Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Power of Critical Thinking

At least as far back as when I started first grade, it was a given that I would one day go to college. In reality, I didn't even know exactly what college was, and it was kind of scary not knowing what was in store for me. But I knew it was something my parents expected of me, and I didn't have much of a choice about it.

When I was 6, the girl next door was 14. I thought she was crazy because in addition to being a girl, she was absolutely bonkers over a new singer who was just becoming popular. His name was Elvis Presley. He had a nice voice. I didn't think he was a bad singer. I just thought all the carrying on by teen-age girls was stupid.

Fast forward almost 60 years and if you were to look at my iPod you'd find I have more songs by Elvis than any other artist. I have almost everything he ever recorded including some that were not even released until after he died. Time has a way of changing things.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The girl next door got to be 18, and she went away to college. I wasted no time telling her on one of her visits home that I was going to go to college when I grew up. I don't remember it specifically, but I probably peppered her with questions about college and exactly what went on there, although by this time I was 10 and had a better idea, myself, about what it was all about. The girl next door was really a nice girl, and she ended up inviting me to spend a day with her at college. I was elated!

My parents were more than happy to facilitate my interest in the field trip as it were; and early one Friday morning, my Dad got me up and drove me the 90 miles to the city where the girl next door was in college. He dropped we off at her dorm and she met us in the lobby. My Dad returned home. I was going to return home later that day with the girl next door when she went  home for the weekend.

The first thing she wanted to show me was her dorm room. One has to remember this was about 1957 and female dorm rooms were still very much out of bounds for males, even 10 year old males. I felt like a grown up because as we came up the stairs to her floor she had to yell out, "man in the hall." When we turned a corner, she yelled out, "man in the hall again." It was all very exciting.

After seeing her dorm room she took me with her to her morning classes. I had no way of knowing that 9 years later, I'd be sitting in some of those same rooms as a college man myself. At noon we went to the dining room for lunch. We toured the library and the student union along with the book store and some other facilities. It was a great day that I've never forgotten. Six years later, my parents and I visited the girl next door at MD Anderson Hospital here in Houston. She was being treated for a cancer in her brain. A few weeks after that visit, she died. It was the first time I had lost a friend to death. I couldn't know at the time how great a part MD Anderson Hospital was going to play in my own life, and how often I would return there. I'm glad of that.

I graduated from high school at 17 and began college at another college other than the one my friend had attended. At the end of my Freshman year, my high school girlfriend and I married, and I transferred to the college I had visited all those years ago for my Sophomore year. In a way, I had come full circle. But being married, college was just one part of my life. I was also a husband and I had to work. In fact, I worked a full time job and took a full credit load each semester at college. Between work and school, I was racing through each day from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m not counting study time. I now knew first hand what college was all about, hard work. But even on my tough schedule, it was interesting and even fun. I enjoyed it. I learned new things, some of them specifically valuable , most of them only valuable general terms in the long run.

By the time I was a Junior, I had caught on to the fact that college is not really about cramming one's  head full of facts. This was long before the internet era, but even then facts were always readily at hand to be looked up. There was little need to memorize them other than to pass exams. The true value of college and the real reason one went to college was to learn to think critically. All the studying, all the writing of papers, all the writing of exams were actually nothing more than exercises in critical thinking. Critical thinking was one of those general skills one learned for use in the long run of life.

Like anything else, some people can and do learn critical thinking on their own. That is how people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates came to be billionaires without college degrees. They were guys who could dream impossible dreams and reduce them to critical thought and evaluate their theories using the scientific method. Their dreams and their skills not only changed their lives, the lives of almost every person in the modern world were changed as well by these two men.

The power of critical thinking is immense squared. Everything that makes our lives so comfortable and productive is the result of critical thought.

Critical thinking has been defined as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Perhaps an easier definition is to say that critical thinking is is reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.

Last Thursday, my printer stopped printing. "*&a^p;(*%^$%#$@!"  was my first reaction. By Friday evening when I had spent almost 16 hours on the phone with Apple, HP and ATT; and my printer was still not working, I have no adequate way to describe my further emotions. They certainly were not pleasant. I had gone out and bought a new router. I had downloaded new print drivers (which took 3 hours), I had uninstalled my printer and reinstalled it several times, I had reset the print system: and with the help of a really awesome lady from HP, I had checked ever single component setting that had anything to do with printing. I had always been somewhat aware that wireless printing was a very complex process. And the way in which I've always thought of that is to imagine what Johannes Gutenberg would think of modern wireless printing. At the very least it would be magical to him; and I have to admit, it is to me too.

But as the computer techs and I wrestled with this printer issue for 3 days (not counting the two weekend days) a new realization came to me. Wireless printing was actually a technical possibility, even as Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. At the time, just the new idea of moveable type revolutionized printing throughout the known world. Putting books into the hands of the educated elite as well as common man helped to end the Dark Ages and usher in The Renaissance. Yet, as grand a thing as movable type printing was in the 14th century, wireless printing was even then a technical possibility. It just wouldn't become a technical reality for 7 more centuries and for 7 more centuries worth of critical thinking, 7 centuries of invention after invention building exponentially upon all the inventions and knowledge that had previously become a part of man's experience.

