Recent Responses

Critical thinking: We are bombarded with information all the time so I think it's very important to use "critical thinking" but it's not easy. So my question is: what are the basics in critical thinking?

I think it is also useful to think about the separate skills that are necessary for applying the concepts and techniques that Joseph described to complex real-life situations.

Alas, we often have the most need for critical thinking when confronting the situations where this is the hardest to do: situations that are really complex, that matter a lot to our lives, which involve complex emotional dynamics or serious interpersonal conflict, and so on.

So, to best use critical thinking in our own lives we need to be able to handle "messy" situations like those. For example, it is useful to understand your own and others' agendas and motivations, the emotional dynamics of a situation, how to act in ways that have the best chance of making a difficult discussion more rational and more constructive.

When I teach critical thinking, I prefer to teach the reasoning skills that Joseph describes together with serious reflection on the "messy real life" issues that I sketch out above. The best critical thinking text I've seen that does this is Douglas Walton's Informal Logic, which adopts an interesting dialogical approach (Amazon.Com link is here). Walton’s text is difficult for my students at first, but most come to love it and over the years many have told me that they have purchased copies for spouses, children, or parents.

I am married to a man who earns a considerable amount of money doing a job he enjoys. It is possible for me to earn a similar amount of money, but I now feel considerable discomfort in the profession that over the years has allowed me to do so. My preferred work (writing fiction) will bring in no money in the short term and has little chance of a lot of money in the end. Is it ethical to choose to earn less, and yet to share the rewards of my husband's salary - the big house, nice car, holidays and so on?

I would have thought that this sort of decision was one to be made by you and your husband jointly. How your household earns its income is for the two of you to decide, and it is also for the two of you to decide how that income will be used. I can well understand that there might be emotional costs to writing full-time and so not making much (if any) money doing it. The concerns you express already reveal some of those costs. But they can be mitigated in various ways. If your husband were to be truly supportive of your writing and believed in what you were doing, that would presumably go a long way. You could think of yourselves as investing the income you could otherwise earn in your writing. Perhaps that will pay off financially and perhaps it will not. But perhaps there are more important things than money, and you are really investing in them.

ID theorists and creationists like to say that the Theory of Evolution is "just a theory." Is that true? What does that mean? What's the difference between "truth" and "theory"?

Theories are descriptions, and they come in two flavors: true and false. So the Theory of Evolution can be both a theory and true, which is just what a great number of scientists believe. When evolution by natural selection is called a theory, however, this is sometimes intended to emphasise that there is no proof that it is true. Now if by 'proof' we mean what pure mathematicians produce, then this is correct. There is no proof of the Theory of Evolution, and there is no proof of any other empirical theory either. Proof in this sense is not an option in science, because all theories go beyond the evidence upon which they are based. There can similarly be no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow. But the sense in which it is true that there is no proof of evolution is compatible with the claim that there is overwhelming evidence that it is true, which is again what a great number of scientists believe.

If science (i.e. evolutionary psychology) can explain why I have the morality I do, does that mean morality is subjective? If what I believe about morality is just a product of my evolution and my upbringing, can I still expect other people to live up to my principles even though they may have had a different upbringing? What about myself? Can I still hold myself to my own standards or am I being deceived by my evolution into thinking it would be wrong to do so?

It might be helpful to follow a strand of British empiricism and to think about 'morality' as a social phenomenon, involving various 'sanctions' such as blame, guilt, shame, and so on. (So in that respect it is rather like law, though the sanctions there are somewhat different.) Your worry is that some moral principle you accept -- that it's wrong to cause serious suffering merely for fun, say -- has emerged only because of the evolutionary advantage conferred on groups which accept something like that principle. So it seems quite contingent which principles we come to believe -- as you imply, in different circumstances we might accept different principles. But, to pick up Alex's point, we have the capacity to stand back from our 'morality' and assess whether we have independent reason to accept its principles. In which case, if you believe there is a reason not to cause suffering for fun, you may think that this justifies the moral principle which forbids it (as it would also justify a law forbidding it).

