What is Critical Thinking?

Reasoning is an essential element of life in a democracy in which free citizens choose their own government. No one has infallible access to the right answers to the myriad of questions and problems that confront a democratic state’s citizens: health care, taxes, economic policy, foreign policy, terrorism, drugs, the environment, among others. It’s impossible to form reasonable opinions on these issues, let alone find answers or devise solutions, without engaging in reasoning. Reasoning, however, can be done well or poorly.

The point of a course on critical reasoning is to learn how to distinguish between good and bad reasoning, and to improve one’s own reasoning skills. This will involve, first of all, to learn what an argument is. It’s a set of propositions consisting of premises and conclusions. The premises are intended to be reasons for thinking that the conclusion is true.

Textbooks of logic tell us that an argument’s premises can provide reasons for accepting the conclusion in two different ways: deductively or inductively. If a deductive argument is good, it must satisfy two conditions. First, it must be valid: it must be impossible for its premises to be true and its conclusion to be false. Second, its premises must be true. If both of these conditions are met, a deductive argument is sound.

If an inductive arguments is good, it, too, satisfies two conditions. First, it must be inductively strong, which means that its premises make it probable that the conclusion is true. Second, its premises must be true.

So in a typical critical reasoning course, you’ll learn the difference between deductive validity and inductive strength, and you’ll learn how to test for validity and how to assess inductive strength.

Deductive arguments that fail to be valid, and inductive arguments that are lacking in inductive strength, are fallacies. In a typical critical reasoning course, you will spend some time learning how to recognize fallacies.

Testing for validity involves using technical tools such as truth tables and Venn diagrams. An essential part of a course on critical reasoning involves learning enough logic to master using such techniques.

As a result of having taken a critical reasoning course, you should know what it is to reason well. Knowing this will improve your ability to think, speak, and write clearly, and your ability to argue effectively for your own point of view. It should also provide you with a foundation that will help you to continue improving your reasoning abilities in the future.

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