Sharpening Critical Thinking in the Post-Truth Era
By Didi Ananda Devapriya
This political cartoon, published
by Martin Shovel on Twitter on
Dec. 10, 2016 sums up the current
quandary. Given this context, as
Neohumanist educators, the need
to educate ourselves and our
children in the skills of critical
thinking is essential.
In 2016, the word “post-truth” was declared the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, as it was being utilized with increasing frequency in mainstream culture, especially in reference to the US presidential elections and Brexit. The definition they gave is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. There is an amusing element of irony in this, as it seems to imply that there was indeed a time when the mass media was free of manipulating public opinion with such tactics. However, it is indeed quite disturbing that in recent years, there is so little regard to providing even a semblance of truth, and that there is increasingly blatant use of lies, manipulation and deceit by world leaders. This seems to demonstrate an arrogant disdain towards the intelligence of the populace, and unfortunately to some extent, they appear to get away with even the most obvious and flagrant logical fallacies with a surprisingly large percentage of the population.
Politicization of climate change
The politicization of climate change is an example of this. Despite scientific consensus based on data analysis, certain politicians are more interested in what their voting base thinks about an issue than the actual facts. A tweet posted on November 6, 2012, by Donald Trump read, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” About this type of thinking, in an interview with LiveScience, climate scientist Leiserowitz was quoted as saying, “It’s the trend that I find in some ways the most disturbing, because in the end, the climate system doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. It’s not like the floods are only going to hit Democrats and not Republicans or that the droughts are going to impact liberal farmers and not conservative ones. In the end, we all will suffer together and in the end, we’ll all have to solve this together.” i
Polarization leads to deep change
Yet, perhaps precisely because the rhetoric has become so extremely distorted that it seems to be caricaturized, the manipulation has become obvious for even the politically complacent. In the 1969 discourse “Nuclear Revolution”, when explaining the dynamics of revolution in society, Shrii P.R. Sarkar discussed increasing polarization in society as a necessary prerequisite for deep “nuclear” societal change. The positive potential of such polarization is that it can shake people out of their comfort zones of complacency or despondency and stimulate active participation in change.
The mind’s three types of movement
Indeed, appealing to sentiments rather than reason makes sense on a certain level. Sentiments are fueled by emotional energy and are a powerful motivational force behind human behavior. Yet emotional energy, like other forms of energy, is a blind force in itself, and thus emotions and sentiments on their own are not reliable guides to action.
According to Shrii P.R. Sarkarii, the mind has three types of movement:
- instincts, which are blind, automatic reactions beyond conscious thought
- sentiments, in which the mind runs towards what it likes and avoids what it doesn’t like—in this state there is great speed of movement
- discrimination, which requires analysis and accessing intuition and conscience, a much slower process than sentiment or instinct.
While instincts can be reined in by moral values, the raw, powerful energy of sentiments can be harnessed and guided by critical thinking, conscience and benevolence. When this happens, it can transform blind sentiments into a powerful, rational force for positive social change.
How does critical thinking relate to Neohumanist education?
As Neohumanist education is the practical application of the philosophy of Neohumanism to the field of education, it is essential for all Neohumanist educators to be extremely well-versed in this small book, The Liberation of Intellect, that Shrii P.R. Sarkar wrote in 1982. This is the seminal work of Neohumanist philosophy and, while not directly related to education, it lays a clear foundation for understanding the philosophical underpinnings of NHE.
The focus of that volume is expressed in the title “The Liberation of Intellect”. In order to liberate the intellect, we must have a clear understanding of its bondages. What holds back the mind from attaining its complete expression of divine unconditional love and connection with all beings? Shrii P.R. Sarkar explores three different types of bondage in depth: geo-sentiments, socio-sentiments and cynicism. In addition to a detailed analysis of the causes of these bondages, Shrii P.R. Sarkar also provides instruments for overcoming their limiting and distorting influence.
The bondage of geo-sentiments
The first type of bondage, geo-sentiments, is quite straightforward to understand. This is the natural bias towards the physical place that you consider to be your home. Such sentiments may encompass a village, a city, a state, or a nation, or all of the above in varying degrees. Geo-sentiments are generated by attachment to a particular geographical place and, if left unquestioned, can eventually evoke feelings of superiority or inferiority. Yet, it is natural and even important for healthy human psychology to have a “sense of place” in order to fulfill the legitimate need for belongingness, as well as fostering an authentic connection to tradition, history and culture. However, human history is darkened by chronicles of conquest, war, colonization, exploitation and enslavement, all rooted in geo-sentiments such as nationalism, communalism, etc.
