Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
When you think of a rational person, what comes to mind? Perhaps a professor seated in an easy chair, somewhat aloof and emotionless, reading a weighty scientific tome and uttering pronouncements based on his prolific knowledge and excellent logical reasoning? Say, Henry Higgins (from My Fair Lady)? Probably. Certainly, you wouldn’t consider, say, Indiana Jones to be rational. He’s excitable, emotional, impulsive and prone to making mistakes in judgement. Surely, of the two, Henry Higgins must be the most rational. Right?
Not necessarily. In an article published in The Journal of Higher Education, (pdf) professor Kerry S. Walters argues that critical thinking is more than being a Henry Higgins, or to use his example, Spock. Critical thinking, in the traditional meaning of the word, is logical problem solving and critical analysis. It means being honest and unemotional in one’s appraisal of a situation, We assume that critical thinkers:
(…) never jump to conclusions, never act rashly, never let emotional smokescreens get in the way of sound inferential reasoning. They draw conclusions only when there is enough evidence to warrant them and refuse to go beyond the limits of logical probability.
There is nothing wrong with this. Henry Higgins is your go-to guy when you want to reduce a problem to its simplest components, remove irrelevant information, wave aside fallacies and draw conclusions by connecting the dots. Higgins will slavishly follow his argument to its logical conclusion without prejudice. The intellect of Henry Higgins is a powerful force to be reckoned with. But with that intellect comes a price. Henry lacks imagination, his intuition is non existent and he is not in the least creative. In My Fair Lady, he can see his intellectual goal, which he pursues with single minded determination, but is completely oblivious to the fact that something much more important is taking place.
Walters argues that while this Vulcan-like behavior is logical, it falls short of being a good method of reasoning. As long as there is a problem to be solved that lends itself to the logical process, Henry is completely in his element, but he is completely unprepared and incapable of shifting gears in order to approach problems from another angle. Moreover, his thinking process is entirely reactionary. He can only act on problems already at hand. He is incapable of making the intuitive leap from solving his intellectual quest to pass a low born flower girl off as a well born lady, to realizing that Eliza Doolittle is far more intelligent and alluring than she appears. He cannot make the leap from seeing a flower girl to seeing a special woman. He never really gains any insight on this subject and he does not act until after a decision is forced upon him. His greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Henry undoubtedly prides himself on his intellect, but he has incorrectly identified logical thinking with good thinking, which is what we normally refer to as rationality.
Rationality though, is far more than the logical thought processes Henry uses. Walters writes:
It also includes non-logical but quite legitimate cognitive acts such as imagination, conceptual creativity, intuition and insight. These are functions which I generically call the “pattern of discovery.” (…) pattern of discovery processes are not formalistically rule-oriented nor inferentially transparent. Nor are they purely reactive. They (…) enable the reasoner to formulate new, alternative paradigms and problems. They are often tacit in nature and arrive at conclusions in a non sequential fashion.
Walters points out that intuition and creativity are not the same thing. Creativity is a conscious decision where one intends to perform a creative act. In contrast, intuition comes unbidden in a flash of insight. Because of this, he regards them as different thought processes, and equally important to rational thought. He argues that these forms of thinking are part and parcel of a good thinking process. Rational thinking then, is comprised of three different components which work together to provide an individual with the best possible thought process. Logical, linear thinking; creative thinking and intuition.
Let’s take the case of Indiana Jones. Like Henry Higgins, he is an academic, but the similarities stop there. Jones is an excitable character, both intuitive and imaginative, while also being brilliant at logical, linear thought. Indiana Jones is pro-active. He doesn’t just react to problems, he creates them, quickly improvising solutions along the way. Higgins has just one original thought in the entire movie. Indiana Jones is a walking, talking, whip wielding creativity machine. He makes mistakes; some of them are huge errors, but he is also able to quickly adapt to these new problems because he fully uses his hunches and intuition.
Indiana Jones would also not spend an entire movie completely oblivious to the charms of an exceptionally smart and attractive woman in close company. Logical, linear thought does not make a man wise in the ways of women. He uses all three methods of thinking to great effect. In the sincerest sense of the term, he is a good thinker.
Why does it matter to define this? Why is it important to parse our thinking patterns into these different elements? Because academia and the media tend to go overboard in emphasizing linear, logical thinking as being the only “real” type of thinking. You just aren’t smart unless you’re really really good at being logical. By understanding thinking in broader terms, we can reject this limited model and fully embrace a version that frankly, we were gonna do anyway. Now we just feel better about it.