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
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
However, this approach tends to
leave most people with the impression that methodical reasoning is
something reserved to those specific applications. It doesn't
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