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«CRITICAL THINKING: THE VERY BASICS - NARRATION Dona Warren, Philosophy Department, The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point Critical Thinking ...»

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CRITICAL THINKING: THE VERY BASICS - NARRATION

Dona Warren, Philosophy Department, The University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point

Critical Thinking

Hello and welcome to “Critical Thinking, the Very Basics, at least as I see them.”

What You’ll Learn Here

In this presentation, you’ll learn how to recognize arguments.

You’ll learn how to analyze arguments by recognizing the ultimate conclusion,

determining which other ideas are important, and seeing how these other ideas work together to support the ultimate conclusion.

You’ll learn how to evaluate arguments by appreciating the structure of an argument, evaluating the premises, evaluating the inferences, and assessing the argument as a whole.

And finally, you’ll learn how to construct arguments by deciding upon your ultimate conclusion, constructing your chain of reasoning, and communicating your argument to others.

The Nature of Basics Before we begin, let’s talk a bit about the nature of basics in any field, not just critical thinking. The basics are a few, relatively simple skills that are sometimes, and mistakenly, unappreciated. This is a shame because the basics are the building blocks for any more advanced activity, and they admit of endlessly sophisticated applications. I never get tired of thinking about the basics.

The Four Big Steps The basics of critical thinking involve four big steps, each of which has various sub-steps. First, we want to be able to recognize arguments when we’re faced with them.

Second, we want to be able to analyze the arguments we face, breaking them down into their parts to understand how they work.

Third, we want to be able to evaluate the arguments we’ve analyzed.

And finally we want to be able to construct good arguments of our own.

It is very important that we analyze an argument before we evaluate it because a premature evaluation of an argument will contaminate our attempts to understand it and if we misunderstand an argument our assessment of the reasoning is likely to be off-target. These misunderstandings and inaccurate evaluations are especially likely to happen when the argument concerns a subject about which we have strong opinions, so in such cases we need to be particularly careful to bracket our preconceptions and opinions until after we’ve analyzed the argument as completely as we can.

At this point, you may choose to explore argument recognition, analysis, evaluation, or construction by clicking on the appropriate button. I’ll give you a few seconds to make your selection. If you don’t select one of these topics, this presentation will continue with an examination of argument recognition.

Recognizing Arguments An argument is a unit of reasoning that attempts to prove that a certain idea is true by citing other ideas as evidence.

The essential feature of an argument is that it tries to rationally persuade its audience of something, so if we’re faced with a passage that’s trying to get us to believe something by making a case for its truth rather than by simply asserting it, we’re dealing with an argument.

First Example

For example, let’s consider this passage: “Critical thinking is taught at many colleges and universities. Courses devoted to critical thinking are often offered by philosophy departments, but critical thinking skills are taught in every subject, from art to zoology.” Is this passage trying to get us to believe something by making a case for its truth rather than by simply asserting it?

I don’t think so, so this passage doesn’t contain an argument.

Second Example Now let’s consider the passage, “Critical thinking helps people to reason more easily and effectively and prevents them from being easily taken in by shoddy arguments.

These skills are essential to a happy and productive life, so everyone should study critical thinking.” Is this passage trying to get us to believe something by making a case for its truth rather than by simply asserting it?

Yes. It’s trying to get us to believe that everyone should study critical thinking, so this passage does contain an argument.

Where Next?

At this point, you may choose to replay this brief discussion of argument recognition, to explore argument analysis, to look at argument evaluation, or to learn about argument construction. You may also elect to terminate the lesson for now. Simply click on the appropriate button. I’ll give you a few seconds to make your selection. If you don’t select one of these topics, this presentation will continue with an examination of argument analysis.

Analyzing Arguments Once we recognize that we have an argument, we can analyze it. There are three basic steps to analyzing an argument. First, we identify the argument’s ultimate conclusion.

Then we determine which other ideas in the argument are important.

And finally we determine how these other important ideas work together to support the ultimate conclusion.

1. Identify the Ultimate Conclusion The ultimate conclusion of an argument is simply the main idea that the argument is trying to get us to believe. Most of the time, the ultimate conclusion appears prominently in the argument. Sometimes, however, it can be unstated, so we should aware that we might need to fill it in on our own.





2. Determine What Other Ideas are Important Once we’ve identified the ultimate conclusion of an argument, we can determine what other ideas are important. For our purposes, an idea is important if it helps the argument to establish the truth of the ultimate conclusion. Because people often say and write things for rhetorical effect, it’s to be expected that some sentences in a passage that contains an argument won’t convey important ideas.

3. See How These Other Ideas Work Together to Support the Ultimate Conclusion

After we know what ideas are important, we can determine how they work together to support the ultimate conclusion. There are four basic patterns that govern how ideas can cooperate with each other in this way, and all arguments are composed of combinations of these basic patterns.

i. Premise / Ultimate Conclusion The structurally simplest pattern of cooperation is that of one premise supporting the ultimate conclusion.

The ultimate conclusion, remember, is the main idea that the argument is trying to prove.

The premise is an idea that the argument assumes to be true without support, or without providing us with any reason to believe it. (After, all, every argument has to start somewhere) The connection between the premise and the ultimate conclusion is called the inference. In general, when an argument is presented like this, the inference is the connection that holds between the ideas at the top of the arrow and the idea at the bottom of the arrow when the truth of the ideas at the top is supposed to establish the truth of the idea at the bottom. In a passage, inferences are often, but not always, indicated by words like “therefore” and “because.” We’ll talk more about inferences later.

