I’m dead serious about the title of this little essay. I’ll explain later. The focus of this piece is the need for more and better critical thinking (some of you probably already see the connection to the title).
Interacting on the Web for the last three years—culminating in the last three days—has revealed a severe lack of critical thinking. By “lack of critical thinking,” I do not mean lack of criticism! (As a college friend of mine would say “Nay, verily!”) What I mean by critical thinking here is the discipline of looking at a highly emotional situation and intentionally subjecting claims on all sides to healthy skepticism and—above all—vigorously questioning our own “gut feelings” and reasoning.
I’ve found myself repeatedly wondering, doesn’t anybody believe in critical thinking anymore? I fear our culture has slipped deeply into a tyranny of sentiment. Feelings rule. Calm reflection is for—I don’t know—“elites”? Maybe it’s just for “bad people who don’t care.”
I laughed when the thought occurred to me to write a piece telling people how to think critically. It’s like a guy who heats hotdogs in a microwave telling people how to cook. But the sort of rhetoric flooding the Web (and TV) lately suggests we’ve sunk so low that I may actually be a pretty good source of expertise on the subject. So here it is.
This item is probably less about “how to” and more about “why to.” Volumes could be written (and, no doubt, have) answering the question, “why should we value critical thinking?” I’m going to take for granted for now that we all believe in it, at least in principle.
But if we really value crtitical thinking, a distinctive attitude will always be present when we attempt to win people over to our way of thinking—when we engage in persuasive communication. The attitude is pretty close to this: please don’t believe what I’m telling you.1 Yes, I’m overstating the point a bit, but I want the contrast to be as sharp as possible for purposes of explanation.
I could have entitled this essay “If You Don’t Agree with This Post, You’ve Obviously Been Brainwashed, and I Feel Really Bad for You.” This would be the opposite of a call to critical thinking and, ironically, a brainwashing technique. The last clause is especially important for moving the conversation away from analysis and toward, well, feelings—warm and nice ones. Sadly, today you can win any argument by getting people to feel the way you do regardless of whether they’ve done any actual thinking.2
People who truly value critical thinking not only practice it in their own inner life but, in their communication with others, they encourage them to do the same. It shows in a host of ways: providing people with reasons to consider, looking for points of agreement, being generous in their assessment of people’s motives (because the alternative fuels anger rather than encouraging thought) are just a few.
People who value critical thinking almost never frame an issue in a way that claims “Either you agree with me or you’ve lost your mind.” The reason is that such a claim basically says, “Your mind isn’t up to the task, so don’t think about it. No need. I’ve done that for you. Just accept what I say.”
It’s just about impossible to think critically while writing at 100 words per minute. There are probably a few who can do it. A few more may be able to manage it at 40 words per minute. A better idea is to ponder the particulars for a good while and then write or speak.
The ideal would be to never express anything until you’ve been able to think it through calmly first. Alas, the real world doesn’t always allow us that luxury. But we have that option far more frequently than we tend to think. I often don’t follow this principle. I nearly always wish I had.
But there’s another kind of pause that is vital to critical thinking. Pausing before communicating is important, but before that, we have to pause before concluding. If we could find a way to harness the speed at which some people jump to a conclusion, we’d have a mode of space travel faster than the “Infinite Improbability Drive”!
The process of critical thinking must begin with a suspended conclusion. You can’t think well about ideas unless you first believe there might be something to think about. Thoughtful people are quick to put new truth claims they encounter in the “Hmm… maybe” file. If their first impulse is “Yes, that’s true!” or “No, that’s false!” they pause, re-label the mental file “maybe,” and begin to think.
On a theological note, let’s consider what idea-sources we’re most in need of greeting with healthy skepticism. Surely we should not be less skeptical toward the assertions of social science than we are toward the claims of pastors and teachers.
It might be fair to say that every failure of critical thinking is a failure of the imagination. All of the thinking involved employs the imagination in one way or another. But whatever else the imagination must do in the critical thinking process, it must imagine what things look like from other points of view.
It’s easy enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, imagine how it feels to be him or her and gain a bit of empathy. But critical thinking requires more than that. It requires that we engage the imagination in the task of seeing a different view as the truth. It’s like putting on a pair of mental “what if he’s right?” glasses, then looking closely at an opponent’s reasoning from that new perspective.
If this sounds like a lot of work, rest assured—with practice, anybody can do it in seconds. One word of warning, though: putting on mental “what if he’s right?” glasses can result in never seeing the problem quite the same way again, even after taking the “glasses” off. People shouldn’t do it unless they’re open to the possibility that they might have something to learn.
Another exercise in imagination is closely related: the “what if I’m wrong?” glasses. As one of my deacons likes to put it, “entertain a little self-doubt.” Critical thinking absolutely depends on it.
Listing is an effort to avoid two common enemies of clear thinking: lumping and limiting. Lumping has its place. We have to bunch similar things together in our minds because we can’t be exhaustively precise all the time. But many a faulty conclusion has been reached and championed with only inaccurate lumping to support it. Critical thinking involves asking “Am I, or is the source I’m reading, lumping things together and ignoring important differences?”
That’s lumping. What’s “limiting”? I use the term here to mean falsely limiting the possibilities in order to support a conclusion.
Imagine a you’re playing a round of the old “who done it” game, Clue. In this game, you’re not thinking very well if you immediately start getting your “either-or” going. Either Colonel Mustard did it in the lounge with the wrench or Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the dagger. Period. End of story. (What about the study and the ballroom and the library? And what about the lead pipe and revolver? And it could have been Mrs. White or Professor Plum.)
When the issue is sensitive and emotions are running high, important distinctions and options tend to become invisible: either you believe the King James is the only true Scripture in English or you hate the King James Version. Either you believe contemporary worship music is great or you’re in favor of sentimental, theologically thin gospel songs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Either you consistently speak of past fundamentalist leaders in glowing terms or you’re a conservative-evangelical-loving compromiser. Either you agree with all the premises of those accusing a leader of something scandalous or you are claiming the leader has done absolutely nothing wrong.
In all these examples many additional possibilities exist. Critical thinking involves employing the imagination to identify all the important possibilities. (If you need help with that last one, it is possible to disagree with the premises of accusers and still suspend judgment.)3
Finally, critical thinking requires that we identify the argument we’re using or reading. This exercise is as simple as looking at a conclusion and asking “How are we getting here?” More specifically, it involves looking for premises. People almost always reason to conclusions in one way or another. We’ve been doing it since Adam looked at the animals and gave them names. Often we arrive at conclusions (or accept them from another) so quickly we have no idea how we “got there,” and they grip us with so much passion, we don’t much care how we got there.
But if we believe in critical thinking, we pause and consider what ideas have been linked together (the premises) to support the conclusion. If the primises we’ve linked together are incorrect or we’ve incorrectly related them to one another, our conclusion may well be false.
I realize we’re not all “thinkers,” but we do all have to think. And if we’re not willing to roll up our sleeves mentally and do some disciplined analysis of how we’re arriving at our conclusions, we ought to at least have the humility and intellectual honesty to express them with a little bit of reservation.
1 Some people already way overemphasize uncertainty in their communication as well as their belief system. I’m not talking about them!
2 The downside of this technique is that as soon as the emotional wave passes, many suddenly wonder, what was I thinking? The answer: you weren’t.
3 It’s even possible to disagree with the reasoning of accusers and still believe the accused is guilty.