“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it”Eugene T. Gendlin
It surprises me how late I came across the concept of critical thinking. While it is entirely possible that I had actually encountered it at an earlier age, and was simply too ignorant or inattentive to notice, I still find it peculiar that it isn’t a more prominent theme in modern education or the broader culture at large. The discovery that there are objectively better and worse modes of thinking, and that we have the capacity to enhance the instrumental value of our own mind, seems to be of paramount importance to me.
The observation that our brain can think, and function, in demonstrably better ways, holds true not irrespective of one’s intentions in life; but precisely because of those intentions. It is precisely because one possesses intentions that critical thinking is preeminent to all other ideas an individual holds.
But before we dive into that a little more, let’s first give ourselves a better understanding of the landscape that surrounds the topic. We will begin by discussing the frequently uncritical promotion of critical thinking; moving onto a primer on what critical thinking actually is or should be; then briefly explore the history of the practise; after that we will go through why it is important now; and then finally, how we might better conceptualise, and undertake, the difficult but rewarding act of critical thinking.
The Uncritical Crisis
As I said, I find critical thinking — which admittedly goes by many other names, but is what I shall be referring to it as — is mostly absent from systemic and communal forms of information transmission. It definitely appears in infrequent pockets but struggles to reach pandemic like transmission and break into the mainstream zeitgeist.
I mentioned in my opening statement that I was surprised at how late in my life I encountered critical thinking (which felt slightly strange to write, as a still relatively young 27 years old). I guess I shouldn’t be entirely shocked, though, as the specific term “critical thinking” is a relatively modern one, arising only in the mid-to-late 20th century. This may explain some of its inability to yet powerfully permeate the broader public consciousness and systems of education. However, this is not to suggest that the words “critical thinking” are not used often; little could be further from the truth.
So while the idea, or more importantly, the act of critical thinking is yet to diffuse out into the broader public, in recent years, however, in many specific circles, the term has become nothing short of a panacea. Employers frequently state that critical thinking is a desirable trait in their employees; just as academics desire it in both their colleagues and students. One would have to search far and wide for a job description that paid anything more than the median annual income of ~$50 thousand dollars in Australia that didn’t contain the term.
However, with critical thinking being such a nebulous concept, very few people actually know how to do it or detect the requisite skill in others. Which is to say nothing about the even greater task of teaching or inducing it in others for purposes such as academic, organisational or professional development. Ultimately, we see very well respected individuals go on and on about how important it is, but can’t actually point to what it is; exemplifying that they are not even doing it themselves.
This lack-of-clarity-about, yet unwavering-support-for, that many have regarding critical thinking is a painful irony. Uncritical support of critical thinking is all but guaranteed to erode the skill’s reputation for being essential to living a good and valuable life. When we begin to unquestionably support something — even critical thinking — we risk making that thing a sacred-cow, or worse; meaningless.
Let’s not let that be the case. Therefore, today I will try and provide something slightly more tangible to consider when thinking about or discussing this new apparent intellectual cure-all.
Let’s begin our more critical appraisal of critical thinking…
What It Is
Something important to grasp from the start is that critical thinking is not necessarily “correct” thinking — by that I mean, believing things that are (considered) correct.
Critical thinking is corrective; not what is correct. It is less about being correct than it is about becoming correct. It is about how you arrive at what you think, not what you actually think.
Merely adopting the viewpoint of an established expert (and thus, a view that is highly likely to be correct) does not make one a critical thinker. In fact, the two actions can oftentimes be diametrically opposed. Conversely, a contrarian typically does demonstrate some ability to think critically, but again, adopting an unpopular viewpoint is no shortcut either. Being a contrarian is the effect, not the cause, of being a critical thinker.
This is because critical thinking often requires finding faults in the thinking of others. Due to this, by default you will be taking a contrarian point of view on some (often, many) things. You need not take an entirely contrarian view, however, it may just be on a specific point within a broader argument — it is not a blanket either/or.
The point is, though, in order to locate an error in someone’s thinking, you must believe you have a superior alternative — even if the alternative is not a positive-belief, and instead is either scepticism or belief-suspension. What this implies, is that a critical thinker should be able to logically explain why the mainstream position is wrong, even if the thing that they consider wrong, is how strongly the mainstream believes something in relation to the weight of the evidence. The belief that belief-suspension is best, based on the current evidence, is still a proposed superior belief.
