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Thread: Critical Thinking

  1. #1
    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Critical Thinking

    Without constraining responses by using a poll, I want to ask:

    1. To what extent is critical thinking an essential component of contemplative practice? (Here is a definition & discussion of that term) What, if anything, is as important - or even more important - than critical thinking with respect to examining contemplative claims & practices?

    (And you know, let me also ask:

    2. Who has/has not taken e.g. college classes in critical thinking, or otherwise engaged in a specific attempt to learn it?)

  2. #2
    Previous Member CedarTree's Avatar
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    Actual practice.

    I studied logic and philosophy in school. Deep meditation practice provides experiential content and the "well" for were that Philosophy and logic is later formalized.

    They all work together it's why every religion (most of) stress practice and yet have a large philosophical and apologetics library.

    Usually it goes like this deep experiences and understanding the nature of life and such - Philosophy trying to codify and explain experience content - Lastly apologetics. Apologetics is usually the worst of the worst material but it's how a lot of people have to function in the beginning of their practice and or quest for truth. Still is a pretty terrible arena lol

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    Forums Member Element's Avatar
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    The Pali suttas are exceptionally clear about how to practise therefore no critical thinking is required in this respect.

    Here, genuine contemplative practise has its sole foundation in "vossagga" ("letting go"; "relinquishment"), as described in SN 48.10 & also at the end of MN 118 (in relation to the seven factors of enlightenment). The entirety of contemplative practise is as described in the meditation suttas as: 'abandoning covetousness & distress in relation to everything'.

    However, the masses/plethora of teachers, scholars, commentaries, mistranslated suttas, etc, is what requires much critical thinking.

    If there remains questioning & critical thinking, there remains covetousness & distress, therefore there is no contemplative practise. Buddhist contemplative practise require the total abandonment of the intention to practise contemplative practise.

    From 4:32.


  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by daverupa

    Who has/has not taken e.g. college classes in critical thinking, or otherwise engaged in a specific attempt to learn it?
    I haven't taken a formal course in critical thinking - but having trained as a schoolteacher and as a counsellor for troubled teenagers, I think I've probably learned something about it along the way.

    Quote Originally Posted by Element
    However, the masses/plethora of teachers, scholars, commentaries, mistranslated suttas, etc, is what requires much critical thinking
    Yes, I think this is important, especially in the cases where revered teachers (eg in Mahayana/Vajrayana and Zen) have been exposed as significantly less than responsible when taking sexual advantage of vunerable students, managing centres etc

    As for commentaries, poor translations and possible later add-ons to suttas - it also seems important to be able to apply critical thinking and investigation.

    Quote Originally Posted by Element

    If there remains questioning & critical thinking, there remains covetousness & distress

    I don't think that need be necessarily so, if questions are finally resolved it could provide a sense of great relief and "letting go." which might be of benefit to one's personal practice.

    This is an excerpt from the article "A Critical Mind" on the website of Karma Yeshe Rabgye who is a western Tibetan Buddhist monk:


    The problem with blindly following what you are told, or have read, is that you are liable to get yourself tangled up in some mystical story and miss what Buddha actually taught. Now, there is nothing wrong with stories, as long as you can extract the point from the story and not just believe the words to be true. This is where critical thinking comes in. If we test the words against the Buddha’s discourses and our own experiences, we should be able to follow the Buddha’s path.

    However, if you just believe what a teacher has told you, or you have read, you may set off down the wrong path, get disillusioned and end up with more suffering. If you believe what elders have told you, without checking, you could get totally wrapped up in superstitions and old wives tales. Again, this is going to lead you down the wrong path and you may start thinking of Buddha as a god – which he clearly wasn’t.

    Let’s expand on this point. When Buddha was asked if he was a god or a celestial being he stated that he was not, but he was awakened. Now, if you read some stories you could start to believe that he was a god, because they state he was born from under the arm, he walked as soon as he was born, where he placed his feet lotuses sprung up and he had many special marks on his body. So if you don’t test these words against your experience and the discourses you will see Buddha as a god.

