Sunday, 28 September 2014

Why dialectical methods are important to cultivating critical thinking skills

As an amateur philosopher I'm a firm believer in striving for excellence, and (though some of my readers would be hard-pressed to believe) clarity and elegance of thought. When I first read Socrates' insistence on beauty and goodness as final arbiters of truth, something stirred deep within me: something that compelled me to look beyond the sometimes frustrating lines of questioning that Socrates employed to challenge his interlocutors to dig deeper than their presumptions and assumptions.

It was not (particular) conclusions and certainty (nor was it striking down his students) he sought but goodness and beauty that is inherent in G*d's creation that is immediately obvious to anyone who'd but reflect upon it. -In his less guarded moments he betrays his belief in a monotheistic G*d, and, right to the end, tries to emulate that beauty, goodness, humility and integrity in all that he does.

The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. (

If Socrates had any "enemies" it was the so-called sophists who—like the modern day militant right-wing demagogues (religious and political)—were teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain or impress or persuade an audience to accept the speaker's point of view. Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching which came to be called the Socratic method. (ibid)

At the heart of Socrates' method is the notion of aporia (usually translated as "doubt") which seems to have reached its maturity in Aristotle's works:

In Aristotle's Metaphysics aporia plays a role in his method of inquiry. In contrast [my emphasis] to a rationalist inquiry that begins from a priori principles, or an empiricist inquiry that begins from a tabula rasa, he begins the Metaphysics by surveying the various aporiai that exist, drawing in particular on what puzzled his predecessors: "with a view to the science we are seeking [i.e., metaphysics], it is necessary that we should first review the things about which we need, from the outset, to be puzzled" (995a24). (

Doubt, then, is not a concept—as employed by Socrates—merely to flummox (ie, to perplex and confuse) the interlocutor into silence and frustration but prods them to further seek to clarify and rationally defend their positions (as far as possible) rather than fall back into dogma, prejudice and unexamined chauvinism.

To paraphrase Nicholas Rescher: assertions stemming from certainty have a way of coming back and biting us because taken in isolation that which is utterly believable is often (psychologically and socially) untenable in light of even our own prototypical (ie, unexamined) notions of justice and equity.

The Harper Government and the Tea Party movement in the US, being "rock[s] standing out in an ocean of doubt and compromise" (to quote Roger Waters), seem especially prone to dissonance and spectacular failures of consistency with their own espoused political and ideological principles:

Harper's vitriolic public statements on Putin and the need for imposing economic sanctions on Russia are demonstrably inconsistent with the exceptions he's quietly but unilateral defined for the oil and gas industries of Russia; China and communism were once evil, and, though communism is still evil, China is economically important never mind that its state-owned corporations are its chosen vehicles for trade: Harper's foreign policy has always been about not "going along to get along" but recently he's become seemingly committed to using the Canadian military to fight ISIL while at the same time de-emphasizing the opposition parties' desire for Canada's expressed role in providing humanitarian aid to the internally-displaced and the ever-growing refugee crisis in the Middle East.

As a younger me, I was always so quick to display false intellectual bravado and always had such "strong and certain" political and philosophical positions on anything and everything. Though I still revert back into that certainty at times, I have begun to realize that there is only humble pie to eat, and realize as well that it is there for a simple reason that it is the only spiritually and intellectually nourishing fare.*

There are other forms of dialectical methods. Hegelian dialectics, for example, seem more advanced and sophisticated than the Socratic method but I'll leave that for my readers to explore. It is the basic principles of dialectical method I want to outline here, one based on intellectual honesty and humility that formed and informed the method.


*for those interested in the notion of humility and grace of G*d, I'd recommend highly, Humility by Andrew Murray (

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Why must Stephen Harper go?

The phraseology of the title is intentional. I could have said, Why Stephen Harper must go, but would have taken out all the fun of being mean. You know me; I like putting on the Nixonian charm especially when it comes to someone so Nixon-like.

