Friday, March 9, 2012

The Path of a Critical Thinker (part three)

As I continue this series, I'd like to clarify exactly what being a "critical thinker" means. A critical thinker is, at her core, a thinker who dares to question. A critical thinker is never entirely satisfied with anything less than absolute knowledge, and thus always holds her beliefs with an open hand, ready to discard it when evidence is presented that points to something better. A critical thinker never stops questioning, never says, "well, I've seen all I need to see to convince me." A critical thinker strives to understand logic, and base one's life on reason and the pursuit of truth. A critical thinker is not free from bias, but recognizes the biases she and each one of us possesses, and wrestles to break free from its influence as she draws well-reasoned conclusions and solutions to the pertinent issues and problems of the day.

  • Rules of Inference
  • I want to avoid turning this into an in-depth logic tutorial, but I need to stress the importance of understanding the basics of logic. I created a separate page describing the Rules of Inference for the sake of space here. It's one thing to say that a valid argument "has proper form," and another thing to know what "proper form" actually is.

  • Statements vs. Propositions
  • I had an epiphany of sorts several years ago when I was just beginning to learn about philosophy and logic in which I noticed a common mistake people on opposing sides of an issue make when debating an issue: they tend to debate words and phrases rather than meanings. To use an example from my Christian days, I remember a Sunday School lesson about other religions in which the teacher compared Christianity to Buddhism. She referred to an article she read by a Buddhist about happiness. She then said, "Buddhists teach happiness, but Christians teach joy, which is much deeper and more meaningful than just being happy." What she failed to realize (and what I learned later on when I studied Buddhism extensively) is that what this Buddhist writer meant by "happiness" is pretty much the same thing that Christians mean by "joy." My Sunday School teacher was debating the words while neglecting to consider the meanings behind those words. Understanding the distinction between statements and propositions, therefore, is crucial to developing good critical thinking skills. A statement is a declarative sentence, like "Bill is taller than Ray." A proposition is the meaning behind the statement. For example, "Bill is taller than Ray" and "Ray is shorter than Bill" express the same proposition. Likewise, the statements "I am an atheist" and "I don't believe in any god or gods" also express the same proposition.

  • Connotation vs. Denotation
  • Connotation refers to that which is implied or suggested by a word or phrase. Denotation refers to the literal interpretation or explicit meaning of a word or phrase. For example, "Ray drives a BMW" denotes that (if the statement is true) Ray owns a German automobile. It connotes that Ray is at least moderately affluent. Labels we give ourselves can carry both denotative and connotative meanings and implications as well. For example, if I say I am an "atheist," that label denotes that my worldview (whatever it might be) lacks a belief in a god or gods. The "atheist" label may connote that I don't go to church, or don't believe in an afterlife or in anything "supernatural." And here's where we need to be careful. There is a difference between connotation and assumption. There are people who assume that being an atheist means one has no morals, when that's actually far from the truth. Likewise, one can assume that being a "Christian" means one believes in a literal six-day creation, or denies evolution, or hates homosexuals. While that may be true for many Christians, there are many others for whom such connotation is simply untrue. This leads to the next point:

  • Assumptions vs. Conclusions
  • An assumption is a premise accepted without evidence (or without bothering to look for evidence) to support it. A conclusion is a premise backed up by other premises which attempt to support it. Bottom line is: whenever possible, don't assume. 'Nuff said.

Previously: part two | Next: part four


[Read the entire series: The Path of a Critical Thinker]

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