Toward Becoming an Independent Critical Thinker

To be an independent critical thinker it helps to know your history, and it is vital that you understand how culture works, and has worked on you and everybody else. The independent thinker, Thomas Berry, shows an understanding of both in the following observation: “The current extinction is being caused by human action with a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.” Berry here mentions the dangers of extreme human-centeredness, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the consequences of anthropocentrism on the world. What is not mentioned, but also built into our cultural tradition, is a virulent strain of authoritarianism, and this tendency informs not only our monotheistic religious traditions but also the history of science.
Within all the monotheistic book religions, the common man is asked to cede his spiritual sovereignty to a class of individuals known as the priesthood. They are the experts in the book, and they assume the role of spiritual authority, acting as moral arbiter and intermediary between the individual believer and a putative deity. A couple thousand years of this has conditioned the people of our culture to accept this hierarchical, patriarch cal, authoritarian structure as normal—the way of the world. In this, it also helps to know your anthropology, and to be exposed to cultures other than your own: to recognize the difference between a cultural institution and the natural ordering of the world.
After Galileo, the Religious Establishment and the nascent Scientific Establishment divided the world between them. The world of spirit was claimed by the Church and the material world by Science; thus was created a false separation between the spiritual and material worlds–a human construct that does not exist in reality, but the pretense has had far-reaching ramifications, both within our culture and in the world at large.
The pattern of authoritarianism set in motion and perfected by the priest class, including its hold over the popular mind, has continued into the Age of Science. For many, science is their religion (it is called scientism) and scientific opinion functions for these true believers as the gospels have functioned for the christian faithful, especially in providing a sense of certainty. It is precisely here that critical distinctions can be made which define the difference between an individual becoming a true believer in science, or becoming an independent critical thinker with a scientific bent. Many who profess the faith of science conflate scientific fact with scientistic doctrine. It is scientific fact that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and that our planet (along with others) is in orbit around it. That is demonstrable fact. That the Universe is without meaning, and that Nature is indifferent or hostile to humans, is not fact: it is opinion: one of the doctrines of scierntism. Sorting out the difference between scientific fact and scientistic doctrine is the job of an independent critical thinker, but it is not for everyone. It requires a mind able to make meaningful distinctions, but more than that it calls for a high tolerance to ambiguity, accompanied by a willingness to live with many, many uncertainties. There is so much we don’t know, and never will know, and the deepest sort of intellectual honesty requires that we make peace with this condition of our existence. It is nothing more than anthropocentric hubris to assume that civilization’s project of total scientific knowledge and total technological control is anything but narcissistic self-delusion. It is living in the human-created world of separation from Nature rather than in the world of Nature itself; as this false world fails us, it is causing the world itself to fail.

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