Monday, December 5, 2011

The Importance of Doubt

In my last post, I explained why I don't think anyone can claim to have absolute knowledge and why I think science represents the most accurate and reliable view of reality. In this post, I examine how the belief in absolute human knowledge can impair critical thinking.

The Importance of Doubt

As I explained in my last post, I don't think anyone can claim to have absolute knowledge; our biological limitations, previous experiences, and biases distort our perception of reality. But we have to develop a way of thinking to understand the world, and those ways of thinking become our beliefs. For example, I base my understanding of the world on scientific ideology because, as I also explained in my last post, science represents the most accurate and reliable way of understanding reality that we know of. And science bases its reasoning on critical thinking and empirical evidence.

Critical thinking requires doubt about the accuracy of our perception of reality, even doubt about science. Economist Deirdre McCloskey expresses this relativistic worldview when she reminds us that “scientists are human speakers,” and even Nobel prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr once said that physics is not about reality itself but “what we humans can say about the physical world” (qtd. in McCloskey 186). If we doubt the accuracy of our perception of reality and become willing to evaluate our beliefs, we can recognize how they influence the way we understand--and interact with--the world.

But the belief in absolute human knowledge discourages critical thinking because it discourages doubt. People who believe they have absolute knowledge subsequently believe in the accuracy and infallibility of their perception of reality. A prime example of this is the scene in Bill Maher's Religulous in which the truck driver states, "I know there's a god. You can't change my mind. Nobody can change my mind." People who believe they have absolute, perfect knowledge have no incentive to question their beliefs, and this disincentive impairs critical thinking.

I can see why many people resist critical thinking. First, it is mentally draining. Listening to and evaluating arguments, putting aside biases, tolerating the discomfort of uncertainty, and changing beliefs requires “considerable mental activity” (Browne and Freeman 308, Mason 346). Second, critical thinking threatens to destabilize our sense of identity: People shape their identity around their beliefs, so threats to the stability of their perceived reality also threatens their identity (qtd. in Gorzelsky 74-5). So, people often resist questioning their beliefs to protect themselves from losing control of their existing psychological structures. Self-analysis takes courage.

The Influence of Absolutism on Moral Development and Ethical Behavior

Why should we care if people refuse to question their beliefs? Because people act upon their beliefs, and doing so ultimately influences the rest of society. People who reject critical thinking prevent themselves from evaluating their beliefs, protecting themselves from manipulation, recognizing their own potential for change, and understanding alternative beliefs. For example, a lack of understanding about alternative beliefs affects society when the individual votes on public policies.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, encourages behavior that generally benefits society:

  • It allows individuals to protect themselves from coercion by learning how to  identify false or deceptive claims within their belief structures (Browne and Freeman 307).
  • It encourages individuals to consider alternative beliefs and the contexts (cultural, political, religious) in which those beliefs are embedded—what Janette Ryan and Kam Louie call a “meta-cultural awareness” (Mason 345). This awareness encourages tolerance instead of “egocentric and sociocentric thinking” (Mason 341).
  • It shows that people can change their beliefs and behavior, despite the fatalistic assumption that people exist in a “static state of being” rather than a “dynamic state of change,” an assumption that “denies and undermines a person’s potential for change and insists that a person forever remain handicapped by past views and actions” (Parker 85). This abillity to change encourages compassion instead of resentment.

Critical thinking benefits society, but it depends on doubt. If we protect others from the discomfort of doubt (e.g., by avoiding disagreements), we ultimately do them--and ourselves--a disservice.

Work Cited

Browne, M. Neil, and Kari Freeman. “Distinguishing Features of Critical Thinking Classrooms.” Teaching in Higher Education 5.3 (2000): 301-309. Web.
Gorzelsky, Gwen. “Working Boundaries: From Student Resistance to Student Agency.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): 64-84. Web.
Mason, Mark. “Critical Thinking and Learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 39.4 (2007): 339-349. Web.
McCloskey, Deirdre Nansen. “The Rhetoric of the Economy and the Polity.” Annual Review of Political Science 14.1 (2011): 181-199. Web.
Parker, Douglas H. “Rhetoric, Ethics and Manipulation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 5.2 (1972): 69-87. Web.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Nature of Human Knowledge

As represented by their gestures, Plato (left) pursued
absolutism while Aristotle (right) pursued empiricism.
I disagree with Plato on the nature of human knowledge. Plato believed in a “transcendent truth,” an absolute knowledge that already exists in our “divine souls” (“Plato” 81). I don't, and here's why.