    You may wonder what is wrong with that. I believe if you see Buddha as a god you will pray to him for help. Whereas, if you see him as a human teacher you will not expect him to do anything for you, and you will in fact do the work yourself. We have to remember Buddhism is an inward journey that you have to work on yourself. So this is why seeing Buddha as a god is a problem.

    This is just one simple example, but of course there are numerous others. So, as the sutra states, carefully study the sentences word by word. If you find them not to be true, you should reject them. Remember, you must study them without approval and without scorn. This is so you are not just picking the bits you like and find easy to follow, or discarding things you find unpalatable and hard to do. That is harder than it sounds, because our nature is to try to reaffirm our beliefs.

    There are many gurus or teachers who would give you different advice to this. They would insist you follow what they say and if you don’t you will never reach enlightenment or whatever goal you have set yourself. I believe you should test these teachers the same way you test the written word. If what they are saying cannot be found in the discourses or does not fit into your experiences, you should proceed with great caution. This is not easy to do if you regard your teacher as a higher being or some sort of god, but if you see them as a human being with good knowledge, it is easier to do.

    Whenever you study Buddhism please do it with an open and critical mind. That way you will be on the right track.

    http://buddhismguide.org/a-critical-mind/


    Edit The reference Karma Yeshe Rabgye uses in the earlier part of the article that I didn't quote, is from "The Four Great References" in the Mahaparanibbana Sutta

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipit...vaji.html#ref4



  5. #5
    Forums Member Lazy Eye's Avatar
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    1a. To what extent is critical thinking an essential component of contemplative practice? (Here is a definition & discussion of that term)

    While I value critical thinking highly and wish there were more of it, I'm not sure it has much bearing on contemplative practice per se. Most of the practices I'm familiar with do not emphasize conceptualization, though some do involve analysis.

    It is relevant, though, to examining the framework of ideas, beliefs, and assumptions that surround the contemplative practice. For example, the Eastern Orthodox church has a profound contemplative tradition. However, the framework is monotheistic, and so a person who has examined monotheism and found it implausible probably wouldn't be able to undertake that kind of practice. The cognitive dissonance would be too distracting.

    1b. What, if anything, is as important - or even more important - than critical thinking with respect to examining contemplative claims & practices?

    I don't think anything is more important. If one doesn't accept the fundamental claims and assumptions that a practice is based on, how can one do the practice? There will be too much noise and doubt.

    We sometimes see people in the Buddhist world say "don't worry about this topic now -- just practice." In my view this is just kicking the can down the road. The claims and assumptions will have to be faced at some point and it's better to address them at the outset, when one isn't influenced by factors such as having invested time and energy in a tradition, feeling part of a group, feeling loyal to a teacher, etc.

    Let me add a caveat, though: humans are not fully or consistently rational in our mindset/behavior, and so it may be a defensible choice to accept a practice that contains non-rational elements and meets a psychological need. Some folks need an outlet for their right-brain impulses.

    2. Who has/has not taken e.g. college classes in critical thinking, or otherwise engaged in a specific attempt to learn it?


    Some exposure in college; more in graduate school. I also provide a "quick and dirty" overview in a course that I'm currently teaching.
    Last edited by Lazy Eye; 19 Jul 17 at 13:25.

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    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Lazy Eye, why do you think that it's defensible to reject the use of critical thinking in order to accept a conclusion based solely on personal preferences?

    I'd also like some more examples where you would say "critical thinking is useless/unimportant in this case".

  7. #7
    Forums Member Lazy Eye's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by daverupa View Post
    Lazy Eye, why do you think that it's defensible to reject the use of critical thinking in order to accept a conclusion based solely on personal preferences?
    I believe the human species in general is characterized by a mix of rational deliberation and magical thinking. Because magical thinking is probably an evolved trait, it doesn't just disappear when things like naturalism, rationalism and empiricism enter the scene. People go on thinking magically nevertheless, or it bubbles up in odd ways -- as, for instance, in the case of Schreber. Obviously there's a spectrum here, with some individuals demonstrating the tendency to a greater degree than others.

    Thus, it's likely that some people will continue to have a need for religion, or for spiritual practices that contain some non-rational element. It's defensible in the sense of "if this helps you and alleviates your mental suffering, fine."

