Critical Thinking

How Do We Know?

Believe it or not, there are several different ways of knowing things. While we may not spend a significant amount of our days stopping and thinking about how we know what we know, we should pause every now and then to consider the origins of our beliefs. How do we know? William J. Ray and R. Rivizza describe several ways of knowing in their book Methods Towards a Science of Behavioral Experience: tenacity, a priori, authority, reason, common sense, and science.

Some things we know because of tenacity. We keep believing things because we always have. This is not always a bad thing. Some things may not be knowable by the other ways of knowing. Sometimes we believe by tenacity until we have time to analyze our beliefs by other means.

Some things we believe a priori. These are things that we believe from thinking prior to having observations. These things are believed first as a foundation to other things. For example, we assume that we can generally trust our senses and that the world exists. We do not—and in many cases cannot—provide concrete evidence for why these things are true, we simply accept them because we cannot function and think without them.

Another common source of knowledge is authority. Most of us simply do not have time to independently investigate everything we need to know in order to function, so we trust experts to tell us what we need to know. We need to be careful to distinguish between authorities. Not all authority figures are worthy of trust. Some may be qualified in some areas, but not in others. You trust your doctor for medical advice and your accountant for financial advice. There is a good chance your minister is not qualified to provide either of those.

Not all authority figures are worthy of trust. Click To Tweet

Reason and logic are helpful tools to help us start with things that we already know and work carefully to the next idea. Assuming that what we already know is true, reason and logic can help us gain new knowledge. However, if our foundations are wrong, the best reasoning cannot get us to more true knowledge. Here is an example: If all humans are mortal, and I am a human, then I am mortal. Did you see how I put together two statements to create a third, a conclusion?

Common sense can be helpful, especially when there is no time to use reason or to consult an authority. Common sense should be used carefully because we can easily deceive ourselves. What we think of as common sense is often just our own preconceived notions.

What we think of as common sense is often just our own preconceived notions. Click To Tweet

Consider the “Monty Hall Problem” as an example. On the game show Let’s Make a Deal, contestants would be presented with three doors. Behind one of those doors was a car. The contestant would pick a door and then Monty, the host, would pick one of the two remaining doors and pick a door without the car behind it and open it. Monty would then ask the player whether he or she wanted to switch doors. Common sense tells you that whether you switch doors or not, the odds of winning the car remain the same. However, because of how probability works, that is not the case. The car is actually more likely to be behind the door you did not pick.

Finally there is empiricism, usually expressed as the scientific method. The scientific method begins by taking an idea, called a hypothesis, and testing it to see if it is true or not. Ideally, the test—called an experiment—can be repeated by other people and the results can be verified.

Now that we know where our knowledge comes from, we need to figure out what to do with it. Making use of the information and knowledge we have coming in is called thinking, and thinking is a skill like any other. There are better and worse ways to do it, and you can improve with quality practice.

There are two primary ingredients for you to get down in order to be a better thinker.

First, you need to know who you are and where you are coming from. This is called “self-awareness.” You can often be your own worst enemy, and doubly so if you don’t know yourself well. To think better, you need to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror and be honest: who are you?

Second, you need to learn the habits that will make you a good thinker. We are going to call this “self-discipline.” Self-discipline sounds rough, but it is really just making your mind work for you, rather than the other way around. Just like athletes must train their bodies, thinkers must train their minds, and every single person on the planet needs to use their mind on a daily basis, so why not use it well?

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Beating Bias

These biases are the first obstacles you have to overcome on the way to being a better thinker. Biases are forces that will push you one way or another in your thinking. They are like a strong wind trying to push your car to turn to the left or the right. They are natural and unavoidable, but you can compensate for them if you are aware of them. Biases can actually push you in the right direction sometimes, but the only way to know the difference is to identify when they are affecting you.

Self-interest Bias

We all want to be the good guy. Information that makes us or our interests look bad is going to run up against our self-interest bias. To combat this, ask yourself constantly what your interests are and if they are shaping how you see things.
You may not want to hear that your favorite pastime is unhealthy or that your financial practices are hurting other people. You may be tempted to ignore evidence to that effect because it would harm your self-interest.