If, however, you cannot explain why the mainstream is wrong, by committing some kind of logical or rational mistake, then a critical thinker should likely sit tight and be guided by the (incomplete, but still often useful) wisdom of the crowd. This is something that even the “freest” of thinkers needs to remember; the point of free-thinking is to free yourself from mainstream incorrectness, not the mainstream in its entirety. The point is to be correct, not contrary. Being correct, however, will obviously make you contrary, in one way or another, to all those who are incorrect.
To summarise this section:
Critical thinking has nothing to do with your position on the spectrum of correct-to-incorrect, only the direction which you are travelling and the methods you are using to navigate — if you are even travelling that is! All of us are guilty, in one domain or another, of finding ourselves at some kind of epistemic destination and ceasing all efforts to locate anything better.
As a final note, it is important to recognise that the correctness of one’s views bears almost no relation to their popularity or acceptableness. The two variables of ‘correctness’ and ‘popularity’ are orthogonal; regardless of how often the terms are used interchangeably.
Where It Came From
As previously mentioned, the term “critical thinking” is relatively recent. No matter how modern the nomenclature, though, the actual art-form itself is much more dated. Ultimately, critical thinking is traceable back to Socrates, who lived a casual two-and-a-half millennia ago.
Socrates, as the books of history tell us, was the ultimate pain in basically everyone’s side. Reportedly; he would wander around, questioning anyone who thought they knew anything and doing little else. He was also renowned for being rather unpleasant looking, walking everywhere barefoot, not bathing and wearing the same unwashed cloak at essentially all occasions. Strangely enough, the frequency of which these points were made by his contemporaries — about his general unpleasantness — seems only to support the idea of how adored Socrates must have been for his philosophical perspectives. The quality of his intellect must have been well worth the burden of his apparently abundant limitations when it came to hygiene and aesthetic-appeal, in order for him to develop the devout cult-hero status that he did.
This act of constantly questioning others and refusing to silence his dissident views, however, led to a rather abrupt end to his life. Socrates was put to death for his consistent challenges of the political elite. He was made to drink the poisonous beverage hemlock, due to charges such as corrupting the youth.
Right up until this point, though, Socrates was ceaselessly testing and putting the beliefs and ideas of others on trial. When he noticed that so few around him could rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge — which was only a matter of time, regardless of who his victim was — he frequently employed a single tactic to demonstrate their lack of clear or consistent thinking.
The tactic that Socrates made use of is what we now refer to as the “Socratic Method”; the process of asking probing questions in order to uncover the underlying presuppositions of one’s claims.
The responses to Socrates intellectual inquiries were often vague definitions of terms, insufficient or irrelevant evidence and beliefs that were often incompatible when examined more closely. True to the nature of pundits, though, these inadequacies were often skillfully masked by confident and convincing rhetoric — a trait that is just as pertinent to the modern-day as it was to ancient Greece all those years ago. These pundits, however, no matter how good their rhetoric, often met their match in Socrates.
This is, as far as most historians of the topic can tell, is the genesis of critical thinking. And to this day, the Socratic Method proves to be such a highly valuable tool for developing critical thought; not only for those directly involved in the conversation but also for those observing and learning from it, too.
And, evidenced by this very article, critical thinking did not die alongside its founding father. The art of critical thinking has continued to be practised since Socrates, resulting in much expansion of its content. Practitioners such as Aquinas, Voltaire, Freud, Smith, Descartes, Bacon, Locke and Darwin, among many others, have contributed significantly to fields such as philosophy, economics, psychology, political theory and biology, to name a few, after employing similar methods to Socrates and challenging the sacred-cows of their respected fields. The impact of critical thinking, however, has not been limited to only new insights within already established disciplines; but also leading to the birthing of new fields of study, with linguistics and anthropology being considered as examples of this.
Why It’s Important Now
While it may have proved valuable in the past (or maybe not if you were Socrates’ life-insurer), why does critical thinking matter now? Or, more specifically; why should it matter to you?
For starters, it is recognised that we are currently living in what is known as the Information Age. Beginning in the 1970s, due to the digital-revolution, the Information Age marks a period of unprecedented information availability. The rapid growth-rate in which information is created, presented, transmitted, received and stored has vastly changed our lives. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of these effects are good, but it is not without its costs. The altering of social dynamics by social media and the impact it appears to be having on mental health outcomes seems to be an example of this (at least at this point in time).
