Friday, May 22, 2015

2014 resolution: To think more critically

What is it about a new year that prompts us to make resolutions? What grounds or justifies this annual pastime beyond empty traditionalism and wishful thinking?

Just think about it, what really makes the last day of 2013 drastically different from the first day of 2014 to warrant resolutions? Try making sense of the difference between any two successive days beyond our conventional name change and day-related routines without mumbling “well, aahm, you see, I, I, my, my...”

The future is uncertain and puzzling, and each of us is largely unpredictable in terms of behaviour. Desire is not the same as ability to perform, so what’s the real value of resolutions for a new year as opposed to any other day’s resolutions?

One thing I would hope we all resolve to do for life is to think about issues more critically; that is to apply the basic principles of logic in any argument we are advancing.

Mental laziness and sloppy thinking are too widespread in our society, and they are embarrassing when found in the output of educated folk.

Since the word argument may suggest a quarrel or verbal fight to some, let me say what I mean by argument. I am talking about “a set of reasons or evidence (premises) in support of a conclusion,” orally or in writing (Thus, Anthony Weston, A Rulebook for Arguments, 3rd edition, 2000, xi). Put differently, in an argument, one makes a claim then provides evidence in support of the claim.

It is not good enough to assert something (especially that which is doubtful or debatable) and not provide the evidence in support of that something.

There are several points that should guide one in preparing an argument, but I plan to emphasise just one, which is too often disregarded here and elsewhere.

The one point I wish to highlight is this: Use arguments from authority carefully.

Sources should be cited, and you should use only informed, impartial sources.

I tell my students not to use or be unduly swayed by umbrella statements like “everybody knows that” or “all scholars agree”. Not all ‘experts’ are worthy of the name, and a specialist in one area of thought is not necessarily useful in a different area of thought.

Take the example of Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist, when he says in his God Delusion book at Page 122 that a serious historical case can be made out that Jesus never lived at all, and cites Professor G A Wells of London University as one making such a case, his argument flounders on weak authority. Professor Wells is not a historian, reputable or otherwise, but an Emeritus Professor of German! Dawkins was perhaps too arrogant or indolent to consult even a fellow Oxford scholar like Christopher Tuckett, author of the Cambridge University textbook on the historical Jesus. And these guys expect to be taken seriously when they seem unaware of the basic point that academic expertise and authority reside only in one’s field(s) of specialisation.

Another example is Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s greatest living physicist. Hawking, in his latest book The Grand Design, says “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing... Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to...set the universe going.” (Page 180). This statement is frankly nice-sounding nonsense, philosophically and even scientifically.

Hawking, by his statement, concedes that the universe is not eternal—a fact verified by the latest research in astrophysics—but then he makes a juvenile mistake, philosophically, by treating the universe at once, as both cause and effect in the statement “...the universe can and will create itself...”

As I hammer home to my students in philosophy and apologetics, a self-created/caused being or entity is a contradiction in terms. It gets worse for Hawking with the addition to that statement of the words “from nothing...” Philosophy, science and common sense experience all testify that nothing comes without the intervention of a personal mind and will.

Hawking may have no equal on earth in theoretical physics, but he is no authority in metaphysics or in philosophical thought.

So, if we must make resolutions, let’s determine to improve our critical-thinking skills this year and always steer clear of bogus authority figures.

—Jamaica Observer