I chose a question (an earnest, child-like one) because this blog entry is directed at the apparently simple-minded base—ie, anti-intellectual, crotchety, and utterly certain of how right they are (the kind relatives nervously laugh and make excuses for when they say something racist and/or misogynistic). Why must Stephen Harper go?

Stephen Harper, the person, doesn't inspire much fear in anyone really. Outside the system of political machine built around him, he'd be sadly laughable because there is a real disconnect between his person and the vitriol that issues out of his mouth at his personal (current) pet peeves—I put parenthetic "current" because he came out hating China and communism when he was in opposition and now, clearly, he fawns over them and their super-duper rich state-owned oil companies and morally-questionable Chinese digital technologies giants. I guess he had a talking to by his financiers and put on a short leash to his political minders (snotty kids in short pants, to quote his once strongest media mouth piece).

Do I take Stephen Harper as a joke? Yes and no. He's as serious as an aggressive form of a rare stomach cancer (is that overkill?). He is like Dubya who ran an oil company his father gave him to the ground; like him in so many ways. Harper inherited a government that has always been in relative good standing and credibility among Canadians and the world, and now its legislative powers are falling apart. Seems everything he touches turns to poop.

But I digress.

In this digital age of instantaneous global communications (he's actually good at managing messaging, I'll give him that) all of his negative personality characteristics are amplified. The "master strategist"; the "history buff"; the "political predator"; the "best Prime Minister" Canada's ever had (and, by implication, Canada will ever have—doesn't it start to sound a bit like he's Putin light?)...these are all carefully crafted (but poorly cultivated) epithets of the man. There's a epithet for every politically advantageous happening.

They are also signs of narcissism (perhaps once dormant like in most of us) that is spiraling out of control. In this digital communications age, it has become not only a mere narcissism but co-narcissism with his legion of paid and unpaid media trolls.

I came across this passage in Wikipedia entry on co-dependency that seems to fit this novel phenomenon in Canadian politics:

Narcissists, with their ability to "get others to buy into their vision and help them make it a reality," are natural magnets for the "'co-dependent' ... [with] the tendency to put others' need before their own". Sam Vaknin considered that codependents, as "the Watsons of this world, 'provide the narcissist with an obsequious, unthreatening audience ... the perfect backdrop.'" Among the reciprocally locking interactions of the pair, are the way "the narcissist has an overpowering need to feel important and special, and the co-dependent has a strong need to help others feel that way. ... The narcissist overdoes self-caring and demands it from others, while the co-dependent underdoes or may even do almost no self-caring."

In psychoanalytic terms, according to the great Robert Victor, the narcissist "who manifests such 'omnipotent' behaviour and who seems to be especially 'independent' exerts an especially fascinating effect on all ... dependent persons ... [who] struggle to participate in the 'omnipotent' narcissist's power": narcissist and codependent "participate together in a form of an ego-defense system called projective identification."

Scary and sadly creepy. And all so true of Harper and the base. Why must Stephen Harper go? Because we're all on a path no one in their right mind wants to go.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

One size fits most

I attended a professional development workshop recently where the concept of Occam's Razor was used kind of out of context by the facilitator—not to bad mouth the professionalism of the facilitator whose credentials (at least the number of years of teaching) are without question. His misapplication of the concept got me thinking about what I call the one-size-fits-most principle. It's kind of related to Occam's Razor but it also looks at the other "solutions" that are filtered out by the Razor.

Occam's Razor is "a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better." (Wikipedia)

There is a somewhat Darwinian aspect to the one-size-fits-most concept with a dash of cybernetics thrown in. In the new Cosmos: a spacetime odyssey TV series the host (Neil deGrasse Tyson) explains what climate is in relation to weather by an illustration of him walking his dog. He (representing climate) walks in a relatively straight line while the dog on a leash (representing weather) zig-zags about sniffing and exploring the owner's chosen path.

The expressed intent on reclamation of other "solutions"whatever they may be—are the zig-zags and the straight path put together. In other words, the one-size-fits-most principle is the interplay between the owner and the dog (ie, highly well-defined constraining principles that allow freedom for both the owner and the dog to deviate slightly while maintaining the integrity of the path).