What is truly in your best interests is being honest and open. Sure, the truth might hurt now, but in the long run, reality will come knocking one way or another.

Confirmation Bias

optimismWe will often give preference to what we already believe. We are prone to seeking out and perceiving the evidence that supports our preconceptions. To counteract confirmation bias we must work extra hard to actively disprove what we already believe.

While that may sound counterproductive, remember that the end goal of better thinking is grasping the truth. Anything you believe that can be disproved should be disproved and discarded to make way for truth.

Pattern Recognition Bias

StarsHuman ability for pattern recognition has done great things for us as a species, but sometimes we get carried away and see patterns that are not there. Consider how people to this day see patterns in stars and try to connect those patterns to their individual, personal destinies. Sometimes this can be harmless, like when we see animals in the clouds. Other times this can be a problem when the pattern is imaginary. Conspiracy theories often arise from seeing patterns that aren’t there.

Stability and Herd Bias

herd biasMany of us do not want to rock the boat. We also don’t want to stick out from the crowd any more than necessary. So we lean in favor of what most people are doing and in favor of the way things are.

The antidote to this is not simply doing the opposite of what everyone is doing. Instead, be skeptical of the crowd, but open to the possibility that the majority believe what they do for good reason.

Optimism Bias

optimismWe aren’t all optimists, but it can be tempting to dismiss bad news, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. We really want to believe that everything is okay.
For this reason, we are prone to dismiss evidence that might suggest that things are going badly. We need to strive for realism when presented with bad news and not simply sweep it under the rug because we do not want to face the music.


While there are many models out there for understanding personality, we have found that one of the more useful systems is the Enneagram. The Enneagram is a personality model that describes nine different types of personalities. These nine types address the different things that drive different kinds of people. While there can be an almost infinite diversity within each type, there are distinct differences.

The Enneagram is very old, but it has developed over time to incorporate new ideas, like some from modern psychology. Below you will find a summary of the nine types, quoted directly from The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey of Self-Discovery by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. If you want to know more, use the links provided.

  1. The Perfectionist: Ethical, dedicated and reliable, they are motivated by a desire to live the right way, improve the world, and avoid fault and blame.
  2. The Helper: Warm, caring and giving, they are motivated by a need to be loved and needed, and to avoid acknowledging their own needs.
  3. The Performer: Success-oriented, image-conscious and wired for productivity, they are motivated by a need to be (or appear to be) successful and to avoid failure.
  4. The Romantic: Creative, sensitive and moody, they are motivated by a need to be understood, experience their oversized feelings and avoid being ordinary.
  5. The Investigator: Analytical, detached and private, they are motivated by a need to gain knowledge, conserve energy and avoid relying on others.
  6. The Loyalist: Committed, practical and witty, they are worst-case-scenario thinkers who are motivated by fear and the need for security.
  7. The Enthusiast: Fun, spontaneous and adventurous, they are motivated by a need to be happy, to plan stimulating experiences and to avoid pain.
  8. The Challenger: Commanding, intense and confrontational, they are motivated by a need to be strong and avoid feeling weak or vulnerable.
  9. The Peacemaker: Pleasant, laid back and accommodating, they are motivated by a need to keep the peace, merge with others and avoid conflict.
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Preconceptions – What We Bring to the Table

Everyone has a philosophy, but not everyone realizes it. When we talk about a philosophy here, we are talking about a certain way of looking at the world, a worldview. When you grow up in a certain place and time, you acquire certain beliefs and assumptions that shape how you see things. You need to be aware of these assumptions since they can affect the quality of your thinking.

Modernism and Postmodernism

One of the biggest factors shaping our preconceptions in the western world today is Modernism. Modernism generally rejected tradition as a way of knowing things and generally propped up human reason as the best way to know the truth. Modernism values change and holds that human reason will drive us towards better living. Modernism tells a big story about individuality and progress over tradition.

This optimism was shattered after two world wars. While Modernism is far from dead, it had a new competitor: postmodernism. Postmodernism is basically just doubting the big stories that Modernism tells. Postmodernism recognizes that there may be more to humanity than individualism and that human reason is often tainted.


