I am a freshman engineering student going to college. I want to learn how to think critically and to become a critical thinker and a sharp arguer. I am interested in philosophy, because I am curious about the world, creationism, and everything, and philosophy answers many hard questions. I plan on taking a course or two in philosophy, because I want to improve my critical thinking skills. I was astonished and thrilled with all of your thinking skills when I read some of the posts here, and I want to be somewhat like you.
With that all said, what are your advice on becoming a critical thinker?What do you recommend me doing? I like writing and math and science. I know three and a half languages, and don't hate writing!
I think it is very insightful of you to want to learn to be a better critical thinker. That action in and of itself makes me think you are already more of a critical thinker than many others -- as merely a freshman you are carefully thinking about and planning what will best help you in the future.
Not the Answer You're Looking For
Unfortunately, philosophy has no real answer to this; it falls more within the realm of psychology and even there you will find no definitive answer yet. The truth is we simply don't know what makes some people better at critical thinking than others. Most will agree that it is a dynamic mix of experience and genetics; the question is how much of each.
Nature vs. Nurture
Take my answer as you will, but in my experience with studying philosophy, psychology, an engineering discipline (cog sci / comp sci), and also from tutoring/mentoring students, I've come to the conclusion more and more that the critical thinking "bug" is about 70% genetic. Either you are born with that kind of mind, or you are not. The rest is experience and personality -- personality as classified by Myer's-Briggs typology. I say this because as I look back I realize that it's really something I had all along; I was always questioning things, trying to find the reasons behind events, trying to optimize processes, etc, even from a very young age. Furthermore, when trying to get people to critically think about things (students I mentored or even just people I tried to help in class), I saw that the scientist personality types (e.g. INTJ) tended as a whole to be much better than other personality types, and that little real progress in overall critical thinking ability occurred in a person over time. This would seem to correlate with personality theory, as while personality can change throughout ones life (as in, your typology), it does so gradually, if at all measurably.
So, It's Hopeless Then?
No. On the contrary, while I believe there is some core genetic component, I believe that experience plays a very large role in honing someones critical thinking skills. Taking Policy and Lincoln Douglas Debate high school definitely helped me learn how to construct strong arguments. Reading tons of philosophy in college helped me learn subtle ways of understanding concepts and dissecting arguments. There are a number of different ways of seeing things that can really open one's mind and help one form strong conclusions better and see flaws in arguments quicker. This is especially true learning to identify logical errors in arguments. Sometimes it's harder to put a finger on the exact way an argument goes wrong than to simply know that it's flawed. These things you can certainly improve upon.
Read lots of philosophy, especially counter-arguments to philosophy you just read. Write your own philosophy papers or book. Pick a topic you are interested in, and write about it. Make a persuasive argument. Have someone critique it (preferably in writing, so you have time to really think about their critique and develop a good response). People here will gladly look at some of your stuff, I'm sure. Just ping us in chat when you have something. :)
Also, be sure to ask your philosophy department professors this same question; this is by no means "the" answer, it is just my experience. :)
I highly recommend taking philosophy courses --I entered college planning on majoring in engineering, and left as a philosophy major. Please be aware, however, that philosophy courses vary widely based on the teacher and the school (because there is no universal consensus on which philosophical approaches are correct and important).
With that in mind, you might want to start by taking both basic and advanced logic. Logic is very mathematical, and will help you with your engineering work, but it also teaches you about the structures of good arguments, and how to tell the difference between them and arguments that are poorly structured.
Wow, that’s a great question Andy, you really put the community on the spot. You essentially told them to guide you to a place where you want to go and that you believe that they are presently at.
IMO, critical thinking is a way of contributing your knowledge on a subject to the greatest extent that your present knowledge, experiences, and beliefs could afford. As for structured arguments (aka debates) I alway try to apply the 5 step of Armis critical thinking to such endeavors.
Armis is a high strategy board game that is present played online in over 130 countries. Certified Armis instructors teach critical thinking to students around the world though the Armis For Schools Worldwide program.
The 5 steps are as follows:
1) Analysis / Assessment
2) Planning (offensive and defensive strategies and tactics)
3) Risk Assessment
4) The Move
5) The Reaction, Effect, and Experience
1)Analysis and Assessment - before you start any endeavor is important to know the rules that govern it. For Armis you should read the rules, the equivalent for a structured debate it is knowing the rules. Then familiarize yourself with the environment, for Armis that means knowing the game board and player pieces, for the debate it means knowing your own team as well as the opposing team, try to know everyone’s strengths as well as their weaknesses, also get to know the physical environment where you will be debating so that you could take advantage of the audience, acoustics, seating arrangements, and also know as much as you can about the judges the moderator, and any others who may impact your success.
