I have recently made some comments about Critical Thinking and skepticism. I made the comments in response to a comment posted by John Loftus connected to an article posted by John Loftus on his Debunking Christianity website: “In Defense of Richard Dawkins“.
My response to a comment by John Loftus
There is a whole lot to think about in your response. For now, I will focus on just one key issue:
What is the relationship between critical thinking and skepticism?
On the one hand, you make a legitimate point: a critical thinker can be superstitious and gullible and foolish, just like an intelligent person can believe complete bullshit, like various conspiracy theories. More to the point, a critical thinker can be lacking in appropriate skepticism.
This is the case because we often use the term “critical thinker” to mean a person who has mastered some basic intellectual skills of logic and reasoning. For example, passing a college final exam in an Introduction to Logic course would be evidence that someone is a “critical thinker”.
On the other hand, one can distinguish between a strong-sense critical thinker and a weak-sense critical thinker, and that distinction, I believe, connects critical thinking directly to healthy skepticism. Strong-sense critical thinkers are skeptical.
Critical thinking is, fundamentally, CAREFUL and JUDICIOUS thinking. What is one being CAREFUL about as a critical thinker? One is NOT being careful to avoid offending or upsetting other people. One is NOT being careful to defend one’s self-interests over truth and honesty and fairness. One is NOT being careful to defend the interests of the groups to which one belongs (my church, my party, my race, my family, my country) over truth, honesty, and fairness.
What one is being CAREFUL about as a critical thinker is to conform one’s thinking in accordance with the universal standards of thinking: CLARITY, ACCURACY, PRECISION, LOGICALNESS, SIGNIFICANCE, DEPTH (consideration of the complexities of an issue), BREADTH (consideration of diverse points of view), and SUFFICIENCY (awareness of the amount and kinds of evidence that are needed to arrive at a confident conclusion).
In the 20th century psychology, esp. cognitive psychology has revealed that human thinking is plagued by many significant biases and error-prone tendencies. Psychologists and sociologists have revealed that human beings are commonly self-deceived, deceived by others, and deeply involved in deception and irrationality. These are very important FACTS about human behavior. So, if one truly wants to conform one’s thinking with the universal standards of thinking, then one must necessarily adopt a skeptical viewpoint: a view that is skeptical about the degree to which human beings (including oneself) are rational and reasonable and objective and logical and clear in their thinking.
In short, a strong-sense critical thinker is aware of the pervasiveness of deception and bias and irrationality in human thinking and thus is SKEPTICAL not only about what others and “other groups” think or say but about what oneself and the groups to which one belongs think and say.
Furthermore, if one consistently strives to conform one’s thinking to the universal standards of thinking, then after a while, one will notice that very few people are successfully thinking this way, or even making much of an effort to do so. Skepticism is the natural result of making a serious effort to conform one’s thinking to the universal standards of thinking because anyone who consistently strives to do this will find themselves very much alone in this world.
My response to another comment by John Loftus
We agree that knowing the rules of logic is NOT sufficient to make a person reasonable and rational in their thinking.
First, knowing how to do X does NOT imply that one in fact does X with any frequency or consistency. One can know how to brush one’s teeth or how to ride a bike and yet rarely brush one’s teeth and rarely ride a bike. Similarly, one can know how to argue logically or how to spot logical errors in an argument and yet rarely bother to argue logically or to try to find logical errors in an argument.
Second, one can make use of the rules of logic in a BIASED manner. One can ignore logical errors in the arguments supporting one’s favorite viewpoint while constantly looking for logical errors in arguments for a viewpoint that one dislikes or opposes. People are naturally EGOCENTRIC and SOCIOCENTRIC so, people who learn the rules of logic naturally and commonly use those rules in a BIASED manner to support their own interests and beliefs or the interests and beliefs of groups with which they identify. When someone uses the rules of logic in an EGOCENTRIC or SOCIOCENTRIC manner, they reveal that it is NOT the rules of logic that they care about, but their own interests and the interests of groups with which they identify. Thus, such people are NOT critical thinkers in the strong sense of that term. A strong-sense critical thinker cares about accuracy, precision, clarity, logicalness, relevance, significance, etc.
Third, the rules of logic do not include some very important pieces of information about the world. For example, the rules of logic do not tell us that people are naturally and commonly EGOCENTRIC. The rules of logic do not tell us that people are naturally and commonly SOCIOCENTRIC. The rules of logic do not tell us that people naturally and commonly engage in self-deception and in the deception of others. The rules of logic do not tell us that groups and societies indoctrinate people and discourage independent critical thinking. The rules of logic do not tell us that people are naturally and commonly irrational and unreasonable. These are important FACTS about human beings, and the rules of logic tell us nothing about these very important FACTS. These important FACTS about human beings lead to SKEPTICISM, both skepticism about the beliefs and values that are being promoted by the groups to which we belong, and skepticism about the beliefs and values that are being promoted by other “outsider” groups to which we do not belong, and which we might dislike. (On my tombstone, I would like to have this statement: “I am a skeptic because I am a cynic.”)
