Most of us have heard the phrase critical thinking 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 everyone’s ideas. And critical thinking does not mean gleefully destroying other people’s arguments. In addition, critical thinking does not mean 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 and is copious, strong, clear, and consistent. A good argument also rests on a variety of evidence from good sources. It examines counter-examples, and it reflects respect for inquiry and other people.
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 thinking influences action. For example, consider these arguments:
One: Hard work pays off because bosses reward virtues like sacrifice, virtue, and generosity.
Two: People only behave well when they are treated harshly because people only do good if they fear 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.
Five: The best government is the government that cares well for its most vulnerable citizens and makes sure everyone has their basic needs met.
If you consider each of the arguments above, you will notice that each of them encourages people to act a certain way.
For example, people who believe argument one above 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.
And people who believe argument three are less likely to trust others.
People who believe argument four may vote for minimal government intervention in daily affairs. For example, they may vote for minimal regulation of businesses, of the environment, and against most forms of taxation.
People who believe argument five may vote for greater governmental intervention in daily affairs. They may also vote to support taxation for certain social services like schools, health care, etc.
What’s the Point?
My point is that the arguments we believe have significant consequences for our life and world.
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 not possible for us to be aware at any given moment all of the arguments we believe and why believe them. Nor is this necessary. Rather, if we are thoughtful, we realize that life circumstances call upon us to consider arguments about a variety of issues.
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 rest 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 directly relate 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 project confidence for poor reasons like pride, stubbornness, or narrow thinking. Make sure that you analyze the evidence people have for their arguments. Is it clear, 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 use such methods in order to bypass your critical thinking. They don’t want you do not look too closely at their evidence.
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 sources and people.
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 seek out reasons why your argument might not be true. 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 being willing to examine opposing views gives us greater confidence and clarity by deepening our understanding of the world.
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 want safety, meaning, and love like we do.
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, reasonable, and have things to teach us. This is how we show respect to other people.
Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to only like and trust people like us. We often think we share no common ground with people who are different from us. As such, we have a tendency to automatically turn these folks into adversaries, which makes critical thinking and discussion really difficult.
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 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, 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.
In order to pursue the truth, we must embrace confidence, curiosity, and openness. We must seek truth while practicing critical thinking and respect. When we do so, we will continue to discover more and more truth.
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.
However, the best place to start with critical thinking is with ourselves. 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.
Be the critical thinker you wish to see in the world. Other people will follow your lead.
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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.
**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.
***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.