Practicing Discernment & Thinking Critically
BY NEVA FORRESTER
We’ve got information flying at us from every which way, undoubtedly both a gift and a curse of the online era. We have an unprecedented amount of information available to us at our fingertips, so much so you can easily find validity in research backing either side of conflicting arguments.
With the events that have transpired since early 2020 and our unlimited access to media, we have found ourselves having to process this information like never before. Emotions are high, identities are interwoven with ideologies, and at times, what we’ve heard, seen, or read, seems to battle what we’ve experienced in our reality.
Information warfare is at an all-time high, and critical thinking is more important now than ever.
What is Discernment?
By definition, discernment is the process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment. Discernment is not, however, a confirmation of something you believe to be or want to be true. In fact, the willingness to be wrong is a key element to this process. Discernment is not a finite answer but an investigative model used for the sole purpose of seeking truth.
We Don’t See Things as They Are, We See Them as We Are
There is one understanding to be held at the base of them all – that is, the understanding that each of our realities is based on individual perspectives and perceptions created by our own experiences, traumas, morals, and values. It’s like we’re all wearing glasses, where our shared experiences as humans are the frames, and our “realities” are seen through lenses of varying prescriptions. What may be true for one may not be true for another, and our thoughts and actions will display as such. Failure to firmly plant yourself on this baseline of understanding is a mission of the ego and not of the intellectual mind. This is where things like confirmation bias or echo chambers tend to thrive. We have to be able to know when to separate ourselves personally so we can be open enough to look at things objectively.
Where to Start
The discernment process starts with full attention to the claim. It can be incredibly easy to discredit or absorb truth in a claim once our lenses have it in view. Often, our instincts and emotions make us quick to judge without fully grasping every detail presented to us. We like to pick and choose or let our minds wander to preconceived notions about the subject. When we do this, we immediately restrict our ability to fully be present, pay attention, and ultimately, understand. It’s best to take our theoretical glasses off when thinking critically, allowing open-mindedness and humility to be at the forefront of our view.
It can be helpful to “part out” a claim to begin the attempt at understanding it. Much like a book has chapters to support the overarching theme of a story, claims usually have similar supporting delineations or elements. If you lack awareness or understanding of these individual points, it may be unlikely that you’ll understand the overall claim. Itemize each element and assess your familiarity with honesty. Are some of these things points you’ve simply heard about? Or are you well-versed enough to quickly spot out discrepancies?
“Proper understanding leads to proper inquiry.” – Unknown
It’s one thing to know of something, and it’s another thing to know it well. You don’t reference the last chapter and claim to have read the book. A good rule of thumb is to have enough knowledge to argue for and against each stance or perspective.
Investigation, Comparison, and Confirmation
Some claims can be directly observed by our physical reality and confirmed by our senses. For example, the burn we would get from touching a flame would confirm the claim that a flame is hot. Simple enough, right? But what about the things we cannot observe in this way? The things we cannot confirm with firsthand experience? These details require further investigation or research where we’ll seek out external sources of data or information to gain knowledge. These external sources require additional investigation of their own. We’ll want to consider things like credibility, conflicts of interest, funding, or other factors that may influence the argument or evidence being presented. The research we do and the evidence we find can then be compiled with our previous knowledge and experience to consider the likelihood of truth.
Limitations of Knowledge & Acceptance of Probability
Some claims are easier to understand than others, but discernment never provides an absolute answer. To have one would mean being all-knowing, a quality that some humans will strive for but never possess. There are some things we will never have verifiable answers for, and for these, we turn to our limited knowledge, experiences, pattern recognitions, and intuition to assess probabilities. While not having the definitive answer can be infuriating, it also highlights the beauty of the mind’s ability to expand by exploring numerous possibilities and holding multiple conclusions at once. Most of us live in the grey area, and our thoughts do not have to be black and white!
Some questions we will never find answers for, some we will know wholeheartedly. The important thing for us to do is honor the uniqueness in every one of us and release the need to be right in our pursuit of understanding. It is equally important to use our discernment to sift through the mountains of information we’re presented with every day to determine what is meant for us to explore and what may not deserve our time or attention. Always protect your boundaries and stay curious, friends!