Introduction to Critical Reasoning

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In Module 1 you are given the opportunity to explore what critical reasoning is and what it means to think for yourself. This module sets the foundation for everything that follows.


Do you agree that many of the problems we face in our lives result from a lack of clarity in our thinking about what is real, true and essential? In our opinion, it is rare to find a person who takes the time to think clearly about things. In our fast-paced, overstimulated, I-want-it-quickly society, our response to something is often based on preconceived ideas.

What is most important in this course is that you learn how to think for yourself, as opposed to replicating some preconceived ideas. As we have seen, issues in the Human and Social Sciences rarely yield single clear right/wrong answers: usually only less or more convincing arguments. One of the main benefits of critical thinking is that it allows you to reach independent conclusions about the world and about yourself.

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Module 1 covers the following topics:

  • Critical reasoning
  • Thinking for yourself
  • Informed thinking
  • Critical self-reflection

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After successfully completing Module 1, you should be able to:

  • Define critical reasoning
  • Demonstrate techniques on how to think for yourself (independent thinking)
  • Reflect critically on your own assumptions
  • Apply reasoning to arguments

Study Materials

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What is Critical Reasoning?

Critical reasoning involves the ability to actively and skillfully conceptualize, analyze, question and evaluate ideas and beliefs. Critical reasoning is the opposite of dogma. Dogma is unquestioned information — information that is embraced without the intervention of active thought or criticism. To reason critically is to question the ideas and beliefs of others and oneself and to challenge dogma and authority.

When we start to question the ideas and beliefs we live by, we start to think for ourselves. To think for ourselves involves a critical attitude of reflecting upon how we think and act. To think critically is to question the world and thus to engage critically with the possibilities and alternatives which the world offers.

Please note that the terms “critical reasoning”, “critical thinking” and “clear thinking” are used interchangeably in this discussion. In other words, critical reasoning implies critical thinking or clear thinking.

We think critical reasoning involves three important components of reasoning. These components are as follows:

  • Critical reasoning is thinking for yourself.
  • Critical reasoning is informed reasoning.
  • Critical reasoning is critical self-reflection.

Critical reasoning is about arguments: their construction, analysis and evaluation. It is therefore important to understand what we mean by the term “argument”. The term “argument” can be used in three different senses:

  1. a quarrel or fight between two or more people
  2. a group of statements intended to establish the truth or acceptability of a claim
  3. an exchange between two or more people who disagree with each other, in which each person gives reasons to support his or her position.

To bring out the different senses of the term “argument”, consider the sentence:

The philosophy lecturer had an argument.

If we use sense (1) above, the sentence might continue as follows:

The philosophy lecturer had an argument with a sociology lecturer in the local bar and was taken to hospital.

If we use sense (2) above, the sentence might continue as follows:

The philosophy lecturer had an argument which, he claimed, established the truth of the proposition “God exists”.

If we use sense (3) above, the sentence might continue as follows:

The philosophy lecturer had an argument with his colleagues after they disputed his claim that God exists.

When we talk about an argument in critical reasoning, we do not use it in sense (1). That is, we do not mean a quarrel between two persons. In critical reasoning, the term “argument” is used in senses (2) and (3) only.

The following are some warm-up exercises to set your thought processes in motion before you embark on the journey to become a serious critical thinker (each question is a simplified version of a real critical reasoning question). Read the following statements and then answer the questions about them:

  1. The best movie showing right now is Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg: it has been in the number one position for three weeks.
    1. How can we weaken this argument?
    2. How can we strengthen this argument?
  1. We could show that a popular movie is not necessarily a good movie. In other words, just because it is popular doesn’t mean it is good.
  2. We could show that a popular movie is always a good movie. In other words, there is a direct relationship between popularity and quality.
  1. All dogs have hair. Therefore, pets have hair.
    1. If so, what are the hidden assumptions? (e.g.implicit factors taken for granted)
  1. The hidden assumption is that all pets are dogs.
  1. The President is of the opinion that all citizens should have the opportunity to go to college. However, he did not go to college.
    1. How can we weaken this argument?
    2. How can we strengthen this argument?
  1. We could say that the President’s personal background is not related to his suggestion.
  2. We could say that the President’s personal background is related to his suggestion.
  1. Two hours ago Brian had a splitting headache, so he took two headache tablets. Brian still has a headache. Therefore, headache tablets are useless.
    1. How can we weaken this argument?
    2. How can we strengthen this argument?
  1. We could say that Brian’s results will not necessarily be the same as the results of other people.
  2. We could say that Brian’s results will be the same as the results of other people.

Becoming a Critical Thinker

Critical reasoning or critical thinking is a basic skill that all humans are born with, but which can be sharpened with practice. The better your ability to think critically, the better you will be at making good decisions in your life. The skills involved in critical reasoning will assist you in every area of life and study, whether it is deciding which political candidate to vote for or which job to take.

Keep in mind that the foundation for this course is already embedded in you.

