Identifying Good Reasons


One might think that we need a definition of ‘knowledge’ in order to track it down and recognize it once we’re face-to-face with it. The answer to the question “what is knowledge” is under debate and has been for a few thousand years. The good news is we don’t need an answer. That’s because there is no answer. At least, no answer we can all agree on. The attempt to assign the word “knowledge” to specific claims has brought forth myriad opinions on the nature of knowledge–a serious problem in a post-fact age.

We think Plato’s classic view was close to correct: Knowledge is Justified True Belief. This is what sets knowledge apart from opinion. If you have a claim that is justified with appropriate support, you believe the claim, and the claim is true, then you can say you know it. There are some problems with this view of knowledge, but at a practical level Plato’s formula is very helpful:

K=JTB      Knowledge is Justified True Belief

--answering the question, “how do you know?”

Perception—“I saw it happen.”

Self-awareness—“It happened to me.”

Memory—Be careful because it’s not like a recording.

Deduction—the three-part logic of syllogisms

Induction—“These repeated occurrences must add up to something.”

Authority—the use of expert testimonials

Consensus—“We’ve all agreed to do it this way.”

Intuition—An apparent flash of insight that is generated by deep knowledge of      the subject.

Revelation—“God told me.”

          Faith—“You should put on this blindfold and follow me.”

*Of course, these descriptions are brief. Look for more detail in later posts.


The Importance of Critical Thinking

“The dangers of not thinking clearly are much greater now than ever before. It’s not that there’s something new in our way of thinking – it’s that credulous and confused thinking can be much more lethal in ways it never was before.”

—Carl Sagan, astrophysicist

He had been Standing on a Block of Ice: Lateral Thinking



Thinking can take a number of different forms. Thinking can be linear (or sometimes called vertical), as it must be when we are trying to communicate in speech or writing. It can be associative, as when we jump from one idea to another by way of an association between the two ideas and not through logic (green–grass–badminton–birdie). Or it can be lateral, as in those puzzles with unexpected solutions that still make sense.

Enumeration (or listing) is a form of linear thought as is the grammar pattern Subject-Verb-Object, associative thinking shows up in many children’s games (say the first word that comes to mind), and lateral thinking helps us notice our preconceptions and the significant corresponding details we’ve been trained to ignore.

In this post, a little lateral thinking puzzle to challenge you:

A man and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed and the child is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy – for he is my son!!!’ How can this possibly be?

Lateral thinking gives us a few advantages that we don’t get from linear or associative thinking. Lateral thinking anticipates our preconceptions and uses those to set up a trap. Sometimes called “thinking outside the box,” lateral thought drives us to think in broader form, to examine criteria and categories, to use care in our word choices, and to slip the trap.

The boy’s surgeon is his mother. Surgeons seldom operate on their immediate family members. And our cultural expectation (still) is that surgeons are male.

And the man in the header hanged himself by tying his noose to the rafter and standing on a block of ice. When he was found, there was no chair under him, but there was a puddle of water on the carpet.

If you have a favorite lateral thinking puzzle, share it in the comments.

Good Reasons


How do we recognize a good reason when we see one? In a previous post, I mentioned the concern that in general Americans have poor critical thinking skills. They have difficulty determining the difference between real and fake, bogus and genuine, good reasons and bad ones.

How do we recognize a good reason when we see one? Or a bad reason, for that matter. With all the on-going twists and spins on matters of public importance, discernment is an important skill to have. And as it so happens, reality, authenticity, and good reasons all possess recognizable characteristics that allow us to identify them. In Western culture, the attributes of good reasons are contained in a hierarchy of ten levels, from most to least credible.











A few centuries ago, revelation and faith were higher in the standings. Today, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept those alone as good reasons, and they demand something more empirical. Consensus may be gaining credibility with recent studies showing some evidence that crowds can make good decisions. The top three attributes—perception, self-awareness, and memory—are used almost exclusively in our daily lives and the other attributes are reserved for special situations.

