Introduction to Critical Thinking

In recent years, critical thinking has received an incredible amount of hype. The California legislature has made it mandatory for all million students in the state's community college and university systems; high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools have begun including it in their curricula; and professional programs, from law to nursing, have begun testing and training in critical thinking. The reason for this, of course, is obvious: they all want their students to be able to make good decisions and to communicate the basis for those decisions clearly. Yet critical thinking plays only a small role in the decision-making process: it may help to eliminate some bogus resources, but it cannot really differentiate between competing, rational theories or experts; it may help to identify the underlying assumptions of some arguments, but it often cannot evaluate those assumptions; it is best at ferreting out invalid arguments, but in real-world situations those arguments can usually be restated in a valid form; and most significantly of all, it can never indicate whether the argument under consideration reaches the best possible conclusion for a given situation.

Considering all that, what is the use of a critical-thinking tutorial such as Mission: Critical? There are certain things to be said in favor of taking the time to study this sort of logical analysis:

  • First, and foremost, it is (or should be) fun. The way critical thinking manipulates language and concepts is much like a very complex word game.
  • Critical thinking's categorical approach to reality -- both abstract concepts and concrete entities -- is also good training for the mind, because it encourages the individual to deal with problems in a thoroughly disciplined way. According to the old saying, an amateur listens to a difficult question and wonders what the answer is, an expert listens to the same thing and wonders what kind of question it is. Critical thinking is not the only way to learn to make categorical connections, but it is a good one.
  • It is also an almost universal tradition in education. Though European culture tends to associate logic and critical thinking with a tradition that includes, in particular, the Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, most cultures have similar systems of analysis, though they may differ, for example, in the weight given to various sorts of evidence (eye-witness testimony, received writings, the sayings of prophets, sages, and elders, physical evidence, and so on). And it is nice to be part of a long and revered tradition.
  • Because it is such a recognized tradition, critical thinking provides a simplified way of communicating about complex problems -- as long as both parties to the communication have been initiated into that tradition. Critical thinkers can make short work of an invalid argument by agreeing that its middle term is not distributed, or that it contains a "slippery slope" fallacy, but others might struggle to identify and explain what they find unacceptable.
  • And, finally, critical thinking is an important way to interrogate our own ideas and those with which we come in contact. It cannot solve every difficulty, but it is often the first step in the investigation of an argument or decision-making process.
And so, the buttons to the left are the keys to a rather limited but useful kingdom. Good luck. And enjoy.