As Christians we are interested in a perpetual spiritual, moral, general human perfecting. But can we really succeed without perfecting our way of thinking, our capacity to understand, and thus without increasing our intellectual capital?
A certain kind of society requires, beyond the specific economy and institutional organization, a certain way to relate to reality, which involves a specific way of thinking and culture. These are characterized by cognitive style, language, worldview, mentality and specific behavior. The interface between the socio-economic reality and this mental and imaginary universe is represented by “knowledge-driven interests”.
Modern societies are a result of this huge gearing and cannot be conceived in the absence of “critical thinking”1 turned mass phenomenon. A society may import certain economic-financial or institutional elements, but this will not make it a modern society. This is due to the fact that, from the inside, the people’s representations, attitudes and behaviors will be tributary to traditions and will have a retrograde influence on the goals of modernization, even if those come from outside.
Critical thinking not only helps us to get to know the world realistically, but to also correctly identify our place in it and, from here, the role assigned to us. To be unable to correctly evaluate one’s place in society, in the community one lives, one’s present role and long-term vocation, is an existential failure. The failure can be even deeper for a Christian who is supposed to have the two big coordinates of existence deeply rooted in his consciousness: the vertical relationship with the Divine and the horizontal relationship 2with his fellowmen. Even in case of an existential drift, getting out of the skid requires regaining one’s lucidity to evaluate one’s place and role in the world. Critical thinking can significantly contribute to such a “coming to one’s senses”, and this is precisely what every “prodigal son” needs (Luke 15:11-17).
Introductory notions and short history
It is necessary to point out from the very beginning that the attribute “critical” does not refer to the pejorative meaning it has in the common language, that of being reproachful, quarrelsome or accusing. The term “critique” comes from the Greek word kritike, meaning to dissociate, to separate, to select — thus, to act critically. In philosophy, “to critique” refers to “untying that which is only apparently tied together, to distinguish between what is important and essential from what is unimportant and unessential, until the research object is completely isolated and presents itself in its veridic existence”3.
Therefore, when we talk about critical thinking, we refer to the deepest knowledge of reality — both the immanent as well as the transcendent one, i.e. that of God.
Probably anyone would admit they cannot have a good physical condition without movement and constant training. But why is it that so many people are convinced that thinking happens automatically, or effortlessly, that it does not abide by any rule and, especially, that the conclusions they reach are by default always right?
Romanian author Brânduşa Băcilă answers this question as follows: “Thinking — an activity so familiar to the Homo Sapiens and yet so hard to control and evaluate. (…) Human thinking needs special «training» to become more accurate, clear and relevant. This means that it cannot just be left «to unfold» according to its own will in our minds, but that it must be «forced» to abide by certain rules and criteria which can guarantee that the results it yields are reliable.”4
How can we “force” our thinking to obey certain rules? Thinking the way we do — that is, applying critical thinking. This is the term that, starting with the second half of the last century, puts at our disposal a whole field of study and a discipline that is taught in some universities. But what exactly is critical thinking?
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is the kind of thinking whose structure is based on a scrupulous evaluation of premises and proofs, and which formulates objective conclusions, taking into account all the pertinent factors and utilizing all the valid logical procedures.5
Aiming at underlining the importance of critical thinking for the daily good judgement, western media and academia debate social phenomena in which the irrational wreaks havoc: the results of the Gallup poll show that 18% percent of the respondents believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth6; media messages that promote irrational thinking through propaganda and ads7 that, for commercial reasons, ignore both the norms of logic as well as the ones of common sense; political speeches centered on convincing or deceiving the audience, often defying logic; pseudosciences (parapsychology, astrology, radiesthesia); certain beliefs and practices (metempsychosis, ufology, palmistry, spiritism, divination, etc.)
As far as these are concerned, critical thinking and reflexive analysis oppose the irrational, the indoctrination and manipulation. It’s a sort of intellectual self-defense8.
Certainly, any critical thinking work will present not only scanty arguments but also rigorous and coherent ones in order to profile argumentative models worth following.
Therefore, critical thinking means argumentative thinking, as opposed to “opportunistic” (accepting what the others accept), “superficial” (not connecting the facts), “desire-dominated” (replacing real correlations with desired ones) or “mythical” thinking (turning data into myths)9.
Critical thinking involves the mental process of analysis or information evaluation, especially of those affirmations others claim to be true, reflecting on their meaning, examining proofs and presented reasoning and judging the facts. Critical thinking triggers complex cognitive processes, which begin with the accumulation of information and end with decision-making.
The necessary framework for developing critical thinking
- Time. We need time to shape new opinions, to explore ideas, convictions and previous experiences and to examine points of view. Communication offers the time we need to chisel our ideas and to socialize them through feedback.
- Permissiveness. This is not to be mistaken with the lack of exigency or superficial thinking. It involves avoiding labeling, offenses, discrimination, rankings in our debates and rather searching for common elements and building consensus.
- Diversity. Once the partners are free to share their own point of view and give up the conviction that there is only one right answer, we witness the emergence of opinions and ideas diversity.
- Active involvement is about interactions with fellowmen, dialog; in an isolated life (following the route home-to-work and back or home-work-church and back), in interior monologues one will always be “right”, while one’s mind will remain “closed”. It’s not by chance that, among Christians, the ones with an open mind are found among the people involved in social, humanitarian, evangelizing or missionary activities.
