S-1 Thinking Independently
Principle: Critical thinking is independent thinking, thinking for oneself. Many of our beliefs are acquired at an early age, when we have a strong tendency to form beliefs for irrational reasons (because we want to believe, because we are praised or rewarded for believing). Critical thinkers use critical skills and insights to reveal and reject beliefs that are irrational.
In forming new beliefs, critical thinkers do not passively accept the beliefs of others; rather, they try to figure things out for themselves, reject unjustified authorities, and recognize the contributions of genuine authorities. They thoughtfully form principles of thought and action; they do not mindlessly accept those presented to them. Nor are they unduly influenced by the language of another.
If they find that a set of categories or distinctions is more appropriate than that used by another, they will use it. Recognizing that categories serve human purposes, they use those categories which best serve their purpose at the time. They are not limited by accepted ways of doing things. They evaluate both goals and how to achieve them. They do not accept as true, or reject as false, beliefs they do not understand. They are not easily manipulated.
Independent thinkers strive to incorporate all known relevant knowledge and insight into their thought and behavior. They strive to determine for themselves when information is relevant, when to apply a concept, or when to make use of a skill. They are self-monitoring: they catch their own mistakes; they don't need to be told what to do every step of the way.
S-2 Developing Insight Into Egocentricity or Sociocentricity
Principle: Egocentricity means confusing what we see and think with reality. When under the influence of egocentricity, we think that the way we see things is exactly the way things are. Egocentricity manifests itself as an inability or unwillingness to consider others' points of view, a refusal to accept ideas or facts which would prevent us from getting what we want (or think we want).
In its extreme forms, it is characterized by a need to be right about everything, a lack of interest in consistency and clarity, an all or nothing attitude ("I am 100% right; you are 100% wrong."), and a lack of self-consciousness of one's own thought processes. The egocentric individual is more concerned with the appearance of truth, fairness, and fairmindedness, than with actually being correct, fair, or fairminded. Egocentricity is the opposite of critical thought. It is common in adults as well as in children.
As people are socialized, egocentricity partly evolves into sociocentricity. Egocentric tendencies extend to their groups. The individual goes from "I am right!" to "We are right!" To put this another way, people find that they can often best satisfy their egocentric desires through a group.
"Group think" results when people egocentrically attach themselves to a group. One can see this in both children and adults: My daddy is better than your daddy! My school (religion, country, race, etc.) is better than yours. Uncritical thinkers often confuse loyalty with always supporting and agreeing, even when the other person or the group is wrong.
If egocentricity and sociocentricity are the disease, self-awareness is the cure. We need to become aware of our own tendency to confuse our view with "The Truth". People can often recognize when someone else is egocentric. Most of us can identify the sociocentricity of members of opposing groups. Yet when we ourselves are thinking egocentrically or sociocentrically, it seems right to us (at least at the time).
Our belief in our own rightness is easier to maintain because we ignore the faults in our thinking. We automatically hide our egocentricity from ourselves. We fail to notice when our behavior contradicts our self-image. We base our reasoning on false assumptions we are unaware of making. We fail to make relevant distinctions (of which we are otherwise aware and able to make) when making them prevents us from getting what we want. We deny or conveniently "forget" facts that do not support our conclusions. We often misunderstand or distort what others say.
The solution, then, is to reflect on our reasoning and behavior; to make our beliefs explicit, critique them, and, when they are false, stop making them; to apply the same concepts in the same ways to ourselves and others; to consider every relevant fact, and to make our conclusions consistent with the evidence; and to listen carefully and openmindedly to others.
We can change egocentric tendencies when we see them for what they are: irrational and unjust. The development of children's awareness of their egocentric and sociocentric patterns of thought is a crucial part of education in critical thinking. This development will be modest at first but can grow considerably over time.
S-3 Exercising Fairmindedness
Principle: To think critically, we must be able to consider the strengths and weaknesses of opposing points of view; to imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them; to overcome our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions or long-standing thought or belief.
This trait is linked to the ability to accurately reconstruct the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also requires the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, as well as the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case at hand. Critical thinkers realize the unfairness of judging unfamiliar ideas until they fully understand them.
The world consists of many societies and peoples with many different points of view and ways of thinking. To develop as reasonable persons, we need to enter into and think within the frameworks and ideas of different peoples and societies.
We cannot truly understand the world if we think about it only from one viewpoint, as Americans, as Italians, or as Soviets. Furthermore, critical thinkers recognize that their behavior affects others, and so consider their behavior from the perspective of those others.
