Most of us have heard the phrase think critically before, and most of us understand that thinking critically is important. We may even have a strong desire to improve our own critical thinking skills.
Despite all of these good feelings and intentions, we may not have a very clear idea of what critical thinking is. We may also not be able to explain exactly why critical thinking is important, and we may not have a clear idea of how to become a more critical thinker.
To help make the concept of critical thinking clearer, let’s start with what critical thinking is not.
What Critical Thinking is Not?
Critical thinking is not nit-picking and finding fault with everyone’s ideas. Critical thinking does not mean gleefully destroying other people’s arguments and tearing them to shreds. In addition, critical thinking does not mean being perpetually negative and pointing out to everyone why they are stupid.
It is true that some people use certain aspects of critical thinking to do all these things. I call these people Logic Bullies, and they are no fun to be around.
But the actions above do not constitute the essence of critical thinking.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking entails analyzing arguments in order to determine whether the evidence in the argument supports the conclusion. Evidence supports a conclusion well when it is related to the conclusion directly; when it is copious and strong evidence; and when it is clear and consistent. A good argument is also based on a wide variety of evidence from good sources; it examines counter-examples; and it is grounded in respect for inquiry and other people. (I will return to these points in a moment.)
Critical thinking is like a balancing scale that helps you discern whether the overall evidence for an argument is stronger or weaker. Determining this allows us to think with greater clarity and act with greater confidence.
Why is Critical Thinking Important?
The process of critical thinking is important because everything we think and do is based on some kind of argument, whether we are conscious of the argument or not. For example, consider these arguments:
One: Hard work pays off because people like parents, teachers, and bosses reward virtues like sacrifice, virtue, and generosity.
Two: People only behave well when they are treated harshly because people are only motivated to do good if they are afraid of bad consequences.
Three: I will never trust anyone because people always disappoint us and end up stabbing us in the back.
Four: The best government is the government that stays out of people’s lives as much as possible because this preserves people’s freedom, and freedom is the most important thing in any nation.
Five: The best government is the government that cares well for its most vulnerable citizens and makes sure everyone has their basic needs met. When we care for the most vulnerable among us, we develop an ethos of kindness, gentleness, and respect, and these are the characteristics of a strong nation.
If you consider each of the arguments above, you will notice that each of them influence the people who believe these argument to act a certain way.
For example, people who believe argument one are likely to work hard because they believe it will pay off in the end.
People who believe argument two are more likely to treat people harshly.
People who believe argument three are less likely to trust people.
People who believe argument four may vote for minimal government intervention in daily affairs. For example, they may vote for minimal government regulation of businesses and the environment and vote against most forms of taxation.
People who believe argument five may vote for greater governmental intervention in daily affairs. They may vote to support taxation for certain social services like schools, health care, etc.
What’s the Point?
My goal here is not to argue for the strength or weakness of any of the above arguments. My goal, rather, is to suggest that the arguments we believe about our self, other people, and the world have significant consequences for our life and the life of the people around us.
Thus, it is really wise for us to be aware of the arguments we believe, and it is wise for us to make sure we believe them for good reasons.
Now, of course, it is probably not possible for us to be aware at any given moment all of the arguments we believe and why believe them. Neither is this necessary. Rather, if we are thoughtful and self-reflective as we go about our day-to-day life, we will realize that life circumstances call upon us to accept or make arguments about a variety of issues, both large and small.
It is important to engage in critical thinking as we do so.
To that end, here are five things you can do to practice good critical thinking in your day-to-day life:
One: Make sure your arguments are based on a lot of evidence relevant to the conclusion. The bigger and stronger the claim you are making, the more evidence you need to support the conclusion, and the evidence should be directly related to the conclusion.
In addition, generally speaking, do not accept arguments at face value from other people, no matter how confident they seem about them. People are often confident (or project confidence) for poor reasons. (For instance, some people, like college sophomore philosophy majors, have an unwarranted high opinion of their own thinking abilities. As a former philosophy grad student and now philosophy professor, I say this in a spirit of both earnestness and jest.)
Make sure that you analyze the evidence people have for the arguments they make. Is it clear and strong and directly related to the conclusion?
Be especially wary of people who use a lot of anger, fear, bullying, name-calling, shouting, or shame to persuade you to believe something. Frequently people who use methods like this consciously or unconsciously do so in order to bypass your critical thinking so that you do not look too closely at their evidence, which is often quite shaky.
Two: Use a variety of evidence and use good sources.
Generally speaking, if the claim you make is true, you should be able to find evidence to support the claim from a wide variety of good sources (professional and ethical) and from a wide variety of trustworthy people–both every day folks who are honestly reporting their experience and also experts who have studied the subject matter closely. The more evidence like this you can use to support your argument, the stronger it will be.
Unfortunately, we all have a tendency to base our conclusion on one or two facts or Facebook memes that confirm our current biases. Consciously searching for a wide variety of evidence from a wide variety of strong sources helps us overcome this tendency.
Three: Consider counter-examples
One of the best ways to strengthen your critical thinking is to purposefully seek out reasons why your argument might not be true. For example, if you believe that strong immigration policies are ideal, you will strengthen your critical thinking about this issue if you carefully consider arguments against this view.
On the other hand, if you believe that open and permissive immigration policies are ideal, you will strengthen your critical thinking about the issue if you carefully consider arguments against this view.
Most of us tend to pay attention primarily to evidence that supports the views we already favor. This is an understandable human tendency: examining evidence that contradicts our favored views can sometimes be disorienting and require changes that feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, this tendency often causes us to overlook evidence that challenge our most cherished views but that also gives us greater confidence and clarity by deepening our understanding of the world.
Consciously and consistently seeking out counter-examples is a great way to improve your critical thinking because it requires you to wrestle with a wide variety of arguments both for and against your view. Sometimes your research requires you to change your view, and sometimes it actually confirms the view you already have.
Either way, thinking through counter-examples deepens your understanding of a topic and prevents you from continually being blind-sighted by issues you haven’t thought through.
Four: Respect people, even those who believe differently from you.
In order to genuinely consider counter-examples, you must show respect to other people, even those who believe differently from you.***
When we respect other people, we recognize that everyone has the capacity for critical thought and moral behavior, and we also realize that most people (even folks quite different from us) want the same thing we do–safety, purpose, and love–although they might have different views about how to achieve these goals.
In other words, human beings are a lot more like each other than different from each other. Believing this helps us assume (until proven otherwise) that even people who believe things very differently from us are rational, moral, and reasonable and have things to teach us, even if we disagree with them on points. This is how we show respect to other people.
Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to like and trust only people who act and think just like us and to distrust and even hate people who act and think differently from us.
We often think we share no common ground with people who are different from us, and we have a tendency to automatically turn these folks into adversaries, which makes critical thinking and discussion really difficult.
It’s understandable why we have this tendency. Historically, people outside of our tribe often posed a threat to our own security and even our ability to survive. Thus, this fear of “strangers” probably developed biologically as a protective and adaptive mechanism to help humans survive. (You can read more about this here and here.)
Unfortunately, stranger fear can lead us to cut ourselves off from new ideas, information, and arguments. These negative consequences of stranger fear often cause us to become entrenched in ignorance, prejudice, and shallow thinking.
The good news is in contemporary society, we can honor biological drive to survive, as well as our goal to become critical thinkers. Through the internet, books, movies and documentaries, and universities and colleges (many of which have free online courses), we have the ability to learn about ideas, people, and lifestyles different from our own without any threat to our safety.
Exposing ourselves to new ideas often helps us develop respect and empathy for people who are different from us. This helps us consider our own views carefully and leads to deeper critical thinking. It also often leads us to make friends with more and new people in life, which improves our thinking and quality of life overall.
Five: Make truth your goal, which helps you to respect the process of inquiry.
You have probably heard the old adage, “The truth will set you free.”* This is a wise and true saying. Even though truth is often surprising and sometimes scary (and even sometimes disappointing), the more we act on a true understanding of the world and ourselves, the clearer and more confident we become. This gives us freedom.
Unfortunately, many of us tend to equate the truth with “The things I believe” and we search for “truth” with “People who think like me”. But the truth is actually much bigger than any one person’s or one group’s view of the world.
No one but God or a God-like being has total knowledge of everything in the world, and because we are human and finite, all of us hold wrong views about something.
This is understandable. We all must make decisions in order to act, and sometimes we must make decisions before we have time to consider all the evidence adequately. Again, this is an understandable and common problem that arises from human finitude. But it is also why it is so important to prioritize pursuing the truth and to realize that the truth is bigger than any one person or one group’s view of the world.
In order to pursue the truth, we must embrace confidence, curiosity, and openness. We must have the confidence to believe that if we earnestly seek truth while practicing critical thinking (and respect for others), we will continue to discover more and more truth. We must have the courage to understand that this process may require us to change some of the views we currently hold dear, and we must be open and willing to change our views if need be.
All of these practices help us respect the process of inquiry, and that is what critical thinking is: the process of inquiry.
Let’s Start with Us
If you are like me, right about now you are probably thinking, “I know a bunch of people who need to read this blog post and realize they might be wrong.”
I get it. To be honest, as I am writing this post, I have a few people in mind that I think definitely need to have more courage to admit they might be wrong.
However, the best place to start with critical thinking is with our self. We need to develop the virtues of confidence, courage, and openness, and we need to practice good critical thinking in our own life. As we do so, it is also right for us to challenge others to be good critical thinkers in our discussions with them.
We can’t force people to change how they think, but we can practice good thinking habits; we can respect other people and the process of inquiry; and we can require that critical thinking standards guide any conversation in which we take part. (I realize there are some situations in which we cannot require this, but in many we can.**)
When we uphold standards like this in our own life, it helps us to create a space in which other people realize it is a good to uphold such standards in their own life as well.
Be the critical thinker you wish to see in the world. Other people will follow your lead.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media.
You might also like this post:
If you would like to see examples of critical thinking in action, here are some posts that explore different political issues critically. You will notice that I explore arguments from both sides of the argument and do my best to respect both people and the process of inquiry throughout the posts:
*This saying is in the book of John in the New Testament of the Bible. It is in chapter 8, verse 31.
**An example of requiring good critical thinking standards in discussions: I recently decide that I would not argue on social media and that I would only discuss controversial issues with people in private messages and only after they agreed to some basic rules of civility and critical thinking.
I find that many people, unfortunately, like to grandstand arguments (i.e. act like Logic Bullies whether they actually use good logic or not) when they have an audience on social media. These same people are often much less interested in having a civil, careful discussion when they do not have a social media audience.
Making this decision about my social media use is one way I try to uphold good critical thinking standards.
***It is important to note that there are some views that we should not respect or tolerate. I believe that racist and sexist beliefs are an example of such views.
Of course, it is important that we not assume that a belief is racist or sexist without clear evidence that it is. For example, there are some arguments for tight immigration laws that are rooted in racism, and there are some that aren’t. Just because we think an argument is racist or sexist doesn’t always mean that it is. Sometimes we jump the gun in our decisions about these issues.
Nevertheless, I want to make clear that there are some arguments that do not deserve respect or tolerance or any kind of equal playing time, and racist and sexist arguments are two such kinds of arguments.