Critical thinking and beyond

“You have to address the whole person, the whole society, as best you can.” Author, tech philosopher and Perspectiva Associate Tom Chatfield talks to Caspar Henderson about the value of critical thinking, but also what lies beyond it.

Caspar Henderson: A major focus for your recent work has been the challenges of critical thinking. Where does that come from?

Tom Chatfield: For the last decade or more I’ve been thinking about technology in its human context, and have been fascinated by the question of what it means to think well and effectively about the complex systems that we live inside. My doctorate was in literature and philosophy, and even at the time I was studying, in the early 2000s, it was becoming very clear that the ancient enduring questions that still affect just about every aspect of life today—what it means to live well, to have a fair and functional society, to meaningfully communicate with and relate to others—are now mediated through technology and digital systems. And one of the effects of this is that people’s autonomy—their ability to control their own time and space, to think and understand—all of this is under a great deal of pressure.

This is not an entirely new complaint, of course! In 2010 I wrote a book about video games and found myself talking at the start about Plato’s Phaedrus and the laments levelled within it against writing and literacy as practices that divorce human voices and bodies from the stuff of thought and knowledge. But the challenge has greatly intensified. And so my recent work on critical thinking became a way of talking about the habits and skills and practices that allow us to take both intellectual and emotional control — to carve out spaces within which it feels possible to think twice, and to critique assumptions operating beneath our everyday notice. 

The textbook I wrote under the title Critical Thinking homes in on what I care about most: the underlying skills, habits and practices that are associated with thinking well, and that are hopefully transferable. It was important to me to write it as a textbook, and in particular as a book aimed at helping people setting out in further education. Because I feel that it’s by making something teachable and practical, by turning it into a toolkit, that it can become generative and be repurposed by others. You’re not saying, here’s an answer. You’re saying, in the face of contemporary problems and complexities, here are some tools and approaches and ideas that I hope will help you engage more richly. 

What I love about working in this field is that it’s very open. I’ve written a big book about critical thinking. I’ve also written a short book about critical thinking. I’m now writing a medium-sized book about it!  I’ve created an online course. I’ve done a business course. I am working with schools. I never get to a point where I’ve said all I have to say. It’s more than I’m trying to generate ideas and approaches that help people to become less deceived and less overwhelmed, that create spaces for second thoughts — and, very particularly, that encourage them to listen to others and learn from them so that they can move, hopefully, beyond the limitations of their own immediate perspective.

All this matters a great deal in the context of technology, because information systems bear down on us with such weight, today. They have such immense power, and they are full of potentially unexamined—or hidden—assumptions and power dynamics. If you look at where people fit into this, I think our capacities to think about thinking itself, to be critically and creatively engaged, and to collaborate richly and empathetically are becoming more and more important.

Caspar Henderson: In a video introduction you outline ten commandments for critical thinking. I was struck that you start with ‘slow down.’  This brings to mind Will Davies’s starting point in Nervous States

Tom Chatfield: I have greatly enjoyed Will Davies’s work on happiness and emotion. And I welcome how in Nervous States he puts up front the idea that “taking more time” is not just a platitude, but an essential component of emotional self regulation.

The sophistication of his analysis of emotion is also important. Many tech business models—and many technocratic models of government—assume that humans emotions are at once irrational and predictable, and thus susceptible to modelling and manipulation. But the role that our emotions actually perform is far more powerful and complex than this kind of thinking can capture; and we need to take this on board if we want to have a hope of understanding the sheer depth and diversity of purposes people can pursue in life, the different ways they make meanings.

Caspar Henderson: Could one usefully apply a different frame from ‘commandments’ for the challenges of critical thinking?

Tom Chatfield: I suppose my framing is in the tradition of rational critical thought, but I think what you might call a therapeutic perspective is also very valuable. This entails not so much lists of do’s and don’ts as the mere act of self-observation and self-acceptance. 

The psychotherapist Philippa Perry writes very well about the importance of simply being able to observe your own emotions unjudgingly. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to change or do things differently, but it does mean first of all valuing the practice of critically alert self-observation. This kind of psychotherapeutic practice is close in some ways to meditative and spiritual practices; and I think there’s a very important emphasis to be found in these upon the power of acceptance of self and others. You’re not just there to be optimised. Your discontent and anxieties are not just there to be banished as rapidly as possible so you can be happier, fitter and more productive! Indeed, most views of the good life are by no means a life of straightforward pleasure or hedonism. There’s much that can be learned from suffering and discontent, and much making of meaning that has to do with sacrifice. 

These perspectives are a very useful counterbalance to the idea of following rules in a rational and aspirational way. And I would like to think that my work tries to build bridges between the two. It was very important to me, for example, to divide my critical thinking textbook into a first half about the habits of reasoning, empiricism, observation and scientifically-rooted research, and then a second half rooted in behavioural economics, psychology, rhetoric and the intractability of the world beyond these things. 

At the heart of all this is the incommensurability of different viewpoints. Depending upon where we start and what our fundamental beliefs are, we will reach different conclusions that reason alone cannot reconcile. There’s a great deal to be said about the importance of empathy, here, which Roman Krznaric among others has written about

What holds all this together for me is that—while it’s hugely important both to listen to others and to be charitable towards their views if you wish to persuade and to understand—it’s also important to be able to move beyond this. You need to be able to forgive others and yourself: to move beyond exchange values, and indeed beyond reason. There’s a long religious and spiritual tradition that is often absent in discourse about topics like technology and AI where, actually, this perspective is urgently needed. Because I think one of the very terrible things for a lot of people about technology can be the inability to forgive, forget and step outside the system—to deal with others in terms of what you might call traditional virtues, according to the absolute value of human life. It can become very difficult to talk about this kind of thing in terms that aren’t either utilitarian or consequentialist.