Once we recognise that we are swimming in greater depths of information than we ever have — and that amount will only increase; exponentially — the importance of learning how to swim effectively begins to become self-evident. Critical thinking is the survival-stroke in the ocean of information. Or, as Yuval Noah Harari has stated: “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.”
Critical thinking seeks that clarity of and amongst information. And, if insufficient evidence is available, it allows for clarity regarding its limitations — you must know where the lines are in order to not colour outside of them.
What this entails, practically, is habits such as closely examining reasoning, assessing whether it aligns with basic and well-established concepts and your own specific local knowledge on the topic, as well as tracing out the implications to their logical end. If each of us can learn to do this to a greater extent, on a personal level, we will increase our chances of not just surviving, but thriving, during the Information Age.
This brings us to an important parallel. Critical thinking is the ideal at the level of the individual; and at the societal level, the scientific process is the current reigning champion in this regard. When it comes to determining what is real, what the problems are and what we should do about them, there is no replacement for the scientific process and what it does for our broader society. However, at the level of the individual, critical thinking is almost entirely synonymous with scientific thinking. Not knowledge of scientific facts, but the scientific method, employed amongst our own thoughts and beliefs.
Both critical and scientific thinking requires something unusual to be noticed, a model or theory constructed based on the known evidence, for each piece of evidence to be weighted appropriately, and for conclusions to be updated when new evidence is discovered. The end goal of this process, is to have a model of the world, or a conclusion to a question, that is the most probable given the available information.
This parallel, that critical thinking is the adoption of a scientific mindset and worldview — only implemented by a single person, not an entire academic institution — gives us a good, general framework which we can borrow from. Challenging your dearly held beliefs, being willing to alter your hypotheses based on the emergence of evidence, accepting what the evidence indicates even if it is not preferable and an insatiable hunger for a better understanding of the world, are all things that will hold you in good stead — especially once you recognise that understanding is the foundation of progress.
I hope that gives you an appreciation of why critical thinking is important now, and becoming more important by the day. Throughout the Information Age, and beyond, it may be the single defining trait that determines whether you sink or swim.
So with that, we will wade into deeper waters now, taking a closer look at what critical thinking is and is not.
Constructing A More Critical Worldview
Now you have some foundational understandings of critical thinking, let’s develop them into a more evolved and complex conception; a more granular lens for you to take out into the world. We will begin abstractly but then work towards something more applied and practical. Let’s begin.
In many ways, ideas are like plants.
One similarity is that they are much easier to remove in their early stages of being planted. However, once the roots of the plants or idea have spread, removing it can result in substantial amounts of collateral damage — if you can even manage to extract it that is. Determining whether they should stay or go in the early stages is crucial for minimising future pain and inconvenience.
Another similarity, and a painful irony based on the first, is that you can’t tell much about them in their infancy. Oftentimes, a seed that you think will flower into something beautiful, ends up being some kind of weed that sucks the life out of everything that surrounds it.
Ideas are just like this, too.
Throughout history, many of the best-sounding ideas have been responsible for some of the most sickening atrocities. Conversely, there are undoubtedly many ideas that would improve human welfare and reduce needless suffering; only we have cast them aside already because they seemed ugly or inhumane on first appraisal. This doesn’t just apply to big, global ideas about governance or how an economic or health-care system should be run, though, but also applies to ideas that are extremely local and specific to us, such as the kind of partner or job we think we need. We believe many alluring and detrimental falsehoods and refuse to believe many off-putting yet helpful truths; simply because we appraise many ideas based on appearance rather than merit.
This conflation of appearance and merit when it comes to ideas, however, is understandable. An idea or belief is extremely abstract and intangible, which blurs the line between its practical and aesthetic value; though one does, or should at least, still exist. Just because we struggle to detect differences at times, does not mean they don’t exist. Additionally, it is undetected differences, in one thing or another, that often result in unforeseen events that catch us off-guard. The signs may have been there, but that is irrelevant if we fail to see them.
When it comes to detecting differences in ideas, there is only really one way to do this; and it is not theorising. It is only through the implementation of ideas can they ever really be tested. However, this necessity of implementation in order to test ideas also provides them with the ultimate scapegoat. When an idea is shown to be inferior from a meritocratic perspective via implementation, loyal adherents to the idea can always resort to blaming the way it was implemented for any failures that arose. However, this is a dangerous practice.
By allowing ideas to remain insulated from the harsh criticism of empirical results, we potentiate their destructive properties. Even at the best of times, life will throw some curveballs. But if the warning signs of predictable, yet undesired events are also ignored, then we create more curveballs for ourselves than would have reasonably existed otherwise.
A simple example of this might be your own personal health. If you maintain the idea that you are healthy, yet multiple visits to the doctor have indicated otherwise, then you might be setting yourself up for a significant fall. What started with, “Your weight is slightly above a healthy range for your height,” moving to “Your blood pressure is marginally higher than ideal,” all the way to “You have stage-2 hypertension,” are warning signs that you have wilfully ignored if you don’t update your model of your own health. If you fail to recognise that you are on a collision-course with illness, or worse, then the only other alternative is for you to be blindsided by a life-changing event (and not of the positive kind).
Every chance that you did not take to update your beliefs about your health — and thus changing course — inevitably took you closer and closer to driving off the cliff. However, if you maintain the “But I feel fine” attitude, then you will not, at all, see the serious cardiac incident coming; until it has already arrived.
We don’t want that, obviously. Ensuring we are willing to accept what the evidence indicates is a challenging, yet adaptive (to the extent of life-saving) skill to develop.
Your personal health is just one example, but as I said, there are generally two brands of ideas that we need to keep an eye out for — those that look nice yet aren’t; and those that don’t look nice but actually are.
The first brand of ideas is like a big, red, shiny apple that looks great, but it’s not until you commit to taking a bite out of it, that you realise it’s actually rotten on the inside. And at that point, you’ve already paid the price for doing insufficient homework on the topic.
The other brand of ideas are more akin to coconuts. Gnarly and unpleasant looking, but if one was willing to dive a little further beneath the unappealing surface, you would find there is much goodness to be acquired. Recognising the value hidden beneath the surface of coconuts (or in currently misjudged ideas) is not essential if you have plenty of other sources of food and good options available; but if times change, you would hate to die of starvation when there was a solution staring you in the face the whole time, yet you simply didn’t look deeply enough.
That is why critical thinking is of such high importance. It is the mode of thinking that helps us not be duped by alluring surface-appeal, or forgo value when it is hidden beneath the surface. It is not a blanket protective-at-all-times measure, however, it should allow us to minimise the damage we set ourselves up for, and orient our futures more towards the desirable, by nature of allowing our ideas to be reconciled with the data provided by reality.
For the sake of transparency, in order to add to the statements I have made already, I will give you an idea of the general premise behind my reasoning on this topic. What I am saying is only really effective if you can see why I am saying it.
At a very fundamental level, I believe that good things (however we, or you, may conceive of them) tend not to spontaneously will themselves into existence. By its very nature, the universe tends towards decay. I also believe this applies all the way up to the social level and does not just relate to small physical systems. Over time, truth is lost, once powerful organisations disintegrate, relationships fall apart and moral frameworks begin to erode.
It does not have to be this way, though. Many instances can be pointed to where truth, morality and organisational effectiveness have all been acquired in gigantic proportions, even against the tide of the universe. However, the point is, this doesn’t happen by random chance alone. It requires serious effort and an understanding of what needs to be done and amongst what environmental circumstances.
That is why I see critical thinking as paramount to one’s intentions. First and foremost, we must be willing to accept an, at times, brutal understanding of the world, before we can then turn our minds to how it can be better. Optimism prior to understanding is nothing more than unjustified (and unhelpful) wishful thinking. Success, in any domain, requires a dialogue between one’s hopes and dreams and the reality they were conceived within.
Now I, too, am beginning to sound like one of the critical thinking ideologues. So with that, let’s change the tone a little and address some common criticisms of the topic at hand.
Common Criticisms of Critical Thinking
Criticisms often contain a grain of truth, and that is exactly the case here and why I see some value in exploring them. I have had many discussions with people about what they critical thinking is or should be, so the following will be my conception of what I believe many of their mistakes when thinking about the topic were. I can generally allocate the common criticisms of critical thinking that I have heard into two broad categories:
1. “Critical thinking is not the same thing as being a critic.”
2. “Critical thinking is just an excuse to be negative or pessimistic.”
