I attended Autonomy’s critical thinking course on June 7th, 2021 as part of the offerings of the University of Reason. I found the course to be interesting and certainly useful for many people, however, being a critical thinker myself, I had some criticism for the trivium method itself, and for the content of the course. After the course I discussed my feedback with Lisa Manfredi, and she encouraged me to record my feedback in a video and share it with Autonomy’s community, so here it is.
I believe Autonomy’s community does not need me to emphasize the benefits of the course and the method, that’s why I need to clarify that what I will say is not meant to be negative towards the course, the method, or the autonomy program in any way. I am trying to come up with ideas to improve the course, and to expose the community to the limitations of the method, and to other critical thinking methods that can be helpful.
A critical thinking course about a certain method for critical thinking should include advantages and disadvantages of the method. The course did not mention any disadvantages or limitations of the method. I will come back to this in a minute.
Then the course did not compare the method with any other critical thinking method. A more open-minded approach would be to focus on a certain method, but to educate students that there are other methods, and give students the chance to investigate further.
This leads me to a personal point, when I see somebody promoting “the method” in this way, I wonder whether this person is religious about his method. There is nothing wrong about being religious. I admire religious people who say they are religious, but I can’t say the same about people who act in a religious way and claim otherwise. To understand my point I invite you to do the following exercise: transcribe the course, replace “the method” with “the bible” and ask a catholic for feedback on the text.
Another point of improvement is to mention other popular learning methods that do not encourage critical thinking. In the last part of the course you could add a few minutes about the emotional learning method “Something happens, people interact with it via their senses, then understand it by telling themselves a story, that generates some feelings inside each one, depending on the story, and they remember the experience and act on it.” Another popular learning method is the weaponized narrative method, where people get the story with the event from somebody else, most probably the media, and they “learn” it as it is presented. Those are examples of popular methods that many people apply, and as a critical thinker you immediately notice that there is no logic involved in the “learning process”. Another popular method is the structured learning method, where people assume the existence of a certain structure, and then use or abuse the logic to prove that structure exists inside the input they got. Using this method people can find virtually anything inside any input, and come up with completely opposing results from the same input. Does that remind you of political rhetoric? Using this method, some people can find a conspiracy in anything, while other people can find a conspiracy theory in anything as well.
I believe that mentioning these popular learning methods would highlight the value of using logic as a method, and help people avoid the pitfalls of non-logic based learning methods.
Now let’s talk about the method itself. This method is based on the “deduction” reasoning method. In deduction, you start with what you know, you use logic to learn something new from it. While logic is clear and has a well structured process, or algorithm. The starting point is not always clear and can be vague or possibly wrong. That happens even in mathematics. If you want to start with what you know, try to ask yourself how do you know what you know? Do you logically know what you know, or you are just assuming? Therefore, the result of your learning depends on the quality of your input, and if your input is wrong, and you accept it, then there is no guarantee that the method will help you learn something true.
Another limitation is the principle of uncertainty, which can be formulated in many ways, and my favorite is “You cannot know the state of a system without changing that system”. This means that if you conduct an experiment to make sure that your input is valid, then you need to remember that the results of your experiment are not valid all the time, the results were valid at the moment of the measurement, but they might be invalid by the time you read the measurement. This applies in physics and in many other domains, including in personal relationships. For example, If 10 consecutive experiments prove that somebody is nice to you, can you learn that he will be nice to you always. Remember this when you make a first impression, or last impression, about somebody or something.
There are learning methods based on induction, where you start with an assumption, and try to see whether that assumption can always lead to valid results. In this case you can use the assumption until it is proved wrong. There are a few induction based methods, some are very popular in physics and in complex problem solving, and we use them a lot in software development as well. Induction based methods also have disadvantages and limitations. The most obvious criticism for them is the problem of the turkey. If repeated experiments for 1000 days prove everyday to the turkey that the farmer is a very nice person and cares for its health and well being, can the turkey learn that the farmer would be nice to him on thanksgiving day?
My critical thinking was influenced by a few great minds, at 17 I learnt deduction from “In the search for beauty” by Smilga, then I read “The evolution of Physics” where I followed Einstein's induction based reasoning as he proved and disproved physical theories. At 20 I read Richard Feynman’s lectures, and learnt skepticism from one of Heisenberg’s books. So I built my reasoning around the scientific method and understood when to use deduction and induction. My mind was turned upside down when I read “the Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. His criticism for the scientific method made me realize that I was religious about the scientific method without knowing it for more than a decade. I can tell you that I did not like the way I felt at that time, but it was a huge revelation and I needed it. Anyway, these books can be useful and fun to read at the same time.
My feedback for the autonomy community is open for discussion, As I am not a member of your community yet, I welcome your comments and discussions on my website.
By caring about critical thinking and practicing it in your daily lives, you make a huge service to yourselves and your small communities, and while immediate results can be hard to measure, they are incremental by nature, and one day you will look back and see that each one of you has built a personal legacy by simply thinking critically.
Happy critical thinking from the unweb developer.