What is critical thinking

I’m typing away the pain tonight so I aim to be a bit crappy and annoyed.

I often read on various websites, blogs, mailing lists and other propaganda (yes, this blog is propaganda: look it up) that this or that person or organisation is devoted to “critical thinking” and “rational thinking”. Obviously these are noble goals and imply that their views are the result of critical thinking and rationality. It’s often a trick, though. What they seem to mean by that is that they have a set of views that are baptised as critical and rational. As Lincoln once said, calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. Just naming a view critical and rational doesn’t make it one if it actually isn’t. That’s a fallacy.

What then is it to be critical and rational? We get all kinds of definitions in the literature and around the web. Here’s a couple, with key terms bolded:

From the Hong Kong Critical Thinking Web:

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following :

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values
From The Critical Thinking Co.™:

Critical thinking is the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. A critical thinker uses broad in-depth analysis of evidence to make decisions and communicate his/her beliefs clearly and accurately.

From the fellow that started the current critical thinking trend in education (Robert H. Ennis, 1987.):

Reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.  In addition to 12 CT abilities, CT also includes 14 dispositions. Namely: to seek a clear statement of the thesis or question; to seek reasons; to try to be well informed; to use credible sources and mention them; to take into account the total situation; to try to remain relevant to the main point; to keep in mind the original or basic concern; to look for alternatives; to be open-minded; to take a position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient to do so; to seek as much precision as the subject permits; to deal in an orderly manner with the parts of a complex whole; to use one’s CT abilities; to be sensitive to feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others.

From the standard definition in education (Facione 1990):

 … purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which judgment is based.

Everything but the kitchen sink! I think these are either too vague, too heterogeneous, or simply false. I would rather say this:

Critical thinking is the application of careful analysis and rational reconstruction to arguments, so that the correctness of the reasoning and the truth of the premises can be evaluated and the support for the conclusion determined.

Rational thinking is the assent of the reasoner to any conclusion that is both correctly reasoned and founded on known to be [added: see comments] true, or likely to be true, premises.

In short, a critical and rational thinker is one who accepts the conclusions of good arguments.

If you are rational and presented with a good argument, no matter how objectionable, then you must accept the conclusion. Even if that means accepting that God exists (or not, depending on what you find objectionable), abortion is right (or wrong), or some political or scientific proposition is correct. If the premises are known to be [edit] true and the reasoning is strong and you don’t accept the conclusion, then you are, by definition, irrational, no matter how your favoured community or ideology views you and your beliefs. If you analyse an argument and find no errors or strong objections, but nevertheless fail to assent to the conclusion, then you are not a critical thinker.

At once, the notion of objections comes into the picture, and this shows us how the game plays out a bit. An objection is an argument for a conclusion that is contrary to or inconsistent with one of the premises or the conclusion of another argument. It is an argument in its own right. If you have an argument for the existence of God, and I have a stronger argument against it, I am not required to assent to the existence of God because I cannot fault the pro-argument. Now I weigh the rational likelihoods and accept (assent to) the stronger conclusion. That is also rational.

Okay, with that machinery and definitional apparatus in place, let’s contrast this with what is sometimes called sophistry, after the target of Plato’s and Aristotle’s attacks, the Sophists. Another term for this is rhetoric, although that isn’t necessarily bad on its own. Sophistry is the attempt to gain assent without good arguments, usually through emotional and linguistic tricks. We call these “fallacies”, but that’s just a fancy way to say “mistake of reasoning”, which is how these are often taught these days. I call it “marketing” or “public relations”, or better: “spin”.

These tricks aim to change attitudes by misleading or manipulating the audience. They make a presumption about those who hear them, that they are not adults, nor rational. Rhetoric is fundamentally an end run around the critical faculty. If it is linked to critical thinking, then rhetoric becomes a useful communication tool. When it is unlinked, and even antithetical to reasoning and critical thinking, then it becomes sophistry. Reasoned arguments treat the audience as responsible, thinking, adults. They are respectful, not patronising the way sophistry is.

So let us think somewhat about how some of the so-called skeptics behave. Most people – I would say everyone, including myself, just on first principles – have beliefs they hold dear and which they did not arrive at through rational or critical reflection. Sometimes these turn out to be reasoned ideas. But what is arrived at uncritically will be defended uncritically, and this is, on average, a recipe for irrational beliefs. Here’s one: nuclear power is always a bad thing. In fact bad engineering is a bad thing, and not balancing risks against benefits is a bad thing. Nuclear power is often a very good thing. I would personally like to see a lot more, even if there are risks, to counterbalanced the many actual deaths from coal generation and hydroelectric environmental damage, and so-called renewables won’t cut it. But you cannot argue that with many “skeptical thinkers”.

