The Basics of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is “careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.” (Parker & Moore, Critical Thinking)

The problem is that much of our thinking is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or prejudiced. Yet the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our thoughts. Bad thinking costs us time, money, and possibly our lives. Good thinking may be profitable and save our time and lives. But good thinking is hard and takes practice.

Cogent (good) reasoning consists of: 1) believable premises; 2) consideration of relevant information, and 3) valid conclusions drawn from those premises.

Believable premises – This assumes we have some well-informed background beliefs about the world so as to determine whether a premise is believable. No relevant info passed over – We need to avoid the temptation to disregard contrary evidence. Valid reasoning – When the premises support the conclusion, or, to put it another way, the conclusion follows from the premises, the reasoning is valid. When the premises are also true, then we have a sound argument.

Some wrong ideas about cogent reasoning – Good reasoning is not relative to people, cultures, religions, etc. (There is no male or female, black or white logic.) When you violate deductive reasoning you contradict yourself; and when you violate inductive reasoning you deny evidence and experience. The way the world works is not relative to people, cultures, religions, etc. Still, self-interest, prejudice, or narrow-mindedness leads people to reason poorly.

Background Beliefs – Background beliefs are crucial to determining whether premises are believable and whether no relevant info has been omitted. “That is why bringing one’s background beliefs to bear often is the most important task in evaluating an argument for cogency… ignorance is not bliss. It just renders us incapable of intelligently evaluating claims, premises, arguments, and other sorts of rhetoric we all are subject to every day.”

Kinds of Background Beliefs – We have beliefs about both facts [whether the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1964 baseball World Series] and values [whether it is a good thing that people play baseball.] Beliefs can also be true or false. We need to constantly examine our background beliefs to weed out false ones. Education [as opposed to indoctrination] helps us acquire true beliefs and rid us of false ones. Beliefs also differ in how firmly they should be believed. “The trick is to believe firmly what should be believed, given the evidence, and believe less firmly, or not at all, what is less well supported by the evidence.”

Worldviews or Philosophies – Children tend to believe what they are told, thus most of us believe, even as adults, what we were told as children. [For example, an almost perfect predictor of a person’s religious beliefs are the beliefs of their parents.] These basic beliefs we might call our worldviews or philosophies. “They tend to be the most deeply ingrained and most resistant to amendment of all our background beliefs.” We work very hard to keep them [so as not to create cognitive dissonance.] It is crucial that our worldviews, if they are to consist of true background beliefs, “contain at least a few modestly well-founded beliefs about important scientific theories.”

Insufficiently Grounded Beliefs – Most people have strongly held beliefs about things about which they know almost nothing. In order to think well then, we must weed out poorly grounded [false] beliefs. It is crucial—if we are to think well—that we have well-founded [true] beliefs to support our worldview since “…worldviews are like lenses that cause us to see the world in a particular way or filters through which we process all new ideas and information. Reasoning based on a grossly inaccurate or shallow worldview tends to yield grossly inaccurate, inappropriate, or self-defeating conclusions…”

Two Vital Kinds of Background Beliefs – Beliefs about human nature, and beliefs about the reliability of information sources.

Science to the rescue

the most accurate information comes from the well-established sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, … the scientific enterprise is an organized, ongoing, worldwide activity that builds and corrects from generation to generation…Absolutely no one, starting from scratch, could hope to obtain in one lifetime anything remotely resembling the sophisticated and accurate conclusions of any of the sciences …

Summary of critical thinking – Critical thinking is a higher order of thinking as opposed to lower order thinking. Lower order thinking is 1) unreflective, 2) relies on gut intuition, and 3) is largely self-serving. Higher order thinking is 1) reflective, 2) uses logic and reason to analyze and assess ideas, and 3) is consistently fair.

More specifically critical thinking overcomes the most common tendencies of poor thinking: egocentric and sociocentric thinking.

Egocentric thinking is characterized by ideas like it’s true because: a) I believe it; b) I want to believe it, c) I’ve always believed it, d) it is in my interest to believe it, etc.

Sociocentric thinking refers to the extent persons internalize the prejudices of their society/culture. Such persons: a) uncritically accept that their culture is best; b) internalize group norms without questioning; c) blindly conform to group restrictions; d) ignore the insights of other cultures; e) fail to realize that mass media shapes the news from the point of view of their culture; f) ignore their culture’s history, etc.

In contrast to unreflective thinking, critical thinking is fair-minded and open-minded—to think critically is to reason well. It is the kind of reasoning that is the essential ingredient in solving life’s problems. I have written elsewhere in this blog about good thinking, especially in my recent column “We Fear Thought.” But I would summarize my thoughts on the topic, as I did for generations of university students, by saying—good thinking is an essential ingredient in living well.

[All quotes are from the first chapter of Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life)

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3 thoughts on “The Basics of Critical Thinking

  1. Thank you, I am reading all the links you mentioned about critical thinking. I love the clarity and substance of these articles. I had read this one before but while reading again I am realizing things I had not realized before. I really believe in reviewing any good/great information.


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