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Developing the Art of Thinking

It might seem that powerful thinking should simply be logical, and nothing more. The ideal thinker then might be the character of Spock, the "Vulcan" in the "Star Trek" television show and movies. Of course, if you have watched the program or movies, you may recall that the humans aboard the spaceship had most of the solutions and new ideas. Spock was best at just analyzing things.

The most useful processes of thought need to be more than mere logic. We are not computers. A computer (so far) analyzes things and executes actions according to the instructions given). But we give the instructions. For ourselves or our computers we need to choose what to think about, don't we?

Even our best logical thinking comes from non-logical (but not necessarily anti-logical) values and/or premises based on observation and intuition. For example, it's logical to get a degree in biology if you want to be a biologist, but choosing that career is not entirely a matter of logic. The decision to be a biologist is based on natural inclinations, suppositions about what will make you happy and so on -- much of which is outside of logic, or rather prior to it's use.

We also sometimes need new ways to think about things. These tasks are not a matter of applying logic, but of choosing values and pursuing them creatively. How many inventions have come from a flash of insight following a period of playing around with relevant concepts? This might seem logical after the fact, but it is not a consciously logical process that leads to the insight. I've had some good ideas from dreams (ideas that I used), and dreaming certainly doesn't follow a logical path.

The art of thinking is developing and then balancing these creative processes with the more logical ones. Here's a common definition of art:

Disciplines, or those parts of disciplines, which do not rely solely on the scientific method.

This includes economic forecasting and psychological therapy, which might someday rely more on the scientific method, but for now are largely arts pretending to be sciences. At the moment neither these disciplines nor even thinking can be described, taught, or practiced solely as a scientific method.

To understand this it might help to use another art as a metaphor. Painting, for example, can shed some light on thinking. The goal is to express something on canvas. You start with the paints, brushes, palettes and other tools. But all the best tools aren't enough.

You need to learn how to paint. You learn to draw, and perhaps learn the geometry of creating perspective in a scene. You learn how to mix the colors and how to show light reflecting. This is the science of painting.

The tools and science still aren't enough, though. You need to practice, so you paint again and again to learn how to best get various effects. Then, with the tools, the knowledge, and the practice, you are ready to create something new of your own. Perhaps. Of course there is nothing in your painting books that says, "This is what you want to say with your painting."

Here, the "art" enters. First, you choose according to your values what you will paint. Then, you find a way to express it creatively. Perfect science would get you nothing more than a photograph - less actually, since even the art of photography finds a way to show a subject from a new and creative perspective. Instead, you're relying on your intuition to find a way to show something new, some unique perspective.

How do you know how well you did? First, the painting either makes sense to you or it doesn't. Second, it makes sense to others, or not. Of course, some won't appreciate a good painting, but if nobody sees the value in your painting, it isn't likely that they are all aesthetically "blind." Feedback matters, because painting is not just about expressing yourself, but also about communicating your vision to others.

Painting with Thoughts

Want to improve your art of thinking? Start with better tools. Just as a better paintbrush can help produce a better painting, better reasoning skills, or more observation, or more experience can lead to more useful, valuable, and even beautiful thoughts. Your intuition, which guides you in the use of these other tools, should be developed. But good tools are not enough.

You need knowledge. Knowing more things gives you more options in combining those things into new ideas. Practice gives you more skill in doing this as well. Expand the base of your knowledge then, and practice thinking of new ideas. But tools, knowledge and practice are still not enough.

Like a painter, you need to start with your values to decide where to apply your thinking. What is worth thinking about? Then you need to look at your thoughts and ask if they make sense. You also need to throw them out there into the public sphere - at least among friends - to see if they make sense to others. Do at least some people understand the picture you are painting with your words?

By the way, talking to others is a form of thinking (at least it can be). Just as the communication between the various parts of your brain creates new ideas, so does the interplay of two minds in a conversation. Good conversation can be an important part of the art of thinking.

What else? Like a painter, you should experiment. You should mix those "paints" up differently from time to time, just to see what you get. You should try a new type of canvas (think on paper, in poetry, in stories?), or a new subject matter.

You should watch the process of your own thoughts, learn from it, and adapt accordingly. Much of what you learn will be at a level below consciousness. To use this, even as you guide your thoughts consciously, you have to allow for the intuitive as well. It is in this interplay between the conscious and unconscious that the art of thinking really blossoms.

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Relevant Pages:

The Intelligence of Self Observation

Self Awareness


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