Hornbill Unleashed

June 3, 2009

Critical thinking will set you free!

By  Sim Kwang Yang

brainOur mind and our heart are our most precious and free possessions, and yet all through life, we allow our minds and our hearts to be enslaved by others and ourselves.

We can free ourselves from such external or self-enslavement only through critical thinking.

The imperfect Wikipedia gives the following various definitions of “critical thinking”:

m“Critical thinking is purposeful and reflective judgment about what to believe or what to do in response to observations, written expressions, or arguments. Critical thinking might involve determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true. Hence, Fisher & Scriven define critical thinking as “Skilled, active, interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications, information, and argumentation.”  Parker & Moore define it more narrowly as the careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.”

What a mouthful of words.

Essentially, critical thinking is not just a skill, and it is far more than skills in problem solving.  It also includes thinking about thinking, which in western philosophy courses, is categorised as the Philosophy of Mind.

Critical thinking is not just about finding means to an end, but thinking about the end also.

Critical thinking begins with questions.  We ask, “How to solve this problem” very often in our daily life.  But we should ask questions about ends like, “What is the purpose of life?”  “Who am I?”  “What should I do about myself, and how should I live?”  “What is justice?”  “What is a good society?”  “Does God exist?”  “Why should obey the laws of our land?”

Critical thinking is also about questioning our own questioning.  Are those questions posed above legitimate questions?  If so, what kind of answers are we looking for?  When do we know a question is illegitimate?

In a logic class I attended over 35 years ago, I was taught many “illogical fallacies” commonly accepted by logicians for being illegitimate.  Their aim was to shoot down opponents, and end a reasoned search for Truth.  That is called sophistry, against which Socrates fought against all his life and eventually gave his life up in the process.

One of these illogical fallacies is the common “rhetorical questions”.  A rhetorical question requires no answer, as it assumes its own answer to the right.  One such fallacious question is “What is the use of philosophy?”  It is illegitimate because it thinks that everything must be of use to the ego or else it is not of any worth.  This fallacious question is rooted in the idea that the Utilitarian Doctrine is the only philosophy that is true.  There are many doctrines floating around.

mother teresa costumeTo make it simple, just ask Mother Teresa this question, “What is the use of you giving your life to help and serve the untouchable poorest people in Calcutta all your life?”  She was indeed very useful to those poor people whom she helped.  From the Utilitarian selfish point of view (which I am sure she did not embrace), we could answer that her work probably earned her a revered place in heaven.

Rhetorical questions like that enslave the mind, and so I hate them.  I have to face them endlessly all my life.  Fortunately, some rhetorical questions are legitimate, because they free the mind.  To tell the difference, you need critical thinking.

“Hate” is a powerful word.  It means a strong emotion.  We are often advised by various shades of politicians not to be swayed by our emotions, but we must be rational in our decision, especially in voting.  Again, we have to be critical in our thinking.  That kind of advice looks good, but is it true?

The statement is partly true, like most of our statements.  Hate is not a very healthy emotion most of the time.  But what if I hate injustice inflicted on the innocent, the dispossessed, and the weak?  I can not hate the person inflicting the injustice, but can I not hate the phenomenon of injustice, out of moral outrage, as Mother Teresa did?

Then again, the division of a single individual into emotion and reason (with a possible third addition of a spirit) is an arbitrary one.  We are always one single living thinking entity.

Without going into the details of the debate going back 2,500 years in the Western and other civilisations, we can safely say that in fact, until to-day, we do not know fully what reason is and what emotions are.  Otherwise, professors in the philosophy and the psychology departments in the world’s universities will not be able to make a living teaching and writing books on the subject.

I can just posit this simple statement from years of thinking about this subject: reason without emotions is sterile, while emotions without reason are blind – and probably dangerous.

mhThe great 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger said it better.  He said that there is rationality in our emotions, and there are emotions in our reasoning.

I mention the philosopher’s name not to lend his authority to my point of view.  Heidegger was a greater thinker than most of us, but he was still human and fallible.  Like all of us, he did not have the ultimate Truth.

This is another thing about critical thinking, often taught to secondary students in North American high schools onwards.

When you are taught anything new, do not accept it as gospel truth on any authority.  You have to examine it, test it, learn more about it, and if you accept it at the end, it must be your personal truth, and not truth given by other people.  Again, critical thinking needs a questioning mind.  In the liberal arts college, they pursue this independent questioning of authorities to a fault.

Malaysia is an Asian country.  From a very young age, we are taught to accept what our parents and teachers said to us as absolute truth.  When we become adults, we are taught by elders, social and political leaders ..who dictate to us our values and our knowledge.  Our formal education systems tell us to pass exams, and nothing about pursuing truth on our own through critical thinking.  The mainstream media is the prime culprit in repressing this freedom through their denial of critical thinking on their pages.

When we question our very imperfect system, we become social outcasts, political pariahs, and persecuted misfits.  RPK is the prime example.

That is why the Malaysian mind is so much shackled.  They are still living in Plato’s Cave of accepting shadows dancing on the wall as the real deal.

