How about a Liberal Definition of the Arts? Philosophy, Pluralism, and the Pandemic
Why do some people not care about facts? In the Digital Misinformation Age, critical thinking is often replaced with more immediate forms of gratification. In general, whether we like it or not, much of our behavior is unconsciously caused. Reward seeking behavior driven largely by the pleasure center of our brain provides one of the more common examples. This includes not only the most obvious cases, such as the search for food or sexual gratification, but also when we look for attention and social recognition. When we post on social media, it is the like, follow, or favorable comment that we seek. On top of that, there is the quickly and repeatably consumable entertainment many of us, myself included, regularly enjoy. Popular memes, our favorite shows, etc. are easy to get. All we need to do is click or swipe and they appear. These are examples of (largely dopamine-driven) feedback loops: seek, consume, enjoy, and repeat. You might be someone who spends too much of their time caught in many examples of these sorts of loops. Why did this happen?
It should come as no surprise that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. have sophisticated algorithms designed to promote reward seeking behavior on a mass scale. Advertisers have known for well over a century that promoting such behavior leads to massive profits, especially if you get to enough people early on in their cognitive development. (Think of all the toys and movies you were obsessed with as a kid.) It is very likely that an algorithm led you to this blog post. This was as predicted. If you can predict something, you can control it. That means there’s a good chance that a great deal of your behavior is more or less controlled by profit-driven algorithms.
Evolutionarily, we are hard-wired to become caught in largely dopamine-driven feedback loops because of their once prevalent advantages. Metabolizing the right amount of dopamine is a sign we’ve satisfied a certain desire, which in the now long-gone environment in which we evolved meant we were likely faring quite well. It also makes good biological sense to go with the metabolically cheapest version of a certain kind of successful behavior or bodily process. It’s good for metabolic business to cut costs when one can. Oftentimes, one should go with the quick and easy route, especially if it can help create some semblance of order amidst the real-world chaos. This biologically driven cost-saving measure helps to explain everything from how we evolved to visually process our surroundings, to why we do indeed tend to fall into our old habits. It may also help explain why we have various confirmation biases, why we tend to procrastinate, and much more. The biological benefit of such cost-saving is that we can devote our time and energy elsewhere. Since we don’t have to think about certain more or less automatic, relatively metabolically cheap habitual behaviors—walking, for example—we can devote our efforts to thinking more carefully about other things, such as where to walk. This means that critical thinking, if we would only use it, is in certain cases just another example of a luxury that we can buy from such savings.
But when it comes to the battle between, say, click-bait and better judgment, for many of us the former tends to win. If the reader is like me, then on the compulsiveness spectrum their clicking habits lie somewhere between those of the mindful Buddhist aware of every movement of the mouse and the narcissist who only wishes they could actually live through their social media presence. Critical thinking is one thing that can tell us when we’ve gone too far towards either end of this sort of spectrum. But, of course, whether we are likely to listen to what our better judgment tells us depends, in part, on where we already fall on that same spectrum. The unfortunate result is that if you don’t already happen to care enough about making critical thinking a part of your life, it can be very difficult to break out of the circle of your own bad habits. (That’s not to say everyone has the luxury of a choice here. More on that later.)
This makes education tricky. Merely getting someone to understand facts isn’t necessarily going to inform what they do. Perhaps schooling worked better in the past. In any case, it is clear now more than ever that facts do not necessarily matter to certain people. Logical, honest assessments of one’s own behavior and basic beliefs do not necessarily matter. These things arguably should matter to everyone, but whether they actually do depends upon who you are.
Lately, the situation has gotten worse. For as many of the current debates surrounding the pandemic have made clear, much of the country has clearly moved starkly and even quite abruptly in the opposite direction. Some people now even seem to value being overly conspiratorial, impulsive, and rebellious in the face of something they themselves should (and probably do, on some level) acknowledge is the result of good faith inquiry aimed at the truth. Not only do we now have an alarmingly large group of people in America who do not care enough about honest critical thinking, they consistently react vocally and even violently to its results. Reactions to truth, if not truth itself, have always been at least somewhat political; but rarely in a way that is so dangerous for so many.
Evolution has helped to make us this way. Dangerously so. That means it’s time to evolve.
Philosophy, Art, and Education
I’m a philosophy professor. In the broadest of terms, philosophy relates to all of this because critical thinking is essentially the philosophical method. We ought to have a culture that uses critical thinking more, and so we ought to have a culture that values philosophy more. This is not just me griping. It is something that many people already recognize. As a result of the take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards facts, built on the cost-saving instincts I’ve already outlined, many people can and do know what philosophy is, but just do not care enough about it to practice it. Consider some of the most consequential questions you can ask: What is the purpose of your life? What is the most thoughtful way for you to act towards others? What is the fairest way to organize your society? Lately, and increasingly, devoting time to thinking about the answers to these sorts of questions is treated as if it is less important than acting in ways that help Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos fine-tune their algorithms.
