Monday, January 08, 2007

Blink or Think?

I had been intending to review of Michael R. LeGault's interesting book, Think!, a response to Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, which I drew attention to several weeks ago. However, the more I have looked at the two productions together the more I realize that what we are seeing here is the delineation of the two radically different ways of thinking that have emerged. As I have thought them over I realize that what we see here is the competing mindsets that underlie the crisis in the church today.

Michael R. LeGault challenges the increasing dominance of the intuitive way of thinking and decision-making that Gladwell highlights. Furthermore, LeGault believes this is doing untold damage in the western world, particularly North America. He argues that Gladwell's thesis that the mind possesses extraordinary power to absorb information and sensory data, correctly size up a situation, and then solve problems without ever having to lean too heavily on formal thought just does not stand up under examination.

Gladwell's book, Blink, fills "a growning market niche, a new-age, feel-good pop psychology/philosophy" that has "sprung up to bolster the view that understanding gleaned from logic and critical analysis is not all that it's cracked up to be" (Page 8). While I think that LeGault is being a little too hard on intuitivity, his rejoinder to Blink certainly stands up under careful prodding better than Gladwell's thesis. As one who has a highly intutive side I think I understand very well what Gladwell is trying to say, but having said that I am profoundly grateful that I was in my formative years equipped with a good set of critical tools that enable me to think rationally and with logicality.

LeGault's 300+ pages can be summarized in a statement to the effect that the seeds of terminal decay are to be found in taking our feelings and intuitions so seriously that we end up avoiding difficult thinking and hard reasoning. His Chapter 11 is worth the price of the book alone(US$13.00). Entitled Hearing the Harmony of Reason: Embracing Objectivity, Thinking Critically, he starts out by saying, "Both history and daily experience have confirmed time and again that critical thinking is a vastly superior method of solving problems and making decisions than an intuitive random approach. It sometimes relies on number crunching, and statistics, but the basic elements are the same for all the criticial-thinking approaches used to write a report, figure ways to improve sales, of fix a jammed garage door. These elements are the use of empirical evidence (gathering data, knowledge), logical reason, and a skeptical attitude" (Page 274).

This illustrated the manner in which the book is written because it applies solid critical, empirical thinking to the alternative approach to thinking that Malcolm Gladwell so winsomely champions in Blink. LeGault's book not only has more far substance, but his careful thinking and writing lay the axe to the roots of the edifice that Gladwell tries to construct. However, I suspect that when the sales and influence of the two books are measured against one another, Blink will have won hands down.

Part of the reason for this is that most people today are conditioned to think with their hearts and not their heads, and this is encouraged everywhere from the media to many parts of academia. They have been taught to treasure feel-good intuitiveness that does not require much in the way of intellectual heavy lifting. Gladwell's insights are certainly going to ring more bells with an instant, easy-come, easy-go generation. Logical, rational thinking is not something that is caught but needs to be taught -- and it is a long time since anyone was seriously teaching it to anything but a handful of people.

I believe that the hardest classes I took were Logic and Philosophy, but as I soldiered on with them for several years they bore fruit that I have carried with me for the rest of my life. I am not a great philosopher or logician, but what I have gained have helped me better assess what is going on inside my brain, as well as ideas others are presenting to me. I might be emotionally swayed by someone's argument when they present their case, but after the emotions have died down I know how to intellectually pick through it and work out whether it was built upon rock or sand.

The Greeks and Romans took rhetoric seriously as a subject, coaching those who will communicate in ancient society to speak wisely and well, framing their arguments rationally, yet we no longer do this and we are poorer for it. I have listened to a huge number of sermons in my time, for example, and I shudder to think how many of these productions might succeed emotionally, but then fail miserably because the case being made is built either on froth or feelings, or has no logical and rational consistency.

The way in which the churches in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, have been shepherded along the road that they have taken is that they have followed this intuitive, feelings-driven approach to thinking and have shut out the more traditional, rational, logical way of handling facts and ideas. Having read both Gladwell and LeGault, I would say that those on the progressive side, the left, or whatever you want to call them, lean heavily in the direction of being Blink-ers.

Because of the absence of objective, empirical, critical reasoning across the board, the Blink-like mindset and approach is also displayed by those who are more conservative, yet unlike their leftward brothers and sisters the presuppositions of their positions are rooted in theological presuppositions shaped by Scripture, and the minds of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calivin, Edwards, and a host of others -- which means that rationality takes precedence over uninformed intuition. When it comes down to it there is probably more Think than Blink on the right, but it sure lacks the intellectual rigor that it needs.

