How Critical is Critical Thinking?

ThinkingManby Anniel   5/21/14
Following a discussion of lateral thinking and its importance to education, the question of critical thinking arose. Just what is this thing called critical thinking and how can it be developed?

The word critical has many meanings. It can mean adverse or disapproving
comments; an analysis of the merits or faults of an idea or thing; of something at a point of crisis; or having decisive or crucial importance to an undertaking or idea.

All of these meanings are components of thinking, or processing of information. But crucial to the processing of information is having a fully informed opinion. Critical thinking is to analyze and make judgements on the merits or faults of any idea, problem, or venture one is involved in. These judgements can only be made based on the information a person has.

The following thought on intelligence relevant to this discussion was posted recently:

“Central to a general understanding of intelligence (of whatever kind, at whatever stage, in whatever species) is the ability to make connections.
That, in effect, is what intelligence is. It’s a neural network.” – Brad Nelson.

True, and neural networks are being built within our brains constantly. That’s how we learn. New neural pathways can be formed even in the brains of the aging. Reading and writing, and many other activities, may also help keep brains youthful.[pullquote]…people make instantaneous decisions every day. Sometimes, however, a shoot-from-the-hip stance can be destructive . . . and this is where critical thinking comes into play.[/pullquote]

Based on prior knowledge, need, or experience, people make instantaneous decisions every day. Sometimes, however, a shoot-from-the-hip stance can be destructive. A more thoughtful or even formal approach may be in order, and this is where critical thinking comes into play.

If a person has a crucial decision ahead, they need to determine if they have enough information to reach a truly informed opinion on the matter. Where might they find the information they need? How critical is their decision to other people? Could their lack of information be harmful to others? Are there other sources or their own experience that might change their first or second opinion? Do they need the advice of an expert?

All options should be considered before a difficult decision is made.

In order for a valid decision to be reached there must also be some principles, standards, or truths a person can firmly rely on to test the decision against. It does no good to reach a selfish or pragmatic decision that causes a person to go against those truths he or she may hold dear. No one wishes to be foolish in their decisions.

The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gave a standard of truth for all when he said:

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what is not true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

Read that again, carefully. Can a person be fooled in any other way?

If the truth will make us free, then it is also true that we become slaves to the lies we believe. Believing what is not true is easy and lazy, it requires no critical or even lateral thinking at all. A person simply accepts ideas because someone else said or wrote them. If a man or woman believes what is not true, they are implicit in their own slavery.

Note that the second part of Kierkegaard’s proposition requires active participation, a person must refuse to believe what is true. It takes an act of will, a deliberate turning away from the search for truth, perhaps even a hatred of truth. Those who refuse to believe even when shown the truth, or refuse to tell the truth when they know it, are morally complicit in their own destruction.

Only critical and lateral thinking can give all mankind the necessary tools to walk the winding pathways of life with intelligence and joyful hearts. Keep learning, watch everything, look at differences, make connections in your wonderful brain, and always search for Truth.

May a few lines sung by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, lead your feet and mine:

For still there are so many things
That I have never seen;
In every wood, in every spring,
There is a different green.


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12 Responses to How Critical is Critical Thinking?

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Hey, thanks for the plug. I wish I could remember which book or books I’ve read on networks and intelligence. I know that one of them was Frank Vertosick’s The Genius Within, which yours truly reviewed.

    There was another book in particular that talked about neural networks, how they work, their fault tolerance, etc. Maybe our official statistician and librarian, Timothy, can help us out.

    As for the subject of critical thinking, I like what you wrote. We must indeed “Keep learning, watch everything, look at differences, make connections in your wonderful brain, and always search for Truth.”

    But that’s based on the iffy premise that casting away old untruths, prejudices, and biases is a good thing. Many people, however, are so attached to their constructed and well-trained view of things that it is not desirable to learn new things and to cast off false beliefs. It may, in fact, be highly advantageous to keep hold of false beliefs and paradigms.

    They say that the act of becoming a true Christian means losing your life in order to find it. For a social species in which there is the centrality of ego and of reputations built up over time, it is no small thing to lose your life in order to find a new one. And in terms of critical thinking, it is perhaps not much less of a task for people to lose their biases and misconceptions, for doing so (think of a typical Californian, for instance) is potentially a huge change in who you are. If you don’t believe the lies, conceits, and misconceptions of those around you, you may no longer fit in.

    Truth is a harsh taskmaster. Everyone says they like truth, but the fact is that it is far easier to just say you are for it, for who wants to say that they are for ignorance? But, in practice, many are for just that.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’m afraid neural networking isn’t one of my interests, though I can recommend a number of works by Stephen Pinker that relate to cognition (and language, which is how I came across him initially).

      As for keeping old (false) beliefs, it’s ironic that liberals do this. First they reflexively reject the genuine old beliefs just because they’re old traditions; then they create their own new ones, which they never check against reality. Given their hostility to comparing ideology to reality, they probably know deep down that their ideology is unworkable, but they’re emotionally committed to it, and thus incapable of giving up their folly.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    A perfect example of refusing to believe what is true is the way liberals who claim to be pro-science refuse to be aware of the weakness of some of their allegedly scientific theories, such as the failure of the evidence to support catastrophic global warming. They have enough awareness of the facts to change their term to “climate change”, and more recently (probably when too many people realized that climate is always changing, so that stopping it is akin to Canute trying to stop the waves) to “climate disruption”. But they refuse to be aware of what this actually means for their theory.

  3. Anniel says:

    Truth is indeed a harsh taskmaster, particularly when it leads you directly back to yourself. That “pain”, if you will, is in the end the only thing that saves us. Losing our lives in order to find them. Wish I had thought more on that over the years, now I’ll have more to consider in the middle of the night.

  4. Rosalys says:

    Note that the second part of Kierkegaard’s proposition requires active participation, a person must refuse to believe what is true. It takes an act of will, a deliberate turning away from the search for truth, perhaps even a hatred of truth. Those who refuse to believe even when shown the truth, or refuse to tell the truth when they know it, are morally complicit in their own destruction.

    Yup. Whether out of fear (the truth being too awful to contemplate), or ambition (the truth gets in the way of what I want), or just being set in one’s beliefs and being unwilling to ever consider that there may be more information out there, too often ignorance is entirely volitional.

    I have a friend who is just so convinced of “climate change” (she used to believe in “global warming” but changed her vocabulary with the official change in terminology. I haven’t heard “climate disruption” yet! Thanks for the heads up – I’ll be listening for that one!) She has her “facts” and talking points and nothing I or anyone else can do or say makes any difference. She states emphatically that ALL scientists agree that “climate change for the worse” is happening, so I send her a list of over 100 scientists – which can easily be found in a 10 second Google search – who have not signed onto this bogus theory. She comes back with nothing but a change of tactic or topic, but more usually with silence.

    My brother spent an hour and a half arguing with my cousin (who is an engineer and should know better) that even if the entire Antarctic ice pack should melt, there shouldn’t be much impact upon the sea levels because of displacement. She had nothing new to offer; only the party line and the approved talking points.

    Collectivism really is all encompassing. Progressives really do all think the same. They have a diversity of vocabulary to describe their very few dogmatic ideas so as to derail any arguments you may have. Then they are all about nuance to disguise a lack of imagination. Liberty minded folk are more like cats which you are trying to herd.

    Right versus Left. Progressive versus Conservative. Our brains really are different. It is a fact that the amygdala in liberty minded folk is larger.

    • Pokey Possum says:

      “Our brains really are different. It is a fact that the amygdala in liberty minded folk is larger.”

      Is there then, no hope to change these people from emotional thinkers to critical thinkers?

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        The issue of Left/right has little or nothing to do with brain physiology. It has to do with culture. It depends what you’ve been brought up to believe. It depends somewhat upon what the people around you believe. It depends upon what is perceived as being in one’s immediate interest to believe. It depends upon what kind of overt indoctrination via emotional and intellectual manipulation one has undergone. And it depends somewhat upon one’s own acquisitiveness vs. acquiescence.

        Everybody’s got to be somewhere. There is no position that I know of that is free from bias, misconception, or just plain cultural affectations.

        The greatest shapers of culture are arguable our education system, mainstream news media, and popular mass culture (particularly television). And they are shaping a Leftist/Progressive/radical materialist culture that is thin and not deep. And we’re very much getting to the point where you could say that the state religion is some kind of mix of Marxism, environmentalism, and race- and gender-based tribalism.

        Critical thinking is important. But I have yet to witness where thinking alone can move someone to another position. Usually it is a crisis or gathering maturity that leads to a fundamental change of beliefs.

        The idea of critical thinking itself constitutes somewhat of a subculture. It’s the idea that one will willingly look outside one’s own ingrained beliefs at other evidence. This is by no means a typical human outlook. It doesn’t mean accepting any evidence at face value, for life is generally too complicated and untrustworthy for us to change views in a flash…unless that flash unambiguously clear and important. But it does mean due skepticism.

        At the end of the day, it matters very little if we humans are right. It matters most if we can function in our world. And that world we get from our culture. And thus the question becomes how cultures are changed, for better or for worse. And, ironically, “critical thinking” can be used as a weapon, as it has by the Marxists in what is called Critical Theory. It’s the means of undermining present beliefs by introducing doubt that is dressed up in half-truths (and sometimes outright lies), but is given the form of serious thought. True, it’s the bastardization of thinking, but the idea of examining something isn’t inherently without problems. Without an underlying reasonableness and sense of proportion, “thinking” can be destructive.

