What is the purpose of critical thinking and skepticism? Why bother to engage in all this mental exercise and hard work?
“If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” -Benjamin Franklin
The purpose is not to get you and everyone else to think the same way. There are very few “absolute truths”. Variety is not only the spice of life, it is also the thing that drives life forward and makes it interesting.
No, the point is not to get you to agree with me and everyone else on everything. Instead, critical thinking skills actually give you the ability to form and evaluate ideas so you can decide what is actually the sensible and best thing for you to do in any given circumstance.
Critical thinking, skepticism, logic: these are all just tools you can use to help you find the truth.
The Truth is Out There
There are not really too many requirements to being a critical thinker. It doesn’t depend on how smart you are or how clever or how good you are at debating someone. All of those skills can help you to win over other people to your point of view, but they aren’t what critical thinking is all about.
What you want is the truth. And that can be a damn hard thing to find sometimes. But you don’t have to be a genius to get it. Some of the most profound truths some parents have ever heard have come straight out of the mouths of their small children, who maybe didn’t know anywhere near as much as their parents, but they sure could see to the heart of the matter quickly and easily.
Every now and again, the truth is sitting right out in the open, obvious for all to see. Other times, it is hidden away, seemingly locked in a vault and guarded by big men with bigger guns. Regardless of how deeply it is buried or how much effort is made to keep it from view, the truth can always be found.
However, and this is the hard part, you have to want to find the truth. You have to want it more than anything else. This is the heart and soul of critical thinking, skepticism, logic and rationality. If you don’t want to find the truth or you are working to cover it up for some reason, you can just forget rationality because it’s a total stranger to you.
There could be lots of good reasons to keep the truth hidden away. It could appear that there would be dire consequences to discovering the truth. And these consequences and reasons can work in your mind to convince you that you shouldn’t know or shouldn’t even look.
Cults are a particularly good example of this. Here are a group of people who, like any group, are kept together because of some common belief or ideal. But cults have the peculiar idea that their central beliefs are the only truth in the entire universe. This is one of the things that makes them a cult. Members believe this so fervently that they blatantly refuse to even consider that there is truth to be found anywhere else, especially if it happens to contradict in any way the cult’s central beliefs.
That is thought-stopping and is the exact opposite of critical thinking. No one who closes their mind will ever find the truth about anything. And people in cults can go for years thinking they have found all the truth they will ever need, only to discover too late that they have been conned or worse and have wasted most of their lives with blinders on. That is no way to live your life.
Critical thinking and skepticism require a dedicated and knowing search for the facts no matter the consequences, no matter how hard they might be to understand and no matter what anyone else thinks or says about it. Facts are facts and they can’t be argued out of existence or wished away.
And once you have found some piece of truth, you have to remember that there is always more to be found. No one has any monopoly on the truth. No one knows everything there is to know. This is not to say that you can’t ever be satisfied. It’s to say that you should keep your eyes open and always be ready to look some more.
Every decision you make and every action you take depends utterly on your circumstances and information you have at your disposal. This is why most issues don’t have nice, easy pat answers. Things like abortion, gun control, education, even the “right” to take another’s life, all depend on the specific circumstances one is in. These must be evaluated before one can decide whether something is true or false, right or wrong.
I’m not talking about belief or faith here. I’m talking about real world circumstances and real life situations. If someone is coming at you with a gun and intends to kill you, then I’m sure you can quickly evaluate that stopping that person may require the use of deadly force. If that would save your own life, odds are you would be okay with using that deadly force.
In most situations, you would not just pick up a gun or a baseball bat and knock someone over the head and kill them. That would be something you would never even consider doing, and you’d probably try to stop someone else if they were doing it too. You would probably also support laws that ban that kind of activity.
I’m not trying to make a case for killing someone or telling you whether it’s good or bad. That’s for you to decide. Ethics and morality should be tempered by critical thinking but are up to individuals to decide. My point is simply that the circumstances and information surrounding any situation are what define what course of action you should take. And that by using critical thinking and logic, you give yourself the time and ability to better evaluate the consequences and validity of any action or data.
Relentlessly seeking to ferret out the actual facts of the matter is the most important trait of a skeptic or critical thinker. Very few people will admit that they enjoy being lied to or don’t want to actually know the truth, yet their actions can tell another story. It is sometimes hard work to find or live with some piece of truth. It takes time to really get all the facts and look past the opinions. But the rewards for doing so are immeasurable.