Here’s another: religion poisons everything. The evidence is against that, and it can only be supported by cherry picking the data like Bjorn Lomborg cherry picks ecological data. But to challenge it is to commit an act of ideological impurity, and the so-called skeptic often won’t even discuss it; just attack. I can multiply the examples without effort, although I won’t, because this is about reasoning, not these specific cases.

Of course those who these “skeptics” attack also commit many failures of reasoning. One well known fallacy is the false dichotomy; I am not suggesting that if one side makes mistakes the other side is correct. Everybody makes mistakes. And mistakes are relatively evenly distributed across all groups, so long as the groups aren’t gerrymandered.

Ennis, R.H. 1987. A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice., edited by J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, NY: W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co: 9-26.

Facione, Peter A. 1990. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Research Findings and Recommendations (“The Delphi Report”). Millbrae, CA: American Philosophical Association.

34 thoughts on “What is critical thinking

  1. Calling a leg a leg don’t make it one either. You needn’t have qualfied -“Just naming a view critical and rational doesn’t make it one if it actually isn’t.” It doesn’t make it one even if it actually is.


    1. Well, John, there’s a careful formulation, and then there’s heading off the inevitable misconstruals…


  2. But, but, but…

    I agree with the main thrust of your arguments. There is some tendency for differences to become polarised in debates. The quibble I have is that you have not explored the worth of critical and rational thinking (perhaps for a later blog?).

    Sometimes uncritical or irrational thought produces a better outcome. This could be because our emotional thinking is a better way of reacting when we can’t know the full facts. Much quoted example: Is that a vine or a poisonous snake? Better to avoid it first and identify it accurately later.


    1. First, this is just a blog post. I shall say a lot more later.

      Second, while reasoning is not a guarantee of a correct outcome, that’s what reality checks are for. But false positives have a cost, sometimes a great cost, and I don’t think irrational reasoning ever does better than chance.


    2. Intuitive thinking is better for quick decisions which are made when only incomplete information is available. This is probably because our intuitive brains process much more information than our logical brains and hence have an information advantage even if we consciously don’t realize it.

      On the other hand, when most or all relevant information is known, critical, rational thinking is needed to formulate a powerful theory to subsume all phenomena in a given category under a single model. These models are necessary for breaking down the complexity of the world to the point where we can logically digest it and extrapolate from it.

      I’ve always held if we were gods, we wouldn’t need rational thinking. We would simply approach things intuitively and always be right. But it is because we are not gods, it is because our irrational brain is so inherently flawed, that we must rely on rational thought and science.


  3. In the Netherlands, Emmanuel Rutten, philosopher, has published a Ph.D thesis presenting what he asserts is a rational argument towards the existence of God (http://www.gjerutten.nl/TowardsARenewedCaseForTheism_ERutten.pdf, http://www.gjerutten.nl/AModalEpistemicArgumentForTheExistenceOfGod_Erutten.pdf
    Rutten says: “Abstract
    This paper presents a deductive modal-epistemic argument for the existence of God. God is defined in the paper as a person that is the first cause of reality. The argument consists of two premises: (i) For all propositions p, if p is unknowable, then p is necessarily false, and (ii) It is impossible to know that God does not exist. From (i) and (ii) it follows that it is necessarily true that God exists. A justification for both premises is provided.”
    I doubt this is rational, given the premises, but he seems to cut quite a figure with it.


    1. My invisible pink unicorn thus exists, but he told me God doesn’t exist and it’s well known that invisible pink unicorns cannot lie.


  4. I am inclined to say that “religion poisons everything” is a slogan, not a statement. Our requirements for slogans are different from our requirements for ordinary statements and beliefs.


      1. Slogans are a specific form. The word is derived from Gaelic, it originally referred to a war chant, the cry of the host (the word derives from the Gaelic for host). A mighty roar in the manner of herd of stags is one common traditional description of spoken word performance that seems apt and still captures the sense.

        I think the term was chosen quite deliberately. Huge discussion of this form of rhetorical activity and its relationship with emotion, belief in Irish and Scottish texts. It has a particular relationship with conversion to Christianity in literary texts.

