Email: how do you think critically?

I got the following email from someone we’ll call “Pad Britt” after my interview on The Thinking Atheist.

I just heard the episode of The Thinking Atheist on which you were a guest and I had a question. I’ve been an atheist for a couple of years (I was raised Southern Baptist…. so yeah….) and I’ve learned to repeat counter apologetic responses to the claims of theists fairly successfully. While I come off as an intelligent person to other people, I know that I’m just regurgitating arguments that I’ve learned from people like Matt Dillahunty or Robert J. Ingersoll. But when I heard you on the podcast, you seemed to have thought deeply about the replies that you gave.

I just wanted to know (and bear with me. I don’t really know how to phrase this question.) how do I think critically? Is there any specific place to begin trying to think critically? Is it even something that can be learned? Is there a way that it can be practiced so that I can get better?

I just really don’t feel comfortable repeating what others have told me as fact; that’s what I did as a christian and it feels dishonest.

Thanks for the email, Pad.  I will first suggest that Dan Fincke may be a much better person to ask about this subject than I.  But I’ll take my best stab at it.

Don’t think that using the arguments of others means you’re not thinking critically.  You use those arguments because you evaluated them and found them to be cogent and worded in a way that resonated with you.  You did not accept them because they came from a source that was supposed to be infallible.

Even for people like myself and Matt Dillahunty, most of our arguments against the offerings of theism were developed by people before us.  My stance on morality?  Thank Matt Dillahunty and Richard Carrier for that.  My rebuttal to the argument of “you can’t prove god doesn’t exist” that starts with accusing the person presenting the argument of being some sort of criminal?  That came from a commenter on this blog.  In fact, most of my debates with theists as a budding young activist were saturated with arguments taken directly from Sam Harris (and almost to the letter of how Sam phrased them).  The arguments only now appear to be my own because over time (and after a great deal of reading) I’ve found my own style and applied it to those arguments.  But most of the arguments aren’t mine, they’re just spoken with my flippant voice and using the facts I found to be most convincing (facts that were uncovered and reported by other human beings).

Accepting an argument and using what you consider to be the most effective presentation of that argument does not mean that you aren’t thinking critically.  Thinking critically just means you evaluate claims fairly and consistently and do not accept them until you’ve determined to the best of your ability that they are reasonable and in harmony with the facts.  It means trying to remove as much bias as possible.  That starts with getting away from the mindset of “x claim must be true because my pastor/Jesus/Matt Dillahunty/JT Eberhard said it”.  But there is no shame in the fact that we learn most of our facts and arguments from other people – this is why college students aren’t just plopped down in a classroom with no book and no instructor.

So don’t feel bad.  Even the greatest painter begins by emulating what other talented painters have done.  Emulation is the precursor to talent and to discovery.  It’s also the precursor to one’s individual style.  Do you think there’s a composer in the world who didn’t first learn how either The Beatles or Mozart arranged notes to make them appealing (I can assure you that in college you spend entire classes trying to resolve harmonies as Mozart would have done)?  And yet, what great composer spends his/her life trying to do exactly what Mozart did?  The more you read and the more you see how different people approach the rebuttals to theism, the more you’ll take a little bit here and a little bit there and subsequently discover your own voice.  Mine is greatly influenced by Sam Harris, Richard Carrier, and PZ Myers.  Who knows who will influence yours?  And afterward you’ll begin to mold those arguments into something unique that may be traceable to the people from whom you learned them, but which will undeniably be yours.

The good thing is that most of the atheist debaters I know, including Matt Dillahunty and Rick Carrier, are very good about understanding that people will use their words in discussions about god’s existence.  I’m the same way.  If I’ve phrased an argument in a way that appeals to you, feel free to use it verbatim.  You need not give me any credit.  I’m flattered you found it useful.  And if someone can use my wording until they see how to improve on it, more power to them.  Hell, at that point I might just use the new phrasing too!  :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • The_Schwa

    “If I’ve phrased an argument in a way that appeals to you, feel free to use it verbatim.”

    Does the same hold for your credit card numbers? Wait, let me get a pen…

  • invivoMark

    Can critical thinking be trained? Absolutely! Scientists are trained to do so. Some professors teach their undergrad classes to think critically, but it’s a skill that all graduate students must learn.

    One nearly universal component of graduate programs in the sciences is what’s called a journal club. Each week, students read one published, peer-reviewed article. Then, students meet and discuss this paper. During the discussion, the paper gets eviscerated. Students find every possible flaw in the paper – they question the value of every experiment, they question the rigor of the methods, they attack any unwarranted conclusions, they question all the assumptions.

    And these are peer-reviewed papers. They’ve passed the level of rigor required to be published as accepted science. They’ve been reviewed by expert senior scientists in the relevant field. Even papers published in Science, Nature, or the New England Journal of Medicine – all top-tier journals with extra high standards for publication – will be torn apart by a class of graduate students. It goes to show there’s no such thing as a perfect paper.

    This training is vital for scientists. We have to be critical of our own ideas. It’s sometimes said, (and only half-jokingly) a scientist’s job is to try and prove herself wrong. Because it’s very easy to “prove yourself right” – it’s called confirmation bias. Proving yourself wrong is a lot harder to do, because you’re not always willing to see the evidence for what it is. Then if, after performing dozens of experiments, you find that you can’t prove yourself wrong, you just might be able to accept the possibility that you’re actually right.

