This is point of inquiry for Monday, July 30th, 2012. Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots, in an election year, it is especially important that our critical thinking skills be sharply honed. We have to sift through facts, fiction and hyperbole in order to decide who it is that should lead us for the next four years. To remind us of what are the right questions to ask and how to ask them. We invited Dr. Christopher DeCarlo, noted philosopher of science and ethics, whose research focuses on how and why humans reason think and act the way they do.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Christopher DeCarlo, thank you very much.
So I first came across your book in a kind of strange way. I met my husband when we were both academics. We were both grad students in neuroscience and we courted for a while. And then he was after his postdoc, recruited away to a biotechnology focused hedge fund. And, you know, he was a very sweet. He is a very sweet, kind academic type. And I wasn’t sure about the hedge fund world, but I thought it was interesting adventure for him. And one day I came home and all of a sudden I see him in his favorite chair reading a book called How to be a Really Good Pain in the Ass. And I have to say, some some warning bells did start ringing in my head. So this is the book that you wrote, and it’s called Critical Thinkers Guide to Asking the Right Questions. Can you tell us a little bit about what motivated you to write this book?
Well, sure. I’ve been teaching critical thinking for over 20 years as a professor. And every year you get these different types of critical thinking books across your desk. Please use this one.
And what I found was that none of them addressed what I thought were the big questions in life. And then look at the ways in which people answer those big questions, because it occurred to me that. How we answer what I call the big five tend to trickle down and affect the way people respond to other important aspects of life, things like abortion and.
The law, health care, economics, even art, and I decided, well, I’m going to create a critical thinking book that addresses those major questions in life so that it’s kind of like a helpful primer to critical thinking and what really is important in human lives.
So what are the big five, the big five starts with the most important question, what can I know? So this is, you know, one of the greatest philosophical, unscientific questions we can ask yourself. What is the limit of my knowledge? What can I actually know? What can I know for sure? What do I think I know? What do I think we’ll be able to know? And then from there, it looks at why am I here? What am I. How should I behave? And what is to come of me? And these pretty much cover the biggest questions humans have been able to ask since we’ve become conscious, you know, wide dispersed people, you know, across the world. And they’re quite common. Throat, throat, all cultures. So I figured, well, OK, why not have a book that deals specifically with those questions?
And so throughout your book, you describe different tools that people can use in order to answer these questions. Or would you do you want them more to use those tools to gather the information they’re going to need to answer these questions? How do you anticipate that people will use the different critical thinking tools in the book and to help them get get around the big five questions?
Right. Well, one of the things I do in the book is I, I look at the way in which people answer them from a natural perspective or purely in a kind of a scientific way. And then the ways in which people have answered them in a supernatural context as well. And then I kind of put it on the table for people to decide where where are you in in the ways in which these questions can be answered and how important is answering them one way or another or trying to hybridize them somehow?
How how important has that been in your life? And what led you to this particular point in time where you have answered these questions in this particular way?
And would you be willing to change should new evidence arise and.
Basically give you reason for for further thought on these questions.
So the five questions actually are, of course, the questions that a lot of religions and a lot of belief systems attempt to provide answers for as well, which is partly probably why you chose to look at both the supernatural saw a potential answer and the naturalistic response. Do you anticipate that people who read this book will are more likely than to turn towards a more naturalistic or scientific explanation for these questions or answers to these questions? Or do you feel that a person is equally likely to maintain their beliefs regardless of what they are?
Yeah, that’s a very good question.
I make little qualms about, you know, where my biases lie. I think that’s disingenuous when professors do that. So I in classes, I tell my students and they pretty much know upfront which side I’m coming down on when I answer those questions.
But I also tell them you don’t just simply have to believe what I believe because I’m I’m the person at the front of the room who’s grading your papers.
The same thing’s true as an author. People, by the end of the book don’t have to believe what I my particular view is on the, you know, answering the big five. I leave that up to them to decide. And I try to make the book as fair as possible.
Fair and balanced in an unforecast news type of way.
