“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”~ Joseph Joubert, French moralist and essayist, 1896
The idea that critical thinking is ‘dead’ is not a new one. The basis for defining and explaining how this problem emerged has varied. Some have firmly placed blame at the feet of formal higher education, where instead of profound thinking and evaluation educators are focused more on indoctrination which leads to the consuming of “fake news” and the embracing of conspiracy theories.
Some feel bad journalism is at the heart of the problem, where editorial control has almost disappeared, fluff pieces get top billing as ‘must reads,’ and the emerging preference for something called ‘iterative reporting,’ which is a far cry from legitimate journalistic professionalism.
Some have waded into the waters of modern-day entertainment, claiming the oversaturation of spoon-fed media platforms has created the unanticipated consequence of de facto eliminating the human need to read, think, and imagine. In essence, Netflix killed critical thinking.
Still others have taken a gendered approach to explaining the problem, wondering if the problem in the dearth of deep philosophical musing is not because philosophy is dead as much as people are tired of the same old cisgender white males being the bulwark for such study. That if the modern-age globalized liberated community could only get more globalized and liberated voices to study, they would.
Finally, others worry about how this death is not accidental but caused by ‘predatory’ pseudo-intellectual efforts, whether that is the endorsement of ‘alternative facts,’ ‘post-truth,’ the ‘assault on reason,’ or the emergence of purposefully fake ‘scholarly journals’ aimed at spreading misinformation and debunked science.
While all of these issues matter, all of them contribute to the problem, I am not sure any of them hit the nail where it most needs to be hit: namely, right on the heads of regular people in the modern-day and how they willfully wish to acquire information.
The saturation of information across the internet combined with the ever-decreasing amount of time we spend as human beings in actual engaged, civil, face-to-face debate and discussion means people have succeeded, almost unconsciously, in creating their own sycophantic echo chambers. Wrapping cloaks of self-affirmation around themselves, the reality is too many people today seem to be ‘assessing and evaluating’ the veracity of information simply by how well it synchronizes with their own predetermined beliefs.
It is indeed depressingly fascinating to note that this approach is the literal antithesis of what is required to produce actual critical thinking. The foundation of enlightenment and the acquisition of wisdom has always been predicated upon the testing of ideas. The goal was never about how effectively we could safeguard personal biases and preconceived ideas from intellectual challenges. Rather, the only real test for truth was the willingness to offer all ideas up for the arena of debate, discussion, and pointed critique.
“Falsifiability,” that ancient and critical scientific standard where all initial theories must be structured so as to allow for their ultimate disproof, thereby avoiding the cancer of self-fulfilling prophecies and tautologies, is so far removed from the minds of modern people that most could not even tell you what the term means, let alone explain why it should be crucial to the thinking of all.
It is one thing to lament the lack of formal educational training and believe it plays a fundamental role in the overall absence of high-quality critical thinking. But even this is deflecting what should be the real accusation and laying of blame: the unavoidable evidence that shows people do not want to have their ideas challenged and do not enjoy the intellectual ‘discomfort’ that comes with mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.
Worse still, the modern-age of constant informational access and saturation has allowed a self-rationalization to emerge that justifies this inculcation of willful ignorance. As a species, human beings today gleefully but exclusively seek only the ‘evidence’ that supports where they already sit. If it exists, is online, and affirms their position, these three traits end up acting as proof of truth instead of being recognized as the common perversion of truth they really are.
They seek out audiences that are only going to increase their ‘followers,’ not their knowledge. Dissenting voices, counter arguments, challenges for civil discussion need not apply. Engagement is replaced by adulation.
A cursory glance across all such available social media platforms sees this cycle play out again and again and again. This self-propelled ignorant echo chamber goes beyond partisanship: it runs rampant across the Left and Right. No one is immune. Since each side has become convinced of the illogic, irrationality, and vulgarity of the other, the common declaration rings across the Web: no need to suffer fools.
But in this case, ‘fools’ are defined literally as simply anyone who does not cater to the whims of your own side. And so, we avoid. We cower. We deflect and demean and belittle. We do this believing it is righteous and just, because we have defined our enemies as those lacking even a single iota of wisdom. Thus, their removal and permanent banning from the stage is both justified and necessary. Again, this happens on both the Right and the Left. Cancel Culture is the only thing today truly non-partisan. Consequently, the real stage of engagement, of enlightenment, of the search for growth and evolution, remains woefully empty.
So here we sit as a society. A society of strident, partisan, rhetoric that is constantly adorned with the Emperor’s false clothes of arrogance, hubris, and willful delusion. What Joubert tried to warn us about well over a century ago has actually become the preferred method of societal engagement. His warning falls on deaf ears. The concept of respectfully agreeing to disagree after engaging in a meaningful, open, and transparent process of intellectual exchange is rejected. What we do today is ‘respectfully’ agree to disagree before ever engaging. It is our justification for why we will not engage. We only want like-minds around us. All others: ostracized. What all of this means is that we should not be talking about the death of critical thinking. It isn’t a death. Unfortunately, it’s a suicide.