We Should Be More Critical…

… in our thinking. While loath to say that in the current environment, and think we second-guess ourselves in unhealthy ways, am referring to a different type.

Whatever first brings my employers (clients) to my office- relationship problems, depression, anxiety, addiction, low self esteem, “stress”, anger etc…, I would argue that it’s really four things: they want to be happy, have a sense of self worth, have a relationship with another person, “succeed” in the environment/community around them. For all the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attachment theory, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt, existentialism, psychoanalysis, client-centered-solution-oriented-short-term-evidence-based-practices employed by the therapist or improvised efforts on the part of the client, critical thinking can go a long way toward the wants/issues above. Critical thinking is an organized set of principles, and tools, that should be used as ways of knowing and problem-solving things.

When confronted with a problem, we tend to throw “will” (some kind of effort that is nothing more than improvisation) and/or thinking at it. That thinking tends to show up without use of actual critical thinking skills. Worse, these efforts are usually based on a tacit approval of both the cause of, and solution to a problem. There is a term for this in both philosophy and psychology: naive realism. More simply, we tend to identify causes and solve problems based on whatever arrives in our consciousness, without examination. As a default we treat our anger as righteous, our hurts as immediate and “true”, etc., though experience tells us we are usually “wrong” as often as we are “right”. This is a very poor foundation upon which to build problem-solving methods of any kind, let alone imposition of will and intellect. There is a whole discipline of philosophy dedicated to how we actually know things called “epistemology”, to which we arguably owe credit for the tools below.

In addition to will and intellect, there’s clearly other means to solve problems- asking for help, being honest/taking a risk about something, not intervening at all (something that’s really difficult for a lot of us), compassion, waiting/being patient, making amends, setting a boundary, “softening up” (as opposed to resisting, building up defenses, etc), educating ourselves about the problem and more – but these rarely get to see the light of day when it comes to our sorrows because of naive realism. Some problems that arise in therapy stay unresolved too due to critical thinking errors that we call “cognitive distortions”. A different way to begin problem solving is to have the tools of critical thinking at our disposal.

Few of us are taught critical thinking skills “proper”. These are specific skills/principles, and there’s methods for their use. Unfortunately, we’re not really taught what they are – even if we’re encouraged to use them. Our schools, family constellations, churches, therapy offices may suggest them, but there’s little attention on giving them consistent names, defining them, or employing their use. Though addressing how to employ them is beyond one blog, as a start, I’ll offer some important/fundamental ones that are almost universally accepted in science and philosophy:

  1. Review and clarification of goals/”answers”/desired outcomes
  2. Defining relevant terms
  3. Asking “higher quality questions”
  4. Awareness of underlying emotions related to evidence and conclusions, application of the skills above (and more) to those emotions
  5. Skepticism
  6. Avoiding oversimplification or overgeneralization
  7. Identifying and “unpacking” assumptions or premises of assertions
  8. Consideration of types of evidence upon which conclusions are based
  9. Review and critique of conclusions from evidence
  10. Consideration of alternative interpretations of evidence
  11. “Peer review”

There’s more ideas, and more technical means of critical thinking thanks to philosophers, but won’t labor those here.  Here are a few examples of “cognitive distortions”:

1.  Absolutizing (sometimes called “all or nothing thinking”, this creates or perpetuates a lot of relationship conflicts by way of asserting something “never” and/or “always” happens)

2.  “Mind reading” or “fortune telling” (making assumptions about people’s thinking or future behavior)

3.  Emotional reasoning (“I feel __________ so it must be true.”, an example of naive realism – these show up for example as “righteous anger”, low self worth, fears, etc)

4.  Mental filter (“cherry picking” evidence- though 9 things were done correctly, one was done incorrectly, the incorrect item is what’s focused on)

5.  Catastrophizing

6.  Solipsism (seeing things only from one’s own perspective)

7.  Perfectionism (both with self, and others)

8.  Fudging on efforts to change now, in favor of believing plans to “do differently/better later”

9. False equivalence (seeing/arguing that two things are somehow equal, that are not)

10. “Ad hominem” arguments: because __________ (a specific person said it), it is incorrect . . . this works both ways – that because __________ (a specific person said it), it must be correct (often called “appeal or argument from authority“)

11. My favorite of late – mistaking an interpretation or inference for a fact

Again, there’s more of these too. Others might be added, though they’re not always thought of as critical thinking errors or cognitive distortions in therapy circles. Beliefs about the ability to change others (sometimes calling it “influence”), awareness of powerlessness over a situation but endeavoring to manage or control it anyway, doing the same thing more than once and expecting different results… all might be additional examples.

