Think. Rethink. Think Again by Qamar-ul Huda, PhD
The pandemic has been a fortuitous time for reflection on our lives, our work-life balance, and an opportunity to re-think what is important to us. A great deal has been written about finding new hobbies or spending more time with family and friends via digital platforms. There are numerous reflections on thinking for creativity, thinking to find a new business, thinking to forget pain and loss, or thinking for self-growth. Thinking during a global pandemic and under unpredictable uncertain times—for some an excruciating time of suffering and loss of loved ones—can illicit thoughts tied to frenetic insecurity and ambiguity. Furthermore, relentless and confusing messages from leaders can result in depressing thoughts or a greater heightened imagination.
During these past eighteen months of the covid-19 pandemic, a major concern among health experts has been the decrease in routine vaccinations. Some families avoided visits to health-care facilities and resources, and personnel were diverted to focus on the covid-19 crisis. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in 2020, twenty-three million children globally missed basic vaccinations. Even in the case of robust government efforts to minimize the spread of the pandemic, health experts, policymakers, and researchers needed to think of new strategic ways to manage many moving parts.
The covid-19 pandemic has illustrated that health security is no less essential than physical security and national security. Economists have stressed that for any real economic growth to return, governments must work with industry leaders towards an astute and aggressive pandemic policy. In the midst of this pandemic, the role of technology has proven to be inexorably tied to work and the economy. Through high-speed internet access, our lives have become dependent on digital technology. Digital technology has allowed us to modestly continue our lives, with several modifications, in the areas of education and professional work. Reliance on digital technology has meant thinking of new ways to manage our personal lives and business and political affairs, from conducting global diplomacy to adjusting conventional commerce.
There is a plethora of books dedicated to thinking better, thinking for progress, and efficient, result-oriented thinking. The field spans self-help, psychology, behavioral sciences, education, management, business, philosophy, religion, new-age, meditation, finances, and other related fields. To navigate through these books, one needs to understand what writers really mean by the term ‘thinking’, and how thinking should function in our daily lives. By examining key thought leaders in the field of ‘thinking’, we can appreciate the diverse perspectives and approaches employed, as well as the obvious gaps in these works.
Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the father of positive psychology, speaks of the five pillars of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment, or PERMA. Seligman’s popular work suggests that reducing disabling conditions like isolation, poverty, disease, depression, aggression, negative thoughts, and ignorance is only part of what is involved in recuperating. Seligman thinks that modern scientists and public policy practitioners are only remediating disabling conditions, which his PERMA framework suggests is insufficient. According to Seligman, if one wishes to flourish personally by eliminating depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and pain, then one needs to focus on positive thinking and the discipline of practicing PERMA.
Helen Fisher, an expert in biological anthropology, focuses on thinking of and understanding personality as the essential building block of the self. Fisher asserts that personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: ‘character’ and ‘temperament’. Our character traits stem from our culminative experiences: our childhood games, our family’s interests and values, how people in our communities express love and hate, what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous, how those around us worship, what they sing, when they laugh, and how they make a living. Innumerable cultural experiences build our unique set of character traits. Simultaneously, the balance of one’s personality is one’s temperament: all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to one’s consistent patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Self-knowledge is attained by thinking about how personality and temperament conflict with or complement each other.
Kathryn Schulz, an expert in the field of ‘wrongology’, highlights the importance of regret, commonly referred to as the psychology of regret, where individuals find optimism through the pessimistic meta-induction of the history of science. She thinks that since we now know that scientific theories of the past have often been wrong, it’s safe to assume that our own present-day theories are quite possibly wrong as well. By being wrong on topics, we can uncover mistakes to revise and improve our understanding of the world. The idea is that error, failure, misunderstanding, and uncertainty are not only common to both the scientific method and the human condition, but also essential in order to refine thinking. Failure, or more accurately, failed thinking, is not something to be avoided, but rather, something to be embraced. This is not limited to the scientific method and improvements to laboratory research. Rather, for these scholars, the same approach can be applied to design, arts, information technology, sports, engineering, entrepreneurship, and even daily life. All creative avenues can yield maximum insights when failures are embraced and not ignored.
