I'm a Critical Thinker!



Exercising Our Critical Thinking Muscles

Online forums and social media are great and terrible places to test your critical thinking. As I've written on Mormonism and Transhumanism on Rational Faiths, Exploring Sainthood, and the Transfigurist for over two years, now, as well as interacting on online LDS faith transition and support groups for this same time, I've experienced warm approval, condescending criticism, and a lot of good (if sometimes intense) dialogue.

Any of you who have followed similar paths will have seen the same trends--most arguers can see how they are thinking clearly and critically and you aren't. Not everyone does do that, but a lot of us think it in our heads at least. I think this is especially true in our early stages of understanding a new thing. When we finally make sense of the New God Argument, or figure out the impossibility of textbook style historicity for the Book of Mormon, or realize that there is no way our childhood God could be more than a fantasy--or perhaps even evil--we get a real rush. Our bodies release dopamine at these moments of enlightenment, and we feel excitement and even joy. We want to share what we learned, and we subsequently feel great frustration when others reject the beautiful opportunity we are offering them. And it's even worse when they start (or continue) arguing for the goodness or rightness of something we no see is wrong, misguided, ill-informed, or even hurtful. We have stretched our critical thinking muscles, and think the rest of the world should be working harder at developing their own.

What Is Critical Thinking?

One of the joys of being a teacher is that I get to study learning (at least some of the time). I recently attended in a presentation where Justin Garcia (a professor at DeVry University) spoke about teaching critical thinking in online discussions. He shared Paul and Elder's critical thinking framework. I recommend the mini-guide, or [CriticalThinking.org] for a more in depth (and fascinating) introduction. The model includes this figure on the elements of thought:


You will notice that this model includes a wide array of considerations. It's not enough to look at the data. It's not even enough to look at the data, their interpretation, their implications, and their purpose. A complete critical analysis will involve all of these aspects as far as they are relevant. On top of that, as it evaluates arguments regarding each of these aspects, it will consider this list of intellectual standards:

Is the argument:

  • clear?
  • accurate?
  • precise?
  • relevant?
  • deep?
  • broad?
  • logical?
  • significant?
  • fair?

Here is my invitation. As we discuss such heated topics as Mormonism, gender, race, politics, Transhumanism, etc., as we become more enlightened and leave behind some of the fables of our youth, as we become more progressive (I choose this for me, but you can substitute your change) and reject as less informed or out of date the views of our parents, church leaders, or our cultural contemporaries--can we take a few minutes and think about one of our recent arguments? You have one in mind? When I implied that my wife hasn't thought as carefully as me about that topic, was I only assessing data and its interpretation? Was I only considering accuracy, precision, and logic? Was I forgetting other points of view? Forcing assumptions on her that she doesn't share? Overstating the significance of that topic? Forgetting our shared purpose and goals? Failing to recognize the importance of related, interconnected topics? Ignoring the emotional content of human interactions?

Critical Thinking: Emotional Virtue

That's right. Emotional content. As we develop our expertise with intellectual standards and elements of thought, we develop Intellectual Virtues--and many of these are emotional.


I think this is an inspiring list. Many of us found ourselves doubting the LDS narratives we knew precisely because we were seeking to understand them more fully. We believed them humbly, but coupled with perseverance and integrity we found they lacked the substance we imagined. As we developed courage and autonomy, we had to change what we believed. Or we applied our empathy and fairmindedness to people excluded by our LDS community and found that there was real harm being done by our past beliefs. We persevered with our studies and grew in confidence in our reasons. Applying all of these virtues led us to new places. We really had become more critical thinkers than we were before. But I would suggest we can't stop there--wherever "there" is--in our journey of critical thinking. We will never be done with questions to ask ourselves. So here is one:

Am I showing respect to others' views? Even those I'm confident are wrong? Too often my answer has been no--and with an answer of no, how can I be showing empathy, humility, or fairmindedness? My confidence in reason is only one virtue. My intellectual integrity is only one virtue. My perseverance to study an issue as far as it can be currently understood is only one virtue. And there's the obvious fact that having applied all these virtues to one set of questions doesn't mean I've thought expertly about them all--or that others who have come to different conclusions have failed in applying their virtues. Remember? Different points of view? Different assumptions? Even different data as we have each lived different lives.

So as we think and write critically, let's make sure we take time for reflection and ask if there isn't one more tool we can add to our critical thinking toolbox, and one more virtue we can add to our intellect. Whatever faults it may have, there are some pretty prominent invitations in Mormonism to seek virtue and increase in intelligence. Maybe, whatever our beliefs are growing into, if we work together with love and respect, we can increase in both.