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The Four Dimensions of Critical Thinking

To critically think requires four skills.  What are they?
“Does not the ear test words, as the palate tastes its food?” Job 12:11
What if someone assigned you the task of building an elaborate mahogany executive desk? What if they gave you the materials, and the tools, but you lacked the skills with which to do so? Chances are you would not be able to complete the mission successfully, unless you first learn the skills of carpentry.  In much the same way, as Christians we are tasked with the mission of engaging our culture and the ideas it promotes. Jesus tells us to be “the light of the world.” We are tasked with the mission of standing up for truth and confronting deception. Paul instructs us to “demolish arguments” and to “demolish strongholds.” But how can we succeed if we lack the skills necessary to accomplish the task? The key is found in Peter’s exhortation to engage the culture, “always be prepared…” We must make it a priority to acquire the skills we need to successfully “give an answer to anyone who demands a reason for the hope that lies within us.”
Engaging culture requires critical thinking!  We must be able to evaluate arguments and truth claims. We must be able to overcome personal prejudices and biases. We must be able to formulate good arguments. And we must be able to make intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do. These are the four dimensions of critical thinking.
1. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO EVALUATE ARGUMENTS AND TRUTH CLAIMS.
As Christians we are constantly being bombarded with dangerous and often antagonistic truth claims and we need to be able to identify, analyze and evaluate these claims, prior to accepting them as true. Atheist professors constantly bombard students with truth claims that are hostile to God, Christ, the Bible, etc,. Non-Christian friends and family often attempt to persuade us to abandon our faith in response to their arguments. Newspaper articles, magazines, websites and blogs are constantly striving to persuade us with truth claims that may or may not be true. We need to be able to break these arguments down and evaluate them objectively in order to embrace only those claims which we find to be true.
Sadly, as we observed in the Galatian church, Christians are often ill-equipped to critically evaluate arguments and truth claims. It is far easier to accept an idea that “sounds good” or “feels right” than it is to carefully and logically evaluate it. Unfortunately, deceptive ideas are often packaged to sound or feel good. When one considers the temptations of Christ, it is easy to see that the ideas sounded good. If you haven’t eaten in 40 days, doesn’t it “sound good” to turn the stones in to bread and have plenty to eat? These temptations by the enemy probably felt right, yet they were meant to destroy Christ and completely derail his mission. Fortunately, Christ did not allow himself to be deceived by these ideas. Instead, he exercised impeccable critical thinking skills and completely debunked the false ideas.
2.  THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO OVERCOME PERSONAL PREJUDICES AND BIASES.
A secondary benefit that also comes in handy when one learns the basics of critical thinking is the ability to identify our own prejudices and biases as they affect our ability to evaluate truth claims. There are a number of ways in which these biases manifest themselves. Sometimes we really want something to be true because it would benefit us greatly. I think this is what got to Adam and Eve. The idea of being like God, of whom they were in awe, sounded amazing. Imagine what they could do it they were like God? The deception worked because it offered something that would have been immeasurably beneficial to them.
Other times we may be so inclined to believe the person or organization making a claim, that the claim itself isn’t given due consideration.  This is often the case with college students. The tendency is to trust the professors and their knowledge, so much so, that the ideas they present are often accepted without question. If the professor says, “Science has demonstrated that God does not exist,” all too often the response is one of blind acceptance.  If the professor says so, than it must be true. When, in fact, the statement is absurd and completely false, as is obvious to anyone with minimal critical thinking skills. Most importantly, it isn’t just the teachings of professors that need to be evaluated, every idea should be given due consideration. Just because the pastor says so, or just because the church says so, it doesn’t make it true. Too many cults have arisen unchallenged because people are unwilling to question what a pastor, teacher, or organizations presents as “truth.”
On other occasions we may fear the consequences of rejecting a truth claim. Whether it’s the student who fears a bad grade if he disagrees with the professor, or the Jehovah Witness who fears excommunication if he is found to disagree with any of the teachings of the Watchtower Press, fear of the consequences plays a key role in our willingness to accept ideas without questioning them. It’s the reason young Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, he feared the consequences of questioning the teachings of his organization. It’s the reason Peter denied even knowing Jesus, he feared the consequences of being considered among those who believed what Jesus taught. Whatever the prejudices and biases may be, they keep us from being objective in our evaluations of truth claims.
3. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO CLEARLY FORMULATE GOOD ARGUMENTS.
Equally important to evaluating truth claims presented by others is our ability to present truth claims of our own in a proper format.  We need to be able to communicate the Truth of God’s Word in valid, sound and coherent arguments.  Too often, our arguments are weak and our ideas lack the undergirding foundation to withstand critical analysis. When we give conclusions without the supporting arguments, we set ourselves up to be rejected by those who think critically. Our truth claims need to be able to survive the critical analyses of others. This is why Paul was so successful in his presentation of the Gospel and his teachings from God’s Word. He was able to formulate clear strong arguments to support the ideas. Paul’s lecture at Mars Hill is a classic example of his excellent skills in argumentation. Being able to present strong and solid arguments requires a commitment to learning the necessary skills and a willingness to put them into practice.
Some people will still reject our truth claims, even when these are presented in perfectly good arguments, but the rejection won’t stem from objective analysis. Instead, the rejection will often stem from subjective positions, unreasonable stances, or arbitrary choices. The Pharisees and Sadducees were constantly rejecting the solid arguments of Christ. In every confrontation with them, Christ provided amazing and irrefutable arguments that would have been more than sufficient to anyone seeking truth. However, if perfect arguments persuaded all who heard them, then Jesus would have been far more successful in his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, we know that many rejected his truth claims. What must be clearly understood is that those who rejected him had no reasonable or rational basis for their rejection—for his arguments were perfect.
4. THE SKILLS REQUIRED TO MAKE INTELLIGENT DECISIONS ABOUT WHAT TO BELIEVE AND WHAT TO DO.
Our lives are full of choices! We make hundreds of choices every day. We know that many of these choices are inconsequential, but there are quite a few that bear an enormous potential for consequences— good or bad.  Critical thinking skills provide us with the tools we need to evaluate alternatives and to make better choices. It doesn’t mean all of our choices will be perfect, since we often find ourselves having to make decisions without access to all of the information we need to do so intelligently. Nevertheless, even in those situations, we can minimize the potential for bad consequences and maximize the potential for good ones.
There are numerous examples in the Bible of people that made good choices and people that did not. A great example is found in Joshua’s challenge to the Israelites to “choose ye today whom you will serve.” Joshua presented the alternatives (all of whom had done nothing for Israel) and then he presented his choice, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The choice would have been obvious for anyone with even minimal critical thinking skills. Yet, many chose not to serve the Lord and suffered dearly for their poor choice.
Conclusion
Critical thinking skills are not optional if we desire to live beyond deception. Critical thinking skills are not optional if we desire to fulfill the mission we have been assigned—to engage our culture.  In a world gone mad, critical thinking skills provide the foundation and stability to withstand the ideological storms that constantly come our way. We must be able to evaluate arguments and truth claims. We must be able to overcome personal prejudices and biases. We must be able to formulate good arguments. And we must be able to make intelligent decisions about what to believe and what to do. These are the four dimensions of critical thinking, and they are not optional for follower of Christ.
Look for our next critical thinking article: Jesus: The Master of Critical Thinking
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