Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Social construction and critical thought

I will boldly assert: every belief held by every person is in one way or another socially constructed: either the belief is directly held causally because it was told to the believer by one or more other people, or it was indirectly socially constructed, formed by observation and experience substantially resting on directly socially constructed beliefs.

Commenter Ben Finney remarks: "I think we have to work hard, and persistently, not only to learn critical thinking (and teach others to do so) but to reinforce habits of critical thinking, precisely because they're counter to our nature." Ben's point isn't bad, but I don't think it hits the bulls eye. I suspect that Ben is confusing the social construction of beliefs with critical thought. If my bold assertion is correct, then critical thinking itself is either socially constructed or — if social construction and critical thought are antithetical — critical thinking is impossible, at least with our present cognitive equipment.

Assuming my bold assertion is correct, and assuming that critical thinking is compatible with (and established by) social construction, what kind of story can we tell about social construction, critical thinking and early childhood cognitive development?

Ben notes plausibly that "Young children demonstrate a massive tendency to believe whatever claims are spoken to them." (Young Children Hear It to Believe It) But does that mean that critical thinking is therefore counter to our nature? One alternative hypothesis is that our "advanced" cognitive tools are intrinsically neither part of nor excluded by our "nature". Our (biological) nature, rather is that we are learners, therefore what we actually learn is itself critically important. We not only learn facts and specific assertions, we learn — indeed we have to learn — how to actually think about and integrate facts and assertions.

In other words, our nature is neither critical nor uncritical; we are only naturally predisposed to acquire the most basic foundation of learning, i.e. acquiring language; how we proceed from there depends sensitively on what we are subsequently taught.

It is hard to understand how, if critical thinking were contrary to our intrinsic, biological nature, how we would ever have developed it at all. Contrawise, if critical thinking were intrinsically part of our nature it is hard to understand why we didn't develop it much sooner. The explanation that the process of critical thinking have to be learned (and therefore had to be initially constructed in an evolutionary manner) nicely explains both how it could be developed, as well as why it developed slowly.

If critical thinking is compatible with social construction, what precisely is critical thinking?

First, critical thinking could not be that one believes only that which she constructs for herself; she remains radically agnostic about everything that anyone else tells her. Such a construction would require that a critical thinker be radically agnostic about every belief she retrospectively discovered to be directly socially constructed; she would have to recapitulate the intellectual development of at least 10,000 years, if not the hundreds of thousands of years the human species has been extant. Such a task seems at least daunting and probably impossible in practice.

It follows then that critical thought cannot be a belief formation mechanism. If it were a belief formation mechanism, it would have to be an exclusive mechanism; otherwise alternative mechanisms and the beliefs so formed would simply be outside the domain of critical thought, a conclusion contrary to the claims of most advocates of critical thought, myself included, that critical thought should be universal, it should apply at least in theory to all beliefs. No belief ought to be a priori exempt from critical thought. But while critical thought might be compatible with social construction, they are clearly different: we can easily observe that non- or anti-critical thought can be socially constructed. If it is true that all beliefs — including the establishment of critical thought — rest substantively on some socially constructed beliefs, then critical thought either cannot be exclusive or cannot be universal.

Critical thought therefore must be a belief rejection method. This construction eliminates the paradox of exclusivity (subtly embedded in the insufficiency of Logical Positivism). At the most superficial level, constructing critical thought as a rejection method entails only that it is self-consistent: someone who adopts the idea of rejecting beliefs on the basis of critical thought will not therefore reject the idea of using critical thought to reject ideas. And, suitably constructed, critical thought is at least self-consistent.

However, self-consistency is not enough. If we also accept the premise that our socially constructed ideas evolve, we must create a plausible evolutionary story for why critical thought became pervasive when it did, and not before. There are, of course, many different kinds of plausible evolutionary stories in general; the most trivial story is the idea of critical thought just happened to arise by variation at some particular time; once it arose, non-critical thought was therefore rendered less fit and began to be selected against. Another plausible story is that material conditions (including the material conditions of our existing social constructions) were such that for some time critical thought was selected against, and then material conditions changed, which either removed the old selection pressure, allowing the variation to at least spread, or created new selection pressures that selected against non- or anti-critical thought.

Which of these stories (or some other alternative; evolution has more than two mechanisms) is correct is a matter of rigorous scientific investigation. However, I'm a philosopher, so I'm allowed to speculate.

Authoritarianism seems antithetical to critical thought. Authoritarian government entails the strong claim that the interests of a minority (the ruling class) should dominate the interests of the majority (the ruled class)*: when the interests of the ruling class ineluctably conflict with the interests of the ruled, the interests of the ruling class are always fulfilled, sacrificing without compensation at any level the interests of the ruled. Sophisticated democratic protections of minorities fundamentally rests on higher-level protections on the interests of the majority. We protect the right of free speech for unpopular minorities, for example, because the higher-level idea of free speech for everyone protects the interests of the majority. This is a different idea than that the interests of a minority should be preferred over the majority however constructed, just because that minority is somehow privileged. However, critical thought necessarily rejects this abstract social construction of authoritarianism: there is no reason to prefer the interests of any minority to those of the majority. Therefore, authoritarianism should exert (by violence) a selection pressure against critical thought. So long as this negative selection pressure exists, and no alternative selection pressure against non- or anti-critical thought exists, any emergent variation of critical thought will be removed from the pool of socially constructed ideas.

*A weaker claim — e.g. the "physician effect" — is that some minority has special expertise to fulfill the interests of the majority.

We should therefore see some material conditions change to explain the relatively modern rise of critical thought.

We have an obvious candidate: technology. The first important technological advance was the invention of the printing press. This invention is too useful to itself be selected against by authoritarians (because it is an extremely valuable tool in intra-ruling-class conflict), but it makes the suppression of ideas — including the suppression of critical thought — qualitatively more difficult: one cannot intimidate the text of a book, and the printing press makes book-burning an ineffective method of censorship.

The development of modern technology of production, i.e. the industrial revolution, provides the second, crucial impetus to the expansion of critical thought. Once we have stumbled upon a method of drastically improving economic productivity, failing to exploit this method will have obvious selective disadvantage: if one party can produce orders of magnitude more and better guns, and more, better and better-fed soldiers, another party that fails to also improve his production will lose head-to-head conflicts.

The development and improvement of technology requires critical thought. If you do not think critically — if you do not try out a lot of ideas, reject those that fail to conform to observation, and keep the rest — you cannot improve your technology. Authoritarianism is, therefore, in a fatal bind: critical thought is essentially anti-authoritarian, but critical thought itself cannot be completely eliminated without compromising the science and technology necessary to prevail against competing authoritarians. The best they can do is isolate, marginalize and "other" scientists and engineers... which is exactly what we observe in modern society. But this is a poor strategy: if you have any group with a large enough niche, you dramatically increase the variation within that niche, and one way or another variations can tunnel out of the niche. And again, we observe exactly this effect today, with many scientists and philosophers of science leading the charge against the central pillar of authoritarianism: divine sanction.

I am not, of course, a scientist, and I cannot prove this speculation with any sort of rigor. Still, as a speculation, it seems at least superficially plausible:
  1. Critical thought is a belief rejection method
  2. Critical thought is, like other beliefs, itself socially constructed
  3. Socially constructed beliefs evolve according to abstract mechanisms of the evolutionary paradigm (i.e. heritable variation and selection)
  4. Changes in technology (subject to different selection pressures) changed the material conditions and began to favor critical thought
  5. We are still within that evolutionary process

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