Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim
Anyone who has begun to think places some portion of the world in jeopardy.
To think for oneself, to find out what is true and stand by it, without being influenced, whatever life may bring of misery or happiness—that is what builds character.
—Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think of These Things
There is rarely if ever all the information wanted, and decisions are made only upon what information is available anyway. Samuel Butler knew this in remarking, “Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.” The difference between information and the premises we derive from information is precisely what critical thinking aims to ferret out and this article addresses.
Further, we are immersed and awash in our ego mind’s perceptions, utterly filled to overflowing with assumptions, prejudices, beliefs and judgments. William James, philosopher and early writer in the field of psychology, recognized how pervasive such assumptions are in noting, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” To accept this reality, that is, our ego’s perceptions and thinking that heavily influence our feelings, is the beginning of thinking for yourself and maturity. My father often said that maturity is acceptance without resignation. Isn’t maturity actually a profound acceptance of exactly what is in this moment, along with an ever-new joy of discovery and growth in revealing truth and inhabiting the sanity of what is real?
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To think critically is not to negatively evaluate and critically judge anyone. In fact, critical thinking is actually a misnomer-it is anything but critical, meaning negative or judgmental. Critical thinking is aimed to tease out the credible “way it is” in reality within any given circumstance or situation under inquiry. Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hit a bulls-eye in stating, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” A great deal of the time people’s thoughts and verbalized arguments are merely aimed to reinforce what they already believe to be true, only reinforcing what they already think they know. Herein, of course, you learn nothing. Actually all critical thinking begins with Socrates’ declaration: “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” Calmly and forthrightly acknowledging that you don’t know is the door opener to truly know anything. Otherwise, the mind is fixated upon some idea that it then believes to be true by purely having thought of it!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recognized the incredible value of ruling out what cannot be to reveal what is, no matter how absurd and unreasonable it may appear. He observed, “When all has been investigated and rejected, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Socrates, the originator and father of the field of Philosophy, the Socratic dialogue and critical thinking, essentially followed this approach in his Dialogues built upon applying the Socratic dialogue. Mystery writers, scientists, philosophers, spiritual-oriented people, inventors and discovers along with gutsy people committed in action to growth, development and evolution appreciate and live Sir Arthurs’s view.
Critical thinking is the height of intelligence since all innovation on this planet grew out of asking different, provocative and oftentimes impertinent questions. These are the very questions that challenge the status quo and threaten the powers that be. Critical thinking is one outcropping of empowerment, that is, being your own authority in living, given you thinking for yourself and refusing to allow any propaganda, advertising, politics, pressure, group or person to define who you are, what you recognize to be true and real, what you are for or against and the views, distinctions and choices you hold.
One key to critical thinking is to explore and discover with an attitude of curiosity precisely what is an accurate understanding of another’s view, that is, their opinion or perspective. This entails seeing our own usually incorrect assumptions that then quickly turn into premature, foregone conclusions that are equally incorrect. To know you know nothing and keep an open mind and awareness allows the seeing of “what is.” To check out another’s intention, carefully watch their actions and actively reveal possible assumptions, all while refusing to make unwarranted assumptions or jump to any premature conclusions, is a hallmark of those who look and see for themselves.
Use of our critical faculties takes time, careful investigation, rational intelligence and intuition along with perseverance, patience, collaboration and practical application. Poet Rainer Marie Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet writes: “…try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Clarity of mind in learning to love the questions is a result of a well-tamed, well-trained mind purely used as a tool.
The following six levels of critical thinking questions can be remarkably useful resources:1
- Applied to remembering facts and concepts in gaining knowledge, you ask: who, what, where, when, how and sometimes why. Asking what is particularly constructive given that it is shows up in the present, is usually answerable and the forthcoming answers are key signposts for not re-enacting what didn’t work and for duplicating what did work. Why questions may be used sparingly since they are heard as accusatory and blaming, triggering defeating reactivity in emotions, behavior and relationships.
- Applied to demonstrating understanding and gaining comprehension, you ask: what’s the main idea or theme, compare and contrast, what supports that statement, what was your understanding of and how would you classify that, along with can you distinguish between, what differences exist between, provide a definition for and offer an example or illustration of what you mean.
- Applied to using acquired knowledge to solve problems in new situations through application, you ask: what examples, what approach, how would you solve, how would you apply, what would result if, what questions would you best ask, what factors would you change if, can you develop a set of instructions about, and would this information be useful if you had.
