Book review: <i>The Thinking Toolbox</i>
Religion & Liberty Online

Book review: The Thinking Toolbox

The Thinking Toolbox: Thirty-Five Lessons That Will Build Your Reasoning Skills, by Nathaniel Bluedorn and Hans Bluedorn, illustrated by Richard LaPierre, ISBN 0974531510, 234 pp. Christian Logic, 2005.

Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn are brothers who live in Indiana (more about them at and The Thinking Toolbox is a follow-up to their first book, The Fallacy Detective. These books are primarily intended for use as homeschooling textbooks, and the Bluedorns’ interest in this area stems largely from their education at home growing up.

In an interview, Nathaniel gets at the intention behind the book: to make logic accessible and enjoyable for students. “Logic books are notorious for being very difficult, very austere,” he says. Instead, logic should be “a very enjoyable thing that everybody can do.” Hans affirms that the first step is to get kids to “think at all, and then the next step is to get them to think correctly.”

The book is a course of 35 lessons, with illustrations, applications, and exercises forming distinct little units. Colorful illustrations abound in the book, courtesy of Richard LaPierre. The book starts with the most basic building blocks of critical thinking, inculcating rules like “Just because somebody tells you something, that doesn’t mean it is true,” and moving on to examine things like the different kinds of discourse, and recognizing the difference between facts, opinions, and inferences.

The writing is easy and entertaining, placing the reader in imaginative and interesting situations to illustrate the relevant principle. This fits well with the intended audience, as the book is written for ages 13 and up, although it may not be too difficult for worthy children of a somewhat more tender age. Of course, this clear and simple style can at times be a drawback for a more mature audience, as the repetition and exercises can sometimes be pedestrian. But again, this is an artifact of the intended audience rather than a shortcoming of the book itself.

Various exercises will keep the attention of the child and get them to use the various tools they learn about in the book. There are a number of fictional mysteries thrown in, with relevant (and sometimes irrelevant) clues given to tease the imagination. Not all of the problems are fictitious, however, as fans of Westerns will be pleased to know that the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral appears in the book as an informative exercise in historical investigation.

A key part of the book is its identification of the purpose and role of logic in life. For example, Lesson 3 gives some guidelines for knowing “When it is Dumb to Argue.” In this way, some rhetorical concerns, such as audience, types and appropriateness of conversation, are woven into the book.

One criticism of the book, however, is that it does not delineate clearly or explicitly enough the role of logic in relation to Christian apologetics. This comes up especially in Lessons 6-8, in which beliefs are challenged and the book leads the reader through ways to examine, articulate, understand, and defend a particular belief.

So in Lesson 6 we read, “To understand a belief, we need to understand the reasons that point to it. We keep track of our reasons in our heads, even though we may not be aware we’re doing this.”

Lesson 7 leads us beyond stating positive reasons for a belief to examining what in epistemology are called “defeaters.” The book states, “It is not good enough to have convincing reasons for the things you believe. If you want to have a strong position, then you need to anticipate opposing arguments and prepare counter arguments.” Strictly within the realm of logical argumentation, this is certainly true. But is it more broadly applicable?

Indeed, it could lead someone to believe that it is not possible to know something or it is inappropriate to believe something unless we have explicit and expressed (and sufficiently good) reasons for doing so. This would be something akin to epistemological evidentialism or foundationalism, views the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has done much to combat in his series on warrant and Christian belief.

If this were the sort of role that the Bluedorns were advocating for logic and reason in the Christian life it would be very problematic. The book leaves the verdict somewhat ambiguous in my opinion, but their comments elsewhere clear up any mysteries.

“Just because someone is very intelligent and is very logical, it doesn’t mean that they have the truth,” says Hans in an interview. This gets at an appropriately circumscribed Christian view of logic and reasoning, as articulated by G. K. Chesterton, for example.

Chesterton states, “Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs.” Indeed, “Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic – for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”

The book would do better to more clearly illustrate the role of logic in its traditional Christian role as “handmaiden” to Christian belief, or theology. But given the intended audience, and the overall tone of the book, this is a rather small criticism. After all, logic is identified in the title and throughout the book as a tool, and very important one, but a tool nonetheless.

The Bluedorns have certainly achieved their goal of creating a logic textbook that is neither boring nor distant, but rather informative, approachable, enjoyable, and valuable. This little book could admirably play a large and important role in the education of any child.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.