Part 1:

For this activity use your journal and write down what the difference in meaning is between the following statements. It is important to write your opinion down; often we think we have an opinion, but once we have to write it down, we discover that it might be flawed.

Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. Nobody is guilty until proven not to be innocent.
Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. Everything you say may be used against you in a court of law.
If you are not religious you are bad. If you are religious, you are good.
If you do not vote, you may not complain about the outcome. People who do not vote have no say.
As the economy is on a downslide, we need to save money. We need to save money when the economy is on a downslide.

Part 2:

Which of the following skills were required to figure out the meaning of the statements in Part 1?
Note whether you AGREE or DISAGREE.

  1. You need to be able to determine how the several parts of an argument relate to each other.
  2. You need to have good language skills (understand the language properly).
  3. You need the ability to locate and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.
  4. You need the ability to locate and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.
  5. The entire process of argumentation must be viewed within a certain context.

We think that you need all the above-mentioned skills to figure out the meaning of the statements in Part 1.

Thinking for Yourself

If you think for yourself, you question the world and offer alternative viewpoints about the way the world is perceived by other people. When we say think for yourself, we don’t mean ‘think selfishly for yourself’. We mean ‘think independently’. A person who thinks for herself or himself has to have a sense of humility, and of modesty, and of relativity because you have to realise that other people are also thinking for themselves and you’re bound to come out with something a little different from what they are thinking. In order to become a critical thinker, you have to have the ability to listen and the modesty to adjust your point of view as you gather more insights.

Thinking in an Informed Way

As you would have seen from your review of the recommended resources, informed reasoning is based on claims that can be substantiated. In other words, your opinion is based on fact and not on personal opinion. In today’s world where we become ever more involved in using technology as a resource for information, it is crucial that we have the ability to think in an informed way in order to be able to decipher the barrage of information available to us.

The ability to form and articulate opinions is extremely important in all facets of life. As citizens, people need to form opinions about political issues and leaders in order to vote responsibly. We must form opinions about social issues, and we form opinions about the people we work and interact with on a daily basis. However, simply having an opinion about a given topic is not enough. In this age of information, if we want to effectively share our opinions with others, we must be educated about the topics we are discussing.

Whether writing a letter to the editor about a local issue or trying to convince your boss that you’ve developed a great business strategy or convincing your parents that you should have a specific privilege, presenting an informed, educated opinion is much more effective than sharing one based on emotion or personal experience alone.

Critical Self-Reflection

In our opinion critical self-reflection entails the ability to reflect critically on your own assumptions, and to critically evaluate your own prejudicial attitudes and biases. Critical self-reflection relates to self-knowledge and self-awareness. Furthermore, the enterprise of critical self-reflection is liberating in that it allows us to think for ourselves instead of being indoctrinated and manipulated by stereotypical beliefs.

As a starting point for developing your competence at critical self-reflection, it would be useful to express your views on the following issues. Use your journal to write down a paragraph or two on each of the following controversial topics. In each case, ask yourself why you hold this particular view. Keep a record of your responses because you will revisit them when you do the critical self-reflection activity in Module 2, Preconceived ideas.

  • Marriage
  • Single parenting
  • Racial differences
  • Gender differences
  • Homosexuality
  • Heterosexuality
  • What am I?
  • Who am I?
  • How do other people see me?


Module 1 has four (4) activities. Each of the Journal activities is accompanied by a self-assessment rubric. The quizzes have an answer key. Once you have completed the journal entry, you can use the rubric to evaluate how successful you were in meeting the learning objectives. While the assessments are optional, and the grades will not be directly related to whether or not you receive credit for this course, completing them will help you gauge your progress and prepare for the TECEP© exam.

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Journal Assignment 1

Becoming a Critical Thinker

The following is an experiment in psychology. Read the experiment carefully and then, in your journal, capture your answer to the questions that follow:

In the 1970s Stanley Milgram set up an experiment at Yale University in which participants were asked to administer electric shocks to others. The participants were led to believe that those who were being shocked were taking part in a scientific study to determine the relationship between memory and punishment. The participants had control over how severe the shocks would be, from slight shock to severe shock, and when instructed to do so they were to deliver the appropriate voltage. The participants (the “teachers”) are told that they are to administer the learning test to the “learners” in the other room. When the “learner” responds correctly, the “teacher” continues with the next item. When the “learner” makes a mistake, the “teacher” is instructed to give an electric shock. They must start at the lowest shock level (15 volts) and increase the level each time the “learner” makes a mistake; going up to 30 volts, 50 volts, 150 volts and so on.

The participants could not see the people who were being shocked, although when the shocks were severe they could hear that their “victims” were suffering greatly. The “teacher” is a naïve subject who has come to the psychology laboratory to participate in the experiment. The “learner”, or “victim”, is an actor who actually receives no electric shock at all. Milgram designed the experiment to establish how far a person will proceed in a concrete situation in which he or she is instructed to inflict increasing pain on others just because a legitimate authority asked them to so. The point of the experiment was thus to find out at what point the subject will refuse to obey the instructions of the experimenter.

