Saturday July 20, 2024

How to be a better thinker

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
March 12, 2024
Representational image. — Unsplash
Representational image. — Unsplash

In response to my previous article ‘What have we become?’ (March 4), I received many appreciation emails from my readers. Some asked for more details about how to evaluate beliefs and ideologies that appear to be dominating our lives.

For example, Ahmed Ali Khan, in his emails, said that the article painted a realistic and true state of our society and put it in ‘black and white’. Rehan Khattak wrote that the article was enlightening with an ‘accurate’ analysis of the prevailing situation in Pakistan.

When it comes to evaluating beliefs and ideologies, I believe people can develop their own criteria to form an opinion. I, for one, have tried to learn a thing or two about how to see through the ruses paddled so relentlessly in societies such as Pakistan.

Critical thinking is a skill that comes in handy while dealing with prevailing beliefs and ideologies. Interestingly, the very same people who propagate certain false beliefs and dubious ideologies often talk about using critical thinking and also manage to step up their rhetoric to restrict intellectual activity in society.

For them, critical thinking is useful as long as it questions other ideologies. Their delusion of grandeur is beyond their scope of ‘critical thinking’. Their task is to deter the audiences from raising doubts about their convictions, as that type of critical thinking is ‘fifth generation warfare’, whatever that may be.

So how do we evaluate beliefs and ideologies using critical thinking? First, we need to understand that critical thinking is all about using our minds effectively. Of course, everybody uses their minds but not everyone does so effectively. It is a cognitive activity that calls for mental actions leading to new knowledge and questioning the existing set of knowledge.

Cognition is a process that makes use of our experiences, senses, and thoughts to understand concepts and ideas – including beliefs and ideologies. It is a process of learning by thinking, instead of the behavioural or emotional adoption of concepts and habits.

Most of the beliefs and ideologies that are widely accepted normally depend on behavioural and emotional attachment instead of mental processes – or state – to learn, think and use information. Such beliefs drive our decisions – and colour our imagination – leading to judgments that may be inaccurate. A majority of such beliefs and ideologies build a certain structure of memories and perceptions that do not derive their strength from our cognitive and intellectual abilities. If we skilfully and logically apply our intelligence we enable ourselves to discriminate false from true.

One key is to ask precise questions about beliefs and ideologies. Most beliefs, ideologies, and narratives do not define concepts clearly. Let’s take the dictum about discipline, faith, and unity. On the face of it, everything fits perfectly well, but analysis may present a different picture too.

Discipline is good in civic and military matters such as not violating traffic laws, making a queue at a counter, reporting on time for an appointment, obeying orders of your superiors, or taking meals on time. But not always; many creative individuals do not follow any discipline in their personal lives. Rather they find it suffocating if they are forced to wake up or sleep at certain times. Obeying all orders in the name of discipline can be destructive for society.

In the past, most violations of the constitution in Pakistan resulted from strict adherence to discipline under a certain chain of command. The recent verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan regarding the infamous Bhutto case clearly shows how the highly disciplined state machinery under General Ziaul Haq deprived the accused of his fair trial and due process. The Isr@eli forces are also extremely disciplined and so were the Nazi and fascist parties.

After discipline, we may also discuss faith by asking important questions. Is it the faith of only Pakistani Muslims or does it also include Pakistani Baha’is, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs? If it is the Muslim faith, does it mean all denominations or just one of them? Faith is mostly what we follow from our family traditions, and for most people, it is inherited. So, what about somebody who is born in a different faith?

Unity is also as attractive as perhaps discipline and faith, but an excessive emphasis on unity may also lead to uniformity that attempts to eradicate diversity. Unity – in many cases – is a force against an enemy that may or may not exist. It may also crush individuality as one has to conform to the norms of unity.

The US soldier who self-immolated to protest against the American collusion in war crimes in the Middle East violated the norms of unity, but he had to do it. Russia uses the unity of the Russian people to crush Ukraine.

What we have just done is an example of how to evaluate commonly held beliefs and ideologies by analysing different sides of an argument. Our conclusions may not be just or universally applicable, but that is the whole point of critical thinking. An inflection point comes when we start thinking about our own thinking, which some scholars refer to as meta-thinking.

Meta has a Greek root meaning ‘after’ or ‘behind’. When we reflect on our thinking processes we indulge in meta-thinking that is so vital for evaluating our beliefs and ideologies. It works as a centrifugal force to allow us to move away from false beliefs and ideologies.

For some people, it may look like a nightmarish scenario to detach oneself from long-held ideals which may or may not be true. Some people lose their focus and get distracted, but this distraction is a significant part of cognitive learning as opposed to behavioural learning.

One factor that hampers cognitive learning is the value that our community places on existing ideals. The community seldom values the new things that we learn, and this has been a universal phenomenon.

We receive praise for our adherence to the old, no matter how outdated that may be. Active learning from critical thinking through cognition is much harder than passive learning from observation. That is one reason behavioural learning prevails as it simply requires behaviour repetition.

Humanity progresses when active learning outsmarts passive learning. It applies more to social sciences than to physical sciences. Look at Isr@ell; they may have advanced in physical sciences through active learning, but they have failed humanity as they have been observational learners of behaviour from their tragic past from the Nazi times.

As for Pakistan, we have been passive learners both in physical and social sciences as we have been repeating behaviours ad nauseam, to the point of going rogue. Though there are not many countries where people have been active learners both in physical and social sciences, Europe appears to be slightly better, especially Scandinavian countries. However, there appears to be a topsy-turvy ride everywhere as even in Europe now right-wing beliefs and ideologies are gaining momentum.

To conclude, evaluating beliefs and ideologies requires attention and categorization. From China and India to the US and Pakistan, prevailing beliefs and ideologies need constant judgement and selection – or rejection.

Ultimately, it is not a lack of ability that prevents critical thinking, there are emotional (affective) and personal reasons that dominate our learning and thinking patterns. The challenge is to overcome them.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: