The theistic critical thinker and the case of the compartmentalized intellect

Saw this video recently of Francis Collins, a highly regarded geneticist discussing his theistic beliefs. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his arguments or reasoning, but that’s not the point of this entry. I have this bad habit of reading comment sections and then getting really upset about them, I gotta stop doing that. As I read through the comments section for this video I found a criticism that was once directed at me a few years ago, and which I now feel compelled to respond to.

The argument is that individuals like Dr. Collins–who are clearly rational, intellectual and well-trained critical thinkers–have somehow “compartmentalized” their thinking, i.e., they only apply their critical thinking skills to some areas of their life and not to others.

In response, I will first deal with defining terms. I think this line of reasoning employs the term “critical thinking” too generally. In fact, I think they are referring to a very specific set of academic skills used for answering a specific type of questions. Skills that are used to deconstruct arguments and theories, to isolate cause and effect, to examine logic, and to determine outcomes based on operationally defined set of predictors. These skills are extremely important in scholarship and in generating knowledge about brute phenomena, i.e., the What, When and the How questions. Questions that help us describe the characteristics and mechanical functions of things. But there are many fundamental questions that pertain to the Why, which these skills simply can’t address. I’ll get back to this.

It’s important to mention that there seems to be this obsession in the scientific community (perhaps we can extend that to the general academic community as well) to “empiricize” all questions, to reduce all phenomena to mechanical/material states, and to dismiss phenomenological experience as some sort of irrelevant self-deception. It takes a certain level of hubris and arrogance (IMHO) to dismiss the importance or relevance of non-empirical questions and approaches, but this is exactly what the above criticism implies. Science predominantly (if not completely) deals with a very specific type of question: The empirical question. That is, questions that are verifiable by observation or experience, typically tested through experimentation or quasi-experimental approaches. However, a trained critical thinker knows when to apply empirical approaches to empirical questions, and when to use other methods when these approaches are inappropriate.

For example (and this is just my own off the cuff, oversimplification of things), fundamental epistemological and ontological questions could be approached through philosophy; questions pertaining to ones own existential angst could be approached through introspection, self-reflection, or artistic expression; and spiritual questions pertaining to purpose, meaning, virtue, and collective will could be approached through the study of sacred scripture or through social discourse.

This, my friends, is not compartmentalization. It’s humility and wisdom. Being open to the idea that truth is a complex thing–damn near impossible to penetrate–why wouldn’t you seek out every possible approach available to you in your quest to understand it? This doesn’t mean you have to give your whole life to that approach, but at least you’re being sincere in your desire to learn.

I don’t know, I just wonder if this thing we call “scholarship” and its sword of “research” is nothing more than an arena for intellectual pandering and pontification. Many researchers are locked in their own narrow methodological box, incapable and, in some cases, opposed to considering anything else. Not everyone, course.

Alternatively, I may be experiencing such a high degree of internal dissonance that I’ve managed to find a very rational way of justifying the compartmentalization of my own intellect.

Or maybe that’s an empirical question.


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