Psychological Dividends: On the Necessity of Critical Thinking


Knowledge can produce any change in the universe that’s compatible with its laws. — David Deutsch

Logic is a virtue only when it’s maintained as a method for reasoning. In addition, reasoning is a process rather than an abstraction. In other words, the rigorous application of logic is not exclusive to philosophical idealism.

Knowing how to think is invariably more important than knowing what to think. Processes matter. Likewise, in today’s onslaught of information overload, knowing what to get rid of can be as essential as knowing what to keep  (e.g., a way of scrutinizing the landscape of our mind to eradicate what neuroscientist and psychologist Dean Buonomano described as “brain bugs”).

Formal logic consists of three basic rules of engagement that are operationally independent but mutually cohesive when analyzing propositions to develop a reliable framework of epistemology.

1. Inductive reasoning: Specific premise to a general conclusion.
2. Deductive reasoning: General premise to a specific conclusion.
3. Abductive reasoning: Most likely explanation given all available data.

However, regarding the seemingly infinite abyss of logical fallacies and their increasing regularity in daily conversation, there are five particular travesties of cognition that I encounter as a clinician more than I care to document during any given session. In addition, given today’s inauspicious trend of factual relativity and a blatant disregard for expertise, the need for intellectual vigilance has become something of a moral emergency among those still concerned with the concept of truth.

1. The fallacy of illicit transference is an informal fallacy that is committed when an argument assumes there is no difference between a term in the distributive (referring to every member of a class) and collective (referring to the class itself as a whole) sense. This fallacy occurs within two categorical errors: What is true of the part is true of the whole (composition), or what is true of the whole is true of the part (division).

Examples: {A} This politician in corrupt; therefore all politicians are corrupt (composition). {B} This agency is known for malfeasance; therefore any employee of this agency is untrustworthy (division). * Anomaly hunting is a common, supplemental approach to this fallacy in which an individual searches for confirmation of a belief while ignoring information that refutes their belief.

2. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy that infers the premise that if something occurs after an event, it must be caused by the event; used to indicate that a causal relationship has erroneously been assumed from a merely sequential one.

Example: The WTC 7 building in New York City (north of the Twin Towers) was known to contain private, financial banking records and collapsed shortly after the initial 9/11 attacks; therefore an attempted cover-up of fraudulent banking practices explains why 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the government via controlled demolition. Obviously, correlation does not prove causation. However, efforts to preoccupy oneself with erroneous associations often persist long after additional evidence has been produced to falsify such claims (e.g., the Backfire Effect).

3. Just-World Hypothesis (aka the Just-World Fallacy) is the assumption that a person’s actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished.

Example: People get what they deserve. This idea also derives from the presupposition that the world is an “equal playing field,” or that a person has unmitigated free will to “choose otherwise” (also known as a fundamental attribution error).

4. Argumentum ad populum is a logical fallacy that occurs when something is considered to be true or good solely because it is popular.

Example: Millions of people agree with my viewpoint; therefore, it must be right.

5. The Nirvana Fallacy is the informal fallacy of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives. It can also refer to the tendency to assume that there is a perfect solution to a particular problem (e.g., the perfect solution fallacy).

Examples: {A} Seat belts are a bad idea because people are still going to die in car crashes; therefore wearing a seat belt is an unecessary precaution. {B} Either there is a perfect solution to ending gun violence, or we shouldn’t do anything about it at all.

Alleviating the tyranny of confirmation bias prevents us from assuming the answers before investigating the questions. The facile satisfaction of asserting a comfortable narrative to explain complex or uncomfortable circumstances may be alluring, but it’s not a reliable way to understand the world and can result in the collateral damage of equal-opportunity credulity. In contrast, the psychological dividends available from exercising critical thinking skills allow us to remain honest while providing the most effective strategies for comprehending, accepting, and adapting to the nature of reality.

*Recommended reading: Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte

Indiscretion in the Modern Era

There is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it positively refuses to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth. William James

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is a phantasmal etching produced in 1799 by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya that depicts the imagined artist slumped over his desk, in a posture of nihilistic defeat, as ominous owls of madness and shadowy bats fly erratically overhead. This was Goya’s artistic commentary on Spanish society that he interpreted as succumbing to a lunatic’s brew of unmitigated fear, social antipathy, unrivaled corruption, and the liabilities of political unreason. The haunting image would persist as a representation of chaos whenever, as the poet W. H. Auden reminded us, the values of the enlightenment are driven away.

A little over two centuries later, in America’s post-fact zeitgeist of partisan sensationalism and multimedia gossip, the emergence of a toxic brand of emotionally volatile, identity-imbued populism threatens to destabilize society by appealing to authoritarian panaceas in the wake of geopolitical uncertainties. Relinquishing the faculties of reason, journalistic objectivity, dignity, and civil ethics when offered specious solutions for security or prosperity is as irresponsible as it is pernicious. After all, “total” solutions of Manichean simplicity are never realistic or sustainable in a world of increasing complexity and irreversible diversity. Just as Freud exposed the mind’s obsessive desire for a paternal caregiver during periods of crisis or vulnerability, we witness other parallels of uncritical yearning when people seek the mana-personality from Jung’s description of the collective unconscious. To mistake narcissism for competence is to mistake bravado for guidance. Likewise, to assume that personal significance or the assurance of safety can only be achieved through segregation is to perpetually recreate the very atmosphere of tyranny that one wishes to escape. 

It appears that a grave deficit of cognition exists in the populace’s mind that prefers herd instinct to the arduous pursuits of objective analysis, social justice, moral philosophy, civil discourse, and scientific literacy. This belligerent lack of compassion, crude mockery of applied intellect, degradation of scientific methodology, and a selfish unwillingness to concede heterogeneity among communities has resulted in an abeyance of decency under the guise of exceptionalism.

Ideologies replete with paranoia, conspiracy, and mistrust were central to the atrocities of the twentieth century when varieties of fascism compensated for national insecurity. Balkanization was both anthropological and geographic in nature. As a result, mass trepidation created an isolationist vacuum for opportunistic absolutists to emerge. And their insatiable need for adulation would come at the endangerment of civilization.

As Thomas Hardy recognized, “If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst.” Indeed. The evolved predicament of our human condition demands an identification of suffering, vigilant protection of social liberties, the maintenance of empathy, and an intrepid acknowledgment of despotism if there’s any hope of achieving the means to an auspicious end. Otherwise, there will be no monster left behind.