The key question is: what scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? A group of influential scientists, authors, and thought architects believe there is a toolkit to thinking in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking. This is an impressive anthology of essays by 151 major thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the thinking paradoxes of daydreaming, the information flow of thinking, collective intelligence, and a diverse range of other, related topics. Together, they construct a powerful toolbox of thinking called ‘meta-cognition’, a new way to think about thinking itself. John Brockman, editor of the anthology, states the term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense. For him, the ‘scientific’ method is the most reliable way to gain knowledge about anything, be it human behavior, corporate behavior, curing illnesses, the fate of the planet, or understanding the universe. It is scientific thinking that is the rigorous tool for thinking about and understanding the world.
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at The Wharton College of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Think Again, Originals, and Give and Take, urges us to constantly rethink our beliefs about politics, science, work, and relationships. Like Kathryn Schultz, Grant believes we can be earnest in our ability to seek the truth while acknowledging we may be wrong about certain ideas at the present time. During this process of discovery, it is important to share our uncertainties and information gaps with others in order to achieve a ‘confident humility’. This is achieved by seeking out information that goes against our views and resisting the temptation to preach, prosecute, or politick. In this way, Grant believes that our thinking will mirror that of a scientist. Big ideas, i. e. pioneering original ideas, come from seeking out new thinking patterns.
Both psychological behavioral sciences and management sciences are influential within the wider field of thinking. There is an advocacy element to use the “scientific method” of thinking and re-thinking to reach truth. Behavioral scientists, anthropologists, biologists, humanists, and cognitive psychologists are defining the thinking field with a strong emphasis on neurology and brain activity. For example, Vendantam Shankar and Bill Mesler’s Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain emphasizes consequences and effective outcomes. It is not veracity, virtue, real truth in thinking models, or even a belief that makes thinking principled or ethical. Rather, it is whether the thinking process produces the desired results. It is not ethics, character, or even evolution, that is the issue here, but whether we can trick our brain in thinking how to work for us.’Delusional decision-making’ can in effect redirect the brain to produce the needed outcomes. Vendatam and Mesler’s approach to thinking is utilitarian: what works is what matters to the brain. This is because thinking is essentially tied to manipulating brain activity to reach desired results. In order to lose weight, trick the brain; to overcome depression or excel professionally, trick the brain.
The intellectual roots of thinking are traceable to Socrates 2,400 years ago. He advocated a method of probing questioning to reach the point where people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. Many questions produced confused meanings, self-contradictory beliefs, no evidence, and empty rhetoric. This questioning system by Socrates established the fact that one cannot completely depend upon those in authority to have sound knowledge, insight, or even clarity of thinking. He demonstrated that people may have power and be respected for their high positions, but still be deeply confused and irrational. Socrates’ contribution to thinking was establishing the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before accepting ideas as worthy of belief. He valued the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining assumptions and reasoning, analyzing basic concepts and foundations, and examining implications, not only of what is said, but of what is done as well.
His method, known as ‘Socratic questioning’, is still the best-known critical thinking teaching strategy. In this teaching mode of questioning, Socrates highlighted the need for clarity in thinking, logical consistency, and rational discourse.
Socrates set the foundations for the intellectual tradition of critical thinking: to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, and to distinguish those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which serve our interests. Thinking, therefore, was critical thinking: it involved adequate evidence, rational discourse, and a tested foundation to warrant acceptance.
After Socrates’ practice of thinking, Plato continued Socrates’ thought and approach, followed by Aristotle and the Greek skeptics, all of whom emphasized that things are often very different from what they appear to be, and it is only a trained mind that can see beyond the surface and delusive appearances.
Beneath the surface of the deeper realities of life, ancient Greek tradition developed the need, for anyone who aspired to understand the deeper realities, to think systematically and trace implications broadly and deeply. For thinking to be comprehensive, it needed to be well-reasoned, responsive to logical arguments, and survive critical objections.
Education specialists emphasize thinking within the terms of critical thinking. That is if true education is to be meaningful, then students should be able to utilize critical thinking ‘skills’ to effectively evaluate, assess, and understand a variety of complex issues. The crisis in national educational reforms, according to this particular school, is due to the lack of critical thinking skills taught to students. While students are graduating from colleges with specialized technical knowledge, they lack the ability to analyze and critique methodically.