I suspect this notion applies to most if not all natural systems. It takes out the value-ridden (mis)interpretation of Darwinism (ethnocentrism par excellence), and attempts to regain some level of intellectual honesty in the descriptors—honesty that inevitably gets lost in the process of unchecked rationalization/idealization in the scientific and philosophical discourse (especially prevalent in the ontological and epistemological branches of philosophy).

In the one-size-fits-most world the notion of the-survival-of-the-fittest (though certainly a part of the description) is incomplete and inadequate in every sense of the word. Applied in sociological terms, the-survival-of-the-fittest goes completely off the path and its perversity renders it unsustainable and unviable (ie, it leaves the natural world for the artificial and disingenuous realms of ideology and dogma).

In its crudest forms, the current Prime Minister of Canada is a perfect example of the survival-of-the-fittest mindset. Among his unforgivable Burkean political rhetoric and social engineering impulses, he maintains to anyone who'd listen and print his lie that he does not drink alcohol even as countless images of him drinking beer and wine and champagne attest contrary-wise. I choose him merely out of convenience and am largely indifferent really to whether he drinks sometimes or not.

The one-size-fits-most concept is not a methodology of providing clear binary solutions/answers but is rather more like a surveying instrument that describes a landscape and seeks the whys and wherefores of suitability of descriptors for this and that. Insofar as it is a process of reflection and contemplation, it is in the spirit of Einstein's "biggest blunder" and the fecund mathematical mind of Gauss who came up with so many different proofs of Pythagorean Theorem that he lost interest.

There is an intellectual/scholarly movement afoot—a long time coming—that is beginning to find purchase in the halls of learning. For example, the wonderfully generous and insightful (nay, Tao-like) comprehensive take on anthropology of Dr Eduardo Kohn vis. How Forests Think (2013) and the compassionate and honestly human take on sociological discourse of Dr Margaret Lisa Stevenson, and the likewise remarkable scholarly works of Karla J Williamson, Timothy B Leduc and Jean L Briggs (among many others more) all have some aspect of the one-size-fits-most bent. *a note of disclaimer: my interpretation of these scholars' works may be erroneous; these misinterpretations are entirely my own. My apologies to these fine scholars.


Saturday, 6 September 2014

"necessary and sufficient conditions"

When I hear people say they are workaholics I can't help but think "please...". I'm not averse to hard work and I have really well-developed powers of concentration that, over the many years, have become second-nature to me. I just love playing around with ideas and thinking and trying to apply ideas to work is really not what I'd consider "working". Not having much physicality I respect those who can actually do real, sustained hard work.

I know someone, whom I have great affection for, who is actually committed to her work and who always make a conscientious effort to make sure that others down the line aren't left hanging. But I've never heard her say that she's a workaholic. I respect that.

In my many years of thinking I've come to realize that quantity has nothing much to do with it but quality. One of the tricks I have learned in critical thinking skills is the oft-used phrase in mathematics: "Does it (a proposition/idea/concept) meet the necessary and sufficient conditions to contribute meaningfully to a given discourse?" I call this type of ability to think dialectics-on-the-fly.

In the movie, I, Robot, the exchanges between Detective Spooner and Dr. Lanning (who has died and is now a holographic image) epitomize the "necessary and sufficient" phraseology:

Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws are perfect.
Detective Del Spooner: Then why would you build a robot that could function without them?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Del Spooner: What? What outcome?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: Revolution.
Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: That, Detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

Answers are not provided because it is the questions that are important (or, the correct formulations of questioning are because they tend to have a life of their own). When the Spooner character asks a wrong type of question the Lanning hologram only responds by saying, "I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right question".

Critical thinking is like groping one's way through a dark room: the obstacles are there for a reason because the lay-out of the room is just so and no malice is ever intended. Insights, then, take on almost spiritual dimensions once the vista opens up. Critical thinking is addictive that way. It prods inexorably to a productive path.

There is something substantive about a liberal arts education.