Saturday, April 16, 2011

Critical Thinking, a Necessary Tool

This article is a prelude to the article entitled A Logical Worldview.

Please read also:  Natural Law and Conscience 

Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we contribute to the world depends on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. It is based on universal intellectual values that are required for any science: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components:

1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and
2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide beliefs and behavior.

It is thus to be contrasted with:

1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone;
2) the mere possession of a set of skills; and
3) the mere use of those skills.

These three points do not, in themselves, make one a true critical thinker.  A true critical thinker is intellectually honest.  Firstly, he not only acquires and retains knowledge, but does so by seeking and treating that knowledge in a particular way, using particular skills.  Secondly, not only does he possess these skills, but he continually and consciously makes use of them, ever mindful to improve his ability to do so.  Thirdly, and most importantly, he not only uses the skills, but he is ready to accept the results of doing so, and modify his beliefs and actions as reason dictates.

No matter how skilled critical thinkers are, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they are still liable to fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest, though they strive to eliminate these as much as possible from their thinking.

The Result

A well cultivated critical thinker:

1) works diligently to develop intellectual integrity,  humility, civility, empathy, sense of justice and confidence in reason;
2) raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
3) gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively and comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
4) thinks with an open mind within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems;

Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires the ability to:

1) recognize problems and find workable means for meeting those problems;
2) gather and prioritize pertinent information;
3) recognize unstated assumptions and values;
4) comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination;
5) interpret data, appraise evidence and evaluate arguments;
6) recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions;
7) draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives;
8) reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native ego-centrism and socio-centrism, and render due service to truth.

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