Recently, an assistant district attorney sent me 2,700 pages of “discovery” relating to a client’s criminal matter. Reviewing the voluminous information to sift apart important information from what was superfluous, I realized that this is a process we all undertake in this age of mass and indiscriminate communication.
Of course, our task is less intimidating if our objective is to navigate our day-to-day lives focused on the mundane. However, looming beyond our everyday routine lay critical choices involving, among other things, the very direction of our lives. Questions that concern our educational and career goals, our family and where we want to live are all decisions that require that we identify what is truly important. Beyond these choices, we are also free to join the greatest thinkers in history and ask ultimate questions about ourselves and our place in the universe. That endeavor is part perplexing, part satisfying, but always exciting. Whatever our goal is—it is always vital that we develop methods of thinking that allow us to utilize our brains to the maximum, avoiding faulty thinking which is so rampant in the modern era.
In several of my recent columns, I have alluded to the search method, modeling, and scientific testing as tried and true techniques to help us think more clearly. Today I would like to share with you practices that we can adopt which were utilized to perfection by some of the more noteworthy minds of all time. They can be broken down into basic steps that will help us get to where we want to go.
When confronted with a difficult question whether it is philosophical, scientific or otherwise:
1) Break the problem down into simpler components. Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes preached this method and used it successfully. So if you are completely stuck, simplify it by building a model. Galileo was a master at this. The Wright brothers used a miniature wind tunnel to develop their theory of aviation. The principle here is the power of simple abstraction, a thinking-tool whose introduction to western thought can be credited to Plato.
2) Once we have our components, look for patterns. One of my graduate school professors aptly described mathematics as the study of patterns. The same can be true for any systematic analysis of any issue. Patterns, patterns, patterns.
3) Think systematically about what you have observed. Aristotle is the father of this method; in thinking itself, he saw structure. As a result, he is credited with the introduction of what we call logic today. Statistics, probability and decision theory are all offshoots of this approach.
4) Put your conclusion to the test. Professor Liz Kraus taught one of my favorite courses in graduate school on Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce. Pierce believed, and I agree, that science is the only self-correcting human endeavor. In the same vein, famous philosopher and science critic, Karl Popper, suggested that it is the falsifiable aspect of scientific theories that makes them believable. A good scientist takes risks. If a theory is valid, it will withstand the scrutiny of any test. Both Galileo and Newton were famous for taking risks and their extensive experimentations conferred on them significant respect and credibility in the scientific community.
5) Think socially but avoid its pitfalls. Every philosopher and scientist operates within a social and cultural milieu. The most obvious example is Thomas Hobbes whose political philosophy was greatly influenced by the fears he developed in life. In addition, Plato’s dialogues display a very compelling consciousness of the social aspects of thinking. Conversely, there are great societal threats to straight thinking. As a result of their willingness to think for themselves, Socrates was put to death and Galileo nearly suffered the same fate before retracting his ideas to save his own life. Even in these modern times, scientists have been fired from their jobs for recognizing findings adverse to the views presently politically favored.
6) Be creative. This is the most difficult attribute to acquire since we are naturally influenced by those who have gone before us. The best example of someone who was able to do this is Albert Einstein. His visualization of principles violating strongly held scientific “laws” spawned a theory, which not only passed the falsifiable test but also opened our eyes to a new and astounding view of the relationship between space and time. It must be noted that, in conjunction with our ability to “think outside the box,” is our willingness to commit ourselves to a process of careful calculation.
7) Creative processes take time. We need to allow our ideas to “ruminate.” Descartes once observed, “those who travel slowly may yet make far greater progress than those who run.” Some of the more advanced corporations allow their employees one day a week to work on something entirely on their own. As I alluded to earlier, we are bombarded daily with a stream of information and that very fact has collateral consequences. How do we think meaningfully when our world is full of useless noise? Sometimes, it is a long ride to work that affords us the only time we will have to ponder important issues. We shouldn’t have to endure long commutes or wait for a retirement that may never happen to give ourselves the block of peaceful time required for real conceptual exploration.
It is my hope that these reasoning “tips” gleaned from the great minds of history will assist us in improving our thinking methodology as we seek to answer questions about our particular lives and, more generally, about our place in the universe.