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What is Critical Thinking?

June 28, 2011

Critical ThinkingForgive me if this is a really silly question; after all, I’m just a business major, and as research shows, business majors lag behind in terms of developing critical thinking skills in university. But forgive me my handicap and answer me this: what is critical thinking?

Critical thinking seems to me to be this nebulous term of superiority that one wields against one’s opponents. From a higher education pedagogical perspective, it seems that “critical thinking” is the term used by proponents of liberal arts curricula against the employment-geared or trade-based curricula of other fields (like say, engineering, accounting, or finance).

However, I see this term used elsewhere. In discussions about religion, for example. Main Street Plaza recently had a discussion about another rather nebulous term: faith. Chris had a blog post providing one such answer to the question. What’s interesting (or, more often, frustrating) about both discussions is how so many people are apt to find others’ definitions unfit.

But that’s about faith. What about critical thinking? In MSP’s earlier post on brainwashing (which led to the post asking about faith as a splinter), Seth pointed out that indoctrination is something widespread in society — and that even parents who dislike indoctrination may do. Jonathan suggested that instead of indoctrinating, parents could encourage…there’s that word: critical thinking.

If you teach children critical thinking skills and allow them the space to exercise them, then you’re not indoctrinating them. Parenting doesn’t need to be synonymous with trampling your child’s ability to think for themself.

While quibbling about the definitions of “faith” and “brainwashing” and “indoctrination,” who would quibble over the definition of critical thinking?

I mean, I get different feels for what this kind of parenting entails. The parent advocates for his or her own views, but does not hide other views from the child. The parent is ok with the possibility that the child will take different views than him/her. Seth raises a point that I often feel (at least, the second half):

Yeah, except that in my case, learning to have “faith in the Lord” happened to involve a lot of critical thinking skills.

Or is this one of those instances where “critical thinking” is actually being used as a code word for “agreeing with the atheists?”

I guess it’s similar to the idea of “skepticism”? Can one be a “critical thinker” or “skeptic” and also believe in God?

It seems to me that many atheists, if they believe no, do so because of the bias of their own position. After all, if someone has evaluated certain data and come to one conclusion believing it to be the most “reasonable” position, then wouldn’t he be more likely to suppose that others who came to different conclusions simply weren’t being critical enough?

When any ex-Mormon argues against the historicity of the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures, for example, they do so under belief that theirs is a critically thought out position — whether it is or it isn’t. So, even if one says that critical thinking can lead to someone believing different things, as long as someone believes there is an objective right answer out there and that there are tools to find these answers, it seems to me that one might always have reason to suspect the critical thinking faculties of anyone who comes to a difference of opinions.

Maybe critical thinking is about challenging whether one has adequate tools to find objective answers? In this case, maybe the reason why liberal arts majors develop greater critical thinking skills over time is not because they are somehow better programs or because they utilize better pedagogical methods, but because critical thinking is conducive to certain assumptions with which liberal arts align and other majors don’t. If critical thinking is about “thinking for oneself” (however individualistic and, perhaps, solipsistic, that might become), then fields that emphasize ambiguity, the constructed situatedness of discourse, or multiplicity of perspectives would naturally be better fitted to developing that than fields that emphasize (at least the appearance) of objectivity or essentialism.

In this way, I am reminded of a couple articles that react to some people’s opinions that philosophy is useless. What interested me was not that some people argued that philosophy is, to the contrary, quite useful, but rather that the terms of its usefulness were the same things others were using to argue its uselessness. Consider:

…I take the widespread disregard for philosophy as evidence that very few people actually understand what it is and how it differs from technology and science. To me philosophy is less about finding answers than it is about identifying and grappling with heavy questions. Have some philosophers (and perhaps entire schools) taken this to the extreme and backed into dark corners? Sure, but that doesn’t in the slightest take away from the experience students at my school (for example) have as they read and discuss some of the great (read: timeless) books of the western canon.

To me, to concede that philosophy is “less about finding answers than it is about identifying and grappling with heavy questions,” or, from another comment, that in an ethics class, there might not be any mention of resolving or answering ethical questions (remind me to talk about ethics classes though…I bet even a philosophical ethics class that doesn’t attempt to resolve or answer any ethical questions is still FAR better than the tripe that passes for business ethics classes), that is a concession that will immediately alienate a lot of folks.