        The distinction is useful or certainly with regard to the history of this form of rhetorical activity.


      2. John, Are you suggesting that every type of statement must never include figurative elements or the slightest chance of others misinterpreting the statement?


        1. No, I am not suggesting that. But a statement has an assertoric meaning, and that gets the same treatment no matter what its social or conversational role may be when assessing arguments.


    1. Slogans like this are concise way of expressing more long-winded statements. I think that most people would agree that “Religion poisons everything” is shorthand for something like “In many social interactions, and in far too many political actions, religion has an extremely negative impact on people‘s lives and on balance we‘d be much much better off if religion didn‘t exist or at a minimum was kept our of public life”

      That‘s a bit too long-winded to fit on a bumper sticker or a coffee mug.


  5. I think there’s an important distinction to be made between an irrational belief and an irrational behavior: the rationality of a behavior depends on its circumstances and consequences. If a crazed gunman bursts into the room and announces that he’s going to kill all the atheists, professing a belief in god could be considered a rational response.

    For most people – even those who fancy themselves rational sorts – reasoning is only one of many factors that shape decision-making and behavior. We’re heavily influenced by the anticipated social, emotional, and psychological costs and benefits of our choices. These things are pretty important to us. Professing an irrational belief or engaging in what would appear to be an irrational behavior, therefore, doesn’t necessarily imply faulty reasoning; it may just indicate that reasoning wasn’t the most important factor that shaped that behavior.


  6. Don’t we normally decide on a desired outcome and then rationalise why it is a good outcome? We develop a rational argument so we can say that , being rational, eveyone should agree with our belief?


    1. That is Mercier and Sperber’s view, but two things need to be said: one is that I think it is at best only partially true: we really do reason (as do many animals) from premises to conclusions and believe them. I have seen and done it myself. Second is that this is a normative claim: this is what a rational thinker should do. That we don’t in no way undercuts my claim, any more than the fact that we are subject to confirmation bias would undercut empirical science.


  7. I hope that we all agree that 1 + 1 = 2 and 1 x 1 = 1. I mention this because logic requires premises while most premises are ultimately unproven assumptions. Also, one of the kickers is that day in and day out we need to make decisions based on unproven but hopefully carefully thought out assumptions.

    Does this make us agnostic in everything? Well, at least, 1 + 1 = 2 and 1 x 1 = 1. Or does anybody beg to differ?


  8. I find it remarkable that, for all that has been written and published under the heading of “critical thinking,” so little work has been done to explain or define what critical thinking is, and so much of the work that has been done is of a mushy and slapped-together character. So I thank you, Mr. Wilkins, for undertaking to provide a more rigorous and defensible definition. However, I find a few flaws in your attempt.

    (1) “Critical thinking is the application of careful analysis and rational reconstruction to arguments . . .” (etc.): The inclusion of the word “careful” here seems to me ill-judged. It is as if someone were to define history as the careful investigation of the past, or biology as the careful study of living things. Someone may practice a discipline carefully or carelessly, as he or she might do it thoroughly or superficially, assiduously or lackadaisically, and so forth. Such variations in the quality of execution have no place in the definition of the discipline itself. There is a contrast on this point with the syntactically analogous phrase “rational reconstruction.” In the latter case, the adjective “rational” indicates the kind of reconstruction, namely, one that is directed toward bringing into the light whatever is rationally (rather than, say, emotionally) compelling in an argument, or most nearly so. By contrast, careful analysis is not a specific kind of analysis; it is just analysis done carefully. If a qualifier is needed (to indicate contrast with, e.g., chemical analysis, statistical analysis, etc.), then I recommend that you say “logical analysis,” provided that the qualifier “logical” is not defined by reference to deductive logic alone but is allowed to include considerations of inductive and abductive reasoning as well as semantic implication.

    (2) “If the premises are true and the reasoning is strong and you don’t accept the conclusion, then you are, by definition, irrational, no matter how your favoured community or ideology views you and your beliefs”: Really? What if someone who does not know that the premises are all true rejects the argument? Suppose that someone is misinformed, or simply uninformed, about one or more of the premises, and rejects the argument for that reason. According to your definition, this person is, in this respect at least, irrational, no matter how understandable his ignorance or his misinformation may be. Your definition thus presses ignorance and misinformation into the category of irrationality. Certainly there are cases in which ignorance or misinformation supports and/or derives from irrationality; but there are also plenty of cases of ignorance or misinformation that are entirely innocent of irrationality. The failure of your definition to respect this difference seems to me a serious shortcoming.

