Appendix One: Critical Thinking and Worldview

As we interact with the world around us, we acquire beliefs about it, beliefs that force us to revise and perhaps even eliminate some of the beliefs that we previously had. These beliefs structure how we act and react in the world, constituting what we know about it and expect from it. Experience presents the world to us, and beliefs re-present it. In doing this, they figure centrally into how our mind keeps track of what we have experienced and what we can expect to experience. On this way of thinking about them, then, they are cognitive representations that allow us to file away information for future reference.

Beliefs are born in experience, and experience teaches us to remain flexible in the face of an ever-changing world. This flexibility is manifested in the dynamic character of the system of representations that constitutes our conception of the world, or worldview. A worldview is an agent-centered representation of all that an agent takes to be the case, and as such it mediates between perceptual and cognitive input and behavioral and cognitive output. It comprises a subset of beliefs that an agent has about herself and her world; this could well include much more than beliefs about the physical world, such as beliefs about abstract things (e.g., love, numbers) as well as normative beliefs about morality and value. (This subset may just be the set of all beliefs, but it is open to argument whether one should take one's "world" to include the sum of all beliefs; in some cases, there may be beliefs that dangle free from what one takes to be the world, and in other cases, this approach may be inconsistent with the Principle of Charity. Further, it is important to avoid restricting one's worldview to belief, since there are arguably ways of representing the world that don't qualify as beliefs.) When one acquires, revises, or eliminates beliefs, one modifies one's worldview.

It is in this context that I understand critical thinking. We can get at this understanding with the help of an additional concept. Call the approach that one takes to maintaining one's worldview an doxastic style. Doxastic styles are ways of making sense of the world; that is, they are ways of generating and maintaining sensible conceptions of it. This is revealed in the way a person processes information: what information does she notice and take seriously? What information does she emphasize? What information is more likely to become content of a firm belief, and what is more likely to be content of less firm beliefs? Does she regularly test her worldview or not? The business of living will reveal answers to these and related questions, and these answers will limn her doxastic style.

We can develop this notion with a bit more precision by considering its parts. First, the doxastic part. Doxastic styles are so-called because they are associated with beliefs. Through this association they become inextricably bound up with truth and justification. A belief is a cognitive state that is marked by two features, viz., a representation which serves as the content of the belief, and a pro-attitude toward that content. In other words, one believes that, say, the car is in the garage if one has a cognitive representation of the car's being in the garage that one takes to represent the world the way it is, i.e., to be true. In general, people wish to maximize the number of true beliefs they have, and even better, the number of true beliefs that are justified, and their doxastic style represents how they go about pursuing this. Mention of justification is warranted here because these approaches are associated with evidence, broadly construed. So construed, evidence can be understood as support--a doxastic style is reflected in the pursuit of reasons that support a worldview relative to some standard (e.g., truth, accuracy, fit, etc.). Not only is it reflected in the pursuit, which will involve much information processing, but also in what standards one takes to define evidence. One's style, then is associated with evidence for one's worldview in the sense that it supports one in maintaining that overall representation. From the perspective of doxa, then, we can say that a doxastic style is a person's technique for generating and maintaining justified, true beliefs.

This point about standards supplies a useful segue into consideration of the second part of this notion, viz., style. To call this a "style" is to say that it serves to express one's self concept and how one acts in the world. As such, it reflects the person's values and so is essentially normative. After all, she processes information as she does, generating this belief and eliminating that one, with a view to making sense of the world. And it is she who is the arbiter of this judgment--she is the one who determines what is sensible and what isn't. She decides which bits of information conduce to a sensible worldview, typically on the fly and often habitually. She does this by employing standards about what counts as evidence, i.e., standards that will help her sort through the information she receives with a view to forming new beliefs, and these will likely resonate with her values. (It needn't, of course--one's doxastic style may be radically out of step with one's values, although this is usually accompanied by other signs of serious cognitive dissonance.) Now, you may disparage her worldview or the way she maintains it, regard her as crazy or incoherent, but that doesn't mean that she doesn't have such a style; it may not be the best from a certain perspective (e.g., truth generation), but it nevertheless qualifies as a doxastic style. Finally, this style will be an important part of one's overall style, since how one believes what one believes will condition and be reflected in how one moves through the world. It is closely associated with one's aesthetic sense--value and taste combine to influence one's day to day search for justification. Its formation begins at a very early age, developing alongside one's values and tastes.

Thus, the suggestion is that everyone has a worldview that they maintain, even if they don't think of it as such or concern themselves with foundational conceptual problems that might arise. It follows, then, that everyone has a doxastic style. While there will be differences between these, we can classify them into types, and one of these will be a style marked by the dominance of critical thinking as I've developed it in here. Many of us know people who possess such a doxastic style--they tend to be very argumentative, wishing to evaluate and critique most claims that catch their eye. It is certainly not the goal of critical thinking instruction to transform everyone into this kind of person. But then critical thinking can inform a doxastic style without dominating it. For those who allow it to inform their style, the world is a place that should make sense, more or less, and one where conclusions are supported by reasons that explain them. In circumstances where someone makes a claim on their beliefs, or when their beliefs are otherwise on the line, critical thinking can be a very handy tool. Indeed, commitment to critical thinking as a tool for advancing one's own causes or achieving the good life requires that one adopt this view of the world; otherwise, cognitive dissonance erupts. A person whose style is informed in this way by critical thinking demonstrates what I have called the "critical spirit," a term that nicely combines both the evaluative with the stylistic.

As I see it, the goal of critical thinking skills instruction is to help people acquire the critical spirit. It is my view that at least some low level of critical thinking figures into all of our doxastic styles; it is difficult to imagine surviving without this. Given its utility, it seems only right and proper to develop it and increase its power. These personal views, however, do not cloud my eye to the fact that there are people who do not favor acquisition of the critical spirit. They see this spirit as deeply inconsistent with their own way of looking at the world--as something that has done violence to the world and will do violence to themselves if they give in to it. But I submit that it is nevertheless useful for these people to enhance their critical thinking skills, and work toward the enhancement of these skills in their students. Indeed, this may be of even greater importance for these people. After all, we live in a world that is influenced to a very great degree by people who think this way. Successful and effective negotiation through such a world requires familiarity with critical thinking. Thus, even if it isn't the one for you, it will influence how you live your life; in the spirit of getting to know thy enemy, it seems a wise topic of study.