The other day I came across an article that highlighted Carl Sagan’s critical thinking toolkit. Being very familiar with Carl Sagan, I knew what this was, but simultaneously, I was in a debate with some people promoting pseudoscience. This caused me to realize the profound importance that is thinking critically and applying the scientific method to our problems instead of relying on faith and/or baseless intuition.
So I asked myself, What is the most important piece of knowledge that every human being should understand?
I started to think… there’s a lot of vague (but important) motto’s like ‘Never give up‘ or ‘always follow your dreams‘ that are very valuable pieces of information. Perhaps a more practical piece of information would have a larger effect such as the knowledge of economics or a basic understanding of every human language.
A few people I talked with mentioned the elimination of ego. To me, this seemed to trump the previous suggestions. I wondered what the effect of eliminating the ego would have on the economy. Is an accumulation of wealth a degree of ego? Perhaps not.
I wanted to find an answer that was not vague, that was practical, and would give humanity a toolkit to succeed. Naturally, the next question I asked myself was what’s wrong in the world, or of more relation to the original question, If you could rid the world of one thing, what would that thing be?
Immediately I thought of money or poverty. Well, poverty is due to the scarcity that money represents and in today’s world, we have enough resources to end poverty, so money trumps poverty. However, eliminating money would not necessarily end violence, diseases, and other notable enemies of society. Eliminating money would not be the end of crime or give humanity the instruments necessary to achieve greatness.
After surveying a number of people based on this question, the answers that received the most votes were ignorance and hate. A friend of mine notably suggested suffering. I was impressed by these three choices.
Suffering acts like an umbrella term that holds poverty, pain, disease (in some way), hate, ignorance (in some respects), and other lesser notable things (such as receiving a sunburn), all within it. This almost felt like cheating the game. One could make an argument that anything bad would be eliminated by this suggestion. Upon thinking about it, I wondered if in a world without suffering, would happiness exist? I’m not a student of philosophy, but I understand that without evil, how does one define good? Similarly, without suffering, what is pleasure? If we were to drop this battle of yin and yang, what kind of consequences would that leave us with? Is some suffering desirable so that we can feel pleasure?
As someone who enjoys sports and running, the suffering that is pain is often a great motivator feel me. When I run a great distance, I always remind myself to not give up no matter what struggle is in my way. The feeling of that slight pain reminds me that what I am doing is working on myself.
There may be no greater joy for me than to work on a challenging problem for many hours, only to find the solution. The feeling of working hard, struggling, only to realize that the answer I was searching for has been accomplished is a great joy and a stimulating feeling that keeps me going.
The existence of the ‘pain fetish’ crowd seems to affirm that some suffering, if not mandatory, is desirable.
Hate seemed to be a highly logical choice. Eliminating hate would surely prevent an enormous amount of crimes and make society much more enjoyable for everyone. I wondered if the elimination of hate would lead to a passive society. Would the truth win out if every conversation ended with “I respect your opinion.”
The same philosophical question also arose, without hate would there be such a thing as love? If one does not know hate, can they truly know love? Another philosophical dead end on my part led me to look towards other answers to this question.
Lastly, I pondered the argument for ignorance to be eliminated. This was the answer that I resonated with the most. What would this mean? If we were talking complete ignorance, that seems to imply super-humans that have knowledge over everything. Where does the element of ignorance begin and end? Some boundaries had to be defined. Ignorance, in this case, could not be defined as not knowing what your roommates were up to last night or being unable to understand another person’s experiences. Ignorance had to be defined as that which we do not know in the practical world we live in through our own existence. Perhaps this is quite the jump I am making, and a good argument could be made to define the bounds of suffering in this same manner. Unfortunately, this opens up a sea of troubles regarding definitions, but my initial goal was not to find something to eliminate, but rather to brainstorm on the very worst things this society offers and I considered this thought process a success.
Now armed with the ideas on what I want to rid the world of, I return to the original question of “What is the most important piece of knowledge that every human being should understand?”
Thinking back to the opening of this post, Carl Sagan gave us a pretty wonderful tool kit on critical thinking:
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the dataequally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
If every human being understood these nine ‘tools’ how would the world change? Well, certainly ignorance would decrease. Suffering and hate would likely decrease as well but perhaps more indirectly. I felt like I was going in the right direction with this, but wanted to be more practical and general, as this list was directed towards critical thinking.
I recalled my earlier post on the scientific method. “YES,” I thought, this was it. The scientific method would give people a practical way to approach nearly every single problem in an effective and proper way.
This would end the baseless faiths that plague society and exponentiate the process of science. With this tool, everyone would be able to connect via a scientific understanding. Language would be the only barrier around the world, and even that would be limited as science can speak through our weak languages. Disagreements would be ended only when the evidence dictated a verdict and everybody would then agree. Experiments and research would be governed honorably in the pursuit of what is the truth and not what is the individual’s opinion. The scientific method would be a dagger in the heart of ignorance everywhere.
Feel free to share your answers to these interesting questions.