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:
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:
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:
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:
analysis -- coming to understand an argument.
criticism -- coming to evaluate the truth of an argument.
Abortion is wicked (or abortion is acceptable)
Two plus two is five
Cigarettes will kill you
The Blues lost the playoffs in the first round
Money is the root of all evil
and on and on and on.
Critical thinking is NOT concerned with the claim, the sentence, the belief. Rather, the smallest unit of meaning is THE ARGUMENT.
This has a major advantage over other methods of trying to figure out truth. The argument contains two parts:
The tendency we have in everyday speech and in other methods is to focus in only on the thesis (the belief, the claim). We will NOT do that. We will look at the reasons.
Every argument has the form of IF -- THEN. If this set of reasons is adequate, then the conclusion (the thesis, belief or claim) will follow.
On the view of the critical thinker people often get caught up in much wasted and irrelevant talk by agreeing and disagreeing on theses (claims or beliefs). The issue is to construct a set of reasons which adequately support a belief (a thesis, a claim) and DO SO BETTER THAN SOME OTHER SET.
In its most general form, we will want to practice this mode of thinking in terms of the ARGUMENT, not the CLAIM or BELIEF or THESIS. This will include being able to read a piece and single out the thesis and the argument. This is the skill of analysis. Analyzing a piece of literature means to reconstruct it in argument form.
But ultimately the critical thinker must come to assess the truth of the argument (not of the claim). When we say we will "criticize" in normal English we tend to mean we will say something negative. This is not necessarily so in critical thinking. Evaluation (criticism) may be positive or negative. We will come to see the differences and practice skills of each.
Finally, a major part of learning how to do critical thinking is to be able to use it for our own purposes to CONSTRUCT arguments which reveal the world to ourselves or to others.
In order to do all this in our present course, I have divided our activities into two different sorts:
But, the specific skills are:
Certainly few of you will be familiar with all these skills and fewer yet will be much accomplished at them. It will be the task of this course to introduce you to these ideas and skills and get you started on the path toward more serious and more successful critical thinking than is typical in our society.
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