In this series we have discussed the importance of the philosophical enterprise, which esteemed scholar Ed Miller defines as “thinking clearly, rationally, and critically about life’s most important issues.” (I recommend his outstanding book, Questions That Matter.
In the final two articles of this series, I will discuss challenges to critical thinking. There are circumstances and conditions in life that can stand in the way of clear and cogent reasoning. Knowing about these potential logical potholes can help one address them in an appropriate and rational manner.
Challenges to Critical Thinking
1. Enculturation: “The process by which a person learns the requirements of the culture by which he or she is surrounded, and acquires values and behaviors that are appropriate or necessary in that culture.”
People inevitably accept ideas and beliefs that are passed down from family, peers, culture, religion, and general worldview orientation. These ideas and beliefs serve to provide context for life and usually enrich lives. However, the viewpoints to which a person is exposed may also contain gaps, prejudices, and blind spots that need to be critically analyzed. In a sense a person needs to be able to challenge accepted opinion and think for one’s self, so to speak. Logical scrutiny serves to purify the ideas and beliefs we receive as part of our enculturation.
Unique among the world’s religious traditions, the Bible exhorts believers to approach religious claims deliberately (1 John 4:1-3) in order to investigate them carefully (Acts 17:11) and test them appropriately (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Thus, historic Christianity encourages a healthy intellectual life that includes a modest form of skepticism.
2. Emotional States: There are two emotional states that tend to cloud the thinking process. Anger is a powerful state of emotion. Sometimes it is a perfectly appropriate response and can be constructive in thinking through issues in a clear and cogent manner. Philosophers Plato and Aristotle thought anger could be an ally of cogent reasoning. Theologian Martin Luther even once asserted that he believed he thought most clearly when he was angry.
Most of us, however, are not like Luther. Angry feelings easily cloud thinking and cause a person to lose perspective, even self-control. Often a livid person needs time to cool off before regaining intellectual balance and the ability to engage in dispassionate logical analysis.
A depressive psychological state can also negatively impact one’s ability to think clearly and carefully. Depression has been called “the common cold of mental illness.” Being in such a condition affects expectation and can cause a person to exaggerate the negative and fail to properly appreciate the positive.
Depression has many causes (experiencing a loss, biochemical factors, stress, etc.) but most people only experience moderate cases and can regain their logical concentration once the melancholy mood lifts. Others, however, who suffer from clinical depression, require medical treatment to effectively confront this illness.
Sometimes clear thinking is obscured by the uncritical acceptance of beliefs and other times by powerful emotional and psychological states. But knowing about these difficult areas can help in one’s important goal to think critically. Check in next Tuesday for further discussion of the challenges that critical thinking faces.
Gary Kirby and Jeffery Goodpaster’s book, Thinking, is a very helpful text that looks at various aspects of human reasoning.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test. For a great handbook in dealing with logical fallacies, see Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments by T. Edward Damer.