Cultivate Clarity! Learn to Discern!
The Critical Thinking Community has some very practical information on how to learn to do critical thinking. They make the important point that in order to know what exercises to do to take the next step in competence in cultivating clarity, we need to understand what stage of critical thinking we have attained.
One of the things I like about this organizations’s approach to critical thinking is that they do not use the old saw that critical thinking is logical thinking, or that critical thinking is about screening out our emotions. In fact, they make the point that we have to have and continue to cultivate a strong desire to become more competent thinkers.
The third of their five stages, from the person completely unaware of the fact that their thought processes might be flawed, to the master thinker who no longer has to struggle to remember to use critical thinking tools in their everyday lives, is extremely well put. To me, learning to see the difference between raw data, and our interpretations of the data, is the foundation of critical thinking. When I teach engineering failure analysis, we do an exercise that at least some of the students initially don’t enjoy very much. I ask them to describe a manufactured object using only visible physical descriptions. So for example, the manufacturing engineer who looks at a high quality wrench might start out saying something to the effect of “It’s a chrome plated forging, 20 cm long, 0.5 cm thick.”
So then we instructors ask “What is it about the features you see that allows you to draw that conclusion?”
In fact, it is difficult to determine by looking at an object whether it is cast or forged. I bought a pair of pliers years ago that turned out to be cast. How did I determine this? On the second use, they broke, revealing porosity in the core of the material. This is generally impossible or at least extremely unlikely in a forged part.
Getting the experienced mechanical engineer to see that he is using layers and layers of inferences when he looks at a wrench and says it is a forging can be challenging. When I gave a guest lecture at a high school forensics class years ago, I found the young students didn’t have such a problem. Their problems in critical thinking were more directly related to a limited knowledge base.
Please visit the website of the The Critical Thinking Community. I found their description of the states of development in developing as rational persons well worth my time. Please consider studying their road markers for the person starting out on the long path of actively cultivating clarity.
We are beginning to understand the difference between raw information and our interpretation of it, beginning to question our conclusions, beginning to recognize assumptions guiding our inferences.
Now, to change the subject a bit, think about Asian pears. Didn’t most of us see them as apples when we first saw one? (Or at least most of us who are old enough to remember seeing one for the first time?) I don’t think I am the only one who thought “that’s not a pear!” when I saw my first Asian pear. The word pear brings along with it the image of a bottom heavy oblong shape. Asian pears are shaped like apples. This one looks like a Golden Delicious apple to me.
The following image, which at least shows coloring that I’d associate with a pear, comes from Wikipedia Commons and its use is subject to their terms and conditions.
When I went to write the above paragraph, I questioned whether Asian pears truly are pears. “A-pear-ently” they are!
Interestingly, the word pear comes from the Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for fruit is pronounced “pree.” Note that f and p frequently morph into each other when moving from one language to another. Note that both “pree” and “fruit” also have an r. Apparently, some people thought that the pear was the exemplar of fruit! Pears, from my research today, seem to have been cultivated for longer than apples! However, the story of the pears being cultivated in China in 5000 BC must surely be folklore, rather than history. Writing was not invented until about 5000 years ago, or 2000 years after this supposed diplomat gave up his post to cultivate fruit. And 7,000 – 9000 years ago, humanity was at the beginning of agriculture and domestication of plants and animals. I doubt that there was a professional diplomat in existence who could give up his political responsibilities for any reason.
I have allowed myself to wander in this post to show how looking for knowledge, even simple “facts,” can enrich our understanding of the world. One thing I can’t understand though, is why the botanical name for apples is Malus! As the word for badly or wrong in French is “mal.” Does this have to do with the apple in Eden? If so, why, following the decline of the Roman Empire, was the domesticated apple saved for Western humanity by Christian monks?
Maybe it’s the same reason that Jews eat apples on the Jewish New Year. To say, “YES! We’d disobey God again if we had the choice!”
Finally, in closing this muse on Critical Thinking and the Fruit Thereof, the great historian V. Gordon Childe, who was wrong about a lot of things, but maybe he was at least partially correct about this, speculated that it was the establishment of orchards that led directly to the increased importance of territoriality in human culture.