S-4 Exploring Thoughts Underlying Feelings and Feelings Underlying Thoughts
Principle: Although it is common to separate thought and feeling as though they were independent, opposing forces in the human mind, the truth is that virtually all human feelings are based on some level of thought and virtually all thought generative of some level of feeling. To think with self-understanding and insight, we must come to terms with the intimate connections between thought and feeling, reason and emotion.
Critical thinkers realize that their feelings are their response (but not the only possible, or even necessarily the most reasonable response) to a situation. They know that their feelings would be different if they had a different understanding or interpretation of the situation.
They recognize that thoughts and feelings, far from being different kinds of "things", are two aspects of their responses. Uncritical thinkers see little or no relationship between their feelings and their thoughts, and so escape responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Their own feelings often seem unintelligible to them.
When we feel sad or depressed, it is often because we are interpreting our situation in an overly negative or pessimistic light. We may be forgetting to consider positive aspects of our lives.
We can better understand our feelings by asking ourselves, "How have I come to feel this way? How am I looking at the situation? To what conclusion have I come? What is my evidence? What assumptions am I making? What inferences am I making? Are they sound inferences? Do my conclusions make sense? Are there other ways to interpret this situation?"
We can learn to seek patterns in our assumptions, and so begin to see the unity behind our separate emotions. Understanding ourselves is the first step toward self-control and self-improvement. This self-understanding requires that we understand our feelings and emotions in relation to our thoughts, ideas, and interpretations of the world.
S-5 Developing Intellectual Humility and Suspending Judgment
Principle: Critical thinkers recognize the limits of their knowledge. They are sensitive to circumstances in which their native egocentricity is likely to function self-deceptively; they are sensitive to bias, prejudice, and limitations of their views. Intellectual humility is based on the recognition that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness.
It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, arrogance, or conceit. It implies insight into the foundations of one's beliefs: knowing what evidence one has, how one has come to believe, what further evidence one might look for or examine. Thus, critical thinkers distinguish what they know from what they don't know. They are not afraid of saying "I don't know" when they are not in a position to be sure.
They can make this distinction because they habitually ask themselves, "How could one know whether or not this is true?" To say "In this case I must suspend judgment until I find out x and y", does not make them anxious or uncomfortable. They are willing to rethink conclusions in the light of new knowledge. They qualify their claims appropriately.
In exposing children to concepts within a field of knowledge, we can help them see how all concepts depend on other, more basic concepts and how each field is based on fundamental assumptions which need to be examined, understood, and justified. The class should often explore the connections between specific details and basic concepts or principles. We can help children discover experiences in their own lives which help support or justify what a text says. We should always be willing to entertain student doubts about what a text says. Judgment
S-6 Developing Intellectual Courage
Principle: To think independently and fairly, one must feel the need to face and fairly deal with unpopular ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints. The courage to do so arises when we see that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions or beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading.
To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically accept what we have "learned". We need courage to admit the truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and the distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. It will take courage to be true to our own thinking, for honestly questioning our deeply held beliefs can be difficult and sometimes frightening, and the penalties for non-conformity are often severe. Judgment
S-7 Developing Intellectual Good Faith or Integrity
Principle: Critical thinkers recognize the need to be true to their own thought, to be consistent in the intellectual standards they apply, to hold themselves to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which they hold others, to practice what they advocate for others, and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in their own thought and action. They believe most strongly what has been justified by their own thought and analyzed experience.
They have a commitment to bringing the self they are and the self they want to be together. People in general are often inconsistent in their application of standards once their ego is involved positively or negatively. For instance, when people like us, we tend to over-estimate their positive characteristics; when they dislike us, we tend to underrate them
S-8 Developing Intellectual Perseverance
Principle: Becoming a more critical thinker is not easy. It takes time and effort. Critical thinking is reflective and recursive; that is, we often think back to previous problems to re-consider or re-analyze them. Critical thinkers are willing to pursue intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations.
They recognize the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over time in order to achieve deeper understanding and insight. They recognize that significant change requires patience and hard work. Important issues often require extended thought, research, struggle. Considering a new view takes time. Yet people are often impatient to "get on with it" when they most need to slow down and think carefully.
People rarely define issues or problems clearly; concepts are often left vague; related issues are not sorted out, etc. When people don't understand a problem or situation, their reactions and solutions often compound the original problem. Children need to gain insight into the need for intellectual perseverance.