    So without going through the formal training of a scientist, how do you teach yourself to think more critically? The place to start is to be more critical of your own ideas and arguments. Those are the things you are most familiar with. So carefully examine those, and take note of any flaws you see. Think of things you think you know or understand, and question those.

    Here’s an exercise you can try. Take any thing that you think you know. As an example, take the fact that the world is round. Certainly, we both know this is true. But ask yourself, how do I know that? You know it’s true because of what people have told you. You’ve been taught that it was round since you were a child. You’ve seen globe maps, and you’ve been told they’re accurate. You’ve seen pictures, and you’ve been told they’re from space.

    But is it possible that you’re wrong? (The answer to that question is always yes!) If so, how? Well, you haven’t actually been to space yourself, so you can’t be certain that the photos aren’t faked. You haven’t carefully surveyed every part of the Earth’s surface, so you don’t know that globe maps are accurate. You may have heard of experiments using the angles of shadows, but you haven’t performed those yourself. In fact, the Flat Earth Society (yes, that’s a real thing) has answers to just about every reason you think you know the Earth is round.

    In the end, you can never prove that the Earth is round. But you can evaluate how likely it is that all your reasons for a round Earth are wrong. You can evaluate the reliability of your sources (textbooks are fairly reliable; Internet forums, less so). You can perform some of the experiments yourself. And you can evaluate the likelihood of alternative models of Earth (the Flat Earth Society favors one that is constantly accelerating upward at 9.8m/s).

    With practice, you can do this same exercise with questions like: is what the Bible says true? To any question like that, imagine that the question is immediately followed by, and how do you know?

    And finally, but very importantly, always remember: it is always okay to be wrong. The important thing is that you can recognize when you’re wrong, admit it to yourself and to those around you, and change your position so that you’re less wrong.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    My process (if that’s a good word for it) – the following steps don’t necessarily have priority or weighting associated with the presented order…

    Step 1 – Actually care, I mean REALLY care about whether your internal model of reality is accurate.

    This encourages you to be willing to change your mind, to follow the evidence where it leads and to actively engage in the other steps…

    Step 2 – Debate yourself…a lot. Don’t stop just because you debate others, as well.

    My ‘quiet time’ is often spent readdressing positions that I’ve long held. Attack the problems from different angles, on your own. It’ll help you understand the ‘why’ behind your positions and it’ll help you come up with new and better ways of explaining this. (The videos on my personal YouTube account exist because this is what I’m normally doing on the drive to and from work.)

    To quote Bertrand Russell, “…it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

    I am my own harshest (fair) critic. After every show and every talk and every debate, I’m replaying it in my head – analyzing it to death – looking for what I missed and what I could have done better.

    Step 3 – Engage others…and ask lots of questions.

    The Socratic method is a great tool for getting people to understand a point. Ask them questions that lead them toward realizing your point, rather than merely hammering the point home. But it has another great utility…

    I love watching people think and encouraging them to think in new ways, and one of the reasons I enjoy it is because I often learn to think in new ways as they’re doing it.

    Step 4 – Listen…and read (perhaps the purest form of listening).

    It’s difficult to do, and I don’t always succeed, but I try to find the right balance between listening critically (looking for fallacies and strengths) and listening charitably (giving the benefit of the doubt, when possible).

    Charitable listening is an area where I struggle – and it’s an area where lots of atheists are inevitably going to struggle when having conversations and debates with theists. If you’re in the ‘mode’ of analyzing arguments, you’re going to avoid being charitable – because it will often bite you in the ass.

    Most of the time, the person you’re arguing with isn’t an expert on the subject or an expert at critical thinking. This can sometimes make it difficult to tell when they’ve committed a serious fallacy and when they’ve merely misspoken.

    I’ve got two different ways to address this problem and they’ve both served me well on the show and in formal debates…
    – Start with the first error (if it’s used as a premise or foundation)
    – Start with the most obvious/serious error

    Finally…just keep doing it. It’s a skill you develop by working it. You’re going to fail. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re probably even going to make big mistakes. Try to learn from them and keep going.


    • Zugswang

      “Step 1 – Actually care, I mean REALLY care about whether your internal model of reality is accurate.”

      I’m so glad you wrote that out from the get-go. That first step is ABSOLUTELY crucial, and the only way by which the later parts provide any real value to skeptical thought and understanding.

      Wanting to know what’s right and simply wanting to be right are two very different things; too often people ignore the former and go straight to being content with their present preconceptions, building an ultimately inferior reality around those biases.

  • Bradley Robert Compton

    So one thing is he could… you know… take a class in critical thinking. Most colleges offer them, and the teachers are people who have typically spent a lot of time thinking about how to think well. There are also a LOT of great online resources for critical thinking. Less wrong has a lot of good material.

    Learn about cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. Whenever you disagree with something, try to suss out where it is exactly where you think the idea goes wrong, and how you would explain it to someone who holds that view.

    As many others have said, try to poke holes in your own beliefs, and seek out the best opposition you can find.

    Read philosophy, even the old stuff has a lot to offer. At the very least, it will give you some puzzles, and it can definitely turn your view of reality upside down. David Hume did wonders for me in terms of starting to formulate a worldview.