As much as I can. Yes. Yes. And so if you if a person decides that.
So I guess I’m a person who comes from a belief system that is very much tied to faith rather than evidence based beliefs. Do you think that they should they they all that they need to know is that they’ve chosen to go the faith route. That that’s the important thing that they take from the book or that they start questioning the sort of morality or the faith or the answers that they’ve been given to these questions.
Yeah. It’s more of the latter, more that, you know, you you have the right the political freedom to believe just about anything you want. And like I said, you can you can pray to sacred squirrels. None of that necessarily bothers me. What is at issue is the level and extent to which your beliefs affect action.
Where those actions could possibly be deemed in any way harmful to another person or another species. So it’s one thing to have supernatural answers to the big five. It’s another thing to say, OK, what does that do when those those responses are now put into action? How does that affect your behavior? And as long as you’re paying your taxes, as long as you’re, you know, being a relatively, you know, decent person and the people who are supernatural’s that I respect the most are those who have the reflective capacity to say, you know what, I could be wrong. And I’m fully aware of that. But this is something that I just happen to need in my life right now. And if if they’re incapable of making.
You know, that a connection of of recognizing that in all likelihood, their beliefs may be entirely unfounded, but they have the capacity, you know, to acknowledge that there is room for they’re there for lack of a better word, their ignorance to be revealed that they don’t really have the answers they think they do.
Then I think there’s a what I would call an epistemic hope. There’s something there that can give them an impetus on which to think more carefully, more critically about what it is they happen to believe and why they believe that.
And by the same token, I feel that the humanists or the atheists that I also respect the most are the ones who have that same doubt in my belief system.
You know, I don’t think that they’re. I don’t I don’t have any evidence for the supernatural acting in our world. But I’m also open to the idea that I could be wrong.
That’s right. But it’s not so much, you know, as Tim mentioned says, if you open your mind too much, your brains will fall out. Right. So what you want to you want to keep an open mind.
But it’s guarded. It’s very guarded. And as a good skeptic, it’s always at a level where you say, OK, should the possibility of some type of evidence come along that would lead me to believe otherwise I would have to follow where the evidence leads. I mean, that’s just.
Kind of rule one of understanding, you know, the natural world. But until that happens, I’m not going to have my life guided by chasing after what could ultimately simply be, you know, wild, fanciful pursuits that actually have no basis in reality whatsoever. So, yep, the mind will be kept open, but only in so far as a good skeptic should keep her mind open, which is OK, show me the money. Once you know, once the evidence is there, then I have no option but to follow it and to see where it naturally takes me. And until it appears, then I don’t necessarily have to be chasing all these wild various types of speculations which could ultimately lead me nowhere.
And of course, the scientific endeavor is sort of setup for that exact situation, because if there is some kind of paradigm shifting evidence, it has to be replicated under multiple conditions. You know, and we have to come at the same to the same conclusion from multiple directions. So, of course, the bar is much higher for something that seems to defy the laws of physics as we know them, for example.
That’s it. That’s great.
So what do you think a person who reads your book might come at it? For two reasons. One, it might be a personal reason that they want to answer those questions for themselves and become better consumers of information that is out there.
But in my husband’s case, he was reading it in part because his job involves asking questions of people who have information that he wants to glean and being able to separate fact from fiction.
And so he he he read the book with that intention in mind for people who want to either help get information from somebody or help someone come to a different conclusion, would they read the book and get something completely different out of it?
Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s possible I divided the book up into three parts to make it very helpful to to any reader. And in part one, I call it, you know, the boxes. And Ian EFS of critical thinking. And these are really just the tools that any person, regardless of how they answer the big five or any other question or deal with major issues in life. It doesn’t matter. We’ll make you a more responsible thinker because it talks about, well, what is an argument? A is for argument. B is for biases. What what has influenced you throughout your life, both biologically and culturally, to shape the way in which you see it now? See, the world sees for context, you know? Do you understand information in the right context?
How fair are you being in terms of understanding information?
