The Buddha may have been the first critical thinker on record. He lived about 480–400 BC and his teachings are summarized in the Noble Eightfold Path, a training of the mind that includes ethical training and meditative practices such as kindness toward others, and mindfulness.
The teachings of Socrates (470–399 BC) are among the earliest records of critical thinking, and he is considered by some to be one of the early humanists. Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and has continued to do so in the modern era.
In 1644, Descartes wrote “ego cogito, ergo sum” translated as I think therefore I am, but much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. To become a critical thinker, you must develop habits of the mind that are self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective.
With all this history of thinking about thinking, you would think we would hone these skills and teach them to our children. But many individuals, notable dictators, and groups, mostly religious, do not want you to think. Critical thinking is a cornerstone of democracy and one of the American Humanist Association’s Ten Commitments
Here are some techniques to help improve your critical thinking skills:
- Question Assumptions: Challenge your own and others’ assumptions. Ask yourself why you believe something to be true and whether there’s evidence to support those beliefs.
- Seek Multiple Perspectives: Look at an issue from various viewpoints. Consider how different people might approach the same situation and what factors might influence their opinions.
- Evaluate Evidence: Assess the quality and relevance of evidence presented in support of an argument. Consider the source, credibility, and context of the information.
- Analyze Logic: Examine the logical structure of an argument. Check for any fallacies or errors in reasoning that might weaken the argument’s validity.
- Avoid Confirmation Bias: Be aware of your tendency to favor information that confirms your existing beliefs. Actively seek out and consider information that challenges your views.
- Develop Problem-Solving Skills: Break down complex problems into smaller parts. Analyze each part separately and then look for connections and patterns.
- Practice Active Listening: When engaging in discussions or reading, actively listen or read with the intent to understand rather than just respond. This helps you process information more effectively.
- Ask Thoughtful Questions: Instead of accepting surface-level information, dig deeper by asking questions that encourage more detailed explanations.
- Consider Consequences: Think about the potential outcomes and consequences of different decisions and actions. This can help you make more informed choices.
- Think Systematically: Consider how different elements of a situation or problem interact with one another. This helps you understand the bigger picture and how various factors contribute to an outcome.
- Develop Research Skills: Learn how to find reliable sources of information and how to evaluate the credibility and relevance of those sources.
- Practice Reflective Thinking: Regularly take time to reflect on your own thought processes, decisions, and beliefs. Consider what factors might have influenced your thinking and whether there are ways to improve your approach.
- Be Open to Change: Be willing to revise your opinions and beliefs in light of new evidence or better arguments. Flexibility is key to adapting your thinking.
- Apply Socratic Questioning: This method involves asking a series of probing questions to help explore the underlying assumptions, implications, and potential solutions to a problem.
- Develop Analytical Skills: Enhance your ability to analyze data, statistics, and trends. This can help you make more informed decisions based on evidence.
- Practice Mindfulness: Cultivate mindfulness to be fully present in the moment. This can help you observe your own thoughts and emotions more objectively, which is essential for critical thinking.
Remember that critical thinking is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Engaging in activities that challenge your thinking, such as reading diverse viewpoints, solving puzzles, and participating in debates, can all contribute to honing your critical thinking abilities.