    I don't see this so much in terms of validating personal preferences, but rather of acknowledging that this is where we're at as a species.

    I'd also like some more examples where you would say "critical thinking is useless/unimportant in this case".
    I had in mind anapanasati (which is what I practice, mostly) and shikantanza -- one doesn't normally sit down on the zafu with the intention of cogitating one's way through a philosophical problem, right?

    Anyway, that's my take. What's yours?
    Last edited by Lazy Eye; 19 Jul 17 at 16:40.

  8. #8
    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lazy Eye View Post
    I believe the human species in general is characterized by a mix of rational deliberation and magical thinking.
    This is where critical thinking has a strong value, precisely because of the human proclivity to make mistakes in reasoning, assessing likelihoods, etc.

    Because magical thinking is probably an evolved trait... Thus, it's likely that some people will continue to have a need for religion, or for spiritual practices that contain some non-rational element. It's defensible in the sense of "if this helps you and alleviates your mental suffering, fine."... this is where we're at as a species.
    Please read the link I provided in the OP. Critical thinking isn't mere 'cogitation':

    It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.
    Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.
    ...but nevermind that. "If it feels good, do it", you seem to be saying.

  9. #9
    Forums Member Lazy Eye's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by daverupa View Post
    This is where critical thinking has a strong value, precisely because of the human proclivity to make mistakes in reasoning, assessing likelihoods, etc.
    I don't disagree at all. It has essential value, for the reasons your mention.

    However, the capacity for critical thinking differs among people. Some people are fundamentally not very rational and I doubt that exposure to critical thinking will change that. On the contrary, they will simply run away from it as fast as they can.

    "If it feels good, do it", you seem to be saying.
    Not in the broad sense of "hey, anything goes...shoot heroin...go on a crime spree!"

    I mean that if someone is looking for equanimity and peace, and because of their disposition a non-rational sort of practice works better for them than a rational one, then fine.

    Out of the set of people who are drawn to contemplative, spiritual, or religious practices, there will be a subset of people with a more rational disposition, and a subset of people with a less rational disposition, and different sorts of avenues/practices reflect that spectrum. As I see it, the benchmark for a spiritual practice is whether it actually helps someone.

    I use Insight Timer, which shows me a wide range of people doing all kinds of things -- music meditation, waterfall sounds, chakras, whatever. Many of these are practices I wouldn't undertake myself and some of them I find silly. But if it's helping a particular person with their existential anxieties or providing them with some tranquility, then fine. No one's forcing me to do things that way.

    Please read the link I provided in the OP. Critical thinking isn't mere 'cogitation':

    It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.
    True...but how much of the above is involved in zazen, for example? I could see how it applies to vipassana.
    Last edited by Lazy Eye; 20 Jul 17 at 12:55.

  10. #10
    Forums Member daverupa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lazy Eye View Post
    Some people are fundamentally not very rational and I doubt that exposure to critical thinking will change that.
    This is the claim that "educating people does not work". I'm surprised to hear this, and I disagree with it.

    I mean that if someone is looking for equanimity and peace, and because of their disposition a non-rational sort of practice works better for them than a rational one, then fine.
    You seem to take this position:

    Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.
    I think you want to claim that critical thinking is, for some, unpractical and therefore to be rejected. I disagree:

    They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society. At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.
    So, I wonder what you think about this:

    Researchers in thinking and reasoning have proposed recently that there are two distinct cognitive systems underlying reasoning. System 1 is old in evolutionary terms and shared with other animals: it comprises a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-specific knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism. System 2 is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human: it permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, but is constrained by working memory capacity and correlated with measures of general intelligence. These theories essentially posit two minds in one brain with a range of experimental psychological evidence showing that the two systems compete for control of our inferences and actions.

    ...Theoretical and experimental psychologists need to focus on the interaction of the two systems and the extent to which volitional process in System 2 can be used to inhibit the strong pragmatic tendencies to response in inference and judgment that come from System 1, especially where the latter are known to result in cognitive biases.
    You would claim that a cognitive bias is fully suitable & worth sustaining if a person receives a pragmatic, subjective benefit from having that bias. I am stunned at this claim, since it seems prima facie unhealthy & mistaken.

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