Critical thinking, observation, and virtue

In a recent conversation about the components of critical thinking, it was noted that the first necessary skill is observation, even prior to that of logic, and that one’s powers of observation are largely dependent upon virtue. I thought it a remarkable insight: critical thought – defined as the ability to get at the truth of things –  ultimately depends upon the virtue of the thinker. The powers of human reason are necessary but not sufficient, however well trained they might be.

How might this play out? Let’s take the following logical syllogism:

The Church teaches that deliberately taking a human life is, by definition, the sin of murder;
Capital punishment is the deliberate taking of a human life; 
Therefore, capital punishment is murder.

The syllogism itself works just fine, does it not? The logic is sound. The conclusion follows perfectly from the premises. And yet, the conclusion is false because the major premise is false. The major premise is not something derived from logical reasoning, but through simple observation. The Church does not, in fact, teach that deliberately taking a human life is murder in every case. The person making the argument was incorrect in his primary observation.

Now, it is certainly possible to be innocently wrong in one’s observations. We should never assume that getting an observation wrong automatically means a lack of virtue. But here’s where a lack of virtue might compromise one’s observations: confirmation bias. We fallen creatures tend to see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what works to our advantage somehow, and what makes sense of our preconceived ideas. Without virtue we’re not all that concerned about the facts. In the case of the syllogism concerning capital punishment:

  • Pride could lead to misinterpreting Church teaching – whether consciously or unconsciously – due to one’s personal beliefs or ideological commitments.
  • Irreverence could lead to treating the Church as a merely human institution whose moral teachings are malleable and in constant need of updating.
  • Rash judgment could lead to regurgitating something one has heard or read without due diligence.
  • Human respect could lead to distorting Church teaching in order to win an argument.
  • Un-repented sin could lead to minimizing the gravity of capital offenses as deserving of capital punishment.
  • Lack of charity could lead to blindly opposing the views of others merely because of who happens to hold them.

Every argument depends upon one or more premises that are essentially unprovable by means of argument. They are simply assumed to be true by observation or the claims of authority.  In order for these premises to be reliable, they must be approached with humility, integrity, discernment, and self-knowledge.

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One thought on “Critical thinking, observation, and virtue

  1. “Every argument depends upon one or more premises that are essentially unprovable by means of argument. They are simply assumed to be true by observation or the claims of authority. In order for these premises to be reliable, they must be approached with humility, integrity, discernment, and self-knowledge.”

    I think I agree with this. Some notes though – which aren’t so much reservations as a kind of reinforcement of the point: Not all first premises are known through observation per se. First *concepts* – i.e. our very first concept, which is “being” – are certainly gained in some way through observation. (I observe “things,” which is just “existing things,” “beings”.) But the *premises* composed by those concepts are not known to be true by simple observation, but self-evidently: once I know the definitions of the concepts (inasmuch as they can be “defined”), I “automatically” know the truth about them. Once I know “being” I automatically know – without having to observe that it is the case – that “something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect.” Such a premise is absolutely first and absolutely certain – but indemonstrable. The double fact that 1) it cannot be proved and 2) it is more certain than anything that can be proved – or even observed – merely heightens the fact that such things must be approached with humility, etc. It often takes the most extreme pride, self-deception, and willfulness – or plain stupidity – to be unable to see the truth of these *self-evident* first principles.

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