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  1. I guess it’s similar to the idea of “skepticism”? Can one be a “critical thinker” or “skeptic” and also believe in God?

    It seems to me that many atheists, if they believe no, do so because of the bias of their own position. After all, if someone has evaluated certain data and come to one conclusion believing it to be the most “reasonable” position, then wouldn’t he be more likely to suppose that others who came to different conclusions simply weren’t being critical enough?

    I briefly addressed this point somewhere in the entrails of that mass of discussion you linked to. Read this comment.

    My impression is that it’s a hotly debated subject in the atheist community. Some argue as you outline here, others feel that dictating the conclusion that must be reached is the antithesis of critical thinking. I fall into the latter group.

  2. See also my post my passionate secularism.

  3. Thanks for the links (as usual!)

    From a conceptual standpoint, it seems to me that of course, dictating the conclusion that must be reached is the antithesis of critical thinking.

    But from a practical standpoint, it seems that critical thinking (still haven’t answered what that is) has its own assumptions that bias it to certain conclusions.

  4. Jonathan Blake permalink

    Critical thinking is examining a claim to examine its truthfulness. To do it well involves lots of skills like finding hidden assumptions, teasing out the essential logic of the claim, evaluating that logic, etc.

    When we use “critical thinking” as a bludgeon to beat our opponents, we are basically saying that they couldn’t have used critical thinking because otherwise they would have come to the same conclusion as we did. I think this represents a kind of idolatry of human reason. “If only you had paid due homage to rational thought, you would believe as I do.” The truth is that critical thinking isn’t infallible, so people can apply critical thinking in good faith and come to opposite conclusions. Such are the vagaries of this ambiguous world we live in.

    So, to clarify what I said about parenting, I think it’s important to teach children how to think skillfully for themselves and foster an environment where they feel safe to practice those skills without the pressure to believe as their parents do. Otherwise, we’re just setting them up to fall prey to future arguments from authority.

    • I like what you say.

      The only two things I would think are…aren’t there some values that parents would want to teach that they wouldn’t necessarily want to do for the children “without the pressure to believe as their parents do.”

      What I mean to say is, whatever one finds to be ethical or unethical, one’s going to have a vested interest in wanting to have his/her children follow and believe that. It seems to me that even recognizing that different people can come to different ethical views doesn’t mean that one must hold his own views weakly.

      The second thing I would wonder is whether children aren’t already primed to trust their parents as authority. I mean, why not? (This unfortunately is the case even if the parents are teaching bad things or living a poor example. So it seems like it’s something that people often tend to un or subconsciously.)

      • Jonathan Blake permalink

        Teaching a child free and critical thinking and strongly advocating for your own views are not somehow opposed.

        It depends a lot on how you advocate for your views. Do you give the child rational justifications for your views, or do you give your views is if they don’t need a justification because “I said so”? Do you encourage them to think about your views and consider it from another point of view, or do you act as if your views are the only reasonable positition? If your beliefs are important for the child to share, as a freethought parent (if you will) you should be prepared to justify those views.

        For example, I think it’s very important that my children don’t pick their noses in public. I tell them not to do it, and then I tell them why it’s a bad idea. I don’t just leave it as if it were a commandment written on a stone tablet by the finger of God, and I don’t use shame.

        The fact that children are primed to trust and emulate the parent is a very important way for them to stay safe adapt to their world, but if you’re setting an example of critical thinking even about your own views, then at most people could accuse you of indoctrinating them to believe critical thinking is good, a sort of the anti-indoctrination indoctrination.

        • I think the core of primary moral positions *is* that one is biased to believe they are the only reasonable position. I’m sure that plenty of people can come up with what they feel are “rational justifications” for these views regardless — and most of the times, the “rational justifications” will only look rational or irrational if you accept the premises they are founded upon.

          So, it’s a case where reasonable people may very well disagree about strongly held views, but at the same time those reasonable people will probably (and *reasonably*) not accept that reasonable people can disagree (precisely because of the strength of their views).

          • But that’s exactly it, isn’t it? Knowing that people hold different premises, we know that they will come to different conclusions even after they have all made a good faith effort at applying critical thinking. In other words, we can’t fault a person simply for the fact that they believe something different. We have to dig deeper examining the premises and the reasoning behind their beliefs before we can offer criticism. But the criticism is always of the belief, never of the person. A person isn’t bad for believing differently. They might be misguided or mistaken but that doesn’t diminish their worth as a person.