S-9 Developing Confidence in Reason
Principle: The rational person recognizes the power of reason and the value of disciplining thinking in accordance with rational standards. Virtually all of the progress that has been made in science and human knowledge testifies to this power, and so to the reasonability of having confidence in reason.
To develop this faith in reason is to come to see that ultimately one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will best be served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions through a process of developing their own rational faculties.
It is to reject force and trickery as standard ways of changing another's mind. It is to believe that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can develop the ability to think for themselves, to form reasonable points of view, draw reasonable conclusions, think clearly and logically, persuade each other by reason and, ultimately, become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.
This confidence is essential to building a democracy in which people come to genuine rule, rather than being manipulated by the mass media, special interests, or by the inner prejudices, fears, and irrationalities that so easily and commonly dominate human minds.
You should note that the act of faith we are recommending is not blind faith, but should be tested in everyday experiences and academic work. In other words, we should have confidence in reason because reason works. Confidence in reason does not deny the reality of intuition; rather, it provides a way of distinguishing intuition from prejudice. When we know the source of our thinking and keep our minds open to new reason and evidence, we will be more likely to correct our prejudiced thought.
At the heart of this principle of faith in reason is the desire to make sense of the world and the expectation that sense can be made. Texts often don't make sense to children, sometimes because what they say doesn't make sense, more often because children aren't given time to make sense out of what they are told.
Being continually called upon to "master" what seems nonsensical undermines the feeling that one can make sense of the world. Many children, rushed through mountains of material, give up on this early. ("If I try to make sense of this, I'll never finish. Trying to really understand just slows me down. Nobody expects me to make sense of this; they just want me to do it.")
S-10 Refining Generalizations and Avoiding Oversimplifications
Principle: It is natural to seek to simplify problems and experiences to make them easier to deal with. Everyone does this. However, the uncritical thinker often oversimplifies and as a result misrepresents problems and experiences.
What should be recognized as complex, intricate, ambiguous, or subtle is viewed as simple, elementary, clear, and obvious. For example, it is typically an oversimplification to view people or groups as all good or all bad, actions as always right or always wrong, one contributing factor as the cause, etc., and yet such beliefs are common.
Critical thinkers try to find simplifying patterns and solutions, but not by misrepresentation or distortion. Seeing the difference between useful simplifications and misleading oversimplifications is important to critical thinking.
Critical thinkers scrutinize generalizations, probe for possible exceptions, and then use appropriate qualifications. Critical thinkers are not only clear, but also exact and precise. One of the strongest tendencies of the egocentric, uncritical mind is to see things in terms of black and white, "all right" and "all wrong". Hence, beliefs which should be held with varying degrees of certainty are held as certain. Critical thinkers are sensitive to this problem.
They understand the important relationship of evidence to belief and so qualify their statements accordingly. The tentativeness of many of their beliefs is characterized by the appropriate use of such qualifiers as 'highly likely', 'probably', 'not very likely', 'highly unlikely', 'often', 'usually', 'seldom', 'I doubt', 'I suspect', 'most', 'many', and 'some'.
S-11 Comparing Analogous Situations: Transferring Insights to New Contexts
Principle: An idea's power is limited by our ability to use it. Critical thinkers' ability to use ideas mindfully enhances their ability to transfer ideas critically. They practice using ideas and insights by appropriately applying them to new situations. This allows them to organize materials and experiences in different ways, to compare and contrast alternative labels, to integrate their understanding of different situations, and to find useful ways to think about new situations.
Every time we use an insight or principle, we increase our understanding of both the insight and the situation to which we have applied it. True education provides for more than one way to organize material. For example, history can be organized in our minds by geography, chronology, or by such phenomena as repeated patterns, common situations, analogous "stories", and so on. The truly educated person is not trapped by one organizing principle, but can take knowledge apart and put it together many different ways. Each way of organizing knowledge has some benefit.
S-12 Developing One's Perspective: Creating or Exploring Beliefs, Arguments, or Theories
Principle: The world is not given to us sliced up into categories with pre-assigned labels on them. There are always many ways to "divide up" and so experience the world. How we do so is essential to our thinking and behavior. Uncritical thinkers assume that their perspective on things is the only correct one. Selfish critical thinkers manipulate the perspectives of others to gain advantage for themselves.
Fairminded critical thinkers learn to recognize that their own ways of thinking and that of all other perspectives are some combination of insight and error. They learn to develop their points of view through a critical analysis of their experience.
