In this we move on from thinking about why it is important to think to examining how we think. In this part I define and describe three of the sources of knowledge that human beings draw from: Tradition, Experience, and Reason.
Tradition refers to those things—wisdom, knowledge, etc—that were prized by the people that came before us and were deliberately handed down to us. Tradition may occur on a small scale, such as within families; my wife’s family for example has the “3 day rule” meaning that if they are staying at someone’s house they will never stay more than 3 days. This is a piece of wisdom that was prized by Whitney’s grandfather and has been passed down to each generation.
Tradition may also exist on the broad societal scale. As a nation, for instance, Canada prizes the value of being polite as its chief virtue and this trait is passed faithfully from generation to generation. This tradition differs from say Australia, a nation that prizes truth telling as her highest virtue. This is why Canadians believe Australians to be rude and belligerent and why, as my Australian professor Rikk Watts used to remind us, Australians think Canadians are a bunch of liars!
Reason is another source of knowledge that refers to the knowledge that we gain through analysis and logic. This includes the information that we as individuals or a society possess from the realms of science or the arts like history and linguistics. When it comes to making ethical choices, we are using our reason when we attempt to take into account all of the information available to us and make the best choice. For example a current hot topic is the matter of the oil sands in Alberta. In order to make wise moral choices as a society we ought to decide what is reasonable based on all the data available to us: environmental impact studies, economic impact studies, and of course that great wealth of hard data—the 1970s rock and roll star Neil Young…or not.
The third source of knowledge is our experience. What we have gone through in life will inevitably shape how we process information and how we look at the world. One example that comes to my mind is gardening. Whitney and I love the idea of having our own vegetable garden. Each year we plant a few things and each year we inevitably have far more failures than successes. Now some use of reason can cut down on the failures: for instance good research can tell you the types of plants that grow best in your soil, knowledge of how much sun or shade a particular vegetable likes can also help, etc but as any good gardener can tell you, much of the learning only comes through experience, through that old standby method of trial and error…