hat Is Critical Thinking?
When Arthur was in the first grade, the teacher directed the class to “think.” “Now, class,” she said, “I know this problem is a little harder than the ones weve been doing, but Im going to give you a few extra minutes to think about it. Now start thinking.”
It was not the first time Arthur had heard the word used. Hed heard it many times at home, but never quite this way. The teacher seemed to be asking for some special activity, something he should know how to start and stop—like his fathers car. “Vroom-m-m,” he muttered half aloud. Because of his confusion, he was unaware he was making the noise.
“Arthur, please stop making noises and start thinking.”
Embarrassed and not knowing quite what to do, he looked down at his desk. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the little girl next to him was staring at the ceiling. “Maybe thats the way you start thinking,” he guessed. He decided the others had probably learned how to do it last year, that time he was home with the measles. So he stared at the ceiling.
As he progressed through grade school and high school, he heard that same direction hundreds of times. “No, thats not the answer, youre not thinking—now think!” And occasionally he would hear from particu- larly self-pitying teachers given to muttering to themselves aloud: “What did I do to deserve this? Dont they teach them anything in the grades anymore? Dont you people care about ideas? Think, dammit, THINK.”
So Arthur learned to feel somewhat guilty about the whole matter. Obviously, this thinking was an important activity that hed failed to learn. Maybe he lacked the brain power. But he was resourceful enough. He watched the other students and did what they did. Whenever a teacher started in about thinking, he screwed up his face, furrowed his brow, scratched his head, stroked his chin, stared off into space or up at the ceiling, and repeated silently to himself, “Lets see now, Ive got to think about that, think, think—I hope he doesnt call on me—think.”
appreciate believe cerebrate cogitate conceive consider
consult fancy contemplate imagine deliberate meditate digest muse discuss ponder dream realize
reason reflect ruminate speculate suppose weigh
Though Arthur didnt know it, thats just what the other students were saying to themselves.
Your experience may have been similar to Arthurs. In other words, many people may have simply told you to think without ever explaining what thinking is and what qualities a good thinker has that a poor thinker lacks. If that is the case, you have a lot of company. Extensive, effective training in thinking is the exception rather than the rule. This fact and its unfortunate consequences are suggested by the following comments from accomplished observers of the human condition:
The most interesting and astounding contradiction in life is to me the con- stant insistence by nearly all people upon “logic,” “logical reasoning,” “sound reasoning,” on the one hand, and on the other their inability to display it, and their unwillingness to accept it when displayed by others.1
Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.2
Clear thinking is a very rare thing, but even just plain thinking is almost as rare. Most of us most of the time do not think at all. We believe and we feel, but we do not think.3
Mental indolence is one of the commonest of human traits.4
What is this activity that everyone claims is important but few people have mastered? Thinking is a general term used to cover numerous activ- ities, from daydreaming to reflection and analysis. Here are just some of the synonyms listed in Rogets Thesaurus for think:
All of those are just the names that thinking goes under. They really dont explain it. The fact is, after thousands of years of humans experi- encing thought and talking and writing about thinking, it remains in many respects one of the great mysteries of our existence. Still, though much is yet to be learned, a great deal is already known.
Mind, Brain, or Both?
Most modern researchers use the word mind synonymously with brain, as if the physical organ that resides in the human skull were solely responsi- ble for thinking. This practice conveniently presupposes that a problem
that has challenged the greatest thinkers for millennia—the relationship between mind and physical matter—was somehow solved when no one was looking. The problem itself and the individuals who spent their lives wrestling with it deserve better.
Neuroscience has provided a number of valuable insights into the cognitive or thinking activities of the brain. It has documented that the left hemisphere of the brain deals mainly with detailed language process- ing and is associated with analysis and logical thinking, that the right hemisphere deals mainly with sensory images and is associated with in- tuition and creative thinking, and that the small bundle of nerves that lies between the hemispheres—the corpus callosum—integrates the various functions.
