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Axiomatic: Critical Thinking Redux

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It has been quite a week around here–mostly because of my own stupidity, but there it is.

The first thing that happened was that bruised and tore the hell out of my right index finger. 

This was entirely unnecessary.  There is, on the second floor of my house, a door whose doorknob mechanism went to pieces.  We therefore removed the doornob mechanism and put it into a plastic freezer bag so that we could take it out to a hardware store somewhere and buy a replacement.

In the meantime, there was a little metal hole where the knob was supposed to be.  It was fairly easy to open and close the door by putting your right index finger into the tip of the metal hole and pulling it gently.

What I did was put the entire finger up to the first joint and pulled it hard. 

My finger therefore caught in the hole as the door swung violently back and forth, and by the time I got it out, it was torn, bleeding and very bruised.

This was not fun.

The next thing that happened was not so violent.

The only jewelry I wear is a chain around my neck that contains, among other things, a star charm and a heart charm.

Bill and Matt picked out the star for me as a Christmas present when Matt was not quite three.

Bill and Greg picked out the heart for me the Christmas before the October Bill died.

One day a few days ago I was fiddling with it and suddenly realized the heart was gone.

I then went tearing all over hell and gone, trying to find the thing.  It was late in the afternoon, and I had been in to teach, and I knew it could have dropped off anywhere.

So I took off the chain and the star and put them in a safe place.

And then, when I went up to bed, I was walking into my room when I suddenly saw a glint, and there it was, sitting right on top of the quilt.

And that was good, of course, but it left me wondering just how far out of it I was when I woke up in the morning and before I had any caffeine.

Because it was right there, right in the middle of everything.

It’s not a large charm, but it’s gold and very shiny.  And the lamp lit it up in the dark like you wouldn’t believe.

And I had apparently managed to make my bed, step back to look it over as always, and just not notice it.

After that, things sort of went from bad to worse, including tax stuff and a royal case of food poisoning.

And that ended me up here, with the first decent night’s sleep I’ve had in days.

Of course, I have had the first decent night’s sleep in days, so I can actually talk about stuff.

Let me get to Michael’s comment that if I’m watching people justify, say, genocide by using critical thinking, then I must be observing people doing critical thinking wrong.

Is that true?  Can  people use critical thinking to justify genocide only do it if they are “doing critical thinking wrong”?


Critical thinking does require you to test your assumptions and presumptions but it can only do that by asking you to test them against some standard or another.

It can also ask you to test the standard, but there’s where you hit a brick wall.

Critical thinking can legitimate or delegitimate any standard. 

I can test and accept “the greatest good for the greatest number” as a standard by which to measure the rightness or wrongness of moral action, but I can test and reject it as well.

And that is true for any standard anybody might name. 

In the end, critical thinking is a hammer.  I can use it to build a dog house.  I can also use it to bash somebody’s skull in.

Which of these I choose to do will be justified–or not–by critical thinking depending on my underlying moral and existential commitments, and those have to be chosen.

I can use critical thinking to show that genocide will hurt many people, ruin the local economy, restrict and even regress culture, and turn my country into a police state–

But none of those outcomes proves that genocide is something I shouldn’t do, EXCEPT in a case where I have ALREADY decided that those outcomes are so greatly evil that they could not under any circumstances be the lesser evil to another outcome, or not evil at all.

And I can show you a whole raft of people “doing” critical thinking right, who have justified things I would consider equally as awful, if not worse.

There’s Peter Singer’s thing about “post birth abortion,” which is argued on impeccable utilitarian grounds, and which can only be opposed by rejecting the argument’s underlying assumption:  that human beings are things to be disposed of for the use and benefit of other people, if those other people are both significantly numerous and believe that such disposing will (as Singer puts it) significantly improve their quality of life.

And before you tell me that no correctly executed process of critical thinking could get you there, I’d like to point out that somebody once argued to me, on an Internet forum, in favor of China’s one child policy, including its forced abortions, because the evils of overpopulation would hurt many more people and be far worse.

The Catholics have, in this case, a jump on the terminology–they often do.

They call it a “fundamental option.” 

What they mean by that is your first and original moral commitment, the  rock on which all the rest of your thinking will stand. 

All of us have to have one.  None of us can do without it.

And critical thinking will not get us there.

My particular fundamental option is that every single human being in the world–old or young, sick or well, of any race, of any creed, of any level of ability and even of any course of behavior–is infinitely valuable in and of him or herself.

And from that I can use critical thinking to get me to the position that human beings always be treated as ends in themselves and never as the means to the ends of others.

But critical thinking cannot tell me that my fundamental option is the one I SHOULD adopt.

It can only tell me what the consequences of my taking that option would be.



Written by janeh

October 16th, 2012 at 9:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Axiomatic: Critical Thinking Redux'

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  1. I agree with Jane and the Catholics that you have to start with some unproven assumption. Aristotle noticed that 2500 years ago with his unmoved mover. Modern cosmology with its Big Bang has the same problem since it assumes that Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity worked at the instant of the Big Bang.

    But I have a problem with the concept that human life is infinitely valuable. Mathematics has an arithmetic of infinity (see http://scidiv.bellevuecollege.edu/math/infinity.html
    for a brief and simple discussion of Cantor’s treatment of infinity.)

    Briefly, infinity plus infinity can equal infinity. So if you have a choice of saving 1 life or 10, it doesn’t matter which you choose. Either way you save something infinitely valuable.

    Assume you live in a region which has a highway on which a lot of drivers are dying each year in accidents. You need to improve the highway. You also need a new hospital. You don’t have the resources ( materials, construction equipment, skilled labor) to do both at once. I would say you start with the one that will save the most lives. That doesn’t work if a life is infinitely valuable.


    16 Oct 12 at 6:05 pm

  2. JD, most of us are bad enough at math to work out that saving 10 is better than saving one. “Infinite value” has another and subtler trap, though: as a public policy, it can be used to justify all manner of restrictions on freedom–because use of that freedom may result in shorter lives–and takings of labor and property to the point of slavery. After all, if everything over bare subsistence can be taken from you, but someone else’s life extended five minutes, even if that person is comatose and will never know it…

    But we weren’t discussing the axiom. Jane’s “fundamental option” was an example of tha basic truth that critical thinking is about means and not ultimate ends, and in this she’s quite right. Let’s leave comparing infinities until she gets to it. The argument may be more subtle then.


    17 Oct 12 at 5:45 am

  3. I haven’t been keeping up, but I’m slightly confused about all this critical thinking stuff. Critical thinking was quite popular in education circles back in the day, and I wrote a short paper or two on it. I think it was fairly clear that some of the proponants had certain philosophical presumptions, but the main appeal was tht critical thinking taught people to think. It taught them that you can’t claim that B is true because A is true unless you have some evidence or perhaps a chain of reasoning connectin the two. It still strikes me that this an excellent approach to education in a world in which students honestly believe that they have to get an A because they stated their opinion on a subject.

    I don’t suppose you can find my Kindle now? I’ve been losing things a lot lately. That’s usually a sign I’ve been a bit tired and over-stressed/


    21 Oct 12 at 6:21 pm

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