Critical thinking has been, and always will be, the catalyst of human advancement. The moment our ape ancestor had its first rational thought, its first movement past inclination and instinct, was the moment humanity was born. The greatest civilizations were always full of free thinkers: Rome, Gupta India, Enlightenment Europe, the Post-War West. But critical thinking has not always been popular. For generations, the Church and feudal lords practiced obscurantism, trying to prevent the rise of independent and critical thought. Communists and Fascists did all they could to prevent people from accessing information and from forming their own conclusions away from the party lines. Critical thinkers have fought a long and treacherous battle against those who would seek to silence or destroy them.
But what is critical thinking? Obviously it is a process of the rational mind, but not all processes of our mind are obvious to ourselves. Critical thinking is not merely rationalizing a belief or evaluating a perceived circumstance-- that would be mere justificationism. No, critical thinking is something more. It’s the use of pure reason, of the mental and perceptive faculties that you and your peers have as human beings, to establish not evidence for a claim, but establish whether a claim is in line with the ultimate concept of the universe: objective truth. It is, in a sense, not grasping a mere apprehension of our subjective experience, but grasping a facet of the universal.
One of the core strengths of critical thinking is that it starts with the question and the evidence, so, if done correctly, it comes to the right answer, the revered, almost-holy objective truth. On the other hand, most “thinking” that is done starts with an assumption and is followed by rationalizing it via evidence, picked and chosen. The cause of this is one of the core human plagues- passion. People who invest their emotional health into something will always fall to the plague of justifying belief in that thing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence contrary to it. On the other hand, critical thinking is removed from that core weakness of humanity. It is scholarly, self-critiquing, able to reject and accept evidence as is, not as it makes one feel. It allows us to utilize our superior, scientific, Stoic, autonomous, rational side to reach the correct answer- no self-imposed blindfold is present. In short, it is the process of the great art of science.
It should be obvious that reaching correct answers is a great boon. Societies advance because they get smarter, wealthier, more aware- those things are caused by having correct information and rational judgments. Rome reached its peak under its Stoic Emperors, who put rationality above all. Gupta India advanced math and science beyond what was thought possible because they utilized reasoning skills. Enlightenment Europe conquered the globe by its science and administrative skills, found by the method of rational inquiry. The Founding Fathers created the greatest nation ever known by way of their love of critical thinking. The best parts of our modern world are all products of the best part of human nature.
One would think that as time went on, our species’ love affair with critical thinking would have gotten stronger. Nowadays, however, the very idea of critical thinking is under assault. Postmodernists and disinformation peddlers fight the very idea of objective truth and fill our cultural and political discourse with feelings, fake news, and rationalizations of their prior convictions. Ask a young (or old, even) person today if objective truth or morality exists, if science is supreme, if people are endowed with natural rights, and you’re likely to get a firm “no” as an answer. Justifications range from their observations, to their contrarian attitudes. Probe deeper, however, and you’ll find that it’s an attachment to ego, a desire for edginess, that truly makes them hold their beliefs, not logical thinking.
Ego is another core plague of the human mind. Everyone can fall to the trap of thinking that they’re always supreme. We tend to trust ourselves above science, and that never leads to good results. If one is to reach correct answers through the rational process, one must detach their identity from their practice of science. Intellectualism in our society has been degraded by the practice of putting one’s identity and one’s grudges in front of one’s claims.
What makes a good critical thinker? Dr. Karl Popper, a great inspiration to this author, famously said, “No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” In effect, a good critical thinker will detach himself of passions or identity, of prior beliefs, and will evaluate based on evidence, on whether a theory lines up with reality, rather than if there is evidence for the theory. Truly, he will check himself against the record of the universe.
How can we bring critical thinking back in vogue? We must start by focusing on ourselves, not others. We must set an example of scientific conduct. Next time you see some claim, evaluate it based on its evidence, not based on the way it makes you feel. When arguing for a position, take a step back and see if you came to that position first, rather than if your position is a scientific conclusion. To fight feelings-over-facts in our society, we must fight feelings-over-facts in ourselves. Fight the good fight. Humanity’s destiny is worth it.
By your sword, Reason,
Joshua Z. Miller