On the Importance of Critical Thinking & Reasoning Well

August 19, 2022

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“I think, therefore I am,” – Rene Descarte

Critical thinking is a rational cognitive process for arriving at dependable judgments and formative understanding. It provides intellectual tools for determining the reliability of information and sources while ascertaining the legitimacy of conclusions drawn from available data to support an argument or position. The ability to ask the right questions and reason well is not an innate intellectual process: deductive and inductive reasoning skills, including the ability to recognize and understand the fallacies and biases often employed in faulty argumentative discourse (and why they are employed), is a multi-dimensional cognitive and discursive process that must be learned.

Critical thinking isn’t acquired passively by simply reading sound-bites of information meant for easy consumption. Reliable reasoning is a skill that you actually have to work at doing well: it’s an active process of thinking, analyzing, and deliberately arriving at understanding. If you’re unwilling to learn how to do it well, your sense of entitlement to an opinion is undeserved.

That last sentence was an actual opinion: it expressed a judgment. Opinions express a preference or a judgment. I cannot say this enough: being factually inaccurate is not an opinion; it simply means that you are wrong. That is lesson Number One: you won’t be able to handle anything beyond this point if you cannot wrap your head around that reality.

There is so much misinformation filled with brazen inaccuracies and emotional manipulation on social & entertainment media websites and television that requires you learn how to weed through the bullshit. Everyone is full of shit at some point on any given day: learn how to spot it. From representing half-truths to disregarding pertinent details and indulging the need to spin a fanciful yarn, to the more harmful gaslighting and flat-out lying in order to sow discord and twist an experience of reality to fit a purposeful narrative, representations of reality should not simply be accepted as Truth because an argument supports your already established feelings and belief systems. Question everything, even when it annoys the hell out of people that you do so.

I enjoy annoying the hell out of people when I question everything. I am admittedly full of shit on occasion as well: the difference, for the most part, is that I am aware of it and own it with a stated caveat that I could just be making shit up. But there’s a time and a place for my bullshit, and the time for critical analysis is not a place in which I find bullshit to be reasonably allocated.

In an effort to further the virtual process of reasoning well, and encourage folks to read, allow me to reference an introductory text in critical thinking about social issues: Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, Eight Edition, by M. Neil Browne & Stuart M. Keeley (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007).  I believe the publishing of this text is currently up to its 12th edition, but this is the latest edition that I have readily available, and still works as a worthy introduction to the subject of critical thinking for the purpose of this exercise. This is the sort of material you would encounter in 200-level undergraduate coursework, after you’ve been primed with a survey of disciplinary language and concepts; it is a rudimentary introduction meant to survey the land of critical thinking skills and is written in an accessible manner. You may likely find a free copy of its older editions online in portable document format (.pdf) for further study.

Since effective learning takes time, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to engage something new with an open mind and potential discomfort, providing a protracted and intensive lesson while keeping your full attention is unlikely. So let’s start this abbreviated didactic adventure by asking why you should engage in critical thinking: why is it important to learn how to arrive at a reliable understanding rather than simply accepting and parroting the opinions of someone else?

Fairly, if you want to mouth off about shit, then you should make sure that your opinion is actually your own, that you had some sort of active role in constructing it, and that you’ve effectively evaluated whatever talking points you’ve determined are worth appropriating in sharing it.

In the introductory chapter, Browne & Keeley write, “As a thoughtful person you must make a choice about how you will react to what you see and hear. One alternative is to just accept whatever you encounter: doing so automatically results in your making someone else’s opinion your own. A more active alternative consists of asking questions in an effort to reach a personal decision about the worth of what you have experienced.”

Being an active participant in determining the legitimacy of another’s opinions or beliefs about an issue allows for two things: it allows you to be thoughtful in arriving at a more formative understanding of an issue, which means you do not simply accept and/or react to information; it also allows you to understand the manner in which others construct their opinions about an issue as well. While the former is about increasing one’s own personal comprehension of and response to an issue, the latter tends to reveal implicit beliefs that others hold about the world.

