To close this study, I want to explain two things that lie beneath everything we've covered thus far. These, really, are the foundation upon which everything else stands. And so I think that our coverage would be incomplete without describing them.
Truth at the center
When discussing critical thinking, clear thinking, or however we might describe this effort, what we're really doing is discovering what is real. We're trying to see and accept reality and to grasp it as it is. And, of course, we're especially trying to avoid being drawn away from reality, because the world we live in happens to be filled with such efforts.
Whether by training, indoctrination, mal-intent, or even by accident, the user of any fallacy or word-borne trick is trying to make you not see reality: Either to see it as something it isn't or to imagine that something unreal truly is real.
And that brings us back to the ancient question: What is truth? This is a question that I feel I need to answer, because I want you to know how I use the concept:
True things correspond to reality.
A true statement is one that accurately represents reality.
And this, I think, should always remain in the backs of our minds. When we see or hear something new, the thing we compare it to – our fundamental point of reference – should be, What is real?
Humans have been easy to lead astray because they've substituted other things for this central concern. Here, to illustrate, is a short list of such replacements:
What will my boss do if I decide X is a good idea?
What will my spouse do if I say Y is a good idea?
I already believe something about this subject, can I still believe it if I agree?
Will believing this idea mean that I was wrong in the past?
Can I get in trouble by believing this?
And, assuredly, there are others. But none of them are fit to serve as our first and central question. That honor should be held only by, What is real?
Some of these questions have practical value, but they are secondary at best: They should be entertained only after the fundamental question has been honestly and separately addressed.
If we allow anything to be more central to us than reality, we doom ourselves to being forever manipulable, confused, overloaded and uncertain about our very selves.
Now, saying that putting anything ahead of the truth would leave us overloaded may seem counter-intuitive, but n reality, the opposite is true:
Our purpose in critical thinking is not hyper-vigilance, but comfort and clarity. People tend to fear truth because they imagine it will expose their self-contradictions… that it will be painful and will require them to expend a lot of energy fixing everything. But that's not only false, it is self-damning.
Remember, please, that our characters are very substantially self-made. We carry a certain genetic inheritance, and we carry the effects of our environment, but that's not remotely all: Our characters may rest upon those things, but they are built – are constructed – by the choices we make in life. And this is crucial:
We continuously build our future character with the choices we make every day.
An entire book could be written to work out all the fine points of that statement, but in the end it would stand as essentially correct. We are self-made characters, or as it has been said, we are self-made souls.
And so, when we use What is true? as our central focus, we tend to build straight, strong and efficiently.
If, however, we substitute anything else for What's real? or What's true?, we leave our proper foundations and build crooked and unsound structures. More than that, we build structures that require continual effort, just to keep them functional.
And so, if we want to minimize the energy we spend on dealing with difficult choices, with manipulations and with confusions, we'll get precisely that by keeping What's true? As our central point of reference. Life becomes easier for us when we do that, not harder.
I am speaking in metaphors here (structures, foundations, repairs), simply because I lack a better vocabulary. But while some future philosopher will certainly be able to explain this with more precision, the concept itself won't change very much. If our goal is comfort, safety and efficiency… truth as our central touchstone will deliver it to us.
The Mixed Blessing of Words
Words are, at this stage of human development, something of a mixed blessing. To be sure they are magnificent tools, allowing us to communicate quickly and in great detail. A human life without words, at this point, is barely imaginable.
The bad part about words, however, is that they've also been the mechanism of our destruction. Pick your bloody dictator and then try to imagine them destroying what they did without words. Imagine the worst fraud or con-artist and try to imagine them ruining you without words.
On top of that, however, is the fact that even our self-deceptions operate by words. When we rationalize away good habits, responses or ideas, words are the central tools by which we do so. And so, words are very commonly the tools of our undoing, as an old proverb says:
Truth was too heavy a burden for men to bear, and so they were given language to obscure it.
At first this seems to disagrees with my statement above – that orienting by truth reduces the difficulty in our internal lives – but that's not really what it's saying. Aiming for precision, I'd render it this way:
Truth was too heavy a burden for men to bear in their existing state (with crooked foundations, etc.), and so they were given language to obscure it.
In any event, humans do obscure truth with language; it's a very old problem. And so words can be a hazard to us; they are imperfect containers and vehicles for thoughts, but they are presently the best we have.
Jumping back to the good side of words before we close, it's important to note that words, used carefully, allow us to blow past emotional blockages. Words, precisely used, bypass fear and other difficult feelings, allowing us to arrive at clear and dispassionate conclusions. This has been of almost incalculable benefit to us.
And so, words are among the finest tools the human race possesses, and we should be deeply grateful for them. But they can also be used against us, and so it falls to us to recognize and reject such uses… to transcend them.
At stake here is not only our happiness, but the future happiness of mankind.
We can do this.