The bondage of socio-sentiments
Socio-sentiments are the second form of bondage, and are similar in many ways to geo-sentiments, except that they are related to identifying with a particular group that is not necessarily confined to a particular geographical region. Religious affiliation is one common example of a type of socio-sentiment, as a religious group may have adherents in many countries. Identification with one’s race, or considering those of other skin colors as inferior is an example of another type of socio-sentiment that can transcend geographic borders. Similarly, a sentiment of solidarity with one’s own gender is a socio-sentiment. whSexism is its negative manifestation. Again, while socio-sentiments can fulfill important and legitimate human needs for belonging, one must remain alert for the potential negative side of socio-sentiments that can lead to situations of discrimination or exploitation of members of the “out-group”.
The antidote to geo- and socio-sentiments
As mentioned earlier, Shrii P.R. Sarkar not only describes and defines the different types of bondage, but also offers practical ways to overcome them. In the case of geo-sentiments, Shrii P.R. Sarkar indicates that rationalistic mentality is the antidote to the poisonous effects of geo-sentiment.
Rationalistic vs. Rational
It can be useful to first deconstruct his intentional usage of the word “rationalistic” rather than the word “rational”. Rationalistic is the adjective derived from the word “rationalist”, which according to the Oxford dictionary refers to “a person who bases their opinions and actions on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.” The word “rational” on the other hand is defined as “based on or in accordance with logic” and can be used interchangeably with the word “logical.” The word rationalistic has deeper significance that connects it to a broad philosophical orientation. Rationalist thinkers include a wide variety of philosophers, from Plato to Descartes to Noam Chomsky to Shrii P.R. Sarkar, even though their schools of philosophy are quite diverse. What they share in common is the belief in innate knowledge, in contrast to empiricists who do not believe that knowledge is innate, but is rather only derived from sensorial experience. iii For example, the concept of universal truth is rooted in rationalism, but would not be accepted by an empiricist, even though both schools of thought use systems of logical, rational analysis. So in Neohumanism, Shrii P.R. Sarkar’s precise choice of words would seem to point to the need to not only derive knowledge from empirical, sensorial sources, but also to connect it to an inner source of knowledge, which he refers to as the intuition. Developing an intuitive clarity on “cardinal human values” and using them as a navigational compass is a key component of rationalistic mentality.
Study: the first stage
The first stage in Neohumanism of developing rationalistic mentality is study. Study, in this case, means to gather information from all angles in order to increase understanding. Study includes, but is not limited to, reading books, attending lectures, writing essays and conducting research. In addition, study can include more non-formal learning experiences, such as intercultural dialogue and exchange, which lead to a more balanced view of one’s homeland in relation to the wider world. P.R. Sarkar also included in study not only the study of objective facts and happenings, but also the assimilation of spiritual wisdom teachings, as they help to refine and clarify our innate, intuitive wisdom.
An ancient Sanskrit verse, quoted by P.R. Sarkar says:
“O clever human being, if you want to be a fool, give up studying. If you want to be a sinner, avoid feelings of sympathy for others. If you want just to live a peaceful life and never be disturbed, then keep silentiv …”
Intensive analysis: the second stage
The second stage in Neohumanism of developing rationalistic mentality is “intensive analysis” in which both sides of an issue are explored in depth. At this stage, it is also necessary to become aware of certain logical fallacies, or errors in logic that can lead to faulty conclusions, as demonstrated in this example of a “false syllogism”: 1 is a number, 2 is a number, therefore 1=2.
Educating young children to recognize flawed logic
It is possible to start training children in recognizing false logic in early childhood. There was an episode of the famous American children’s television show, “Sesame Street”, in which the character Ernie is seen holding a banana to his ear. When his friend Bert asks him why he is holding a banana to his ear, Ernie replies that he is using the banana to keep the alligators away. The exasperated Bert reminds him that there are no alligators on Sesame Street, to which Ernie replies, “Right—it’s doing a great job isn’t it!” This is an example of the classic logical fallacy called “false cause”, yet it’s presented in a funny, playful, child-friendly way. In a similar way, other logical fallacies can be presented to children in the form of a creative story or even a joke that deliberately exaggerates the flawed way of thinking so that it will be easier to identify. The children’s own thinking can then be stimulated through open-ended questions that help kids to develop confidence in their own rationality.
