Introduction to Critical Thinking –
Thinking about thinking… ‘tis not something many of us do so much. It is curious to me why this is the case. Of all the things that we humans beings engage in during our lives – from eating to sleeping, talking, breathing, drinking, and loving – what we spend more time doing… is thinking. Every waking moment, we think. Every second that our minds are not shut down in sleep, we are engaged in this activity. It is who we are… thinking organisms.
And yet, so little time is spent considering just what it is that we do when we engage in this activity. Possibly the answer to this curiosity is that it is the very commonness of the activity makes it seem acceptable on its face with no reason to analyze and criticize… sorta like breathing. We do not give much thought to breathing… unless we are having difficulty with it. When there are no problems in the activity, we simply ignore it and go on with other matters in life.
This answer sounds plausible enough, but it is not satisfying. The reason that it is not so satisfying is that we often recognize problems in the thinking of others around us. We often see people making stupid or foolish choices and conclude that these people are not thinking rightly about the matter. Poor thinking – we can see it clearly enough in the choices and actions of others. We can many times come up with a better plan, a better response, and better way to view the issues… and we do so assuming that our own thinking is, if not the “right” way to look at it, at least a “better way”. The question I pose to you who do this, to those who think this way is, “Why do you think that your thinking is any better than that of those around you? What objective criteria do you use to make that determination?” I suggest to you that most, if not all of us, think that our thinking is the right way of thinking. We assume without critical assessment that if we view an issue or problem in a certain way and other people see things differently, that we are the ones who possess the greater common sense, the better value system, the most useful solutions. Come on. Be honest. Do not lie to me like you do your parents. Do you not do this? I am not talking about walking around with this smug attitude that we are smarter, more learned, more wise people. Not at all. I am just asking and suggesting an answer that we all tend to think that our own way of thinking is a fine way of thinking… and probably better than the way of thinking that others take when they think and act ways with which we are not happy.
If you are not this way, that is fine. I am sure that there are many exceptions to the rule. I am, however, convinced that it is, in fact, a general rule. Therein lies the big conundrum. Consider the activity of bowling. We all know the difference between good bowlers and bad bowlers. We may disagree where the cutoff point is, but conceptually we can distinguish the two. We also do the same with amateur and professional bowlers. They are typically distinguished first by the level of skill that they demonstrate in the activity… and secondly by the fact that this level of skill allows them to actually get paid to perform the skill. So, let me ask you this… would someone be likely to pay to have you bowl? For the vast majority of us, this would not happen, unless they considered it a form of entertainment like standup comedy or court jesting, taking pleasure in how silly we look.
Now, think about this…what does it take for someone to achieve that status of professional? I suggest it take practice… lots and lots of practice. Not just here and there occasionally, but a dedication to a disciplined regimen that is adhered to religiously. Let me ask you this. What is practice? It is not just repetition. We breathe repeatedly, but we are not practicing. It has to be consciously done, right? There is another key element. There needs to be a goal. Practice involves conscious repetition of an activity with a goal of improving the skill and mastering that activity. This improvement and mastery does not come from mere repetition. It comes from repetition that is accompanied by critical analysis of the activity, looking for weaknesses and errors, trying to find ways to weed out these weaknesses and errors, and improve, and eventually being able to do the activity with skill, acumen, and proficiency.
Would you agree? Now, let me ask you one big easier question, and one big harder one. The easy one first. Without “practicing” for weeks, months, even years, can one be a professional? I am not suggesting that there are not differing levels of natural skill and giftedness possessed by some… but these are rare and quite exceptional. For the rest of us regular schmucks, we need to practice long and hard to master things. Without that, we are amateurs. Nothing wrong with that, by the way. We cannot practice and master everything. Life is too short. There is simply no way we can be anything but amateurs at the vast array of activities in which humans could engage. And that is cool. We have no reason to feel lazy or dumb because we do not all possess professional skills at using a crossbow, flying a fighter jet, or setting the timer on the DVR.
Ok, then. The harder question: How much time have you dedicated to the regular, disciplined activity of critically analyzing your own thinking, looking for weaknesses and errors, trying to find ways to weed out these weaknesses and errors, and eventually being able to do the activity with skill, acumen, and proficiency? How much time? Be honest. Do not lie to me like you do your boss. I submit to you that most of us spend very little… if ANY time practicing thinking. We “just think”. And we think that our “just thinking” is fine, it is acceptable, it is the better and possibly even the best way to think.
If someone never bowled before, or even bowled very little, and came to you and suggest to you that you pay them to teach you to bowl, I expect that you would not waste your time. I suggest to you that you would not put much stock in the bowling abilities or level of the understanding of the sport of a person who has spent very little time practicing the activity. And, rightly so. What real objective reasons do you have for determining that your thinking
Is any better that anyone else’s?
I have one more big question. I am sorry, but I did not warn you about this one. Forgive me. If I had warned you, you may have been tempted to scurry your little eyes down here and peek, skipping over the material in between. This would not have been wise, yet I could not have prevented it. After all, I am just sitting here at my computer writing and you are sitting there at yours days, weeks, months, or years later reading. So, I did this as a precaution. I did not want to lose you as a reader or a student, and I fear that if you jumped down here and read this without absorbing the intervening material, that you just might not want to connect with all that I am saying.
So, here is the question. If you have not spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years “practicing thinking”, then could you be considered a professional at this activity? I suspect not. But, if you are not a professional, then what are you?
Kinda hurts, does it not? Sometimes the truth does hurt. Try to look at it through the analogy of coaching. The coach needs to have you hurt. The coach needs to have you put yourself through painful experiences in order to grow and advance. I understand that it is not fun while you are going through it, but I am confident that the results will be worth it. The end goal is, of course, that you become a skilled thinker. Not a professional, per se. They are hard to come by. But, at least, one who is skilled across the board in thinking and able to confidently assess and analyze almost anything in life and help yourself or others through to the most productive and satisfying results.
By the way, what exactly is critical thinking/reasoning? Well, the term “critical” comes from a Greek word kritios, which means to cut, and in this case, means to make careful distinctions and divisions. So, critical thinking/reasoning is reasoning that is done carefully, craft-fully, and artfully making distinctions when and where they should be made.
This is what this information is all about: teaching you to think carefully, productively, and with satisfying results. I do not care if you can amaze your friends and family with your new-found skill. As a matter of fact, I can almost guarantee that it will be just the opposite. People who are careful and skillful thinkers tend to annoy the heck out of people who are not. This is especially true of people who actually think that they are smart and careful thinkers, but are in fact, just blowhards who know how to intellectually and / or emotionally intimidate. These folks get really, really annoyed with careful thinkers. Do you know any of these types?
Anyway, ‘tis time to press on to the instruction. I am glad that you are with me and am excited about the possibility of you becoming a critical thinker. Mastering this skill is not like mastering archery or bowling, where such mastery has little practical effect on other areas of life. You can be a great bowler but a horrible cook. Mastering thinking, however, improves every area of life. Nothing is unaffected, because, as I stated above, all of waking life is taken up with it. I guess it logically follows that you may not sleep better.
I suspect you will.
To follow the path to careful thinking work your way through the following material, in order:
4- Truth and Systems of Thought 5-truth-systems-of-thought Aug 2021
5 Winning Arguments
7 – Common Refractions (Fallacies)
8 – Sources of Information
When you have worked your way through these lessons and have understood the concepts, you are ready to move on to thinking about Morals and go to the Ethics Tab.