I will address both these criticisms; common misunderstandings will not become any less common if they are allowed to proliferate. Both criticisms are related and stem from a similar source of misapprehension, but I will tackle them separately. This will give us a better chance to examine them a little more closely.
1. Critical thinking isn’t the same thing as being a critic
If I only had two options; to either agree or disagree with that statement, I would, undoubtedly, disagree with it. I say that not because I agree with it in its entirety, but it is much more wrong than right.
This criticism, of the two, is the one that frustrates me the most. It is often used as a rhetorical device, not a genuine criticism of critical thinking. It is a cheap way of scoring social points with onlookers as it translates to “Why are you saying mean things, when you could be saying nice things?” — and everyone loves nice things. A dirty tactic, indeed…
In relation to the actual argument, though, I find it substanceless. I’m not sure if my schooling on this topic was different from that of others, but when you have word-A and word-B, and they are not exactly the same, then they mean different things.
“Ah, but what about synonyms?” the enlightened dissident points out.
“Ah, but what about connotations?” I respond.
Words, in this regard, are like physical objects. No two objects — no matter how indistinguishable they are to look at — can inhabit the same physical space; for, if they did, they would be the same, solitary object. This principle applies to words, too. No word can inhabit the exact same semantic space as another word — even if they appear to on the surface.
The point I am getting at here is that unless two things are exactly the same, then they are fundamentally different. I simply cannot follow the reasoning to any other conclusion, and my suspicion is you can’t either. So it should be (somewhat) self-evident, at this point, that a critic and a critical thinker cannot logically be the same thing.
Once we have established that critical thinking is not, and cannot, be the same as being a critic — meaning the critics argument is logically true at its most base level, but offers nothing at all novel — the postulator then tends to try and establish a point on more characteristic grounds.
“I am not just saying they are different words, but that they involve acting and behaving in different ways, focusing on different things…”
To this, again, I disagree. To be fair, not as strongly; but again, I think this gets things more wrong than right. A simple linguistic explanation should demonstrate this again.
The suffix “-al” is a component of our lexicon that implies something is characteristic of something. Critical thinking literally means: To think in a manner that shares properties or traits with that of a critic.
Therefore, if you are going to form an argument suggesting that critical thinking is different from being a critic, then you will have to do better than something that is a truism on first analysis, and then falls apart like a dwelling made of playing cards when pressed further.
Regardless of this, though, consistently poking holes in the logic of others is no way to live — or so I’m told, at least. Eventually, some kind of agreement between both parties tends to arise when the previous advocate of, “Critical thinking is not the same as being a critic” retreats to “I just think some people who believe they are being critical thinkers, should do more than just focus on the flaws of others.”
This I wholeheartedly agree with!
Well, actually, I don’t agree with the use of a Motte-and-Bailey debate tactic; where an ideal but extreme claim is made initially, and then a strongly defensible claim is retreated to when the original claim is pushed back against — but I digress. I can certainly get behind the sentiment, at least.
The main point is: Yes, pointing out mistakes or flaws is not sufficient to make a critical thinker; but it is still necessary.
Because of this, I think it would be useful to distinguish between what I consider “paying critical attention” and the more difficult, but valuable act of actual critical thinking. What those who just focus on the flaws of others are not doing, is the “thinking” that is pivotal to complete the act.
An example of how I see this is as follows:
Consider you have been given a document to review. If you return it and state, “There are mistakes in lines 3, 9 and 14” then you have paid critical attention.
If, however, you return the document and say something like “There are mistakes in lines 3, 9 and 14; but I think you could fix all this if in line 2, instead of saying ‘blah-blah-blah’ you say ‘yada-yada-yada,’ as this would help to prevent x-y-and-z from happening” then you have applied critical thought.
The difference here is that one stopped at locating mistakes, whereas the other used the mistake as a source to generate improvement from. That is the goal of critical thinking. I will explain more about that in a moment, but for our purposes in this section, I have hopefully addressed why critical thinking actually really is like being a critic — plus some additional thinking.
2. Critical thinking as a cover for negativity and pessimism
The second accusation I often find levied against critical thinking is that it focuses obsessively on mistakes, errors, negatives or unpleasantness and is basically an intellectualised version of a pessimistic worldview.
My response to this ties in with what we were discussing above: Yes, at least initially, to be a critical thinker, one must start as a critic (by paying critical attention) — critical thinking, at its foundations, is fault-focused.