    (3) “Rational thinking is the assent of the reasoner to any conclusion that is both correctly reasoned and founded on true, or likely to be true, premises”: The use of the qualification “or likely to be true” may seem to allow a logical space between irrationality and ignorance, but it seems to me that a problem analogous to the one mentioned in my previous objection arises in the case of the person whose ignorance or misinformation makes a premise of an argument appear false or unlikely to be true. Suppose that Wilkins makes an inductively strong argument, one of whose premises is a fact of biology that, to those less well-informed than he, appears wildly improbable. An underinformed person who rejects the argument because she deems that premise false, or probably false, would count as irrational under your definition. Yet it may be that this person would accept the premise if only she were made aware of the pertinent facts. Once again, your definition wrongfully presses ignorance and misinformation into the category of irrationality.


    1. All excellent questions and issues, MKR. Allow me to attempt a reply.

      1. This is a skill based definition. Someone who does plumbing sloppily will at some point be said not to be doing plumbing. Someone who plays a game against the rules will be said not to be playing that game. I am taking critical thinking to be a skill that must be carefully applied. “Logical” will not cut it (that is, discriminate between the critical thinker and the uncritical thinker) since there can be a logic to even the worst argument (one of the things that argument mapping does is to lay that logic out).

      2. I should have said, and will insert, “known to be true” where I said “true”. Someone who thinks the premises are true and the reasoning is solid is a critical thinker and rational no matter what the fact of the matter is, if nobody can find them out. We are fallible reasoners, not Laplacean demons. We argue from a degree of ignorance. With that qualifier, I think that we can accommodate honest mistakes.

      3. There is an onus on arguers to try to get facts right, but of course it doesn’t mean that honest arguers will do so, or that someone who gets the facts wrong is dishonest (which would be affirming the consequent). So ignorance is not a bar to critical reasoning.

      Worse, sometimes people seem to think that because they have become convinced of a fact, usually based on authority (few people are scientific researchers), that those who aren’t are irrational. I obviously do not think so. But there is a presumption arguers will try to work together on common premises in a debate. If there are none then, as WIttgenstein said, each calls the other a fool and a heretic, and rational debate stops.


  9. Try this little exercise.

    Start with the idea that 2+2=7
    Multiply through by 9 18+18=63
    Divide through by 3 6+6=21
    Then 12=21
    Divide through by 3 4=7
    Then 2+2=7

    The premise 2+2=7 is wrong – but the basic rules of mathematics still seem to work.


    Start with the idea 2+2=7
    Multiply through by 4 8+8=28
    Subtract 8 from each side 8=20
    Divide through by 2 4=10
    Then 2+2=10

    Now we have 2+2=10 not 2+2=7

    How in the first set of calculations does the false premise remain intact – yet in the second set of calculations the falsity becomes untenable?

    There are two different sides to our equations – true and false.

    In the first set of calculations – multiplying each side by 9 etc. – no ‘proper value’ was applied to either side of the equation – only an instruction as to how many times we should perform a task – multiply or divide – performed successively and equally on both sides – so the balance of true and false remained unaffected.

    In the second set of calculations though, we introduced a ‘proper value’, that of 8 when subtracting 8 from both sides. – On the true 2+2 side, 8 can hold its true value – but on the false side, where 2+2=7 (i.e. 4=7) then 8 (2×4) should read (2×7) sohave a false value of 14 . – Then we can remain consistently false on the false side of the equations.

    Repeating the second set of calculations, starting again with the false premise that 2+2=7

    False premise 2+2=7
    Multiply through by 4 8+8=28
    Subtract 8 from true but 14 from false 8=14
    Divide through by 2 4=7
    So still 2+2=7

    Our false premise 2+2=7 remains consistent – true remains true and false remains false.

    This bit of silly maths tells us that when starting with a false premise, as long as true does not interfere with false, a false premise can stand for ever and seem consistent, even true. – Only when truth is allowed to cross the dividing line of the equals sign does the error in a false premise show up.

    As an example.

