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Critical Thinking and Logic

By Douglas Wilson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #3, 1993.

Douglas Wilson points out the difference between critical thinking and logic.
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Douglas Wilson

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that reads, "Question Authority"? This bumper sticker provides an example of what modern educators call "critical thinking." The "critical thinking" mentality questions, differs, probes, and disagrees, without any fixed authority or frame of reference. It thinks critically about the proposed answer because it doubts that there are any answers. In short, it doubts everything except the reliability of its own doubting. It teaches skepticism as a religious absolute.

A logical answer to the bumper sticker (for those of us to talk back to bumper stickers) would be, "Says who?" The person trained in logic questions the bumper sticker because he sees a logical problem with the position presented on the bumper sticker. This questioner has been trained to recognize such problems, correct them, and arrive at the right answer.

The Difference Between Critical Thinking and Logic

Those who seek to inculcate "critical thinking skills" give all authority to the questioner. He examines, probes, questions, and so forth, before he settles upon "whatever works for him." The one with the questions has all the authority -- a totally subjective authority.

Logical analysis presupposes that there is such a thing as absolute unchanging truth, and that this truth has authority over us. We are not allowed to tinker with the truth. Instead of teaching skepticism -- the belief that there are no unchanging answers -- this approach teaches that we are looking for validly derived answers. The reasoner is not at all interested in whatever would work "for him"; he is interested in answers that would be true even if he had never been born. In other words, he is interested in objective truth.

What to Do About Critical Thinking

Nevertheless, appearances can be deceiving. The rhetoric of "critical thinking skills" allows educators to make intelligent-sounding noises while wandering in a circle. Don't be fooled by it. It is nothing more than sophisticated and witty chatter on the edge of the void.

So should we simply avoid anything and everything labeled "critical thinking"? Again, labels may be deceiving. Although the "critical thinking skills" movement as a whole teaches skepticism and unbelief, not every product merely labeled "critical thinking" is bad. To reach the public school market, where logic is out and critical thinking is in, many educational publishers are now marketing their logic materials as "critical thinking" materials. Critical Thinking Press, for example, offers many workbook series based on formal and symbolic logic!

What you want to avoid are:

  • Materials that encourage the student to challenge biblical authorities. Typically, critical thinking materials urge children to ignore the teaching of parents and church authorities. They call this "thinking for yourself." But this is not real thinking, simply knee-jerk rebellion.

  • Materials that encourage general confusion and skepticism. Eighth grade is not the time or place to ponder the nature of reality.

  • Materials that dwell at length on a particular view of the future -- typically, one in which Christianity is irrelevant and a one-world government will solve all human problems.

  • Materials that introduce "closed" dilemmas. The most famous is probably the story of the hapless husband who doesn't have money for needed medicine for his dying wife. Is it OK for him to rob the pharmacy to get her medicine? When Christian students try to point out in their public school classrooms that the husband can always pray, and that God can either heal the wife directly or bring in unexpected money, the teacher tells them that this solution is impermissible. Only choices that leave God out of the picture are OK. But in real life God is always in the picture, so we never have to face this kind of phony dilemma.

  • Materials that stress "there are no right answers." The use of phrases like "right answer" exasperates teachers of critical thinking. They think "right answers" are dictatorial, authoritarian, and rough on a student's self-esteem. They are quite right. For the fuzzy-thought brigade, logic is positively toxic. It destroys all those nice fuzzy thoughts!

Logic 101

Christian parents, of course, want to teach their children to think. How do we do this? The parent instructing his children in logical analysis should start by learning certain basics of logic himself. Let's take a look at a few of these.

Truth and Validity. One of the most important starting points when studying logic is the difference between truth and validity. A valid argument is one that is structurally sound -- the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. The premises may not be true, but if they were, the conclusion would follow necessarily. Look at this example:

All dogs are brown.

This animal is a dog.

Therefore this animal is brown.

This is not true (all dogs are not brown). Even if it were true, the conclusion would necessarily be true. Truth answers the question, "Is it so?" Validity answers the question, "Does it follow?"

Fallacies of Form Another important distinction to be made is the difference between fallacies of form and fallacies of distraction. A fallacy of form occurs when there is a structural problem in one's argument -- it would never be valid no matter what the nouns in the argument were. Look at this invalid argument:

All cats have four legs.

This animal has four legs.

Therefore, this animal is a cat.

Even though the premises are true (cats do have four legs and this animal does have four legs), this is a fallacy of form. The argument is structurally unsound.

Fallacies of Distraction. A fallacy of distraction occurs when one is trapped and seeks, by various and sundry means, to change the subject. Instead of saying, "You've got me there," he says, "Look! A comet!" One example of a fallacy of distraction is the abusive ad hominem: "That can't be right because you're a jerk." The man is attacked instead of his argument. Another example is that of tu quoque: "Oh yeah? Well, you've done it too!" But of course just because someone else has committed the fallacy does not rescue your argument.

The possibilities for real-life applications are enormous. Deuteronomy tells us that we are to instruct our children when we rise, when we walk along the way, when we read letters to the editor, and so forth. Our society has graciously provided us with abundant fallacious grist for our children's logical mill. I recall watching the news one time when my son suddenly pointed at the screen and gave the name of the fallacy. With any rigorous training at all, it is not long before your children will begin to see fallacies everywhere.

Be warned: unbelievers aren't the only ones who make errors in logic. Logical contradictions will often surface in sermons, Christian books, etc. Christians will often say things that are true, but still invalid. Are we obligated to defend such errors, just because good people make them? By no means! Truth is still true, no matter how many invalid arguments are enlisted on its side, but how much better to rid it of the invalid millstones that are so often tied around its neck!

It is no real help to a child to teach him to applaud when he hears something with which he agrees. Even critical thinking professors do that! We should teach him to always ask these two questions: (1) Is the conclusion true, and (2) Was the argument sound? If the argument was not sound, can he think of an argument that is? We want to inculcate both love of truth and trust in God's Word -- which is self-consistent, logical, and true. This is what Solomon was talking about when he said, "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom" (Proverbs 4:7).

After all, we are not Christians because "it works for us."

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