Clearly our culture and the world have entered uncharted territory with the announcement from multiple sources that we’ve entered a post-fact world of fake news. Nowadays, it seems, one person’s truth is another’s propaganda. In such a world, critical thinking is either essential or irrelevant.
I hold for the former.
I believe that truth is relevant, that facts exist, and that the facts of some are truer than those of others. At the same time, however, I recognize that my own understanding of “fact” has changed drastically over the course of my life. What I once fervently embraced as truth, I no longer accept. Something similar, I think, is true for all of us. As Paul of Tarsus put it in his letter to Christians in Corinth 2000 years ago: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” (ICOR 13:11)
Paul’s insight holds for western culture as well, including the scientific community. It readily admits that facts change. For instance, scientists once universally accepted as absolute fact that the earth was the center of the universe. Galileo changed all of that.
And that brings me to what I wrote last week about those essential elements of critical thinking: world-centrism, evidence, comprehensiveness, and commitment.
As for world-centrism, the argument here begins by noting that truth is largely relative. Our perception of it often depends on our stage of personal development – on the degree of evolution we’ve attained. What’s true for children (think Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy) is not true for adults. This by no means invalidates what children think. Their insights are often more acute than grownups’.
On the other hand, however, there are hierarchies of truth. While honoring children’s perceptions, adults cannot generally operate on the basis of what youngsters believe about the world. Neither do all (even very sincere) adults enjoy the same credibility. Some of them are more mature than others – more highly evolved at least in their chosen fields. Einstein, for instance, enjoyed high credibility in the field of physics. He also played the violin. However, his credibility in the field of music didn’t begin to approach that of Jascha Heifetz. It’s the same with other endeavors. Expertise matters.
Recognizing such relativity makes us realize that we do actually inhabit a world of “alternative facts.” But not all fact-claims have the same value. To separate true from less true and truth from falsehood, we must exercise extreme care. Recognizing the previously mentioned truth-hierarchies associated with universal stages of personal development is part of that process.
Philosopher Ken Wilber identifies four major stages of personal development or evolution. The perceptions of higher stages are superior to their lower-stage counterparts. Children, Wilber notes, tend to be egocentric. As such, their world and judgments tend to revolve around themselves, their feelings, needs and naïve beliefs.
In early adolescence or sooner, their scope of concern begins to widen towards group identification or ethnocentrism. They identify with their family, church, school, town, teams, and country. Relative to nation, the attitude here can be as narrow as “My country, right or wrong.” Many people never move beyond ethnocentrism. And in practice, their tribal superiority complex often leads to what Wilber calls “dominator hierarchies,” where control extends beyond the abstract realm of “truth” and “facts” to the politics of imperialism, war, and even slavery.
Those who move beyond ethnocentrism advance to the next evolutionary stage, world-centrism. Here allegiance shifts from my tribe and country to the world and human race. At this stage it becomes possible to criticize even habitually one’s tribe and country from the viewpoint of outsiders, “foreigners,” and independently verifiable data. Dominator hierarchies become less acceptable.
A final (as far as we can tell) stage of development is cosmic-centrism or what Wilber terms “integral thinking.” The cosmic-centric thinker is a mystic, who realizes the unity of all reality, animate and inanimate. (S)he holds that separation between human beings and their environment is only apparent. As many of them put it, “There is really only one of us here.”
The crucial point to note in this context, is that each of these developmental stages has its set of “alternative facts.”
Take the question of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience. According to many observers, Mr. Trump has largely been fixated at the stage of egocentrism (with, no doubt, ethnocentrism rising). Accordingly, he evidently thinks that because of his exceptionality, brilliance, and importance, his crowd must have been larger than that of President Obama, because the latter isn’t nearly as important or smart as Mr. Trump. At Trump’s stage of development, his perception constitutes a fact, pure and simple. Those who disagree are disseminating fake news.
For their parts, the dissenters – reporters, for instance – are usually ethnocentric. In the United States, they typically report from an “American” point of view. They regard Mr. Trump’s statements about crowd size as lies, since his assertions do not agree with readily available independent data information. As previously noted, the D.C. police, for instance, say that Mr. Obama’s crowd was four times larger than Mr. Trump’s. Moreover, ethnocentric reporters regard Mr. Trump’s lies as particularly egregious, because the falsehoods bring discredit and shame on the United States, which they consider the greatest and most virtuous country in the world.
Those with world-centric consciousness subscribe to yet another set of alternative facts. While agreeing that independent data is important for “fact checking,” they emphatically disagree with the premise that the United States is exceptional in its greatness or virtue. Simply put, it is not the greatest country in the world. Instead, for many (especially in the Global South with its history of U.S.-supported regime changes, wars, and dictatorships), fact-checked data show that the United States is the cause of most of the world’s problems. In the words of world-centric Martin Luther King, it is the planet’s “greatest purveyor of violence.” That recognition shapes and relativizes every other judgment of fact.
Cosmic-centered thinkers profoundly disagree with the so-called “facts” of all three previous stages of development. Nonetheless, they recognize that all human beings – and they themselves – must pass through the stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, and world-centrism before arriving at cosmic-centrism. That is, though most humans do not surpass ethnocentrism, no stage can be skipped. One cannot become world-centric without having previously been ethnocentric. One cannot adopt a cosmic-centered viewpoint, without first having traversed the world-centric stage. So, instead of anger, those with cosmic consciousness experience great compassion, for instance, towards Donald Trump and his critics both patriotic and more cosmopolitan.
Nonetheless, mystics approaching “facts” from their particular altitude insist that antecedent stages of awareness, though true in ways appropriate for those phases, are at best incomplete. All of them are incapable of discerning the Universe’s single most important truth that renders all else highly misleading. And that’s the fact is that all consciousness of separation is itself an illusion. Hence the size of Donald Trump’s inauguration audience is completely irrelevant. But so are questions about “the greatest country in the world.” No country is greater than any other. In the end, the only truth is God and divine love. Nationalist separation, fear, war, hatred, and associated attitudes are all false. They remain without factual support.
What I’m saying here is that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. In that light, the ultimate task of critical thinking is to help practitioners move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to at least acquaint them with the notion of cosmic-centrism.
In the terms just explained, what stage of evolutionary development are you? Where do you think most of your friends are located?
(Next week: Why the world’s impoverished know more than Americans)