They learn to question commonly accepted ways of understanding things and avoid uncritically accepting the viewpoints of their peers or society. They know what their perspectives are and can talk insightfully about them. To do this, they must create and explore their own beliefs, their own reasoning, and their own theories.
S-13 Clarifying Issues, Conclusions, or Beliefs
Principle: The more completely, clearly, and accurately an issue or statement is formulated, the easier and more helpful the discussion of its settlement or verification. Given a clear statement of an issue, and prior to evaluating conclusions or solutions, it is important to recognize what is required to settle it. And before we can agree or disagree with a claim, we must understand it clearly.
It makes no sense to say "I don't know what you mean, but I deny it, whatever it is." Critical thinkers recognize problematic claims, concepts, and standards of evaluation, making sure that understanding precedes judgment. They routinely distinguish facts from interpretations, opinions, judgments, or theories. They can then raise those questions most appropriate to understanding and evaluating each.
S-14 Clarifying and Analyzing The Meanings of Words or Phrases
Principle: Critical, independent thinking requires clarity of thought. A clear thinker understands concepts and knows what kind of evidence is required to justify applying a word or phrase to a situation. The ability to supply a definition is not proof of understanding. One must be able to supply clear, obvious examples and use the concept appropriately. In contrast, for an unclear thinker, words float through the mind unattached to clear, specific, concrete cases. Distinct concepts are confused.
Often the only criterion for the application of a term is that the case in question "seems like" an example. Irrelevant associations are confused with what are necessary parts of the concept (e.g., "Love involves flowers and candlelight.") Unclear thinkers lack independence of thought because they lack the ability to analyze a concept, and so critique its use.
To critically think requires four skills. What are they?
“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” Job 12:11
What if someone assigned you the task of building an elaborate mahogany executive desk? What if they gave you the materials, and the tools, but you lacked the skills with which to do so? Chances are you would not be able to complete the mission successfully, unless you first learn the skills of carpentry. In much the same way, as Christians we are tasked with the mission of engaging our culture and the ideas it promotes. Jesus tells us to be “the light of the world.” We are tasked with the mission of standing up for truth and confronting deception. Paul instructs us to “demolish arguments” and to “demolish strongholds.” But how can we succeed if we lack the skills necessary to accomplish the task? The key is found in Peter’s exhortation to engage the culture, “always be prepared…” We must make it a priority to acquire the skills we need to successfully “give an answer to anyone who demands a reason for the hope that lies within us.”
Engaging culture requires critical thinking! We must be able to evaluate arguments and truth claims. We must be able to overcome personal prejudices and biases. We must be able to formulate good arguments. And we must be able to make intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do. These are the four dimensions of critical thinking.
1. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO EVALUATE ARGUMENTS AND TRUTH CLAIMS.
As Christians we are constantly being bombarded with dangerous and often antagonistic truth claims and we need to be able to identify, analyze and evaluate these claims, prior to accepting them as true. Atheist professors constantly bombard students with truth claims that are hostile to God, Christ, the Bible, etc,. Non-Christian friends and family often attempt to persuade us to abandon our faith in response to their arguments. Newspaper articles, magazines, websites and blogs are constantly striving to persuade us with truth claims that may or may not be true. We need to be able to break these arguments down and evaluate them objectively in order to embrace only those claims which we find to be true.
Sadly, as we observed in the Galatian church, Christians are often ill-equipped to critically evaluate arguments and truth claims. It is far easier to accept an idea that “sounds good” or “feels right” than it is to carefully and logically evaluate it. Unfortunately, deceptive ideas are often packaged to sound or feel good. When one considers the temptations of Christ, it is easy to see that the ideas sounded good. If you haven’t eaten in 40 days, doesn’t it “sound good” to turn the stones in to bread and have plenty to eat? These temptations by the enemy probably felt right, yet they were meant to destroy Christ and completely derail his mission. Fortunately, Christ did not allow himself to be deceived by these ideas. Instead, he exercised impeccable critical thinking skills and completely debunked the false ideas.
2. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO OVERCOME PERSONAL PREJUDICES AND BIASES.
A secondary benefit that also comes in handy when one learns the basics of critical thinking is the ability to identify our own prejudices and biases as they affect our ability to evaluate truth claims. There are a number of ways in which these biases manifest themselves. Sometimes we really want something to be true because it would benefit us greatly. I think this is what got to Adam and Eve. The idea of being like God, of whom they were in awe, sounded amazing. Imagine what they could do it they were like God? The deception worked because it offered something that would have been immeasurably beneficial to them.