We’re not seeing an awful lot of fairness with the presidential campaign in the U.S. right now, but that’s because there’s a lot of misuse of context, ideas for diagraming anything you believe.
You can pretty much write down on a piece of paper and literally see what your argument looks like. It’s skeletal structure is for evidence and the types of evidence that there that there are and efforts for fallacies. So when somebody commits an error in reasoning, there’s like there’s an app for so many things. There’s a fallacy for that. So there are ways to be able to find out what’s right and wrong about not just other people’s thinking, but your own reasoning as well. So part one gives everybody the tools in an effort to be. And there’s that word again. Fair. Right. If we want to have meaningful dialog with people and not just talk past each other or to have something turn into a shouting match, then there have to be rules. There really are better and worse ways to thinking, reasoning and communicating.
And those are the rules that are set down in part one of the book. And if most politicians were to just read that part of the book, I think it would change in some ways the way in which they communicate their ideas and how they would express their ideas to try to be more cogent, be more effective in their communication, and to get people to really take notice and try to understand why it is they’re coming at a particular issue or problem from that particular perspective or that side of the floor, so to speak. And then the middle part deals with Socrates and the ancient skeptics and why they were so good at developing systems for communicating and having discussions with people, especially those who think that they bounce for the Big Five in a definitively supernatural and absolutely true manner. And if you just look at the world religions of today, many people who are are deeply religious believe they have answered those big five in ways in which they cannot possibly be wrong.
And that’s where and I think we have some problems.
If you are so forthright and correct in your thinking that you can’t even entertain the possibility of being wrong. That can be fairly dangerous because that gives you the right to basically do whatever you feel justified in doing according to your religious beliefs.
And so that’s why I think Socrates, the ancient skeptics, helped contribute to the development of what we now call the scientific method. I think it’s extremely important and unfortunate, really, that we’ve forgotten how important the ancient skeptics and the Socratic method is to the way in which we reason about the natural world today. And then, of course, in part three, I just look at the natural and supernatural ways in which people answer the big time.
Yeah. I’d like to get back to the Socratic method, in part because what I was doing my television show on the Oprah Winfrey Network and I was constantly facing people who had extremely strong beliefs, particularly with respect to divine intervention in their own lives. I found the only way that I could get into a dialog with someone was by asking questions. And, you know, of course, that’s that’s a wonderful way to have a conversation. But I felt it was my only tool to get them to start thinking about all the things that their explanation does not provide answers for. Which for me is is the fundamental problem with claiming that something is supernatural. It sounds like a very parsimonious, tight explanation. God did that. Or, you know, there is there exists this other force, but there are so many things that are unexplained. When you when you make that kind of a statement that the only way that I could show people how in fact, the scientific method, which might not be able to answer as definitively a single experience, but can still provide answers to a lot of the other general phenomenon that we experience every day. All right. So what if for someone who just wants to put a couple of tools in their back pocket and if at a dinner party, when they meet someone who has a belief that they are, they would like the person to reconsider or think about in a different way, how can they apply the Socratic method to get that person to think differently?
I tell people one of the most successful ways that I’ve seen in current media is to call bear them, huh?
And what Stephen Colbert does, a few fake news journalists can do better than. And that is you start off by agreeing with them, because if you if you are immediately oppositional, what happens with with deeply religious people is they will recognize either a sense of mockery or derision or they will they will catch a vibe that you’re not necessarily on board with their particular way of thinking.
