Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Discipline of Critical Thinking

We live in a culture where postmodern influence has seemingly led to a society that exercises very little discipline, believes the word 'critical' carries only negative connotations, and lets google and wikipedia do all their thinking for them. Before addressing what some may believe is a most contemptuous accusation on my part against the contemporary intellectual state, I think it is important to define these terms so that we may arrive at an understanding of what I mean by the phrase "the discipline of critical thinking." The word discipline means, "training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency." The word critical means, in its strictest use, implies "an attempt at objective judging so as to determine both merits and faults." And finally, the word 'think' means, "to form or have in the mind; conceive." When it is all brought together it looks something like this; critical thinking is an orderly and efficient cognitive examination and evaluation method by which a person attempts to determine the merits and faults of assertions and evidence. Put another way, critical thinking is the cognitive dexterity of exercising good judgment about that which comes before it.  

Consider the five steps of critical thinking. (a) What am I being asked to believe or accept? What is the hypothesis? (b) What evidence is available to support the assertion? Is it reliable and valid? (c) Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence? (d) What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives? (e) What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations? I believe the best approach for thinking through these steps is to walk through them one by one and then apply a couple of examples where critical thinking skills can be brought to bear in order to arrive at the truthfulness of a proposition or evidence.

(a) What am I beoing asked to believe or accept? The very first step in critical thinking is the decision not to just accept statements or evidence at face value. By making an assertion, someone is asking you to accept as true, a specific proposition. People make truth claims every day. It falls to the critical thinker to determine whether or not such claims meet the necessary criteria to qualify as true. Unfortunately, for many in our culture, they do accept truth claims at face value without any attempt to exercise any critical thinking skills. In fact, years of political correct conditioning have left a tremendous vacuum in its wake. An intellectual deficit has been created that cannot easily be reversed. Within evangelical churches the prevailing mentality is that people who dare to question anything have a negative, critical spirit. 1 John 4:1 issues a command that we are to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. The Greek word test is DOKIMADZETE and its basic meaning is, "to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine." The idea that we are not to engage in a critical examination of propositions is contrary to Scripture.

(b) What reliable and valid evidence exists to support the assertion? This requires that one actually begin to do the hard work of thinking through the assertion. Item (a) is the easiest step in the process of critical thinking. But if you do not proceed beyond this initial step, you run the danger of truly fitting the description of a negative, critical person. Unlike the initial step, this step requires that you begin the hard work of thinking and examination. Involved in this step is the asking of more and more questions. One exhausts the reliability and validity of the evidence before it. What is the source of the evidence, for example? Is the source reliable? What sort of reputation does the source bring? The more complex the assertion the more numerous the questions should become. Thinking is hard work! James Dobson once wrote a book entitled, "Parenting Isn't for Cowards." I think somone should write a book and title it, "Thinking Isn't for Cowards."

(c) Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence? There are no brute facts! There are no purely objective interpretations. Each one of us brings some kind of cultural conditioning and ultimate commitments to the interpretive process. It should never be presupposed that our way of looking at the evidence before us is the right way. When we are in the process of interpreting the evidence before us, we should always consider our own biases as well as the effects of sin on our own minds. Alternative interpretations should always be given their fair hearing and eliminated appropriately.

(d) What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives? What else should be examined? This process leads, once again, to a number of questions and can be somewhat taxing on the mind. This step is not for the intellectual sloth.

(e) What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations? During this process you actually begin to reach your conclusion. The amount of evidence is examined along with with the quality and reliability of the evidence. Alternative evidence is examined along with competing interpretations of the evidence. Once you have completed the five steps of critical thinking, you are in a much better position to assess the proposition or evidence before you merits your support.

In my next post I will use both a political along with a theological example of how to put these five steps into practice in ther real world.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What is Your Favorite Quote: Evangelism Opportunities

A team building event within a human resources group that sits within a large, liberal, progressive western corporation is typically no...