Think about it- a Conversation

I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)

I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:

First voice, John Locke

Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.

Second voice, Allan Bloom

In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:

Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.

~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)

When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.

Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield

I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:

I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.

~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7

Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.

Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.

Finale, Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.

~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).

Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.

BL

The Most Dangerous Metaphors

The most dangerous metaphors for us are the ones that cease to be recognizable as metaphors. For many people the analogy between brain and computer has reached that point: the brain isn’t like a computer, they think, it is a computer. (“A computer made of meat,” some say.) When that happens to us, we are in a bad way, because those screens become permanently implanted, and we lose the ability to redirect our attention toward those elements of reality we have ignored.

~Alan Jacobs, How to Thinkp. 104

Forums to share

Whenever I find them, I will try to watch or listen to roundtable discussions composed of my favorite authors or speakers. I sometimes find these attached to larger conferences, variously described as Q & A or open forums. At the best of times, I’ll find a relaxed and serendipitous conversation, where thinkers will address a range of topics they haven’t necessarily covered in their writing and speaking.

I’d like to share two such talks in this post. The first is a round-table discussion between the notorious Four Horsemen of the New Atheism movement, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. Apparently the title of the video, “The Four Horsemen” was its inaugural use. While I like these guys quite a bit more than they would like me, what I appreciated about this video was the opportunity to see these men interacting on areas of agreement and, most interesting to me, areas of disagreement. I have read quite a bit of Dawkins and have always found him more enjoyable in print that in person. I admire the late Christopher Hitchens the most of the lot, primarily because of his candor and interest in granting fair representation of those whom he (sometimes vehemently) disagrees with. Though their rhetoric can occasionally be taxing to this pious Christian, I find interacting with their challenges to be mostly enjoyable.

The second video is a discussion between pastors and theologians, John Piper, Doug Wilson, Sam Storms, and Jim Hamilton. The two hour session was called An Evening of Eschatology. The four men interact on various views regarding what Scripture says about things to come. The discussion is situated around the various positions on the millennium referenced in Revelation 20 (Wilson- postmillennial, Storms- amillennial, Hamilton- premillennial, with Piper serving as moderator), so you have a unique opportunity to see how the positions compare in the context of a passionate yet irenic debate.

If you’re in to this sort of thing, drop a line into the comments of any talks you’d recommend. I’ve enjoyed these discussions across a variety of subjects including history, theology, politics, science, ethical issues, etc. I’ll try to share more as time allows.

Worshiping a Haze

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I am not one of those people who think that the intensity of authentic worship rises to the degree that we don’t understand the mystery of God. There are people who seem to want to correlate them: My worship is just so strong when I realize what I don’t know. I say: Well, there is a sense in which God is vastly beyond us because infinite is beyond finite. But our worship to glorify God must be based on what we have seen of God, what we know of God, what he has revealed of himself. If we are just worshiping a haze, God is not getting a lot of glory from the warm feelings that we are having in our hearts because of the ignorance of not being in our heads because of the haze over our lives.

~ John Piper