That’s a quick review for now. In later posts, I’ll take a look at each attribute and its level of credibility in more detail.


A Quiet Mind

Titan reads

We suffer today from what was termed “temporal exhaustion” by sociologist Elise Boulding who taught at Dartmouth from 1978 until her retirement in 1985. Temporal exhaustion is the idea that our lives have become so fast-paced and over-scheduled that we suffer fatigue from it all. Thanks to the new communication technologies, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with information. Professor Boulding explains the importance of allowing yourself processing time:

“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imagining the future.”

This is not a new idea. It goes back at least to the Axial Age and is expressed, in one way or another, by many of the world’s religious traditions: the idea that you need to “be still” in order to apprehend enlightenment. The stillness referred to is a mental state, not physical. A quiet mind. Don’t forget to take time for yourself. Calm down. Listen. Cut off the dead vines. Don’t over function. End the toxic attitudes. De-stress.

An agitated mind is going to struggle with these ideas, especially the activity junkies among us—those people who cope with reality through constant busy-ness and who seem to fear the quiet. People have tried to refute the idea of silence by saying things like “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This sounds more like mental illness than an attack by the Evil One, and one can only ask, “Really? You feel like the Devil is at play inside your head? How often does this happen? What do you think the Devil is telling you to do? Did he make you sign a non-disclosure agreement?”

The feeling of one’s thoughts rushing like river rapids or running into each other like falling dominoes is familiar to many people. And some creative ideas do come out of these mash ups. But if you’re making noise, it’s hard to hear anyone but yourself.

And there’s the danger: that you will miss significant incoming info that could be vital. It is through the interplay of different ideas that we find flaws in our own thought process and that leads us to better analysis. Critical thinking does not occur in a vacuum. Our thought interacts with the thought of others, causing us to revise our point of view to be more accurate.

Quieting the noise takes discipline and practice, but it’s worth the effort. Start by scheduling some quiet time for yourself.

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels make you crazy.” –Jackson Browne

Beginning Again


“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”


“Great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes.”

          —James Dobson

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

          —T. S. Eliot

“No matter how hard the past is, you can always begin again.”


“Take the first step in faith.. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” 

         —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.”

          —Mark Twain


Let’s start the new year with an argument! Plato and Dobbs seem to be at odds with each other about whether beginnings or endings are more important, followed by Eliot’s effort to draw a circle around everything, the Buddha’s optimism, and MLK’s echo of the Chinese proverb, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” And then there’s Twain’s summation of it all (which seems appropriate for this time of year).

I lean heavily toward Plato’s view over Dobson’s. Much like the quality of the questions we ask, the beginning is going to have a huge impact on where we wind up; on the other hand, none of that matters if you can’t make a finish. The seeds of our failures are frequently to be found in our beginnings, and the Cult of Perfection can keep us from finishing at times when simply ‘good’ is good enough.

Planning and prioritizing. Two invaluable skills people try to avoid because they think those things take a lot of time and effort, but a few minutes spent exercising those skills brings a big pay-off and helps us find a direction. Ask: What’s the most important thing here, and how am I going to make it happen? This helps give you a sense of knowing where you are going even though the path may have some twists and turns..

I seem to read more and more commentary every day bewailing the general lack of Americans’ critical thinking skills. These skills are seldom taught in public schools anymore, and the private schools don’t do much better. Even college has given short shrift to this kind of competency until recently, and many colleges now believe the entering freshmen need extensive remediation, assigning required classes to teach them the skills they did not learn in high school.

The decision-making process can be crippled by confusion over real vs fake, failure to identify bogus arguments, or not recognizing the differences between good reasons and bad ones.

Often, President Trump is cited as the reason we need to teach critical thinking skills, with the concomitant idea that most Americans are not prepared to withstand the propaganda onslaught emanating from Trump’s White House. With those issues in mind, the Butcher Block is recommitting to its mission bringing critical thinking skills to a wider audience. Trump and his cronies put forward so many examples of manipulative techniques that we’ll spend a good bit of time analyzing his “arguments” but rest assured that the Block is an equal opportunity deprecator. We are diligently hunting down dangerously sloppy or manipulative thinking anywhere we can find it.

