Building the Muscular Mind (Final Installment with Exercises)

Note:  I’ve included some thinking exercises in this piece, toward the second half of the blog.  Please participate in completing those and leaving your answers in the comment section.

I hope you don’t feel that I’m beating a dead horse here, talking so much and with such passion about thinking.  It’s just that I’m reminded that Marcus Aurelius once said:  “The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts:  therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”

Just think about that for a moment.  Our happiness, whether we experience it or think of it as the highest sort or not, depends on what takes place in our heads and how skilled we are in our intellects.  I believe we too often associate happiness with emotionality, but Aurelius challenges that.  His argument is premised on the fact that if we make bad decisions, aren’t intellectually capable of understand ourselves or others, and can’t reason our way toward finding good solutions to those things that vex us, we aren’t terribly likely to feel at peace in the world or to find the sort of enjoyment in life we call “happiness.”  In other words, happiness starts and finishes in the mind.

I’m a politics junkie.  I’ve been spending lots of time reading the pundits and their analyses of what’s taking place right now in America and how the upcoming elections might play out.  Many experts make arguments that should be listened to rather closely.  If one does this, one discovers that the analysts are asserting that Democrats need to make pitches that Americans can understand if they want to win at the polls.  They need to build simple, persuasive arguments that don’t require the populace to think too much.  They advise politicians not to argue about the value of preserving democracy—democracy is too abstract; we certainly can’t spend it or eat it— but to focus on how much a loaf of bread costs.  Don’t talk about the need to build a more inclusive world as America inexorably becomes a more diverse place, talk to the voters about the price of a gallon of gas.

Here’s the thing.  Voters remain uneducated about things if politicians don’t help them learn.  When our children go to school, teachers don’t just repeat lessons kids already know and discuss easy stuff they “can handle”; their job is to make students stretch, to help them expand their understanding.

Americans don’t need to be talked down to; they need to be coached up.

One way to get smarter is to look at my first installment and to think about the nature of argumentation and the role reason and arguments play in helping us make sense of just about everything.  In that first piece, I wrote a lot about claims and how to make them.  In this final installment, I’d like to talk about the nature of evidence and how to use it in support of claims.

By the way, facts and evidence (when fully understood and used well) are fatal to conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking.

The following is an argumentative claim that is followed by evidence. 

COVID vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.  I know this is true because my Uncle Frank, who knows quite a few doctors, told me all about what’s really going on with those vaccinations.  He told me that they did the vaccine research fast.  As everyone knows, everything done fast is done poorly.

The claim is “COVID vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided.”  The evidence is the information offered by the claimant’s Uncle Frank who has doctor friends.

What’s wrong with this argument (if anything)?  If there is a question about the argument, do we take issue with the claim or the evidence or both.  (You can put your thoughts in the comments section below.)

What about the following arguments?

  1. People from Africa don’t assimilate very well in places like Europe, North America, Australia, and such.  In my city, there have been problems with migrants from Africa recently.  They just don’t seem to fit in.  They eat strange foods, have unusual cultural practices, and some of the women even cover their hair which means they are not free and are under the thumb of men.  They just aren’t cut out to live in the modern world.
  2. Abortion should be banned in all cases.  Life begins at conception.  The holy books tell us this.  Common decency is on our side. 
  3. All conservatives pretty much want to curtail the rights that open societies cherish.  I’ve been paying attention to what’s going on in places like Hungary, Russia, and North Korea.  If we’re not vigilant, we could become just like them.

We hear arguments like these all the time.  They all consist of both claims and evidence.  What are your thoughts about these arguments?  Do they have strengths or weaknesses?  I’m curious what you have to say, so please post your thoughts below.

By the way, there are some interesting rules that govern the use of evidence.  I’ll post these rules in the comments section after readers have had a time to reflect and post their thoughts.

Thanks for reading and participating.

21 thoughts on “Building the Muscular Mind (Final Installment with Exercises)

  1. Most people don’t read the articles, only the headlines, and as we know, those are created to be provocative clickbait. If they get news, it will be from sources that also echo and amplify that “scandal” dramatic approach. Very few people will take the time to read articles and learn, when a shortcut of simply reading headlines and then reacting emotionally is actually so much more satisfying! It’s hard to change people’s “fast-food” approach to life and the news!

    1. Thanks. You’re right. One of the biggest problems facing America today (as well as the health of American democracy) is citizens being underinformed and apathetic. We think democracy just happens by itself. But we need to be able to think to make informed decisions and to see the value of engagement. And to think we need to read, study, be awake, and pay attention.

  2. In our unfortunately combatively divided, conspiracy theory rich, politically polarized society, I’ve personally chosen to no longer engage in such volitile issues . . . better to be thought a ultra-liberal or conservative (of which I am neither), than to risk escalating someone’s blood pressure and potentially destroying an otherwise mutually productive relationship.
    I wish you non-partisan wisdom in navigating this brave venture Gary.

    1. I think everyone has to find their own way in dealing with issues of this sort. I do think that we may have to end up pushing back against a kind of political ugliness if it manifests its head in a way that’s even more dramatic than it is now. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I’m with Fred. I refuse to engage in any sort of discussion one way or another about controversy. Why? Because we do not know, nor will we ever know what is true. It is difficult to make an intelligent decision based on conjecture, personal opinion, or just plain flat-out lies heaped upon us by those who do not have our best interests at heart. I prefer to stay on the light side!

