24 July 2014

oh, the thinks you can think; or why we shouldn't disengage they grey matter

I'm afraid this might be something of a companion piece my earlier rant about infographics.  If you think I've got a bug up my arse about this, you're right.

As most of you, I imagine, already know, I am a Gnostic priest.  As most you, I imagine, also already know, the word "gnosis" means "knowledge".  I take knowledge very seriously.  I am a Gnostic in part because I don't believe that knowledge is reducible to facts or data; I maintain that there are many kinds of knowledge, not all of which are reducible to what we might ordinarily call "reason".  When I say that I know my friend John, or that I know Beethoven's Für Elise, or that I know what it's like to struggle financially, or that I know the presence of the divine, I'm saying very different things in each case.  All that said, I still take reason seriously as well.  One of the things that drew me to Gnosticism, and away from mainstream faiths, is that it doesn't demand that I take my brain off the hook in order to participate in the work of the divine.  Gnosticism doesn't demand that blind, uncritical faith which is the enemy of reason. As a philosopher as well as a priest, I was able to be true to my own most treasured value, summed up in a quote that long hung over my desk, from Liber XXX (The Book of the Balance): "The sin which is unpardonable is to knowingly and willfully reject the truth, to fear knowledge lest that knowledge pander not to thy prejudices."

It distresses me therefore to see anyone, let alone a self-described Gnostic, and even worse someone who casts him or herself as a spiritual leader, fall prey to the temptation to say, as it were, even in jest, "Don't think about it. You should believe me, simply because I said it." Whenever someone tells me that I shouldn't ask questions or shouldn't demand reasons, my red flags go up all over the place.  Weighing evidence, demanding reasons, evaluating claims -- these are the things that we should be doing continuously.

Social media in particular doesn't really lend itself to critical thinking.  It encourages us by its very structure to accept platitudes, to think in bite sized chunks, and to buy into a pretty picture and a convincing snippet of text.  I consider it my responsibility to resist this tendency, and to discourage it in others. At the end of the day, I'm not unsusceptible to these kinds of persuasion. I know that when I see an image with a quote or a claim that panders to my prejudices, I'm liable to buy it hook line and sinker. This is a problem. We should constantly be on the watch against this temptation; it's more dangerous than we imagine.

If someone asks you for sources, or wants you to back up a claim, they're not attacking you. They're not questioning your integrity, they're not calling you a liar.  They're doing what we should all be doing.  Thinking.

So, even when you're limited to 140 characters or you're sending off that neat statistic you just read on buzzfeed, don't turn your brain off.  Thinking is your friend. You've relied on it your whole life, and by God, you're good at it. "Oh, the thinks you can think, if only you try."

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