The Circus and the Charlatan

Ringmaster introducing a circus show.A number of commentators seem to have the impression that Donald Trump is a one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen phenomenon without precedent. If there is a primoprogenitor, a cautionary exemplar of the Coming of the Donald, then that forewarning must surely be the American bunco artist P. T. Barnum. If his name seems familiar, it probably is due to his partial ownership of the famed Barnum and Bailey circus.

Many tales about Barnum’s ingenuity have survived him, and a few of them may be true. The version of the story I’m about to share with you is of uncertain provenance, and so we regard the truth of it to be not in the literal details but in the larger, figurative themes. Our interest here is not in the ‘truth’ of the origin of the story but rather in the ‘truth’ of the story’s message. For example, there’s the story of Barnum’s exhibition of a ‘real’ mermaid, direct from the south seas.

It is said that Barnum bought the ‘mermaid’ from some sketchy seaman ‘down at the docks.’ Barnum then began exhibiting the thing, placing it in a coffin-like box set up in the center of a large tent: See the Mermaid, Two Bits.

The tent filled up rapidly, but that didn’t satisfy Barnum. The customers were spending lots of time standing around the display and theorizing. Barnum realized that he didn’t want a tent full of paying customers. He wanted ten tents full. He had to move people through the tent in order to maximize his profit. His problem wasn’t drawing a crowd, his problem was getting rid of it in order to bring more customers in. As he said, “Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

Barnum’s solution? A sign at one end of the tent reading, “This way to the Egress.” People would enter the tent to see the mermaid and after a few minutes someone would notice the sign and say: “Hey, everybody! Let’s go see the egress!” And eveyone would follow.

Not exactly underhanded, but at the least misleading. Egress is another word for exit. Barnum counted on below average vocabulary skills (and an unwillingness to look stupid) to carry off the scheme. All of which lends support to his observation: “No man ever went broke overestimating the ignorance of the American public.”

We don’t know what the ‘mermaid’ really was. Some say it was a manatee carcass, others claim it was a dead squid with its tentacles arranged to resemble flowing tresses of hair. Whatever it was, it surely reeked to high heaven. Just like Donald Trump.

Barnum had a few other tricks up his sleeve which we’ll examine in future posts.

I have seen Fear in a Handful of Semicolons


Something is in the news that I never suspected would become an internet phenom: the besmirched and disparaged semicolon. A book has been published on the subject, and I’ve come to learn many people have been taught to never use semicolons. I don’t remember any specific instructional events involving semicolons and me, but I do think the semicolon is indispensable.

If you were told by your teacher not to use semicolons, I suspect you were told so that you would start to write short, declarative sentences. Like Hemingway’s. One thought to a sentence. Short, declarative sentences are indispensable too; they are where our thoughts come to life.

The semicolon is properly used to join together two independent clauses that relate similar thoughts or themes (except when the clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction):

Donald Trump is corrupt; he is owned by the Russian oligarchs.

This use of the semicolon in a parallel structure (like the one above) serves to give strong emphasis to the independent clause following the semicolon. Note that an independent clause must follow the semi-colon and not some modifying phrase or clause. The semicolon is also effectively used as a kind of pivot point in the sentence, setting up an opportunity for antithesis—the movement from this to that, from one to the other, from darkness to light:

It was the worst of times; it was the best of times.

The pivot provided by the semicolon and the parallel structure of the joined clauses lends a tolling majesty to the words, a reinforced rhetoric that comes from more than the ideas alone. The rhythm introduced by the semicolon is a big part of its persuasive power. Do not fear the semicolon.

Some Knowledge Patterns to Ponder


He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. —Aeschylus, Greek tragic dramatist (525 BC – 456 BC)

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.  —Buddha

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.  —Ecclesiastes 1:4

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars. —Walt Whitman