Extended Essay

.. in India. For science to develop, there must be a tendency toward a full understanding of all of Nature through a few general laws that could be learned and understood by anyone. The method of learning such laws must be such that no one is excluded from studying except through his own intellectual capabilities. In China, Needham suggests that the reasons for modern science’s lack of development are due to historical, economic, social and cultural factors (Needham 1969: 190-217).

Needham rightly dismisses the interpretation of Europe’s eventual mastery of modern scientific techniques in geographical or racial beliefs. The scientific and mathematical achievements in both India and China during the ancient and medieval periods is so great that it is hardly conceivable at all to think of Europe’s success in terms of her destiny or superior level of advancement as propagated by the Hegelian tradition. On the other hand, Needham seems to believe that it is more a matter of luck that Europe could eventually mastered the arts of modern science and became dominant. Needham writes: The further I penetrate into the detailed history of the achievements of Chinese science and technology before the time when, like all other ethnic cultural rivers, they flowed into the river of modern science, the more convinced I become that the cause for the break-through occurring only in Europe was connected with the special social, intellectual and economic conditions prevailing there at the Renaissance, and can never be explained by any deficiencies either of the Chinese mind or of the Chinese intellectual and philosophical tradition. In many ways this was much more congruent with modern science than was the world-outlook of Christendom (Needham 1969: 191).

The “special social, intellectual and economic conditions” that explain Europe’s success are nowhere necessarily attached to the historical development of Europe. They seem only to be those that Europeans adopted, consciously or not, in response to their historical, social, and mercantile needs. Those needs apparently were not in the minds of Indians or Chinese, whose priorities for their civilization as a whole seemed to be something else. Thus, instead of looking for a unifying theory capable of explaining and predicting natural phenomenon so that men could harness the power of Nature to their own material needs as well as feel a sense of mastery when Nature is thus comprehended, Indians and Chinese chose to put the ideals of their civilizations in another way. The summum bonum of the Indian philosophical tradition, attainment of Moksha or Liberation, is quite contrary to the ideals and assumptions of modern scientific thinking.

Instead of looking for the way to free oneself from the endless cycle of rebirths through strict self-discipline, Europeans sought to advance their own self-interests that are more inclined to the ordinary. In China, the rapid transformation from feudalism to state bureaucratism, coupled with the influence of the Confucian ethos, while hugely successful in preserving China’s cultural identity amidst the great variety of people and localities, nonetheless made it the case that material innovations and proto-scientific and logical theories would be given little attention. Writings on such matters are referred to the `Miscellaneous’ category by the mandarin scholars who put the highest priority to moralistic, ethical, or historical writings (Ronan 1978: 19) This interpretation, which is focused on the contingent character of the rise of modern science in Europe, is regarded by Steve Fuller as the “under determinist” one. According to Fuller, the reason why China did not develop modern science was that it was not specifically promoted (Fuller 1997: 80-88). He contrasts this with the “over determinist” mode–the kind of explanation that seeks to explain the lack of progress of modern science through the idea that it was specifically prevented from occurring.

Thus, according to the former outlook, the reason science did not develop in China was because historical, social, economic conditions were such that they were simply incompatible with its rise. I think this could be due to the Chinese not putting a high priority on things scientific. On the other hand, the over determinist would assume that science is part of a culture’s destiny which would materialize anyway if the circumstances were favorable. However, in the case of China these circumstances were not favorable, blocking science’s potential development. To view the history and development of science in the latter mode would mean that science is a necessary part of a culture’s path of development, which is the same for all cultures.

A culture in which science successfully develops is thus viewed as more “advanced” than another where the development of science is somehow stinted. On the other hand, the under determinist would argue that such a picture of each cultural entity racing along the same path smells too much of teleology and “God’s design” to be tenable. Instead of so viewing, each culture should be regarded as having its own path not necessarily shared with others. Since critical thinking and modern scientific thinking are closely related, discussions of the historical rise of science in various cultures are directly related to our investigation of whether critical thinking is compatible with the major Asian cultural traditions. Discussions on the rise of modern science seem to enable us to see how the tradition of critical thinking arose and how they were promoted or discouraged. If the under determinist mode of interpretation is accepted, then the lack of critical thinking tradition in Asia could be explained by the fact that somehow members of these traditions decided not to go put critical thinking high on their list of priorities, despite the fact that critical thinking skills could be found deep within the traditions themselves.

1034 Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence? Hence, the values typically associated with Asian culture such as social harmony and deference to the elders and teachers are thus seen as consequences of the cultures deciding to put a certain set of priorities above others. Social harmony was instrumental in bringing about the cultural unity that is the most distinctive characteristic of Chinese culture. It is valued above most other types of values because it goes hand in hand with social stability, whose alternative is perceived as chaos and general burden of social structure. The prioritization of social harmony can also be seen in other Asian cultures such as the Thai one, and results in Thais trying as far as they possibly can to avoid open conflicts and disagreements. In the case of China, since all the elements that could bring about the rise of modern science were in place, it is quite clear that the Chinese culture actually chose not to go along the path taken by the Europeans.

