Critical Thinking Note 8: What Would Follow From That

Here’s a useful reasoning pattern: test a claim by seeing what follows from it deductively and considering whether there are good reasons for thinking those things are false. If you claim entails truths, that doesn’t tell you so much. But if you claim entails falsehoods, that tells you the claim must be false. The pattern of reasoning here can be represented as follows:

  1. If P is true, then Q must be true.
  2. But Q is not true.
  3. So, P is not true.

This pattern of argument is known to logicians as modus tollens. We employ this pattern of reasoning on a daily basis without giving it a second thought. I think that my keys are on the coffee table and infer that I’ll find them there when I look. I don’t find them on the coffee table and reject my original notion as false.  This pattern of argument is so straightforward that it is typically listed as a basic rule of inference in logic textbooks.

Karl Popper, the famous 20th century philosopher of science, took this pattern of reasoning to be central to the methods of science and dubbed it the method of conjecture and refutation. We make a conjecture, see what follows from it, and then look for evidence that refutes one or another of the logical consequences of our conjectures. Inquiry proceeds by rejecting mistaken conjectures. Often our “refutations” are less than decisive. Sometimes our inquiry reveals serious problems for our conjectures but leaves the question of whether those problems can be resolved unsettled. And sometimes we find that our conjectures entail things we can’t exactly refute but still find pretty implausible. Bet even in cases like this, deductively reasoning from our conjectures gives us a better view of the “price” of holding a view.

A good example of this method at work in philosophy classes is the standard treatment of moral relativism in ethics. Moral relativism is the view that what is right is right only relative to a specific group (a culture, say) and that what is right or wrong relative to a culture is just a matter of that culture’s standards, what is deemed right or wrong in that culture. It’s important to keep in mind that this is theory of what moral rightness is, not just a view about what people consider right or wrong. This view has a number of interesting and problematic entailments. Here are just a few

  • Moral relativism entails that every culture is infallible relative to itself. Moral relativism says that what is right relative to a culture is whatever is deemed right in that culture. So this view clearly entails that every culture is right relative to itself. People in other cultures might see the matter differently, but that’s just their perspective and moral relativism guarantees as a matter of principle that their perspective on some practice is no better than ours. Lots of people find this to be an attractive feature of moral relativism since it seems to speak against ethnocentrism. But there are better ways to counter ethnocentrism. This one means that Nazi culture was right relative to itself in gassing the Jews and our view that this practice was horrible is just about what’s right relative to us, which is no better in principle than the Nazi take on the matter.
  • If you happen to be a decent and respectful person to begin with, it might be tempting to think that a view about morality that denies your own culture an inside track will imply that we should be more tolerant of diversity. In fact many people who like moral relativism like it because they think it supports the cause of tolerance for diversity. But moral relativism does no such thing. It says nothing about tolerance specifically. Moral relativism does entail that tolerance will be a good thing relative to cultures that endorse tolerance. But it also entails that tolerance will be bad relative to intolerant cultures. But worse yet, moral relativism denies us any possibility of principled argument against cultures that embrace intolerance. If we think respect and tolerance for diversity is a good thing, the straightforward thing to do would be to take a principled stand on that. But moral relativism doesn’t help here. In fact, it hurts the cause of tolerance and respect for diversity.
  • We have special regard for those rare individuals that markedly improve the moral quality of their culture. A short list of notable moral reformers might include Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. But moral relativism affords no grounds for taking these people to be praiseworthy. To be a moral reformer is just to be someone who improves the moral quality of her culture. Moral relativism entails that it is conceptually impossible for a culture to change its moral standards for the better since any change for the better presupposes a standard of moral goodness that is independent of the cultures say so. But moral relativism says that good and bad is always relative to the conventionally accepted standards of a culture and so denies that there is any independent standard of goodness relative to which a culture could be said to improve. Moral relativism does allow that Ghandi and Nelson Mandela are significant agents of change. But it denies us grounds for deeming them any more praiseworthy than Vlad the Impaler or Hitler.

