The Paradox of Critical Thinking

An epistemological enigma

Some years ago, my dad told me about this one quote he really liked. He had apparently seen it on a car’s bumper sticker and liked it so much, he felt compelled to share with others. The sticker said, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

I’m not sure if this is the exact same sticker my dad saw, but its message is identical. Image credit: https://coachmikemahoney.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/cambridge_bumper_sticker.png

At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the adage, but as the years have gone by, I’ve come to realize just how clever it is.

Don’t believe everything you think is a critical thinker’s motto, wrapped up into a pithy proverb. Just because an idea pops into your head doesn’t mean it’s true — or even reasonable, for that matter. If we want to be good critical thinkers, we would do well to criticize our own thoughts as readily as we criticize ideas we intuitively disagree with.

I like to think I’m at least a halfway-decent critical thinker, but I’ve stumbled across something that strikes me as a huge epistemological problem, and it makes me second-guess myself. Let’s apply our critical thinking skills to the concept itself.

How can we know when we’re being good critical thinkers? Can we even tell when we’ve come to some belief through careful analysis of reliable evidence and deliberate consideration of all alternatives versus fooling ourselves into believing we’ve taken all those important steps?

I’ve come to believe this question is extremely difficult to answer—maybe even impossible. I call it The Paradox of Critical Thinking.

My sister Emily recently asked me two questions that illustrate The Paradox well: In the moment, what does being wrong (and not knowing it) feel like? What does being right (and knowing it) feel like? If you’ve ever been proven wrong about something and changed your mind, you will recognize that these two positions feel exactly the same. Clearly, our feelings aren’t a trustworthy barometer of truth.

For a more concrete illustration, let me give you a particularly troubling example of a time I fooled myself into believing I was being a good critical thinker.

When I was in the throes of depression, I was completely convinced that I was a worthless human being — heck, not even worthy of being called human. Furthermore, I believed things would never get better. In conversations with my sisters, they challenged me on both of these beliefs, but I completely dismissed their counterarguments.

I “knew” that they were the deluded ones when they saw value in my existence. They simply didn’t have all the facts that clearly demonstrated my worthlessness; I did. I couldn’t articulate what all those facts were, but I knew what they meant for my worth (or lack thereof).

When my sisters told me things would get better, I challenged them: “You don’t know that.” They had good reasons for saying so, but I was convinced that just because they didn’t know with absolute certainty, that meant their position was necessarily wrong.

All the while, I thought I was being a good critical thinker by challenging what my sisters had said. Thankfully — for my sake — they were right on both counts, and I eventually changed my mind, although it took me much too long to get there.

I have to admit, taking this example into account and trying to generalize from it leaves me clueless as to how I could ever know when I’m truly being a good critical thinker. The closest thing to an answer I can come up with is this: Your chances of reaching the truth are better if you have other people examining and even critiquing your arguments.

By extension, The Paradox highlights the importance of willingness to entertain dissenting opinions. What makes me so sure my arguments are flawless? If they really are, I should be able to defend them against any challenge.

But let’s get real here: Somebody much smarter than I am might have already considered whatever I’m arguing for and come up with an objection I never even thought of. It’s certainly happened before! The big question is whether or not I will be open to hearing it. This brings us to an uncomfortable conclusion.

As much as this recommendation will violate our gut feelings just about all the time — and if it’s not already perfectly clear, I’m not immune, either! — I think we should be willing to listen to those who disagree with us. Aim to understand the entirety of your “opponent’s” argument instead of dismissing it outright. Perhaps we can learn something from each other and get closer to finding the truth.

And so, in keeping with the spirit of this subject, I’m inclined to ask: What do you think? Is this how critical thinking is supposed to work? Is there another way out of The Paradox?

It seems clear to me we’re not very good at finding flaws in our own arguments, if for no other reason than they support our beliefs, and we consider an attack on our beliefs an attack on us personally. But if you value truth, or you’re at all self-interested, you should welcome — not immediately criticize or condemn — people who challenge your beliefs. Doing otherwise is potentially depriving yourself of discovering truth.

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