Recently, I had two conversations, one with a woman with whom I once had more than a platonic relationship, the other with my first cousin, who had always been more like a brother to me than a cousin. In spite of our differences in worldview, I had always at least respected their intelligence. I suppose I still do.
Yet intelligence, which is a raw, native endowment, and intellectual prowess, which is every bit as much a developed skill set as any other, most emphatically are not one and the same. More people are intelligent than are intellectually adept, and while some measure of intelligence is necessary for intellectual fitness, a genuinely curious and critical thinker can easily appear to be appreciably more intelligent than those with higher IQs but flaccid and undisciplined minds.
The motivational speaker Tony Robbins once remarked that the old adage “Knowledge is power” is mistaken. Rather, power arises when knowledge is executed, when it is put into use. Similarly, intelligence uncoupled from bold, critical thinking; diluted by fear, prejudice, hatred, and arrogance; and/or anesthetized by the mind-numbing soundbites, memes, and slogans of nakedly partisan hacks is of little value.
In fact, it is arguably worse than useless. It is potentially dangerous, for a person with a reasonable degree of intelligence can more readily rationalize away his or her lies of choice than can one with fewer intellectual endowments.
What is critical thinking and how can one become a critical thinker?
For starters, and most fundamentally, critical thinking is tough. It is laborious, demanding thousands and thousands of hours, over the span of years and decades. It requires reading, writing, introspection, reflection, and analyzing—rigorously analyzing—arguments, both those that support one’s own point of view and, crucially, those that are designed to counter it.
Perhaps as important as any other requirement, critical thinking demands courage, the guts to risk defying the conventional wisdom and prevailing dogma.
The critical thinker, though, because he is all about following the argument, must know the differences between the various species of discourse with which argument is sometimes conflated. This, of course, demands that he first be familiar with the basic structure of an argument. He needs further to know the differences between deductive and inductive reasoning, between the concepts of validity and invalidity; soundness and unsoundness; strong and weak; cogent and uncogent. The critical thinker should as well be acquainted with at least some of the more common logical fallacies that Aristotle, “the father of logic,” identified over 2300 years ago.
Take, for just one instance, a specific variety of the ad hominem attack known as “circumstantial.” This fallacy is routinely committed by the true believers of the mask imperium against those who dare challenge both its decrees as well as “the science” in the name of which those decrees are rationalized: “Well, you’re not a doctor!” Or, if those dissenting actually are medical doctors, the very fact that they dissent from the orthodox position of big science (government-funded, bureaucratic and quasi-bureaucratic researchers) is taken as proof that they are quacks.
This is flagrantly fallacious reasoning, for a person’s circumstances are logically irrelevant to whether their point of view is correct or not. (And we can, for now, sidestep the fact that the Corona walkers and their leaders aren’t deterred in the least from speaking with the authority of an Old Testament prophet by the fact that they aren’t doctors, either!)
Most obviously—or at least it should be obvious—the critical thinker needs to appreciate the basis of all thought, the principle or law of contradiction. He must know, in other words, that a thing can’t both be and not be in the same sense and at the same moment. “A and not-A” is a necessarily false statement, false in every conceivable world, for it is a logical impossibility and whatever is logically impossible is unthinkable.
The critical thinker knows, then, that the statement, “Masks shouldn’t be worn by the public because they are essentially ineffective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’ and masks must be worn by the public because they are effective in preventing people from contracting ‘the virus’” is no less self-contradictory than the proposition, “She is pregnant and she is not pregnant.”
It is misleading to suggest that feelings or emotions are of no consequence to the critical thinker. He is not a logic-chopping machine, and he knows it. The difference, however, between the critical thinker and the feelers is that, in glaring contrast to the latter, he is well aware that whatever feelings a person experiences at any given moment are no substitute for clear, honest, and authentic thinking.
Feelings in and of themselves, divorced from reason and the sensitivity to contextual considerations that only reason, reflecting upon these emotional signals, can achieve, undermine the God-endowed dignity of the human person by detouring the mind away from truth.
Just because a person feels this or that most definitely does not mean, as the feelers among us assume, that their feelings are infallible. Feelings ebb and flow. Even if they didn’t, even if a feeling persisted over a span of weeks, months, years, decades, that feeling could still very well be misplaced—and the feeler really could be as wrong as she thinks she’s right.
Plato recognized long ago that a belief, shared by the majority, is almost certainly wrong. That the dominant paradigm of the self-absorbed thinker vs. the empathetic feeler subverts reality suggests that he was on to something.
It is critical thinking that is, quite literally, a selfless activity, for the engagement of critical thinking is a mode of self-transcendence. If human beings possess an inviolable dignity, it is because they are made in the image of the God who created them. And if they are made in God’s image, then this is because humans, unlike plants and animals, possess two faculties that distinguish them apart from the rest of living things on earth: reason and will. Yet even if one is put off by talk of God, one will still grant that, fundamentally, humans are persons because of their ability to think, to reason.
Intrinsic to thinking are cannons of logic and rationality that are of no one’s choosing and that aren’t in the least impacted by one’s subjective emotions. The critical thinker, that is, seeks to trade in a universally human currency. Moreover, because critical thinking, like the language in which it occurs, is always, inescapably, interpersonal, the critical thinker seeks to make of others joint-enterprisers in the search for truth.
The feelers, on the other hand, have taken Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican revolution” one step further by presuming that the world revolves, not around human reason as such, but their own subjective emotions. For them, the old 60s adage, “If it feels good, do it,” isn’t comprehensive enough. Rather, their gospel is, “If it feels ‘right’ (to me), it’s true.”
Given this understanding, the feelers can’t get beyond themselves, and far from welcoming discourse with others, they are conversation-killers; they render intellectual intercourse with other human beings impossible.
In the age of the great unreason, critical thinking is as needed as it has ever been. Most will not rise to the occasion. For those who do, though, they will discover that however great the costs—and the costs are considerable—the rewards are worth it. Critical thinkers may—indeed, they will—fall out of favor with the herd, including those with whom they have had close relationships. Yet they can be comforted in knowing that by engaging their higher capacities, they emancipate themselves from their animal nature; affirm their dignity and that of those with whom they enter into dialogue; and acquire such virtues as good faith, analytical prowess, humility, honesty, civility, and, critically, courage.
The critical thinker fortifies himself against the predations of the unscrupulous, the powerful, the exploiter, and the manipulator.
Hannah Arendt famously noted that it wasn’t the stupidity of Adolph Eichmann that led to his monstrous actions. Eichmann wasn’t stupid. Rather, the architect of the Holocaust suffered from “a curious, but quite authentic, inability to think.”
This phenomenon, she made a point of arguing, was hardly limited to Eichmann, the Nazis, and their sympathizers. It is endemic. It is also connected to moral character in that those who can’t think beyond memes, bumper stickers, clichés, and the conventional wisdom are that much more susceptible than the critical thinker to conform, to go along to get along.
They are that much more prone to become complicit in all manner of evil.
If Arendt were alive today, in 2020, in the age of the great unreason and the COVID Scare, she undoubtedly would regard her thesis as having been vindicated in spades.