Special Theory of Relativity in Critical Thinking

Eric Wilson - 2013

What color is the sky?
Simple question isn't it… I will depart once more from political musings to an important topic I
feel passionate about. While you may gloss over at an academic sounding article I urge you to take the time to read and think and react.

When one begins even the most basic research into the subject of critical thinking, things can get a bit “fuzzy” in a hurry. A task sounding as simple as determining the accepted definition of critical thinking can lead you circles and tie your brain in knots. The internet is home to thousands of pages of pontification and debate on defining this topic alone.
A statement by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform in the summer of 1987) used sixty-five words in a single sentence for their opening explanation of critical thinking. Somewhat amusingly – but very informative and recommended reading – the website “The Foundation for Critical Thinking” uses this as their definition of critical thinking with a link after stating“Click Here for a more complete definition of critical thinking.”
Using Webster’s New World Dictionary as our source, the relevant entry reads "characterized by careful analysis and judgment" and is followed by "critical – in its strictest sense – implies an attempt at objective judgment so as to determine both merits and faults."
The mere fact that there are so many attempts to define critical thinking and such time put into the explanations demonstrates the relativity of the term itself.
For the sake of this article’s definition of Critical Thinking, we will begin with a more simple statement (and do it in less than sixty-five words): Critical Thinking is the use of reason to attempt to determine absolute truth.
While most would concede that it is a cognitive process, they would also compromise on absolute truth for an increase in probability towards absolute truth. With that aside, it still does not diminish our statement that for most people Critical thinking is a goal towards an attempt to determine absolute truth.
But here, too, is the problem (or a proof of my title to this article).
"Absolute truth" is defined as inflexible reality: fixed, invariable, unalterable facts. For example, it is a fixed, invariable, unalterable fact that if I were to step in front of a moving freight train, I would not only be stupid but dead.
While in physical properties – as a logical necessity – there is absolute truth, there are many more ideas, opinions, and personal orientations that require relativism. Truth in itself between two people may be a relative term and is dependent on the issuer of the truth and the recipient of that truth.
A primary contributor to relative truth is bias. Although Critical Thinking strives to identify, understand, and minimize bias, we must in this pursuit of thinking critically understand we have some major factors working against us.
First, we are not even conditioned to seek the truth but rather we are conditioned to be right. Scientifically, this is referred to as the argumentative theory of reasoning, and in synopsis it says that we as humans are more habituated to give opinions than to ask questions. This impacts us politically and creates the partisan environment, it affects us professionally and creates the CYA workplaces, and it affects us at home with our partners. Most of all, it affects us daily and creates everyday situations where your truth becomes relative to what you want to say rather than what you should hear.
Second, we have a natural skepticism. While this may sometimes lead to questioning with boldness in search of the truth, far more often it leads someone to overshooting the truth. Our assumption is that others are wrong, but we rarely determine if this is truth. Not only does the issuer of the truth need to overcome your bias of argumentative reason, but they need to overcome your inclinations that they are a liar.
Next, few people are wired per se for probability. In the theory of multiple intelligences (proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book “Frames of Mind”), it is argued that there are a wide range of cognitive abilities. Only one – as you would imagine – is logical or carries the propensity for higher probability skills. For the other six – or the rest of the population – this is communally known as neglect of probability. For people, it makes the assumptions and conclusions relative to their understanding and intellectual mind. For Las Vegas, it is a necessity and how they make their money.
Finally, humans are more emotional beings than fact-based. Unfortunately, due toconfirmation bias, facts really don’t matter to most people. People gather and retain information selectively and filter what they hear the same way. This gives them the feeling and satisfaction of confirmation rather than using logic to determine unemotional truth.
All of these not only contribute to bias and an impediment to absolute truth, but make it infinitely impossible to achieve – in the realm of ideas, opinions, and personal orientations – complete consensus between two people or a group.
While you may consider yourself in the select elite of logical reasoning and strive toward a noble use of critical thinking to minimize bias and discover truth, you must also accept this truth itself. There is no way to eliminate all of these biases, and you are only one person in most equations. Truth is many times relative to the person who perceives it, so with any situation we are guaranteed with these divides of at minimum two truths. It is much more probable, though, that truth is not only relative to the issuer and the receiver but the absolute truth lies some place completely different.
Take a moment before we close and consider with me: if you were having a discussion about the simple color of the sky with a friend. You clearly see a blue sky, but your friend claims it is more of a sky-blue-pink. To you, there are no pinks or reds, but to your friend, there is an indescribable-to-you pinkish-reddish hue words cannot emulate. What is the truth? Now consider that your friend has this innate ability to see beyond red-green-blue and has an additional cone allowing tetrachromatic color; let’s take this conclusion one step further. We all have color receptors (some more than others) that operate differently – and some more dominant than others – giving them different perspectives of the color spectrum. We can see there are infinite truths of the question “what color is the sky?”
It is my conclusion and assertion for the sake of a definition of Critical Thinking we will end with a more simple statement: Critical Thinking is the use of reason to attempt to determine relative truth.