Engaging youth in critical reflection
As children mature into adolescents, involving them in critical reflection on current events in the media offers an abundance of opportunities to detect and discuss logical fallacies, cognitive biases and other forms of manipulation present in the mass media and advertising. As highlighted in Jesse Richardson’s TedTalk “How to think, not what to think”v, there is a crucial need to re-orient our educational system away from content assimilation and towards developing the meta-skills of critical thinking, reflection and analysis. There is now an abundance of information literally available at our fingertips, which is why content driven education is quickly becoming obsolete. Children need training in discernment to be able to detect the differences between reliable and unreliable, manipulated sources of information, as well as being able to exercise applying their values to the decision-making process.
Indeed, the dramatic swing in recent years towards reactionary populist views that threaten to undermine decades of progress in cultivating greater awareness and acceptance of diversity prove how vulnerable populations are to faulty logic that appeals to and harnesses popular opinions, suspicions and prejudices. The seductiveness of such tactics is that they tend to simplify complexity, as well as confirm existing biases.
This underscores the need for Neohumanist educators to develop programs and processes that can train children, youth and adults in systematic, critical thinking rooted in core human values. Such programs are needed not only in Neohumanist institutions, but also in the public education system, where they can have the widest impact.
Applying critical reflection to conspiracy theories
While cultivating critical reflection and skepticism, it is also important to proactively address the appeal of conspiracy theories, which can be particularly attractive to youth who are in the process of questioning the status quo and seeking identity, status and belonging. Conspiracy theories, which also often call into question mainstream views, and look for evidence of media manipulation must be distinguished from healthy critical reflection and skepticism by assisting students to recognize the serious defects in reasoning and logic that they contain.
For example, there is a surprisingly large internet following for a particular theory which asserts that the earth is indeed flat, despites hundreds of years of observational evidence to the contrary. As with many such conspiracy theories, if subscribers to this point of view are presented various contradictory facts, such as photos from space, they will claim that such photos are the result of a complex conspiracy of the space agencies to fool the unwitting public. Other evidence, such as travelling by airplane around the globe, are similarly dismissed with claims that there are elaborate plots to control the flight patterns to make it appear that you are travelling around the globe when actually you are travelling in a loop. This type of argumentation suffers from a serious flaw called “confirmation bias”, in which the person accepts only the facts that support a pre-existing belief and rejects any other evidence that would disprove their assumption. This leads to a situation of circular logic, in direct opposition to scientific enquiry, which actually encourages the seeking out of disconfirming evidence.vi
While conspiracy theories attempt to simulate certain aspects of critical thinking, such as being willing to challenge commonly held assumptions, the same skepticism and critical thinking is not rigorously applied to the theory itself.
This is not to say that all conspiracy theories are entirely false. Many times, as Noam Chomsky indicated in an interviewvii, what is being observed and interpreted as conspiracy are simply the mundane functions of institutions and their strategic planning, which indeed happens behind closed doors and is focused on maximizing the self-interest of that particular institution. In an example that Chomsky gives, recognizing that GM is maximizing profit doesn’t mean you have discovered a conspiracy–rather, that is logical analysis.
Cynicism: the third type of bondage
As mentioned earlier, there are three different types of bondage that limit the natural expansion of the intellect and heart towards its fullest expression of compassion and connection to all beings. Cynicism is another type of bondage, according to Shrii P.R. Sarkar. He refers to cynicism as an “extroversial movement of the mind”, in the sense that it leads the mind away from realizing the innate divinity and goodness that are the true essence of all. One of the symptoms of a conspiracy theory is that it tends to attribute a grandiose level of coordination, power and complexity to unseen forces. If there were indeed an entity capable of that level of complex synchronicity of events, it would be the Divine conspiracy to lead all beings towards liberation! Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, as they are fueled by a generalized mistrust and suspiciousness of anything from conventional sources, feed the bondage of cynicism.
Applying Neohumanism’s “intensive analysis”, on the other hand, requires examining the reason, purpose, assumptions, facts, consequences, alternate viewpoints and personal biases before choosing to take action on a particular issue. Obviously, such a process is much more time consuming than arriving at a convenient snap judgment thanks to sentiments, or a cynical prejudice.
The role of intuition
However, so far, both of the tools we have discussed, study and analysis, are derived solely from the intellectual layer, or manomaya kośa, of the mind. In order to achieve wisdom, Shrii P.R. Sarkar encourages us to cultivate “viveka”, which comes from a much deeper, more intuitive layer of the mind. Viveka means judgement and discrimination between “proper and improper” and selection of the proper path.viii It is the layer of conscience and, most importantly, unlike skepticism or cynicism, cultivating vivek creates an introversial movement of the mind that leads us to connect with a perennial source of inspiration within. It increases our ability to connect to the inner source of guidance. In this way, we develop our ability to discern “satya”, or truth. Cynicism, in contrast, does not recognize that source, but rather only sees and judges things from a limited, materialistic viewpoint and tends to lead to an indulgence in prejudice and bias rather than considering an issue in the light of values.
