2 – Defining Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is a way of calling into question any opinion, value, argument, theory, or representation through an examination of its internal quality (its logic, argument, data, etc.), or the reliability and credibility of the source.
Critical thinking does not merely aim to illuminate errors in reasoning. It also directs attention to weak, indecisive, or deliberately misleading arguments that exploit certain psychological tendencies to produce errors of interpretation. Such arguments may make leaps of logic or they may cite a single anecdote as “proof” of a general truth.
Our cognitive limits and psychological prejudices mean that we can misinterpret anything, at any time, in any situation. This applies just as much to mass media or personal conversations as it does to the content in a philosophy or science class. Even in a world where we were all thoroughly versed in rationality and logic, where no one acted in bad faith, and where honesty was universal, we would still need to develop critical thinking skills to help overcome our other limitations.
Our language and our senses aren’t perfect. They can sometimes leave us with false impressions. Moreover, the concepts we use to think and speak may change over time, or they may not be shared with those of different cultures. We inevitably develop assumptions and prejudices from childhood onward that imprint themselves on our experience. Where these concepts or assumptions differ, the same set of facts may lead to different conclusions and different views.
For example, different groups may hold different assumptions about the relative values of cultural stability and material wealth, and so the same set of facts and the same economic theory may lead to different conclusions about how to allocate resources or what public projects to pursue.
This can even apply to apparently “pure” sciences like mathematics. Foundational assumptions or axioms may prove flawed, and long, complicated lines of reasoning based on them may therefore produce errors, no matter how sound the reasoning is in itself. Even when a mathematician has proven a theorem, it may take years for experts in the field to review and confirm the reasoning.
Two further aspects of mathematical reasoning bear noting: first, the applicability of the concepts being used. A mathematical project may be free of error but still lead nowhere. This is evident in the relative stagnation of physics since the emergence of general relativity and quantum mechanics—probably attributable to a conceptual impasse. Second, and paradoxically, the logical rules of deduction in mathematics have been, and still are, criticized. Entire new branches of science and technology have sprouted thanks to what has been dubbed “non-classical logic.”
Thus, even with reliable information sources, correct reasoning, and sound arguments, critical thinking is justified—indeed indispensable—at all times, everywhere.