A Primer on Thinking

by Phillip Brown

Central to much of what Christian apologetics is about is the concept of ‘good’ thinking. This is something that, while pervasive in apologetics, is rarely directly addressed. In this article, I would like to begin to look at the importance of ‘good’ thinking. This will not at all be an in-depth assessment of cognitive processes or anything like that. My goal is simply to get you wondering about just how much of an impact thinking has on everything that we believe. 

A good place to start, it would seem, is to ask what the qualitative term ‘good’ actually means. To keep things very clear, I want to evaluate the word using very self-evident examples, which I think most people can relate to. When we say that something is good, it usually means that we are attaching some sort of positive evaluation to that thing. We find it to have qualities which are useful, helpful, functional, reliable, enjoyable and so forth. If we say “that was a good movie”, what we mean is that the story was impactful, or that the cinematography was eye-catching, or that the acting or action were impressive or believable. When we say that we own a good car, what we mean, perhaps, is that it is reliable and starts when we need it to, or perhaps it saves on gas, or has accessories which we find amenable to a comfortable ride. When we say that a particular thought is a good one, we mean that there is something about that idea which can lead to some set of results which contribute to a solution to a problem, or the advancement of our understanding of a particular issue. That idea may even have some self-evident fundamental quality to it which we viscerally understand to just be true. The common thread among these examples is the idea that ‘good’, in some way, refers to something positively contributing to achieving some kind of ends, be it a functional and practical contribution like a reliable car, or a more abstract contribution like a helpful thought. These examples also demonstrate that we somehow apply these qualities objectively. And this requires us to recognize objective ‘truth’, which is to say that we believe that some things are just facts. And if this is the case, then it logically follows that we must have some kind of good process which leads us to come to conclusions about what is true and what is not.

This process is what many would call thinking. And according to what I have said so far, ‘good’ thinking would require that this process of coming to conclusions would possess some set of qualities which make functional and practical contributions to advancing our understanding of something, thus bringing us closer to the ‘truth’. So what we are really doing now is thinking about thinking, you might call it metathinking. To understand how we discern whether or not something is true, we need to move the process not one, but two steps back. We need to explore how we decide on what processes to use to come to conclusions in the first place. We need to evaluate our thinking process to see whether or not it leads to making functional and practical contributions to advancing our understanding of something. Before going forward, I should be clear about something. I am not unaware of controversial nature of the claims that I am making about the existence of objective truth and about what might make my understanding of ‘good’ reasonable. Philosophers debate these issues at great length and I encourage the reader to investigate those discussions. But given that my goal is more focused on raising awareness of the importance of thinking well, and not on trying to convince anyone of any particular position apart from the idea that it is importantwhich I view as being self-evident, for the sake of this article I think that I can rest comfortably on the assumptions that objective truth exists and that ‘good’ thinking should lead us to a better understanding of what the truth is regarding a particular thing.  

I would now like to share some thoughts about why our thinking process matters and about what kinds of qualities, or features, a good thinking process should display. As regards the importance of our thinking process, I invoke the very famous Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager refers to an argument put forth by 17th century philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Pascal thought that given the outcomes of belief versus unbelief in light of the possible existence of God, it is simply more reasonable to believe in God than not to believe. Belief in God is a better bet. I am not attempting to make any sort of case for the existence of God here. My argument is quite different. But it is fair to say that Pascal seemed to be as greatly concerned with the ideas of our ultimate fate and with truth as I am. One way to summarize some of the thinking behind Pascal’s argument, or at least part of it, is to say that the importance of the decisions we make when it comes to what we believe, may indeed have eternal ramifications. So truth the matters. I would like to draw on this same idea, but with more of focus on how we come to believe what we do. To reiterate, the conclusions we come to about reality can have a massive impact on our eternity. If this is true, I should think, then, that anyone would want to come to accurate conclusions about metaphysical questions like like whether it or not God exists. This is one reason why it is very important that we develop sound thinking processes. But there are also more down-to-earth reasons why good thinking is important. Everything from which route is the best to take to work in the morning, to who to vote for in the next election is affected by how we think. Thinking well can lead to understanding reality better, which itself can lead to being able to better deal with both the joys and the struggles of life. Poor thinking, on the other hand, can have disastrous consequences. At the risk of putting things in terms which may seem too extreme, not facing reality head-on by coming to accurate and therefore rational conclusions can land us to great emotional, and even physical, peril. In short, sound methods of thinking are paramount to effectively navigating life. 