            Back to avoiding indoctrination, my ideal would be to hold nothing so sacred that it can’t be examined critically and justified rationally (even this idea that nothing is so sacred). With everything on the table, the parent encourages the child to question everything and make up their own mind. (The parent might dictate behavior in order to maintain health and harmony, but never thoughts or beliefs.) Except for the dogmatic refusal to be dogmatic, that’s about as far from indoctrination as it’s possible to be.

          • Alternatively, you might be misguided or mistaken. The problem is you’re unlikely to view your own beliefs (or reasoning process) as misguided or mistaken on your own.

            Your premise reveals itself: “hold nothing so sacred that it can’t be examined critically and justified rationally.” But then there are STILL other premises implied: “things I hold can be/have been examined critically and justified rationally” and even this implies a certain idea of what critical examination is and what rational justification is.

          • Right, and I would love to have this kind of conversation with my children examining my deepest beliefs, even the belief that such a conversation is a good thing.

            Perhaps we’re approaching this too abstractly? Let’s take empathy for example. Empathy is generally acknowledged as a moral good. Do you believe it’s impossible to encourage empathy in children without indoctrinating them at some level?

          • Perhaps the indoctrination question is not what you’re really interested in here. I acknowledge that I have biases, that people who disagree with me are probably right in many (most?) cases, that I don’t always think critically enough about my own beliefs, and that you and I may think critically about something (even God) and still come to different conclusions (although I’ll question your reasoning or your underlying assumptions).

            Does this make me an atypical atheist? Perhaps, but I don’t think I’m unique. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that a sizable portion of atheists would say the same things.

  5. Openminded permalink

    I’ve definitely heard how “openminded” means “you’re close-minded if you disagree with my views”. But with critical thinking, there is a bias for certain positions. Like the recent apocalypse prophecy? The guy had no credibility, no factual backup, no real anything; just a weak bible reference.

    Anyways. There’s gotta be some Princeton/Harvard/Cambridge journal article about critical thinking. Google Scholar it?

    • Yeah, I’ve definitely seen open-minded in the category of terms that gets brandished as an ideological weapon. But then there’s also that qualiasoup video that clears everything up. 😀

  6. Elaine permalink

    I agree with chanson that dictating the conclusion that must be reached is the antithesis of critical thinking. It’s like with the Mormons, who insist that if you study and pray about it, you’ll receive a confirmation that “the church is true”. If you study and pray about this question (like I did, for a number of years before I got it thorugh my head that no answer is still an answer, just not the approved one), and do not receive the promised confirmation, the answer from Mormons is always, “Well, then, you must not be doing it right.” You’re either not asking with sincere intent, or you’re sinning somehow, or you haven’t fasted enough, or something.”

    I see the position that if you are a “critical thinker”, you must come to the conclusion that there is no God, as being the other side of the very same coin. If you look at the “facts” (whatever you perceive those facts might be) and still come to the conclusion that there is, or that there might be, a God or gods, the skeptical community is likely to tell you that you aren’t doing critical thinking right.

    Both positions are typically Western in their dualism, in which everything is either black or white, with no allowance for or tolerance of shades of gray. I think that’s really unfortunate. Then again, I’m an agnostic. I believe that we cannot know, scientifically and objectively speaking, whether there is a god(or gods) or not, not the least because I suspect that if (and as far as I’m concerned, it is a really big “if”) there is some deity, it is so “other” that we would not be able to recognize it, much less be able to know its mind. Still, I’m not going to insist that anyone who critically thinks through the issue willl come to the same conclusion that I have arrived at.

    • Elaine,

      Recognizing that culture can influence thought processes (for example, as you note, the positions are “typically Western in their dualism”), then wouldn’t “critical thinking” also be a topic influenced by culture (and also “typically Western”)?

      • Elaine permalink

        I think the conclusions the critical thinker will come to might well be influenced by the culture the individual grew up in. I don’t think it necessarily means that critical thinking itself becomes a different thing depending on the culture – although it might be seen as a more valuable or less valuable thing to do depending which culture it is taking place within and even depending on which part of that culture is being critically thought about.