Moral relativism is currently an enormously popular view about the nature of morality. So much so that most philosophy instructor’s routinely find it necessary to draw attention to its rather deep pitfalls before expecting students to pay close attention to more plausible alternative accounts of morality. But as is often the case, we discover the flaws in misguided views by carefully and rigorously chasing down the logical consequences of the view.

Human beings are not very diligent deductive thinkers by nature. We are more social than rational beings and we often tend to follow the crowd without asking too many questions. But we can become more effective critical thinkers and a key developmental stage in this direction involves making a reflexive habit out of curiously asking “What would follow from that?”

December 9, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 7: Open-Mindedness


Everybody thinks it’s good to be open-minded. But we don’t often think critically about just what it means to be open-minded. We might think that being open-minded means allowing that others’ opinions might be true and that your own opinions might be false. Certainly open-mindedness involves a kind of intellectual humility, but I’m not sure this view gets it quite right. For this view has it that people who actually know what they are talking about aren’t open-minded. In fact, this view of open-mindedness is often invoked as a kind of fallacious objection to genuine expertise. For instance, evolutionary biologists are sometimes accused of not being very open-minded because they won’t grant much credence to creationism or intelligent design or because they are firmly opposed to these views being taught in science classes. More generally, the problem is this: suppose that on some matter the available evidence and good argument clearly and compellingly supports one view, and the arguments for opposing views are seriously flawed. According to our proposed view of open-mindedness, the people who have carefully thought through the available evidence and argument won’t be open-minded. They’ve reached a firm conclusion and rejected opposing views, and this is all it takes to have a closed mind on the account we gave above. But these are the experts, the people who most know what they are talking about. If they aren’t open-minded, then perhaps open-mindedness isn’t such a great thing. Or perhaps we’ve been considering a mistaken view of open-mindedness.

If open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue, a quality that directs us towards knowledge, then we need a way to understand what open-mindedness is that doesn’t make people who know close-minded. Here’s a suggestion. Open-mindedness isn’t really about beliefs; it’s about our reasons for holding them. The open-minded person is the person who is open to clarifying and evaluating arguments and evidence. When these clearly favor a particular view, then firm belief in that view is well justified. The open-minded person doesn’t shut the door to new argument on the matter. But firm belief is justified to the degree that it is supported by fair evaluation of the reasons and evidence and remains so unless there are good ground to reassess the reasons and arguments. The close-minded person is the person who won’t consider and fairly address opposing argument.

So the person who understands the strength of the scientific case for evolution by natural selection and who has also considered the arguments for creationism or intelligent design and found the flaws in these is justified in firmly holding evolution by natural selection to be true and in rejecting opposing theories as not credible. Doing so is not opposed to being open-minded. The difference between being open-minded and close-minded isn’t a question of how firmly belief is held or how decisively opposing views are rejected. It has to do with how belief is held. The open-minded person’s belief is supported through a commitment to critical thinking. The close-minded person’s belief is a matter of dogmatic conviction where reason only enters for the purpose of rationalizing foregone conclusions.

Thinking of open-mindedness in terms of being open to reason looks much better. There is a practical downside, I suppose. Being open-minded requires critical thinking. So, it might not be as easy as we’d like to think.

Russ Payne

November 4, 2013



Critical Thinking Note 6: A Broader View of Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is purposeful thinking. But just what is the purpose of critical thinking? Why think critically? As a branch of human inquiry, philosophy has a pretty clear view of the purpose of critical thinking. But once we get clear on the aims of critical thinking in inquiry, we might begin to worry that the resulting conception of critical thinking is too narrow. Or so I’ll suggest.

Scientists and philosophers want to know how things are. The purpose of our thinking is truth oriented. Of course, we often pursue the truth with the expectation that the best we can hope for is incremental progress in the form of clearly delineating the various ways things might be, perhaps ruling out the most problematic views and then sorting out the logical implications of the remaining contenders. This is hardly cause for despair. Not being fully attainable may even be typical of the standards most worth striving towards. Consider being fit, being good, shaping a just society or designing a better mouse trap. Woe be the carpenter who won’t let a cabinet leave his shop until it is absolutely and totally perfect. This is not a master craftsman but rather a poor wretch who will soon require anti-depressants. Purposeful activity often aims at standards of excellence that needn’t themselves be fully and perfectly attainable.

