Critical thinking is becoming a lost art in modern society.
Far too many people never develop their ability to step back and look at their own beliefs and assumptions with a questioning mind.
Here are some questions and examples for how to boost your critical thinking capabilities.
1) Why is this topic important or controversial to people?
The first way to develop critical thinking is to understand what narratives are and why some issues and topics are so controversial and divide people.
For example, why is the topic of crime so divisive in many societies? Why do some believe in much more justice reform and lenience while others say that keeping society safer requires being much harder on criminals?
There’s a real absence of critical thought in society today and it’s leading to intense political polarization and us versus them narratives that leave people feeling isolated and insecure.
2) What tends to bring people the most together and drive them the most apart?
Increasing critical thought is about really looking at what divides us and what unites us.
Asking this question is a great way to dig into that.
For example, I have noticed that the upcoming World Cup is something that unites many people across political, racial and class lines.
Politics, on the other hand, tends to do the opposite. While politics often unites groups of people, it sadly does so by often opposing them and polarizing them against other groups.
Playing people off against people to maintain power is a trick as old as time, after all.
3) How do I look to those who disagree with my worldview? What is their conception of me? What is my conception of them?
Looking at the way you see the world is the basis of critical thinking. You may remain a socialist or a conservative or a fundamentalist Muslim.
But you will have looked at it from an honest and objective assessment.
For example, if you are a democratic socialist, what do those who disagree with you think of you? As someone who disagrees with you I can tell you:
They consider you naive, dangerous and party to a sneaky form of authoritarianism wrapped up in compassionate language.
What do you consider them? Likely self-righteous, greedy and party to a form of exploitation and injustice wrapped up in the language of “opportunity.”
4) What is my identity and what do I mean by it?
Who are you?
Why did you answer what you did and not something completely different?
Digging into this will boost your critical thinking like you just took steroids.
The reason is that you will find out so much of who you say you are is what you have been told you are.
But who are you really?
It’s a journey to find out, but it’s rarely as simple as physical characteristics, cultural labels or what the economy decides you are.
You’re a 36-year-old sushi chef, half-Japanese, half-white, you have a girlfriend of three years and take the bus to work (which is exhausting). You love tattoos and have four, but plan to get more.
But what made you focus on these things, exactly?
For example, your answer to who you are could have been:
You’re a spiritual explorer who loves to play drums and feels a sense of pain about your father leaving your family at a young age. You’ve always had nightmares about sea monsters chasing you and have no idea why.
But the second answer wouldn’t be things that you feel society or others would find “normal,” and they might strike you in fact as “oversharing.”
Why? Is that normal that they would be considered oversharing?
5) What makes me certain I am right? What do I even mean by being ‘right’?
What does it mean to be correct or “right” to you?
The question sounds stupid but it’s crucial to know in order to improve your critical thinking.
For example: one person may consider something to be right because it aligns with pure principles or with a feeling of moral rectitude and compassion for others;
Whereas someone else may believe that the idea of moral wrong and right is an illusion to feel safe (which is more or less what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, for example).
What makes your right better than someone else’s right?
How does our idea of wrong and right influence the way we behave in the world and to those around us?
6) What makes me sure my political, religious, social and scientific beliefs are correct and what makes them important to me?
Once having a greater idea of what wrong or right mean (or don’t mean) to you, you can delve into what makes you sure you’re correct.
For example, you may be certain that your view of modern medicine being harmful and based on Big Pharma’s greed is correct in the sense that Big Pharma demonstrably lies and harms people, which goes against your view that it’s wrong to physically harm others.
You are sure you are correct because you have studied many statistics on this and looked deeply into the history of modern Western medicine and its underpinnings.
But have you also examined other sides to this? Have you taken the point of view of the devil’s advocate and looked at nations which don’t have modern medicine and their mortality rates, maternal health and other factors?
Maybe the issue is not as simple as Big Pharma bad, natural medicine good…
7) What motivates me most in life? What do I think motivates others most?
What motivates you the most in life?
To put it differently: what gets you up in the morning?
What do you think motivates others? You may have an idea: work, money, family, love, sex, power, fun, health…
Take your ideas about what you think motivates others and then compare it to what they actually tell you when you ask them.
You may find that many people are unsure about what really motivates them or are just motivated by pre-packaged narratives and priorities which the media, economic system and society has basically installed in them.
8) What factors made me who I am today? What made others who they are?
What shaped you the most in your life?
It may be other people, places, beliefs, tragedies, victories or boredom.
It may be confusion itself that turned you the way you are, or even political or religious persecution or the experience of being a minority.
It may be that the biggest influence on you has been your job path and how you found your mission.
What about other people?
Ask them, watch them, study them. Everyone has so many factors that made them who they are, but usually there are a few dominant influences and factors that turned them into who they are.
9) How do I feel if I consider there may not be a black-and-white answer to some questions?
Earlier I spoke about the importance of determining who you are and why, in addition to determining to what right and wrong mean to you.
One crucial way for how to create critical thinking questions is to examine how you might feel is there were many issues and questions that don’t have a black and white answer.
Simple example? War.
It’s hell, as has often been said. But it’s also as old as the first days humans lived in caves and even before.
All life struggles to survive and all too often it goes to battle against its neighbors, other groups and even in some cases people even end up fighting their own family members as we saw in the US Civil War.
Could there be some part of war that is inherent to the human condition? As Doris Lessing said, are we prepared to be honest at the excitement that some people feel from an oncoming war and the enjoyment that some secretly get considering the destruction and horror of conflict?
At the same time, are we willing to face the true injustice and pain of war? Have we ever sat with a refugee who’s lost family members in war (I have); have we ever listened to the pain of a person persecuted daily in a warzone?
What if war is both part of being human and also deeply unjust and horrible. What about if there is no simple answer and just throwing up a peace sign isn’t enough to solve the behavioral and social aspects behind conflict?
Sit with that feeling of discomfort for a bit. It’s good for you. It’s being human.
10) What if I was born on the ‘other side’?
This is a great question to ask in order to develop critical thinking skills. Ask how you would see the world differently if you were born on the other side.
Example: instead of being born into a middle class Belgian family whose dad works for a cellphone software developer, you were born to a poor Congelese family and sent to mine cobalt for cellphones at age 12.
Instead of being born as a Palestinian subject to the presence of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and a separate existence from the richer country next door, you were born in Israel and raised to focus more on the danger from next door rather than the humanity.
How would you be different?
Use your head
Critical thinking is all about using your head and slowing down just a bit from jumping to conclusions.
We don’t know everything, and even if we are more right about a certain subject we may be able to learn unexpected insights and answers from the ways in which somebody else is wrong.
Critical thinking is about trying to make it all a little less personal and a little more perceptive.
Life’s full of paradoxes, mysteries and complex subjects and experiences. Let’s use the questions above to approach it with a bit more open curiosity and care.