We are born with brains, so we come into this life with the basic equipment needed to think, but that doesn’t mean we all have the innate ability to think well. I guess this is analogous to the fact that we have been given arms, but the average bicep looks and functions considerably differently from the bicep of a world-class bodybuilder.
In other words, not all minds and biceps are created equal because some of the former and later have been trained and developed and others haven’t.
I’ve spent my life training and growing minds, helping minds develop “muscles,” to follow up on my bodybuilder metaphor. This blog is the first in a series of theoretical and “how to” pieces on thinking—on what good and bad thinking looks like and how to distinguish between the two. Once a person knows what critical and artful thinking looks like, she’s taken the first step in becoming a critical and artful thinker herself.
Why have I decided to take on this topic now? Because demagogues and authoritarians of all stripes (and with very bad intentions) walk among us. There is an inverse correlation between their strength and our intellectual weakness. Their power grows as our power diminishes. They thrive where there is widespread gullibility. If they find that we are able to think for ourselves in a sophisticated way, their immediate job is to employ all manner of devious propagandistic techniques to sow confusion and control the narrative.
Here’s an important rule of thumb: Champions of democracy and open societies do things that encourage us to become more informed and engaged; authoritarians want us to believe nonsense and then become disengaged because things look so hopeless and confusing.
Bad thinking often occurs because people don’t understand what arguments are and that they basically have two parts. These parts are the claim and the evidence.
Understanding how arguments work is essential to understanding how thinking works. Arguments—by “argument” I don’t mean a shouting match that shortly precedes something more pugilistic in nature—are how people state their deeply held convictions in an attempt to affect the behavior or beliefs of others. Arguments take the form of polemics, advertisements, political campaigns, theories and hypotheses, contentions, pitches, and so on. We make arguments all day long whether we’re aware of it or not. When you try to convince your traveler partner that a vacation to Mexico would be superior to a trip to Canada, you’re making an argument.
I’d like to leave you with one final thought before I wrap up this first installment: A claim is normally not to be confused with evidence and any argument that consists of only a claim cannot be said to be a true argument. For example: The following is not an argument:
The U.S. presidential election that took place in 2020 was stolen.
What we have in such a statement is merely an assertion that something happened. It lacks no power because there is no evidentiary proof provided.
Unfortunately, there has become this widespread belief that simply claiming something to be true is enough to make it true. I’ve often seen people make the above claim about the 2020 presidential election, and when pushed on how they know this to be true, they simply scoff or look dumbfounded. That’s because they belief so strongly in the truth of their claim that they think it is self-evident and therefore self-sufficient. In other words, because they are so convinced in the truth of the assertion, they think the assertion is proof or proven.
Unfortunately, this kind of false “argument”—simply making claims and then offering no proof or dubious “proof” in support of said assertion—seems to be taking hold in America and elsewhere. This is a sign that people are forgetting what good thinking looks like and their intellectual muscles are atrophying. This development is certainly no accident, as I’ll soon demonstrate.
That’s it for installment one. Stayed tuned for more!