I often characterize philosophers as “one trick ponies.” We pretty much just formulate, clarify and evaluate arguments. That’s about all we’re good at, so we try to stick to that fairly specific and occasionally useful task. The characterization is not entirely fair, but it helps students get focused on the central tasks in doing philosophy without feeling entirely overwhelmed. When the purpose of critical thinking is to figure out how things are, this perhaps overly simple characterization of what philosophers do also gets cleanly at the main elements of critical thinking for the purpose of inquiry. Where our purpose is to know or at least better understand, critical thinking will largely be focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. An argument is just a reason for taking its conclusion to be true. So if we can get at the best arguments and know that they are the best arguments, then we have attained or made good progress towards the purpose critical thinking in inquiry.

Given our orientation towards inquiry, perhaps it is no surprise that critical thinking textbooks, written and taught mainly by philosophers, tend to be heavily focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. But this neglects any role critical thinking might have when we have other purposes in mind. Consider, for instance, good design, elegant problem solving or effective communication. It might turn out that critical thinking as it applies to inquiry requires only minor tweeks in order to suit these and other appropriate purposes. Or perhaps substantially different models are called for. But for now, a modest first step might be to try to formulate a broader conception of what critical thinking is, one that can accommodate a broader range of purposes than just inquiry.

Being a purposeful activity, thinking critically implies that we are oriented toward meaningful standards of success or excellence. That is, it will always make sense to ask if we have attained our purpose or at least made good progress in that direction. Any attempt to answer that question ushers us towards the “critical” part of critical thinking. Thinking critically requires that we evaluate our progress towards the standards implied by our purposes. Putting these few pieces together gives us a pretty broad but still substantive way to understand critical thinking. Critical thinking is purposeful thinking that is actively evaluated according to standards of success or excellence appropriate to its purposes. In the interest of thinking critically about critical thinking, this proposal should be taken as an invitation for critical evaluation. My suspicion is that this proposal is now too broad. But we try, evaluate the results, and try again.

Russ Payne

October 4, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 5: Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Series

The Philosophy Dept. (not just me, but most of us) will be running a Critical Thinking Curriculum Development workshop through the Faculty Commons this year and our first meeting is just two weeks from now. This workshop will meet on four Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 in D-104 on the following dates, Oct. 10, Nov. 7, Jan 16, and Feb. 13. In this workshop, Philosophy faculty will share a variety of open source curriculum materials and help participants develop Canvas critical thinking modules to suit their courses and students. Register right away.

You can register for our Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Series here:

Now for some content. Not everyone gets the Faculty Commons newsletter, so this time I’m re-issuing a contribution to the most recent edition. Please forgive the recycling. Some new notes are in the works.

In Russia there is a saying: “When the fight is over, stop swinging your arms.” The point is well taken. There is generally not much to be gained from bemoaning our assorted defeats once they are a done deal. Additionally it’s not very much fun. On the other hand, there are some fights, well struggles, which we are never really done with. And critical review of our recent shortfalls can be highly instructive as we continually aim to do better. How we understand our world, including others and ourselves, is one of these ongoing struggles. Here, critical review of past performance serves the genuinely useful aim of figuring out something new.

As useful as critical thinking can be in reviewing and revising our opinions and our reasons for holding them, it might also force us to recognize our own shortcomings, like having held false opinions or having reasoned poorly. So there is a risk of critical thinking giving us cause to bemoan our defeats and hence being not very much fun. A common practice in the face of this risk is to engage in creative and often self-deceptive strategies for avoiding critical thinking. A big part of our jobs as college level educators is to help our students outgrow self-satisfied intellectual complacency and embrace habits of critical thinking in spite of these risks. As humbling as it can be to find that you’ve believed a falsehood or reasoned poorly, there is new, more mature confidence to be found in cultivating skill at evaluating reasons, ferreting out false opinion and moving, at least incrementally, towards a better understanding of our world, others in it and ourselves. Additionally, this part is fun.