The research that produced these insights showed that the brain is necessary for thought, but it has not shown that the brain is sufficient for thought. In fact, many philosophers claim it can never show that. They argue that the mind and the brain are demonstrably different. Whereas the brain is a physical entity composed of matter and therefore subject to decay, the mind is a metaphysical entity. Examine brain cells under the most powerful microscope and you will never see an idea or concept— for example, beauty, government, equality, or love—because ideas and concepts are not material entities and so have no physical dimension. Where, then, do these nonmaterial things reside? In the nonmaterial mind.5
The late American philosopher William Barrett observed that “his- tory is, fundamentally, the adventure of human consciousness” and “the fundamental history of humankind is the history of mind.” In his view, “one of the supreme ironies of modern history” is the fact that science, which owes its very existence to the human mind, has had the audacity to deny the reality of the mind. As he put it, “the offspring denies the parent.”6
The argument over whether the mind is a reality is not the only issue about the mind that has been hotly debated over the centuries. One espe- cially important issue is whether the mind is passive, a blank slate on which experience writes, as John Locke held, or active, a vehicle by which we take the initiative and exercise our free will, as G. W. Leibnitz argued. This book is based on the latter view.
Critical Thinking Defined
Lets begin by making the important distinction between thinking and feeling. I feel and I think are sometimes used interchangeably, but that practice causes confusion. Feeling is a subjective response that reflects emotion, sentiment, or desire; it generally occurs spontaneously rather
than through a conscious mental act. We dont have to employ our minds to feel angry when we are insulted, afraid when we are threatened, or compassionate when we see a picture of a starving child. The feelings arise automatically.
Feeling is useful in directing our attention to matters we should think about; it also can provide the enthusiasm and commitment necessary to complete arduous mental tasks. However, feeling is never a good substi- tute for thinking because it is notoriously unreliable. Some feelings are beneficial, honorable, even noble; others are not, as everyday experience demonstrates. We often feel like doing things that will harm us—for example, smoking, sunbathing without sunscreen, telling off our profes- sor or employer, or spending the rent money on lottery tickets.
Zinedine Zidane was one of the greatest soccer players of his genera- tion, and many experts believed that in his final season (2006) he would lead France to the pinnacle of soccer success—winning the coveted World Cup. But then, toward the end of the championship game against Italy, he viciously head-butted an Italian player in full view of hundreds of mil- lions of people. The referee banished him from the field, France lost the match, and a single surrender to feeling forever stained the brilliant career Zidane had dedicated his life to building.
In contrast to feeling, thinking is a conscious mental process per- formed to solve a problem, make a decision, or gain understanding.* Whereas feeling has no purpose beyond expressing itself, thinking aims beyond itself to knowledge or action. This is not to say that thinking is infallible; in fact, a good part of this book is devoted to exposing errors in thinking and showing you how to avoid them. Yet for all its shortcom- ings, thinking is the most reliable guide to action we humans possess. To sum up the relationship between feeling and thinking, feelings need to be tested before being trusted, and thinking is the most reasonable and reli- able way to test them.
There are three broad categories of thinking: reflective, creative, and critical. The focus of this book is on critical thinking. The essence of criti- cal thinking is evaluation. Critical thinking, therefore, may be defined as the process by which we test claims and arguments and determine which have merit and which do not. In other words, critical thinking is a search for answers, a quest. Not surprisingly, one of the most important tech- niques used in critical thinking is asking probing questions. Where the un- critical accept their first thoughts and other peoples statements at face value, critical thinkers challenge all ideas in this manner:
*Some informal definitions of thinking include daydreaming. It is excluded from this defini- tion because daydreaming is a passive mental state over which we exercise little or no con- trol. It is therefore of little use in evaluating ideas.
Professor Vile cheated me in my composition grade. He weighted some themes more heavily than others.
Before women entered the work force, there were fewer divorces. That shows that?a womans place is in the home.
A college education isnt worth what you pay for it. Some people never reach?a salary level appreciably higher than the level they would have reached without the degree.
Did he grade everyone on the same standard? Were the dif- ferent weightings justified?
How do you know that this factor, and not some other one(s), is responsible for the increase in divorces?
Is money the only measure of the worth of an education? What about increased under- standing of self and life and increased ability to cope with challenges?
Critical thinking also employs questions to analyze issues. Consider, for example, the subject of values. When it is being discussed, some peo- ple say, “Our country has lost its traditional values” and “There would be less crime, especially violent crime, if parents and teachers emphasized moral values.” Critical thinking would prompt us to ask,
1. What is the relationship between values and beliefs? Between values and convictions? ?
2. Are all values valuable? ?
3. How aware is the average person of his or her values? Is it possible ?that many people deceive themselves about their real values? ?
4. Where do ones values originate? Within the individual or outside? In thought or in feeling? ?
5. Does education change a persons values? If so, is this change always for the better? ?
6. Should parents and teachers attempt to shape childrens values?
?Characteristics of Critical Thinkers ?
What about increased under- standing of self and life and increased ability to cope with challenges?
hat Is Critical Thinking?