Critical Thinking — The Concept

“The unexamined life is not worth living, because many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.” 
~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

“Expose an irrational belief, keep a man rational for a day. Expose irrational thinking, and keep a man rational for a lifetime.” – Bo Bennett, author of ‘Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies

You see in our tagline above our menu on every page that we encourage “Critical Thinking.” Critical Thinking simply means that: (1) you cannot have your own facts; (2) you must be aware when your own mind is deceiving itself and (3) you must avoid common errors of logic and thought. And you must prioritize goals and values and try to avoid emotional overreaction when making decisions.
gear head colored2You will of course have your own thought processes and beliefs compiled through years of your upbringing, your life experience, your education, etc. Is it possible that some of your beliefs are irrational and have not been critically thought through? All of us no doubt! One should analyze those beliefs regularly against the common errors of thought. Social conversation in regard to beliefs and the thought process is another goal of Oxford Humanist Educational Association.

We give examples on another page as to how Humanists discuss and try to use reason to solve large and small issues, from abortion, to the United States immigration issue, to ISIS terrorism, nuclear weapons and global climate change. Much of human disagreement of course is our varying value systems and these beliefs quickly become the “hotbed” of discussion, interfering with agreement. But using as much logic and critical thinking as possible should reduce our differences. Setting policy in human affairs in demcocratic nations will often come down to value judgements, hopefully decided and settled by democratic procedures.

Buddhists will tell you that beliefs are only beliefs and cannot be relied on to reveal any absolute truth. But for our brief lives on Earth and for pragmatic decision making, Humanists prefer to move as close to facts and logical decision making as possible and that requires Critical Thinking. 

Sometimes one hears Critical Thinking described as “idealism” but Michael Scriven & Richard Paul at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction believe that idea usually comes from those habituated to the selfish use of Critical Thinking. Another criticism of critical thinking is that the the Enlightenment Period of history, promoting the idea that man was a rational, reasoning being, was incorrect and outdated, that in fact we are emotionally driven, selfish creatures. Not rational “actors.”

These ideas have of course been discussed by philosophers through the ages. We believe we should strive for rationally derived solutions, cooperation and compromise, for social, civil, and governmental decisions. 

For solving world problems or improving the human condition, Humanists have no magic solutions or ultimate knowledge of absolute, deep reality. However, we promote Critical Thinking including science and its methods rather than mere “belief,” “common sense” or guesswork. Science and logic “work,” they allow prediction and understanding.

We accept the concept that science and logic alone will not directly solve all of mankind’s problems, particularly in areas of moral dilemma, our primitive animal instincts and our complex psychology. There we need to promote the Arts and Humanities to unite us in our feelings and experiences of common humanity, creating understanding, hope and motivation for rational, fair, empathetic and compassionate political solutions in many problem areas. And action imbued with values. But always there is room for Critical Thinking in these alternative systems of thought, including which values to apply and deciding which compromises to discuss.

For thousands of years common errors of logic and thought have been discussed by the famous philosophers and the list of such errors has grown through time. Catalogs of errors of thought can easily be viewed and a good starting list can be found here. Or Here.

One could spend a lifetime training and improving the mind in regard to errors of logical thinking and that is an excellent idea. Transformation and enlightenment of the mind is certainly a Humanist goal and why wouldn’t it be everyone’s goal?  OHEA has had meetings on this subject and we review the concept regularly. There is no other trait that allows one to distinguish a Humanist better than her desire for Critical Thinking.

But, of course, Humanists or anyone else can make mistakes in critical thinking under emotional, threatening or confusing circumstances. As an example, consider parents of autistic children; many, who are possibly highly aware of the scientific method, have taken on the strange concept that companies producing vaccines are hiding evidence that vaccines can cause autism. Significant scientific studies show that is not true. The parents come to deny the evidence because of their troubled mental and emotional state. Global Climate Change is another example; many “deniers” have obvious, selfish reasons for doing so but for others the psychological analysis gets complicated. 

Also, the mind can easily deceive itself, either to maintain your ego and identity (which often includes strong religious and/or political views)  or simply to support what you have believed in the past. This self deception has originated through natural selection during the evolutionary process in order that your mental routines, your mental and physical comfort and your social interactions will be as undisturbed as possible. In general, self deception has evolved to keep your mind minimally confused and troubled. Modern Psychology has led to better understanding of our cognitive and perceptive processes (e.g. cognitive dissonance) and continued learning in the area of human consciousness should give us more insights in this regard.

Errors of logic are used often and purposely in propaganda, politics and other processes involving “selling” you something. OHEA is creating our own list of common errors of thought and logic with examples from recent political statements and the media. We think those examples will amuse or frighten you.

Be careful and try to learn how to “watch” your own mind in action. 

Here are some thoughtful paragraphs on Critical Thinking from The Critical Thinking Community

Critical thinking is the study of clear, reasoned thinking. According to Beyer (1995) Critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgements. While in the process of critical thinking, your thoughts should be reasoned and well thought out/judged. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

A Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking


Socrates: ( Attribution: Eric Gaba – Wikimedia Commons user: Sting)

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.   They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.  They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking.  They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.  They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.  They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society.   At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so.  They strive never to think simplistically about complicated issues and always consider the rights and needs of relevant others.  They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement.  They embody the Socratic principle:  The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world. 
~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

See the section on  “Science and Religion” on this web site for more discussion of the ideas above. We give examples  of critical thinking on another page

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