How Language Helps Us Read Each Other’s Minds

Imagine the world without language, written or spoken. Terrifying, isn’t it?

If only there was some way to get the thoughts inside your head into someone else’s head for their consideration. Imagine if there was a way to get someone else to help you or to find out what someone else needs. We don’t have to imagine because just such a thing exists in language. Here is how it works:

We begin with an idea in our heads. It may be a desire, a question, or any number of things. Then, we use our knowledge of language to convert this idea into words. Keep in mind that the idea we are communicating is not the same thing as the words we use to convey it.

Then, using our vocal chords, or a keyboard, or a pen, we transmit the language to another person or people. The recipients receive the language using their ears or eyes and then they have to decode the language in their own minds.
This process seems simple on the surface and it is quite amazing. Remember that we are not born with the ability to convey ideas like this. Infants have to make incoherent cries to convey their need and they are dependent on the perceptive powers of their caregivers.

How Language Constrains Our Thinking

One of the side-effects of language is that it shapes our reality. We think thoughts using words. Words can help us to think in exciting and powerful ways, but words can also limit us.

It can be hard to think about things that we do not have words for. Consider the dream you had trouble explaining or a feeling you had that you could not quite pin down. Imagine traveling back in time a few thousand years and trying to explain an atom or a galaxy.

As we come across new things and new ideas we have to invent new words to make sense of them. A lion is only a lion because some people call it that. Before there was a word for it, it was difficult to think about it and to share ideas about it.

Controlling Ideas Through Language and Agreeing on Words

Since language can shape how we think, it can be used in manipulative ways. Words can be used in subtle ways to shift thinking and alter the course of an argument. Consider the terminology associated with the abortion debate:

The anti-abortion side brands themselves as pro-life, thereby implying that people on the other side are anti-life. This is complicated by the fact that many people who are “pro-life” also support the death penalty, military interventions, and deregulation of firearms.

On the other hand, the “pro-choice” crowd is implying that their opponents are anti-choice. The irony of the “pro-choice” branding is that it emphasizes the choice of the mother over considerations of the child, the father, and the interests of the community. Pro-choice advocates can also demonstrate a conflicting array of values that conflict with the idea of being pro-choice, like advocating for regulations on private financial transactions and business practices.

The naming of the factions actually obscures the debate because they define the conversation differently. One side presents the issue as one of life over death, and the other presents the issue as one of choice over coercion.

We see that language can be used to obscure and distort conversations in such a way that is contrary to language’s function as a tool for communication.

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Self Discipline


When we think of arguments, we often think of two people shouting at each other. While this is a legitimate use of the term, what we are talking about here is something different. Arguing here is not about shouting at other people or about simply saying the opposite of what someone else says. Instead, an argument is a series of statements that you put together and draw a conclusion from.

As simple as that sounds, it is not always easy. Arguments can either be valid or invalid. In a valid argument, your statements, called premises, support your conclusion. In an invalid argument, they do not.

To make it even more complicated, a valid argument can have an untrue conclusion. While your conclusion may follow from the statements you made, if the statements you made were not true, your conclusion also might not be true. Consider these examples:

Valid Argument with True Conclusion: All rhinoceroses die eventually, Sam is a rhinoceros, therefore Sam will die eventually.

Invalid Argument with True Conclusion: Rhinoceroses have horns and giraffes have long necks, therefore Africa is a continent.

Valid Argument with False Conclusion: All rhinoceroses have horns, Sam is a rhinoceros, therefore Sam has a horn. In fact, it is possible that Sam is one of the few rhinoceroses that does not have a horn because someone cut it off for some reason.

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When Thinkers Cheat: Logical Fallacies

Sometimes when we make arguments, it can be tempting to cheat. Below you will find descriptions of common ways in which people cheat when they make arguments. These cheats, also known as fallacies, are logical sleights-of-hand that may look like good arguments, but they are not.

Ad Hominem

Ad Hominem is a latin phrase meaning “to the person.” It is the art of using personal attacks to discredit an idea or argument rather than dealing with the argument itself. This is a really popular one because you do not have to be very smart to pull it off. Even children on the playground can do it! Think back to your childhood days and think of all the times a debate was settled by making impolite remarks about other people’s mothers.

