Candid Critical Thinking

Thinking is a faculty that is most developed in the human beings. There can be various kinds of thinking. Thinking for accomplishing something is the most common type of thinking. This thinking is rather utilitarian and sometimes takes the greatness away from thinking and is better-called planning. Then, there is thinking about almost anything, out of anxiety. This is what is called worrying. Most people spend their entire lives switching between planning and worrying and some overdo it to such an extent that they are unable to tell the difference. However, both modes of thought are in truth disgrace to the faculty of thinking.

There is another, rather popular, mode of thinking—imagination. It is also a different way of thinking, only more interesting and fanciful, because it has the therapeutic effect of remedying whatever has gone wrong in the individual and social life, albeit only in someone’s mind. Also, imagination gives much hope to people caught up in the humongous pressure of making a living. Even the wealthy have the stress of maintaining their standard of living and much more stressful is the artificially created need to maintain a good image among the others. It is in this context of a maddeningly strained world that imagination comes as a rescue—imagination through stories, written or performed. Recent worldwide increase in the public interest in fantasy proves that imagination is seen more as an essential escape route to get away from the binding realities of life, than as a source of entertainment. 

Apart from the above mentioned three ways of thinking, there is a mode of thought that can only be truly called thinking, that of critical thinking.

Critical thinking has led to all the development of human civilisation as we see it. When the legendary apple fell, it was critical thinking that led to the discovery of the gravitational force. It was critical thinking that led to a new discovery when some water spilt from the bathtub. More recently, it was decades of critical thinking that led to the discovery of gravitational waves. Critical thinking requires that all observed data is systematically analysed, evaluated, and conceptualised.

Here, the process of thinking starts right from the process of observation and so, the observation has to be as precise as possible and also such observation should not be affected by any extraneous elements or phenomena. For example, if a person is observing another person from a distance, the observer’s culture and upbringing affect the manner in which the observed person is seen. Most of the time, such an observation fails to be critical. Only if the observer can free oneself from all preconceived notions and other mental baggage will it be possible for the observer to make a critical and unbiased observation. 

Reason is the bedrock of critical thinking. Without a rationale or logic to build upon, critical thinking is impossible. Any logical method tainted by selfish interests ceases to be logical. Selfishness is the ultimate bias of all logic. That is why we see that a carefully thought out structure of anything is inexplicably destroyed because of some vested interest. For instance, when an organisation has to buy some equipment, sometimes it is seen that in spite of getting many quotes for the equipment, the order is given to a firm based on some personal preferences. This destroys the very foundation of critical thinking. Sometimes, people have ridiculously irrational ideas or notions about some people, countries, or cultures because of their perceptions that have never been critically analysed.

The litmus test of critical thinking is that one should be able to critically analyse oneself. That is, the very observer critically analyses oneself. The tendency to analyse the other is very common, but to analyse oneself is a rare trait. This is where candour enters critical thinking. Without being candid about oneself, particularly about one’s weaknesses and failings, logic can be twisted to achieve practically anything that one desires. The proverbial devil starts quoting the scriptures and in no time something that is viscerally understood to be wrong gets the sanction of logic! This is why unselfishness is very important in critical thinking.

That brings us to a more important question. Is it possible for people to be unselfish? What would happen to critical thinking then? Yes, it is difficult to become completely unselfish, particularly for a person, who does not have any divine calling or does not live a spiritual life. And therefore, it is equally difficult to practise critical thinking in its true form. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that across the world, the first attempts at philosophy or science, were made not in laboratories or universities, but in monasteries; not by scientists or teachers, but by monks dedicated to knowing the final truth about God and this universe. It would not be entirely wrong to assume that the unselfish lifestyle of monastics led them to chart a path towards the unbiased analysis of observed data.

What we learn out of this discussion is that for being truly logical or critical in one’s thought, one needs to be mercilessly candid about oneself, or to put it in simpler terms, to be uncompromisingly truthful. Most of those claiming to practise truthfulness are really critical only of the others, and not of themselves. This is hypocrisy of the worst kind. Critical thinking requires that each aspect of the data observed gets the same kind of logical and systematic analysis. There cannot be a selective analysis nor a hypothesis or notion that has to be proven, which would obviously lead the data to be interpreted in a manner that supports the hypothesis. That is why many scientific experiments start with great enthusiasm but fail miserably because the initial enthusiasm was generated by a wrong reading of the observed data. 

Logical fallacies are one of the biggest hurdles in critical thinking. Just as the Advaitin would call this entire universe as an illusion, there are many ways of illusory thinking. For example, one of the major fallacies is the failure to consider all the causes that lead to an event or phenomenon. Then, there is the fallacy of mistaking correlation for causation. If an event happens with another event, instead of considering it as a case of correlation, many consider it to be the cause, thereby declaring that one event is dependent upon another. Also, there may be many aspects of a problem and that problem cannot be properly analysed without considering all the aspects. However, we see in practice that many aspects of a problem are simply ignored while trying to solve a problem.

One could conclude that without an unselfish nature and complete dedication to the knowledge of the truth, it is impossible to have complete and undiluted critical thinking. It can be said that true critical thinking is possible only when one sees the reality of one’s own nature and also of the manifested world, this universe.

Author is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata.

To read more articles by Swami Narasimhananda

This article was first published in the Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more  

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