At least in the initial stages, critical thinking is the investigation of thoughts and ideas for any defects and deficiencies, of both clarity and consistency. Something which should be applied to ourselves just as much, if not more so, than others.
However, once a source of error has been located, then it is time for the thinking component, as this where you source a solution. And that’s no trivial matter; fault-finding is easy in comparison. Solution-finding is very much a process of thinking, and that is why it cannot be left out.
I will elaborate.
Thinking is the process of running mental simulations. When done well, thinking allows us to project, examine and then select (by acting) one of the multiple possible realities that diverge from one another whenever we are faced with an option. This should help to highlight why both the previous and the current argument critiques of critical thinking are flawed.
Critical thinking does, and should, begin by focusing on what we might consider “negatives.” However, once this has been done, if you do not seek an improvement, then what you are doing is not actually critical thinking; you are simply being pessimistic, wallowing in your pity, or some other behaviour that is as equally productive. What separates critical thinking from this, is that critical thinking is the process of finding an error, and then attempting to correct it — or at least generate an improvement if it cannot be completely rectified.
That is why, when done correctly, critical thinking is one of the most optimistic things that we can do. In my opinion, suggesting anything else entails a misapprehension.
The analogy I would like to use here is that applied critical thinking is like the surgeon who believes that a dying patient is actually dying. But, crucially, however, they also believe the patient can and should be saved.
In my mind, the scene unfolds as follows:
The initial opponent of critical thinking bursts into the room, speaking in a tone that sounds equal parts judgemental as it does non-judgmental…
“Excuse me doctor, but this man is as well as the next person. Would you mind telling me what you’re about to do with that scalpel? Why must you focus on the ills of this dear individual? There is no need to be such a critic; just because his heart has been inactive for several minutes now! Didn’t your mother teach you not to say anything unless it was nice? Well, I’ll think you’ll find it is not nice to suggest that someone is dying!”
The doctor, with blood all over his gloves, is visibly confused; not only at the lashing he just received but also at the fact that there is some random person wandering around the emergency surgery theatre. How the hell did she get in here?
However, before the good doctor could gather his bearings, he hears another sound from over his left shoulder. Whipping his head around, over in a weirdly dim corner of the room, he spies a shadowy figure; smoking and wearing a strange medical-trenchcoat-looking-thing. The mysterious figure speaks in a gravelly voice…
“That patient is dying and we damn-well all know it. I may have been a doctor in ‘Nam, but that doesn’t mean a damn 4-year old without a medical license couldn’t tell you that this fish is fried. Every single person I know who has died got that way by first starting to die. And this fella, you better believe he has started to die; so basically, he’s already dead. I wouldn’t even bother with him doc..”
Ok, I will cut the daytime TV stuff, but first I just want to say: If there is ever a movie adaptation of this article made, I want Nicholas Cage to play all three roles.
What is the purpose of all that?
The point I was trying to demonstrate, is that although critical thinking is fault-focused, this does not necessarily mean it should be considered pessimistic or negative. The opposite, in fact. The targeting of flaws and fractured truths is for the purpose of furthering one’s knowledge or to save those who may be about to be misled by a shiny red, but rotten apple.
I hope this analysis shows that critical thinking is much, much more compatible with optimism and improvement-ideals than is often considered. Honestly, there is nothing optimistic, noble or kind about the glorification of current standards (many still suffer under them) or the willing acceptance of epistemic weaknesses (which we still have in spades).
Neither the complete rejection of anything considered negative (as in first criticism) or the entire acceptance of anything negative (as in the second), is compatible with genuine critical thinking and the ideals it aspires to.
Critical thinking, and the pursuit of truth, has important social implications.
The truth should not be considered divisive; I believe it to be the opposite. The truth, objectivity, reality, whatever you may consider it, should, on the whole, be considered uniting. Not everyone will be pleased about various findings (and understandably so), but the simmering notion of using subjectivity to bridge divides — personal, familial, cultural or otherwise — is logically invalid. Anything that is subjective cannot, by definition, be shared. The objective-truth — when acquired in the right areas — is the uniting force that allows us to cross divides. As is commonly said: When something subjective is up for consideration, there’s nothing to ensure that two moral and intelligent people will agree. Therefore, we need a more reliable foundation to build relations and coherence upon.
