Bob Corbett

May 2000

Critical thinking begins in the problem of error. One of the things which we humans need to do and try to do everyday is to understand the world around us in order that we may act in it. Often times we get it right as evidenced by our acting to achieve a certain end and achieving it. I want a drink of cool water, so I believe I know that if I turn the faucet on that is on the right side of the sink and let it run a moment, then I will get cool water. I try it, and most of the time it works.

However, there are none of us who have not experienced error. We tried hard to figure some bit of the world out, thought we knew it, acted on this knowledge and discovered it was simply not so. Or, we didn't necessarily act on the supposed knowledge, but in some other way became persuaded that our supposed knowledge was false.

Now -- what to do?

If we simply make a catalogue of ways in which we act to avoid the problem of error we could go on for hours. Some of the actual things people do, or at least things of which most of you have heard are these:

I would guess that most of us have, at one time or another, done virtually all of these, or all except one or two. Sometimes the method will prove reliable and sometimes not.

One of the great dreams of human kind has been to get a method for resolving the problem of error which never makes mistakes and always guarantees the truth. Unfortunately we don't have such a method. However, there is yet another method, one which everyone of you will have used thousands of times, which I am claiming is simply far and away the BEST method we have:

critical thinking.

This is the response of using reasoning in order to figure out what is reliable and what not. Reasoning, critical thinking, is, on my view, the very best of the methods we have, however, it simply cannot guarantee truth. We have no method that can do that.

What I am claiming is this: over the long-haul, that is, dealing with hundreds and hundreds of questions of truth, critical thinking will prove -- overall -- to be more reliable than ANY of the competing methods. Critical thinking will not do this 100% of the time. At times the BEST critical thinking will get it wrong and the fortune teller will get it right. But, overall, in the long-run, critical thinking is the most reliable guide we have to help us know how the world is.

We all use critical thinking, many of us use it many times each day. Someone asks us what's a good movie to see and we are likely to name a movie (the central claim) and give a set of reasons (which is the hallmark of critical thinking). We do it all the time.

However, it is my contention that while we have internalized the use of critical thinking for many things within our culture and experience, two things must be noted:

-- most of us do not uniformly use it ALL the time.
-- most of us do it, but, quite honestly, do it rather badly

This particular course is about two things:

  1. Coming to understand more clearly and self-reflectively WHAT CRITICAL THINKING IS.
  2. Practicing a few of the most central and important skills of critical thinking.

Note that what I have said precludes one common objection:

Critical thinking cannot be trusted because it does not always get it right.

But I have defined critical thinking as an activity which by definition does not always get it right. Rather, I am suggesting its value is not that it is always right, but that it is, in the long-run, always more successful than competing methods.

Thus one of the most common arguments which students raise: "But we can't be sure." Is not an objection at all. I have begun with that limitation. The claim of why we should use and embrace critical thinking is not that it gets it right, but that it does so more reliably and more often over the long-run than does any other competing method.

Thus I have set us two tasks in this course:

  • To come to understand what critical thinking IS. What does it mean? When is one doing it? How does one understand it and recognize it?
  • To come to practice certain central skills of critical thinking.

    Given that critical thinking is the general method of all the sciences, mathematics, logic, philosophy and other related intellectual activities, one could well spend the rest of one's life getting to know this activity and coming to better polish one's skills.

    We have 8 weeks, or 16 half-weeks. Thus I have singled out what I think is one of the most important "starter sets" of tools of use and tactics for understanding.

    First there are a few very general overview notions which I will talk about and which I think are crucial to understanding critical thinking. Here I will just name these and come back to them in a later discussion. These are:

    This has a major advantage over other methods of trying to figure out truth. The argument contains two parts: