The Perils of Critical Thinking
I am a graduate assistant in the Temple Philosophy Department. I had the opportunity of teaching two sections of a class called “Critical Thinking” for the first time last semester (fall 2016). I find myself engaging in some metareflection on the overall effect of the class now that the semester is over and I can set aside details of weekly lessons.
Critical thinking is a phrase every college student has heard numerous times, and, like a lot of overused phrases, it’s meaning has become vague and its significance has dulled. One of the good things that came from my class is that we were able to spell out in specific, practical terms exactly what critical thinking is. Critical thinking, I have come to conclude after a semester spent teaching it, involves a daily struggle between psychology and logic, between raw motivation and the intellect.
During the semester, I felt that myself and my students were getting more and more sensitive to the structure of arguments. Arguments in philosophy and other academic disciplines are not quarrels. We say that we get into an argument with our significant other, and we mean that there were emotions like anger and sadness over some kind of conflict. But, technically speaking, an argument is an attempt to draw some new piece of information from given information—i.e. to draw a conclusion from premises.
The simple premise-conclusion structure lends itself to all kinds of fascinating permutations, with lots of little details that can make or break an argument. What’s interesting, too, is that a non-argument can be very telling. A non-argument doesn’t have a premise-conclusion structure. In other words, a non-argument is an assertion that is not based on any data. A non-argument, though logically vacuous, is also psychologically rich. What could motivate someone to merely assert something, without bothering to defend their claim? I think this happens when a person wants something, but knows they’re not really entitled to it. As a result, they try to bully, rather than reason, their way to their goal.
Loaded language is another detail in an argument that can have a profound effect and, like non-arguments, can also be a tool of manipulation. Loaded language can make a conclusion appear more reasonable than it really is. For instance, you can tip the scales on a debate on climate change by referring from the outset to people who are skeptical about climate change with the perjorative-sounding label, “climate-change denier.” To shift to the other side of the political spectrum, you can tip the scales by referring to someone who believes in high taxes and a redistribution of income as a “socialist.”
In the examples of non-arguments and loaded language, there is a push to persuade someone while at the same time deprioritizing rationality. Of course, you can’t use perjorative labels like climate-change denier or socialist without justifying why the positions they characterize merit a perjorative label in the first place. An ongoing theme in my class was how our psychological drives often overpower our rationality. Sometimes people, dominated by an overriding passion, whether it is for power or money, will use reason only to get what they want. Reasons is useful only to the extent that it can generate convenient fictions that make someone look good, their motivations seemingly directed to the welfare of the group rather than themselves.
David Hume, in fact, a great British philosopher from the eighteenth century, denied that reason had the power to motivate us. Reason cannot motivate us, he thought, because we cannot evaluate a passion in terms of truth and logic. We can only evaluate in terms of truth mental images that are copies of things in the world. An accurate copy is true, an inaccurate copy is false. But, passions are not copies of anything in the world, and so they cannot be true or false. So, reason, with its tools of truth and logic, is powerless to challenge them.
I’m not sure if I agree with Hume’s pessimism, but his point is well taken. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know the best way to get us to change our behavior is not through rational argument, but through something more visceral. It is not how we think, but what we want, that guides our daily choices, on many occasions. Take a minute to reflect on how powerful a sense of social belonging is to the beliefs we form. What other people think is reasonable is often the standard of reasonableness that you end up internalizing.
Which brings me to the title of this essay: critical thinking is perilous because it unmasks people for who they really are. Greater sensitivity to what really follows from a set of premises can lead you to see how people reason with incomplete information, let naïve hopes guide them, and confuse the distinction between two concepts. My students wrote about charged topics like abortion, illegal immigration, and whether or not we have souls. These topics are charged because they are the locus of conflicting desires. The issue of abortion involves the clash between people who passionately believe in women’s rights and people who believe with equal passion in the right to life of the unborn. The issue of illegal immigration involves the clash between compassion for people trying to making a better life for themselves and the need of a nation to protect its citizens and its resources. The self-interest in play here can lead us to push out opposing views. The temptation is to not even consider them. And we can stifle our own curiousity, for fear that we’ll have to change our minds once we hear the other side. And, if and when we emerge from the inquiry, we’re going to have to face people who haven’t undergone the same intellectual proving. They may never welcome the critical thinker.