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How to think outside the box

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Think outside the box

In this article I interview American Philosopher Anthony Weston.

Anthony is best known for his bestselling book A Rulebook for Arguments and in this interview we talk critical thinking, creative thinking, constructive thinking, thinking outside of the box, the “news”, and the art of always seeing alternatives. 

In this article:

Let’s begin:

What is critical thinking?

Michael Frank: Let’s talking critical thinking. What is your definition of critical thinking?

Anthony Weston: Critical thinking is taking care with drawing conclusions, making inferences, given the understanding that knowledge is difficult and it’s hard to know things for a variety of reasons:

  • A lot of things are hidden
  • A lot of the time people are trying to deceive us
  • We are credulous and often inclined to believe things on the basis of poor or incomplete evidence
  • The world is complicated

So in all of these senses knowledge is hard.

Critical thinking in the broadest sense in my view is trying to think carefully in light of the understanding that knowledge is hard. So that means caution and it means a lot of specific guidelines or rules for different kinds of thinking.

Critical thinking is not a test procedure that you can run on whatever happens to come along, because you’ve got to take responsibility for what comes along. It’s not just getting some input and running it through some kind of algorithm or test procedure to see whether the input is reliable or not, you’ve got to go out there and be active about figuring things out, and look for sources yourself, and think things through yourself.

Revel in the complexity of life

Michael Frank: What critical thinking advice would you give to the average person?

Anthony Weston: I would like people to really understand the complexity of the world and then revel in it. Not simply figure out all the ways in which other people could be wrong.

We also need to have some imagination because the world might be very different than it seems. We are constantly making generalizations about everything based on very limited experience. And to some extent we have to. But you have to be cautious about drawing conclusions about the way things are.

The truth is that it’s hard to know things and we have to generalize from incomplete sets of examples, or from correlations that have multiple explanations, and sometimes we have to trust the word of somebody who may or may not be reliable. That doesn’t mean that you can find yourself some perfect sources, or that you can find certainty in any particular direction, but it does mean that you should at least be careful and celebrate the complexity.

What else could be going on?

Anthony Weston: I’ll describe a little game that I find really helpful. This is about correlations. It’s called: What else could be going on?

For example: Vegetarian children tend to have higher IQ’s then non-vegetarian children. Interesting. I’m a vegetarian too. I could say that this proves that being a vegetarian is good for your brain. Or maybe it proves that really intelligent people are less likely to eat meat. Which is another conclusion I might like.

The game is to say: What else could be going on?

Vegetarian children (in the western world at least) are probably going to be kids raised in better off families in countries with better access to education.

So maybe it doesn’t have much to do with the vegetarianism.

Maybe it has something to do with socioeconomic status.

It might be that there is some connection between the diet and the IQ.

It might also be that there is some relationship between the IQ and the diet.

So the game is to say what else could be going on?

You’ve got a correlation. What’s the causality underneath it?

What other correlations or causes might there be besides the one that seems obvious at first? Or the one that’s being suggested at first?

Michael Frank: So get in the habit of expanding your imagination, and look for multiple possible causes or correlations. Instead of taking the first correlation or cause that is presented to you, or that you first came up with.

“The news”

Michael Frank: What are some good critical thinking questions to ask ourselves when we’re reading or watching the news?

Anthony Weston: So the first thing I’d say is: Why are you watching the news? The reason I say that is because almost anything you see or hear on the news is horribly abbreviated and shortened. It’s just a snippet that can be put in with a bunch of other snippets and offered as “the news”. It’s also massively selected. It’s like 0.00001% of what’s happening, but it’s presented as “what’s happening”.

If you really want to understand what’s going on in a particular situation, I don’t think that the so-called “news” is generally very helpful. None of the most interesting or important questions are answered by the news. It’s always the most picturesque disasters or the latest thing that Donald Trump said or the Kardashian’s. Most of that is just not that helpful in understanding the world in any serious way.

If you look at the news it’s mostly crime, murders, car accidents, fires, and yes that’s happening, that’s true, but there are also millions of other things that are also happening that also could be reported on and could also be news.

So my first advice would be don’t watch the news.

I’m not saying don’t be connected to the world. I’m totally think one should be. But if you really want to understand things at a deeper level, you need to read books and study it, and seek out a variety of perspectives from a variety of different angles, and look at what actual experts say about it, and you need to go to more in-depth sources and seek to understand the backstories and context of what’s going on.

Only then can you approach the latest events and have some idea of what’s happening. But by the time you get to that point, the latest events aren’t really the key thing.

Critical thinking questions

Michael Frank: What kind of critical thinking questions should we ask when we’re reading a book, watching a documentary, or listening to an expert?

