Sunday, July 12, 2009

What Scares Me

Over the past few days Iris and I have been talking a lot about thinking.

Basically, I am of the opinion that people will go to great lengths to avoid the act of thinking. I've noticed that, when I point this out during conversations, (i.e., saying, "you're not thinking"), people often seem to get a bit agitated. Iris has noticed this as well. So, she thought it might be useful to become more specific about what I mean by not thinking. (Just so you know up front, this blog is a bit longer than normal. But hey, it's Sunday!).

Level 1 Thought
At one end of the spectrum, one can invoke the word "thought" in regard to almost everything we do, .e.g., breathing, walking, chewing gum, etc. While, there seems to be a clear link between the brain and various muscle groups when conducting these activities, I'm not including that in by definition of thinking.

Level 2 Thought
Moving up the thought ladder, there are the thought processes involved in day-to-day decisions: should I wear this black t-shirt or that one today... where should we grab lunch... who's going to pick up the dry cleaning... and so on. I also don't include these activities in thinking.

Level 3 Thought

Moving up even further, there are categories of thought that might be classified as creative or analytical. Creative thought often (but not necessarily always) gets engaged when we're writing a story or playing music or painting a picture. Analytical thought gets engaged when we're solving problems or extrapolating conclusions from information we've read or determining whether or not we can afford a new car. For me, these types of activities qualify as thinking.

As Iris and I discussed this, we felt like we'd come up with some more useful terms than just thinking; now we had creative thought and analytical thought. But I still didn't feel satisfied. I realized that even though people do sometimes engage in this type of thought, they're usually not very good at it. I've also noticed that when I point it out, (i.e., you're not a very good thinker), they seem to not enjoy the comment.

So the question migrated from, "Do you think?" to "Are you good at thinking?"

Are You a Good Thinker
It's kind of funny, because, if you ask someone who paints whether or not they're a good painter, they don't seem to take offense. If you ask someone who plays chess whether or not they're a good chess player, they don't seem to take offense. People often almost brag that they're "no good at math" or "no good at music". However, if you ask someone whether or not they're any good at thinking, well...

I believe that thinking is just another skill that can be practiced and developed. I also believe it has nothing to do with IQ (there are plenty of people with ostensibly high IQs that don't seem capable of thought) nor education (there are even more people with PhD's that also seem devoid of thought) nor position (think of all the powerful people you see in the news who seem not to have thought through what they've done), it's just something that you can practice and develop regardless of who you are or what you've learned or what you do.

What Scares Me
So, what about all this do I find scary? If you've ever talked about logic or problem solving, you've probably heard the phrases inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

Basically, deductive reasoning is reasoning in which we start with a set of general principles and apply them to a situation to deduce a specific conclusion. For example, using deductive reasoning, you might start with two principles such as all apples are fruit and all fruit grows on trees, and then deduce that all apples grow on trees. In deductive reasoning, if the general principles are true, and the logic is solid, then the conclusion must be true.

Inductive reasoning works in the other direction; we start with specific observations and induce a general conclusion. For example, using inductive reasoning, I might observe that I always feel fine after eating apples and induce that apples are safe to eat. In deductive reasoning, if the observations are correct and the logic is solid, the conclusions may or may not be true.

A third type of reasoning is reductive reasoning. Reductive reasoning involves an attempt to reduce the cause of a complex effect to something very simple. For example, having just read an article on the coincidence of high levels if mercury in the body and various symptoms that you have experienced, you might come to the conclusion that you therefor have mercury poisoning. This would be an example of reductive reasoning. Simply, using reductive reasoning allows us to believe we're thinking, when we're not.

So, what about this scares me?
Thanks for hanging in there with me. This is really going somewhere.

The thing that scares me about all this is that so much of what is going on in the world is based on only the apparition of thinking. We believe we are drawing reasonable and logical conclusions about our lives and the world around us. We act on those conclusions. In some cases, we fight for them. The results of this MO can be quite devastating.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

Cursing the Cure
Someone tells you there is no cure for a specific disease or syndrome, e.g., there is no cure for alcoholism... or autism... or schizophrenia. This would be at best an observation and best stated, I am not aware of a cure for alcoholism... or autism... or schizophrenia. It's just an observation.

However, in the hands of most people (including people with high IQs and advanced degrees), this observation gets translated into there is no cure for alcoholism... autism... schizophrenia. And then, in the hands of others we move (through inductive reasoning) to Alcoholism... autism... schizophrenia can't be cured.

The combination of the assumption that people with degrees think and unthoughtful leaps in inductive reasoning pretty much puts the kibosh on any hope for a cure.

Letting the Real Culprits Get Away
My favorite example of reductive reasoning is Global Warming. It seems, everywhere I go, people talk about 1) the fact of global warming, and 2) the cause of it being the emission of greenhouse gasses. The other day, I actually heard someone say, "90% of all the scientists in the world agree that there is global warming". Sigh...

There are two aspects of this that scare me. First, we've lumped all the worlds climate issues and challenges into a single lump that can't be solved. Rather than taking on individual issues one at a time, we've created a huge intractable problem. Second, by coming up with a single point of attribution (greenhouse gas emissions), we're letting other culprits temperature change (like high densities of people and concrete and asphalt) off the hook.

Business people and academics being good at what they do, will quickly adapt the words that they use to describe they're work to include phrases such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. People will feel like much is being done. But there may be little change in the end.

Thinking Precludes Ideology
The thing that scares me the most, is that the absence of active thinking (either through omission or lack of skill) among a large group of people leads to pervasive ideology. The most prominent current example of this would be what we're seeing in Iran. When ideology displaces solid thinking, the results can be catastrophic. People begin to feel justified taking almost any action. You know, nuclear bombs, ethnic cleansing, on and on...

What to Do?
Wow, having written this, I feel better already. I think I'll continue to point it out when I encounter non-thinkers and poor thinkers, but I can do it with greater clarity and specificity. Also, I'm going to start to encourage thinking as an active practice. Maybe I'll form a club.

If you'd like to join me in the pursuit of better, deeper and richer thinking, all you have to do is start to pay attention to what you're saying and what others are saying. When someone makes a statement, note whether the statement is an observation or a conclusion. Also, note whether the intention is consistent with the statement, i.e., was the observation stated as a conclusion or not.

Next, when someone draws a conclusion, decided whether or not it was drawn deductively, inductively or reductively.

Then, practice, practice, practice.

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