    Darwin was only half right. = Darwin was wholly right.
    Gaps in the fossil record = Evolution is a continuum.
    A mechanism to leap gaps = Gaps will be filled when fossils
    would be handy. are found to fill them
    Missing links are missing. = They will be found – because
    we only have one mechanism
    of joined up change.
    A second mechanism = Don’t be silly there is only one
    would be handy mechanism

    As long as the simple truth that there are gaps in the fossil record is not allowed to interfere, a full blown belief in Darwinism is critical rational thinking.

    But there are gaps in the fossil record and no evidence to confirm a joined-up continuum of variety between the gaps.

    Darwin, arguing in support of continual change in The Origin of Species, intriguingly states regarding the fossil record:
    “In all cases, positive palaeontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless as experience has so often shown.” [p 368].

    Did Darwin failed to appreciate a subtle difference here? – We can have ‘Evidence positively leaning towards’ to weigh against ‘Evidence negatively leaning against’ – but this is far removed from ‘Having some evidence’ and ‘Not having any evidence at all’.

    Surely the gaps in the fossil record are ‘evidence positively leaning towards’ gaps – and lack of joining fossils is surely ‘evidence negatively leaning against’ anything filling the gaps.

    It has been said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. – That might be debatable – but having no evidence for something can surely never be accepted as evidence that something is definitely there if we only we could find it. – (Like flying reindeer as evidence of Father Christmas.)

    With evidence only of gaps in the fossil record, the gaps must be presumed factual. – What we might imagine to fill the gaps can only become factual when and if we ever find it. – All that may be implicitly trusted is that from the evidence available at present, there are definitely gaps in the fossil record.

    This emphatically tells us one of two things.

    1. – Gaps are a real part of evolution’s process. – In which case science has missed a component of evolution which facilitates leaps.

    2. – Evolution is a continuum. – In which case fossils may yet be found to fill the gaps.

    However, the longer we look for joining fossils yet fail to find them, the more the evidence positively leans towards there being a mechanism which facilitates leaps across gaps.

    Gaps are peculiar things. – Within any gap there is no evidence to prove there really is a gap – and in an obvious gap there is no evidence to prove one way or the other that it might never be filled.

    Both Darwinism and Gods survive in the form they are because it is hard to find evidence in nothing, to prove that nothing is there. – Perhaps there is a gap in our mental processing, so our brains allow that this thinking is even debatable.

    Critical thinking, to me, is accepting that what seems a blatant truth, however inconvenient, should be considered true regardless of the inconvenience.


  10. Someone who does plumbing sloppily will at some point be said not to be doing plumbing. Someone who plays a game against the rules will be said not to be playing that game. I am taking critical thinking to be a skill that must be carefully applied.

    All true, and all irrelevant. Plumbing is the art (skill, craft, techné) of making and maintaining systems for making water flow through pipes (or something like that), not the art of making and maintaining such systems carefully (or effectively, or economically, or . . .). These modifiers characterize what it is to practice the art well; they do not define the art itself. That plumbing may be practiced well (carefully, effectively, etc.) or badly is inherent in the meaning of the word “art” and does not distinguish this skill from other arts. It is therefore no part of the definition.

    When you say that critical thinking “is a skill that must be carefully applied,” I take you to mean by this that if someone invokes the techniques and concepts of critical thinking but is utterly careless in applying them (say he brands any criticism of his arguments “straw-man attacks” even when they are fair and accurate), then that person is not engaged in critical thinking. From that observation one can infer that critical thinking does not consist in simply invoking certain techniques and concepts. It does not follow that it consists in using them carefully. To draw such a confusion would be like inferring, from the fact that somebody who puts pipes together aimlessly is not practicing the art of plumbing, that plumbing is therefore the art of putting pipes together with some aim or other.

    What defines an art is not whether it is practiced carefully or carelessly but what its end is. In the case of the analysis of arguments, the end is to determine how strong a claim given arguments have on our assent.

    “Logical” will not cut it (that is, discriminate between the critical thinker and the uncritical thinker) since there can be a logic to even the worst argument (one of the things that argument mapping does is to lay that logic out).

    This seems to me so obvious a non-sequitur that I am unsure that I understand it correctly. To analyze an argument in logical respects is to identify the manner in which the premises support, or are intended to support, the conclusion. In so doing, one exposes whether the support is genuine and effective (good argument) or false and ineffective (bad argument). You seem to be reasoning that, because the word “logic” can be applied to a faulty relation of premises to conclusion, the word “logical” cannot be used to describe an activity dedicated to identifying and evaluating such a relation. This seems to me analogous to reasoning that because medical doctors deal with sick patients as well as healthy ones, one therefore can’t use the adjective “medical” to indicate that some practice is directed toward the promotion of health.