One of the greatest barriers to good thinking, I argue, is emotion. Emotion is not opposed to reason entirely however. The two chief formulations of Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, for example, speak to this. Kant’s Categorical Imperatives outline the, primarily, rational and objective reasoning processes to be used in moral decision-making. But one could argue that they are not completely void of emotion. Take, for example, the formulation which says that our actions should never be carried out in a way such that we use people as a means, but instead our actions should be with a view of people as an end. I would argue that ir order to do that to see people as an ends and not use people as a means to an end we must use both a cold rational processes to determine the outcomes of our actions, as well as have compassion for people who may be impacted by our actions so as to minimize using them to achieve our goals.

Focusing now on the idea of rational processes, I would like to get down to the heart of my argument. When making any decision our decision-making process must involve logic. Logic can help us understand the difference between decisions like about our preference in ice cream flavour and decisions like whether or not, say, we agree with the claim that Canada is the largest nation in the world by landmass. By gaining an understanding of some simple logical fallacies and the basic laws of logic we can sift through evidence and make better all-things-considered decisions about anything. But what does that kind of thinking process look like? And why, exactly, is it better?

I will use a simple example to try to answer those questions. Going back to the claim that Canada is the largest nation in the world by landmass, how can we have some idea of whether or not this is true? This comes down to the process we use to figure that out. Allow me propose the following process as a guide for assessing claims likes this one: 

Step 1. Begin by examining the claim to see if there is anything that is obviously outlandish about it. If so, consider any possible way that the claim can still be true. If no possible way presents itself, disregarding the claim may be the best course of action. If it is at all possible, however, carry on to the second phase of thinking. 

Step 2. Gather what evidence you can. Often not having much information to go on is a stumbling block to coming to clear conclusions about things, so pull together as much data as possible associated with the question or claim at hand. This means reaching outside of our own group’s information pool. We need to break out of our echo-chambers and try to get information from diverse sources. Doing this will allow us to learn much more about a given topic. And it will help us achieve our goal of making the best all-things-considered decision. 

Step 3. Examine the data to see if the claim lines up with the facts that you have been able to gather together. It is important at this point to be objective and control our emotions. Just because we don’t like something, that does not mean it is untrue. We must align our views with the facts, not with how those facts make us feel. This does not mean that we cannot express our feelings, they are part of us after all, but often it does mean that we should not be guided by them in the thinking process. 

Step 4. After examining the claim for obviously untrue elements, gathering data from a wide range of different sources, and objectively examining that data to see whether or not the evidence lines up with the claim we can now put it all together, synthesize the data and distill it down to something approximating a single determination about what it all means. From this we can make our a decision about whether or not that claim is true.

So for the current claim, that Canada is the largest nation in the world, the process may look something like this. I began by looking at a couple of different maps just to see if Canada is even among the largest nations listed on the map and clearly it is. It seems, on the surface, to at least be among the top four largest nations along with Russia, the United States, and China. Next I looked up the sizes of the nations, in square kilometers. I sought out various resources, including government data where available. One website, statista.com, very helpfully lays out the numbers on an easy to read chart. According to that website Russia is 17,098,242 km2; Canada is 9,984,670 km2; The United States is 9,833,517 km2; and China is 9,596,960 km2. Other sources closely corroborated these numbers. So much to my dismay as a proud Canadian, it is not true that Canada is the largest nation in the world. Canada is, in fact, the second largest nation in the world by landmass. No matter how that makes me feel, after having gone through a critical thinking process to assess the truth of the claim, the only reasonable position to hold is that the claim is false. 

The above example was very simple. And it did not involve the use of logic or require an understanding of logical fallacies, even though many problems do require those skills for sound reasoning. But the example does provide a clear stream of thought from claim to conclusion. And it is clear that this thinking process has made a functional and practical contribution to advancing our understanding regarding whether or not Canada is the largest country in the world. It has brought us to the truth. So you can see why I would propose such a method, simply put, it works. And whether you are a Christian or hold any other set of beliefs, it is important that you employ good thinking processes when coming to your conclusions about the world around you. Your eternity could depend on it. 

Works Cited
O’Neill, Aaron. “Largest Countries in the World.” Statista, 27 Sept. 2023, www.statista.com/statistics/262955/largest-countries-in-the-world/.