The fact is that every grouping lacks the rigor of approach that will enable us to build the case for our beliefs upon the deposit of knowledge and observation. We need to know how to think our way to sound judgments and good decisions that are rooted and grounded in an objective, revelational understanding of the Truth. We are never going to think our way constructively forward unless Logical reasoning is at the core of this process. LeGault gives us a very good summary of the principles of elementary logic that have more or less been lost and need
to be recovered.

Almost everywhere we look we see the stand-off between Blink and Think!. Several years ago on Mars Hill Audio there was a piece by a legal scholar bemoaning the demise of logic and reasoning in the courtroom. He said that takes its place is emotional manipulation and storytelling as each lawyer tries to trump the other in performance in order to psychologically win the case for their client. Here we see the Think of the old way of doing law giving way to the new approach of Blink! The same is true in marketing, and an entertainment-driven culture has more or less disconnected us from higher logical and the rational side of our minds!

Yet it is to the life of the church that I want to apply this thesis. Other than Columbus 2006 I have attended just about every General Convention in the last twenty years, and have watch the standard of debate (which was never great) spiral downward. The last so-called debate of the House of Deputies to which I listened was, quite frankly, more postmodern theatre than it was rational discussion. The same is true of the preparatory hearings.

The Think approach to reasoning and theological deduction was absent, and those who applied such an approach were hardly listened to and certainly not heard. Blink, with intuitive stories about relationships feeling good and right, ruled the roost. In such settings it was increasingly difficult even to enter into discussion with those with whom you disagreed because Blink-ers and Think-ers function so differently that they talk past each other and end up merely shouting at one another.

What is more disturbing is that words and knowledge seem to have become the victims. While language always changes and grows, in the deconstructionist world (of which Blink is at least a reflection) words are reworked then given the meaning we want them to have. A recent example of this is the blatant redefinition of the word "evangelism" by the Presiding Bishop and her entourage.

When rational objectivity is replaced by reader receptiveness, then we are set free to diddle with meanings to suit own subjectivity as well as sitting loose to fact. Taking the human sexuality debate as an example, I have sought the best I can to keep up with all sides of this conversation, and hear those on the left presenting as indisputible fact certain statements about sexuality for which there is at least at present no scientific or factual basis. Then when something has been repeated enough such a notion become accepted more and more as factual.

What I find more disturbing is the unwillingness of most people on every side of this Blink/Think debate to even consider looking at data that comes a position with which they disagree. This means that all cases end up being one-sides, and polarization that does every kind of damage is the outcome.

A traditional way of approaching ideas and circumstances is to gather as much information as you can from across the board, to analyze it with care, sifting and discarding that which does not stand up under scrutiny, and then building a case from what remains. This is hard work and it means delving deeply into positions with which we disagree or may find unpaletable. One of the benefits of having studied theology both at an undergraduate and a postgraduate level in places whose preferences were at odds with my own was the value of learning to see a question
from all sides in the process of discovering the truth.

This kind of discipline is virtually absent and needs to be recovered post haste. This is what Michael Legault advocates in Think!, and it is an approach to learning and thinking that we need to recover. Certainly, it behooves those who are concerned for the future wellbeing of the Christian faith in this land and in the West generally, to get back to the hard, hard work of the logical, rational, empirical measuring of thought.

Are we willing to live in the world of Blink, or are we willing to graduate into a world of Think!?


Anonymous said...

I read some of your review, and I must say that I think you've written a very objective review of the two books. I still have not read Blink but I am looking forward to to it. I'm just almost finished with Think.

Anonymous said...

This is a really brilliant articulation of the general divisions in philosophical thought processes which have become so dangerous today. It's too bad that authors like Gladwell--who bring up some truly interesting cases that are undoubtedly worthy of consideration--have to resort to sensationalist conclusions in order to bring their work to the attention of the general public in our society of spectacle. The criterion for success in the popular acceptance seems to be weighted almost entirely on revolutionary radicalism, while the value of truth in logic has fallen to the wayside. I wonder if this is reflective more of the permeation of a general laziness in the approach to thought, or a backlash against the widespread disillusionment which has characterized the last few decades...