Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

Class lecture

What is the role of non-rational thinking in critical thinking, if any?

It is often said of the critical thinker, the scientist, the philosopher and so on, that we are cold and unfeeling and that there is no place for the non-rational in our notions of truth, even our lives. My, what a contrast is the reality I have known-- people who are passionate about what they do, think and know.

However, there is just enough truth in the general belief of us as cold fish that the belief stays alive in the face of contrary evidence.

Recall that critical thinking begins with the problem of error. We experience error. We believe we are correct about something and later discover we were in error. The philosophers, the epistemologists (those concerned with how we know) turn their attention to a METHOD of knowing which, while it cannot guarantee us the truth, seems to be a stronger method in combating error than any competing method. Critical thinking, as we are studying it here, is the first level of that complex method of rational thought or science. Actually I should say methods, plural, since there are variations within philosophy and science on how to do critical thinking.

One of the enduring problems going back all the way to ancient Greece is the question of what is the status of non-rational modes of knowing. Again, the common view among non-scientists, non-philosophers, non-formal critical thinkers, is to say: there is no role "those people" rule it out. This is partly true and partly false. It wasn't really until quite modern times that this distinction was worked out in more detail.

One explanation of it that I think is fairly clear (even if couched in strange language) is a distinction between

  1. The context of discovery.


  2. The context of proof.

When we are faced with a problem, a puzzle, a doubt, a critical thinking "issue," we must first get started. We must formulate some ideas, no matter if we later reject them or not, but we must have data, material, ideas on which we might think critically. This first phase, getting ideas to check out, we may call the context of discovery.

Once we have formulated a hypothesis (a thesis, a belief, a claim, a position), then we must install the big guns of critical thinking to protect us from error as much as possible. This we may call the context of proof.

It is only in the context of proof that we retreat to the relatively cool, aloof and purely rational creatures that the image portrays us as. In the discovery stage, anything goes. We get ideas wherever, from tradition, authorities, feelings, intuitions, culture, habit, even tea-leaf reading or astrology, dreams or the behavior of our cat or the wooly worm or Phil the groundhog. It doesn't matter.

The imposition of critical thinking rules and purely rational tactics comes AFTER we have some ideas to test; it is their test, their purification to try, as best our limited minds can, to separate the reliable knowledge from the less reliable or even wrong.

Will James knew this back in 1896 and expressed it so much more eloquently than I. He said:

"But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face it. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true. (Emphasis added by Corbett).

Let me illustrate with a true story from long ago. Back in the mid-1960s Carl Pitts, a professor of educational psychology at the then Webster College, was interested in finding a NON VOLUNTARY MEASURE OF INTEREST. That is, a measure of when students were interested in the material they were being taught that was not indicated just by their subjective reports, "Oh, I was interested," or "I was not so interested." Was there, Carl and others were asking, some sort of behavioral response which was not linked to our conscious thinking. If there were, then perhaps educational psychologists could use this non voluntary measure of interest to better develop teaching methods which would more likely lead to interested students.

He was searching, thinking, reading and what not. He was operating in the context of discovery and had been there for a couple of years, having found a few possible suspects and then, in the context of proof, shown them not to work.

He and his then wife, JoAnn, went to a faculty party one night. JoAnn never much cared for faculty parties. She was not an academic and believed that the academics often didn't take her very seriously and thus the parties were a bore and a bit painful. But, she went in order to be sociable. The night after the party JoAnn gingerly asked Carl, please tell me again what it is you are search for. Carl explained what I had said above about the quest of a non voluntary measure. JoAnn was puzzled, frowned, thought, waited, hesitated, but finally asked Carl, "well, I must not understand what it is you are after. If it meant what I think it means it would all be too obvious." Carl was puzzled. JoAnn was bright and perceptive. She certainly was not an academic, intellectual or rationalist, but nonetheless very bright and insightful. He pushed her. What do you mean, what is the obvious answer. She allowed it was so simply surely every one must know it -- you looked people in the eye. When the pupil of the eye contracts they are interested; when it expands they are not. She was certain everyone knew this and used this in situations like the party the night before, to tell when and when not someone was interested in the conversation.

Carl was dumbfounded. Could it be true. As James says, who cares how the idea comes to the fore -- just grab it once it does. Carl consulted the literature of pupillary response -- nothing on interest theory. He began to informally try it out using intuition. There were some things he knew some of his friends were passionately interested in, so much in their background had demonstrated it. He knew other things that bored them. He'd introduce conversations and then those topics. Their pupils seemed to behave just as JoAnn said they would.

After a while of these very non-rational and non careful studies, he had his hypothesis.

He wrote a grant proposal, got buckets of money and machines thrown at him and began his project. (And his renown in the field of educational psychology.) Along with many faculty, I was a test subject. We'd go to Carl's lab and we'd be wired up to a machine that measured our pupillary response. It did this with tickertape paper than drew lines like we see in the movies with heart machines. Then he would bombard us with images and things in several categories: those almost for sure to fit our personal interests; those almost sure to not fit our personal interests and some other neutral things he wanted to know about.

Sure enough, the match between the pupillary response and the first two sets was so strong that it was soon deemed that the test was critically acceptable.

A non voluntary measure of interest was thought to have been found.

I tell the story since it illustrates that in the world of this seemingly hard-nosed scientist there was room for the context of discovery to be playful and non-rational enough that his wife's response to a cocktail party experience could be taken with great seriousness and be something he intensely investigated.

On the other hand, as soon as he elevated it from an interesting idea, or even an idea with promise or even an idea he was suspecting strongly and even believing was true, he then switched "contexts" and began to devise careful critical tests of the reliability of the thesis which were not dependent on non-rational measures.

Thus, again, I think I've shown that while critical thinking is a rational activity, based on the belief that such rational thought is the most reliable way we have of avoiding error, there is room in it, at least at the stage of discovering hypotheses, for virtually any sort of non-rational thinking one could imagine from the whisperings of Martians to the messages of dreams may still play its part. It's just that we don't take the context of discovery as TRUE or RELIABLE, but as the grist for the mill of critical thinking to test it out by formal methods.

Questions, comments, puzzles and disagreements are welcome.

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Bob Corbett