Critical thinking takes place in a mental environment
consisting of our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Some elements in
this inner environment can sabotage our efforts to think critically or at
least make critical thinking more difficult. Fortunately, we can exert
some control over these elements. With practice, we can detect errors in
our thinking, restrain attitudes and feelings that can disrupt our
reasoning, and achieve enough objectivity to make critical thinking
The most common of these hindrances to critical thinking fall
into two main categories: (1) Those obstacles that crop up because of how
we think and (2) those that occur because of what we think. The
first category is composed of psychological factors such as our fears,
attitudes, motivations, and desires. The second category is made up of
certain philosophical beliefs.
None of us is immune to the psychological obstacles. Among them
are the products of egocentric thinking. We may accept a claim solely
because it advances our interests or just because it helps us save face.
To overcome these pressures, we must (1) be aware of strong emotions that
can warp our thinking, (2) be alert to ways that critical thinking can be
undermined, and (3) ensure that we take into account all relevant
factors when we evaluate a claim.
The first category of hindrances also includes those that arise
because of group pressure. These obstacles include conformist pressures
from groups that we belong to and ethnocentric urges to think that our
group is superior to others. The best defense against group pressure is to
proportion our beliefs according to the strength of reasons.
We may also have certain core beliefs that can undermine critical
thinking (the second category of hindrances). Subjective relativism is the
view that truth depends solely on what someone believesa notion
that may make critical thinking look superfluous. But subjective
relativism leads to some strange consequences. For example, if the
doctrine were true, each of us would be infallible. Also, subjective
relativism has a logical problemit’s self-defeating. Its truth implies
its falsity. There are no good reasons to accept this form of relativism.
Social relativism is the view that truth is relative to
societiesa claim that would also seem to make critical thinking
unnecessary. But this notion is undermined by the same kinds of problems
that plague subjective relativism.
Philosophical skepticism is the doctrine that we know much less
than we think we do. One form of philosophical skepticism says that we
cannot know anything unless the belief is beyond all possible doubt. But
this is not a plausible criterion for knowledge. To be knowledge, claims
need not be beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable