Edge

There’s a website called Edge that asks a provocative question once a year to a large group of well known thinkers and collects the answers. They publish them on the web and in a book. Their short description of this:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

There have been some remarkable questions and answers over the years. This year’s question is,

2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

I’m working my way through these responses and one that I came upon is particularly interesting. It is from HOWARD GARDNER who, according to the byline on the website is a Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Truth, Beauty, And Goodness Reframed: Educating For The Virtues In The 21St Century

He wrote:

"How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!"

Thanks to Karl Popper, we have a simple and powerful tool: the phrase "How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!"

In a democratic and demotic society like ours, the biggest challenge to scientific thinking is the tendency to embrace views on the basis of faith or of ideology. A majority of Americans doubt evolution because it goes against their religious teachings; and at least a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the ‘free market’.

Popper popularized the notion that a claim is scientific only to the extent that it can be disproved — and that science works through perpetual efforts to disprove claims.

If American citizens, or, for that matter, citizens anywhere were motivated to describe the conditions under which they would relinquish their beliefs, they would begin to think scientifically. And if they admitted that empirical evidence would not change their minds, then at least they’d have indicated that their views have a religious or an ideological, rather than a scientific basis.

In the example given this is part of the science vs religion/faith line of thinking which mostly deals with Christian viewpoints. However the answer itself with the question “How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?” is a useful one in many other and broader contexts.

We all have a viewpoint and always will as long as we have consciousness so why not at least try to have one that is deliberate rather than conditioned by things we are only vaguely aware of. Why not work towards one that is actually manageable rather than wildly running in all directions without direction?

Disproving, or at least questioning one’s assumptions and so forth is a good start. It can help us to balance out a tendency to get stuck in a view, particularly when that view is not serving us very well but our obstinacy or fear or comfort with that viewpoint precludes letting go of it.

It’s also one of the reasons that some of my blog posts are so long. I try to come up with as many challenges that I can think of to whatever point I’m making, to essentially poke holes in my own argument to see how much, if any, water it holds.

Basically it’s like trolling your own argument. I’ve found it to be a really useful exercise in balancing out my views, rubbing off some of the more pointed ends and curtailing tendencies to kneejerk conditioned reactions. The latter of which may tend to be right in their impulse but definitely get sloppy in execution. Ranting without reflection brings some odd and often unpleasant consequences.

And it’s also useful to think about what you’re thinking. It’s one step in being able to identify your thoughts without getting carried away with them. When we begin to ask questions of our thoughts such as “Where did that come from?”,  “Is that really significant or do I just want it to be so?”, “Do I really need to keep that?”, “Is there an actual benefit there or is it just a habit?”  we start to put the contents of our mental house in order, much like we do when we look into a back closet or attic and examine the contents.

Many folks, when they start meditating don’t realize how much thinking they are actually doing and how they are living and experiencing through those thoughts, mistaking them for reality rather than what’s actually there.

Working with thoughts in this and other ways helps us pry ourselves away from their entrancing power and the effects that unexamined positions and wildly unmanaged thoughts can have on our emotions and our lives.

Maybe this approach is not for everyone but it is certainly helpful to me.

There’s a whole bunch more cognitive tools suggested at the Edge website for this year’s question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”. Bit of categorical imperative tucked in that one which makes it trickier than it looks. 

The previous year’s questions and answers are pretty good too. They also have articles and conversations on other topics with some of these sharp people. It’s free. Worth a look.

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2 comments on “Edge

  1. I particularly enjoyed “mistaking them for reality rather than what’s actually there.”

    This can be very hard work to grasp as a concept, but even harder to live as direct action.

    I think it may be much more than obstinacy or fear or comfort that prevents people from understanding the points you make. I think it is some sort of “sincere” ignorance, which we must all possess some of.

    How can the “sincerely” ignorant be lead to enlightenment? The work of a thousand kalpas!

  2. I love the phrase “trolling your own argument”! Never thought of it that way.

    I agree that it’s terribly important to try to find everything that’s wrong in your thinking. And writing your thinking up is one of the best ways to do that.

    On the other hand, if you are writing for other people, instead of (or as well as) yourself, it’s also good to be concise. Partly because you want people to listen to what you have to say (and maybe they won’t read it if it is too long), and partly just as a favor to them, a courtesy to not waste their time.

    So I try to remove most discussion of possible objections from my pages. I leave in the ones I think readers are most likely to come up with. (And probably I still leave in too many — my posts are often frightfully long too.)

    The great thing about writing on the web is that you get feedback from diverse readers quickly, so you get empirical testing of which objections you should have addressed that you didn’t.

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