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Thinking for yourself

Thinking for yourself

Thinking for yourself, aka critical thinking. The willingness not to trust blindly but to investigate and reason to understand what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Depending on how we interpret this definition, his validity varies from “good heuristic” to “baffling nonsense.” Let’s start with a literal, rigid, strict interpretation.

They told me that Earth is round, that man has been on the moon, that the world is warming, that COVID-19 kills, and that the vaccine saves lives. But I am a critical thinker, so I suspend judgment and trust nothing until I do my research and understand what makes sense and what doesn’t.

They told me to keep a balanced diet and weight under control, that physical exercise lengthens your life, and that alcohol causes cancer, just like asbestos, cigarettes, and processed meat. But I am a critical thinker, so I suspend judgment and trust nothing until I do my research and understand what makes sense and what doesn’t.

They told me that tap water is safe to drink thanks to regulations that minimize risks and that there are some for food trade, medical procedures, and construction of cars, roads, buildings, and airplanes. But I am a critical thinker, so I suspend judgment and trust nothing until I do my research and understand what makes sense and what doesn’t.

However, in the meantime, I’m forced to move somewhere else, out of civilization and in the middle of wild nature, in exile, where I don’t have to trust anyone because there is no one.

A problem arises: I don’t know how to get there. At the moment, I’m immersed in civilization, and any action I can take would be based on trust in someone. Go down the stairs of the building? Take the car? Walk down the street? How do I know if it’s safe? I certainly cannot trust the billions of people who have helped define and create what is around me. I haven’t done my research.

But then, come to think of it, how should I go about conducting this research? Even if I chose to momentarily trust human means of communication (absurd!), how could I ever believe the words I read on websites, books, articles, or other informative material?

In a world where the interpretation is strict, I paralyze: I live in baffling nonsense.

Expanded critical thinking

This short hyperbole illustrates an ineluctable truth (at least as long as we keep the human form we are used to): the individual’s knowledge is immensely limited.

Given this limitation, it’s necessary to accept that big chunks of our lives will be firmly founded on trust in other people. I’ll have to trust who designed the building I live in. I’ll have to trust who built the trains on which I travel. I’ll have to trust who produced the food I eat. I’ll have to trust who approved the drugs I use. And I will have to do that not because I am a simpleton incapable of critical thinking but because I cannot do otherwise. Outside of the little sphere of what I know, I have to “delegate the knowledge” (cit). I will place my trust in those who have adequate experience on the subject in question.

In light of our depressing narrowness, let’s go back to the definition of “thinking for yourself” and see how to make it work as a good heuristic.

In our strict interpretation, we applied “critical thinking” stupidly, questioning all external information and only that. What happens if we go broader and challenge ourselves as well, particularly the approach by which we try to resolve doubts? Before asking myself if I can give credit to information, I must ask myself which process allows me to clarify this doubt.

The first path is the one we just followed: I can’t believe anything before conducting my research. We have seen this process does not work.

Another path goes in the opposite direction: I can believe everything without ever digging deep. It would be easy, but this path is not viable either: it contradicts the definition of “thinking for yourself.” If I trust blindly, I’m not thinking.

A third path lies somewhere between the two and involves starting with ourselves from the question: do I have the necessary competencies to reason about the subject and hope to reach sensible conclusions?

1. “No, and I don’t want to acquire them."

Unfortunately, this is the answer we are forced to give most frequently. There is not enough time to acquire all skills. Every person will devote their learning efforts to what they prefer to study. There’s nothing wrong. It’s inevitable.

When this is the answer, you have to delegate.

2. “No, but I want to acquire them."

This is when the competence falls within your study interests, so you are willing to put in the effort to acquire it.

Good! Go study and try again later.

Sometimes, however, you may have to make a choice before acquiring the knowledge. If — and hear me out for this is a wild example — there was a pandemic going on, you might have to decide whether to get vaccinated before studying immunology, virology, and the new mRNA techniques.

In the meantime, therefore, you’ll have to delegate.

3. “Yes, I do have adequate competencies."

Are you sure? Like, really sure? No, I’m serious, are you sure sure sure? Do you remember the Dunning-Kruger effect is a thing, right? If you’re not sure, try with a different answer.

If, on the other hand, you’re sure (and you’re not kidding yourself): excellent! You can finally proceed to evaluate the topic at hand because you have the basis for doing so.

Applying critical thinking to yourself is necessary to understand what your knowledge makes you able to reason about. Every discussion builds on this foundation.

Believing that you can express a valid opinion on everything means not only demonstrating arrogance and delusion but, above all, that you lack the critical thinking skill you claim to have. If I’m not educated about a topic, I can’t trust myself.

This, however, doesn’t mean trusting everyone. Delegating knowledge must be done with care. But we’ll talk about this another time.