“You can come to understand yourself, absolutely, but never, never with the frenzied eyes of the self, the self which is the mere unconscious oscillation between desire and fear. To really see, to actually discover something true and important, one must neither have a method nor a desired outcome when looking inside; there has to, and this should be obvious, a total freedom from all authority, external or internal, and a complete willingness to courageously face what one psychologically meets with. So the vital question is, how do we inquire, how do we reflect, how do you reason, how do we explore…without the corrupting influence of the self?”
Michael Bogild’s post about the corrupting influence of the self and the biases it unconsciously causes in enquiry show that impartial inquiry is difficult, if not impossible. When we says we should ‘neither have a method nor a desired outcome’, he seems to be talking about the highly partial, but unwitting, confirmation bias. When one looks for confirmation of hypothesis, the method and the hoped-for outcome will seem to lead to just that – the proof you wanted. For example, you are looking for evidence of the existence of ghosts and then through the lens of your camera you see a rising mist swirling with no clear source. Excitedly, you rush and show your friends your ‘proof’ and explain how and where you found it, when one of them shatters your great discovery by saying, ‘oops, sorry, should have extinguished my cigarette properly. I went for a smoke there earlier.’ A rational and innocent explanation, which your ‘quest’ blocked you from seeing.
But is it possible to enquire without bias? I was struck by the Socratic flavour of the passage and its similarity to a section in Plato’s Phaedo. In this dialogue, the relationship between body and soul is portrayed as an uneasy one. Our capacity for reason is how we draw out the innate knowledge of the soul, but the purity of our reasoning is scuppered by the body and its desires and appetites. The only way to achieve an unencumbered an enquiry as possible is to devote oneself to nurturing the soul, only permitting oneself the satisfaction of bodily pleasures that are necessary for survival (66b-e).
Bogild does not define the problem as a ‘body versus soul’ dichotomy. He is also describing the quest to understand oneself as opposed to discovering the truth about the just and the good like Socrates. But the striking similarity between the passages lies in the fact that enquiry without the muddying influence of other factors is extraordinarily difficult.
The observation has interesting implications for and raises interesting questions about education. How does one encourage critical thinking both of oneself and stimuli presented in class not only putting aside one’s own biases or preferences, but also making learners aware of theirs?
I remember addressing this question when hosting a critical thinking session in my second school. The session was on language and what triggers our response to particular words like spider, snow, tea, or snake. This last was particularly interesting. The question was simple: hands up, if your instant reaction is negative hands up, and then hands up if it’s positive. Only one person put a hand up to suggest not all associative reactions to the word ‘snake’ are bad. That was me. Now I am not saying go out and play with the first snake you meet and invite him/her to tea. I know they can be very dangerous. But my initial reaction was not ‘fear, run’. For a start, the presence of a serpent in my Maths teacher colleague’s classroom was very unlikely (unless it was an ADDer! Sorry!). Secondly, my response was also shaped by my interest in their symbolism in ancient societies: immortality and royalty in ancient Egypt; fertility, rebirth, and renewal in ancient Greece. However, the possession by many varieties of venom or their crushing strength, not to mention the Garden of Eden has not done little snakies’ reputation any good. Biases or should I say pre-existing influential factors shaped both responses, the negative, and the more positive.
How does this help us answer the question? Well, It may not be possible to do away with bias and preconception, but we can encourage reflection upon this problem and try and minimise it, by realising the powerful influence of such factors. Why have we come to that negative or positive reaction? My poor mother feels nauseous at the very sound of a particular song, because it was on the radio one day when yours truly was making her feel dreadful with morning sickness. She cannot listen to it but appreciates that it is not a bad song. This may seem like a trivial example. However, an aspect of this problem with bias in reflection is deciding one does not like something, or that something is not to one’s taste, but expressing one’s judgement in language that suggests the thing disliked is inherently bad or of poor quality. They are not the same things.
One exercise I always used to do was to ask what factors affect and inhibit good critical thinking. Once we had defined critical thinking, pupils then brainstormed what would affect the quality of applying our critical skills. After discussion of their ideas, they then each had to reflect and be very honest about where these issues might have adversely affected their own judgement. They were pleasingly (even brutally) candid. One example involved the pupil detesting a particular subject because of a bad experience, and thinking it useless, but then realising that the subject itself was not the problem, but the past experience.
I suppose one would call this ‘meta-critical thinking’, that is to say, critical thinking about critical thinking, reflecting on presuppositions and demolishing them.
Or, we could just call it ‘the Socratic method’.