Before we move on, let’s be clear: Doubt being the essence of critical thinking does not mean paralysis. At some point the thinker makes a choice to move forward. 

Even the supposedly highly objective skill of reasoning, it turns out, according to the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, is not objective at all. Reasoning is about giving your “reasons.” If we take our reason for eating, for example, it’s to allay our hunger or support our nutrition. The vast majority of people in the course of history have eaten because they were hungry. The vast majority of people over the course of history and pre-history, have taken action to minimize the chances of their going hungry. Feeling hunger (a sensation) leads to a desire (an emotion) to eat. 

Hume famously wrote: “Reason is ... slave to the passions.”

How do we know what we think we know? At the simplest level, at our earliest stages of gaining self-consciousness, we know (knew) it when we are (were) hungry, thirsty, etc. 

We know when we want to have inputs to and outputs from our body. As we gain maturity, we know when we want or need sleep. Most of us know if we enjoy the experience of consuming broccoli or chocolate ice cream. We know these things with high personal confidence. In a flourishing society, nobody will even argue with you if you say you are hungry. Even if they do argue, how could they convince you that you are wrong about your own internal experience? (Okay, it’s possible that you are lying … or that something is seriously wrong with you.)

On the other hand, it is very challenging to extend these basic internal experiences common to all humans to a wider range of things that we might (or might never) have the chance and choice to know. Even Francis Bacon, who is said to have laid the groundwork for modern science to evolve, did not have a fully developed formal epistemology so that he could check and double check the accuracy of his starting precepts and foundational logical deductions.

How do you know that what you think is correct is really correct? It is very difficult for most people to even face this question. We know B because we learned A, and then we are led onward to C, D, etc. To a large degree, our personal organic experiences determine what we know. And if we think we know it, we act like we know it, until we encounter an obstacle. Even then, we usually attempt to find all kinds of “workarounds” rather than giving up our belief in the fact-base we have taken so long to master.

Each of us who work in a specialty field are likely exposed to many and varied opportunities to develop our expertise along certain lines. Some of us take it, and follow it to a mental place that was surely unknown to us when we put the first foot on that path.

A big part of where I ended up (for now) is developing a methodology to increase the chances that any of my personal “brain work” has multiple points where I stop to ask whether I really know what I think I know. Knowing how to calibrate my confidence, even in the presence of emotions, perhaps especially in the presence of emotions, is a first step toward demonstrating discernment. Stay tuned in this blog for more tips on how to start to develop your own epistemology skills. Of course, all humans get caught in impossible situations and all humans make mistakes. But forewarned is forearmed.

Read parts 1, 2 and/or 3.