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2 Critical Thinking

Thinking critically about what to believe or what action to take simply amounts to trying to make sure that this belief or action is a good belief or action. Of course, we can have long debates about what exactly constitutes a ‘good’ belief or action, but at this point we’ll just use our common sense: the belief that I can run a mile in 2 minutes is not a good belief, and jumping off a cliff without a parachute is not a good action.

2.1 The Process of Critical Thinking – Generation and Evaluation

Critical thinking generally involves two complementary processes. On the one hand, critical thinking involves trying to come up with as many potential beliefs or actions as possible. On the other hand, critical thinking involves rigorous evaluation of these potential ideas and actions and, where appropriate, elimination of the bad ones.

A good critical thinker will go back and forth between these two processes. For example, after evaluation of a first batch of suggestions, the critical thinker may find that none of the suggested alternatives work, and will have to go back to the drawing board. Other times a suggestion looks promising, but it is found that certain refinements or small alterations are in order. But even if it looks like the best answer or course of action is found, a good critical thinker will still try and make sure that this answer is really the best answer by continued exploration and evaluation of other ideas. Thus, through a back and forth process of generation and evaluation, hopefully our beliefs and actions will improve.

2.2 Critical Thinking – Striking the Right Balance

So far, the process of critical thinking sounds pretty straightforward. However, many people have difficulty in striking the right balance between the two fundamental processes of generation and evaluation. On the one hand, the process of generating alternative choices in beliefs or actions requires one to have an open mind, but many people have a hard time in doing so. Indeed, given the fact that in many cases we already have prior beliefs regarding some issue, or are engaged in set courses of action, it can be hard to come up with alternatives, let alone consider that some of these alternatives may actually be better than what’s in place now. On the other hand, there are also people who have trouble rejecting alternatives: to them, any alternatives is as good as any other, and they have difficulties in figuring out that certain options may really be better than others. A good critical thinker will have an open mind, but, as someone once said, not such an open mind that their brain is going to fall out!

2.3 Critical Thinking – Some Common Myths

There are two common and related myths about the notions of ‘having an open mind’ and ‘being a critical thinker’. Some people declare to have an open mind simply due to the very fact that their beliefs or courses of action deviate from the norm. However, that fact by itself has nothing to do with having an open mind. If such people would have a hard time considering the possibility that their own beliefs are false, then they are in fact not open-minded at all. Open-mindedness is therefore not at all about what you belief or do, but rather about your attitudes regarding those beliefs and actions.

In a similar vein, to some people, being ‘critical’ entails rejection. Indeed, we often call a person a critical person to express the fact that they are negative, cynical, and nay-sayers. However, in our context, being ‘critical’ simply means taking a close look at certain beliefs or actions and seeing if they make any sense. As such, the end result may well be that we decide that the belief or action under consideration was indeed a good one. Being critical off beliefs or actions therefore does not mean automatic rejection.

A helpful analogy here is to think of a car inspection. When you bring your car in for the annual inspection, the car inspector will take a critical look at your car and see if there is anything wrong with it. But, clearly, this does not mean that there is anything wrong with your car. Indeed, at the end of the day, the car inspector may well declare your car to be in tip-top shape. Similarly, critical thinkers are belief and action inspectors, and at the end of the day, they may declare one of three things: the belief or action is good, the belief or action is bad, or it is at this point too hard to tell whether the belief or action is good. This third outcome is actually an important outcome to remember. To many people, beliefs or actions should either be accepted or rejected. However, good critical thinkers know that sometimes the appropriate judgment is to suspend judgment until additional reasons or information become available. To continue the car inspection analogy though, let us also point out that everyone is annoyed when the car inspector finds a problem with the car. However, we should realize that this is a good thing: if the problem would have remained undetected, bad things could have happened. So yes, having the fix the problem is uncomfortable in the short run, but in the long run we should be happy that the problem was found. Similarly, if the process of critical thinking points out a problem with our beliefs or courses of action, we will be temporarily annoyed with having to deal with this (which may be one reason why being ‘critical’ gets such bad connotations), but ultimately we should be pleased with the outcome so that things can be improved. And finally, sometimes people do not see the point of critical thinking when one’s beliefs or actions are not effected by it. But again the car inspection analogy is helpful. Yes, if the car inspector declares your car to be in tip-top shape, then effectively nothing has changed. However, you should feel more comfortable with and confident about your car now. And so it is with your beliefs and actions: it is much better to have beliefs and actions supported by a critical investigation, then to just be lucky and stumble on those very answers.

2.4 Critical Thinking – Why is it so hard?

Critical thinking is a powerful tool that can help improve your beliefs and courses of action and, consequently, your life in general. So, why is it that so many people don’t engage in critical thinking? Why is it that many colleges and universities put ‘critical thinking’ on top of their list of ‘study objectives’, acknowledging that critical thinking is both important and not practices enough? This section will try and provide some reasons why people do not engage in critical thinking to the extent that they probably should.

First, there is simply the psychological difficulty of thinking critically: As the people around us (family, church, government, culture, etc) keep saying the same things, we become almost ‘brain-washed’ to think those very thoughts, and it’s hard to break such a psychological/neurological/habitual hold. Psychologists call this ‘institutionalized thinking’, and it is indeed a big obstacle to critical thinking.

Second, we often have little or no incentive to think critically: We don’t see the use in thinking critically about something, because we (consciously or unconsciously) gauge the potential pay-off of doing so as being small or, more importantly, smaller than doing something else instead. There can be many possible reasons for this:

1. We’re just too tired or too lazy to think critically and see more use in taking a nap or playing a video game.

2. We simply don’t have the time to think critically about everything and anything, and even if we would devote what time we have for critical thinking, nothing would get done in terms of getting some bread on the table.

3. We feel that our critical thinking efforts are likely not going to be very successful, either because

a. we find (or at least perceive) critical thinking hard, or

b. we feel that we lack the necessary background information to make an informed analysis and evaluation.

4. We feel that the issue at hand is an issue that has little to no practical bearing on our lives, e.g the issue is perceived as

a. trivial (shall I wear my blue or red socks today?),

b. too metaphysical/philosophical (are blue socks better than red socks?)

c. completely unrelated to our lives (should Bram wear blue or red socks?).

5. We feel that it is unlikely that we are going to change our beliefs we already have on the issue at hand, mainly because we feel our beliefs are perfectly fine, and that’s mainly because we feel they have worked perfectly fine for us so far.

Third, we have many incentives not to think critically: Again, there are many (conscious and unconscious) ways in which this fleshes out:

1. Many beliefs, just by their content, bring us much comfort and hope. Thus, we simply like certain beliefs to be true, such as that we are a good and responsible person or that there is life after death.

2. Since our daily actions and decisions are based on our beliefs, changing those beliefs means having to change our daily routines: we don’t like to deal with that.

3. Society looks up at strong willed and consistent people: people that act as if they know what they are doing are often put in a leadership position, and with that come all kinds of advantages. So many people consider it important for our social status to remain consistent and committed to our beliefs. Notice that this also explains why:

a. we hate to find out and admit that we’re wrong, or even might be wrong,

b. we hate uncertainty (as we like to think for ourselves that we know what we’re doing and that we have good answers: we rather have a false sense of certainty than a correct sense of uncertainty), and

c. we hate to find out that we have done things in the past based on false, or even possibly false beliefs (the commitment to the belief has become an investment, and we hate to lose that).

4. We hate to challenge those institutions (family, church, government, culture, etc.) we share our beliefs with, as we fear of possibly alienating ourselves from them, and they are an important support group to us.

5. We identify ourselves with our beliefs (and with the institutions we share our beliefs with), and fear to lose our identity: criticizing our own beliefs is like criticizing ourselves as a person.

2.5 Critical Thinking - Should we do it?

Notice that many of the reasons as to why we don’t think critically about many issues are in fact perfectly prudent reasons to not do so: some issues really don’t have any bearing on our or anyone else’s lives, if we’re tired we probably should get some rest rather than contemplate, the fact that we’re alive and kicking means that we are getting something right as far as our beliefs and reasoning skills go (of course, there is a problem of credit assignment here: we have lots of beliefs, so even if we do well, which beliefs are to credit for this (if any)? Our tendency is to credit all of our beliefs, and that is most likely a mistake), constantly thinking critically about anything and everything indeed doesn’t get anything done, and if certain beliefs bring us comfort, hope, identity, and in general keep us going, then by all means stick to the belief rather than throwing yourself, and possibly others, into psychological and social turmoil, which may be even worse!

However, let us also notice that it is still true that we don’t think critically about many of our beliefs. That is, it is not an appropriate response to say “But I don’t have the time to think about everything and anything!” in response to the claim that we don’t think critically about many of our beliefs. Such a response is what is called a red herring, as it changes the issue from whether or not we think critically to the issue of whether or not we should think critically. More to the point, it is certainly not true that the prudent reasons listed above not to think critically at all times means that we’re off the hook and that there isn’t any improvement possible as far as our beliefs go.

And finally, let us notice that we would all like to think that we are good critical thinkers; that our beliefs are well thought out, that our arguments are sound, and that we do keep an open mind. But this is just a consequence of the wishful thinking mentioned earlier: we mainly think this is so because we would like this to be so. Indeed, probably the most important obstacle to thinking more critically is to admit that we can all use some improvement as far as critical thinking goes!

Here, then, is the argument for thinking more critically than we do: Our actions are based on our beliefs. Moreover, the more implausible our beliefs, the more likely the actions based on those beliefs are going to hurt us and, more importantly, hurt others. And finally, our beliefs aren’t as good or as supported as we think they are. It is therefore not only in our interest, but also our civic duty, to think more critically. And, as some of the rest of this section on critical thinking will show that there are a good number quick and simple tools that you can use to detect implausible beliefs, improper actions, sloppy reasoning, and stave off narrow-mindedness.

Part of critical wisdom is to take the tools of critical thinking and to develop a feeling of when and where it would be fruitful to use these tools.