The American ethicist Evan Selinger co-wrote with Brett Frischmann a book called Reengineering Humanity. It’s a fine example of fundamental ethical thinking about what it is that as humans we owe to each other, and how the building of automated systems can, unless we remain consciously aware of these fundamental questions, undermine aspects of our social and emotional relations. 

The last thing I’d say is that in the very term ‘artificial intelligence,’ which is the focus of a great deal of anxiety and debate around what it means to be human in our digital age —- that perhaps too much emphasis is put upon intelligence as the defining attribute of the human. Whereas to be human, as Will Davies and others point out is to be an embodied, intractably emotional, social being. We are not rational at root. Rationality sometimes come after. David Hume knew this, but we sometimes forget it.

Caspar Henderson: Where do you find hope and inspiration for facing up to the challenges of digital life? 

Tom Chatfield: Jamie Bartlett makes a very important point in his recent writings on technology and politics, that we tend to underestimate people’s collective capacity to change their minds over time. We mistake current norms for enduring norms. It’s easy to assume that the norms we have now with regard to say, privacy, carbon emissions, consumption and democratic participation are enduring. I spent quite a lot of time with young people in schools and universities, and I draw immense hope from the very evident fact that what is politically thinkable — sometimes known as the Overton window — can shift a long way over time. 

It is possible for even the near future to look profoundly different from the present.  We talk about climate crisis and systems of all kinds that can reach tipping points. This can be very frightening.  But when I go to schools and universities, I don’t find disengaged tech-addicted students. Rather, I am struck by the fact that young people are grappling in a very committed way with what the future should look like.

So I draw comfort from youth movements at the moment.  It’s very easy to be dismissive about naivety of various kinds, or hypersensitive to perceived hypocrisies and inconsistencies. But for me that misses the point. Whether it’s Me Too, Extinction Rebellion, or many others, my sense is that young people are willing to challenge and change the status quo much more than we give them credit for, and with much more considered judgement. 

Of course there are plenty of terrifying precedents out there, too. But I think it’s very easy to fall into a trap whereby we attribute enormous power to authoritarians, demagogues and populist manipulators, while simultaneously denying the ability of progressive movements to change anything for the better.

We’re going to need a future that’s profoundly different from the present. I don’t know whether that should take the form of sudden convulsive radical change or ameliorative approaches, or something different again, but I do know that it’s a great failure to be able to think outside of the present moment. This is why we need to be able to combine rigorous critical thinking with a deep interest in what lies outside our immediate experience, and outside the scope of existing systems: to understand how different the past was from the present, how different others are to ourselves, and how different the future can be to where we are now. 

When I meet people who are passionately willing to change and to envision futures profoundly different from the present—when I see the power of new knowledge, new social practices and movements to change the world—for me, that’s hopeful.

Caspar Henderson: Aristotle said that leisure, properly understood, is essential to a flourishing life. I don’t know if this quite counts, but fiction and music are important for you

Tom Chatfield I have written fiction and played music since I was young. I have never felt there is a hard line between these activities and what you might call non-fictional forms of productivity. This is partly because in whatever you do you’re always seeking a narrative thread: you’re trying to take people with you. The act of writing—of wrestling something into words that I hope will be read and found meaningful—gives great, complex pleasure to me, and I hope it’s a way of giving pleasure to others. We are storytelling animals. You mentioned Aristotle, and the tradition of great classical thinkers was one of rhetoric and performance, with an emphasis on learning to communicate effectively while being alive to other people’s rhetorical tricks. 

If you are trying to educate and awaken people, you’re inevitably going to be in competition with countless other things. So it’s very important to speak the language of the times, and to create material that is powerful and resonant and useful in people’s lives. I’m very keen to go wherever people are paying attention, as best I can. I’ve started writing genre fiction largely because it feels like an energetic and exciting space: a place where ideas can win and delight a large audience. 

As for music, I’m a very keen amateur pianist, and it’s a thing I love to do both because I can lose myself in playing — in the flow of a beautiful creative activity that doesn’t require one to prove anything — and because I can engage in music making in a community that brings people together. Music celebrates the flow of the moment. It takes you outside the ordinary. It breaks down barriers. It asserts a commonality on a level other than that of kind of explicit rational belief. It gives you permission to make and share something other than fully articulated ideas.

Caspar Henderson: What are your hopes and plans with Perspectiva?

Tom Chatfield: I am particularly excited by Perspectiva’s advocacy of a deep form of interdisciplinary, spiritually-literate analysis. This is not a utilitarian prescription for right action. It’s much more an exploration of different entwined aspects of humanity and culture, of the journeys that we go along communally and individually.

A lot of people — including perhaps most famously the psychologist Jonathan Haidt — have written in recent years of the impoverishment of appeals to right action when they’re couched only in terms of justice and fairness. Although such appeals are important, they fail to address large aspects of our human and ethical selves to do with continuity, community; with our sense that some things are sacred, and to do with values that are justified not so much at end of the chain of reasoning as by a fundamental sense of worth, significance and resonance. 

I think that too often those who wish to do good and to address problems in a supposedly ‘enlightened’ way speak in exclusively rational utilitarian language. There is a real lack of thinking that talks to the whole human, that talks of change and community in these terms, and that is actively interested in forging grand alliances —  in finding ways to gather people despite profound differences and experiences and perspective, and that isn’t haughtily dismissive of large aspects of human experience to do with faith, belief, tradition, family, home, hearth, continuity and feeling. 

You have to address the whole person, the whole of society, as best you can. You have to find ways to forgive, reconcile, empathise. You can’t stride into a space and proclaim yourself to be a clever person who’s right.  Around Brexit we’ve seen a politics of contempt, where people treat others as idiots. And this is precisely the way to break a society permanently, or indeed to break a planet.

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