        And this brings up another point: Life is not an equation to be solved. There is no rational line of thought leading to the good life. Many things are completely a matter of chance, choice, and fashion. If Canadians like ice hockey and Americans like baseball, does critical thinking even apply?

        Still, the concept of critical thinking (otherwise known as common-sense skepticism) is something our culture is severely lacking. People have gotten into the habit of trusting whatever anointed (by Progressivism) authority has to say. And what a great bit of indoctrination this has been, for to question this authority is to automatically paint yourelf as a racist, sexist, homophobe, or polluter of the planet.

        Can critical self-examination be the answer to this cult programing of Progressivism? It can certainly help. But it’s like bailing out the Titanic with a teacup. The wash of vapid Progressive culture comes streaming in through the idiot box, the media, and the education establishment to swamp such small efforts. And it’s getting to the point where the enculturation/programming is so thick, there are few left who have much of a bearing rooted in anything but this vapid cultural soup. We see that in the GOP and in many of the supposedly conservative columnists at National Review.

        • “Usually it is a crisis or gathering maturity that leads to a fundamental change of beliefs.”

          That is usually the case that forces some individuals to change what they have believed for years.

          “Everybody’s got to be somewhere. There is no position that I know of that is free from bias, misconception, or just plain cultural affectations.”

          Whenever I think about what kind of a person that I would be today if I had not left the environment that I was raised in, I get almost paralyzed with fear. I most certainly would not be a conservative nor a critical thinker. I might not even be a born again Christian which is the most important event(life transforming) that happened in my life.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            It can be interesting to figure out where critical thinking comes from. I certainly didn’t start out as a skeptical sort, but various events in high school led me to become more skeptical about what I’d been told. At some point, it all clicked. And if those few little incidents (including a humorous comment from a friend, which made an interesting point) hadn’t happened?

      • Rosalys says:

        Of course there is hope! There is always hope! The amygdala is that part of the brain which alerts one to and assesses danger. It can be developed. No one is born knowing that fire can be dangerous and that it hurts to touch a hot stove. Some learn by trusting their parent when they are told the stove is hot, but most of us learn by touching the hot stove (I’m one of those!) The school yard bully behaves like a school yard bully until some one decides he’s had enough and beats the tar out of him. Real life develops the amygdala.

        A year ago I never heard of the amygdala. I came across this website, The Anonymous Conservative.
        This guy explains r/K Selection Theory and I must say it does explain a lot of what is going on today. It helps to make sense of why civilizations become great and then collapse. Bill Whittle does a great job explaining r/K in this video beginning at minute 59.
        This episode is a nice fanciful look into a possible extreme r/K future.

        r/K doesn’t explain everything. Rabbits are pretty despicable, but there is a little rabbit in everyone; and while it’s better, more noble to be a wolf, it doesn’t completely satisfy. There is something missing. Something to temper the wolves and give courage to the rabbits. That something is Christianity. That someone is Jesus Christ. And that is why I can say there is always hope.

        But left and right DO think differently. And Christians and Pagans DO think differently. And people who take psychotropic drugs DO think differently than those who don’t (it’s a fact that these drugs alter your brain and it can take a year or two of being off them before your thinking clears up.) Living in a reality based “world” as opposed to Fantasy Land does develop your amygdala and change your brain. But most of all the Holy Spirit can and will change your world view and your thinking if you will allow Him to.

        There is hope. There is always hope.

  5. Timothy Lane says:

    Looking over the article and responses, it seems to me that the crucial aspect is simple: always place your trust in your own judgment. For example, Rush Limbaugh in 2004 mentioned that one of the on-line liberal journals (Salon or Slate) had wondered why Democrats were stampeding to John Fresno Kerry after the first primary or two despite their distinct lack of enthusiasm for his empty suit. The article then pointed to a 1950s psychological experiment involving people deciding which of a set of lines was longest. In reality, only one participant was being tested; the others were in effect actors in the test, deliberately picking a line that wasn’t the longest. Many people, facing such disagreement, would switch to the “consensus” choice, believing the majority over their own eyes and judgment. I think this is a very liberal attitude, as long as the group they’re surrendering their mind to is an “acceptable” one. A true conservative (or libertarian, probably) would never do this (though many Randians did surrender their personal judgment to Ayn Rand’s authority, ironically).

    A key aspect of this is knowing how to judge arguments. One reason I have so little use for liberal views is that their arguments rely heavily on denouncing those who disagree with them as racist/sexist/”homophobic” etc., or on demanding that those who disagree with shut up (or have their views suppressed), or in claiming that some “authority” has decided the matter (without explaining what proof there is for their view, of course). Not only are such arguments unpersuasive, but they tend to make me especially skeptical of their conclusions. (By contrast, many liberals seem to reason backwards: if they agree with the conclusion, then the argument must be a good one.)

  6. Pingback: A Case For Critical Thinking | Patricia's Corner

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