    1. Hi. Thanks for your insightful comments. The reason I wrote this series is to argue that we are less vulnerable to manipulation if we have the reasoning/thinking/intellectual tools to make deeply informed judgments about the various messages we’re being fed by those who don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind. A person can only be vulnerable to misinformation if they don’t know how to make judgements between what reasonably makes sense and pure nonsense. Developing the muscular mind frees us from manipulation and makes it for more likely that we’ll live empowered and happy lives.

  4. Hi Troy, so…with the COVID argument, I take issue with the evidence. It’s purely personal. I think personal anecdote can sometimes have a place in argumentation, but an argument based solely on it …is just opinion.

  5. I totally agree with politicians needing to coach us up. Our problems are complex and simplistic, “headline” solutions won’t work. The sad thing is that too many of us seem to lack the patience, attention span, and intelligence to engage issues fully. Another disheartening and scary thing is when conspiracies are debunked and destroyed by facts, yet the people who believe the conspiracy choose to keep believing it anyway. How do we combat that? 🤦🏼‍♂️

    I always thought of happiness as an emotion but your points about it being linked to “brain muscle” are very good.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Hey, Todd. Great to hear from you! If you think about it, lots of human misery results when people make bad decisions, have problems but don’t know how to solve them, don’t have the analytical skills to see others clearly, etc. All these are functions of the mind. Not understanding things, feeling bewildered as a result, have emotional components, but these maladies begin in the mind. It’s also commonly thought that people can simply decide to be happy. Deciding is a mind act; it’s not an emotional act. Emotionality is also mostly about how we intellectually process (and then reaction to) those things that affect our lives.

      Too many people want to be fooled. Too many people need a “big daddy” figure. My greatest fear is that we’ve reached a point where there aren’t enough Americans who have the judgment to make good decisions for themselves and the nation. A people who can’t make good/wise decisions shouldn’t be expected to make good/wise decisions. We could easily lose our democracy because citizens can’t see the difference between the short-term pain of inflation and the devastating loss of democracy. They can’t rank those problems well in their mind. Both are problems but the loss of democracy is far more serious than paying too much for a gallon milk. A country that can’t prioritize (prioritizing is an intellectual act) or rank problems from more pressing to less pressing can’t be expected to make decisions that preserve democracy.

      You told me you’re a bit pessimistic. In this case, I think we are of similar mind and outlook.

      1. I hope we as a country can prove pessimists like us wrong. I would love to be totally wrong and see us get our collective minds in gear.

  6. Well, they all commit classic logical fallacies, mostly variations of the Hasty Generalization Fallacy, Availability Bias, and the Bandwagon Fallacy. And of course, one we’re all guilty of, Confirmation Bias.The problem is very if few – if any of us – base our political ethos mostly on reason (although we all, myself included, think we do). Studies have shown when people talk about politics, the area of their brains that engages the most are the amygdala, which is where we process our strongest emotions.

  7. Nowadays most of the people get information on social media, they don’t look for evidence, they are passive and don’t verify the sources or look for other opinions. The world would need better education systems, where students would learn not only facts, but also how to analyze them, and form their own opinions. In addition the education systems would need to be free of charges so that not only an elite of people could make informed choice. On top of that, teachers would also need a better pay. All this would require massive investment. Are governments oriented to do that? Or do they prefer keeping the status quo? Obviously, this is a rhetorical question. Very interesting article Troy!

  8. Hey, Troy. I love this post. It reminds me so much of Neil Postman’s arguments for better schooling and better questions. I want to address several parts of your post, so bear with me.

    “Voters remain uneducated about things if politicians don’t help them learn.” Yep, because it’s not in the interest of the politicians to have an informed voter. Panem et circuses. Or the proles, etc.

    “When our children go to school, teachers don’t just repeat lessons kids already know and discuss easy stuff they ‘can handle’; their job is to make students stretch, to help them expand their understanding.” I love the stretching and expansion metaphors. I hear echoes of Vygotsky in there. Repetition creates robots, operant conditioning, and mindless following. It’s the difference between the prisoners chained to the bench in Plato’s Cave watching shadows on the wall as opposed to the one who breaks free and sees the real world. Many adults are still chained to the bench, not because they can’t break free, but because they don’t want to, or teachers didn’t teach them how to pick the lock. Perhaps the metaphor breaks down in many places, but it suffices to illustrate the need for more (and better) questions instead of pre-scripted answers.

    “Americans don’t need to be talked down to; they need to be coached up.” This is beautiful to me. It emphasizes the need for learning and coaching. I like that you used coaching instead of just teaching. In the modern education environment, teaching has become a passive endeavor where the instructor “teaches” and the student “learns.” Coaching, in contrast, implies a willing participant and a coach who is attentive to the deficiencies the participant needs to work to improve; a much more personal experience.

    “I’d like to talk about the nature of evidence and how to use it in support of claims.” In the post-modern world, many people mistake personal preference for evidence, a phenomenon Alasdair MacIntyre called emotivism. I do not want to dismiss personal narratives as evidence of a claim, but we cannot also believe solipsistically that our personal narrative is the ultimate reality everyone else lives within.

    “What are your thoughts about these arguments?” I would guess that many of the people who hold such views rarely move outside their comfort zones, rarely travel, and have never really engaged with “otherness” in a way that many in the world must when they experience our understanding of this experiment we call “America.”

    Great post, and I enjoyed the thinking it made me do this morning.

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