Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Gen Eds Series P4: Critical Thinking

This is my fourth philosophy post in a series called, "General Education in a Nutshell." Philosophy is the first of ten subjects I plan to overview in this series. These are the subjects a person normally takes in college (or high school) to be a generally educated person (most of them also make up what is sometimes called the "liberal arts").

The first three philosophy posts were:
1. Critical thinking is perhaps the most important skill a person can get from the liberal arts and a general education. Critical thinking skills are the ability to analyze claims, identify their assumptions, and make judgments about their likely truthfulness.

There are three basic components to human thinking. First there are assumptions or presuppositions, which include our "paradigms" or patterns we follow when interpreting things. [1] These are inescapable and fundamental to all our reasoning. Then there is our thought process itself, which is governed by logic or reasoning. Finally, there is the content of our thinking, the inputs we take from the world on the basis of our experiences and senses.

Somewhat related to these are three classical tests for truth. The correspondence test basically asks, "Does this claim correspond to reality?" It is thus related to the inputs part of thinking. The impossibility of objectivity puts a big damper on this test because all of our understanding of the world and its data is processed by our minds, interpreted.

So the correspondence test is best limited to fairly basic claims like, "There is an elephant in this room." Really? Do you mean a literal elephant or are you using a figure of speech? If you meant the statement literally, I should be able to quickly confirm or deny your claim using the correspondence test.

2. The second test is the coherence test. It asks whether the logic of my claim or argument is coherent. Are there any logical fallacies in your line of thought. Of course an argument can be completely coherent and yet false because your assumptions or premises are false. Here we have what is called the syllogism, first explored in detail by the Greek thinker Aristotle.
  • All philosophy teachers are geniuses.
  • Ken is a philosophy teacher.
  • Ken is a genius.
The logic here is valid--it works and is coherent. But the first premise is not true because not all philosophy teachers are geniuses. And I did not teach philosophy last year or the coming year. I'm actually a New Testament scholar. So the logic of this syllogism works, but the premises are false. You should not conclude thereby that Ken is a genius.

3. The third test has especially risen to prominence in this postmodern time, namely, the pragmatic test. It asks whether a truth claim works. What do you mean by "works"? Does it achieve its goal? There is a sense in which we might think of all of our paradigms and theories about the world as heuristic devices, "myths" or highly developed poems of a sort to help us process the world.

Are there electrons, protons, and neutrons? This theory has done us very, very well over the last century. We can't really see them. We can really only see the effects of these proposed particles. So the question of whether it is true that they exist is really one of the pragmatic test. The theory works and has been developed to work very well to predict what will happen under certain circumstances.

4. The next post will look at the philosophy of science and so will continue our discussion of assumptions and a pragmatic approach to reality. For the rest of this post, we want to mention the most significant logical fallacies or errors in thinking, which are always very relevant in an election season.

a. Jumping to Conclusions (hasty generalization)
We do it all the time. We don't have all the information and yet we form a conclusion. Candidates, election ads, and cable news figures often give us just enough data for us to jump to a conclusion. The critical thinker will question every one.

b. The Straw Man argument
Often in an argument, someone creates a slightly (or greatly) skewed version of an opponent's position. So Obama has never tried (or thought it possible in a million years) to get rid of the second amendment. No one is trying to set up death panels. These are skewed versions of real political positions that a critical thinker will see right through.

c. Attacking the Person (ad hominem fallacy)
It is a standard technique in politics to attack the person rather than the positions. Trump does this all the time. Mitt Romney is a loser. John McCain is a loser. Hilary Clinton was an enabler. Unless these claims relate in some substantial way to the claims these people are making, then they are irrelevant. The critical thinker will ignore name calling when considering an argument.

d. Loaded Question
One of the things I mourn about the news situation today is the loaded question. That's when you assume a position in your questioning. "Don't you think it is hypocritical of you to say that you support economic growth when your decisions work entirely against it?" An objective question will try to assume as little as possible in the asking. "In what ways would you say that your decisions in office have helped or hindered economic growth?" The critical thinker will be disgusted by the way many news interviews are conducted these days.

e. Begging the Question (circular reasoning)
Similar to a loaded question, this is when you assume your conclusion in your argument. "The Bible is inspired because 1 Timothy 3:16 says so." You are assuming the Bible is inspired to argue that the Bible is inspired, which is bad reasoning.

f. Black and White Thinking (false alternative)
This is where a person says, "Either you believe this or you believe that," when in fact there are more alternatives. Either you believe in unregulated capitalism or you are a communist. There are a lot of options in between these two. But because most people have trouble with nuance, politicians are constantly manipulating bad thinkers with this one. The critical thinker will see right through it. There are usually other options, "third ways," middle paths, etc.

g. Wishful Thinking (appeal to emotion)
Most people think mostly with their emotions, not their reason. We find arguments to support what we want to be true. "It can't be wrong because it feels so right." Tell that to the ground next time you fall off a building. Intuitions can actually be based on unarticulated evidence. But your feelings are completely irrelevant to the truth. But I don't want to have a broken arm because I got in a car accident. Tough cookies. The truth doesn't care how you feel.

h. Changing the Issue (fallacy of diversion)
There are all sorts of versions of this one. Today we want to argue that women should be paid the same as men if they do the same job. "Oh yeah, well do you know how many babies were aborted today? Now that's a more important issue. "The critical thinker will not be thrown off by this changing of the issue.

The slippery slope argument is another diversion. "If we have any gun control at all, pretty soon they will be taking away all our guns." Completely illogical and the critical thinker will not be fooled.

The genetic fallacy changes the issue to where it came from. "You realize the person who came up with this idea was a criminal." Really? That's interesting. But is the idea right or wrong, because where the idea came from is a diversion.

The you also (tu quoque) argument tries to turn the focus off of me and on to you: "Well, you're a fine one to say that." The critical thinker will notice that the speaker is trying to deflect attention off of him or herself.

i. Prejudice and Smearing (composition and division)
Another tool in the illogical politician's toolbox is to smear an opponent by connecting them with a bad group (division) or maligning a whole group because a bad individual is part of it. "He must be a terrorist because he's Muslim." Or "I knew a Christian who was a hypocrite; therefore, all Christians are hypocrites."

And many more...

The world is sorely lacking critical thinkers. Every election cycle in America we realize just how illogically most people think. Perhaps the most important function of an education, especially in a democracy, is to try to inculcate critical thinking skills. It is largely a losing battle. But progress can be made.

Next Week: Philosophy 5: Philosophy of Science

[1] On a larger scale, our presuppositions include the frameworks or paradigms through which we process the world, which some like to call "worldviews" or our "narratives," but there are fallacies lurking in a perspective that thinks we make most our decisions on the basis of large ideological frameworks. See the next post on the philosophy of science.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"It's largely a losing battle . . ."