        One thing that it would good to remember (and this is my training as an anthropologist speaking) is that cultures are not monolithic entities, and that not everyone in any culture will come to the same conclusions, no matter how controlling that culture looks from the outside.

        • But that’s what I’m saying. It’s a very western idea to believe that a tool is independent of culture. So, to say, “I think that the conclusions may be influenced by culture, but critical thinking itself doesn’t become a different thing depending on culture” already biases one to a Platonic view of things.

          I agree that cultures aren’t monolithic entities. Nevertheless, I have to believe that however diverse and nuanced they are, they penetrate extremely deeply even into things that we would want to say are “objective.”

  7. Here’s something: “…critical thinking is generally recognized as a type of thinking that ‘doubts methodically’ (Foulquié, Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique), as it is the ‘examination of a principle or a fact, for the purpose of making an appreciative judgment of this principle or fact’ (Lalande, Le vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie).”

    Philosophy, Critical Thinking and Philosophy for Children
    Article first published online: 6 OCT 2009

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2008.00483.x

    • Thanks for the definition.

      I guess the issue is whether the “methodical doubt” espoused already biases it to certain philosophies and conclusions. E.g., is “methodical doubt” like “skepticism,” and if so, does that preclude certain religious or philosophical conclusions?

      • I think religion can be left out of the picture if the person aims for the right…intellectual ideals.

        I mean, I reasoned myself out of Christianity. On my own (as in, nobody attempted to dissuade me directly).

        My method of doubt was: if the argument I’m using to defend my faith validates other, obviously-false beliefs, the the argument isn’t enough to determine the truth (s’why that old apologetic about the Book of Acts and that one lost city that was finally discovered never really jived with me when I was a Christian).

        Or, if an argument invalidates another faith, but can be used against my own beliefs, then my own beliefs are invalidated (plagiarism in the BoM, but then there’s a form of plagiarism in the bible–the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s Ark. I dropped Old-Earth Biblical literalism with that one).

        And…wow. Just realized this, but that’s basically the form of logic we always hear about: if A=B and B=C, then A=C.

        I guess there are different thresholds of how much “evidence” (or plausibility…) is enough to keep you from changing your position. And then there are all those, you know, “human traits” we love so dearly..

  8. Jonathan (I’m making a new thread just because the old one is getting kinda long [I don’t know why I still have threaded comments. {Actually, I do; it’s because I can’t get comment numbering with this theme.}])

    With respect to encouraging empathy, I can’t say what is or isn’t impossible. But I would say that certainly, even with something like empathy, the way it IS encouraged is through indoctrination. We don’t “reason” with people about why empathy is important — we just assert that it is important. You might get into a philosophy course years later to come up with better reasons or into an evolutionary psychology (blech) course to attempt to explain how it has come to be, but the average person is going to uncritically think empathy is a value, and expect others to uncritically be empathetic.

    Or, consider again. “Empathy is a moral good.” But to whom must one be empathetic? What does empathy entail? All of these aspects aren’t pure from the spring, but products of discourse that are most often promulgated through some kind of indoctrination.

    Does this make me an atypical atheist? Perhaps, but I don’t think I’m unique. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that a sizable portion of atheists would say the same things.

    Not only an atypical atheist, but an atypical person. Maybe I’m just more pessimistic, but I find that even some people who argue the same things as you do decidedly have uncritical assumptions. Not saying this is a bad thing, because many of the things they are uncritical about nevertheless achieve a good point.

    • I agree that parents generally indoctrinate children about things like empathy, freedom, democracy, and so on by simply assuming and asserting that they are good without ever giving a justification. There is a better way, in my critically evaluated but probably biased opinion. 😉

      I have had conversations with my children (6 and 8 years old) about why empathy is good. Just a couple days ago, over dinner we discussed sociopathy. It was a real discussion where my girls were adding to the conversation by speculating what the world would probably look like if most people were sociopaths.

      Regarding people having uncritical assumptions, I think that’s to be expected. It’s probably impossible to investigate all of our assumptions. The crucial difference is that some people think it’s important to make the attempt, even when it undermines our current beliefs. I personally believe atheists, as a group, do this better than the general population (especially first generation atheists) but there are lots of counterexamples.

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