Ad Hominem, the art of using personal attacks instead of reasonable arguments. Click To Tweet


Strawmen are easy to knock over. That’s why this little trick is so popular. The Strawman trick involves making a case against an argument that the other person isn’t even making, but might sound similar or related.

You might have heard someone’s suggestion to reduce military spending be shot down with a hearty “why are you trying to leave us defenseless?”

Did you see what happened there? The original proposal was to reduce military spending, not to eliminate it entirely. While total defunding of the military seems extreme, that was not the original idea.

Strawman: the art of building a fake argument and knocking it down rather than addressing the… Click To Tweet

Slippery Slope

The slippery slope is a clever trick because it starts with the actual argument, but goes somewhere else. The slippery slope occurs when someone takes a claim and exaggerates it or carries it out to a ridiculous extreme. A classic case of this is the argument that if same-sex marriage is legalized, then all kinds of sexual deviancy, up to and including pedophilia will be tolerated.

Correlation vs Causation Confusion

Believe it or not, sometimes two things happen together, but neither one causes the other. For example, did you know that as the number of churches in a given area increases, so too does the number of bars increase? Someone might even say that increasing the number of churches causes more bars to open or vice versa. That person would be mistaken. As it turns out, both the increase in churches and bars is caused by an increase in population. More people causes more bars and churches.

Just because you see two things happening together does not mean there is causation, that one caused the other. You need to dig more to find the truth of the relationship.

Just because two things happened together does not necessarily mean one caused the other. Click To Tweet

Appeal to Authority/Group/Purity

A common shortcut when trying to get an idea across is to appeal to something besides reason and evidence. You might try to appeal to the beliefs of a popular figure or celebrity. You might appeal to a person of high esteem, like a religious leader to support your claims. The problem is, “so-and-so believes it” is not a good reason to believe something.

This is not to be confused with taking the opinions of relevant experts on a topic. You should pay more attention to trained, experienced, and educated experts whose expertise applies to the question at hand. The opinions of scientists, for example, should be given greater weight when answering scientific questions. Ministers would be better experts to consult about matters of religion.

Sometimes it can be attempting to appeal to a large group or to a group identity to make your case. This should be resisted. You may have heard language like this: “No real American would…” or something to that effect.

Appeal to Emotion

Emotions are a powerful thing, and rightfully so. They are an important part of being human. Where things go wrong is when you manipulate people’s emotions to cloud their better judgment. Advertisements and politicians will often time attempt to appeal to our emotions in order to avoid having to convince our intellects.

Anecdotal Evidence

You might be tempted to cite your own limited personal experience as evidence for your argument. When presented with data indicating a low unemployment rate, you might call upon the story of your friend Joe who cannot find a job. Remember that isolated exceptions cannot disprove statistical evidence. Anecdotes, also known as personal stories, can make great examples to illustrate your point, but they usually don’t make good evidence.

False Equivalence

False equivalence is a fancy term for taking two things that are not the same and acting like they are. Oftentimes, for example, various groups and ideologies will be falsely equated with Naziism. Usually this is accomplished by finding some vague bit of overlap between the two things to create the illusion of equivalence.

Be Critical of Sources

We all know not to believe everything we read on the internet, but how are we supposed to tell what is and is not a good source? Here are some tips:

Who published the source? Look up the group or individual and see if they have a specific agenda or what their qualifications are. Be sure to read the “About Us” page, but take their claims with a grain of salt.

Did they cite their sources? If the source you are looking at gives information, see if it indicates where that information came from.

Use your own critical thinking skills to see if the argument the source is making is sound. Even with accurate evidence, they may be fudging on the conclusion.

Look out for loaded or charged words. Words like libtard, racist, snowflake, fascist, and regressive can often be a sign that what you are reading is designed to attack rather than to inform.

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Be Open, But Skeptical

Skepticism and open-mindedness go hand-in-hand. Always be willing to consider new and different ideas, but make sure the new ideas are good ones. Skepticism is not the same thing as doubting everything. Skepticism is simply withholding judgment until you know more and can make a better evaluation. Open-mindedness is not believing everything you hear, but giving each idea a fair hearing.