So, there are at least three different ways in which knowing the rules of logic is INSUFFICIENT to make a person reasonable, rational, and a strong-sense critical thinker: (1) knowing how to do X does NOT imply actually doing X, (2) One can use the rules of logic in a BIASED way, and (3) the rules of logic do not include any significant information about human behavior and human thinking.
NOTE: Introductions to Logic often include chapters or lectures on INFORMAL FALLACIES, and such material does imply empirical claims about human thinking. A fallacy exists only if it corresponds to some natural or common tendency or inclination to reason in an illogical way. STRAW MAN is a fallacy because there is a natural and common tendency to distort and weaken the arguments of one’s opponent. Human beings are naturally and commonly EGOCENTRIC, and EGOCENTRISM leads people to distort and weaken the arguments of one’s opponents. So, teaching informal fallacies goes beyond merely teaching “the rules of logic”; it also suggests important empirical generalizations about human tendencies to think illogically and irrationally.
My response to a comment by Daniel Mocsny:
I wrote a response to your comments above, but they instantly vanished. So, I’m going to try again to respond.
I agree with most of your points in your comment above.
I do have a few thoughts about these topics to add to what you have stated.
A strong-sense critical thinker is not merely someone who has some basic skills in logic and reasoning. A strong-sense critical thinker is someone who CARES about consistently conforming his/her thinking to the universal standards of thinking: CLARITY, ACCURACY, PRECISION, RELEVANCE, LOGICALNESS, BREADTH, DEPTH, and FAIRNESS. A strong-sense critical thinker is both WILLING and ABLE to consistently conform his/her thinking to those universal standards.
In order to be ABLE to consistently conform one’s thinking to the universal standards of thinking, one needs to be aware of some of the important findings of cognitive psychology and sociology. Cognitive psychology and sociology provide insights into the common and natural tendencies of human beings to think irrationally and illogically. Those insights are important if one is going to successfully AVOID or ALLEVIATE such tendencies in one’s own thinking, and so that one can help others to AVOID or ALLEVIATE such tendencies in the thinking of others.
Being WILLING to consistently conform one’s thinking to the universal standards of thinking involves CARING about those universal standards. Given our common and natural tendencies to think irrationally and illogically, concerted EFFORT is required for a person to successfully conform his/her thinking to the universal standards of thinking. It ain’t gonna happen by chance.
Scientific thinking involves critical thinking. Scientific thinking can involve more than just the universal standards that I have outlined here, but all instances of scientific thinking can and should be evaluated AT LEAST in terms of the universal standards that I have outlined here. It is not just social, political, religious, and philosophical issues that require critical thinking or conformity to the universal standards of thinking. The universal standards apply to scientific thinking just as much as to any other kind of thinking.
Continuation of my response to Daniel Mocsny:
One more comment (that I forgot when re-constructing my original comment)…added after John Loftus agreed with the above portion of this comment.
One important factor in the problem of obtaining consensus among critical thinkers on an issue is the FACT v. VALUE distinction that David Hume emphasized. When it comes to EVALUATIVE or NORMATIVE issues, different people have different desires and VALUES. That is part of the problem. Different strokes for different folks.
But another important element to this problem is commonly ignored: human beings have MANY desires and VALUES. We don’t just want ONE THING. Aquinas was wrong in suggesting that all human beings desire the GOOD, as if there was just ONE THING that we all want. Because we desire or VALUE many different things, virtually all decisions and choices involve some degree of sacrifice or compromise. We cannot, in general, have our cake and eat it too. We want to have our cake. We want to eat it. But if we eat the cake, then we won’t have it, and if we have it, then we won’t eat it. We can eat half of the cake and keep half of the cake uneaten, but that involves a COMPROMISE between those two desires. One could bake two cakes, I suppose, and eat one and keep the other, but that still involves some COMPROMISE, because the cake you eat cannot be kept, and the cake you keep cannot be eaten.
Take for example the VALUE of FREEDOM and the VALUE of STABILITY & ORDER. We all VALUE both FREEDOM and STABILITY & ORDER. But if we maximize our FREEDOM, then we will need to sacrifice STABILITY & ORDER. If we maximize STABILITY & ORDER, then we will need to sacrifice FREEDOM. Probably the best we can do in a social or political system is to achieve a balance between these two VALUES. There is no such thing as a perfect social or political system, because we VALUE two different things that are not completely compatible in reality. There are better and worse social and political systems, but even the best such system will involve some COMPROMISE between FREEDOM and STABILITY & ORDER.
Furthermore, even just in terms of social and political systems, we VALUE more than just FREEDOM and STABILITY & ORDER. We have MANY VALUES that we want a social or political system to embody, and so there are MANY CONFLICTS between these various VALUES that require some COMPROMISES and BALANCING between several different desires or VALUES.