- Taking cognitive risks. Ridiculing ideas shackle the mind and will not be tolerated by one’s dialog partners. If these have different mentalities, cultures, religions, we must take the risk of being contradicted, of accepting the revision of certain interpretations. We must answer questions rigorously, without prejudices or intention processes like: “I know why you’re asking this, but I would like to tell you…”.
- Respect. This is one of the things we can’t buy, impose or beg for. Someone inspires respect when he’s honest, well-intended, willing to solve problems and respectful of his dialog partners.
- Value. This is acquired as we develop the ideas we receive, by reflecting on them, deepening and enriching them with our own vision and experience. For instance, a religious leader who wishes his congregation to grow spiritually will value not only the memorization of the thoughts coming from the pulpit but also independent thinking, through feedback that turns the congregation into a dialog partner. This way, they can evolve together.
Wanting to learn to think critically means to understand that people never have the certainty of possessing all the necessary information to make a decision or to draw an absolutely unquestionable conclusion. Under these conditions, critical thinking replaces the term “rational” in its classical meaning with the term “reasonable” (“rationally acceptable”), endorsing also the moral component not as a theory but as an impact on the behavior.
A person who possesses critical thinking skills is reasonable in the sense that he is aware that any additional information might change his conclusion, that this conclusion is in principle revisable, although, based on existent information, it was reached through valid reasoning — and this applies both to the common man, as well as to the scientist.
Habits associated with critical thinking
Critical thinking involves forming certain mental habits, acts and mental states, abilities, dispositions and attitudes, which are accurately described in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy10: to observe — to see and notice something or someone carefully, in detail; to describe — to correctly define a person, an event or a situation; to compare — to examine people or things, to find a proximate gender and specific difference for them; to identify — to show how someone or something is, to recognize him as an individual, in the context of the object class (gender) he belongs to; to associate — to make accurate connections between people, events, situations, to connect them based on co-occurrence or causality, not unessential similarities; to infer — to formulate an opinion based on available information and proof, to conclude, to indirectly suggest that an affirmation is true; to predict — to correctly anticipate a reaction, a behavior, an event.
The noticeable behavior of people with critical thinking shows such acquired skills: describing a situation to others; checking if others have access to information and if they have [un]biased thinking; setting the situation they are trying to grasp against the background of other people’s beliefs; using emotional reactions to underline importance, not as a unique basis for their behavior; asking questions about the results; imagining ways to act and evaluating situations that might limit their actions; thinking together with others about ways to act; choosing to go for the optimal solution under the given circumstances rather than ideal circumstances.
Steps to develop critical thinking
Most people want to have clear opinions, this being the result of the critical thinking process which makes accurate use of pertinent information. But shaping opinions which are not mere echoes of others’ opinions is a complex endeavor that doesn’t come naturally. Luckily, this can be learned. Here are some necessary steps for developing critical thinking:
- Attention to detail. This can be developed in various ways: by analyzing information, its sources and the implications of an affirmation or action; by evaluating evidence but also hidden presuppositions.
- Asking questions to understand which of the information and arguments are necessary or pertinent and which aren’t, but also to get feedback and update both our own vision on the debated matter, as well as that of the other. Questions help gradually build the big picture, like a painter who, after a few strokes, steps back to look at the whole painting.
- Noticing clues about the attitude of the speaker. These consist of certain formulas, argumentative strategies, non- and paraverbal messages. For instance, formulas such as “don’t get me wrong”, “to be honest”, and “believe me” may be an indication of dishonesty, as Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein points out11.
- Accepting intellectual confrontation with perceptions, situations and opinions that do not always respect our preconceptions, match what we know or would like to hear. Dealing with these helps us enrich our mental landscape and come to reevaluate certain beliefs, to empathize with others and correct some errors in judgement.
- The habit of writing down observations, be that mentally, in written form or recorded, on what draws our attention, intrigues us, provokes us to reflection and analysis. Sometimes this may not be possible on the spot, such as if we are in a rush. But writing them down and coming back to them at a later, quieter time helps us hold on to important ideas and inspirational themes. Critical thinking is not about learning or memorizing, but by training the mind to think.
Therefore, critical thinking brings order, clearness of mind and helps us identify and conquer the irrational inside us, enabling us to step out of the darkness and into the light. We may ourselves elevate our thinking by using mental instruments we developed above instincts, impulses, addictions, illusions, prejudgments, superstitions and our own interests.
But could anyone rise above his own thinking, without help from the outside? Such a person would look much like the Münchhausen baron trying to get out of a swamp, on his horse, by pulling himself by the collar of his own shirt. It’s like trying to jump over your own shadow…
Luckily, God is always with us through the Holy Spirit, which can come to our aid. Like the apostle Paul wrote, “these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). The only condition for the Spirit to help us is for us to desire it: to wish for the perfecting of our minds and to wish to be helped. To defeat the usual psychological resistance towards external help, when confronted with unexpected, unfamiliar things or things that go against our current opinions. Because, as the apostle Paul writes in the same letter to the Corinthians, “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
We have a double duty to take control of our thinking and to educate it in step with our time: the duty of a Christian wanting to live in Jesus, and the duty of a citizen wanting to contribute to the evolution of the society he or she lives in. Both the life we dedicate to God, as well as that which we spend with our fellowmen imply our involvement in changing Romania, but not by waiting for others to change it, but rather by changing ourselves. Let us be the change we wish to see in the world!
DumitruBorţun is a university professor at the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations, part of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA).