Cognition, Part II

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July 2017
Ivan Obolensky

The previous article defined critical thinking as the ability to distinguish between effective and ineffective methods of inference in making a logical argument.1 By inference is meant arriving at a conclusion that is based on evidence, reasoning, and logic rather than speculation, opinion, or emotional preference.2

By critical is meant the ability to judge.3

Logical reasoning is considered optimum thinking in many critical thinking texts.

Humans are naturally logical. We learn by association. If we observe that B is similar to A, we conclude that B will function in a similar way. By doing so, we gain some immediate familiarity. As we get experience with B, we learn there are differences between the two, but our initial mental association provides the necessary leg up to start learning more about it. Bit by bit we gain knowledge. This is logical.4

If we decide to rent a car and all the rental company has available is a Lincoln Mark X, we conclude that we should be able drive it even though we’ve never driven that type of car before. We are familiar with our own car, and we expect the Lincoln to drive in a similar way. The rental company agrees with our assessment but insists we have a license, a credit card on file, and plenty of insurance to cover any potential errors in the learning process. That, too, is logical.

Decisions made based on logic are considered optimum, provided they are based on information that is both consistent and complete.5

By consistent is meant no facts are in conflict or contradict each other.

If the main suspect in a murder investigation says he was home all evening, and a video surfaces that shows him miles away at a convenience store that same night, there is an inconsistency, and the conclusion that the suspect is telling the whole truth is not logical.

By complete is meant we have the necessary information needed to form a valid conclusion.

How many times have we said, “Well, if you’d told me that, I would never have done it!”

More information would have changed our decision, but then the other person involved might have known that full well and omitted it. That would be logical, too.

Many textbooks on critical thinking explain what logic is, stress its importance, and give examples of the many different types of logical reasoning. It is an important part of thinking in general, but logic is by no means the ne plus ultra of optimum thinking, let alone critical thinking.

For example, a calculator is logical. There is a chip inside made up of thousands of logic circuits.

If we enter the number 101 and add 1, The screen should show 102. If it comes up with 110 then we conclude the answer is wrong.

Why?

We have been taught that 101 plus 1 is 102. If we ask someone else to add 1 to 101, they arrive at 102 as well. Arithmetic done this way is a standard that we all agree upon. A calculator that comes up with a different number while doing a simple calculation is not doing arithmetic properly. We have every justification to conclude that it is broken.

But is it?

Let’s look at this calculator more carefully. The answer it displays is 110. The answer appears to be wrong, but actually it isn’t at all. We happened to have picked up a calculator that uses binary notation. Binary numbers are formed from strings of 1s and 0s.

In binary notation 101 is the number 5 and 110 is the number 6. When we add 1 to 5 we get 6 which is exactly right*. The result was in an unexpected format but no less true.

This example illustrates several points about thinking.

Even using logic, we will occasionally arrive at conclusions that are simply wrong.

We made a false assumption. We assumed it was a base 10 calculator when it wasn’t. The logic of the calculator was flawless and ironically, so was ours. The incompleteness of the data was the determining factor in our incorrect conclusion. Had we been a computer programmer we might have realized what the calculator was doing, but not all of us are computer programmers.

Logical thinking taken to an extreme would mean we should trade in our brains for a chip. We would each of us be like Spock from Star Trek. An interesting idea to be sure, but being logical didn’t always work out well for him in practice.

There are other forms of thinking besides logical thinking that are often excluded from critical thinking texts, such as intuition.

Intuition doesn’t necessarily use logic at all. It is a form of thought that is not well understood. We know that we receive far more information than we can consciously process. Many of our senses, such as the eyes, have powerful processing units that translate inputs into signals, which the brain interprets as perceptions. Much of the information that is received is suppressed or discarded as irrelevant, yet occasionally we are able to grasp far more than what was apparent. There are many processing units in our bodies, most of which we don’t understand fully in terms of how they interact with other units and the brain itself. Intuition is knowing without being aware of the steps that arrive at that conclusion.

Yeats said, “People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.”6

Critical thinking has little to say about intuition, because of intuition’s tendency to shortcut, yet I have heard of great scientists, writers, and poets relying more on intuition than their critical thinking skills.

Part of being a critical thinker is to question what one is reading and absorbing. For myself I would be loath to give up my intuitive side. I may not always understand it, but it usually has something to say, and my information would be incomplete without it.

Because intuition tends to go directly to the answer, it can sometimes be in error. Logical reasoning is more precise in this regard. Just the same, intuition does have a use in critical thinking because intuition can point to areas where a more detailed logical analysis is required. It has a place in critical thinking.

Incomplete data is usually the pitfall that logic stumbles over, particularly in regards to context. This is one of the reasons critical thinking takes time to develop. One has to gain the necessary experience to be able to provide sufficient context to think well.

For myself, I find that critical thinking has more to do with the completeness of our information, our attitudes and biases toward what we are considering, and the management of our thoughts, rather than what form of reasoning we use to arrive at a conclusion.

In truth we are all expert thinkers. We do it all the time. What we need to improve is not how we think but how we manage our thinking.

The previous article mentioned that our higher human brain has an executive function that emphasizes long-term planning and inhibition. It sits at the top of a non-centralized command structure that is marked by conflicts and tensions from different parts performing separate functions and operating at different hierarchical levels.

We need to take control of what amounts to a sea of voices and feelings.

We can silence the lot, or at least try to, but oftentimes we find that many of our thinking parts, be they emotional, intuitive, or from the heart, had legitimate pieces of information that we needed. Whether it is the bad feeling about Uncle Bob, or the gut instinct that the person we are contemplating going into business with is a crook, these thoughts are ours, and we think them. We can choose to listen or not, but often when we ignore them, we find ourselves conflicted, or at the least, stressed for no apparent reason.

Since our higher human brain serves as an executive function, perhaps the best way to learn to think critically is to think the way a CEO would.

Ultimately, he or she is responsible for the performance results of a company. It is up to him or her to come up with goals, a plan, and a sensible strategy to accomplish those things. He or she would also have to be an expert at coordination. This also applies to the many voices and urges we experience.

Suppose a part of you really wants to pack it in and go off on your own into the mountains for a year? Acknowledging that this might be something for which you have a real need, rather than suppressing it, might be worthwhile. Negotiating to go on a weekend hike instead, might go a long way to easing this requirement, while still doing the job that needs to be done.

There are biases. We have them; managing them is more successful than trying to eradicate them. We all tend to confirm our beliefs in the information we look at. It is a wise CEO who seeks a contrary opinion.

In the final analysis, critical thinking is all about assessing what you are hearing by questioning the premises on which opinions are founded, examining your beliefs, knowing why you think the way you do, not because someone else does, but because you have examined your reasons in an objective manner even if they are initially intuitive.

If you were a CEO would you simply spout your mind on social media? Would you simply avoid something because you didn’t want to do it? Would you take the time to find out what those around you, whether internal or external, are doing and thinking? Would you listen?

Critical thinking is all about our attitude. It means we have a stake in what we are listening to and saying. It’s all about paying attention.

 


*In a base 10 system, 101 means one hundred and one. In binary, 101 means there is one 4, no 2s and one 1. Added together this is five. When we add 1 to 101 in binary we get 110. There is a 1 in the four space, a 1 in the two space and zero in the one section. Added together this makes 6.

  1. Colchester, J. (2016), Critical Thinking Framework, in Complexity Labs. Retrieved July 8, 2017 from http://complexitylabs.io/category/reference-critical-thinking/.
  2. Inference (N.D.). Retrieved July 8, 2017 from https://www.google.com/#q=inference+definition&spf=1496943814163.
  3. Critical (N.D.), Collins English Dictionary Online. Retrieved July 8, 2017 from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/critical.
  4. Colchester, J. (2016), Critical Thinking: An Introduction, Critical Thinking eBook retrieved from http://complexitylabs.io/.
  5. Colchester, cit.
  6. Yeats, W. B. (N.D.). Retrieved July 7, 2017 from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/williambut106043.html.

 


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© 2017 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

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