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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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The Nature of Reality

If you were the only sentient being in this universe, you probably would never become aware of the discrepancy between your worldview and reality-as-it-is. Of course there would be perceptual mistakes, as when the cool oasis in the distance turns out to be only a mirage. But these would amount to minor illusions. Over time you would carry forward your lessons and make the necessary adjustments.

The term “reality” is used pretty loosely, even today when the discrepancy between our personal worlds and what they are meant to represent is finally acknowledged – at least by some. This acknowledgement is one of the marks of our postmodern mind. Human beings are meaning-makers, and the closed webs of meaning that we create – individually and together as cultures – are the worlds we inhabit.

Even one of my conversation partners for this round uses “reality” in reference to our individual and cultural constructions – as in you have your reality and I have mine. Personally I prefer the term “world” when speaking of these constructs of human language, perspective, and meaning. Especially on the level where such constructs serve as more global habitats of meaning.

This saves “reality” as the way things really are, apart from and beyond our constructs. You have your world, I have mine; but there’s still something outside our boxes, so to speak. Besides being fantasies conjured out of the creative nothingness of our imaginations, at least part of our world is meant as a representation of the way things really are. Even if we’re wildly off base – which is probably the case at least some of the time – there remains the present mystery of reality.

Just because we (mis)take our constructions or representations for the way things really are doesn’t mean we should be content to persist in that delusion. If I am fully convinced that the end of history will be crashing in at any moment, this is not my reality. Even as I take it with all seriousness, sell my possessions and abandon civilization for refuge in the desert, reality is what it is. There have been countless examples where delusional prophets were forced to apologize to their followers and review their calculations the following day.

So we live inside worlds of our own making. These worlds may be fairly reliable representations of the way things really are, but they also serve as shelters against the unknown. A happy and productive life would likely be impossible if we had to figure out everything from scratch upon waking each morning. Meaning provides a sense of security.

But this relationship between meaning and security isn’t exactly reciprocal, in that more security doesn’t always support a more meaningful life. In fact, as we lock ourselves up inside our personal and cultural worlds, grateful for what is familiar, stable and certain, the air in there quickly goes stale. Because meaning seems to be a function of relevance, reference and transcendence, it is diminished to the degree that our awareness shrinks to the dimensions of our mental boxes. Smaller boxes feel more secure, but they are less meaningful.

The authors I will be reading and reflecting on are definitely “outside the box,” as we say.

DeMello

Anthony De Mello (Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, 1990) was a Jesuit priest whose life and writings were a lively dialogue with Oriental spirituality. Based on retreat talks he gave on mindfulness, freedom and happiness, this book takes a humorous yet revolutionary tour through what it means to be truly aware.

 

Anderson

 

Walter Truett Anderson (Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, 1990) wrote one of the definitive popular guides to postmodernism. In that book, he helps us become more self-consciously aware of our role as creators of the worlds we inhabit. The relationship of our brain to language, and of the constructs of language to the perennial question of truth are considered.

Robinson

 

John A.T. Robinson (Truth is Two-Eyed, 1979) was the DeanĀ  of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He challenged current thought on matters of theology, especially the way Christian orthodoxy has made god into an article of doctrine and forgotten God as spiritual Presence. The “two eyes” in Robinson’s title represent Oriental and Western approaches to truth.

 

I can already imagine a conversation among these three, where De Mello investigates the inner-psychological groundwork of awareness, Anderson interrogates the constructions of reality that spring up from there, and Robinson explores how very different world-constructions can challenge and enrich each other in healthy dialogue.

Throughout my reading and reflections on passages from these authors, I want to carry forward from my previous Conversations the insight that reality is a present mystery. However we frame it up, whatever filters we use to make it useful to our needs, the nature of reality is such that it is both within us as the ground of our being and beyond us as the universe to which we belong.

You are invited to join the conversation as well. Read along with me and share your insights by leaving comments along the way.

 

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