Blog Post: Chess, Formal Logic, and Critical Thinking

Gerald Nosich
Oct 20, 2021 • 41d ago
Chess, Formal Logic, and Critical Thinking

{"ops":[{"insert":"I recently watched the movie titled "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Critical Thinking"},{"insert":".  To me, it seemed OK as a movie, with an overly familiar plot of an uplifting story. In the movie, a group of underprivileged high school students compete, against all odds, in chess tournaments in Florida against highly privileged students from elite schools. It is based on a true story. You can guess the ending for yourself.\n \nThe chess teacher labels his classroom “Critical Thinking.” So, internally, that is where the title of the movie comes from. But externally, the title of the movie comes from the fact that many people make a connection, both consciously and unconsciously, between chess and critical thinking. I’ve found that this or related ideas are widespread, even in educational circles. In all four editions of my second book, "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Learning to Think Things Through"},{"insert":", the publishers chose a chess game as their cover art. The book is on how to think critically in a field or discipline, and an implication of the cover art is that there is somehow a connection between playing chess and learning to think critically about or within biology, psychology, literature, social work, nursing, business, or dozens of other fields. \n \nLet me begin by saying that there is virtually no connection at all. Thinking critically in a field such as biology means internalizing a great number of complex concepts, reasoning through life issues in terms of biological systems, and examining innumerable assumptions and implications in any substantive biology-related issue.  Additionally, it requires keeping multiple purposes in mind (not just the one of winning the game).\n \nDon’t get me wrong.  I like chess. A lot of kids and adults play it often. And it requires a fair amount of thinking.  (At a chess-master’s level, it requires a huge amount of careful thinking.) So there’s that.\n \nBut chess is so limited that it can’t serve as an exemplar of critical thinking. Consider just two aspects of how limited it is. There are just 64 squares and the pieces can move only in prescribed ways. That is nothing like thinking critically about something important in your life. There is far more complexity in something as ordinary as writing a paragraph than there is in chess. Chess aficionados often cite the huge number of possible legal moves that can be made in chess (something like 10 to the 40"},{"attributes":{"script":"super"},"insert":"th"},{"insert":"). That’s a lot of moves. Or, more precisely: that’s a lot of moves for a "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"board game."},{"insert":"  \n \nThink of the virtually unlimited moves you can make when writing a paragraph. To choose just the most simpleminded example: You start your paragraph with the word “The.” How many words can you choose to follow that opening? Then how many words in English could you choose for the next word? And the next word? The staff of the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Oxford English Dictionary"},{"insert":" says it is not possible to count the number of words in a language, but the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"OED"},{"insert":" lists 171,476 headwords. Though of course many of them could not grammatically follow the “the,” a crude guess would estimate a hundred thousand that could. And starting with “The” is only one “opening” for a paragraph.  Mathematically, there are 20 possible opening moves in chess. How many opening words can you start a paragraph with? (This short blog contains XXX.) \n \nIt takes "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"years"},{"insert":" for students to learn even the basics of writing a paragraph. I don’t mean only a creative, highly polished paragraph; I mean any fair-sized grammatical paragraph. How long does it take to learn the basics of playing chess? Two or three afternoons should be enough. (Sometimes learning legal moves for the knight takes a little longer—but not nearly as long as learning how to use a semicolon or to avoid writing “just between you and I.”)\n \nWhy then does chess seem so complicated?  I believe that, in part, it’s because we tend to overlook all those years of learning that went into learning to write simple sentences.  But more importantly, I believe it’s because we tend not to notice the enormous complexity of important everyday issues. That’s one of the reasons we hear so many simplistic ideas about how to solve political, social, economic, educational or personal problems.  Critical thinking (unlike chess) leads us to notice and then address complexities in real-life issues.\n \nA second aspect of how limited chess is as a model for critical thinking has to do with knowledge. Chess is what is called “a perfect knowledge game”: Both players have complete knowledge of where all the pieces are (in contrast to poker, say, where one player has cards that the other players can’t see).  \n \nContrast that with situations where critical thinking is essential: decisions you have to make, situations you have to navigate through, problems you have to address, relationships you want to further, novels you want to understand, fields of study you hope to grasp, …. even paragraphs you have to write.  I can’t think of a single realistic example of a critical-thinking situation where we have anything like perfect knowledge. We can’t see all the pieces, we can’t figure out all the moves, we usually can’t even specify how many “players” there are. \n \nNotice how closely the chess example is related to formal logic—still one of the most widely used approaches to teaching critical thinking. Formal logic, like chess, is a perfect knowledge game, one that allows only an extremely limited set of moves, a minuscule set of “pieces” (the logical constants) that can be manipulated only in rule-bound ways, one where you don’t have to take account of anyone’s motives or well-being.\n \nI write this in part to argue that critical thinking is not confined and delimited the way board-games are—or more centrally, how confined and delimited formal logic is.  But really my goal is larger. I don’t think that critical thinking can be taught without confronting situations that are inherently messy, situations where we have highly imperfect knowledge, where egocentricity and sociocentricity (our own as well as others’) enter in, where fairmindedness enters in an essential way.\n \nCritical thinking contains concepts and processes, traits and skills, ones that by their nature are directly relevant for addressing real-life issues, often with all the rich complexities those issues involve.\n"}]}


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