Since we all have a free will and since every sane human being prefers happiness over misery; how come we don´t choose to be good/kind/loving to each other all the time? J.T. Kumberg

It might be that every sane human being prefers their own happiness over their own misery; alas it doesn't follow from this that every sane human being always prefers other people's happiness over those people's misery. This comes to the crunch if promoting other people's happiness interferes with promoting my own happiness.

What is truth, and how can we know that it is not an illusion?

I'm with Richard here: the truth of a proposition cannot be an illusion. In an illusion, the proposition is false. But there might nevertheless be a sense in which truth could be an illusion, if we think that there are representations when in fact there aren't any. This is paradoxical territory, but for example there is a line of thought from Wittgenstein, articulated in Saul Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, according to which our thoughts do not have determinate content. No determinate content, no determinate proposition, so no truth. If that were the situation, but we thought that there was truth here, we might (truly?) say that truth is an illusion.

I was thinking about properties of objects. We say "sugar is sweet," but is it sweet in the absence of a mind to perceive that it is sweet? Could some other perception find that it is, say, sour instead? Or is it intrinsically sweet on its own, independent of an intellect to observe that it is sweet?

There are three main options here that philosophers have developed for properties like sweetness: sweetness is a sensation, it is a disposition in some things to produce a sensation, or it is an intrinsic property of sweet things (presumably to do with their molecular structure). On the first view, the same thing may be sweet to one person and sour to another (because it isn't really the thing that is sweet or sour, only the varying sensations). On the third view, what is sweet is sweet is sweet for everyone (because it isn't determined by people's reactions). One difference between the first and the second view is that only on the second view are things sweet when they are not being tasted.

At like an atomic level, like really small, is it possible to determine where one thing stops and another begins? Say like where my finger stops and a key on my keyboard begins? (This might be a bad example, because a plastic key and my finger probably have quite different atoms, but still the line between them would be hard to find right.)

I'm going to say something here that is way over-simplified, but perhaps it will do.

According to quantum mechanics, of which my knowledge is very limited, such things as atoms don't have distinct boundaries in the sense you have in mind. This is because their parts (protons, neutrons, etc) don't have completely determinate positions in space (except under certain exceptional assumptions). Rather, the location of a given particle is described in terms of the probability that it is in a particular location. In fact, the same is true of macroscopic objects. Even waiving the blurriness of my boundaries, my location is not completely determinate, either.

It therefore seems reasonable to say that, no, it isn't completely determinate where your finger ends and the key begins, even if we can say which particles constitute the one and which the other (another hard problem), because it isn't determinate where those particles are.

On what basis can we claim somebody is delusional? Assuming objective, True Reality(tm) exists, but is not directly knowable and is only knowable through mediation of our senses, how do we have any solid footing for deciding one person's senses are defective compared to another's? Two thought experiments to illustrate this idea: Assume I am alone in a room, and I see a purple monkey swinging from the lamp. I perceive this odd sight and may, or may not, decide that I'm hallucinating based on my previous experiences. If somebody else comes into the room, and I ask them what they see, if they agree with me, then odds are better that we are both seeing accurately, but if he disagrees with me, then he may be blind to the monkey, or I may be imagining it. Adding more people will get us a consensus view, but doesn't really prove anything in more than a statistical way. Who is delusional, and who is seeing truly? Or, assume I am the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Like the monkey-seeing fellow in the previous example, I perceive odd, starnge things those around me don't. From the previous statistical argument, I'm just as likely delusional as the monkey-fellow, but in this case, I'm actually seeing something my compatriots are literally blind to. This would imply that "group opinion" is insufficient to discern hallucination from enhanced perception. So, how should such a determination be made?

There seems to be a pattern of argument here that needs to be questioned. It is: (i) Method M for reaching judgements isn't completely reliable; therefore, (ii) method M can't be trusted. The conclusion simply doesn't follow. Method M might be very reliable, in which case it can be trusted to a high degree.

I doubt "group opinion" is the only method available to us for distinguishing hallucination and illusion from perception. (For example, in the land of the blind, there might be ways of correlating your apparent perceptions with facts on which you can all agree, e.g., that there is a boulder in such-and-such a location that wasn't there yesterday.) But it might be quite a good way of drawing the distinction even if it isn't a perfect way.