Now that you know what you are expected to do and where you are expected to perform the next step is to assess values so that you properly budget your efforts and resources.
2) Planning - In Armis there are over a million ways to properly setup, so after a setup is formed you should map and manage offensive and defensive strategies; for a debate you also need to fashion offensive and defensive strategies, making sure to incorporate an array of tactics (traditional to ‘neauve’ ). Factor in everything that can impact your goal achievement.
3) Risk Assessment - this is where you say "What if?", not just "What if he does?", but also "What if she doesn't?" for the game it is weighing probabilities that a player will do, or not do, certain actions, for the debate it is knowing not just the rules but also the consequences for breaking those rules. At times you may willingly choose to break a rule knowing that it will likely only lead to a minor disciplinary action. Know the risks for being first to answer, weigh the risks of independent thought vs group think, value the possibility of being wrong once, twice, three times.
4) Action - for Armis this is where you make your move, for the debate this is where you make your contribution either to the group, your audience, and or the judges.
5 Reaction, Effect, and Experience - for Armis it is as much how your opponent’s reacts (or lack of reaction) as much as what effect that specific move has on the rest of the game. For the debate it is also about your opponent’s reactions, but also the reaction of the judges, moderator, and especially the audience. Everything counts, as such the information that make up steps 1 - 5 including your opponent’s move is considered an experience for you to factor into your next move.
I would like to answer your question directly and succintly.
First, you need to start reading a lot. Philosophy helps in that, it presents arguments that requires you to dissect those parts of the proposition, and reconsider it. Read introductory books on critical thinking, philosophy, but also expand your horizons and see what is going on in current affairs. This is because most of the fallacies are out there in the media, that often present a biased point of view, subtly or covertly.
Second, discuss with people good in understanding arguments. Not just any person who is familiar with philosophy or critical thinking, because such a person may not be a good arguer, or someone who understands argument.
Third, practice. With increasing practice breeds familiarity, and you will be good over time naturally. Doing nothing leads to no improvement and subsequently, nothing.
Well watch debates, the people involved often are very good at critical thinking. Try and study and learn their techniques. Also learn about all the logical fallacies, learn how to construct a proper argument. Learn as much as you can about critical thinking. While you are learning try and apply your skills. Argue with others just for the fun of it, and try and respond as quickly and as effectively as you can. You might be slow at first, but you will gain skill with time. Do the same thing in text. Reply to questions people ask, start arguments on forums. Just practice using your skills any way you can.
Unfortunately though no matter how hard you practice, as mentioned before you will likely find a lot of critical thinking is innate. There was an article on another site, where someone in law school mentioned that some people were just natural born debaters. He said that this sort of skill was something to be desired, and that while he could work to be a good speaker he was never as good as a natural born debater. I think there is a correlation to debating and critical thinking. Some people are just naturally good at analyzing information, and doing so quickly. These are just skills some people are born with. You can improve them, but please don't be discouraged if you can't match the skills of other people. What matters is are you seeing improvement. Are your skills getting better. If after you start trying to improve them, they improve keep at it. You may never match a natural critical thinker, but you can get a lot better at it.
I believe, from my own experience, the study and mastery of logic while studying philosophy has turned me into a very critical thinker. I've been told several times that I should have been a lawyer. Also, as an engineer, don't you think analysis is critical? Math and logic are united more than quantum mechanics and relativity. I loved logic so much I took to computer programming which became my career. I never studied it formally.
I love the study of the philosophy of mathematics. It is mental exercise to make complete sense of all there is. Logic, type theory, category theory, set theory, algorithms, algebra and more abstract algebra.
I would recommend that you read good philosophy. For philosophy of science "Realism and the Aim of Science" by Karl Popper, "The Fabric of Reality" and "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch. I do not recommend university philosophy courses. I have seen philosophy lecturers give entire courses on epistemology while completely ignoring Popper, who refuted most of what they said. I had one philosophy tutor say to me that an argument I made refuting something his favourite philosopher said could not be true because the argument I gave was written before the idea it refuted, as if it is impossible for his favourite philosopher to reinvent a bad and broken idea.