Biological and Technological Limitations

Absolute knowledge requires a reality that exists independently of us. But I don’t think we can ever know for sure whether or not we are perceiving a reality separate from us.

First, our biological constraints (e.g., eyesight, mental health, etc.) limit the information we perceive. For example, humans have a limited range of hearing that prevents us from detecting sounds above or below certain frequencies, and colorblind individuals cannot detect certain colors. These biological constraints prevent us from perceiving all available information. And even a mentally and physically flawless individual couldn’t process all available information every second of the day, at least not at this stage of our brain’s evolution.

Second, once our biological constraints filter the available information, our previous experiences and biases affect how we then process and interpret that information. This process further distorts the completeness and accuracy of the information. When a huge wolf spider ran across the inside of my windshield last year while I was driving home, my arachnophobia filtered out just about everything but the spider. I didn’t know which lane I was in or if there were cars around me; I just saw the spider inches in front on my face while I couldn't move.

In addition to biological constraints, Robert Scott asserts in his essay “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemology” that only infinity contains truth, since it also contains all experiences and possibilities. So, our finite experience prevents us from gaining absolute knowledge through infinite possibilities (136).

To be fair, an objective reality might exist beyond our perception, and our perceptions might align perfectly with that reality. But we cannot know for sure that we can perceive that reality, and if we cannot know for sure, then we cannot know whether or not we have absolute knowledge.

The Nature of Scientific Knowledge

If we cannot perceive a reality independent of our limitations, then even scientific theories supported by empirical evidence cannot represent absolute knowledge. Scientists, too, have constraints that influence the completeness and accuracy of the information they perceive and interpret. And although most scientists strive to remain objective, dominant social structures like the government often distort research via the incentives created by funding certain types of research and stating specific goals.

For example, a 2005 study in Nature revealed that 33% of the several thousand respondents funded by the NIH admitted to engaging in at least one of the top ten behaviors during the previous three years, including:

·        Falsifying data
·        Ignoring major aspects of human-subject requirements
·        Plagiarizing
·        Failing to present data that contradicted the scientist’s previous research
·        Overlooking others’ use of flawed data
·        Changing the design or results of a study in response to a funding source’s pressure (Martinson et al.).

Science cannot produce absolute knowledge when the human elements of science distort information.

Having said this, science as a discipline does bring us as close to absolute knowledge as we can get by combining collaborative inquiry, instruments that expand the scope of our observation and analysis, and self-correction. The reality created by science represents the most accurate reality we can perceive, given our biological constraints.


Thank you JT for giving me feedback on this topic!


Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. “Plato.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Second ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. Print. 80-138.
Martinson, Brian C., Melissa S. Anderson, and Raymond de Vries. “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Nature 435 (2005): 737-738. Web. 3 November 2011.
Scott, Robert L. “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic.” Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. NY: Guilford Press, 1989. Print. 131-139.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


"No law or ordinance is mightier than understanding." ~Plato

Plato and I agree on this claim, although we disagree about the nature of human knowledge. I created this blog to discuss how scientific knowledge influences society.

This is my logic:
  • Our knowledge shapes our perception of reality and therefore our actions.
  • Science provides the most reliable information about reality and can therefore best guide our actions.
  • To address how such information shapes our understanding of reality and thus our actions, I examine how aspects of several disciplines (e.g., biology, psychology, economics, communication) influence our thoughts and behavior.

I haven't kept a blog for a long time. I had the same Xanga for almost ten years until a friend from Xanga named JT Eberhard suggested Blogspot and helped me pick a name. JT is also the Campus Organizer for the Secular Student Alliance... Thank you, JT!

I want to maintain this blog while finishing my last year of grad school, and when I don't have time to write a new post, I'll use an essay I wrote for a class. I'm not 100% sure about the name "Utopian Science," so if you think of suggestions, feel free to comment.