Such is still the case. Flat screen HDTV is the cutting edge of present technology; but I have no doubt in the not so far future, my grandchildren will watch holograms in 3 dimensions. Their "television" programs will fill their home media centers with 3D characters and scene settings that can be viewed from any angle. Such a thing is technically possible today. Unlike Gutenberg and wireless printing, we can dream of it, we can conceive of it. We just don't have the technical expertise to move it from the realm of the possible to the realm of the real.

One of the great human tragedies is that, even today, in a world which is supposedly better educated than at any time in human history, most people are either incapable of critical thinking or unwilling to engage it. Almost no  high school graduates are skilled in critical thinking, not to mention the 22% of kids who drop out of school and never finish what would have been their senior year of high school. Critical thinking is not required in most high schools where tests are multiple choice and where there is thus a 20 to 25% chance of getting the right answer just by guessing.

The lack of critical thought and recall of what should be common knowledge has become comedy fodder for the late night TV shows. The old joke has become a truism. Too many young people cannot answer the question, "Who is buried in Grant's tomb. 

Added to the number of those who do not know how to think critically are those who refuse, for one reason or the other, to think critically. That situation applies to many of the men who call themselves bisexual or homosexual married men. The reasons are repeated over and over:
"I don't want to label myself."
"I don't want to question the religious values I was taught as a child."
"I don't want to make work out of something that should be fun."
"I don't want to get into an argument."
"I don't want to open a Pandora's Box."
"I'll think about that someday, but not now." 
"I'm afraid of what I may find out about myself." 
"My church says it is wrong to question its teachings." 
All of these "so called reasons" are really just excuses for maintaining the status quo. The sad thing about people is we fear the unknown. We fear change. The devil we know is preferable to the devil we don't know. We'd rather be unhappy than attempt to change something and find ourselves even more unhappy. I know about all these because I too used some of them for way too many years and I hear them from others all the time.

I've been dealing with my own bisexuality for almost 60 years. For the last 20 years, I've been dealing with the sexuality of a lot of other guys and a few other women. I have found it is very much like my recent printer issues. The more I come to know about human sexuality, the less I feel I really know and understand. Don't get me wrong, I understand my own bisexuality. I have for years now. But human sexuality is so complex, almost no two men are exactly the same when it comes to their sexual drives and sexual responses. It takes a lot of talking and a lot of honest effort on my part and the part of the guy I'm working with to really help. It is not a short term project.

When I met my friend Mike almost 20 years ago, he was preparing to kill himself. Mike is still alive and well today for two basic reasons.
  1. He didn't really want to die.
  2. He really wanted to understand why he was so tormented and do something about it.
There were other important things that helped him out too. He's a stubborn son of a bitch. He's one of the most egotistical men I've ever met. He has a heart of gold. He's one of the smartest men I have ever personally met. He has a work ethic that is unmatched. All of that combined with the two basic reasons for  his success mentioned above and effectively lead him to change his life and his outlook on life.

Working against him was the fact that he hates change. He hates planning, and  he's an egotistical son of a bitch. Yep, some things were on both sides of the equation. They could be used to work for him or against him. It's actually true about many of our human characteristics.

There were things working for and against my helping him too. It was a huge time commitment for me. It took a very thick skin. People do not like their values and opinions to be questioned, even when their values and opinions are killing them. Anger is, more often than not, the result. I lost count of the times Mike told me to get the hell out of his life. Fortunately, I knew enough not to hold a grudge and he would always come back though one time he didn't speak to me for 6 months. That time, I thought I'd lost him. I hadn't. His torment was simply too much for him to bear alone.

Mike was lucky. He had an unwavering commitment from me to help him. When the time came that I had given him all the help I could in understanding his homosexuality within the context of his faith, I was able to turn him over to my wife for private counseling in dealing with the emotional issues of coming out to his wife and kids, and beginning a new life has a self-outed homosexual man.

Most guys don't have that kind of luck; and frankly, I've seen way too many who I was willing to commit to helping either refuse the help or quickly get angry and walk away from the help.

More often than not, those who refuse help are fundamental Christians. Admittedly, they are in a real bind. In their belief system they are literally damned if they do and damned if they don't seek help. Their church friends and their clergy constantly reinforce their feelings that they are damned. God's hates sinners, they tell him. He especially hates homosexuals. The more enlightened fundamentalists will tell him it is okay with God if you are a homosexual, but it is not okay with God if you act like a homosexual. How is someone in torment supposed to deal with that kind of crap?

Many such men deal with it by refusing to think about it as much as possible, and by locking up their emotions and desires in as deep, dark and forgotten place in their psyche as they can manage. They refuse to think critically about the teachings of their church fearing that to do so is to put themselves on the road to hell. They try their best to convince themselves that the only way to avoid God's eternal wrath is for them to do whatever it takes to be "good." With the implicit help of their fundamental brothers, they effectively pervert the gospel of Christ. Along with their fundamentalist brothers, they try the best they can to get through each day being"good." They believe that there are others, even some in their own church who actually get through their own days as "good" Christians. Such thought is another perversion of the Gospel of Christ.