Thus, even if we all had exactly the same structure of emotions and desires, consensus among critical thinkers about which social or political system is best would still be difficult to achieve, because each human being has MANY different desires and VALUES that conflict with each other when we try to satisfy all of those desires or achieve all of those VALUES.
My final comments about Critical Thinking, posted in connection with an article published by John Loftus on his Debunking Christianity website: “In Defense of Richard Dawkins“.
The Ambiguity of the Term “critical thinker”
In order to think with CLARITY about the question “Does God exist?” it helps to understand that there is an ambiguity in the term “theism”:
⦁ weak-sense theism: the belief that some sort of god exists.
⦁ strong-sense theism: the belief that God exists.
This ambiguity in the term “theism” creates a similar ambiguity in the related term “atheism”:
⦁ weak-sense atheism: the rejection of the belief that God exists.
⦁ strong-sense atheism: the rejection of the belief that some sort of god exists.
There is a similar issue with the term “critical thinker”.
In order to think with CLARITY about critical thinking, it helps to understand that there is an ambiguity in the term “critical thinker”:
⦁ weak-sense critical thinker: someone who has some basic knowledge and skills in reasoning and argumentation.
⦁ strong-sense critical thinker: someone who cares about the universal standards of thinking (CLARITY, ACCURACY, PRECISION, RELEVANCE, SIGNIFICANCE, LOGICALNESS, FAIRNESS, DEPTH, BREADTH, and SUFFICIENCY) and who posseses the relevant knowledge, skills, attitudes, character, and habits of thought so that he/she actually and consistently conforms his/her thinking to the universal standards of thinking.
Producing weak-sense critical thinkers is a modest educational goal, like literacy. We want all students to obtain some basic skills in reasoning and argumentation before they graduate from high school.
Producing strong-sense critical thinkers is a more ambitious educational goal. Those of us who believe that human thinking has generally been plagued by self-deception, deception, gullibility, egocentrism, sociocentrism, prejudice, bias, illogical and irrational patterns of thought, etc. would like the education of our children to raise the general quality of human thinking to a significantly higher level, so that our education systems begin to produce human beings who count as strong-sense critical thinkers.
Given this important distinction, the question “Are critical thinkers appropriately skeptical in their thinking?” is an AMBIGUOUS question.
Someone who has some basic knowledge and skills in reasoning and argumentation can nevertheless choose to NEVER or only RARELY use that knowledge and those skills. Furthermore, someone who has some basic knowledge and skills in reasoning and argumentation can choose to use their knowledge and skills in a BIASED and UNFAIR way that only serves their self-interest or the interest of some group with whom they identify, or use their knowledge and skills in reasoning and argumentation in a BIASED and UNFAIR way to promote their own beliefs or the beliefs of some group with whom they identify.
Can a “critical thinker” be foolish, dogmatic, closed-minded, and gullible?
It depends on what you mean by a “critical thinker”. A weak-sense critical thinker can certainly be foolish, dogmatic, closed-minded, and gullible. But a strong-sense critical thinker is going to be a SKEPTICAL thinker and not a dogmatic, closed-minded, or gullible person.
In order to become a strong-sense critical thinker, one will need to learn some insights about human behavior and thinking, insights that come from sociology and psychology. One will need to learn some FACTS indicating that human thinking is commonly and naturally engulfed in self-deception, deception, egocentrism, sociocentrism, irrational and illogical patterns and tendencies of thinking, etc. Apart from learning such FACTS about human thinking, it will be difficult if not impossible for a person to AVOID or ALLEVIATE the natural tendencies in their own thinking and in the thinking of the groups to which they belong. One must FIRST recognize there are serious problems that need to be solved, before one can make significant progress in solving those problems.
If one becomes aware of the extent to which human thinking is plagued by self-deception, deception, egocentrism, sociocentrism, prejudice, bias, irrationality and illogical tendencies, then one will naturally become SKEPTICAL about not only the thinking and beliefs of others, but also about one’s own thinking and beliefs, and about the thinking and beliefs of the groups to which one belongs.
I am a SKEPTIC because I am a CYNIC.
Because deception, irrationality, and illogical thinking are the NORM for human beings, if one embraces the universal standards of thinking, and makes a serious effort to consistently conform one’s thinking to those universal standards, it will become clear that one is swimming against the current, both against the psychological current in one’s own mind that pushes one towards irrationality and illogical thinking, and also against the social current in one’s community or country, because all human cultures are infected with and promote irrationality and illogical thinking and sociocentrism and other biases.
Anyone who successfully and consistently conforms his/her thinking to the universal standards of thinking will be able to experience the opposition of common and natural irrational and illogical tendencies of their own mind and in the thinking and beliefs of the people around them. Such experiences naturally lead one to be SKEPTICAL and to avoid being gullible.