Analysis paralysis vs. dynamic action-oriented thinking
However, Shrii P.R. Sarkar did not intend to encourage “analysis paralysis”, where an issue becomes so over-analyzed on the intellectual level that one gets lost in relativity. Rather, he encouraged thinking that leads to dynamic action instead of the endless labyrinth of what he refers to as “intellectual extravaganza.”
Developing awakened conscience
This brings us to the third stage of cultivating a rationalistic mentality, which Shrii P.R. Sarkar calls “Blissful or non-Blissful Auxiliary”. Shrii P.R. Sarkar prefers to coin new words in order to express specific new ideas in a precise way that may at first seem hard to penetrate. Yet, auxiliary simply means “helping force.”
So in order to achieve what Shrii P.R. Sarkar refers to as “awakened conscience,” which is the fullest expression of rationalistic mentality, he offers us a helpful guide. This is to consider whether a particular idea or decision would contribute or not to the welfare of all (blissful or non-blissful). There is a lot of resonance between the use of this “blissful or non-blissful auxiliary” and the application of the principles of “earth care, people care and fair share” in permaculture within design and decision-making processes. In order to create a more ecologically abundant and sustainable world, decisions must take into consideration not only our own personal welfare, but must consider the impact on other beings and the environment itself.
What motivates human behavior?
To reach this third stage, we must have a clear understanding of the two main motivating forces driving human behavior: the principle of selfish pleasure vs. the principle of collective welfare. In the “Liberation of Intellect”, P.R. Sarkar uses the Sanskrit terms atma “sukha tattva” vs. “samsamaja tattva”. Samsamaja tattva, or the principle of collective welfare, is based on a deep empathic connection with other beings. It recognizes that all are derived from the same essence. When this principle becomes a firm conviction—or as Shrii P.R. Sarkar says, “when people understand this principle from the core of their hearts, they spontaneously develop proto-spiritualistic mentality, proto-spiritualistic psychic structure.” ix
Once again, Shrii P.R. Sarkar presents us with an unfamiliar term in order to elucidate a new concept in a precise way. “Proto” means putting something first, recognizing it as basic or fundamental. So when the psychic structure, or mind, is orientated towards spirituality, and this orientation is prioritized in decision making, one has developed a “proto-spiritualistic psychic structure.” It is important to mention that the spiritual orientation referred to in this terminology is not just an intellectual conviction, but rather the result of personal spiritual realization through the practice of connecting to the inherent divine essence within. Indeed, a deep personal realization of our interconnectedness with other beings is the ultimate solution to all artificial divisions and sentiments. Once grounded in a proto-spiritualistic mentality, one has a firm ground to stand upon to challenge all of the three types of bondage: geo-sentiments, socio-sentiments and cynicism.
In order to achieve a Neohumanist society, we need to vigilantly cultivate rationalistic mentality through the three steps mentioned above: study, intensive analysis, and the application of the “blissful or non-blissful auxiliary”.
As Shrii P.R. Sarkar says:
Those who move along this path make their lives glorious and effulgent, and their sweet radiance illumines and glorifies all other minds in this harmonious universe. In that state, whatever they come in contact with in the world, they will be able to distinguish the pure gold from the impure, the true from the false. On these people alone can all of humanity rely. Their victory is assured.
i Stefanie Pappas, How Climate Science Became Politicized, Aug 2, 2012, LiveScience https://www.livescience.com/22069-polarization-climate-science.html
ii PR. Sarkar, Chapter 3, “Geosentiment” Liberation of Intellect, 1982
iii David Yount, “Empiricism vs Rationalism”, 2013: http://www.mesacc.edu/~davpy35701/text/empm-v-ratm.html
iv P.R. Sarkar, Chapter 2 “Bondages and Solutions”, Liberation of Intellect, 1982
v Jesse Richardson, “How to think, not what to think” TedTalkx Brisbane Oct 17, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0w2KJLxCgr4
vi Jason Tanz, “Why you can never argue with a conspiracy theorist”, Wired Website, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kJp8as4fE4
vii Noam Chomsky on Conspiracy theories and the JFK, RFK & MLK assassinations https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50MqHnoDEts
viii P.R. Sarkar, Chapter 9, “Awakened Conscience”, Liberation of Intellect, 1982
ix P.R. Sarkar, Chapter 2, “Bondages and Solutions”, Liberation of Intellect, 1982
x the last quote is also from P.R. Sarkar, Chapter 2, “Bondages and Solutions”, Liberation of Intellect, 1982