The following was inspired by an email sent to one of my critical thinking classes last year.
1) There is no right answer. There are only better ones. Remember, “A cup’s usefulness is in its emptiness.” You are all experienced, educated people who are accustomed to finding the right answers. You will have trouble setting that aside, but you must try to empty your cup so that you come to questions with a broader, more open mind. It may be a bit unsettling to you, but the cases that we deal with are intentionally vague. There is no concrete final answer that we must find. Our challenge is to come to a better answer, rather than the answer.
2) Reading into the case what you think it should be about. Our recent exercise had one primary aim: Help you to identify your assumptions or bias. How you define the terms of the case leads you to your conclusion. To insist that your position is correct is to miss how much you read into the case – how much your personal bias influenced your understanding of what the problem was and the solution should be.
3) Winning an Argument vs. Useful Discussion. Some of you were rather stubborn about your positions – that you had the right analysis and decision. If you are still insisting that you are correct, then you are not thinking, you are competing: You want to win and feel that you are right if you win.
4) Critical Thinking is Flexible Thinking. One should never become so attached to an opinion or position as to disregard the critiques or counterarguments of someone who is genuinely interested in the issue at hand. Setting aside your assumptions and arguing from an entirely different position is one of the smartest things you can do. It allows you to view the problem with different definitions and assumptions – to step outside your biases. This is the value of being the Devil’s Advocate.
5) Critical Thinking is Rethinking. By creating, or listening to, counterarguments you may identify the weaknesses within your argument and also the assumptions that are inherent in it. After doing this, you may reconsider your original argument and refine it, or change your position entirely. Changing your position is a reasonable, but difficult thing to do. So, if you find this course challenging, that is a good thing. Our aim is to challenge ourselves and to learn from each other. As experienced, knowledgeable people we already know what we think. Now we should try to learn what others think. Our goal should be to understand how the world works, rather than insisting on how we think it should.
(This originally appeared at Globis.jp, in a series on critical thinking.)