According to Brown & Keeley, there are two different ways of thinking: the first is when you simply absorb the information around you in a passive manner. While this may be an effective way to assimilate a lot of basic information by simple exposure and remembering, rote memorization doesn’t provide you with any skills to determine what information is useful and worth accepting or believing, nor what information is dubious and should likely be further questioned, rejected or dismissed.

Too many people simply absorb whatever information is thrown at them, processing what fits their current narrative needs without considering whether or not it is worthy of belief, while filtering or ignoring anything that does not fit, which is a problem if you’re genuinely concerned about arriving at reliable conclusions. Believing the things that you simply wish to believe are true may reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, but will not lead to a more viable understanding and accurate assessment of a situation, issue, or experience.

The second way of thinking requires that you are active and thereby more selective in appraising the value of the information to which you are listening or reading to determine its worth. This is necessarily more work and requires you have critical tools for understanding the value of information, including those that help you determine how information is presented and supported by materiality.

The passive approach to learning is effective for broad knowledge acquisition and remembering information; the active approach to learning requires critical interaction with information to determine its value, significance, reliability, and consequence.

We desperately need to work on the skills for taking an active approach to learning, but first we’ll need to address issues of bias and prejudice to understand how we all arrive at any issue with a personal, cultural and social history that impacts our acumen: a pot filled with experiences that everything new falls into before we ever really get a chance or the time to look at it.

Dealing with our biases and prejudices is one of the more difficult components of reasoning well. People can have all the data and facts available to them about an issue, be armed with the necessary skills for critical analysis, and still arrive at faulty conclusions. So if we’re serious about critical thinking, we’ll need to take some personal inventory before we get started to expose the beliefs we harbor that may very well get in the way of thinking critically. Understanding and addressing biases can help you arrive at reliable judgments in spite of, and perhaps because of, those biases.

Let’s define the terms before we use them: creating a working definition of terminology for the purpose of any academic exercise is one of the requirements of decent scholarship.

Prejudice is a learned behavior from social experiences that results in feelings, attitudes, and value-formation.

In pedestrian usage, prejudice is often perceived as a negative association or evaluation of people or experiences, and is sometimes viewed as unfounded or irrational. I believe it is problematic to apply those ideas if we’re making an attempt at any sense of impartiality in arriving at a definition. When considering co-morbid human behaviors that arise alongside and often as a consequence of prejudice, we can likely agree that reflexive prejudgment is problematic, but let’s keep the definition simple and without decidedly questionable presumption.

The point is that we all arrive at any given situation with a history, which makes understanding your prejudices crucial to navigating the roadblocks we all construct that interfere with our ability to reason well. Understanding our own prejudices assists in revealing how we arrive at or create biases.

Biases are beliefs (favoring, indifferent, or oppositional) arising from preconceptions formed through prejudices.

Biases can either impede or encourage consideration. As a consequence of prejudice, biases thereby reveal positionality: an inclination for understanding, believing, and empathizing; a propensity for ignorance, indifference, and apathy; or a tendency for incredulity, mistrust, and hostility.

What does this mean? Given the pervasive cultural lack of critical thinking skills, it often means that the opinions and judgments people hold about an issue, situation, experience, or other people says more about them than it does about what or whom is actually being evaluated. A lamentable conclusion is how it reveals that people may willingly sit firmly lodged in their own bullshit rather than understand other people and the world around them if it means loosening the grip their troubling, misguided, and erroneous beliefs have on them. Moving beyond these intellectual obstacles is imperative: encouraging intellectual curiosity and reducing discord through understanding are admirable goals for subjective human experience; nevertheless, the continuation of our very existence may depend upon it.

“Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt” (Men willingly believe what they wish to be true).

– Gaius Julius Caeser

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