Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thursday Thinking - About Thinking Critically

Today I point you to a thought-provoking article published in this month's issue of Books and Culture.

How is it that we arrive at feelings of certainty? How do we determine when something is worth believing or not? And are humility and doubt related to faith? The article, adapted from Stackhouse's new book, Need to Know, reflects on these questions with helpful insight. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:

Excerpts from Certainly? Not! (Books & Culture, June 2014) by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.––
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman sums up much of his career in his popular book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He suggests that we typically respond to the world in something very like a reflexive mode: apprehending, comprehending, and responding to what we encounter with as little intellectual effort as possible. We therefore "process" the world, so to speak, along well-worn intellectual pathways, habits of apprehension, comprehension, and response (Kahneman uses the term "heuristics") that have served us well in the past and require little effort to traverse again.
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Now, to be sure, one man's laziness might seem to be just another man's efficiency. But Kahneman insists, "Anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs. A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact." Of course we must become thoroughly familiar with something in order to understand, assess, and respond to it properly. But Kahneman's point is different: mere familiarity feels like authenticity. What "keeps showing up" in our experience we tend to read as reality, even if in fact what keeps showing up is a function of our own choices (e.g., our choice of news media) or the choices of others seeking to direct us. Indeed, Kahneman's large book bristles with warnings about how we can be nudged or even bamboozled into errors in all sorts of ways by those who capitalize on our habits and particularly our penchant for the easy thought—or, even more basically, the vague feeling—over the deliberate, demanding consideration.

Indeed, as Kahneman cautions, "confidence is a feeling which reflects [what appears to us to be] the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it." Confidence, that is, does not emerge from true mastery of all the relevant data and laborious, skillful effort to interpret it any more than it emerges from a superficial glance at the file and a breezy hop to a conventional conclusion. Confidence itself, as we all know if we just think about it, says nothing at all about the actual quality of the thing or concept about which someone, even oneself, is confident.
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The Bible gives us infallible truth, doesn't it? I believe it does. But I don't believe that I interpret it infallibly. In fact, I don't believe that anyone does—do you?

What about the Holy Spirit, then? Again, the indwelling of every believer by the Holy Spirit is a precious truth, but I don't see his presence guaranteeing that every Christian will score 100% on every math test—or on/in any other test, either.

We walk by faith, not by sight (II Cor. 5:7), perhaps more profoundly than we knew. We walk, trusting our senses, trusting our memories, trusting our worldviews, and—in the face of all this doubt about all these good, but fallible, gifts of God—trusting God.
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Let' humble enough to realize how little we know, how little we know about the accuracy and completeness of what we think we know, and how much we have to trust God to guide, correct, and increase what we know according to his good purposes.

John Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. This article is adapted from his new book Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology (Oxford Univ. Press).

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