So, how are we helping our students face the challenge of critical thinking and how might we do better? This will be the focus of a new Critical Thinking Curriculum Development workshop at the Faculty Commons organized and facilitated by assorted members of BC’s philosophy department. There is a well-developed critical thinking curriculum in philosophy that supports an entire genre of textbooks and a diverse array of web resources. One of our own faculty members, Mark Storey, has recently written a complete critical thinking text intended for free distribution to and use by BC faculty and students. Our plan is to give workshop participants this fall and winter an exclusive first look at this new free resource. Of course we will be inviting critical feedback for further improvements and refinements. Participants will also get to make their own refinements and revisions. A primary goal for this workshop will be for participants to adapt, supplement and revise Mark’s text and other critical thinking notes and resources in developing a Critical Thinking module in Canvas that is custom tailored to meet the needs of their courses and students.


  1. Russ Payne

September 25, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 4: Mark Storey on Validity

So I’ve been talking all year about how Philosophy is going to write this free Critical Thinking Text for the BC community. Meanwhile Mark Storey has actually done so. A complete draft should be ready to share in Fall Quarter. We will also be running a Critical Thinking Curriculum Development Seminar using this material through the Faculty Commons in the fall. Here’s a short excerpt:

Valid vs. Invalid

Every argument in the universe needs to “pass” two tests; the arguments must be logically good and factually good. We are speaking loosely at this point, but all deductive and inductive arguments must meet the same basic pair of demands: it must be the case that (a) its premises give good reason to believe the conclusion, and (b) the premises are actually true. The first concern pertains to the relation the premises have to the conclusion, and the actual truth or falsity of the premises is often irrelevant. The second concern pertains to the facts of the matter and to whether the claims of the premises correspond accurately to the world. Figuring out if an argument is logically good or not often involves a hypothetical thought experiment in which you don’t really care if the premises are actually true or not. Figuring out if the argument is factually good forces you to step out of the hypothetical thought experiment and rely on your knowledge of the real world. We’ll begin by focusing our attention on the first concern.

As we have seen, a deductive argument is any argument claiming either explicitly or implicitly that if the premises all are true, then the conclusion must be true. Deductive arguments are evaluated as either “valid” or “invalid.” A deductive argument is valid when it is indeed the case that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true, and a deductive argument is invalid when it is not the case that if the premises are true then the conclusion must be true.

To determine if a deductive argument is valid or invalid, ask yourself a question:  Is it logically impossible for the premises to be true and at the same time and from the same perspective for the conclusion to be false? If “Yes,” then the argument is valid. If “No,” then the argument is invalid.

The distinction between valid and invalid arguments will become clearer after you’ve examined some examples. The following deductive arguments are all valid. Notice that it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

  1. Every square has four sides. This figure is a square. Therefore this figure must have four sides.
  2. Tom is older than Bob and Bob is older than Ed. So Tom must be older than Ed.
  3. Some cats are pets. Thus, it must be that some pets are cats.
  4. Alfredo is Sue’s (biological) father. Therefore, Alfredo must be older than Sue, because fathers are always older than their biological children.


The following deductive arguments are invalid. Notice that it is possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

  1. Javon is older than Betty. Therefore, Javon must be taller than Betty.
  2. All members of the XYZ club are senior citizens. Thus it must be that all senior citizens are members of the XYZ club.
  3. All members of the Hells Angels live in California. Joe lives in California. Therefore, it is certain that Joe is a member of the Hells Angels.
  4. If the sun is out, then Vu is swimming. Vu is swimming. So it must be that the sun is out.

Each argument above is deductive because the claim in each case is that the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. However, some are valid deductive arguments and some are invalid, because some succeed in showing that their conclusions must be true if their premises are true, and some do not. That is, for the invalid arguments, it is logically possible for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. The premises are thus not guaranteeing the conclusion.