    1. On carefulness: I do not like binary distinctions such as “applied” or “did not apply” in this case, or “true” false” in the case of statements and our knowledge of them (although why what I like should be of interest to you is something I might need to justify later). The reason I do not like them is that – possibly analytic truths and falsities aside – I think we never have a complete and perfect knowledge. Consequently, while the art may have a technical and abstract definition, the skill must have a degree of application. Yes, there may exist in Plato’s Celestial Academy the art of reasoning. In this world, however, we have only the imperfect applications of it, and if somebody claims to be doing reasoning but is sloppy, then they are simply not (to the degree they are sloppy). Skills are applied with more or less expertise. As an unreconstructed Wittgensteinian, I think there is a threshold at which we do not wish to say “that person is reasoning” any more. Hence the qualifier. Also, I have half an eye (the right peripheral visual field of my right eyeball) towards teaching critical thinking. In such cases, care is a crucial aspect of thinking. Nobody, least of all an undergraduate student, is born knowing how to reason, and so they must be made to practice until they can do the thinking carefully. It’s not unlike calculus in that respect. Nobody is born knowing it, and nobody but a few fortunate freaks can do it well without lots of practice.

      As to the non sequitur, I have not expressed myself well. Give me an argument, no matter how silly it seems on the face of it, and I can, with varying amounts of charitable interpretation, make it a valid argument. For example, if you say as Euler is reputed to have said to Diderot to embarrass him, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists”, I can make this (actual) non sequitur valid by adding the enthymematic premise “if (a+b^n)/n = x, then God exists”. Now having made it logical in that respect, I can now evaluate that premise (and in this case say that without any further reason for adopting that conditional, that it is irrelevant to the conclusion; what my colleague Neil Thomason calls the “cheap conditional”). But it is a logically valid argument. This can be done for any argument. When evaluating such arguments, two main things come into play: is it a true premise? and “is it the best interpretation of the informal argument offered?” In Euler’s case it is clear that it is the best interpretation, and that Euler was being sophistical. In the case of an argument for God that employs premises that could charitably be true or uncharitably false, we would only accept the uncharitable interpretation if the charitable interpretation fails to connect the premises to the conclusion. If the uncharitable interpretation is clearly contrary to fact, then we would say that either the argument is unsound (not invalid) or invalid (but founded on true premises). That would be sufficient to rebut the argument. However, the unsound fork still leaves the argument logically valid.

      This is why I say that logical is insufficient to demarcate critical thinking from uncritical thinking and rational thinking from irrational thinking.

      One final point. Critical thinking is, as I have said, a skill that is learned and applied well or badly. Rational thinking, on the other hand, is about the adoption or rejection of beliefs. One can be rational in adopting a belief that, it turns out, is based on false premises, so long as when the reasoning is done the reasoner had bona fide belief in the truth of the premises used. One can therefore be a critical thinker but need not be rational (if, for example and to mention no famous religious philosophers in Indiana, one knows that one is begging questions to get to a view one already knows one wants to believe come hell or high water), or rational but not critical (if one is simply taking the best epistemic bets one can but cannot articulate them in terms of an argument; a lot of reasoning is done sub rosa, so to speak).


  11. Spooky stuff. – I post my reply (which went into meltdown – (a) my formatting of neat equations failed dismally and (b) a fault has appeared which windows tells me relates to ‘cross-site scripting’ and I should tell the web master even if he has got a bad knee, and the ‘fault on the page’ makes it hard to post anything) and in the time it takes to come up, you two have brought plumbing into the topic.

    I can state with some authority that: – “Plumbing is the art not letting water leak out of pipes – done with or without care depending on the day.”

    For anyone who cares, here is a hopefully intelligible version of my evolution true false equation.

    Darwin was only half right. = Darwin was wholly right.
    Gaps in the fossil record. = Evolution is a continuum.
    A mechanism to leap gaps would be handy. = Gaps will be filled when fossils are found to fill them
    Missing links are missing. = They will be found – because we only have one mechanism of joined up change.
    A second mechanism would be handy = Don’t be silly there is only one mechanism.

