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Becoming a Deep Thinker

If you want to be a deep thinker you have to get in the habit of asking deep questions. Ask them about everything. But how can we say if one question is "deeper" than another? A couple examples will help make that clear.

Suppose someone has extremely offensive opinions and likes to share them whether or not anyone asks him to. You might simply say, "What a rude person!" True perhaps, but this is shallow thinking. Deeper thinking asks why he believes what he does. Deeper still are the questions of how people form their opinions and why they feel the need to tell them to others.

To think more deeply one must look beyond the immediate questions raised, and anyone can learn to do that. Identifying the more fundamental issues is not all that difficult, it's just not always a habit. Suppose, for example, you notice that a person fails because he or she makes excuses for his or her behavior. You might think that's insightful, and it may be, but what about exploring why people feel the need to make excuses and lie to themselves? You can immediately see that the second is the deeper look.

There is a good rule for these things, and it's that the more profound questions are those which can produce ideas with wider application. Knowledge about a particular man's personality, for example, may be useful, but it's limited and shallow compared to knowing principles of psychology that apply to all or most people in the world. Questioning the practices of a particular business is not nearly as deep as trying to understand or formulate principles of success applicable to all business activity.

Here's another rule: When a question or idea is an example of another, the latter is a deeper subject. For example, we can ask at what temperature water freezes, what temperature range keeps it liquid and what is it's boiling point? These are useful scientific questions, but together they are an example of the more fundamental principle that substances have three temperature dependent forms (solid, liquid, gas).

Ask Why Repeatedly

Try to occasionally ask "why?" and then like a child ask it again and again after each answer given. "Why are people forced to pay income tax?" Because otherwise they wouldn't pay. "Why not?" People would rather spend their money on other things. "What are taxes spent on?" Things that serve the public good. "But who defines the public good?" Those who vote, through the representatives they elect. "But what if the public votes for evil things? Are they still considered a public good then?"

Ask such questions often enough throughout your day. Continue doing this and it will become a habit within a few weeks. It's making these "probing" thought patterns habitual that makes you a deep thinker. Have a notepad or something to remind yourself at first, or schedule "deep thinking" time on your calendar or daily planner.

Challenge the Words

Don't take for granted the language which you and others use. For example, what do the words "national defense" really mean anyhow? Protecting the borders, or the government? Or perhaps the flag, honor, the people, or the rights of the people in the country? Each of these is a very different idea, and they are not always compatible, yet most of us take for granted that we all mean the same thing when we use the words, "national defense" as well as other common expressions.

Understanding the metaphorical nature of language is essential to growing our range of thought and expression of ideas. Referring to the "memory" of a computer makes it easier to understand and communicate the concept of digital information storage. But this use of metaphor can limit our thinking as well. Saying the sun "went down," is a small example. Intellectually we know the spinning of the Earth causes this apparent effect, but our language creates the impression that the sun goes away each night and "returns" later.

Really think about the fact that the sun never sets and all sorts of new ideas pop up. Why do solar panels only work part-time if the sun never sets? Put them in space orbit and they could beam electricity down to us using microwave transmission. Who knows, a "night-less farm" might someday fly around the Earth at a thousand miles-per-hour, growing vegetables in the 24 hours-per-day sunlight that is always there. Though these ideas may not be new, they occurred to me as I wrote this, but only after mentally questioning the idea implied in the expression "the sun went down."

Try hard to recognize the representative nature of language, to see that words are only meant to point at things in reality, and are not things by themselves. This may seem obvious, but it is forgotten in common discourse. For example, if a man says corporations are evil, another will typically and immediately try to "prove" this idea wrong, rather than attempting to see what the first man is pointing at with the words he uses.

The ancient puzzle called "Zeno's Paradox," proved that motion wasn't possible. The perfect logic with which it was demonstrated had some choosing to believe that motion really is an illusion. Centuries later, philosophers, mathematicians and physicists found acceptable challenges to the paradox - flaws in the argument in other words. The lesson here is that perfect logic can fail because language is imperfect, and if we are to more fully understand the world, we have to allow for this.

To be a more insightful thinker and to have more profund understandings then, ask more probing questions, and ask "why" more often. Finally, use words as the valuable but limited tools they are, but try not to let words use you.

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