Suppose you are looking at a deductive argument trying to decide whether it is valid or invalid. How do you decide? Again, ask yourself a hypothetical question: Is it logically impossible for the premises to be true and at the same time the conclusion be false?

If you answer “Yes”—in other words—if the conclusion must be true if the premises are true, then the argument is valid. However, if your answer is “No” because the conclusion might be false even if the premises are true, then the argument is invalid. For example, suppose the Smiths are a big family living in Lynnwood, Washington:

  1. All the Smiths are Catholics.
  2. All Catholics live in Italy.
  3. So, all the Smiths must live in Italy.

Is it impossible the premises could be true and the conclusion false? Yes! If the premises were true, the conclusion would certainly be true. This argument is therefore valid. It is logically good. The structure of the argument is such that if the premises were true (and they are not, but for now that’s irrelevant) the conclusion would be guaranteed to be true. We see this once we agree to do the thought experiment of asking about the possibility of the premises being true while the conclusion is false. Of course, given what we know about the Smiths (i.e., that they live in Lynnwood, Washington) the second premise is clearly false (and maybe the first premise, too), so the argument is factually bad, but we’ll get to that concern momentarily. For right now we are concerned only with the logical structure—or “bones”—of the argument. We’ll look at issues pertaining to the facts, or “truth value,” of the premises in shortly.

June 10, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 3: Earth Week Edition

Why Climate Skeptics are in Denial

The fossil fuel constituency has long exploited popular misunderstanding of the logic behind the science of climatology and I think this calls for a re-appraisal of how we teach the so called “scientific method.” As long as there is money in coal and oil, we should expect to hear from its constituency. But we needn’t fall for their obfuscations.

In high school science classes, students are typically taught that science discovers things about the world through inductive generalization. We find patterns in the evidence we observe and base our expectations of the future on those observed patterns. Certainly science does often employ this pattern of reasoning. But as an account of the methods of science, simple inductive generalization is a sadly impoverished model. And sadder yet, it is a model that leaves people very vulnerable to being easily mislead about the nature of the science at issue. For we all know that trends don’t always continue. Housing prices went up and up and then they went down. It is currently spring and we are experiencing a warming trend that we know full well will end in a few months. When people, in line with what they were taught as “the scientific method,” are reminded that trends don’t always continue and that induction only gives us reason to think that observed patterns are, to some degree or another, likely to continue, they are ready and primed to hear the climate denier as the voice of reason when he says “who’s to say current warming isn’t just a natural cycle?” or “why think changes in climate are caused by human activity?”

But alas, this is not the structure of the reasoning at the core of climate science.  In fact, scientists employ rich and subtle combinations of induction, deduction and inference to the best explanation in puzzling out how nature works. In the case of climate science, our original grounds for concern that humans may be changing the climate in dangerous ways do not appeal to observed warming trends at all. The warming we have observed only further confirms what we already had reason to worry about based on what we can deduce from what we know full well about the causal powers of various gases and our practices of freely releasing these into the atmosphere.

We know full well that CO2 traps heat. This is easy to demonstrate in the laboratory. Simply place a person on one side of a glass chamber and an infrared camera on the other. The infra-red camera will pick up the heat image of the person when the chamber is full of air. Increase the concentration of CO2 in the chamber and you can observe the heat image of the person on the other side steadily fade away. CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque, like a cloud of smoke, to infra-red light, the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation that disperses heat from the planet back into space. We have known this about CO2 for well over a century and our understanding of the green-house effect that keeps the biosphere of our planet temperate as based on the heat trapping properties of CO2 and other gases dates back about a century as well. Now we reason deductively. Given its heat trapping causal power, if we increase the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by releasing lots of it through fossil fuel combustion, then extra heat energy will get trapped in biosphere. Of course we know something about how much carbon we release burning fossil fuels. Next, the fundamental laws of physics tell us that matter/energy is never created or destroyed. It follows deductively from this that extra heat energy trapped in the biosphere must go somewhere and do some work. Now notice that our way of life, our economy, where we live, our water supply and our agriculture are all finely tuned to the relatively stable climate humans have enjoyed over our brief history on the planet. Given this, it should be clear that throwing lots of extra energy into our climate system is highly likely to make trouble for us. The conclusion is pretty clear before we’ve looked at a single thermometer. Be concerned about human induced climate change.