Critical thinking though, can often be an antidote for cognitive distortions and a method for solving problems. Without principles or tools for doing so, we’re just burning calories (and few, at that). Or, as I often refer to clients “wasting cycles” (like a computer chip). A couple more examples: when feeling “low self esteem” (or as I prefer, “shame”) or anger, it might be helpful to “examine the evidence”. Are there current facts in hand, that are evidence I should feel “less than”? When ashamed or angry, many of us assume or treat their feelings in and of themselves as truth (like the “naive realism” mentioned above) … often finding out later there was little or no reason to do so. Many conflicts arise because a speaker or receiver make little (or no) effort to define or examine what they (or someone else) is trying to say, or because we have very different ways we’re defining a word or situation.

Regardless of what kinds of problems we’re assailed with, these critical thinking tools (and others) are very useful. It doesn’t seem to matter if these are problems of relationships with ourselves, relationships with others, or “Earthbound” problems (cars, money, weather, gadgets breaking…)- critical thinking tools are always necessary to employ, and are often quicker/more effective than our usual styles of solving problems.

There are quite a few fantastic resources for critical thinking, great people in our time that are doing important work in this way. Some of these people books are linked below.

The “industry standard” ideas and examples for philosophers is the “Delphi Report on Critical Thinking”

Daniel Dennett (Professor of Philosophy at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts): a recent work, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking”

Morgan D. Jones (former CIA analyst): “The Thinker’s Toolkit”

Christopher W. DiCarlo (Philosopher of Science and Ethics, Harvard and elsewhere): “How To Become A Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”

Peter Boghossian (Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University): part of the “Skepticism 101” resources at the Skeptics Society, Peter’s “Knowledge, Value, and Rationality” syllabus.

Winnie think

Sheldon Kopp

You may remember being a kid, and having someone suggest you write an essay about the person who influenced you most.  With the exception of a musician or two, the person that is likely that for me is Sheldon Kopp.  I was given his most famous book “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients” by my then “mentor”, when I was 17.  It’s really a book about principles, an organized way to live our lives and deal with Things As They Are.

He’s written something in the way of 18 books, died a while ago not of the brain tumor he had (that required removal 3 times), but of heart failure and pneumonia.  Having heard a rumor about his death, I looked him up on the internet once, and sent an email to a similarly named person, hoping I might find him or learn of his passing.  Essentially my note stated that this was a person who had been extremely influential and helpful in my life, and I wanted to know if it might be him.  I was lucky enough to get a response, that made it clear it was actually him: “Yes Petar, I too have heard rumors of my untimely demise, but I find them unconvincing.”

In “Buddha”, as became customary in many of his books, at the end was included ideas that he considered truths, or principles.  This was the most famous of them, called, “An Eschatological Laundry List: a Partial List of 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths.”  Many of the ideas here have guided me in everything from my own emotional and “spiritual” work, work with my clients.  People that have suffered all of the things here that I’m trying to diminish for as many people as possible- depression, stress, relationship issues, abuse, loss and grief, addiction, self esteem issues and the like.  Hopefully, they will give you as much as they’ve given me, inspire you to read his books, and of the greatest importance: give you a ways and means of passing the ideas on to others.  Would love to hear what you think of them.  And to the “Truths”…

1. This is it!
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there’s no place else to go.
4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
5. Nothing lasts.
6. There is no way of getting all you want.
7. You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
8. You only get to keep what you give away.
9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
13. You don’t really control anything.
14. You can’t make anyone love you.
15. No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
16. Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
17. There are no great men.
18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
19. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
20. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
21. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
22. Progress is an illusion.
23. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
24. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.
25. Childhood is a nightmare.
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of -yourself -cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
27. Each of us is ultimately alone.
28. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
30. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.
31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
32. We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
35. No excuses will be accepted.
36. You can run, but you can’t hide.
37. It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
38. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
39. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
40. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
41. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only to face the consequences.
42. What do you know . . . for sure . . . anyway?
43. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again. . . .

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