Anthony Weston: Well you definitely want to ask questions about the source:

Who are they?

Where are they coming from?

What’s their angle on things?

How partial or impartial are they likely to be?

What is the tone?

How carefully is the information presented?

Do they cite sources?

Celebrate uncertainty

Michael Frank: What are some of the biggest critical thinking mistakes that most people make?

Anthony Weston: I think the fundamental mistake is a kind of insistence on certainty. A general problem that often comes from philosophy and religion is that we’re told we have to possess this thing called “Truth” and that everything depends on it, maybe even your eternal soul.

But in my view capital T Truth (Objective Truth) isn’t likely to come our way very often. So the fundamental mistake, if you want to call it a mistake, is to think that you have to have capital T Truth and that you have to be certain about things.

I think a much better attitude is to recognize that the world is complex, it’s hard to know things, and there’s much more going on than we think.

We need much more imagination, more sense of openness, because the world is more open and has many more possibilities than we think.

So the mistake is not to celebrate and embrace uncertainty enough, but to close things down and to rigidify them. I don’t know if I would call it a mistake, it’s more like a self-limiting orientation that ultimately tends to be limiting to other people as well. You can’t get out of your box.

How to think outside the box

Michael Frank: Let’s stay on that. We often hear people say “think outside of the box”, but how does one actually do it? How does one think outside of the box?

Anthony Weston: Well thinking “in” a box means that your thinking is confined in certain ways. It typically means that there’s a certain set of assumptions that we’re making about an approach to a problem and that’s limiting. But we’re not aware of it, because if we were aware of it we wouldn’t be stuck right?

The trick with the box is that you won’t know that you were in it, until you’re out of it.

So our assumptions about the problem are built into the situation. So the question is how do you get unstuck? And the answer is you need to prompt yourself with something random, irrational, unexpected. You essentially have to force yourself to think about the problem in another way, and that means bringing in unanticipated prompts, unanticipated input.

Because if you keep thinking about the problem in the same way, with the same set of assumptions, then you can’t get out of them because you aren’t even aware of them in the first place.

Random word prompt

Anthony Weston: So there are some pretty simple ways to start thinking outside of the box, and the one that works best is actually the one that people are least likely to believe in. It’s called the random word method or what I call exotic associations.

So you open a random book to a random page and pick out a random word. You can also do this online with random word generators and that will do the same thing.

That word will then give you a prompt that is completely outside of how you’re currently thinking, and then you free associate from it, and think about it in a completely different way. The word could be anything: circus, doctor, interpreter etc.

So there are people who are creativity experts and they train people to think more creatively and this is their favorite method.

It isn’t thinking harder about a problem, you have to think about it more loosely. This is the opposite of logical thinking in a variety of ways. You have to think illogically, at least at first, and come up with something that has seemingly no relation to your problem and then see if you can free associate off that.

Magic Wand

Michael Frank: In addition to free association and random word generation, what other creative tips would you give to think outside the box?

Anthony Weston: I also recommend what I call the magic wand, which is to say:

“What would be a perfect solution to the problem?”

Not what would be passable, or reasonably good, or even realistic, but what would be the perfect solution?

Asking this question immediately gets us out of this idea of the problem as it’s currently presented, and asks us what do I really want in this situation?

A question like that changes your whole way of thinking and helps you to think outside of the box.

You’re not asking: “What would be enough to get by?”

You’re asking: “What would be the perfect solution?”

Then you can work your way back to something actually practical. This is a very different way of thinking, and it gets you to think outside of the box.

Long-lever questions

Anthony Weston: I also recommend asking what I call long-lever questions.

Long-lever questions are essentially asking how did we get into this in the first place, and how do we get out of it?

If you look at the causes of a problem rather than asking what do we do about it, oftentimes you can find some very different ways of thinking about it.

For example let’s take the drug problem. People are using highly destructive substances and there are certain attractions to them, and there are all kinds of different levels on which to approach that, but one level would be to say:

“Why are we in this situation?”

“What’s the attraction?”

“Why are people using drugs in the first place?”

And there are various answers to that but some of them honestly have to do with life not being that exciting. And sometimes it can be a lot worse than unexciting, it can be horrible, but let’s just say unexciting.

So one long-lever way of thinking about that would be to ask:

“How could life be more exciting?”

Not just for people who otherwise might use drugs but for everybody. Why not? Why can’t life be more exciting for everybody? Why can’t it be spectacular? Why shouldn’t it be spectacular?

So that’s a really different way of thinking about it right? Where normally you think about the drug problem in terms of law enforcement, more cops, more laws, more drug sniffing dogs at airports, and various things to mitigate the social damage – or legalization – this is something very different. How could life be more exciting? What could happen? Could we have unexpected events that are socially supported e.g. theater in the streets or fireworks every night etc.?