Call this the core argument for concern about anthropogenic climate change. Now go listen to the many climate deniers and let me know if you catch any of them addressing the core argument in any way. I’ve been listening for 25 years or so and I have yet to hear any climate denier offer any plausible objection the core argument. The logic of the argument is clear enough. So which premise of the argument would the climate denier have us reject? Would he deny that CO2 traps heat? That we release very large quantities of it? That the consequences are likely to be bad for us? In the absence of any plausible reply to the core argument, I’d suggest you doubt the climate denier’s intellectual integrity.

Critical thinking is not like basketball. It’s simply not a matter of who can score the most points. If your opponent has a good argument and you have no good objection to it, you lose. It doesn’t really matter what climate deniers find in stolen e-mails or how easy they find it to make fun of Al Gore. If they have no plausible reply to the core argument for concern about climate change, then they just aren’t taking the science seriously. And if skeptics aren’t taking the science seriously, then they don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Russ Payne

April 25, 2013


Critical Thinking Note 2: Tim on Intellectual Virtue

Tim Linnemann on Intellectual Virtue

This time we feature a discussion of some intellectual virtues by our adjunct instructor Tim Linnemann. I really like the intellectual virtues. They aren’t half as annoying as moral virtues and they really help us understand stuff.

First a quick addendum to our previous note: the coming changes to the place of Critical Thinking in the BC curriculum are entirely the result of decisions made at the state level.  BC administrators were very supportive of our effort to keep Symbolic Logic in the Direct Transfer Agreement (DTA) and I’d like to thank Joyce Carroll and Tom Nielsen in particular. There is nothing BC administrators could have done to preserve the old place of Critical Thinking in the DTA, but I’m confident they will be supportive of our efforts to find new roles for the critical thinking curriculum here at BC.

Now, here’s Tim:

Critical Attitudes

When students are asked to compose an argumentative essay, often the first major challenge is to form an intelligible opinion. And even after defining a clear thesis statement, there is the challenge in presenting actual arguments which can support that thesis as opposed to mere rhetorical advocacy. To ask that a student, in addition to all this, engage with opposing positions can feel like asking a bit much. However, ignoring competing perspectives not only weakens any argument, but it also skirts one of the most fertile areas for expanding one’s critical aptitudes.

Argumentation always implies the context of a debate. Arguments are the means by which we discriminate between competing beliefs. Thus, proper argumentative conduct demands that we understand and address the arguments of those perspectives and viewpoints that differ from our own. When we don’t address our opponents’ arguments we are more likely to engage in rationalization (merely making excuses for our beliefs) or straw-man arguments. Straw-man arguments make it easier to dismiss one’s opponents by making their arguments appear weaker than they are. When we don’t explore any of the reasons our opponents have for their positions, it is easier to pretend that they have little to say!

Ultimately however, we learn little when we only focus on reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs. When a serious opponent is in the room, we are forced to innovate and explore, or perhaps even change our mind! This is a dynamic opportunity for growth and the heart of why argumentation is important: to seek after the truth (which frequently is not what we started out thinking in the beginning!).

So how can we help our students avoid the pitfalls of myopic argumentative practices and to enjoy the possible benefits of dynamic critical engagement? It starts with attitude. There are two principles that frame our efforts here: the aforementioned Truth-Seeking Principle and the Charity Principle.

Truth-Seeking tells us that the purpose of an argument or a debate is to discover the truth or at the very least, what is the most justifiable position on an issue. This statement denies that our purpose should include other goals like proving ourselves right, convincing others to think the way that we do, or making ourselves look good (or our opponents look bad!). This seems obvious enough to go without saying, but a couple things make it worthy of emphasis.