Stephen D. Brookfield, author of Teaching for Critical Thinking, argues that critical thinking is needed across disciplines and that it can be taught by teachers and learned by students. Critical thinking cannot be an abstract philosophical exercise. Rather, it needs to be integrated into all curricula by utilizing models such as Crisis Decision Simulation, Critical Debate, and Exemplars and Flaws. Brookfield’s approach holds that critical thinking can be attained by learning its techniques and tools, as well as when students should apply it to reading, writing, and debating.
Education reformers claim that students are not learning to think as good citizens concerned with the public interest or as global citizens. They are not learning to be good parents or local community members. They assert that students graduate from college without the intellectual skills they need to survive the enormous, complex realities that they will face, much less prosper. Critical thinking advocates these skills as a social learning process. By collectively listening to others deconstructing and analyzing complex problem sets, students learn and practice divergent ways to think critically.
Essentially, critical thinking is divided into three areas: (1) learning to analyze thinking, which means identifying objectives in thinking, the questions being asked, the information being used, the assumptions being taken for granted, the concepts guiding the thinking, reasoning, logic, and rhetoric (trivium); (2) learning to assess thinking itself by using intellectual parameters such as clarity, accuracy, depth, breadth, fairness, significance and relevance; and, (3) developing intellectual traits, such as intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual perseverance, empathy, impartiality, comprehension, and an intellectual sense of justice. The trivium and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry) allowed students in the liberal arts to perceive a unified conception of reality. Commonly called the ‘Arts of the Word’, the curriculum focused on different ways to navigate words. For instance, grammar is used in logic, which is used in rhetoric. Thinking is the way we communicate in a natural order with numbers and in quantities. By discerning these natural relationships, we come to a better understand the cosmos and our place in it.
Psychiatrists who are also critical thinking educationists identify the ability to explicitly self-examine one’s thinking as something that supports mental health. Richard Paul, Carmen Polka, Brian Barnes, and Linda Elder claim that critical thinkers understand egocentricity and socio-centricism, and that they actively combat these biases to improve intimate relationships. Critical thinkers have a deep sense of understanding and balance of thought, feelings, and desires. Accordingly, critical thinkers strive to ‘self-actualize’ in order to have a heightened understanding of themselves. They are emotionally healthy, socially intelligent, have a deep connection to their communities, easily empathize with others, and view their efforts as aiding in the betterment of humanity.
THINKING FOR ILLUMINATION:
Absent in modern trends in thinking, or critical thinking, are the connection to, and development of, morality, character, and inner guidance within an ethical framework.
After Socrates, the ancient Hellenistic schools of philosophy diverged into schools of Cynicism, Plato’s Academy, and the Stoicism of Zeno and Epictetus. Stoicism grew in popularity under emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius (160-181 BCE). The Stoics adopted Socrates’ classification of the four aspects of virtue, which they believed were critically interlinked character traits: practical wisdom, courage, temperament, and justice. Practical wisdom allows us to make decisions for a moral, meaningful life (eudaimonia). These character traits in Stoicism and the Socratic method insisted that conflicting virtues cannot be practiced independently: one cannot be both intemperate and courageous.
Within the Islamic tradition from 700-1350, critical thinkers were less engaged with debates on juristic literalism and more concerned with spiritual purification, moral character, and ascetic practices which detached them from worldly distractions. Within the Qur’an and within God’s signs in creation, one can find an inner meaning whose implications go further than the exoteric, literal, and surface meaning. Typical examples of the works of critical thinking ‘spiritualists’ include Abu Talib al-Makki’s (d. 996) Nourishment of the Hearts (Qut al-Qulub), Ibn ‘Abbad’s (d. 1390) Letters of Spiritual Direction (Rasā’il kubrā wa Rasā’il ’ughrā), Ibn ‘Ata Allah al-Iskandari’s (d. 1309) The Book of Illumination (Kitāb al-Tanwir fi Isqāt al-Tadbir) and Abu Hafs ‘Umar al-Suhrawardi’s (d. 1235) The Benefits of Intimate Knowledge (‘Awarif al-Ma’arif), to name a few.