Other times we may be so inclined to believe the person or organization making a claim, that the claim itself isn’t given due consideration. This is often the case with college students. The tendency is to trust the professors and their knowledge, so much so, that the ideas they present are often accepted without question. If the professor says, “Science has demonstrated that God does not exist,” all too often the response is one of blind acceptance. If the professor says so, than it must be true. When, in fact, the statement is absurd and completely false, as is obvious to anyone with minimal critical thinking skills. Most importantly, it isn’t just the teachings of professors that need to be evaluated, every idea should be given due consideration. Just because the pastor says so, or just because the church says so, it doesn’t make it true. Too many cults have arisen unchallenged because people are unwilling to question what a pastor, teacher, or organizations presents as “truth.”
On other occasions we may fear the consequences of rejecting a truth claim. Whether it’s the student who fears a bad grade if he disagrees with the professor, or the Jehovah Witness who fears excommunication if he is found to disagree with any of the teachings of the Watchtower Press, fear of the consequences plays a key role in our willingness to accept ideas without questioning them. It’s the reason young Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, he feared the consequences of questioning the teachings of his organization. It’s the reason Peter denied even knowing Jesus, he feared the consequences of being considered among those who believed what Jesus taught. Whatever the prejudices and biases may be, they keep us from being objective in our evaluations of truth claims.
3. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO CLEARLY FORMULATE GOOD ARGUMENTS.
Equally important to evaluating truth claims presented by others is our ability to present truth claims of our own in a proper format. We need to be able to communicate the Truth of God’s Word in valid, sound and coherent arguments. Too often, our arguments are weak and our ideas lack the undergirding foundation to withstand critical analysis. When we give conclusions without the supporting arguments, we set ourselves up to be rejected by those who think critically. Our truth claims need to be able to survive the critical analyses of others. This is why Paul was so successful in his presentation of the Gospel and his teachings from God’s Word. He was able to formulate clear strong arguments to support the ideas. Paul’s lecture at Mars Hill is a classic example of his excellent skills in argumentation. Being able to present strong and solid arguments requires a commitment to learning the necessary skills and a willingness to put them into practice.
Some people will still reject our truth claims, even when these are presented in perfectly good arguments, but the rejection won’t stem from objective analysis. Instead, the rejection will often stem from subjective positions, unreasonable stances, or arbitrary choices. The Pharisees and Sadducees were constantly rejecting the solid arguments of Christ. In every confrontation with them, Christ provided amazing and irrefutable arguments that would have been more than sufficient to anyone seeking truth. However, if perfect arguments persuaded all who heard them, then Jesus would have been far more successful in his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, we know that many rejected his truth claims. What must be clearly understood is that those who rejected him had no reasonable or rational basis for their rejection—for his arguments were perfect.
4. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO MAKE INTELLIGENT DECISIONS ABOUT WHAT TO BELIEVE AND WHAT TO DO.
Our lives are full of choices! We make hundreds of choices every day. We know that many of these choices are inconsequential, but there are quite a few that bear an enormous potential for consequences— good or bad. Critical thinking skills provide us with the tools we need to evaluate alternatives and to make better choices. It doesn’t mean all of our choices will be perfect, since we often find ourselves having to make decisions without access to all of the information we need to do so intelligently. Nevertheless, even in those situations, we can minimize the potential for bad consequences and maximize the potential for good ones.
There are numerous examples in the Bible of people that made good choices and people that did not. A great example is found in Joshua’s challenge to the Israelites to “choose ye today whom you will serve.” Joshua presented the alternatives (all of whom had done nothing for Israel) and then he presented his choice, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The choice would have been obvious for anyone with even minimal critical thinking skills. Yet, many chose not to serve the Lord and suffered dearly for their poor choice.
Critical thinking skills are not optional if we desire to live beyond deception. Critical thinking skills are not optional if we desire to fulfill the mission we have been assigned—to engage our culture. In a world gone mad, critical thinking skills provide the foundation and stability to withstand the ideological storms that constantly come our way. We must be able to evaluate arguments and truth claims. We must be able to overcome personal prejudices and biases. We must be able to formulate good arguments. And we must be able to make intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do. These are the four dimensions of critical thinking, and they are not optional for follower of Christ.
Look for our next critical thinking article: Jesus: The Master of Critical Thinking
Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.