What we have here, with the premise on top, the ultimate conclusion on the bottom, and the inference represented as an arrow running between them, is the diagram of an argument. The diagram of an argument allows us to see the argument’s structure very clearly and this enables us to comprehend the argument more deeply and evaluate it more easily.

For example For example, let’s consider the argument in this passage: ““What’s your opinion of critical thinking? Critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think.

Therefore, critical thinking is important.” The ultimate conclusion here is “Critical thinking is important” because that’s the idea that this argument is trying to get us to believe.

The sentence “What’s your opinion of critical thinking?” doesn’t help to establish that critical thinking is important, so we can ignore it.

The premise is “Critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think,” because that’s the idea that the argument is taking for granted.

And the inference is signaled by the word “therefore.” “Therefore” is an inference indicator expression because it shows us where an inference is located. And since “therefore” acts like a sign that says, “the next idea is a conclusion that follows from a previous idea” we call it a “conclusion indicator expression.” In this case, the “therefore” shows us that “Critical thinking is important” is a conclusion following from “Critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think.” ii. Subconclusions The second basic pattern of cooperation shows that there can be intermediate ideas between the premise and the ultimate conclusion.

Perhaps, for instance, an argument gives us an ultimate conclusion that is supposed to following from another idea.

And perhaps that idea, in turn, is supposed to follow from yet another idea.

In this case, the ultimate conclusion is still at the bottom, the premise is still at the top, and the idea in the middle is called a “subconclusion.” A subconclusion is an intermediate idea on the way from the premises to the ultimate conclusion.

Subconclusions both follow from other ideas (which is why they’re conclusions and not premises) and go on serve as evidence for other ideas (which is why they’re subconclusions and not the ultimate conclusion).

For example

For example, let’s consider the argument in this passage: “What’s your opinion of critical thinking? Look at it this way. Critical thinking helps us to understand the arguments that other people give. Thus, critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think. Therefore critical thinking is important.” The ultimate conclusion is still “Critical thinking is important.” Neither “What’s your opinion of critical thinking?” nor “Look at it this way,” help to establish that critical thinking is important, so we’ll ignore these sentences.

“Critical thinking helps us to understand the arguments that other people give,” on the other hand, is important, and the conclusion indicator expression “thus” helps us to see that it’s a reason to believe “Critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think.” Finally, the conclusion indicator expression “therefore” tells us that “Critical thinking helps us to understand how other people think” is given as a reason to believe the ultimate conclusion that critical thinking is important.

iii. Dependent Reasons The third basic pattern of cooperation notes that sometimes two or more ideas need to work together in order to establish the truth of another idea. We call ideas that need to work together in this way “dependent reasons.” In this diagram, for instance, neither idea at the top of the arrow can support the conclusion alone, but together they can support the conclusion. These two ideas need to be believed simultaneously. The fact that each idea needs to work with the other in order to prove the conclusion is represented by the plus sign between them.

For example For example, let’s look at the argument in this passage: “Critical thinking helps us to understand how we think because in the process of assessing arguments, we clarify our own basic assumptions and clarifying our own basic assumptions helps us to understand how we think. I really enjoy teaching and studying critical thinking.” The ultimate conclusion is “Critical thinking helps us to understand how we think,” and the reasons that are given to believe this conclusion are the ideas “in the process of assessing arguments, we clarify our own basic assumptions,” and “clarifying our own basic assumptions helps us to understand how we think,” taken together. Note that if we believe the first premise but not the second premise, we won’t have good reason to believe the ultimate conclusion. Similarly, if we believe the second premise but not the first premise, we won’t have good reason to believe the ultimate conclusion. However if we believe both premises at the same time, we’ll have a much better reason to believe the ultimate conclusion. These premises need to work together. That’s why they’re added.

Note also that the inference is signaled by the word “because.” “Because,” like “therefore,” is an inference indicator expression. Unlike “therefore,” however, “because” doesn’t act like a sign that says “the next idea is a conclusion that follows from a previous idea.” Instead, it acts like a sign that says “the next idea is being given as a reason for some other idea.” We’ll call “because,” and similar inference indicator expressions, “reason indicators.” Finally, note that the sentence, “I really enjoy teaching and studying critical thinking,” doesn’t advance the argument. It doesn’t give us reason to believe the ultimate conclusion, so we’ll ignore it.

iv. Independent Reasons At last, we come to the fourth and final basic pattern of cooperation, the pattern in which two or more reasons are each able to support a conclusion on its own. We call reasons that are able to function on their own like this “independent reasons.” In this diagram, for instance, one idea can establish the conclusion on its own and so can another.

Note that each independent reason gets its own inference arrow because each is supplying its own line of reasoning to the conclusion. Indeed, independent reasons give us independent lines of reasoning like this.

For example To see how this works, let’s consider this argument: ““Critical thinking is important since it helps us to understand how other people think. It’s also important because it helps us to understand how we think.” The ultimate conclusion here is “Critical Thinking is important.” And we have two independent reasons to believe this.

First we’re told that critical thinking is important because it helps us to understand how other people think. Can you see how that inference is signaled by the reason indicator expression “since?” Second, we’re told that critical thinking is important because it helps us to understand how we think. This inference is signaled by the reason indicator expression “because.” Each of these reasons, taken on its own, gives us reason to think that critical thinking is important so they’re independent reasons, each with its own inference arrow.



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