I am one of those people who have gone outside the cave and seen the real sun.  I am back in the Cave with my memories of the bright sun.

That is why I am telling you: only critical thinking can free your mind and your soul.  Don’t take my word on authority.  Do your own research on critical thinking, discuss with friends, and look up materials on Google on critical thinking and Plato’s Cave.  Then, come back to debate with me if you disagree with me.

I started out thinking of writing about our language as our self-imposed prison.  That will have to wait for another day.

(SKY can be reached at kenyalang578@hotmail.com )




  1. Greetings to Canadian tax payers who are curious about paying out C$7.5 million to a smart, gutsy guy for killing an innocent 12-year old girl.

    Hi, I am sammcdon (ClueMaster SDM) and I live in Orlando, Florida. My greatest passion is to search for the truth in real crimes. I first heard about the Truscott – Harper crime in late August, 2010 when it was shown on Discovery ID. The show was interesting but I had a problem with the outcome. As crimes go, this was a simple crime and easy to see who was guilty.

    I was unaware that so many people had such passionate feelings about this incident until I posted on the internet. Everyone is right: a wrong was done in this case. By ignoring half-truths and simple thoughts and by looking objectively at the facts and logical evidence, it is clear that the wrong was done in this case to the victim and her family.

    Like everyone, I hate to see the innocent go to prison and I do not like to see the guilty free to kill again. But even more, I hate to see a killer get well paid for his crime.

    If you wish to read all of the evidence and facts go to Lulu.com and look for the newly published “Steven Truscott and the Murder of 12-Year Old Lynne Harper”

    Steven Truscott and the Murder of 12-year old Lynne Harper is a newly published book that presents all the facts in this case, including the crime, the jury trial, the first appeal rejection, the 8 to 1 ruling against Truscott by the Supreme Court of Canada, the books proclaiming Truscott’s innocence, the Ontario Court of Appeal, and the compensation package.

    You can purchase Steven Truscott and the Murder of 12-year old Lynne Harper at a good discount at Lulu.com. Or you can download it from there for just a few dollars.

    Sam Dennis McDonough

    Comment by Sam McDonough — March 27, 2011 @ 12:31 AM | Reply

  2. This post is dedicated to Mr. Steven Truscott who very wisely said:

    “I’m not asking for the world. Go over all the information. Investigate. Let the people know all the evidence, and let them judge for themselves. I’m not afraid of that. Why are they?”


    It makes no sense that every kid and adult in this story is a liar except Steven Truscott.

    It makes even less sense that the stranger who happened along within a few minutes after Steven left Lynne Harper all alone–was the one stranger who would happen to kill her.

    It makes absolutely no sense that this stranger who just happened by also just happened to be a pedophile and who just happened to be in his raping, killing mood.

    It makes absolutely no sense at all that this stranger pedophile would drive miles away and then turn-around and bring poor Lynne back to the very area where people are looking for the missing girl and are eyeing every strange movement.

    There he would defy all logic by parking his car near the road, walking or dragging her into the woods, laying out her clothes neatly, raping her, and strangling her, and then throwing her panties 33 feet away—doing it all in the dark and in the very area where people are searching for her. This happens to be in the same area where Steven and Lynne were last seen together and where Lynne’s body will be found.

    The difference between real crime and TV crime is that in real crimes we should think with our heads and not our hearts.

    The Clue Master SDM

    Comment by Sam McDonough — September 23, 2010 @ 11:12 PM | Reply


    One must also practise the habit of seeing oneself in front of the mirror. For often, we are blinded in seeing our own faults and wrong.

    We are caught in juding people based on our own standard and expectation. And so we are so used to blast at people for the “expectation” not met, etc.

    Everyone is a unique individual, and has their own thinking, rationing, reasoning, expectation.

    If we truely see ourselves in the mirror (viz self soul searching), you would be suprised to see and realise how many faults and mistakes we have, and that is always the roots of all problems.

    Learning to accept people with their pants down, their fumbles, learning from others mistakes, improve on our strengths, make us more forgiving, will make us a better person to get along.

    Comment by Chai — June 3, 2009 @ 1:14 PM | Reply

  4. Critical thinking is nothing more than a dance within the self-imposed prison of language and concepts. It is like the oft-repeated advice of thinking outside the box and yet no one can really get out of the box. Thinking outside the box is still crawling on the outside wall of the box – while refreshing is still on the box.

    Insights and intuitions will set us free – not thinking. Liberating insight is free from words or concepts and it came complete and in an instance.

    Insights are little understood outside the spiritual domain but is still recognised.

    Comment by Morning Dew — June 3, 2009 @ 10:37 AM | Reply

  5. Thank you, Hornbill Unleashed and SKY.

    Coming back from Gawai, this article is energizing!

    Reading your articles has certainly given us hope to look forward to changes in Sarawak.

    True, we must begin with a soul searching on ourselves and find a way for us to participate in the process of changing Sarawak.

    Comment by Harry J — June 3, 2009 @ 8:11 AM | Reply

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