- Applied to breaking down information into its component parts, to identify causes and motives, make inferences and gather evidence to support generalizations and relationships through analysis, you ask: how would you categorize, what are the parts, how are the components related, can you make a distinction, what evidence is there, what is its function and what conclusions can be drawn.
- Applied to the creative compiling of information in a new pattern or proposing different solutions through synthesis, you ask: how might you improve, suppose it worked differently than we thought, how would you adapt this to a new situation, what would happen if we combined this with that, what model or theory would accurately reflect these findings and what happens if you did this.
- Applied to formulating opinions by making judgments about data, work quality and the validity of ideas based on specific criteria through evaluation, you ask: what’s your opinion, how did you come to that view, how did you determine that choice, how do you explain, what do you base your opinion on, what do you recommend, how do you prioritize, and what would you select.
Let us be crystal clear what critical thinking is not, since what anything indeed is can at least partially be delineated by what it is not. Illustrations abound with all polarities in the empirical world, such as night helps define day, up helps define down and wet helps define dry. Critical thinking is not default thinking; that is, lazily assuming what you believed to be so, must always be true. Stereotypes, like all men or all women are so-and-so, or statements that begin “We all know…”, “It’s obvious…”, “You people…” or “These people are like…” are examples. Default thinking is highly problematic, dogmatic and narrow-minded because the default thinker believes a false proposition to be true when it actually is false, and is unwilling to objectively and critically evaluate it.
Default thinking is very close to what Psychology professor Ellen J. Langer calls “premature cognitive commitments,” that is, taking a piece of information or an impression on its face value without even considering critical thinking – mindsets simply accepted unconditionally. What makes them “premature” is our not knowing ahead of time what mindsets formed early in life will have later in life.2
Magical thinking qualifies as one example of default thinking. If you think the president is like a fairy tale king and can do whatever he pleases and the tooth fairy will heal all wounds for a quarter placed under your pillow, then magic is afoot. It may be cute with children, yet embarrassing in adults given the complexities of practical life. The best-laid plans fall apart and have unintended consequences.
Another variation on premature cognitive commitments is either/or thinking, sometimes called black-and-white thinking. Such limited thinking restricts and distorts seeing the whole picture, severely curtails options and prematurely squashes all possibilities into two and only two options by not accepting, embracing and questioning the raw evidence itself to perceive innumerable possibilities. Critical thinking couldn’t be further from either/or thinking with its dichotomous way of addressing any subject matter. Only with building a tolerance for ambiguity and not easily and quickly finding “the answer” can the raw material of life reveal itself to be what it indeed already is. It is our perceptions, heavily colored by our mind’s conditioning, that need our clearly and fully seeing, releasing and healing.
Similarly, superstitious thinking is another illustration of default thinking. When you think that not being around animals will prevent alligators from eating you, lighting candles around your bed will protect you from monsters and snapping your fingers will ward off evil spirits, and SEE, none of those dreaded consequences ensue, then you are deep under the spell of superstitious thinking. In all forms of default thinking, like magical and superstitious thinking, the person is not thinking for himself, not open to pertinent new information and unable to see past illusions given the box his mind has put him in.
Spotting all forms of default thinking opens up the authentic possibility of clear-eyed productive thinking that clarifies “what is” and it functions. Couple the continued shaping of Bloom’s Taxonomy with clearing all default thinking, along with knowing and applying the major logical fallacies (22 and counting) that Ken Pope generously offers on his remarkable website3 , and critical thinking can be a stellar tool to help navigate the multitude of situations and the apparent choices available every moment.
We must dare to think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts.
We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world.
We must learn to welcome and not to fear the voices of dissent.
We must dare to think about ‘unthinkable things’ because, when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.
—J. William Fulbright
1. Benjamin S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Harlow, England: Longman Group United Kingdom, 1969; Linda G. Barton, based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, “Critical Thinking Questions” adapted from “Quick Flip Questions for Critical Thinking.” View this taxonomy at: http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm, http://www.nwlink.com/~Donclark/hrd/bloom.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blooms_rose.svg
2. Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1990, pages 19-22.
3. Ken Pope, “Logical Fallacies in Psychology: 22 Types” http://www.kspope.com/fallacies/fallacies.php
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