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Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology by David A. Levy


David A. Levy believes we should reason until we get good solutions, tolerating uncertainty until we find them. Tools of Critical Thinking has a nifty section on causal factors (things that change the probability of a result occurring), explaining how factors cause each other, cause other results, do not cause a result, and vary in importance. For example, hot weather, bad norms, the media, unemployment and so on in combinations can cause riots. And riots can cause more riots (and unemployment) by scaring away businesses in vicious cycles.


When considering the relationship between depression and low self-worth, we should entertain the possibilities that depression may cause low self-worth. Low self-worth may cause depression. Depression and low self-worth may cause each other. Depression and low self-worth may have no causal relationship. Other factors may cause both depression and low self-worth.


Behavior depends on inner resources—personality and character—and situations we find ourselves in. Individuals typically excuse their bad behavior as caused completely by circumstances, but believe others’ bad behaviors are completely caused by their characters. (Some individuals, of course, will or will not behave in some ways, no matter the circumstances. Others live at the mercy of circumstances.)


Some plausible causes of self-destructive actions include: Believing we cannot stop ourselves, creating bad environments, and failing to create better environments. Believing we deserve horrible things makes us a doormat. Seeking anything to relieve anxiety and boredom is a road to rottenness. Seeking love or knowledge in the wrong ways destroys us.


To deal with anxiety and boredom, we should passionately and unfreakably do good things, avoid bad environments, and improve the environments we should not avoid.


Tools explains separation of issues. If you walk at night in an atrocious place, then get mugged, the criminal is morally and criminally guilty of mugging, but you are morally guilty of indiscretion, a separate issue. Your indiscretion does not excuse an iota of the criminal’s guilt or change any punishment the criminal should receive. Your indiscretion should cause you to change your actions, though.


Levy focuses on psychological fallacies: Availability bias (being over-influenced by what you can easily think of), the hindsight bias (the result seemed obvious and inevitable after the fact), and the insight fallacy (knowing a thing does not automatically lead to action and fixing a thing).


Knowledge without action is despicable. It wastes time. It avoids some unpleasant emotions but at the cost of important traits--character, self-respect, dignity--leading to alienation and weak will.


Some individuals avoid changes so much that psychologists often prescribe what I call reverse psychology. (They call it paradoxical intentions and prescribing the symptom.) Verbally fighting couples, for example, are told to fight for several more hours a week.


Psychological categories (passive aggressive, for example) have their good and bad points, the author writes. They stigmatize, depersonalize, and encourage self-absorption--steering individuals into potentially inaccurate categories, resulting in feelings of helplessness and self-pity. Categories employ jargon. Unreliable and often inaccurate, the categories shift individuals from moral descriptions to illness categories, perhaps turning moral beings into futile beings.


On the plus side, they sometimes improve research, treatment, and communication.


Levy warns readers to watch out for Barnum statements, ersatz profundities most individuals consider true about themselves. Barnum statements remain popular with seducers and astrologers. Some examples: You love your family, but you have some ambivalent feelings. You find it difficult to balance autonomy and closeness. You are your own worst enemy. You are a creative and independent thinker. You do not like criticism, rejection or being hurt. You hang on to things you should let go. You struggle with self-doubts. You wish others could understand where you are coming from.

Individuals often consider Barnum statements more revealing than good personality tests.


Instead of weighing arguments, when faced with two or more arguments, some individuals, unfortunately, decide:

·        The truth must lie in the middle.

·        There is no truth.

·        No way to decide exists.

·        Previous intuitions are best.

·        Doing nothing is best.


Individuals make these errors even when arguments on one side are incredibly weak. Levy also points out we should not underestimate the power of situations to change some individuals.


Flaws? The author’s coverage of moral values and fallacy categories is terrible. The “naturalistic fallacy”—moral conclusions are allegedly worthless because prescriptive conclusions cannot be deductively arrived at from only descriptive premises—is not a fallacy in the way claimed and has nothing to do with whether moral arguments can be well-reasoned. Value claims can be facts, with conclusions most often supported by inductive arguments. The naturalistic fallacy confusion is a friend of those looking for excuses to do wrongs. Worth skimming.


Book review article by J.T. Fournier


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