Fortunately, not every fundamental Christian gets caught in this trap. With help, some of them open the trap and free themselves through critical thought and reasoning. My friend Bill is one example. Bill was not only a fundamental Christian, he was a Pastor and a homosexual married man. Not a pleasant circumstance for him at all.

Fortunately, by the time I got to know Bill he had already found some chinks in the "goodness" and "sinless" facade that fundamentals often present to the world. An astute business man, Bill had come to see that the way his fundamental church leaders ran the business components of their churches was not always ethical. This lack of ethics in one area let him conceive of a lack of ethics and truthfulness in questions of faith also. This discovery on his part proved to be the key to getting him to critically reason out a new life for himself and remold his religious faith into a more tolerant version.

The great thing about Bill's reordering of his life and his faith is that he did it in an honest, compassionate and ethical manner. His wife didn't enjoy getting the news that he was a homosexual man, but he gave her time to adjust to the reality. He used his powers of critical thinking to reason out a new life for each of them in which she was treated fairly financially and also given the option, which she was wise enough to accept, of accepting a new relationship with Bill based on friendship and the shared interest in their adult children and grandkids. Bill did not give up his faith, he just modified it into a faith based more on a compassionate Christ than an angry God. His wife maintained the faith she had once shared with him, but opened herself to a new relationship in the interest of the two of them and their extended family.  All in all I think every one is now happier and certainly better adjusted than they have ever been. Such is the power of critical thinking.

I try to focus on the few who have effectively remade their lives reestablished their faith on a firmer foundation, but I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that I despair about those who can't or won't. It haunts me that they in order to avoid hell in the next life, they have effectively made a hell of this life. It is a true faustian bargain. One that needn't have been.

Some will say I am as deluded as they to continue to profess my Christianity and my faith in God. They will say that I have fallen for a ferry tale offering eternal life because I am too weak to accept that dead is dead and death is the end. Within my present faith system, I accept that they might, in fact, be right. Faith is the belief in things unseen, and I have never seen God. Yet, over and over and over again, I've seen His influence and felt His presence in my life.

The fact is, I don't believe much at all of the traditional Christian concept of Heaven. Frankly, I wouldn't want to go there. If that it Heaven, the Kim Jong-un is God and North Korea is Heaven!

What could be more boring and more profoundly depraved than to sit around and sing praises to an egotistical God for eternity?

But Kim Jong-un is not God and North Korea is not Heaven. I have no idea what Heaven is or what is on the other side of this life. I feel there is something. Scientists are coming to realize that universes themselves are born, exist, die and are reborn in an eternal cycle. Reality as we know it is an awesome thing and we know almost nothing about it. In the endlessness of space and time who can say what and who remains hidden? As for me, I'll continue to rely on the faith I have build through years of critical thought. Even if I am ultimately wrong, my faith gives purpose and peace in this life. That is, in its own, enough.

I have faith in a life to come; but all I know, for sure, is we have this one here and now. It's best to think about what we want to do with it and what will make us the happiest in it.

Jack Scott


  1. Thank you for sharing that very enlightening and thought-provoking reflection. I had not realized that Christians outside the Catholic Church were also expected to conform to that dichotomy that it is alright to be homosexual but not to act like one. I thought this kind of "have your cake and eat it" double-think was typical of authoritarian approaches in the Catholic Church. But perhaps it is a universal stemming from the fear of change inherent in the fundamentalist search for security.

    1. Your welcome. Thanks for having the patience to read through it.

      Unfortunately, many fundamental churches take the "be one, but don't act like one" approach to homosexuality. It is their way of making themselves believe that they are open to homosexuals in their membership.

      Unfortunately, it tells the homosexual it is not alright to be himself and unambiguously relegates him to the ranks of deviants. Not so good for helping one accept himself.

      Jack Scott


I deeply regret that I must reinstate the verification process for those who want to leave comments on my blog. This is due to the intolerable amount of spam that spammers are attempting to leave on the blog.

At the same time I am changing settings so that those of you who have a Google Blogger ID or other recognized blogger ID will not have to have your comments moderated. My hope is this will encourage more readers to take the time to comment. The fact is I want to read comments with those of you who disagree with me as well as those of you who agree with me. All I ask is that you keep your comments clean and non-threatening.

The only reason I take the time to write this blog is to spur your thoughts and comments. Please do not let the spammers cause you not to comment. I know entering the verification words and numbers is a pain in the ass, but I hope you will not let the spammers cause you not to comment.

I still very much look forward to hearing from you.

Jack Scott

Anyone can comment on what I write in this blog. Regretfully, the recent amount of spam in my email account as required that I reinstate the word verification process for comments which I personally hate.

But at the same time I have loosened the comment moderation process so that those of you who have a Google Blogger ID or other recognized blogger ID will no longer need to wait for your comment to be moderated. I'm hoping this will tempt you to take the trouble to comment.

The truth is I want respectful comments both from those who agree with me and those who do not. All I as is that you keep comments to the point, clean and non-threatenting.

I look forward to hearing from each of you.

Jack Scott