The results showed that more than half the participants were prepared to, and actually gave, the most severe shocks and nearly 90 percent increased the voltage when they were asked to, in spite of clearly hearing that their “victims” were in pain.

Milgram (1974:5–6) observes the following with regard to his experiment:

“Many subjects will obey the experimenter no matter how vehement the pleading of the person being shocked, no matter how painful the shocks seem to be, and no matter how much the victim pleads to be let out. … It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study … ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority”.
  1. What do you think this experiment illustrates?
  2. What lessons have you learned from the experiment? Do you think that those participants who increased the voltage when they were asked to, despite the fact that their “victims” were obviously in pain, thought critically about their decisions?


We think Milgram’s experiment illustrates how readily we are prepared to relinquish reason for the comfort of obedience. It is an example of how easily we take things for granted and assume that the claims of authority figures are true.

The lesson to be learned from the experiment is that we should be suspicious of the claims of authorities, rather than following their instructions blindly. As critical reasoners we should learn how to think independently, and critically question information and knowledge claims.

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Journal Assignment 2

Thinking in an Informed Way - Part 1

Select a topic that is of interest to you. The topic should inspire at least two points of view. For example - “Prostitution should be legalized.”

  1. Learn as much as you can about your topic through research.
  2. Utilize a wide variety of resources and make sure that you read information that expresses a number of different points of view relating to your topic.
  3. Ask pertinent questions as you learn about the topic and look for the answers in your research.
  4. Assess the content - Are statements and arguments supported with facts, specific examples and clearly defined reasons?
  5. Form your opinion based on the facts you have learned. Combine those facts with your own emotions and personal experiences. Be able to utilize these facts as your key arguments when you try to convince others to see your point of view.

Thinking in an Informed Way - Part 2

Ask yourself the following questions: When you first selected your topic for the project, did you have a preconceived opinion about the subject? If so, how was your opinion altered by doing research and looking for facts about the subject?

  1. Do you believe your opinion would have been different if it had not been based on facts? If so, why and how?
  2. Based on your experience with researching, do you think most people base their opinions about important issues on facts or do they use emotions, personal experience, preconceived ideas and media to shape their ideas?
  3. In the future, do you think you will be more inclined to support your opinions with facts? Why?
  4. In future conversations with people of differing opinions, do you think you will press them to substantiate their opinions with facts and clearly defined reasons as a means of convincing you to change your thoughts? Why?

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Quiz 1

Write a short paragraph analyzing each of the following statement. Be sure your answer includes and demonstrates your understanding of critical reasoning.

  1. Critical reasoning is concerned with the truth of a statement.
  2. Critical reasoning implies that thinking is flexible and can be improved.
  3. Assumptions must be questioned.
  4. Critical reasoning requires listening to others.
  5. Something is true if my family taught it to me.
  6. Something is true if I believe it strongly.
  7. Something is true if the Pope has pronounced it.
  8. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

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Quiz 2

Using the answer key below, identify the function of critical reasoning required in the following examples:

A = Thinking for oneself; B = Informed Reasoning; C = Critical Self-Reflection

  1. ____ My blood pressure is high, therefore I should be on medication.
  2. ____ My biology professor claimed that vaccines cause autism. I shouldn’t get my baby vaccinated.
  3. ____ I was raised as a Muslim. Islam teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I don’t approve of gay marriage.
  4. ____ I have been a hospice volunteer for four years. Now that many of the patients admitted to hospice have AIDS, I don’t want to work for hospice any longer. I don’t want to contract the disease and need hospice care myself.
  5. ____ Senator James Inohofe claimed that climate change is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind. He’s been in the Senate a long time and must know what he’s talking about.
  6. ____ The Green Party advocates living a simple life and using fossil fuels as little as possible. I consider myself a Green but I commute a hundred miles a day in a minivan.
  7. ____ Exposure to the sun causes skin cancer. If I use sunscreen when I sunbathe, I won’t get skin cancer.
  8. ____ My religion teaches that abortion is a sin therefore I think abortion is a sin.
  9. ____ Every time I talk to Nicole, she tells me she doesn’t understand what I mean. I must be a poor communicator.
  10. ____ My political party is opposed to universal health care therefore I think we should not have universal health care coverage.
  11. ____ Congressman Riley voted against immigration reform every time a bill came up. I support immigration reform therefore I will vote against Congressman Riley.
  12. ____ An LA policeman was videoed beating up a homeless black woman along the side of the freeway. She must have been guilty.
  13. ____ My religion teaches that I should not marry someone of a different faith therefore I should not marry someone not of my faith.
  14. ____ Legalizing marijuana will lead to increased use of heroine and cocaine. We should not legalize marijuana.
  15. ____ I am planning a trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Rte 95 will get me there faster than Rte 80. I should take Rte. 95.