Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Free Thinking is not the same as Critical Thinking.

The caffeine high continues...

I challenge the supposed dichotomy between "irreligious free-thinking" vs. "Christian indoctrination" that gets repeated here [rottentomatoes Da Vinci Code forum] so often. I propose that, formally, there is actually not much difference between people who classify themselves as either. Both "groups" admit of varying degrees of attachment to one or the other "orthodoxy," and both have all different degrees of critical thinkers. A few points:

First, it is important to distinguish between "critical thinking" and "freethinking." The former is a skill which is developed through training and practice; it involves the recognition of the structures and substance of arguments, avoidance of fallacies, making of distinctions, and the perception of patterns of thought, in order to aid in the pursuit of truth in matters large and small. The latter is a philosophical disposition toward truth exemplified by the Enlightenment, with slogans such as Kant's "Sapere Aude!" - "Dare to know!" (or sometimes, "Dare to think for yourself!"). Although freethinking is partially evident in ancient skeptical philosophies, modern freethinking takes its cues from varying degrees of rationalism (nothing can be known which is not absolutely grounded in pure reason), and deconstructionism ("truth" is ultimately an instrument of the Will to Power and has no higher existence).

Second, although being a Christian (hence accepting any number of beliefs based on authority) does preclude one from being a freethinker, it does not preclude one from being a critical thinker. Certainly everybody falls into fallacies from time to time. And moreover, there are backwards Christian sects which actively oppose critical thought. But critical thinking is a skill, not a belief; thus it does not necessarily attach itself to any particular belief or lack of belief. It is mere self-preening (not to mention demonstrating a great lack of life experience) to assume that the height of critical thought always necessarily tends towards one's own set of beliefs, whether that is Christianity or freethought.

Third, being a freethinker does not gaurantee that one is a critical thinker. It is this point which is most nefariously ignored by so many of the freethinkers I come across--but importantly, not all. It is only too easy nowadays for someone to build an entire worldview out of nothing but cheap slogans, of which "Dare to think for yourself!" is but one of many. Certainly any doofus can reject those authorities which are most obviously Empty Authorities, since religious leaders are unabashed in their expecation to be taken seriously by the faithful. But far rarer is the freethinker who prunes from his self-made worldview those Empty Authorities which are not so obvious... the ones that pat him on the back and congratulate him for being so independent, and then tell him what to think next. Should freethinkers not perform an "examination of conscience" and ask themselves why there is so much inner conformity amid their supposedly spontaneous and individual ranks?

Fourth, freethinking has its own orthodoxy. The tenets of freethinking militate against having a canon of literature, or the acceptance of dogmas based on faith. Still, the philosophical foundations of freethought lack much of the certainty with which freethinkers believe they know everything else that they know. The conflict between rationalism and deconstructionism in 20th century philosophy has left freethinkers confused as to whether they should be proclaiming special access to truth or the death of truth altogether (both of which DVC does with flourish). The only thing that they do know is that religious authorities are unequivocally banned from the game of knowledge--W.K. Clifford even said that if a revelation from God actually happened, we would be duty-bound to disbelieve it. But try as they might, the undeniable foundations for this freethinkers' doctrine are not forthcoming.

Fifth, historic Christianity has its own (legitimate!) diversity. A theologian once told me that the only thing you can count on theologians to do is to disagree with one another. This is not to say that Christian theology, root and branch, is just a lot of conflicting opinions (contrary to Dan Brown's definition). But just because Christians are more passionate about Truth with a capital 'T' than are your average agnostics, does not mean that all disagreement is heresy or that orthodoxy is a stagnant, dead object, inert to human reflection. Within the boundaries of orthodoxy there are always battles over the Next Big Issue--and until the end of time there will always be the Next Big Issue. Theologians will cross lines even as they are in the process of drawing them--but censure is usually reserved for those rare occasions when an individual threatens to undo the very fabric of the Church community. Even St. Augustine identified heresy more with the arrogance or self-serving purposes of the errant teacher than with the erroneous teaching itself. Dogmas or no, the Church would die without critical thinkers in her midst.

In conclusion, I wish freethinkers would be more polite.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

Jeffrey! Its bad enough that you have to disappear from the seminary during your internship, but now you leave me without a blog to turn to! I guess I'll have to go off and do some free thinking - heres hoping you come correct the errors of my ways...

- Jacob Maurer