10 Apr 2010
02 Mar 2014

Basic Concepts

The Uniquely Human Gift

The ability to reason is a defining characteristic of our species, Homo sapiens—reasoning man.  This isn't to say that humans are the only creatures who think, for there's good evidence that many other species—from octopuses to orioles to orangutans—are able to learn and to figure things out.  The difference in our own species is a matter of degree: that (as far as we know) humans are alone in their ability to reason abstractly, and that every normal adult member of our species exhibits this capability to some extent.

However, this obviously doesn't mean that we're all born geniuses.  For some, the skill for coherent and elaborate reasoning seems to blossom naturally, while for others it's a laborious and often error-fraught and frustrating process, with most of us fumbling about somewhere between these two extremes.  Although the ability to reason abstractly emerges naturally in most children by about age eleven or twelve, most of us are apt to use it poorly unless we're taught reliable methods of thinking.  We acquire some of these methods in the course of learning to read, to write, and to do arithmetic and geometry.  We learn even more as an adjunct to learning such reasoning-intensive subjects as the sciences and technology.

However, this approach tends to leave most people with the impression that methodical reasoning is something reserved to those specific applications.  It doesn't occur to them that the same general principles that govern disciplined thinking in math, medicine, or mechanics can apply as well (and with comparable benefit) to everyday thinking about nearly everything, from agriculture to athletics, from economics to ethics, from history to homemaking.  Our failure to educate people in basic methods of reasoning as such leads to a general misperception that, for most purposes, anything that sounds logical must be logical.  This is, ironically, about as far from sound logic as one can get!  Considering that faulty thinking is responsible for a major portion of humankind's woes, we really need to make a better job of it.

Fortunately, learning how to reason well isn't that difficult—certainly no harder than learning to read or to figure the area of a rectangle.  It's learning how not to reason poorly, and how to tell the difference, that's a bit of a struggle for some.  To understand why poor reasoning typically yields disappointing results, and how to recognize and avoid it, we must first acquaint ourselves with the basics of how good reasoning works.  In this section, we'll learn elementary concepts of reasoning: terminology, structure, and function.  We'll also learn some general rules for building a solid line of reasoning (in contrast to a random jumble of ideas), and for evaluating the reasoning of others with respect to how well it holds together.

We grant that some readers might find "Basic Concepts" boringly elementary.  Even so, we expect that nearly anyone with little or no formal background in critical thinking per se will discover here some key nuggets of insight to make the rest of the learning process far easier than it might otherwise be.

Next: What Reasoning Is and How It Works