How can I learn to think more critically?
I recently received an email from a good friend of mine, in which he asked me about critical thinking. I will include it here, because I think many of you might relate to his plight and have similar questions:
What is the process you personally utilize for critical thinking? Is there some magical formula or process out there that I'm not aware of, or do you just naturally think differently than most people? I mean, when you read an article or take on arbitrary questions, I've noticed you always seem to have a different take on things. You seem to bring to light the nuances that most people don't or can't see. Is there something I can practice on my own? What do you teach your kids about critical thinking? There's got to be more to it than just "think harder". I often think of myself as a critical thinker, but when you bring to light what should have been obvious but isn't to most people, I just relegate myself as just a "healthy skeptic" unable to see the forest through the trees. Then I beat myself up thinking, "Why didn't I see that, it was so obvious."I had to be honest with him in my response, stating that there really wasn’t any “simple trick” I could share and that it really isn’t something that you acquire over night.
I will share with you just a few things that I have learned over the years, because I used to be in the same position he is currently in and it’s taken time to get where I am today (and I certainly hope to continue to mature and refine my thinking as time goes on).
The first advice I gave him was to learn from others who think critically. This has been a huge help in my own life. Just as he is analyzing my responses to various articles and lectures, I have done so with countless others in the past and learned tremendously from their approaches.
The second point I made was to encourage him to be skeptical of whatever he hears or reads, demanding solid arguments for whatever it is that is being stated. (This actually holds true for when we read or hear things from other Christians as well. We need to check everything against God’s Word, to see if what we hear is biblically sound – like the Bereans in the book of Acts.) This also requires actually listening to the other person intently and not just thinking of what you are going to say as soon as you can break in. That is a skill I really had to work on and continue to work on.
Very often, much of what we read contains strong “truth claims” without a trace of anything to back it up. For example, an article on evolution might make a statement similar to the following: “Because food supplies were becoming scarce, this sea creature developed the ability to crawl up onto land, breathe air and forage for additional food.” Then the article might go on to discuss how life continued to diversify over millions of years. However, no mention is made whatsoever of any actual evidence of this scenario. No fossil evidence is given, no genetic details are cited. It’s just something that they believe probably happened if evolution is true. But the point of these types of articles is usually trying to show the reader why evolution is a fact. The thing they are trying to “prove”, that evolution is a fact, is the very thing that is just assumed to be true within the article! The problem in this instance is a bit more obvious and easier to spot than other examples.
That leads me to the third point I shared. It is helpful to analyze each sentence of phrase to see if there are any hidden assumptions. This takes practice, but it’s not very hard to do and it doesn’t usually take too long before it becomes natural.
For example, how would you respond if a skeptic asked, "Why do Christians reject science?" Too many Christians would jump right in and start to answer this question, but I would say, "I can't answer that question, because it contains a false assumption that needs to be addressed first." The skeptic is assuming that Christians actually do reject science. (It's kind of like the guy on the witness stand being asked "Have you stopped beating your wife?" What if he never had? If he says answers "No", then he is implying that he still beats her. If he says "Yes", then he is implying that he used to beat her.
I would ask the skeptic a clarifying question... "I don't agree with you that Christians actually reject science, but why do you think they do?" If he said, "Because they don’t believe in evolution," he is making another statement that contains an additional assumption. The assumption is that evolution equals science. Therefore, to reject evolution is to reject science. This is simply assumed by the skeptic, which makes it virtually impossible (and certainly not recommended) to answer the question directly. You must explore and address the hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) assumptions. I would take him down the path of having him explain how evolution is science, but I will not develop that in this short article. One of the biggest keys is to constantly and graciously ask clarifying questions... "What do you mean by that?", "How do you know that?" etc. (You focus more on this than spending a lot of energy trying to "prove" your own beliefs.)
To be honest... it just takes time to learn. It did for me. I've learned so much from reading the writings of others, listening to good lectures and analyzing debates (for strengths and weaknesses on both sides).
Lastly, and most importantly, study God’s Word! Reading Scripture is the best way to learn the truth, inside and out. It will make it much easier to spot falsehoods, when you know the truth as best you can.
Much more could be said about critical thinking, but hopefully this has been somewhat helpful in better positioning you to share your faith and spot errors in other beliefs.
If you have any questions at about this article or any other issues, please don’t hesitate to contact us any time. We'd love to hear from you! You can even arrange a FREE ENGAGEMENT or seminar at your church, school, conference or camp.
Author: Jay Seegert (Co-Founder & Principal Lecturer, Creation Education Center)