Critical thinking is not difficult. Like any other subject, there are certain basics to it, fundamentals upon which the rest of the subject is based. If you know these fundamentals, the rest comes a lot easier. So the first thing we’ll go over are three basic facts about critical thinking that you should know.
Critical Thinking is Based on Science
Critical thinking is based on logic and science. For many people, the word “science” is unpleasant because it brings to mind hard-to-understand classes at school with a lot of weird symbols and calculations and experiments that didn’t really make a lot of sense or have much use. Certainly not enough to try to remember them all now.
But think about science for just a second. There are many different fields and areas of science, but in the big picture when you are talking about science you are talking about figuring out how the world works. Philosophers and New Age gurus can talk about the nature of reality all day long, but when you are walking across the street and a car is coming towards you, it’s not a philosophic question that you better get out of the way or you are going to be hit. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that 2 + 2 = 4. That is always true under any circumstances. A fact is not an opinion or a “good idea” or a guess about something. It is something that can be proven to be true based on multiple observations and repeated testing.
Without the discoveries of science, most everything that we take for granted every day would not even exist. There would be no computers, no internet, no cars, trains, planes or automobiles. There would also be no medicine, no electricity and not even eye glasses. In the modern world, we are literally surrounded by the products of science everywhere we look. So the fact is, science can’t be that hard to understand because lots of people are doing it.
You may be surprised to learn that the word “science” actually goes back to an old Latin word that means “knowledge” or “certainty.” Earlier than that, it was the idea of “splitting” or “dividing” things, probably because way back then, if someone wanted to know about something they would cut it into two and look at what was inside.
Science is not smart people in lab coats standing around tables with glass test tubes and strange liquids brewing in them. It’s just knowing about things and having certainty about things. But the concept of science has one other crucial part to it, which is that it is knowing or certainty gained through observation and evidence. It is not faith or belief. When something is known in science, that means it can be observed by other people too, in the same way that you observe it.
The steps to get that knowledge or certainty is called the “scientific method.” There’s a difference between guessing about something and knowing about something. When you guess, you are uncertain. When you know, you are certain. Scientific method is the way to be certain.
So the first thing to know is that the goal of critical thinking is being certain in your knowledge and knowing that knowledge is based on facts, not opinions or faith or belief.
Taking Charge of Your Thinking
Many of the thoughts and opinions that we have about things come from ideas outside of us that we got from others. Early in life, our parents or whoever was raising us, were most likely the biggest influence on how we thought about things.
If your mom told you that eating chocolate would cause acne, you probably believed it. Especially if she told you over and over again. That doesn’t mean it’s true. But you probably accepted it as true, you passed it on to others and if anyone challenged you about it, you probably told them they were wrong and you knew that it was true, even if you didn’t remember where you got it from. The fact is that it’s never been proven that eating chocolate causes acne. It could be just as true that sun spots cause acne. That’s never been proven either, but it sounds just about as true.
It’s not hard to see that what we were taught in school, what our friends and associates tell us, and most of all, what we hear or see on TV and on the Internet have a great deal of influence over how we look at things. This is why advertisers get celebrities to endorse products, why TV talk shows are on the air at all and why those crazy gossip magazines keep selling at the grocery store checkout stands.
It’s easy to be lazy about thinking. It’s so much easier, in fact, that most people don’t really think too much at all. With so much technology around us, making the bare necessities of life easy, people these days don’t really have to think to much in order to actually get along in life. So many things are done for us, made for us, given to us or can be easily purchased. In this kind of environment, it doesn’t appear that thinking is very much in demand.
And there are certainly no shortage of people around who are more than willing to tell you what to think, when to think and where to think it.
It can’t all be blamed on the modern era though. It’s actually part of human nature to want to agree with other people and to get along with them. One finds out pretty early in life that if he doesn’t “go with the flow” then he can be left out and maybe not have any friends at all. So it’s in our nature to seek out what other people think about things and match our thinking to agree with theirs. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with agreeing with other people. But if that’s all you do, you’re going to find yourself wasting a lot of your time, energy and money on things you don’t need or want.
Building up your own critical thinking skills means exercising your mind, being an active thinker instead of a passive spectator. In order to really be successful at critical thinking, it takes some work. It’s just like building muscles up with weight lifting. It’s not easy, you have to do it over and over again and many times you will want to just give up and quit.
But if you persist, it becomes easier and easier to do. And what you gain is well worth the effort.
So the second thing to know is that you can’t be a lazy thinker. I’m not saying you are. I’m just saying that in order to be a critical thinker, you have to get used to thinking on purpose and thinking a lot.
No One Can Tell You What to Think
The third thing to know is that no one can tell you what to think or what your viewpoint should be. And if you are practicing critical thinking, you don’t want them to. You want to get facts and information and form your own certainties and your own ideas about things.
It is just another form of lazy thinking to “study” something only to the point where someone “in authority” tells you what they think and you blindly accept that. That is not how to learn and it’s not critical thinking.
You may end up agreeing with people who present information to you. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But only after you have evaluated the information yourself and come to your own conclusions will you know whether someone else’s ideas are worth agreeing with.
The goal of learning to think critically can be described more specifically as learning to be in charge of your own thinking and to think precisely and in definite terms, not being vague or wishy-washy.
There is nothing wrong with believing in things and having faith, whether that faith is placed in God or in the love of your parents’ or just believing that your children will grow up to be good people. Personally, I think having faith in certain things is quite necessary for a happy life. But it’s important to differentiate faith-based thinking from science-based thinking. These two things can easily live side-by-side in the same person, but only when one is clear on their differences.