First, many students seem to be under the impression that convincing an audience is the only goal of argumentative writing, without including a commitment to finding the truth. As a result, students submit papers that are chock full of rhetorical devices aimed at persuasiveness instead of clearly defined and substantial reasons that aim at justification. Second, when truth-seeking is given priority, it radically changes the entire way in which one goes about developing an argument. Rhetorical tricks, loopholes, smoke-screens, evasion, and a host of other argumentative fallacies lose their point. In their place we now have a positive reason to pursue clarity, sincerity, modesty, and many other rational virtues.

Preeminent among these rational virtues is the virtue of Charity. Charity is usually defined as giving your argumentative opponents the “benefit of the doubt,” to represent their arguments in the strongest possible light prior to evaluating their position. But charity is expressed not only by helping one’s opponents fix weaknesses in their arguments, but even by coming up with entirely new arguments on their behalf! A charitable thinker will not wait for their opponents to present arguments—they will seek the best their competitors have to offer. Charity means treating your enemy as your best friend, to see your relationship to them as cooperative instead of combative. When framed with the Truth-Seeking Principle, we can see exactly why this practice makes sense.

Our opponents push us to submit our own beliefs to critical examination; they reveal our flaws and our blind spots, encourage innovative responses, and in general provoke deeper exploration of questions. And of course, they may just happen to be right! Right or wrong, they give us one of the best gifts possible: a closer relationship with the truth.

All of this can seem like “advanced” critical reasoning skills, and the Truth-Seeking and Charity principles are two of the most demanding virtues for all of us to realize. However, even a modest introduction to this change in focus can transform a student’s entire approach to forming and evaluating arguments in a responsible and effective way. And it sets a frame for contextualizing the acquisition of all the other tools in the critical thinker’s tool belt.

In many cases, mere exposure to this alternative picture is enough to inspire students to make a change, but sometimes more is required. But there is ample opportunity. Teachers and students continually find themselves in contexts of disagreement and correction—the attitudes we take when approaching these settings speaks to the values we prioritize. Each of these moments is another opportunity for students to test out and develop their abilities with new ways of being and thinking. One very special context is feedback on writing samples. Walking students through identifying where their opponents can be found and determining the substantial contributions of those opponents are great hands-on ways of giving students a picture what it actually looks like to apply these principles. It also helps prevent correction from putting the students in a passive position of receiving insight. Identifying opponents opens up new lines of thought for them to explore. For any assignment where multiple drafts are a component, this technique can yield dramatic results. As a quick example, I’ve seen this kind of feedback inspire many students to voluntarily rewrite entire essays!

I’ve been discussing how Truth-Seeking and Charity contribute to the intellectual flourishing of our students, but there are also ethical stakes at play. Failing to cultivate these intellectual virtues doesn’t just make for sloppy arguments, but it also contributes to a tendency for argumentation to be abusive. The academic and intellectual arenas are a hotbed of opportunities for dogmatism, pride, ego, one-upmanship, etcetera, and on the other hand, insecurity, silencing, resentment, apathy, etcetera. With these risks, who would want to willfully make themselves vulnerable by openly participating in critical debate!? Prioritizing the cooperative framework for argumentation and the intellectual and critical virtues that embody it (like Truth-Seeking and Charity) can help unlock some of the more personal barriers that stand in the way of students’ efforts to succeed. And while none of us ever consciously intend to contribute to a culture that perpetuates these barriers, we can only really control our own contributions. Teaching these virtues helps students avoid creating these barriers for each other as well.

Thanks for reading. I welcome further discussion! You can email me at either address below.

Tim Linnemann

March 12, 2013

Critical Thinking Note 1

Critical Thinking Note 1


Here is a critical thinking problem that will be familiar to many instructors. We ask students to give a reason for believing something and they answer with a single sentence, perhaps a rhetorical question or just a phrase. Their answer may be in some way relevant to the issue at hand, but it is the exception rather than the rule for students to give enough information to show how some conclusion follows from what they have said. The problem here is that relatively few of our students know what an argument is.  This is lesson one in critical thinking. Arguments consist of sets of complete sentences including premises which, together, are offered as a reason for accepting a conclusion.