Take empathy for example. Empathy is a method of crossing emotional divides and is an inherently objective process — irrespective of how it is colloquially understood. It is an error to think that anything relating to emotions is indistinguishable from the subjective. To feel empathy for someone is to feel what they are feeling, or a portion of it at least. In order to feel empathy, there must be some thread of reality that allows one to be united emotionally with another. We might then consider this an objective subjective-experience.
Sympathy, conversely, is a subjective subjective-experience. You feel something towards another person, based on what they are feeling, but what they are feeling is not something you can understand or interpret. With sympathy, you both experience feelings, but there is no shared experience — which is, again, the ultimate definition of subjectivity.
What this helps us to see, is that objectivity — a small state within the vast nation of reality — is the only common ground upon which disparate groups can meet. Understanding and embodying this idea is becoming more pertinent than ever, as escaping your own information echo-chambers is becoming increasingly more difficult to do — due, in no small part, to the fact that it’s becoming even more difficult to discern you are in one to begin with.
Most definitely they do exist, though, and this is having many undesirable effects. The amplification of political polarisation is evidence to this claim. If we are not careful of this and do not find common ground, beliefs and answers to unite on, we are going to come up completely short of solving serious existential problems such as climate change or the possibility of non-human aligned runaway A.I.
We need to be wary that although the Information Age is almost entirely synonymous with the “opportunity age,” there is nothing inherently positive about opportunities. Not all, or even most, opportunities are destined to result in ideal outcomes. Critical thinking is one of the mechanisms we can use to ensure that the better alternatives are the ones that are acted upon.
How To Develop It
Our brains trick us. Yes, yours does too.
We think we see things that aren’t actually there, and we miss things that are. The most literal example of this is our visual blind spot. Each one of our eyes has a blindspot, yet these blindspots are not evident in our visual field. Our brain fills in the gaps with what it expects to see based on all the other information available.
The same occurs with our thoughts and beliefs. A variety of common misperceptions have been noted in the biases and heuristics literature. We don’t see the world the way it is, we see it based on the way we are. Take, for example, the frequent, yet erroneous way we perceive members of an out-group to be basically one-of-a-kind; whereas, when assessing members of our own in-group, we see them all as individuals with many distinguishing qualities and features.
This is clearly not a representation of the world that is entirely, or even close to, coherent with how it is in actuality. So how do we then being to develop our critical thinking faculties in attempts to get closer to seeing the world the way it actually is?
Well, for starters, just like there are no unbreakable rules for when it comes to being a nice person, there are no blanket rules for producing critical thought. Though, possibly the best advice for being a nice person I’ve ever heard is, “If you’re nice to people; people will think you’re nice” and I think this seemingly silly statement actually conveys something of importance for our purposes here.
It is the desire to be something that helps orient one towards achieving that goal. It may not be the only requirement in order to ensure its achievement, but it is a good first approximation towards the target. If you recognise its importance of critical thinking, then you will be more attentive to opportunities to execute it. The guiding desire of seeking truth, particularly in matters of great importance, should be salient to you at all times.
Reading this article will no doubt have drilled that into parts of both your conscious and subconscious mind.
Something else we can do in order to enhance our critical thinking abilities, is taking notice of the things that just don’t quite sit right. You want to hone your sensitivity to the way that fine, but important details may be glossed over, becoming wary “that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind” as Morpheus said to Neo.
With concerted effort, a close inspection will reveal that certain beliefs or sections of our mental story are incoherent with others — just as what is told to us may seem truthful on face-value, but may not actually be reconcilable with other things we believe to be true. However, we will only know this if we take information that is presented to us, and check how well it meshes with what we already believe to be true. If something doesn’t fit, then you need to work out whether it is the information presented to you, your model of the world, or both, that contains the error(s).
If, however, you just stand back and admire the work of your own mind, in a pleased and pompous manner, as most of us tend to do, then you won’t spot the tell-tale signs of incongruity — a thread that, if tugged on, causes more questions than it does answers.
Thus, the first steps in critical thinking are the recognition of its importance, and willingness to accept the possibility of the unanswerable. However, once through that door, you must quickly shed the passivity of acceptance, and become all-but-consumed by a sense of needing-to-know and believing that you can.