And they will be very guarded about how they communicate that with you. And they will dig in their heels and you will get an immediate kind of you know, you are seen as the adversary and you’ll get this immediate kind of negative approach to trying to find out more about why it is they do happen to believe that. And is there room for, you know, considering or reconsidering their position? So the Socratic method begins by showing interest with the other person’s beliefs. No matter how much they may differ from your on, you show an interest that immediately puts the person at ease, opens them up to the possibility of wanting to discuss more with you about their views. And then it’s simply a matter of just getting them talking. Well, that’s easy now because you put them at ease and the questions you ask them are intended to be genuinely of interest and of furthering what it is they’re trying to say, trying to help them articulate their particular points. But really, what it is in disguise as a way of getting them to walk down a path where they will inevitably fall upon inconsistency and contradiction and then they have to work their way out of those. But you don’t necessarily come at it. The conversation in in a negative approach. It’s done in a more kind of. This is fascinating. Coming more about this. And then you can get them to talk more about what their ideas are. And once they start to talk about them, like if you get a person to say, well, my God is all knowing what’s amazing is is on all know it knows everything, that that’s fascinating. That’s incredible. And he allows us to freely choose. Wait a minute. That’s incredible. I’ve never heard of an omniscient being that we can allow freewill because it would know everything you were going to do. Wow. Can you tell me more how it does this?
And then now you’ve introduced a contradiction to them. They believe in a being that is all knowing that somehow allows us to be free. But that’s an immediate contradict. It’s impossible either. Such a God would have to turn off its omniscient. Right. Or not fitness. Right. And they’re they’re basically stuck in going one of two way. And so now they come to this part on the path. They have to try to think about this. A little more carefully and more. More than likely people I have conversations about metaphysical beings, gods, deities, and they’ve never thought about this very deeply. So that’s it to me. That’s an easy one to get them to start off thinking about. Oh, gee, I never. No, I never thought about that.
And, of course, the happy truth is, is that it is fascinating because at some point, inevitably, it’s going to lead down the path to one of the big five questions, which we’re all interested in. So one of the motives, my motivations for asking you to be on the show now as opposed to at some other time of the year, is because we are coming up to this election cycle in the U.S. and we’re going to have to sift through a lot of propaganda and decide who it is that we should vote for. So can you give us a little bit of advice as to what are the most? You mentioned context is one of the most commonly used tools that that sort of manipulate information. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
Well, I just saw recently on the news where Obama was talking about really the basis of his statement to the people was the cooperation is key and that nobody succeed alone.
And he had mentioned that if you have a business, you did not you did not do that or you did not gain that simply by yourself.
And then he went on to talk about why, you know, and it’s basically because there was an already existing infrastructure. There was already people before you you might have had assistance from a loan from a bank. You might have had your parents, you know, who encouraged you.
And basically his point was that cooperation is key to building a great nation. Well, what does Fox News do? Right. They take that one little soundbite that if you have your own business, you did not do that by yourself. They took this entirely out of context and they attacked his particular point of view based on that and, you know, wrongful contextual relation.
They created a strawman and attack that.
Well, that’s a basic fallacy of relevance where they are not being fair at all. They had to do is just play the entire clip. And it would’ve been obvious for anybody to be able to see the context in which he made that statement.
Sure. And I’m sure that but there are there are people on the Democratic side, too, that would could make the same could make use of the same sort of quotes coming from Mitt Romney, for example, and take them out of context. Oh, so I guess that’s one of the things when where it when we’re trying to evaluate a particular statement, we need to consider the rest of the person’s thoughts on the matter. That’s fair to say.
It is. It is. And, you know, I mean, in all in all fairness to Romney, he’s he’s got a he’s got to toe the company line, so to speak. Right. He’s got to pretend he’s a hardcore Republican, even though we knew he was pretty much a middle of the road governor in Massachusetts, pretty much preceded Obamacare.
I mean, you can’t forget this. I’m a Canadian looking down, you know, at the U.S. and I can see this. So I would imagine people who actually live it are aware of that as well.