So you start thinking in a really different way again and that’s what I’m after.

Another thing about long-levers is that sometimes the problem isn’t even really a problem. Looking at it one way it’s a problem, looked at another way it’s a resource.

So that’s a useful long-lever type question as well:

“In what ways is this supposed problem actually an advantage or a good thing or a resource?”

How could you use it? What can you do with it?

I know that it doesn’t seem very plausible because we’re so used to seeing certain things as problems right?

So here’s a simple example: Typically electric power plants burn oil or gas or coal and that generates excess heat, and typically that’s treated as a problem because you’ve got to get rid of the heat right?

But is heat a problem? In what ways is heat not a problem? In what ways is heat a resource?

So the Scandinavians have taken the opposite approach, they call it cogeneration, so you have a plant which burns gas, you generate your power, and when you have all this extra hot water, what are you gonna do with it? Go heat homes with it! So they have systems of piping that distribute the heat. So looked at one way it’s a problem, looked at another way it’s a resource.

The art of always seeing alternatives

Michael Frank: For those people who have never studied philosophy or the great philosophers: What do you think are some of the greatest lessons from philosophy that the average person should know about?

Anthony Weston: William James the American pragmatist once defined philosophy as:

“The art of always seeing alternatives”

This is not what one would expect. Usually philosophy is about truth and reality. But the art of always seeing alternatives is really about open-endedness.

The world is more open-ended than we think, but the temptation of many people and philosophers is to try to nail the world down, but the world is not about to be nailed down any time soon, nor can it be, and there are much better ways to dance with the world than to try to nail it down.

People tend to think of philosophy as answering the big questions, but it’s much more interesting to think of it as opening up alternatives, and seeing the world in the light of possibilities.

This is critical thinking to me, to look at the world in light of its alternatives. The world could be different. This world right now, the world we live in, could be dramatically different in a whole variety of ways. Even if you embrace the world as it is which is helpful a lot of the time, if you can see that, if you can understand that, if you can have a much broader view to see how it could be different, and how we could be acting and living in a dramatically different place. And maybe we should be. How are we going to know? Well we’re going to have to think of it first right?

Imaginative skepticism

Michael Frank: In closing, any final thoughts as we wrap up? Anything that we haven’t covered you’d like to speak about?

Anthony Weston: I think one thing that is very important to me as a long time teacher of critical thinking, creative thinking, and constructive thinking, is to embrace critical thinking as part of a larger, more imaginative, more constructive kind of thinking.

There is a tendency in both academia and pop culture to treat critical thinking as a kind of debunking. The idea is that you don’t want to believe anything that isn’t fully justified, and you want to spend a fair amount of time and energy proving that other people’s suppositions are unjustified. So I think there’s a focus on a certain kind of negative, super skeptical, self-protective kind of status quo-ish perspective on things.

I really want to resist that. Yes there is a time and place for a certain kind of debunking, but we also need a great deal more imagination and creativity and constructive thinking, and openness toward others and open-endedness toward the world. All of which are also frankly a lot more enjoyable, and generally a lot more constructive in the sense that we might actually get somewhere.

We need to recognize that there are many more possibilities in the world than this materialistic worldview that there’s just matter and nothing else. The world is a lot more mysterious, and it’s got a lot more unknown possibilities in it than we know. Modern physicists and cosmology folks have found the most amazing and the most strangest stuff. It’s like Alice in Wonderland kind of stuff. So critical thinking means more than just trying to debunk conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and superstition and whatnot. It means living in the world with a sense of fascination and possibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Anthony Weston Philosopher A Rulebook for Arguments

Anthony Weston teaches Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Elon University in North Carolina, USA. Early in his career he published A Rulebook for Arguments which has since become a classic in Critical Thinking texts and has recently appeared in a 5th edition (2018). Rulebook was joined in 2013 by a full-scale textbook, co-authored with Professor David Morrow, called A Workbook for Arguments

Anthony Weston has been teaching Critical Thinking for his whole career at Elon and elsewhere, along with courses in ethics, environmental studies, and “Millennial Imagination,” among others. He is the author of twelve other books, including How to Re-Imagine the World and Back to Earth: Tomorrow’s Environmentalism along with a series of widely-used ethics texts with Oxford University Press, and many articles on ethics, critical thinking, education and contemporary culture, and even space aliens. He is currently completing another book with a colleague, Professor Stephen Bloch-Schumann, called Thinking Through Questions (Hackett, 2020).  At Elon, Weston has been named both Teacher of the Year and Scholar of the Year. As of 2018, he is in the process of retiring from teaching in order to spend full time building an ecovillage in central North Carolina.

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