Intro to Logic: What is Critical Thinking?

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 20, 2009 in Intro to Logic

Earlier, I wrote about the importance of good thinking and how we can learn to think better. On our path to logical perfection, we’ll begin with the basic skills of critical thinking.

What is critical thinking?

Before we get to the rules and laws that are called “logic,” let’s learn an easier set of skills called critical thinking.

Critical thinking is an evaluative skill set. Critical thinking will help you make decisions in every area of life. For example, it will help you decide:

  • whether you should buy a product or service, and why
  • what you should believe, and why
  • how you should treat others, and why
  • which strategies in business, sports, schooling, dating, parenting, etc. will be most successful
  • how to understand yourself and the world you live in
  • what to invest your time, money, and effort in
  • whether you should accept the arguments of politicians, leaders, colleagues, teachers, and friends
  • how to shape and develop your worldview

Critical thinking is, basically, a way of evaluating any claim or argument you come to – including within yourself. It starts with two basic questions: What are you saying? and Why do you think that’s true?

The first question is about meaning. We have to be clear about what the claim is before we can evaluate it. The critical thinker asks lots of questions like “What do you mean by the word _____?” and “Can you be more specific?”

The second question is the evaluation. Once we understand what someone is claiming, we can use the other tools of critical thinking to decide whether we should accept their claim, reject it, or withhold judgment.

In this way, critical thinking can be thought of as a series of questions: What do you mean? How is that relevant? How does that follow from your first premise?

In another way, critical thinking is an attitude toward life and truth. A critical thinker realizes that most claims are false, so he must develop a pretty good truth filter if he is going to avoid being misled by every passing intellectual fad or charismatic salesman.

Think about it. For any given question, there are dozens of contradictory answers asserted by intelligent people around the world. Think about the question of gods, or early explanations for disease, or claims about the “best” form of government. There are hundreds of answers asserted for each of these questions, and at most only one of them can be correct. The vast majority of truth claims are false. You need a well-developed truth filter, especially in the information age, where you are presented with more claims in a single week than your ancestors were in their entire lifetimes.

The critical thinker, then, has a skeptical attitude about truth. He realizes that most claims are false, most arguments are not well-thought out, and most answers are not given with as much evidence as we would like.

But the critical thinker is, first and foremost, critical of his own thinking. He is aware of the mental tricks his brain plays on itself. He knows he is unavoidably biased. And he knows he is necessarily ignorant of almost everything humanity has ever known. And, understanding his limitations, the critical thinker is open-minded to the views of others.

The critical thinker is also a lover of truth. He does not bother to critically evaluate every joke, every insignificant claim. But he cares about truth more than most people, as evidenced by his choice to continually stretch and sharpen his critical thinking skills. The critical thinker is curious, for he wants to know the truth.

The critical thinker is fair. He seeks to minimize his own biases and prejudices. He tries not to let emotion overcome good thinking. He is willing to consider all views, and apply the same standards and processes to all.

In fact, it may be that these attitudes about thinking may be even more important than the specific analytic skills. For if someone is skilled in the tools of logic but cares more about defending his prejudices than seeking truth, he will prove to be a powerful and persuasive spreader of lies and confusion. One thinks of Carpenter’s 100 Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe or William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith.

Now that we know what critical thinking is, we’re ready to learn its skills.

But first, here are some excellent resources for learning critical thinking outside this blog:

(Also see the post index to this Intro to Logic series.)

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Alden April 20, 2009 at 7:58 am

“For if someone is skilled in the tools of logic but cares more about defending his prejudices than seeking truth, he will prove to be a powerful and persuasive spreader of lies and confusion.”

A critical thinker should be able to pull the above phrase out as rhetoric, rather than a clear statement of fact.  A critical thinker who has thought through the issues can, in fact, present a case for his conclusions, such as you are doing in this blog.  Whether or not his conclusions are “lies and confusion” is another matter.  While I haven’t read Craig’s book, I have read enough from him to know that to accuse him of presenting “lies and confusion” is ridiculous. 

If you are going to hold others to the standards you’re discussing, you should make sure that you hold to them as well.

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Chuck April 20, 2009 at 8:47 am

Are kidding? Craig continues to use the Argument from Personal Experience in just about every debate and talk. He enlists what helps him, ignores what hurts him. Anyone who has looked into this for more than about 5 minutes knows the Argument from Personal Experience is complete and utter bullshit.

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Richard April 20, 2009 at 9:13 am

I get the impression that some apologists think it helps their case to list as many arguments as they possibly can, no matter how weak, rather than just concentrating on their stonger arguments (or, from my point of view, their less weak arguments).

It reminds me of an old British sitcom about two tailors, called “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” ;)

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Reginald Selkirk April 20, 2009 at 9:31 am

Richard: I get the impression that some apologists think it helps their case to list as many arguments as they possibly can, no matter how weak, rather than just concentrating on their stonger arguments…

In the context of Creationism vs. Evolution, this reminds me of the “Gish gallop.” Particularly in the context of a public debate, dishonest or even just bad arguments are quick to state, but take too much time to properly rebut.

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Reginald Selkirk April 20, 2009 at 9:36 am

Alden: “While I haven’t read Craig’s book, I have read enough from him to know that to accuse him of presenting “lies and confusion” is ridiculous.  .

I have not read that book of Craig’s but I know of arguments he uses elsewhere that either a) he knows do not hold up or b) he ought to know. One example: Craig uses arguments about time and infinity which any mathematician should be able to tell you are complete and utter nonsense.