Yeah, I’m Canadian, too. Having lived in the US now for 12 years, I still, you know, my Canadian family and friends, they see me, of course, as very American, even though I I don’t actually have citizenship. But they do chime in a lot and and talk about how partizan our politics are down here. But one of the things I think that it’s becoming extremely a major talking point, of course, in this fall is going to be the health care system. And, you know, of course, as a Canadian, I actually felt that my health care in Canada was far better than the health care I’ve had in the States for the last 10 years. So I don’t I you know, I think health care for everyone is a great idea if we can afford it somehow. Of course, health care in Canada has its major problems. And I don’t want to get too far down that road. But I did want to ask you about, you know, in the U.S., a lot of I did. And I don’t know if it’s because of the way or the health healthcare system is set up where it’s more payer based. It’s more of a customer relationship with with a physician. But there seem to be a lot of false beliefs that are prevalent throughout the country about different aspects of health care. And I’m wondering if if you see that same prevalence in Canada, so, for example, the anti vaccination movement is is one that I find particularly egregious in terms of, you know, consumers of health care in Canada. They don’t have to pull out their checkbook every time they go to the doctor. Are they more likely to accept what the doctor tells them than, say, in the U.S. where because it’s becoming much more of a consumer focused interaction?
I find myself questioning when I go. For example, I just had an injury in which I had to go and see a plastic surgeon because it was a severe burn.
And any time he pulled out, you know, a particular tool or, you know, suggested a particular treatment, there was a part of me that thought, well, how much is that going to cost? And do I need that? And I felt that in some ways that sort of sets up a situation in which a person can then go on the Internet and find out that if they eat goji berries or they put egg whites on the burn, they can find a site that will say that will actually heal you faster than, you know, the skin grafts that the that the plastic surgeons recommended, which are going to cost thousands of dollars. But, of course, you know, there’s no evidence that goji berries or egg whites or whatever are are going to be helpful. So I wondered whether you have noticed in Canada that people are more trusting of Medek, the medical field, because they don’t have to pull out their checkbook every time and thereby try to second guess whether or not their treatment is right for them or if there’s the same propensity towards home remedies and believing in sort of myths related to medicine.
No. It’s a very interesting point because, you know, here in Canada, we can develop a specific ailment. We can go to a general practitioner. That doctor can look at it. If they don’t feel comfortable with what their diagnosis is and the treatment isn’t working, then you move on to a specialist and you can see a specialist.
And, you know, you you can you can question what it is they’re they’re doing as well. But there seems to be a greater ease going to different physicians because you have that that potential to seek out other forms of of medical treatment beyond just, you know, your your general practitioner and and not have to worry about the cost. And I really. Yeah. I’m wondering if if, in fact, that does change the dynamic of of the very way in which health care is done in Canada, in the U.S.. If I were in the U.S. and I had to worry constantly about cost and payment and whatnot, it would change my dynamic, I’m sure, in the ways in which I was being treated and how I. I thought this doctor was was examining me and coming up with a diagnosis and a prognosis. So, yeah, with with not having to worry about that at all. It really does change the way in which, you know, medicine, I think is done.
And by the way, we may see changes to the Canadian system in the future as the demographic continues to get older and older. But as for right now, yeah, I have friends, you know, living in the States and that’s what we talk about when we get together. How how do you like your your health insurance? How do you like your health coverage? What do you pay for? What don’t you pay for? When do you decide not to go to a doctor because you think you can just take care of it yourself and you can just get better on your own. Right. So it really does change that dynamic.
It’ll be interesting to see if, you know, as it Canada shifts more towards a payer system and the U.S., you know, presuming the Affordable Care Health Care Act remains in place, maybe shifts more towards a globalized or a sort of nationwide health care system. If if there is a relative change in the number of myths that people believe in with regards to their own health care. But I guess time will tell. I wanted to move now to to the book that you’re currently working on, which is called The New Ethics. Could you describe a little bit about this project?
Yes. What I’m doing in this in this latest book is I’m considering the way in which science can come to the table in terms of looking at ethics and get together with, you know, philosophers and consider what it means to value human actions as being good or bad or right or wrong or fair and unfair, and to be able to consider how can we take a sort of synthetic look at at human action so that when when we call a particular pattern of behavior good or bad, what is exactly what exactly is going on and how well have we analyzed all of the constraints through which a given person in a given context has been able to act and then to be able to consider to what extent they were within their their power of control to be able to exercise that particular type or pattern of behavior.
