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Some Thoughts on Thinking

Identifying the absolutism in your thoughts (or how you express them), and then correcting it, is the first idea presented below. It will change how you think. The rest of these thoughts on thinking, if applied, might also help expand the range and creativity of your mental processes. If nothing else they will give your brain a good workout as you ponder them.

Absolutism

It is tempting to keep things simple in order to make our thinking easier and more consistent. This can be seen in our predilection for words like "all," "always," "never," and the phrase "the same as." To think more clearly and honestly, we should almost always replace these words with less absolutistic ones, such as, "many," "usually," "seldom," and "similar." Most of the time (note that this sentence is not started with the word "always") this will make for a more accurate statement, and leave the mind open to other possibilities.

This kind of absolutism can be very subtle. For example, it's common to say something like, "The solution to the problem is to..." The word "the" in a statement that starts in this way is a form of absolutist thinking, and it creates a very inaccurate and closed-minded approach. After all, how often is it true that any problem has only one solution, as the word "the" implies here? A more open-minded and accurate statement would begin with something like, "One solution to the problem..." or "A solution..."

Opportunistic Versus Strategic Thinking

The kind of thoughts we have affect our decisions, and this is clear when we look at the difference between opportunistic thinking and that which is more strategic. A common example is the man or woman who jumps on every "opportunity" to get rich, but fails to make much money because of a lack of a good strategy. On the other hand, opportunistic thinking is useful as long as it is subjugated to the strategic plan and/or ultimate goal.

Invisible Assumptions and Premises

We mentally walk right past most of the assumptions and premises in the things we hear and think about, as though they are invisible. For deeper thinking we need to stop, look closer at the premises, and challenge them. For an example let's ask a question:

If a man smokes all of his life despite doctor's warning that it will kill him, and then he does finally get lung cancer, should we feel sorry for him or should we feel that he deserved it?

Most of the time people will immediately express an opinion about a question like this, or at least ponder it without reflecting on all of the assumptions and premises it contains. Let's look at some of them.

First, the assumption is made that the smoking caused the cancer. That may or may not be true, and if it is not, some other interesting questions arise, like "Should we feel that he deserves what he got because of the risk he took, even if the cancer is unrelated to that risky behavior?"

Perhaps the more important hidden premise here is that we should feel something about the matter or have an opinion about it. We could feel this or that depending on how we approach the issue, but is there actually a "should," which suggests an an obligation? Is there some duty to have an opinion just because someone asks for one? That's a subtle and common premise that few people notice.

There is even another assumption here that's not readily apparent, which is that your opinion or feeling is limited to one or the other of the choices presented. You might feel sorry for the man and feel that he deserved what he got, or you might have feelings and opinions about the matter that entirely outside of the choices presented.

Look for all the hidden premises and assumptions in the statements and questions you run into every day, and you'll find that your thoughts have been influenced by them without you conscious awareness. If you want your thinking to be more powerful you might want to do something about that.

Selecting Our Examples

If you want your thinking to be more accurate, active and open minded, take a lesson from the scientific method. Scientific generalizations are based on unselected examples, because no amount of selected examples make for a sound conclusion. Consider this question: Does a full moon contribute to higher murder rates? To gather only examples of murders that occurred on nights with a full moon would not be sound science. Only statistics based on unselected examples (not selected to prove the hypothesis) would make the case. In addition, to make valid the generalization that the moon contributes to higher murder rates there would have to be enough examples to be statistically significant.

How often do we really think like that? We have opinions and thoughts about whether illegal aliens take jobs away from legal residents, and ideas about whether lax gun laws contribute to rates of violence, and on and on. But we rarely do more than select examples which confirm our generalizations. As a practical matter we can't do proper science before forming each opinion or making a generalization, but we can at least recognize the limited nature of our thinking. We also can choose to look for non-confirming examples, just to see if there are perhaps more than we realize.


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