Difficult things like philosophy are relatively easy to ignore in favor of quick consumption. In certain cases, the one who ignores them makes themselves feel better about doing so, after the fact, by trivializing or misrepresenting what they find so difficult. This is the easy way out. Sound familiar? Finally, there are plenty of folks who see the value of quiet contemplation, and who would indeed take time to consider important questions about how they should think and act, but who lack even one free hour a day to devote to doing so.
The above is, of course, itself an oversimplified (easy) way of understanding current American attitudes towards the discipline I devote my life to studying. But I think it works well enough. If this is right, then since critical thinking is its method, making critical thinking matter more amounts to making philosophy matter more (and many other disciplines—I’m just speaking about the one I know). We just need to break out of the circle of our own bad habits.
As it turns out, philosophy can help itself here greatly. Human behavior is complicated. But philosophy can handle such complexity better than other disciplines, perhaps, because it is by its very nature multidisciplinary. If you go back far enough, philosophers provided the pioneering insights for many of the disciplines currently taken seriously (or not so much) in Western culture—physics, psychology, biology, mathematics, political science, aesthetics, computer science, and much more.
If we want to figure out how to incorporate critical thinking into our culture, we need critical thinking (philosophy) itself, because we need a nimble-minded, evidence-driven way to assimilate contributions from the aforementioned disciplines, as well as from Eastern, feminist, African, Islamic, Indigenous American and Latinx thought, among many other sources.
This calls for an approach to inquiry that is unapologetically value laden. We can and should characterize critical thinking as a form of creative expression. If nothing else, the ugliness that sometimes results when people “make use of their right to express their opinion” reveals that thought is art. Many people certainly can physically and (in our society) lawfully say more or less what they want, and the suggestion here is not to stifle freedom of expression. Quite the opposite. I’d call instead for incorporating a larger variety of human expression, this time in the service of finding the truth and addressing any and all of our current social problems. Critical thinking (philosophy) can rein things in throughout this exploration, because it can allow us to assess any proposed solutions in a way that doesn’t foolishly treat all contributions as equally valuable just because we are all equally capable of speaking (or tweeting). We need to stop confusing neutrality for objectivity, and philosophy can help.
If thought and action are forms of artistic expression, then philosophy, artistically understood, should lie at the foundation of thought. The best role for critical thinking is one that treats the insights of different disciplines as much like the paint found on an artist’s palette. The vast array of human knowledge that has been gained over the past two millennia can provide us with what we need, and then some. By being pluralistic about our sources for knowledge (and by democratizing inquiry accordingly) we can expose blind spots in our own thinking. This can allow a sincere individual to enact their own personal transformation, a process which amounts to one of the most beautiful works of art there is to behold.
Facts will certainly matter then.
Philosophy, Pluralism, and the Pandemic
Pluralistic, multidisciplinary thinking can allow us to see the pandemic through a variety of lenses, and lead to an effective multi-pronged approach to addressing it. The biologically-reinforced tendency towards simplicity translates into the desire for quick solutions. Yes, we need a vaccine. But if the aim is to figure out how to address pandemics (including the next one that will inevitably come along) we need to assimilate attaining a vaccine with a diagnosis of why many in our culture apparently believe things will simply go back to normal after we get one. Things won’t go back to normal because that is not how things work. And they shouldn’t!
To move forward, we should instead make use of all the paints found on our palette. We should pursue a vaccine while also trying to understand the precise role it should play in the broader attempt to address some of the deeper societal problems that are now all too apparent. This includes but certainly is not limited to those that have exacerbated the effects of the pandemic lately. This might involve attempting to normalize social distancing and other mitigation efforts (mask up), enacting a broad-ranging, coordinated and compassionate government response (vote), improving media literacy (turn off the phone for a while and make your own algorithm) and much more.
Human behavior is a complex tapestry made up of a variety of different threads of causation. You can look at why you do what you do from a psychological, historical, political or deeply personal perspective, where each of these ways of examining matters have their own methodology for figuring out why things happened, what their overall significance is, and what one can do to change things for the better. Philosophy, both in higher education and outside of it, is what can and should unite them all in a good faith attempt to evolve past our now apparent—all too apparent—ugliness. It’s time to embrace a liberal definition of the arts.