And so I guess this comes to the question of where do we stand in terms of understanding our own motivations for behaving the way that we do and how that relates to the current debate in neuroscience about freewill and whether or not it’s illusory.
Right. Now, that’s a that’s a great question, because when we look at all the various constraints, you know, that bias, human behavior and action, things like, you know, which part of the world were you born in? What was your family development like? What what kind of biological and neuro genetic factors are at work in your behavior? When we look at all of these various types of constraints and then we look at a person’s behavior within a given context. We really seriously have to sit down and ask ourselves, how does freewill enter the picture here?
For example, with the recent shootings in the Colorado theater, all we see is a person who is seeing the world radically differently from the way you and I are are seeing it right now and behave.
In a way that is horrific and destroying the lives of so many people in such a brief period of time. What led to that development? So that it became a decision within any given person’s mind to create such atrocities in human lives. And I think once we understand the context, once we can understand the constraints through which a person’s behavior was being controlled and influenced, I think we’ll be better able to understand why horrific acts occur so that we can better plan for them. But so that we can also anticipate why these things may occur in the first place and try to deal with them before they do so by the end of the book.
The conclusion may just be that we have very little control over how it is we behave at any given time.
And if that’s the case, we have to reevaluate value. We have to basically come up with a new paradigm for discussing what value actually is when we attribute it to certain types of human actions.
One of the things that makes me hopefully a good skeptic, a little bit nervous when you talk about it and that kind of a direction, is that how is this going to be different if you decide? Well, here’s a value system, then that we must apply from religion, from institutionalized religion, in which I am told how I’m supposed to behave. And I’m given a set of morals, which I’m supposed to follow and not question.
Well, unlike having kind of a top down approach from from a, you know, a deity down through, you know, various subclasses of saints and angels and all that sort of thing, down to a lowly humans, this will be a kind of a bottom up approach where when we understand from the ground up these various types of factors, we will have to reevaluate the labels we attribute to certain types of actions because we have been able to dig into the onion so far, so to speak, to be able to find out what all those connecting layers are and why we don’t have to necessarily approve of certain types of behaviors, because we will simply redefine the ways in which values are attributed to actions. So we will still be able to say it’s wrong to commit acts of of of random violence, is wrong to commit acts of rape and various other types of acts. And we can give our reasons for those because of the harm that they generate. And the reason why we can take measures or aims to stop them and to deal with them is because they do bring about certain levels of undesirable consequences. And we can literally measure them that way so that when a person’s behavior goes against the general accepted way of trying to understand what looks good and bad and right and wrong actions are we are our better enabled to quantify the value of those those particular patterns of behavior. And we’re much more, I think, credible than just pulling morals out of thin air. You know, some apparently written on stone tablets, others brought down through divinity and divine inspiration and so on and so forth. We can come up with a more universalized system of value that applies irrespective of where you are on this planet.
So in some ways, though, I still worry that now the Saints have been replaced by the philosophers and potentially people like neuroscientists who have some knowledge of the lay public doesn’t always have access to. But I guess the onus then is going to be on them to really inform the public about why they come up, come to their conclusions and make the chain of evidence so clear that most people would agree.
Yeah. That is going to be the really difficult part in the next hundred years.
Right. Is to try to get people to shift away from a dualist account. You know that there’s this kind of ghost in the machine that’s responsible for my moral behavior and to to come in to to more of what’s what’s known as an identity theory kind of basis for human behavior.
That is to say, there’s really no ghost in the machine. There’s there’s really just the machine and we’re it. Right.
And how are we going to control the machines from. From acting, you know, out of line and the ways in which we define that new value structure.
Right. Well, I hope that book comes out soon. What is your anticipated publication date? Do you have one yet?
I do not at this particular point. We’re looking at hopefully next by next summer.
So that is what I will be busy working on for the next eight to 10 months.
Great. Well, I won’t take up anymore of your valuable time then, but thank you very much for being on point of inquiry. Christopher DeCarlo.
Well, it was my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show on critical thinking and asking the right questions. Visit point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org on Twitter, at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas.