I‘ve noticed several recent misunderstandings of what is commonly called “critical thinking” or “rational thought”. I’d like to make a few points that I hope will convince you that acquiring and promoting critical thinking will, indeed, have a positive impact on your own life, and on the lives of others.
1. Being critical does not mean doubting things absent reasons for doubt. Instead, being critical is simply not believing everything we hear without first assessing the claims. For example, if a neighbor, with a history of lying, claims something quite possible such as “Billy kissed Sue last night”, we have good reason to doubt Walter. Conversely, if hitherto trustworthy parents tell you a fat man will descend a chimney the day before Christmas, they are also to be doubted due to the absurdity of the claim. Critical thinking includes assessments of a) the track record of the sources of claims, b) the congruence of claims with reality, and c) the actual evidence/argumentation provided.
2. Critical thinking is not an ideology. It is a method of processing claims. It is not ‘what’ to think, but rather ‘how’ to think. It begins with no presuppositions. It honestly starts at the foundation and examines every nut and bolt in the construction of concepts and ideologies. And it welcomes the periodic breakdown and reconstruction of concepts and ideologies. And because arguments are independent of the arguer, it welcomes any contrary argument, no matter the source. Therefore, just as scientists working independently on scientific problems find their results converging on the objective truth of the matter, those who apply critical thinking will find their ideologies converging.
3. Critical thinking is not only logic. It is the acquisition of all knowledge that has been demonstrated to lead to the most reliable conclusions. So while it does include the more logic-based knowledge of valid argument forms and logical fallacies, it also includes the psychology-based knowledge of cognitive biases. In addition, it includes the acquisition of statistics, probabilities, standards of evidence, concepts related to cause/effect and experimental design, and very importantly, basic concepts of linguistics and epistemology. It is an investment, but the rewards are immense.
4. Critical thinking is not just academic. It is less philosophy and more science. It is the very set of tools actual scientists are currently using to understand the reality around us. It is what has lead to the medical advances that have doubled the average human lifespan, and to the technologies that have made our lives much more productive and enjoyable. Critical thinking is essentially the balanced application of all the tools currently employed by science to explain and predict our reality.
5. Critical thinking is not only effective in assessments of politics, religion and general ideologies. It is a toolbox that can be carried into the personal arena, and applied within the smaller scope of romance, career and lifestyle. Critical thinking leads to life becoming more predictable, and as a result, you becoming more confident and mature. Life is often messy. But acquiring a healthy toolbox of critical thinking skills will allow you to cut through the noise, and to discover and employ solutions to any problem you encounter. There is no guarantee critical thinking will rescue you from every jam, but it’s your best chance.
6. Critical thinking is not a formula. It is not an algorithm you can plug in to spit out an optimal result. There are no shortcuts to acquiring critical thinking skills. You’ll have to put in the time to explore it as you would any other subject. But, because it is so foundational to living, there is no other better investment you’ll make than to equip yourself with a healthy critical thinking toolbox.
For a fun introduction to critical thinking, check out the following link. They have an excellent podcast.