To do this, you must recognise that the world is more complex and incomprehensible than your current state of understanding would lead you to believe. But, again, from that point onwards, you must act upon the premise that the world is ultimately comprehensible, and with systematic effort, you can make it increasingly intelligible.
Howard Gabennesch proposes a similar idea (among additional ones) in his excellent article titled Critical Thinking: What Is It Good For? (In Fact, What Is It?). Gabennesch suggests that effective critical thinking is tridimensional, requiring a sceptical worldview, particular skills and truth-oriented values (among others).
A brief summary of each is as follows:
The Worldview Dimension: “[T]hings are not always entirely what they seem—and propose it as the first wisdom of critical thinking. The recognition that the world is often not what it seems is perhaps the key feature of the critical thinker’s worldview.”
The Skills Dimension: “By critical thinking skills, I mean the various higher-order cognitive operations involved in processing information, rather than simply absorbing it: analyzing, synthesizing, interpreting, explaining, evaluating, generalizing, abstracting, illustrating, applying, comparing, recognizing logical fallacies.”
The Values Dimension: “Like the honest juror, the critical thinker is ethically committed to the concept of due process—intellectual due process—as the best way to increase the likelihood of finding the truth. This code of intellectual conduct demands giving ideas their day in court before rendering an informed and reasoned verdict.”
I think this is an excellent framework to view critical thinking through. There are many alternatives, but the above model is simple while mostly sufficient.
The final piece of the critical thinking puzzle that I want to throw into play, is open-mindedness and flexibility of comprehension. To be a skilled critical thinker you must explore alternative viewpoints and the range of outcomes available. This requires active, open-minded thinking. Without considering alternative options, you have no justification for considering your chosen conclusion to be the superior one.
As established, critical thinking is a method for seeking truer answers, however, it cannot create them. All critical thinking can do is be directed by the available evidence. But to say that it cannot create answers is not to say that creativity isn’t required at all. Creativity is, in fact, a core element of the critical thinking process, potentially unbeknownst to many who hold overly dichotomous views of the creative versus the analytical. The polymaths of history are evidence that these traits are not incompatible or mutually exclusive.
To a non-trivial extent, critical thinking is a creative process because, in order to find fault with something, you must — at the very least — be able to envision a world in which a superior alternative exists. A fault can only be located when a component of something is contrasted against a more ideal alternative, even if that thing is not entirely evident based on current understanding (though I would suggest sticking with something that is indicated to exist, not the completely imaginative).
Locating previously undiscovered truths about the world requires this exact process. The generation of more probable hypotheses, more objective ways to verify them and the more accurate and expansive models of the world requires creativity every step of the way. However, we must be clear on this; creativity is necessary, but not sufficient for critical thinking. This is the same conclusion we arrived at when it came to being critical — necessary, but not sufficient.
The danger of hyper-creative thinking when it comes to rational thought, however, is the ability to rationalise or justify anything. This is the trap we need to avoid. Examples of this are axioms such as “A dollar saved is a dollar earned” or “You’ve gotta spend money to make money” that allow someone to justify whatever they please with their money. Another example is “Like attracts like” and the alternative “Opposites attract,” which give us the illusion that we have some predictive model of romantic love. If we are creative without restriction, we will allow ourselves to convince ourselves of anything, and that isn’t what we want. The goal is to increasingly convince ourselves of what is true, based on the data the reality presents us with.
Anything short of an uncritical approach (as many takes to the aforementioned axioms/platitudes) allows one justify the behaviour of themselves or others, at all times — if they want to, of course. This is rationalising, not reasoning, and around here we consider that to be a big mistake. As one of the godfathers of modern-rationality Eliezer Yudkowsky says: If you’re equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.
The Critical Conclusion
I very much appreciate you taking the time to go on this journey of critical thought with me. In order to not take up any more of your time, I will close after one final statement.
As you go about the rest of your day, week, or possibly even beyond, I implore you to keep the following in mind:
If we continue to place a greater amount of attention on what brings to mind clarity, as opposed to what produces confusion, then we will never find answers — and answers are the fuel of progress. It is only through the meticulous detection of inadequacies and their development into superior alternatives, coupled with the avoidance of potential errors, that something better can emerge. Critical thinking is the way we achieve this; it is the means by which we can move towards understanding so that we can then move beyond it. Towards something even better. When you seek the truth it may not make the entire world your oyster, but it will likely teach you a thing or two about finding and creating your own pearls.