Critical thinking

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A critique is an evaluation of a position in the light of certain standards that are (or are alleged to be) valid criteria applicable to various types of reasoning.

Judging justly

In the academic game, scholars are never supposed to adopt a position uncritically; that's what stupid or poorly-educated people do. In theory, reasons must be given that will stand up to the most severe scrutiny of skeptical inquirers. It is, of course, self-evident among self-styled "critical thinkers" that doubt is respectable and belief contemptible. An unwritten--and unfair!--rule of the game is that the one who launches the first critique is immune from criticism.

"Go by the evidence."
The goal of critical thinking is to limit one's beliefs to what is justified by evidence evaluated by the standards appropriate to the question in hand.
No double standards.
Those who aspire to be critical thinkers should evaluate their own assertions using the same standards that they apply to the assertions of others.
  • "Test everything; hold on to what is good" (1 Thess 5:21).
  • Don't believe everything you hear--until you have made sure that it is from a reliable authority.
  • Check the facts. Check your sources.
  • If a theory doesn't correspond to the facts, get rid of the theory, not the facts.
  • Treat like things according to like standards.
  • Be thorough and consistent. Don't make hasty generalizations.

Unreasonable doubt

Unbalanced critical thinking leads to skepticism, relativism, and solipsism. The person who resolves to doubt everything and accept only what is perfectly proven usually ends up with a "proof" that nobody knows anything for certain. The proposition that "nobody can know anything for certain" is not and cannot be the conclusion of a perfect proof because this idea is not self-evident, is self-referentially inconsistent, and can only be defended by depending upon assumptions that themselves cannot be strictly proven to be true.

The belief that we should doubt everything is essentially a religious belief. It is not a self-evident truth. It is not established by rigorous argument. It is supported by some anecdotal evidence (some breakthroughs in science have come from doubting previous convictions about science) but contradicted by other evidence (some breakthroughs come from following beliefs to their logical conclusions). Because the slogan is itself part of everything, we are required by its meaning to doubt its meaning, which is self-referentially inconsistent. The project is also hopeless, because it requires us to doubt our own powers of perception, memory, reasoning, and expression--the proper behavior to be expected from someone who takes this maxim seriously would be total silence and complete withdrawal from the field of rational discourse.

Those who seriously try to advance the program of universal doubt prove themselves to be fools, hypocrites, or charlatans. Every argument they make to advance their view testifies against it--"for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear" (Prov 20:12).

Questions for historical research

There is a long tradition, predating the development of English, that tried to identify the basic questions to ask about any story.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

I cannot arrive at a stable opinion about whether "How was it done?" is contained in "What was done?" "Five Ws" is neater than "Five Ws and an H" or "Six Ws." The more complex the event, the more the "When?" and "Where?" get spread out in time and space.


The goal of thought is to find the truth. The critical question is: "Do I know this for sure?"

Self-critical awareness: evaluating the quality of our own views.

  • Have I done my homework?
  • Have I covered all the bases?
  • Have I thought of all the relevant questions?
  • Are there reasonable alternatives that I may have overlooked?
  • Have I presented my case in such a way that others will find it reasonable?
  • Am I acting in good conscience? Or are there other motives affecting my judgment? E.g.: desire for financial gain, fame, affection, etc.
Note well: we may have many motives at work in us as we read and write. The goal is to keep those extra motives from overriding our judgment and distorting our results.
YOUCAT question #457
When conveying information, we should think of the "three sieves" of Socrates:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it helpful?
Discretion is called for also in dealing with professional secrets. They should always be kept, except in special cases defined by strict criteria. Likewise, anyone who publicizes confidential communications that were made under the seal of secrecy commits a sin. Everything we say must be true, but we need not say everything that is true.