the art of critical thinking



The Art of Critical Thinking


Notes on The Art of Critical Thinking
by Zak Van Straaten (
Address to the U.C.T. Philosophy Society (March 22, 2023)

1. The Benefits of Critical Thinking
2. Two Fundamental Principles
3. A Model of Critical Thinking
4. Critical Thinking Questions to ask of any Narrative
5. Examples Critical Thinking in Action
6. Abductive Thinking
7. Difference between Critical Thinking & Critical Reasoning
8. Using Critical Thinking to find a coach or mentor
9. The Ladder of Critical Thinking Progress

1. The Benefits of Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking;

o Supports the hard wiring of your biology. You are programmed to survive & replicate. Critical thinking assists you.
o Gives you advantages over those who cannot think critically. Advantages in your profession or career or family life.
o Saves you time and money. Helps you to reduce error & costs
o Helps you to avoid going down paths which are not good for you.
o Gives the ability to raise vital questions & problems.
o Gives you the ability to recognise hidden assumptions & agendas
o Gives enhanced problem solving & decision making abilities
o Generates creativity - bringing new ideas into existence
o Diminishes the risk of the unthinking adoption of questionable views
o Develops skills to provide good responses to those trying to sell you an idea, proposal, or pre-owned car.
o Helps you avoid psychological errors like the Narrative Fallacy, Group Think or Confirmation bias.

2. Two Fundamental Principles
2a. There is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques.
2b. The descriptive and explanatory statements of scientists, technologists, engineers & mathematicians can, in principle, be objectively true or false.

3. A Model of Critical Thinking based on the Falsificationist Method of Knowledge

4. Critical Thinking Questions to ask of any Narrative

Suppose your Critical thinking is on existing alleged knowledge or beliefs, alleged facts, a book, a speech, a lecture, an instruction, a text, presentation, email, strategy, proposal or documentary. Let’s call it a Narrative.
1. (a) What is the best interpretation of the narrative?
(b) Can the Narrative or Message or Text be falsified?

2. (a) Let us examine the Hypotheses of the Narrative pro & con
(b) Do the assumptions / hypotheses support the narrative?
(c) Have the hypotheses been tested? Can you falsify some?
(d) Can you knock out some hypotheses / assumptions as untenable
or unreasonable?

3. (a) What are the (alleged) facts which support the narrative ?
(b) Have you examined the facts pro and con?
(c) Do the facts actually support the narrative?
(d) Have the Facts been established? Can you falsify any of the alleged
(e) Can you get independent corroboration of the Facts?
(f) What are the background knowledge assumptions?
Can you falsify any of them ?
(g) What are the observations which support the narrative.
Can you cast doubt on any of them ?

4. (a) Have you examined the logic or reasoning pro & con ?
(b) Is the narrative consistent?
(c) Is the logic or reasoning which supports the narrative valid ?
(d) Can you falsify any part of the logic chain ?
(e) Does every link in the logic chain or chain of reasoning work?
(f) Does the reasoning support the narrative ?

5. (a) Who is putting the narrative forward?
(b) Why are they advancing the narrative ?
(c) What is their motivation?

6. (a) Are there alternative competing narratives?
(b) Are any of the alternative competing narratives demonstrably
better than the narrative under examination?

Critical Thinking is a relatively objective way of getting clarity on what is being claimed; how much and what kind of support the knowledge claim has; and doing some rational error correction on it.
Critical Thinking is Linked to Problem Solving, Knowledge Improvement and Effective Decision Making.

5. Examples C.T. in Action
prof Feynman on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; Why was the orbit of Uranus deviant from theoretical expectations; the alleged dangers of high cholesterol; romanticising the Khoi San; to lose weight you should burn more calories; we are all required to take 10,000 steps per day; hegehogs know one thing and foxes know many things; bread mold grows faster in the bread tin than in the fridge…

6. A Model of critical thinking based on the Abductive Thinking Method

The use of Abductive Thinking is one of the types of thinking (like Falsificationist Thinking) which we examine in Critical Thinking. In Abductive Thinking we abduce (or take away) a best guess from a set of observations. The “best guess” is one of the following:
a hypothesis, an assumption, an inference to the best explanation.
The group of observations might consist of a single observation or many observations. “Abduction” may be thought of as an imaginative jumping off from an open ended set of observations.

Examples of abductive thinkers are Sherlock Holmes in trying to solve a case from the clues; your doctor trying to discover what is wrong with you from your symptoms; or your garage mechanic trying to find out what is wrong with your car from your description and the evidence available to him.
A Critical Thinking Model based on the Abductive Method of thinking

1.What are all the available observations relevant to the event to be explained ?
2. Are you sure you have got all of them?
3. Are the observations accurate ?
4. Given your present state of background knowledge what's the best guess or best explanation of this set of observations?
5. Have you tested your best guess or best explanation ?
6. Can you falsify some of your hypotheses ?
Can you knock out some hypotheses as untenable or unreasonable?
7. Have you examined the facts pro and con?
Have the facts been established? Can you falsify any of the alleged facts?
8. Do the facts support the your best guess ?
9. Can you get independent confirmation of the facts ?
10. Given your present state of background knowledge, and your answers to all of the above questions, what is the best explanation of the event?
11. What's the best set of actions or decisions which are required to be taken given your current best abductive explanation?

A good example of Abductive Thinking in action is that of prof. Feynman
explaining the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.

7. Difference between critical thinking & critical reasoning
The activity of Critical Thinking is different from the activity of Critical Reasoning.
The philosophical reasoning praxis of academic philosophers is a kind of reasoning, which is squarely in the humanities and is largely logico- linguistic in nature. It is often focused on the (a) the nature of the language used; (b) the kind of arguments used (c) the logical relations between the sentences/ terms / subjects / verb phrases / predicates; (d) Issues of validity and soundness; and (e) formal and informal fallacies. This kind of reasoning requires skill in spotting mistakes and spotting informal and formal fallacies.
Daniel Dennett calls the way in which A.A.A. academic philosophers carry out this kind of "reasoning" a "hyper abstract semi-formalism". He claimed that the language they use to thrash away at the issues is "in terms no one else understands." Philosophers have their own priestly language which only they understand.

Two things they don't do is test hypotheses and establish facts in the real world. Their methodology doesn't include experimentation and testing. They leave that to scientists.

Critical Thinking involves getting out of one’s armchair and actually testing hypotheses or assumptions and actively establishing facts outside the armchair.

8. The Ladder of Critical Thinking Progress

1. The unreflective thinker – usually does not think about his own or other people’s thinking except when forced to do so.
2. The challenging thinker - who is aware of some problems in peoples thinking and tries to address these.
3. The critical thinker – has some critical thinking tools and techniques, uses these from time to time on his / her own thinking and that of others
4. The advanced critical thinker – someone who is very knowledgeable about critical thinking tools and techniques and uses critical thinking to great effect. Admired for his/her critical thinking skills by his/her peers & others.

Let us go and populate the world with Critical Thinkers.

Thank you.