When I was studying philosophy, some philosophers were classified as “freethinkers.” Others don’t. The former received shallow attention. The seconds, detailed. And that set off my alarms. Because if you are not a freethinker, you don’t think.
If thought is tied to rules and must follow a hyphen, it becomes dogmatic. And at that very moment we stop thinking. Ipso facto.
Quitting thinking is highly dangerous. We become susceptible to manipulation. We run the risk of developing extreme positions that someone will diligently take care of capitalizing in their favor. Then we become automatons that follow orders.
The false dilemma: We can unite even if we think differently
The coronavirus has turned the world into a huge reality show that is played with emotions. The rigor and objectivity are conspicuous by their absence while we’re dragged into infoxication. The more contradictory information our brain receives, the more it is difficult for us to put order and think. We are in chaos. This is how our thinking gets dull. And so fear wins the game.
In these times, we have talked about the importance of empathy and being able to put ourselves in the other’s place, to accept our vulnerability and to adapt to uncertainty. We have spoken of altruism and heroism, of commitment and courage. These are laudable skills and qualities, no doubt, but what has not been discussed is critical thinking.
Using euphemisms of all kinds, an implicit message has become so clear that it has become explicit: it is time to support, not criticize. The thought has been duly sealed and stigmatized so that there is no doubt that it is not desirable, except in such small doses that they are completely innocuous and, therefore, completely useless.
That belief has introduced a false dilemma because support is not at odds with thinking. Both actions are not exclusive. Quite the contrary. We can join forces, even if we don’t think alike. And that pact is much stronger because it comes from self-confident people who think and decide freely.
Of course, that pact requires more arduous intellectual work. It demands that we open ourselves to different positions from ours. Let us reflect together. Let’s find meeting points. And we all give in to achieve a common goal.
Because we are not in a war in which to soldiers is demanded blind obedience. The war narrative quenches critical thinking. Condemns whoever dissents. And subdues with fear.
This enemy, on the contrary, is conquered with intelligence. With the ability to look to the future and anticipate the events. With the ability to design effective action plans based on a global vision. And with mental flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. So flattening the curve of critical thinking is the worst thing we can do.
Thinking can save us
“Designing and implementing the cultural vaccines necessary to prevent disaster, while respecting the rights of those who need the vaccine, will be an urgent and extremely complex task”, wrote biologist Jared Diamond. “Expanding the field of public health to include cultural health will be the greatest challenge of the next century.”
These “cultural vaccines” go through stopping watching tv trash in order to develop a critical awareness against media manipulation. They go through finding a common point between individual and collective interest. They go through assuming an active attitude towards the search for knowledge. And they go through thinking. Freely, if possible.
Unfortunately, critical thinking seems to have become the number one public enemy, just when we need it most. In his book “On Liberty“, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that silencing an opinion is “A peculiar form of evil.”
If the opinion is correct, we are robbed of “The opportunity to change the error for the truth”; and if it is wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in its “clash with error.” If we only know our side of the argument, we hardly know that: it becomes withered, it becomes something that is learned by heart, it does not go through tests and ends up being a pale and lifeless truth.
Instead, we need to understand that, as the philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel said, “A belief is not true because it is useful.” A society of free-thinking people can make better decisions, individually and collectively. That society does not need to be watched to comply with the rules dictated by common sense. In fact, it doesn’t even need those rules because it follows common sense.
A thinking society can make better decisions. It is able to weight more variables. Give voice to differences. Anticipate problems. And, of course, find better solutions for each and every one of its members.
But in order to build that society, each and every one of its members must undertake the difficult task of “Fight an enemy who has outposts in your head”, as Sally Kempton said.