Ibn ‘Ata Allah’s The Book of Illumination is typical within the literature of illumination (irfan) but atypical in modern thinking and modern western theosophical paradigms. Esoteric and exoteric knowledge examine the spirituality of ego economics’: how we earn, save, consume, and plan to spend. Ibn ‘Ata Allah’s works attempt to understand how humans exist in this world with their selfish machinations while seeking spiritual illuminations (tanwir and tadbir). Ibn ‘Ata’s enlightenment, or ‘exceptionally high level of thinking’, is integrally connected to the inner illumination of the heart. For many scholars, he can be easily regulated to the mystical theological tradition, but this work is an insightful critique of anxious energy situated in an egoistic corrosive soul and the practical wisdom of liberating the self.
Incredibly central to spiritual masters of the Islamic tradition are reliance on God, servitude, and recognizing that all matters are under God’s control, whether beneficial or harmful, pleasant or unpleasant, comprehensible or incomprehensible. Thinking is tied to knowing; knowing is tied to obeying; and obeying is tied to sufficiency and surrendering the self to divine will. This does not mean that critical thinking or questioning does not exist, rather critical thinking within this context is part of a broader tradition of seeking divine love and contentment. The basis of love is knowledge, and knowledge directs the curious seeker to contemplation and deep, self-critical assessment (mushahada).
In assessing thinking or critical thinking, we need to question what approaches, frameworks, and practices, are dominating popular trends. Moreover, we also need to examine why moral realism is nonexistent. Why is teaching critical thinking void of moral and ethical foundations? How has the study of thinking become dominant in behavioral, psychological, and management sciences but rarely found in religious studies or political philosophy? Is it possible to trace the loss of ethical foundations in thinking to the rivalry of the moral realists and moral romantics of the eighteenth century? Moral realists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau were weary of inner weakness but emphasized the power of the inner goodness of human beings. As a key thinker of the Enlightenment, he distrusted institutions, tradition, and customs. On the other hand, Romantic thinkers trusted the self over conventions of the world. It was the role of the individual to logically think about the outcomes of their fate, not that of the church, government, historical cultural norms, or popular beliefs. This may or may not be the origin of the fragmentation of ‘thinking’. However, modern thinking and critical thinking do not even possess the vocabulary of ethics or the literacy of historical moral foundations. Today, experts accept that the foundations of thinking are that one be like a scientist. Adam Grant’s works, which empower modern thinking to find big ideas -- original ideas that are pioneering by designing ‘new’ thinking patterns based on science -- are not interested in historical contributions to the field of thinking. The push to use the ‘scientific method’ is a disconnect from the broader historical field of thinking and philosophy.
In the pre-modern period, eminent thinkers like Shaykh al-Ishraq Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (1153-1191) and Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240) harmonized spirituality and philosophy. The result was training the intellect through philosophy and disciplined purification of the heart (tazkiyah) through tasawwuf with illumination. Together, these transform one’s being and bestow true knowledge.
Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi’s The Theosophy of the Light (Hikmat al-Ishrāq) and On the Reality of Love (Fi haqiqāt al-‘ishq) created a vast philosophical synthesis of nearly six centuries of Islamic thought. Ishrāqi philosophy, commonly understood as theosophy, is essentially the light that orients the metaphysics of human beings. This school advanced the thinking of inner knowledge by establishing that nothing other than eternal wisdom (sophia perennis) illuminates and transforms, deconstructs and resurrects, until the individual understands the essence of the cosmos.
During contemplation, the great spiritual masters referred to terms and practices of self-discipline, surrender, poverty, fasting, soul, primordial nature, renunciation, transcendence, reliance, obedience, repentance, etc. This is the way they breathed and the way they lived. If we are going to think and rethink in order to find ways to be critical thinkers, then illumination needs to be central to this venture. It appears more than ever that we need to find ways to integrate thinking into the tradition of illumination.
Qamar-ul Huda is the Founding Director of the Conflict, Stabilization, and Development program at the Center for Global Policy, a think-tank in Washington, DC.