Two years ago I was asked to teach a critical thinking class at the community college. This class focused on logical fallacies, being objective in thought, recognizing stereotypes and finding methods to think less impulsively and more thoughtfully. I had never taught a humanities class, so this was exciting for me. The best definition of what critical thinking that I found was by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham who defined it as the following:
"In layperson's terms, critical thinking consists of (1)seeing both sides of an issue, (2)being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, (3)reasoning dispassionately, (4)demanding that claims be backed by evidence, (5)deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, (6)solving problems..."
This approach to life is very helpful both for thinking about social issues (classroom discussion) and also for practical living. I often find myself functioning more on how I feel more than what I know to be the thing I mean to do. One assignment that I had my students do, was to practice problem solving by giving a researched solution on how to decrease stress in their lives. Stress and anxiety is a problem that our affluent U.S. society struggles with. So I asked my students to come up with strategies to find peace of mind, manage stress and/or calm one's anxieties. Part of critical thinking is to find reasonable solutions to emotional problems. My students enjoyed this exercise and found a variety of solutions for anxiety.
While I enjoy using research and my brain to manage my thoughts, actions and words, I often wondered if "making good choices through logic" was always the end goal of critical thinking. My textbook had multiple charts about how a person can make logical choices. I found these charts helpful but I felt as if there were elements of the human being's "control center" that were left out.
I found that my textbook referred to very little, if any, focus on how to handle the emotional, spiritual or "soul" part of a person. In some ways, the critical thinking textbook we were learning from seemed to look at emotion as generally something to be avoided. After reading these "logical thinking" charts it seemed as if all good choices were the result of strong critical thinking, while bad choices in life were the result of using your heart. This seemed like an oversimplification. While I taught my students about logical fallacies, I simultaneously was searching to find an alternative theory of a "human being" that explained and recognized other elements of a human person.
If we suppress the emotional and spiritual parts of ourselves completely in favor of the intellectual, what happens? Philosopher and theologian James K. A. Smith says that today we are working with "a bad model of human persons." He says that "every theory of culture assumes an anthropology" and in our culture today our idea of what a human being is that we "view human beings as primarily thinking things . . .or a picture of human beings as brains on a stick." (Watch an entire lecture by Smith here)
How we view human beings is very important to how we see ourselves and human change. Yet what Smith has described here is exactly the kind of model that my textbook promotes. Instead he argues that we are not primarily "heady" creatures who only deal with "messages and ideas" but instead that we need a "retooled more holistic picture of human persons not primarily as thinkers, not primarily as knowers, not even primarily as believers. What I want to suggest to you today is that human persons are fundamentally lovers." Smith goes on to explain how people are more lovers than they are thinkers. People, especially in the university, often assume we can think ourselves out of any problem, especially if we think of ourselves as brains on a stick. According to Smith, we are not brains on a stick. Once you begin to realize how often a Western, secular view of human persons is generally intellectual, you begin to wonder "what is the heart?" Or how do you define the heart? (I still don't fully know the answer to that question, but I think about it all the time.)
James K. A. Smith goes into detail about how he thinks we are lovers more than thinkers. He says:
"You do not acquire habits by information. You do not acquire dispositions through the intellect. Now everybody knows I am not being anti-intellectual. This isn't an anti-intellectual thing. It is about recognizing the limits of the intellect. You can't think yourself out of all your problems."
The intellect is limited. Yet so often we don't want to admit that, because, as he said, it feels like we are being anti-intellectual. But what else are we to do? Should we just pretend like the intellect is the cure to all our problems? When we know it is not? However, we truly need to find a better view of what a human being is rather than the current model. Rather viewing the intellect and intellectualism as the cure to our current society's issues, we should instead acknowledge other parts of the human person.
I would assume that most people would agree that feeling and/or desire can be a good or bad thing. At times it can be a motivator and then other times it can completely ruin your day. At times we need to be like a stoic, block out certain feelings and push forward. At times we must make ourselves do things we hate doing. This is part of being logical. Yet to always dismiss emotion can be dangerous because it is a sign of something deeper. Dallas Willard says this about "feeling" in his book "Renovation of the Heart":
"Feeling" encompasses a range of things that are 'felt': specifically, sensations, desires, and emotions. We feel warm, hungry, an itch, or fearful. "Feelings" include dizziness and thirst, sleepiness and weariness, sexual interest and desire, pain and pleasure, loneliness and homesickness, anger and jealousy; but also comfort and satisfaction, a sense of power and accomplishment, curiosity and intellectual gratifications, compassion for others and the enjoyment of beauty, a sense of honor and delight in God. Aesthetic experiences (of art and beauty), personal relations, and actions all involve feeling and, moreover, require that the feeling be somehow "right."
If a person feels some of these feelings, it can often be a sign from their physical body that they need sleep or food. Willard lists some feelings such as loneliness, homesickness, anger and jealousy that we can surely find many answers to intellectually. However, in some ways these are issues that can't wholly be handled by just answers that we come up with on a piece of paper. These often deal with the heart more than the head. Along with that, good things like compassion for others or enjoyment of beauty also are very good things, but can't wholly be explained intellectually.
Approaching problems with critical thinking is a good thing. But we cannot ignore the soul, the heart and the will in the process. Smith explains how Saint Augustine opens his "Confessions" with the following claim, speaking to God: "You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Smith explains that "the entire panoply of Augustine's confessions is not a long litany of the things he believed, it is precisely the course of his loves, of what he was longing for, of his passions." Smith argues that we should consider the model of "human persons" that is found in Saint Augustine's "Confessions" and consider how Augustine includes love (ultimately the heart and emotion as well) as the primary thing in how people make choices.
From now on, when I teach Humanities 115: Critical Thinking, I will teach much of the same material that I taught two years ago. However, I will have a section addressing aspects other than the intellect that impact how we make choices and impact our thinking. To ignore these aspects of a person is to ignore something obvious to every human being. Critical thinking is a great thing, but to ignore other parts of how a human being makes choices is a pretend like the heart and soul do not impact the mind. Perhaps that will be the subject of an essay in my next class: What is the human heart? Does it affect the mind and soul?