General Overview of Critical Thinking Concepts
Instructional Notes on Method
Probably the dominant method in philosophy is the use of arguments and explanations to build theories which address basic philosophical questions. We begin with some basic terms:
Basic Terms for Discussion of Rationales and Reflective Writing
- Reflective Deliberative Context
Social Dynamics of Argument
- Psychology of interpersonal communication regarding conflict and argumentation
- Reflective Persona
Reconstruction and Structure
- Goal of Reconstruction
- To represent the structure of rationales and presuppositions in a piece of reflective writing.
Summary of Criteria for Good Reconstructions
- Good reconstructions identify and distinguish the rationales in some speech or writing. Rationales are properly distinguished when it is clear how many there are and whether they are arguments or explanations. Arguments should be further identified as deductive or inductive.
- Good reconstructions show the logical structure of the rationales. Logical structure may involve deductive structures, inductive patterns, or explanatory structures. When the logical structure is clear, readers of or listeners to your reconstruction can tell how individual premises are grouped together into sub-arguments and how the premises within sub-arguments are related. The connections among the links within explanations are also clear and easy to follow.
- Good reconstructions practice the three principles of fair interpretation: charity, fidelity, and inclusion. Practicing fair interpretation helps you present an author or speaker’s complete view in a favorable light while remaining faithful to the text.
Resources for Understanding more about Logical Structure
Please read the following articles from my Critical Thinking text/wiki site:
- Logical Structure in Deductive and Inductive Reasoning
- Deductive Argument Forms
- Inductive Argument Forms
- Form in Explanation
We discussed validity as a specific property of deductive arguments. You can also look at it as part of a method of deductive reasoning which has a long history and distinction in philosophy. Basically, to the extent that we can organize knowledge in a deductive structure, we might hope to find necessary relationships among concepts and knowledge claims. Of course, keep in mind that one might not always do philosophy with the goal of achieving this sort of necessity.
Validity itself is the "conditional guarantee" that if a set of premises are true, then the conclusion will be true. The guarantee is only possible because of the structure of the premises, which essentially rule out the possibility of consistently assigning truth values to propositions (in propositional logic). You can demonstrate this with a truth table.
There are three basic ways of assessing a rationale – two have to do with the specific argument or explanation under consideration and one has to do with the relationship between the rationale and the broader issues it addresses. They are:
1. Questioning the truth of the premises;
2. Questioning the connection between the premises and the conclusion; and,
3. Reframing the issue.
The first two strategies involve “internal critique” which means that they focus on problems within the argument or explanation itself. First, you can question the truth of the premises. With straightforward factual premises, you might think the conditions for assessing truth would be easy to determine. Sometimes they are, but as you compare and probe factual claims, you find that understanding a “simple fact,” much less determining the truth of statements about it, is anything but simple. More often than not, premises will not involve simple factual errors, but subtle or complex errors of reasoning and interpretation. Misleading uses of statistics, confusion of correlations and causes, unreliable survey or poll results, all create opportunities for people to make claims that could be “partially true” or true “in one sense,” but not true in the way that the premise needs to be true to support the conclusion. For example, look at the following claims, which could be premises in an argument, and consider whether they are “simply” true or false:
1. The temperature in downtown Spokane, Washington was 75 degrees at noon on Wednesday, January, 28th 2009.
2. In the first two years of George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans in Congress increased the deficit by cutting taxes.
3. Polls show that most Americans are against abortion.
4. Acquaintance rape in the USA increased 23% over the last ten years.
While all of these claims seem to report facts that might be presumed true in a particular discussion, none of them is “simple,” except, perhaps, the report about the temperature in Spokane. That one comes closest to being a simple fact, though temperatures vary across a city. The second claim seems straightforward: Republicans were in control of Congress during that time (though some Democrats voted for the tax cuts and some Republicans did not). All things being equal, cutting taxes will decrease revenue to the government and we did have large deficits after the tax cut. But politically engaged people will still argue about this “fact.” Some people might believe that without the tax cuts, the economy would have performed worse and a bad economy generates less government revenue. Is the statistic about acquaintance rape an indication of more rapes or more people reporting rapes? Hopefully, it is just the latter, but it may be a mix of the two.
