The human power of a logical mind is a wonderful and yet often idle thing. Vested interests in our traditions and authority means we leave a lot of what we know to what our school teachers, parents and governments have informed us. But how reliable is that knowledge in the end? We can all recount a time when those external sources of information have led us astray, I fondly remember my high school Chemistry teacher revealing to me that a lot of what they taught me in middle school chemistry was so wrong, that it was more akin to a lie than an oversimplification for my young brain to decipher. This experience was one of the first times I realized that my base of knowledge, fed to me through sources that I thought were authorities on knowledge, might be compromised.
Obviously I am not the first person to tackle this issue, and none is more remembered for his work on the subject than René “I think therefore I am” Descartes. Descartes was a 17th century philosopher, who alleged that all knowledge could be derived from oneself, as he too was a little paranoid of external knowledge. He was a rationalist, and saw that most of the world’s problems came from miscommunication, biases and confusion. Problems which, Descartes believed, ultimately came from false knowledge in our minds and an inability to notice or remove them. He often likened this situation as a basket of apples; where the bad apples could spread the rot onto the good apples, and so it is one’s explicit duty to check each and every individual apple before they can be put back in the basket. This trick for a healthy mind is the centerpiece of a more practical rationalism.
Rationalism, let alone philosophy in general, is hugely demanding, and thinking at the standards of the greatest philosophers is hard when you’re life’s passion is not solely to understand the world but to visit New Zealand, become the world’s best football player or go to the moon. However if you identify with what Descartes says, then maybe it’s time you delve just a little into your own mind and think about all the times you have passed judgement and made important decisions based on what you thought you knew.
This might seem tedious, and even distressing, as you could start to develop a crisis of faith from this “method of doubt”. Questioning everything can be quite incapacitating, as you plunge deeper down the rabbit hole that is “what is real”, but it doesn’t have to come to that. Focus on obtaining disconfirming and confirming evidence for whatever beliefs you hold dear or tend to use, and judge once you know enough to satisfy your doubts, then move on. Even if you don’t fully understand evolution, for example, and you don’t have any background in even biology, get to know enough so that you don’t feel like a parrot repeating back what your teachers taught you.
Becoming this kind of practical rationalist takes time, but the returns on this investment, as you can imagine, is that you become wiser and less full of crap. You might find out something new, you might get rid of an old stigma or two, but most importantly; you’ll get a greater sense of just how much you don’t know about this world. René Descartes traveled through over twenty countries, found not only faith in himself but also in the world around him. He thought a little bit more, and became a lot wiser, and now, so can you.
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