) “This is the direction we collectively need to update towards” – characterised by decentralised power structures, promotion of critical thinking, prioritisation of truth over dogma, epistemocracy; or ii) “This is the one true ideal” – characterised by the presence of a cultish figurehead leader, disincentives critical thinking, prioritizes dogma over objective truth, totalitarian. The need for individuals to stand out may explain why – even in a group as rational as the Bayesians – you might have a small minority of evangelicals, no matter how widespread its adoption.
Your comment about the Theists and Atheists is a pertinent one. One of the reasons I have traditionally found little common ground with either group is because these perspectives – or at least their public spokespeople – appear to me to succumb to the “this is the one true ideal” fallacy. I find myself attracted to people who think (or, better yet, embody) a kind of synthesis between the two that stands above distinct categorisation.
“Signalling can provide a strong filtering process and can bend your stream of experiences towards a more enjoyable variety”. Again, this is beautifully put. Somewhat tangentially, I believe that it can be liberating and empowering when one realises that one’s objective reality is partly a function of the subjective lens through which one views the world. That you get to choose your lens is significant. I am trying to apply this in my pursuit of desired states like happiness, and the feedback loop so far has been very encouraging.
I found it very interesting to read your experience of owning your nerd identity, and it’s wonderful to hear that doing so has led to numerous engaging conversations with random strangers. I have had a similar experience with respect to my identity as a vegan. For the first few years I simply didn’t feel comfortable enough to explicitly express the dietary choices I had consciously made without being prompted to do so by direct confrontation (this being one good example of where my actions actually preceded my words!). I attribute this to the fact that I was projecting onto other people how I thought they would feel if I told them I was vegan, because my sense at that time was that there was a non-trivial amount of baggage associated with the word as a result of a small minority of vegans acting quite militant and judgemental in their interactions with non-vegans. It’s only in the last couple of years that I consciously began to own this part of who I am, a decision that has led to far deeper and more rewarding connections with fellow like-minded people and more contentment with a part of my identity that I am really proud of.
Our discussion so far has presupposed that identity is an entirely self-directed choice. I’m also intrigued and curious about identity in the social context and how this can influence one’s sense of self, for better or worse. One of the reasons I think I try my best to avoid labels and categorisations is that I find them inherently overbearing and reductionistic. If I meet someone for the first time and they asked me what I do, how do I answer? Saying that I’m a lawyer brings its own connotations – both positive and negative. Same if I said I was a yoga teacher. If I was being facetious, I might say that I’m a Popperian-Bayesian-Stoic (whilst caveating that it always depends on the context and that this is just a snapshot). There are necessarily trade-offs with every identity. I want people to form their impression of me for who I am rather than what I am, but I also recognise that I must occupy some identities in order to function in the world. Every society or marketplace attributes certain status and prestige to particular identities, which creates this arbitrary hierarchy that becomes inculcated and self-fulfilling over time. One of the few upsides of this global pandemic is that previously under-valued and under-renumerated professions and jobs are becoming widely heralded and appreciated. What are your thoughts on this, Lyndon? And can you speak to how you view your own self-identity?
Finally, in reply to your comment that “It is heartening for me to observe your conduct, as well as to have the opportunity to engage in a conversation, like this one, with you”. This has been a mutual pleasure. I cannot do justice to how enjoyable and engaging this conversation has been. You have hit upon something with this format. I would encourage anyone reading this to consider putting their thoughts down on paper, or converse with a friend (the world is your oyster with the Internet), as it is a very rewarding and beneficial exercise. Thank you for affording us this opportunity.
I think your reference of Feynman and that second quote in particular are extremely poignant, Brian. I have definitely been influenced by his writings and lectures, and think that he embodied a style of thinking which is both incredibly rare and valuable. I am so grateful that much illumination of his methods can still be found amongst books or recordings. I also appreciate your support of, “Perfection is not required for progress” and would underscore your points that this applies on the social as well as the individual level.
“In my opinion there is extraordinary hubris displayed by those who wish to regulate the transaction of ideas, because they are implying omniscience with respect to Truth by proposing that they ought to act as its custodian … The synthesis of bona fide dialogue – most especially with people to whom we vehemently disagree – is something we ought to cherish. My sense is that this is a privilege that we will only truly appreciate when it is taken from us through piecemeal eradication.” I am extremely sympathetic to all that you have said here, especially in the last sentence. When observing debates regarding free speech, I am often reminded of the fable about the frog which can be boiled alive — provided the water is heated gradually enough. If the mechanisms of sense-making, disputation and, more generally, the pitting of ideas against their alternatives are taken from us — in this seemingly imperceptible manner — we may find ourselves in a societal nosedive, absent of the abilities for course-correction.
Relating to that, I did (unfortunately) read the piece in The New York Times centred around Slate Star Codex. I, too, found it disappointing and a perfect example of unabashed hit-journalism, masking itself as the dispassionate investigation of truth. It is hard to imagine anyone who is actually familiar with Scott Alexander’s work coming away from that piece and thinking that it even came close to resembling an accurate depiction of his ideas and the vast majority of the Rationalist community. I am tempted to believe that pure randomness, monkeys on typewriters, may have got more correct.
(Note: This does not mean I condone the abuse and threats that the author of the piece received. This component of the saga is disappointing and does genuine harm to the rationality cause; though, I do not believe it is a representative sample of the community, even if the piece tends to paint it in that way.)
However, anyone without familiarity with SA/SSC or the Rationalist community would almost certainly, and immediately, adopt a negative attitude towards each — not to mention other prominent Silicon Valley figures such as Paul Graham, Peter Theil and Patrick Collison, through the mixture of implicit and explicit sideswipes aimed their way. I really cannot say this gravely enough, but the article was truly disappointing to read — for a number of reasons. I know I don’t have to tell you, though, as you summarised my thoughts exactly when you said, “the journalist’s straw-manning of the Rationalist community and Scott Alexander was ethically reprehensible, journalistically corrupt, and factually incorrect.” It seems journalism now is less about truth dissemination and more about echo-chamber solidification, as well as, ironically, the “dog whistling” that President Trump was so extensively accused of doing by the very same media outlet.
In relation to your comments on group membership, I overwhelmingly concur and did not intend to imply that you only thought of group identification as negative. You summarised the nuances of this accurately in this beautiful passage: ” … the individual cannot survive without group membership – whether that be for psychological well-being or physical security. Being part of a group necessarily implies sacrificing a part of one’s individuality and autonomy, but in exchange for positive benefits that arise from communal kinship. However, the caveat I suspect we are both cautioning against is group membership that demands a full renunciation of individuality. The group as an entity is an abstraction that cannot incur harm; it is the individual members of the group that suffer if free thinking and free association are restricted.”
Now, without completely turning my response into numerous quotations of your own previous remarks, let me state that I thought these were, again, poetically worded and precise descriptions of thoughts I, too, share:
‘… it can be liberating and empowering when one realises that one’s objective reality is partly a function of the subjective lens through which one views the world.’
‘I have traditionally found little common ground with either group [the Theists or Atheists] because these perspectives – or at least their public spokespeople – appear to me to succumb to the “this is the one true ideal” fallacy.”I try my best to avoid labels and categorisations … I find them inherently overbearing and reductionistic.’
I applaud each of those individually, but that last one, in particular, rang true in abundance for me. Firstly, though, let me say that I am exceptionally pleased to hear the comfort and contentment that owning your identity as a vegan has brought you — though, I know I don’t have to tell you that being “a vegan” is (often, but not always) much more about the external implications, rather than those relating to identity and the Self.
Next, to your point about labels and categorisations being reductionist, this is a view I strongly empathise with and outwardly endorse. I understand the notion of using them for practical purposes, however, there is a very fine line between the practical benefits of simplification and the detriments to practicality caused by the loss of accuracy. For something to be practical — read: useful — it cannot deviate from the structure of reality, or truth, too much. I have seen many labels and categories, which were intended to describe the objective world, quickly disintegrate into fiction; all in the name of practicality.
To answer your question, about my own observations of self-identity, I would merely echo your thoughts. Whichever labels and identities I ascribe to myself (or are ascribed to me), they promote simplistic connotations and models of who, and how, I am. Quite possibly, this is how everyone feels; though, anecdotally at least, reports of this nature tend to come more frequently from those who partake in intellectual or artistic endeavours. My own experience is that I have been consistently mischaracterised and misunderstood my entire life. No doubt, this is a function of many different causes, only some of which I can speculate upon. Because of this, and the fact that I don’t even know myself completely — as well as the views I hold about humans being cognitive-misers — I cannot condemn anyone too strongly for an approximation of who I am that leaves a little to be desired.
Amongst your other comments, I found the following to be very apt: “Every society or marketplace attributes certain status and prestige to particular identities, which creates this arbitrary hierarchy that becomes inculcated and self-fulfilling over time. One of the few upsides of this global pandemic is that previously under-valued and under-remunerated professions and jobs are becoming widely heralded and appreciated.” I like this observation and think it to be quite wise — a pattern of behaviour you have demonstrated consistently throughout this dialogue, Brian.
With that in mind, I think this would be an appropriate point to bring it to a close. Thank you again for taking the time to correspond and share your thoughts with me (and readers). You have many brilliant insights to offer and it has been a pleasure to engage in thought-provoking discussion with you. I look forward to our next exchange.
The final words are now yours; be as elaborative or concise as you like.
I have nothing more to add. Despite the abundance of pertinent and thought-provoking points in your reply – which I would ordinarily relish addressing – for the purposes of brevity I will leave it at that. I must, however, explicitly highlight your observation that “My own experience is that I have been consistently mischaracterised and misunderstood my entire life”. This is poignant, and something I’m sure many readers (myself included) can relate to.
Thank you, Lyndon, for affording me this privileged opportunity. I was slightly intimidated – but very humbled – when you initially asked me to engage in this correspondence because I had witnessed the thoroughness and brilliance of your thinking for some time. I hope readers derived some benefit from this exchange of ideas. I certainly did. It was an enormous pleasure. I, too, look forward to our next exchange.
I will depart with the maxim of Immanuel Kant: Sapere aude. Dare to know.