Part of becoming educated on an issue involves learning how other people view that issue, and coming to some understanding of that point of view, even if it’s not your own. But there are better and worse ways of acquiring this understanding.
Let’s say the issue is the environmental impact of human population growth. More people means more mouths to feed and more consumption of resources, and most environmentalists will tell you that there are natural limits to resource use, and when you hit those limits the results are bad. You get pollution, habitat destruction, species extinction, and degradation of the resource base that leads to poverty, political instability, and so on. Bad stuff.
So one position is that population growth aggravates all these problems and therefore we should be supporting policies that curb population growth.
Now, in reading up on this question you might be surprised to come across people who think that restricting population growth is entirely the wrong way to address these environmental problems.
You’ll find people — smart people, educated people, who publish articles and books on this topic — who think that there are no natural limits to resource use, that the earth can sustain an increasing human population into the foreseeable future, and that, contrary to the popular consensus among environmentally-minded people, human beings are actually on the cusp of an age of unprecedented prosperity and improvement in the human condition.
This couldn’t be farther from the mainstream environmental position. And it may not be your position. Your first reaction might be to dismiss it.
But if you want to claim that you’re critically informed about an issue, and you come across a position that may be diametrically opposed to yours, but that informed, intelligent people find compelling, and you care about the issue, the intellectually responsible thing to do is to spend at least some time trying to understand why those people find it compelling.
Understanding the Other Side
How should we acquire this understanding?
There’s an easier way, which is often tempting.
The easier way is to set out looking for reasons why their position is faulty or mistaken, from your point of view.
This is easier because it requires less intellectual work on your part. If the goal is just to identify areas of weakness in a position, frankly, that’s not that hard to do. Any interesting position is going to have weaknesses somewhere. Even your own cherished views have weaknesses that a critic, if they wanted to, could exploit in a debate.
The danger with this approach is that it’s driven more by the desire to refute a position than to actually understand it.
By looking at a position through such a selective prism you’re more likely to misrepresent it and deceive yourself into thinking you’ve understood it when you really haven’t. You also run the risk of missing the odd kernel of truth or good idea that might be there, waiting to be acknowledged.
The underlying problem with this kind of oppositional investigative strategy is that it’s driven by the wrong kind of motive.
It’s driven by the desire to win an argument. But that’s not the goal of critical thinking.
The goal of critical thinking it to take intellectual ownership of your beliefs and come to a closer understanding of the truth of the matter.
If that’s our goal, then there’s a better way to try and understand positions that differ from our own. It’s a more demanding way, but it’s better.
What We Can Learn From Good Actors
The better way to do this is through an exercise in authentic role-playing. This is where the title of this post — “what critical thinkers can learn from actors” — comes in.
Actors need to understand the background and the mindset and the motivations of the characters they play if they’re to play them with authenticity and integrity.
Good actors need to be able to slip into the skin of a character and view the world through that character’s eyes, even if those eyes are very different from their own. They need to cultivate the ability to empty themselves, to forget who they are, temporarily, so that another persona can live through them.
As a critical thinker, you need to cultivate a very similar set of skills.
Do you really want to understand an argument or a position that someone else strongly believes?
Then you need to try, as best you can, to put yourself in that person’s head-space. You need to identify the beliefs and values and background assumptions that really motivate their position. You need to dwell in that position for a while. And then, from that position, you need to be able to faithfully reconstruct the reasoning that leads to their conclusions.
The test of your understanding, the real test, is to be confident that you could explain the reasoning of the other position to a proponent of that position, to their complete satisfaction.
If I’m a religious believer arguing with an atheist, and I want to engage them in a productive discussion, I want to be able to sit across from them and articulate the rationale for their atheist position, and their objections to theism, to their satisfaction.
You want them to be able to say, afterward, “Yes, you understand my position, that’s exactly why I hold the beliefs I do”.
That’s a position of true understanding.
And that’s also, it turns out, the position with the greatest potential for rational dialogue and persuasion.
We need to understand the foundations of our own position. We also need to understand the foundations of positions different from our own.
To achieve this, we need to cultivate a willingness and an ability to see the world through other people’s eyes.
I’m the first to admit that this kind of understanding can be difficult to achieve.
We don’t always find it easy to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, especially the shoes of people we disagree with. And it’s harder to do the more important the issue is to us.
We naturally feel protective of the beliefs that we regard as central to our identity, and dwelling for any length of time in the mind and point of view of someone who doesn’t share those beliefs can be challenging on many levels.
But it’s the kind of understanding that we have to strive for, if we’re really serious about thinking critically and independently.
Openness, Curiosity and Empathy as Intellectual Virtues
This issue illustrates points I’ve made before about the importance of cultivating certain attitudes and values as essential components of critical thinking.
In this case, in order to ensure that we have a proper understanding of all sides of an issue, we have to value truth and understanding above winning, and we have to adopt a certain attitude toward alternative viewpoints and the people who hold them.
This attitude is more than just respect. Respect might be a necessary attitude to have if we want to really understand a position, but it’s definitely not sufficient.
For genuine understanding we need something more intimate, a kind of openness and an authentic intellectual curiosity about how other people view the world.
I don’t have a good single word to describe this virtue, but I hope I’ve conveyed a sense of what’s involved in it and why it’s important for critical thinking.