Foundations of Critical Thinking
Thoughtfulness is a virtue, and clear thinking is an art. In this text, we will study the art of clear thinking with the goal of providing a useful, general way to talk about and evaluate investigations and recommendations.
To get better at doing any art, be it painting, acting, playing piano, or chasing down a rugby ball, we work to master certain skills. In our journey towards mastery, we will practice the skills relevant to thinking, and evaluate how well we have done so. In order to make this evaluation, we will develop a systematic way to express our thoughts, called “formalising”. In our practice we will formalise and evaluate informal arguments.
Evaluating art raises unique challenges unlike those occurring in logic or mathematics. Together we’ll need to grapple honestly with those challenges, including, most importantly, criticisms that these kinds of evaluations amount to little more than “just your opinion”. My preference for blue socks is clearly an opinion, but my claim that the sky is blue is something we can evaluate against shared standards and facts. To tell us that the sky is green is not to opine; it is simply incorrect. Our focus will be on the latter sort of statement, that is, statements we can judge against standards.
Successful practice of Critical Thinking depends on exercising our judgement. Exercise of judgement differs from expression of opinion, and we separate the one from the other in order to avoid a common accusation: this is all subjective. Rather than dismiss perspective as problematic, we will embrace it and give perspective its own space in our systematic assessment of inferences and recommendations.
Thinking might not be algorithmic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t systematic. Our aim is to develop a systematic way to state and evaluate investigations and recommendations. In an algorithmic exercise, using the same process each time, we would always end with the same answers, verifiable against a key, as we expect in mathematical or formal logical settings. But in the world, with respect to thinking, this simply doesn’t happen. Thinking is a creative exercise, and the products of thought can only be assessed against standards that accommodate creativity.