Critical Thinking for Freedom of Thought

Critical Thinking for Freedom of Thought

Kevin deLaplante


Why is critical thinking important?

When I was a classroom teacher I would write this bullet list on the board and work my way down:

  1. Self-Defense
  2. Autonomy and Freedom of Thought
  3. Personal Empowerment
  4. Democracy and Civic Duty
  5. Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom

Let’s talk about number 2 – “autonomy and freedom of thought”.

The Goals of Critical Thinking

Recall the short version of the goals of critical thinking:

  1. To improve the quality of our thinking.
  2. To learn to think for ourselves.

These express fundamental critical thinking values. If we lack in either of these, we suffer for it.

In my post on critical thinking as self-defense, I emphasized the harms that we risk when we lack in (1), when the quality of our thinking is compromised due to our own irrationality or the persuasive efforts of sources that don’t have our personal self-interest at heart.

Some of these may be minor harms in the grand scheme of things (paying more for a used car than it’s worth). Others are more serious (staying in a job you hate, not putting any money away for retirement, defrauding the company you work for …).

But what harms do we risk when we lack in (2)? Why does it matter that we learn to think for ourselves? And what exactly does it mean to “think for oneself”?

Everyone Values Autonomy and Freedom of Thought

The expression “to think for oneself” doesn’t have a single well-defined meaning. What it does is evoke a set of concepts — autonomy, agency, freedom, independence, authenticity — on which philosophers have written extensively, and which play important roles in moral theorizing, political philosophy and theories of rational agency and the self.

As a philosopher I’m fascinated by these discussions. As a critical thinking educator communicating with the public I tend to stay away from them 🙂

Why? Because the concepts themselves have an intuitive meaning that ordinary people respond to, and that’s really all you need to motivate the connection to critical thinking. Philosophical analyses of these concepts, on the other hand, tend to be technical and contentious.

Example: In the ordinary sense of the word, an individual has “autonomy” if he or she has the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.

Now, if I go up to someone and ask them if having this kind of autonomy matters to them, what do you think they’ll say? They’ll say OF COURSE it matters. It’s OBVIOUS that it matters.

That’s all you really need.

If you dig into the philosophical literature on autonomy, on the other hand, be prepared to get lost in technical concepts and arguments that only professional philosophers can read with clarity.

The Challenge of Modern Psychology and the Persuasion Matrix

It’s easy to convince people that autonomy, agency and freedom of thought matter.

What’s hard is convincing people that they may not have it, or may not have it to the degree that they think they do.

In a previous post I talked about the “persuasion matrix” and the challenge that this poses to critical thinking; namely, the challenge posed by the conjunction of the following two realities:

(1) that ordinary human psychology is prone to error in a myriad of ways, and vulnerable to a host of persuasion techniques that bypass conscious, rational deliberation, and

(2) that we live our lives in a persuasion matrix, much of which is engineered by third parties to exploit these very same vulnerabilities in human psychology.

These conditions have the effect of undermining rational agency, autonomy and freedom of thought.

But it’s hard for people to appreciate how and why this is the case, since it doesn’t feel that way to us. Our brains trick us into thinking that we have greater control and authorship of our thoughts and behaviors than we in fact have.

Just how much this these psychological facts undermine intuitive notions of reflective agency is an issue that philosophers and psychologists are currently grappling with. It’s complicated by the fact that this question intersects with of a number of other debates, like the debate over freedom of the will, and whether our intuitive notions of agency demand a robust notion of freedom of the will or not (and consequently, whether skepticism about freedom of the will entails skepticism about rational agency).

See, I told it was complicated.

The Argument Ninja Approach

The Argument Ninja training program is designed to promote both of the critical thinking goals indicated above, to improve the quality of our thinking and to think critically and independently for ourselves.

How does it do this? By teaching students how to reason well, and how to minimize the distorting influence of the persuasion matrix.

The Argument Ninja program teaches students how the persuasion matrix operates, and how to become more consciously aware of its presence and its influence on us. It also teaches a variety of techniques for resisting its influence.

In psychology there’s a growing literature on debiasing techniques, which are designed to reduce or neutralize the distorting effects of cognitive biases, and these can be learned and applied to oneself. Some of these techniques are as simple as unplugging from digital media on a regular basis, and carving out time for quiet reflection.

This is a necessary first step to becoming an independent critical thinker. We need to open up a space where our inner thoughts can move about under their own power, far enough away from the noise so we can hear what they’re actually saying. In doing so, we become less vulnerable to outside influences and manipulation.

Then, as we learn about what standards of good reasoning actually look like, we’re in a better position to oversee the revision of our own beliefs, in accordance with intellectual standards that we can recognize and affirm ourselves.

This is what it means to learn how to think, and to be free to exercise that skill.  At the end of the day you want to be able to say that you are the author of your own beliefs and values, and that you’re willing and able to claim responsibility for them, that you own them. For me, this is what it means to be a free thinker.

This is my mission and the mission of the Argument Ninja program — to support the development of this kind of independent critical thinking.

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