    My take on logical and/or skeptical is this:

    Darwin’s argument was logical in his day, and to many still is. He held that evolution is slow continual change, regardless of the gaps in the fossil record, and that with more fossil finds, at least some of the gaps will be filled. – 150 years later I feel justified in being critical, as in that time not a single set of missing link fossils has been found – not even in a chalk cliff composed entirely of fossils. – I think I have found a second mechanism which facilitates leaps, therefore, to me, my criticism of a strict Darwinian view has logic. – Whereas some-one who is not aware of my second mechanism (which seems to be most folk) will say my criticism has no logic when held against the mass of scientific opinion/belief.

    This then would make critical thinking a constant – a method of balancing logic and belief – whereas logic is a variable in that it relies on known fact of the day.


  12. “One final point. Critical thinking is, as I have said, a skill that is learned and applied well or badly.”

    John Lawson ( overlooked Dublin Prof. of oratory, from the first wave of enlightenment thought on the subject pre-dating the Scottish school) used similar terms to defend rhetoric and he is hardly the first.

    Its a craft based skill rather than a trick. Although its frequently described in these terms by academics. When it was thrown at me it was always somewhat emotive and generally used to be followed by “you never told me you were an actor.”

    I was unaware my craft based technique meant I had to display a little sign at presentations that read “warning may use evil word voodoo. Shouting not advised and undertaken at you’re own risk!”

    Lawson’s Lectures concerning Oratory Delivered in Trinity College Dublin. is on Google. Its an interesting early treatment.

    On that note I will retire to my back garden and attempt to hypnotize some chickens by reading Origin of the Species in the declamatory style.


  13. I don’t have any clear idea of what constitutes critical thinking from a formal point of view. In fact, since being logical (in the narrow sense of the word) is at most a necessary but not a sufficient condition for critical thought and the other criteria are apparently context-bound, I think a once-and-for-all definition is probably impossible unless it is merely wrong.

    In lieu of trying to do what may be impossible, I revert to something less ambitious, to understand critical thinking from the point of view of what is specific about the intention to think critically. The crucial perception is that it is possible to argue about something without making winning the argument the important thing. The prospect of trying to arrive at or at least approach something like truth instead of playing the umpteenth version of the mammalian game of king of the mountain is hugely liberating. Winning is pleasurable and we all remain mammals, but dialectic has its own specific rewards relative to rhetoric, sophistry, and eristics. Even more than the value of the conclusions we draw when we engage in critical thinking—the conclusions may be wrong, after all—the possibility of disinterested thought creates the possibility of a different way of relating to other people or at least of sometimes calling a time out in the mental phase of the eternal Hobbesian struggle.


    1. “Winning is pleasurable and we all remain mammals”
      I think when you apply that to the academic game you are confronted with the conclusion that it is also cultural. That feeling of knowing, the warm glow of being right is expected and more than often accepted as the way to conduct business and survive in an academic institution.

      Academic audiences are often highly emotive and highly difficult to deal with and narrate too. After working with them for some years I extended the old theatrical saying never work with children and animals to include one other group who are also highly awkward and behave in seriously inappropriate ways in a performance setting.

      Engaging with and the enjoyment and pleasure of doing, is so important with regard to both learning and knowledge; critical I think.

      I found the university system shocking in this regard and its not normal.

      The theater is not like it, the legal profession does not operate in this manner. Learning and debate are far more civil and welcoming here. The emotional attachment and value placed on having to be right at all cost is not absent but it is not as cultural prized as it is in the academic system. Its not hoarded up and valued with all the charged destructive beliefs and pleasure of the miser or academic.


  14. Seems me theres a flaw in your definition that could turn out to be a major flaw. You talk about the truth of the premises as if they’re axioms, but premises are themselves based on premises and so on and so on till we have very large network of premises and conclusions. At first glance we might assume that the reason one person believes in god and another doesnt is that they have different networks of assumptions but this need not be the case. We know that desiring one outcome in an arguement can bias a persons thinking; I would suggest that this bias might have a very small effect on each choice/node in the network but end up giving the exact opposite conclusion in the end.
    It seems to me that there are indesensible parts of decision making that aren’t subject to this type of critical thinking. For example, with nuclear power, one person might decide that 50 deaths/100 years is perfectly acceptable and another that this is far too big a price to pay. Perhaps the latter person has failed to consider all the ramifications of not using nuclear …so I’m not 100% on this idea…but I think its possible that some arguements contain ‘values’ based on pure emotional perception.


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