Critical Thinking and Skepticism – Part 3

John Loftus did a short post on this topic back in May.   Based on that post, it is clear that we agree there is a close connection between critical thinking and skepticism.  Here are two of his statements along those lines:

…to think critically is to think skeptically, and vice versa.

…there is no distinction between critical thinking and thinking skeptically. They are one and the same. 

Although Loftus views critical thinking and skepticism as being “one and the same”  he says things about Christian scholars who engage in Christian apologetics that seem logically inconsistent, based on the equivalence of critical thinking and skepticism:

Believers can and do think critically, especially the best of the best, like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig. [emphasis added]

But they [Christian scholars who engage in Christian apologetics] are not truly critical thinkers since they do not think skeptically. [emphasis added]

Wait a minute.  If these Christian scholars “do not think skeptically” and if  critical thinking and skepticism “are one and the same”  it follows logically that these Christian scholars do NOT think critically.  But Loftus is claiming that these Christian scholars “can and do think critically”.  There is an apparent contradiction here.

Loftus, I think, realizes this, perhaps even intends this apparent inconsistency as a sort of rhetorical device to highlight a distinction that he is trying to make.  But for the sake of clarity, we need to eliminate the apparent logical contradiction, perhaps by understanding the distinction that Loftus is attempting to make in the post.

Before we look into the distinction that Loftus might be making, there is one obvious way to resolve the apparent contradiction.  One lie does not make a person a liar.  When I was in the fifth grade, many decades ago,  my two best friends would sometimes smoke cigarettes.  Naturally, I joined in with them.  On one such occasion my mother asked if I had been smoking, I lied, and said ‘No’.  Does that mean that I am now a liar?  Obviously not.  To describe someone as a ‘liar’ is to make a claim about that person’s character or general pattern of behavior.

The same point can be made about kindness, honesty, and generosity.  One kind act does not make someone a kind person.  A mean or cruel person can do something kind once in awhile.  One truthful statement does not make someone an honest person.   Making a donation to  a charity on one particular occasion does not make someone a generous person.  We distinguish between specific actions and choices of a person, and the general character of that person.  Good people sometimes do bad things, and bad people sometimes do good things.  One can think critically on a particular occasion, and yet not deserve to be called a critical thinker.  “X was thinking critically about Y today” does NOT imply “X is a critical thinker”.  So, one distinction to keep in mind is the difference between particular actions and choices on the one hand and a person’s general character, on the other hand.

Let’s consider some of the criticisms that Loftus makes about believers and Christian apologists:

What believers do is to defend their faith rather than look critically at it, no matter what the intellectual cost.

A believer might well “look critically at” atheism and humanism, and “look critically at” objections to Christianity, but Loftus objects that “their faith” is something that they do not “look critically at”.  There is selectivity in what believers and apologists choose to subject to critical thinking (and skepticism).

If Christian apologists could think logically, without the perceived need to defend their religious sect’s faith, they would see they are not thinking consistently critically.

Christian apologist might think logically sometimes, might think critically sometimes, but according to Loftus, they do not do so consistently, plus their thinking is blinded or skewed by the “perceived need to defend” their religious beliefs.  In other words, desire and emotion concerning their religious beliefs clouds their thinking.

I say believers operate by double standards. They do not think critically, in the sense I just wrote about…

Believers use one set of standards to criticize and evaluate the beliefs and worldviews of people with whom they disagree, and they do not apply that same set of standards to their own beliefs and to their own worldview.  The standards they apply to beliefs and worldviews with which they disagree is, of course, a higher and more demanding standard than what they apply to their own beliefs and to their own worldview.  In other words, they are more skeptical of the beliefs of others than they are of their own beliefs.

Not being critical or skeptical of one’s own views, thinking critically only when that helps support one’s current beliefs or current worldview, and using high standards to critically evaluate the views with which one disagrees while using lower standards  to evaluate one’s favorite beliefs and views makes one a semi-critical thinker at best, not a full-blown critical thinker. As Loftus states, Christian apologists “are not truly critical thinkers since they do not think skeptically.”   I would amend that slightly: they do not think skeptically about their own beliefs and views, only about the beliefs and views with which they disagree.

One can frequently and almost continuously think skeptically about the beliefs and views with which one disagrees.  One can frequently and almost continuously think critically about the beliefs and views with which one disagrees.  One can thus be more than just an occasional critical thinker, more than just occasionally skeptical, and yet never or rarely ever question and seriously challenge one’s own beliefs or worldview.

Such frequent engagement in skilled thinking and analysis that is fundamentally BIASED and driven by the desire to protect and defend one’s cherished beliefs does NOT make a person deserving of the description “critical thinker”.   The whole point of critical thinking is to seek truth in an objective and rational manner.  Someone who simply uses logic and critical thinking skills to support a conclusion that was arrived at independently of critical thinking and logic, and that is maintained with disregard to logic and the standards of critical thinking is operating contrary to the very purpose of critical thinking.

A distinction that would help here was made by Dr. Richard Paul back in the 1980s.  We need to distinguish between a weak sense and a strong sense of ‘critical thinker’.  A person can be a critical thinker in the weak sense if he or she has significant mastery of the concepts and skills of critical thinking (such as logic, argument analysis, and the standards of critical thinking) but  generally applies those concepts and skills in an egocentric, sociocentric, or biased manner.   A person is a critical thinker in the strong sense if in addition to having significant mastery of the concepts and skills of critical thinking, he or she  not only makes frequent use of those concepts and skills, but includes critical and skeptical evaluation of his or her own beliefs and his or her own worldview,  and makes a serious effort to resist the temptations of egocentrism, sociocentrism, and the biased use of the skills and concepts of critical thinking.

If one makes this distinction between a weak-sense critical thinker and a strong-sense critical thinker, then one can assert both that Christian apologists “can and do think critically” and that Christian apologists are generally “are not truly critical thinkers”.   We could say, without contradiction, that such people are weak-sense critical thinkers but not stong-sense critical thinkers.