Critical Thinking – narrow and broad

‘Critical Thinking’ has a course devoted to it in many Universities today. It involves learning to evaluate the strength of beliefs according to rational standards, and is one of the most useful courses taught in the University. It teaches people to analyze arguments dispassionately, paying particular attention to the form in which claims are expressed, their content, and the relation between the points made and the conclusions they support.

Its tools, however, are too frequently wielded as simple weapons to deconstruct positions. This is likely due to the inevitable passions of young students, but also to the narrowness of some of the most dominant assumptions within one current strand of intellectual life about the nature of reasoning and inference and its connection to belief and action.

A common approach is to teach the student about the different types of arguments that can be made, while separating the good ones from the bad ones. There are deductive, inductive, and abductive arguments to be made about the relationship between concepts, and between states of affairs in the abstract, and empirical world. They can be counted valid or cogent when the formal relation between premises and conclusion is such that so long as the premises are true, the conclusion’s truth is guaranteed, or is at least highly probable.

Later, the list of invalid and weak arguments are introduced, frequently referred to as fallacies. These include things like making an argument seem weaker than it is (straw manning), appealing to authority/tradition/emotion rather than providing an argument, arguing that something is good or bad because of its origin (genetic fallacy), or the best known one on the internet – attacking a person’s character rather than their argument (ad hominem). With the growth of psychology, it is also common to learn of the particular types of bias that people bring to bear on the evaluation of claims and arguments. These include practices like favouring things that confirm what you already believe (confirmation bias), letting the dynamics of a group determine your beliefs (groupthink), a tendency towards optimism/pessimist, and seeing personal details in what are in fact vague statements (barnum effect).

It is extremely useful to be able to recognize when an argument is being made on the basis of one of these errors, and improve your own process of thinking and judging in line with good standards of inference.

However, many of these fallacies and biases are not as pernicious as they are sometimes taken to be.

Fallacies really only deserve the label that they do when they are the sole or major support for any particular claim, belief, or argument. While it may seem as though people are reasoning in fallacious ways all the time, it is likely that their claims and beliefs are supported by a whole host of other considerations.

For example, the practice of appealing to ‘tradition/emotion/authority’ is, on the face of it, one of the principle ways in which we distinguish between good/bad practices and people, positive/negative appraisals of things that we experience, and reliable/unreliable people. The vast majority of the opinions you rely upon, and the way in which you react to your surroundings is informed respectively by tradition/authority, and by your emotional response to things. It is rarely the case that people are making simple judgments on the basis of a narrow consideration of one feature of some person or group. These have been developed over time through many repeated exposures to similar circumstances.

Biases are just as much habits of the mind, or ‘positive prejudices’ that we use to make sense of the world. They can definitely have a pernicious effect when they override other concerns, but they are really just rooted in behaviours that serve us well on the whole.

For example, it is really only right to speak of a ‘confirmation bias’ as something negative in the context of a person’s whole life. We have specific beliefs, personalities, habits, and practices that make up the simple regularity of our lives. It is no wonder then, that we believe things that are in line with, or consistent with our other beliefs. Hardly surprising, or evidence of humankind’s deep irrationality.

Of course, these habits do deserve negative labels in many cases because by themselves, they necessarily provide insufficient support for any claim, argument, or belief.

Yet, arguments are rarely isolated artifacts that stand or fall on their own merits. They have many assumptions working in the background informed by years and years of varied experience.

In theory, the principle of charity is supposed to be attentive to this. It suggests that interpreters assume that though an author may have left some things out, the critic should at least try to understand the claims being made in their strongest form.

In theory then, the body of terms and concepts within the Critical Thinking toolkit does provide a pretty adequate way of understanding and evaluating beliefs. Yet, the right balance seems not to be struck when the tools are used in such a way that our everyday processes of reasoning, thinking, and judging seem woefully inadequate in light of the standards, understood and practiced in a narrow way.

In epistemology – and common sense I might add – there is a way of looking at this problem that avoids the narrow examination of claims through their logical and evidential support. We look instead at the whole character of the person, the way of life that it is embedded in, and whether or not the arguments represent a virtuous or vicious form of life. We judge not only the individual, but the way in which the position in question fits with many of our other practices and concerns. This is the ‘virtue’ theoretical approach (with strands applied to knowledge and ethics) to things that basically emphasizes character, and values holistically, rather than remaining confined to principles and consequences.

There is yet a deeper problem with the narrow outlook on the tools of Critical Thinking and logical analysis – namely, that many of the bedrock beliefs that undergird our worldviews and the isolated claims, beliefs, and arguments used to support them are not the result of inference, strictly speaking. People amass a great deal of experience of varied sorts. Over time they unconsciously piece many things together and try to understand the relationships between them in holistic terms. Our most cherished and profound beliefs are formed and held on this basis.

However, ‘Critical thinking’ places almost all of its emphasis on demonstrable, quantifiable evidence and the processes of inference that hold together propositional claims about them. No wonder then, that a narrow interpretation of reasoning and the way in which it informs belief is the product of this way of thinking.

Neat, logically tight and ‘rational’ arguments cannot make sense of a wide variety of things in our lives in such a way that is commensurate with their status, importance and meaning. They are but one tool in a more comprehensives understanding of reasoning and the way in which it informs action and belief. Examples of things that cannot be made sense of using a narrow paradigm of reasoning and inference are love, friendship, the belief in morality, meaning, purpose, the self, non-instrumental value, and God to name just a few, ‘minor’ things.

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