The decision made by a culture to adopt a particular system of beliefs and practices certainly did not happen suddenly, as if at one particular moment of history, members of a culture had a meeting and declared their cultures’ adoption of this or that set. The decision occurred gradually throughout the historical development of a culture, and can be seen in China adopting Confucianism rather than the more materialistic and scientifically inclined Taoism and Mohism, and in India adopting the more mystical doctrine emphasizing the role of meditation and private insights rather than publicly demonstrable methods of knowing. I think that reasons for such decision are enormously complicated, but it is hardly conceivable that China was somehow destined to lag behind Europe in the science race due to factors they could not control. This may be taken to show that critical thinking and Asian thought are divergent. If the Asian cultures chose not to go along the path where critical thinking is one milestone, then both do not seem to go with each other, and Atkinson may be vindicated when he argues that critical thinking is a part of Western culture only.

If the Asian cultures prioritize sets of values which are incompatible with critical thinking, and if they freely chose those sets over the set adopted by Europeans for whatever reasons, then it appears that critical thinking would belong to European culture only, and to adopt it to Asian cultures would be the same as to importing foreign ideas and practices to alien lands. Thus, Atkinson’s argument seems to fit well with the under determinist position. This line of reasoning, however, would be valid only if a culture decided as its own set of priorities at one time will always remain so for all other times. If the Thai culture, for example, once decided that social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates, then critical thinking practices would be forever alien to them. But that is surely a very unreasonable position to take.

Cultures, like humans, often make decisions that later are amended or revoked with new decisions made; when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone, but even so the stone can be broken down or else taken to a museum or a pedestal where it loses its real meaning. Decisions at one time reflect the circumstances normal at that particular time, and to stick onto past decisions with no plan of adapting or making new decisions in response to changing circumstances would make the culture frozen and unable to participate. Opting not to correct their past decisions, a culture would in effect be telling the world that it is constructing a wall around itself, giving nothing to the world and receiving nothing. However, sociological and economic conditions of the current world do not permit such a scenario from happening.

Cultures need to change themselves, not merely to survive, but to prosper and to permit better lives for their members. Consequently, Asian cultures and critical thinking are divergent only if the former opt not to correct their decisions. But since we are talking only about decisions, then it is not difficult at all to suggest that cultures would make new decisions in response to changing times. Doing so would make the two more convergent. Hence, the divergence and convergence, after all, depend on what decisions a culture makes.

There is nothing necessarily attached to a culture’s path along history that makes it essentially divergent or convergent from the modern critical thinking tradition, or from any tradition for that matter. Since the philosophy of a culture is but an abstract and theoretical expression and justification of the culture’s decision to choose one set of priorities over another, Asian philosophy and critical thinking are neither necessarily divergent nor necessarily convergent. Conclusion Any attempt to introduce, or we should say to bring back critical thinking practices to the cultures of Asia would, therefore, begin within the cultures themselves. This is in line with the under determinist idea that each culture has its own peculiar development path which is not necessarily shared with others. The mission of spreading the “truth” of one culture to another is a misplaced. One that apart from sounding patronizing, is something the current morality cannot accept. Thus the first step in such an attempt must consist of a series of arguments designed to show to most members of the culture where critical thinking is to be introduced, that critical thinking is really good. However to do that would at least require large amounts of explanations, something that is definitely out of scope of this present essay. Besides, to argue that critical thinking is actually a good thing to have is difficult, because it may run counter to the deeply established belief that critical thinking is just a label for the confrontational mode of life that the culture finds unpleasant and difficult to accept.

Though the task is difficult, I believe that it is unavoidable. As an insider of my own Chinese cultural tradition, I am trying to convince the members of my culture of the value of critical thinking and its important role in educating citizens for the increasingly globalized world of today and tomorrow. An important part of my argument for combining critical thinking and its belief systems to the Chinese culture is the idea that people should view the elements of their culture which could present the most serious obstacles to critical thinking as “benign fiction.” That is, elements such as respect of the elders and the belief in social ranking and so on should be viewed in the same way as a modern person views his or her own traditional customs and ceremonies. One is in a sense a part of the culture where the ceremonies happen, but in another sense detached from it. This is because he knows himself only to serve a certain function in the culture, and in addition, knowledge of other cultures enables further detachment from his own customs and ceremonies.

Such an argument would naturally require a lot more space and time than is available here. What I hope to have accomplished in this essay, however, is much more modest. It is, as we have seen, an argument that Asian philosophy and Asian thought in general do not necessarily conflict with critical thinking and its presuppositions. Furthermore, it is the influential making of decisions throughout the history of each culture itself, which, I believe, is flexible and adaptive enough to effect important changes for the future. 1065 Bibliography Atkinson, D.

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References [1] The literature on the nature and definitions of critical thinking are enormous. Probably the most intense debate among critical thinking experts centers on the question whether critical thinking can be a separate autonomous academic disciplines dealing with the general form of thinking to be applied by students in all of their academic areas. Or whether it is not autonomous at all, but should always be part of important academic disciplines. However, I believe that these debates give us little understanding of what critical thinking should be. For critical thinking would be nothing if not applied to real cases, and the study of it would not be totally effective if the skills and theories unique to it were not abstracted and studied on their own. The other debates focuses on the nature of critical thinking, or the meaning of “critical thinking” itself.

Richard Paul (1993) provides a definition that no one can gainsay: Critical thinking is the kind of thinking one thinks of one’s thinking in order to make one’s thinking better. Hatcher (1995a; 1995b) calls for the kind of critical thinking that is based on the so-called “epistemological realist” position this is contrasted by Sutton (1995) and Hostetler (1991), who argue that critical thinking is more amenable to the anti-realist position. Whatever it is, there is still no correct definition concerning the true meaning of critical thinking.