Another problem familiar to many who teach is that students don’t often know what to do with an argument once it is fully spelled out. When students are asked if an argument is a good one or not, the typical responses are a nod of the head if they like the conclusion or some gesture towards a completely unrelated argument against the conclusion if they don’t like it. The problem here is that our students don’t know how to evaluate arguments on their own merits. Lesson two in critical thinking introduces the basic standards for evaluating arguments. Are the premises of the argument true and do they in fact support the conclusion.

Learning to identify, formulate and evaluate arguments are basic, essential, and often difficult critical thinking lessons. The basic anatomy and physiology of good argumentation can be clearly spelled out in well under an hour. But internalizing these lessons more often takes months of self-consciously working out details, looking at applications and practice, practice, practice. This is not remember-the-answers-for-the-test curriculum. Critical thinking is a skill, like cooking, carpentry or yoga. Learning to think critically is within reach for most people, but it requires some dedicated attention over an extended period of time. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

Unlike cooking, carpentry and yoga, critical thinking is a very general skill. It has applications in a great many spheres of life, including cooking and carpentry, but perhaps not so much yoga. Business leaders know this and critical thinking skills are in high demand in the workplace.  Critical thinking skills are the key to solving problems in the work world we could never anticipate in the classroom. They transform students into life-long learners who can adapt to change and innovation in a broad range of professions.

Given all of this, one would expect an institution like ours to make a high priority out of teaching critical thinking.  In one way we do. We claim to teach critical thinking as an infused general education outcome.  But while there is ample opportunity for application and re-enforcement of critical thinking skills in our diverse curricula, there is usually not so much space for dedicated attention to the basic nuts and bolts of how to formulate and evaluate arguments. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

For a long time we have had a class in critical thinking.  PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking, currently constitutes a quarter of the Philosophy Department’s offerings. But this class is about to lose its shelf in the BC curriculum. For well over a decade PHIL& 115 has satisfied the reasoning requirement in the DTA. However, changes to the math component of that requirement are about to result in the removal of PHIL& 115 from the list of QSR courses (quantitative and symbolic reasoning) in our DTA. Not only is this pretty much a done deal, but it is the best outcome we could have hoped for (Symbolic Logic, PHIL& 120 stays on the QSR list).

The imperatives that have led to removing Critical Thinking from the statewide reasoning requirement are complicated. But the implications are clear. As of Fall Quarter 2013, we will be teaching a lot less critical thinking at BC. This is a setback, not only for the Philosophy Department, but as much so for our students and the institution as a whole. This note is among the first of several steps the Philosophy Department will take in response to this setback. On a few initiatives, we may be seeking your collaboration. Our plan going forward includes the following:

  • We will periodically send out Critical Thinking Notes via email of which this is the first. Expect at least one per quarter but probably not more than one per month. The main purpose of these will be to better acquaint the campus community with the critical thinking curriculum and how to teach it effectively. We will also keep you up to date on other initiatives and progress via these notes.
  • We will produce a brief critical thinking handbook that will be copy left and editable. The idea here is to provide the campus community with a very concise critical thinking textbook that can be adopted at will or adapted to suit the needs of varying programs and courses.
  • We will conduct critical thinking curriculum development workshops for BC faculty through the BC Faculty Commons.
  • We will actively seek new shelves in the BC curriculum for our Critical Thinking course, PHIL& 115.

The goal of the BC Philosophy Department is to advance the critical thinking skills and habits of our students and the campus community at large. If you can think of other ways we might usefully serve this end, do let us know.


The BC Philosophy Department,

Russ Payne

Mark Storey

Steve Duncan

Ferdinand Tablan

Jason Benchimol

Meggan Padvorac

Tim Linnemann

Zoe Aleshire


February 18, 2013