Monday, May 05, 2008

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking

Good words here from Greg Koukl:
The primary purpose of reason is to help us discover what is true. The primary tool of reason is argument. An argument is a specific kind of thing. Think of it like a simple house, a roof supported by walls. The roof is the conclusion, and the walls are the supporting ideas. If the walls are solid, the conclusion rests securely on its supporting structure. If the walls collapse, the roof comes down, and the argument is defeated.

The task of critical thinking is to weed out distracting or irrelevant details so you have an unobstructed view of the structure of the core argument and can assess its strength. This involves a simple, four-step plan.

First ask, “What is the claim?” This may seem like an obvious initial step, but you’ll be surprised how often we charge ahead without having a clear fix on a target. Take a moment to isolate the precise point being made. Write it down in unambiguous terms if you need to. . . .

Second ask, “What are the reasons given to support the claim?” The person making the point is trying to persuade you to believe him. How is he doing that? Sometimes the rationale is obvious, but not always. The more troublesome appeals are implicit, hidden in the rhetoric. Pay close attention and note what you discover.

Third ask, “Which appeals are irrelevant?” This is the “weeding” step and it’s the most difficult because you have to know what counts as a relevant reason and what does not. Appeals are frequently unrelated to the claim. These include any attack on a person’s character, psychology, circumstances, or culture. . . .

Finally ask, “Does the conclusion follow from the evidence?” Once you isolate the structure of the argument, it’s time to test the walls (the reasons) to see if they are strong enough to keep the roof (the claim or point of view) from tumbling down. Are the factual claims accurate? Do the reasons give adequate support for the claim?
Read the whole thing as Koukl applies critical thinking skills to the claims and arguments of the New Atheists.