Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 2 Scientific or Critical Thought

Scientific or Critical Thought

In Part 1 of this series we considered observation and common sense as activities of reason. Now we will examine critical or scientific thought. Critical thought takes up where observation and common sense end. Whereas common sense keeps the focus on things in relation to us, scientific thought aims to understand things in relation to other things. Critical thinkers stand outside the relations they are considering and look at the world objectively, as if they did not exist as bodies or subjects but as pure thought. The goal of scientific thinking is to see things as they really are in themselves, undistorted by our perspectives, needs and desires. (This way of viewing things has been examined critically by Thomas Nagel in his book The View from Nowhere.)

Critical reason grasps logical, causal, mathematical, temporal, spatial and other relationships among things. Logic is the study of the different types of relationships possible among concepts or propositions. Natural science studies causal relationships among existing things in nature whereby one thing provides a partial explanation for the coming into being or functioning of another. Hermeneutics studies the internal relationships among the meaning units in texts to discover their meaning. And, of course, there are many other sciences and critical studies.

In performing its task scientific or critical reason engages in three types of operation: analysis, synthesis and criticism. In analysis we break apart a complex thing (a plant, an atom, a written text) into lesser and lesser systems until we are satisfied or until it is impractical to go further. By grasping how these systems are constructed from smaller systems and finally how each contributes to the existence, qualities and functioning of the object of study, we gain insight into the complex whole.

We also engage in synthesis. As reasoning beings, we are not limited to analyzing what is given in nature or history. We can imagine other systems of relationships that do not exist at present. By taking the principles of how things relate to other things in nature we can reconfigure them into things useful to us: houses, cars, spaceships, lasers, and many more.

Criticism does not apply to natural objects. We bring criticism to bear on human artifacts—texts, theories, machines, art. Effective criticism presupposes observation, analysis and understanding. It evaluates a product in light of normative principles, such as logical consistency, communally accepted beliefs, esthetic or ethical norms or practical values such as efficiency and cost effectiveness. It is important to differentiate rational criticism from objections based on distaste, bias, self-interest or unacknowledged theories or ideologies. Rational criticism is disciplined, honest and clear about the norms by which it judges; it adheres to the rules of logic, causality and fairness.

Most people believe that the world continues to exist even when we are not observing or using it. A human being in thinking scientifically or critically attempts to understand the interrelationships among things in the world as they would be even if no human beings existed. You can see why some writers (e.g. Kierkegaard and Nagel) accuse scientific thinkers—especially those who contend that scientific thought is the only avenue to knowledge—of self-deception and self-contradiction. On the one hand, scientific/critical thinkers recognize that inserting the human relationship to our account of things, as common sense does, distorts our knowledge of the object of study. On the other hand, they think they can devise methods of observation and structures of thought that bypass or compensate for the human factor. But such a project is completely impossible; we cannot escape from our existence into pure thought or from our relatedness to the things into absolute knowledge. To be continued…

Part 3 will consider introspection.

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