So, it is hard to assess the truth of premises. As soon as you start to think critically about some claim and what makes it true, questions arise about it, as we have seen. In spite of these difficulties, you can assess arguments and explanations on the basis of the truth of the premises in each kind of rationale. Some of the skills of the fourth discipline, recognizing knowledge, will help with this.
A second form of internal critique involves questioning the connection between the premises and conclusion of a rationale, which really amounts to questioning the rationale itself. Doing this is like saying, “Even if the premises are true, they do not support or explain the conclusion.”
A general way to test the connection in the rationale is to try to generate counter examples, cases in which the premises could support a different conclusion than the one proposed or, more simply, that the premises could be true without the conclusion being true. The connection between premises and conclusion can be thought of as a “gap” that needs to be closed. Questioning the connection between the premises and the conclusion often involves determining whether this “inference gap” has been closed.
For example, you might argue that:
Premise 1: Plenty of students do well on Professor Smith’s test without studying.
Premise 2: I’m just like a lot of students.
Conclusion: I’ll do well on Professor Smith’s test without studying.
The premises of this argument could well be true and yet the conclusion might not follow. The rationale would be stronger if you could explain why students do well on the test without studying. Maybe there’s a copy of Smith’s test circulating around campus. In that case, being like other students will only help if the similarity involves having a copy of the test. Maybe the students who do well have all had some other course that Smith’s course is overlapping with. Generating counter-examples to test the connection in your own and others’ rationales is a crucial and creative skill in thinking.
The third way to assess a rationale involves looking at how that rationale involves a particular approach to the issue or topic it addresses. The argument or explanation in question may have survived the first two forms of assessment, but you might still feel that it does not get at the issue in some way. When we pursue this strategy, we are not really objecting to the argument itself, but we are suggesting that it might not get at the truth at which it aimed. This is a more subtle problem than offering a false premise or a weak or invalid rationale. Let’s look at an example in this adapted letter to the editor: “Motorcycles helmet laws just make too much good sense from a public safety standpoint for people to object to them. The likelihood of serious head injury to a motorcyclist without a helmet is just too great. As the Seattle Times reported, “In its first year, the California motorcycle helmet law produced a 37.5% percent drop in fatalities from motorcycle collisions and saved as many as 122 lives, according to researchers who have conducted what they termed the “definitive” study of motorcycle safety.” So, people should stop objecting to motorcycle helmet laws. “Motorcycle Helmet Law Cuts Deaths, Study Finds,” Seattle Times, November 16, 1994. There really is good evidence that wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle will protect you better in a crash. Of course, that does not mean that there are not plenty of anti-helmet websites that will use the first assessment strategy to dispute that claim. You could do a quick web search on “motorcycle helmet laws” to read some of the anti-helmet arguments, which also critique data such as this letter to editor includes.
But there is another way to respond to arguments like this which involves strategy #3, objecting to the way the argument is framed. We could reply to the letter above by saying, “Well, maybe your premises are true and I’ll grant that increased safety provides a rationale for having helmet laws, but you’re framing the motorcycle helmet issue as a safety issue, when it is really an issue of personal freedom. There are lots of things we could require people to do to be safer, but for the most part a free society allows people to make their own decisions about their personal safety.”
This assessment of the rationale really involves “reframing” the issue from a personal safety issue to one about personal freedom. The safety data remain persuasive on their own terms, but may seem less relevant in light of this kind of assessment. Whether you agree that wearing a helmet is a matter of personal freedom or not, you can see how reframing an issue involves setting aside one set of terms in favor of another. We then assess the rationale in relationship to competing ways of framing the issue. This usually involves additional rationales to decide among diverse frames.