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lukeprog April 20, 2009 at 10:06 am
Jeff H April 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Hi Luke,

I’ve got a question for you that’s somewhat related to this (and somewhat off-topic) and that has been bugging me for the past little while. I’ve tried find what other people might have to say on the topic, but have had no such luck so far.

You mentioned a critical thinker being a seeker of truth. And you posit this as a good thing – and indeed, I’d agree with you on that. Truth often gives us many benefits as we model our lives after reality. But my studies in psychology have shown me that it’s not always the case. Sometimes we are better off living in our own little “delusion.” For example, studies have shown that depressed people are actually better at predicting the outcome of events – in other words, non-depressed people delude themselves into thinking that things will work out better than they actually will. That’s just one example, but my question for you then, is: Does truth have some inherent value to it, or is it only valued inasmuch as it is pragmatically useful to us? In other words, when our lives will be better off not knowing the truth, is there still value in knowing it anyway?

I ask this as a result of your insightful posts about desire utilitarianism – it got me thinking. You say that things don’t have inherent moral “goodness” or “badness” – but basing morality on desires gives us a connection. Well, I thought, what about truth? Does it have inherent value to it? And how does one go about figuring out whether it does or does not? I hope that you understand my question, and if you (or anyone else, for that matter) have any insight to share, I’d appreciate it. Thanks!

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lukeprog April 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Jeff,

Those are excellent questions.

It is critical thinking that will lead you to consider whether truth is the highest good in certain situations. It is critical thinking that will help you decide when to lie. It is critical thinking that led me to believe that truth has no intrinsic value. Perhaps critical thinking will reveal that critical thinking is not the most reliable way to seek truth (for example, perhaps critical thinking will reveal that God exists, and that the most reliable truth comes directly from him). To me, critical thinking is an approach to life that lets you question everything, including the value of critical thinking, and come to answers that may have some truth in reality.

Critical thinking is a good way to get at truth, but it might be the case that truth is a horrible thing to be avoided at all costs! But then, critical thinking is a good tool to use to find out whether or not the truth is a horrible thing to be avoided.

And critical thinking is not a priori a good path to truth; it is only an observation that the questions of critical thinking tend to strip away confusion and bias and false paths and track in toward truth in our universe. It didn’t have to be that way; it just seems that it is, as best we can tell – at least in our universe.

Those are some of my thoughts, anyway. What do you think?

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Chuck April 20, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I think AF would say that the desire to seek truth fulfills more desires than it thwarts. Therefore, as desires go, it’s good. 

(However, “truth” doesn’t have intrinsic value. Nothing has intrinsic value.)

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Jeff H April 21, 2009 at 6:24 am

Hmm, well that’s what I was afraid of. I was hoping that you’d have something really good to point to and say, “Here, here’s the reason we should pursue truth no matter what the cost!” But I suppose if there isn’t one, you can’t point to it! And yeah, Chuck is right – according to desire utilitarianism, the desire to seek truth is a good one. But anyway, I’m going to need to contemplate on this a little bit more. I agree with what you’re saying about critical thinking – I think I’ve always been a logician at heart :D Thanks for the response!

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lukeprog April 21, 2009 at 7:38 am

Jeff H,

Sounds like what you might be looking for is a nearly irrefutable argument that logic is the best path to truth, and that truth has very high objective value. I think there may be a good argument to be made for that, but I would have to spend a decade or more studying epistemology and logic to make it. If I come up with one, I’ll let you know. :)

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Chuck April 21, 2009 at 8:39 am

Jeff,

Here’s another way to look at it. I used to be a Christian. One of the consequences of being in that belief system is that I believed my soul would survive my death. Now, I no longer believe that to be the case. Am I better off knowing the truth? I think so.

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Creoque April 22, 2009 at 11:31 am

Jeff H: Hi Luke,I’ve got a question for you that’s somewhat related to this (and somewhat off-topic) and that has been bugging me for the past little while. I’ve tried find what other people might have to say on the topic, but have had no such luck so far.You mentioned a critical thinker being a seeker of truth. And you posit this as a good thing – and indeed, I’d agree with you on that. Truth often gives us many benefits as we model our lives after reality. But my studies in psychology have shown me that it’s not always the case. Sometimes we are better off living in our own little “delusion.” For example, studies have shown that depressed people are actually better at predicting the outcome of events – in other words, non-depressed people delude themselves into thinking that things will work out better than they actually will. That’s just one example, but my question for you then, is: Does truth have some inherent value to it, or is it only valued inasmuch as it is pragmatically useful to us? In other words, when our lives will be better off not knowing the truth, is there still value in knowing it anyway?I ask this as a result of your insightful posts about desire utilitarianism – it got me thinking. You say that things don’t have inherent moral “goodness” or “badness” – but basing morality on desires gives us a connection. Well, I thought, what about truth? Does it have inherent value to it? And how does one go about figuring out whether it does or does not? I hope that you understand my question, and if you (or anyone else, for that matter) have any insight to share, I’d appreciate it. Thanks!

Maybe I am over simplifying  it a bit but little kids are ”delusion” aswel in almost the same way . .But still we (and themselfs) are teaching them ”the stupid things” aswell

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Jeff H April 22, 2009 at 11:43 am

Creoque: Maybe I am over simplifying  it a bit but little kids are ”delusion” aswel in almost the same way . .But still we (and themselfs) are teaching them ”the stupid things” aswell

That’s an interesting point, but I think that we could make a strong pragmatic case for teaching kids most things. As I mentioned, in most cases learning the truth is useful. But perhaps if teaching kids some things will make them worse off, then we shouldn’t be teaching them those things :)

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