Critical Thinking

Prisons of the Mind

We are assaulted daily by messages from every direction. These messages are frequently false or misleading. It appears hard to know what or whom to trust. Nevertheless, we must make the effort. Those who unthinkingly accept problematic messages run the risk of being prisoners of people’s views.


Prejudice is a view formed in advance, without thinking. Prejudiced people are unwilling to change their preconceived views. They rarely tolerate views that differ from theirs.

Appearance and Reality

Things are not always what they seem. How many times have we heard this expression, and yet how consistent are we in differentiating the two? We have become image conscious, individually and collectively; we hardly look beneath the surface of things.

Independent Thinking

People who think independently at times say things that may strike listeners as ‘off the wall.’ Independent thinking requires us to sail into uncharted arguments. Is it surprising that daring sailors brush against and even brush against a reef from time to time? Independent thinking requires courage: we must be willing to experiment and take risks, especially the risk that we might be wrong. The danger is not that we may get it wrong. Rather, it is in not realizing, with or without help, that we may be wrong. There may be a few that are too afraid of admitting an error. They will have to pay the price for stubbornness.

Critical thinking aims at the truth. Critical thinking seeks to be fair by remaining impartial. This means fairness in listening to all sides of a given issue. It doeas not mean fairness in the sense of refusing to take sides.

There is a time for everything. There is a time to be impartial, and there is a time to be partial. Critical thinking should be impartial in the way that a judge is expected to be impartial. He is impartial while he hears the evidence from all parties concerned. He withholds judgment until he hears and considers all evidence. To do otherwise would be to pre-judge the issue, to be guilty of prejudice. Yet the judge ends by being partial when he declares the verdict. At that time he very definitely takes a particular side in the case, the side of justice against injustice.

What makes thinking nihilistic is the ill-advised attempt to move beyond the difference between good and evil. Social science that does not differentiate between good and evil is nihilistic.

False Dichotomies

Too often we fall into the trap of establishing false dichotomies or distinctions.


Asking questions is important. Questions, and the answers that they elicit, increase the understanding of an issue. Without questioning we are likely to remain in the dark. Teachers should therefore never forbid but rather encourage questioning.

Questioning is necessary for progress and improvement. Without questioning, no individual or institution is going to become aware of its weaknesses. Without questioning, even if we become aware of injustices, little will get done to correct them. If there is no recognition of problems, there can be no possibility of taking action to solve them. Discouraging questioning is a sure way of initiating a slow but certain process of decline, whether in education or in politics.


Two people look at the same thing and yet they see different things. Is it perhaps because we tend to see only what we want to see?

Lateral Thinking

It is the process of thinking ‘sideways’ rather than straight. Thinking in terms of cause and effect is an example of “straight” reasoning. When we think laterally, we take a term and examine it in different settings. For example, one could take the idea of ‘balance,’ and investigate its meaning in different settings.

The idea of ‘balance’ is present in almost all areas of study, including politics, economics, psychology, physics, biology, philosophy, accounting, finance, and mathematics.

In politics, we talk about the balance of power between different nations, as well as about checks and balances on the exercise of political power within a particular nation. We think of politicians as participating balancing acts. In economics, we have the idea of balance in the form of the concept of equilibrium or the balanced budget. In psychology and psychiatry, we talk about people’s mental balance or lack of it. In physics, we have the idea of balance in the form people and things keeping or losing their physical stability. In biology, we are concerned about the balance of the ecosystem. In mathematics we have the idea of balance in the form of the equation. In accounting and finance we talk about balance sheets and bank balances. In philosophy and the humanities we have the idea of a balanced point of view. In law justice is conceived of as a balance. In meditation, we aim at achieving spiritual balance.

When we think laterally, we traverse disciplines using a term that manifests itself in different environments in different ways. Lateral thinking enables us to escape the parameters of specialized knowledge, and perhaps make discoveries or gain insights that would have escaped us if we confined ourselves merely to linear thinking.

Abstract Thinking

Abstract thinking is a pared kind of thinking. It strips away from an object of perception its less essential properties. Abstract thinking is different from descriptive thinking. When we describe something, we think of it by picturing it in the imagination. In descriptive thinking, we remain on the surface of the object, as we see only what is visible to the naked eye.

In abstract thinking, however, we try to penetrate the surface and see what lies under the surface.

The danger in abstract thinking is that we might overlook important properties and focus instead on less significant ones.

One difficulty in abstract thinking arises from the difficulty in deciding which properties or features of a given phenomenon are more or less essential than others. To think of a thing abstractly, means to think of it apart from its properties, except for those we deem to be the most important.


When we try to understand anything, we almost always do so in relation to something else. When we consider a given variable, we try to understand it in relation to another variable or variables, on the assumption that they are related as an effect is related to its cause or causes. In different academic pursuits, the factor under consideration is thought of as the dependent variable, while the cause or determining variable is thought of as the independent variable. Independent variables, in relation to other variables in turn become dependent variables. And so the linking of variables leads to a long chain of causes and effects. Accordingly, we have the Big Bang theory of the first cause, the story of creation, or a theory of evolution from most primitive forms of life.

Water under the Bridge

How many people justify not taking a critical look at the past using these words? Didn’t someone say that those who are not willing to learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them?