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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chapter 2:Part 6. Thinking about Thinking

I used to carry a small notebook in my pocket during my early years in medicine. I used to write the critical elements in each patient I saw, together with my initial impression. Days later, I will revisit the note to find out whether I was right or wrong and the reason why. This is actually thinking about thinking. This is learning from your experience and mistakes. This is what is called meta-cognition by educational psychologist. This is an essential step in life-long learning. Alfred North Whitehead said that animals can learn; man can learn. But only man can learn how to learn. May be, computers can too in the near future!
We can also learn from the habits of creative thinkers. Edward De Bono listed these habits in his book with the title” de Bono’s Thinking Course”. They are clear focus, ability to see the trees and the forest, both breadth and depth of knowledge, and ability to pay great attention to details. Creative thinkers are open to new ideas and can look at problems from different perspectives. They accept criticism easily and they enjoy thinking.
It will be useful to clarify why I am using the word “creative thinking” as suggested by Edward De Bono instead of “critical thinking”.
Critical thinking is defined differently by different people. Wikipedia considers critical thinking as a form of reflective judgment. It further states that “Critical thinking gives due consideration to the evidence, the context of judgment, the relevant criteria for making that judgment well, the applicable methods or techniques for forming that judgment, and the applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the nature of the problem and the question at hand”. Critical thinking is a time – honored method based on the premise that looking for flaws in the argument of a proposition (criticizing) and correcting those flaws will lead to better understanding of the Universe. (Note that all of this depends on the use of concepts and words and how misleading this can be. Also, remember what de Bono said. He said that the true impediments to clear, creative thinking are emotions, inhibitions and delusions, even when the facts and logic are used properly)
What are the essential elements of critical thinking as opposed to everyday thinking?
Everyday thinking is almost involuntary, based on perceptions, emotions, faith and judgments. We do not require precise data; approximation is adequate. We often think about similar situations and assume many things.
In critical thinking, we use data and measurements. We need to analyze the data, hypothesize and use reasoning.
Everyday thinking is reflexive. Critical thinking is reflective.
Creative thinking also has been defined in several different ways. As pointed out in the Wikipedia, creativity is manifested in the production of an original and useful work. In other words, creative thinking is known by the outcome. Creative thinking often lead to the production of something new, investing new properties on an existent object, imagining new possibilities and performing something in a manner not considered possible.
De Bono points out that in critical thinking there is ‘a purpose, a line of thought and an achievement”. In creative thinking “the achievement is not complete until the idea has been put into action and shown to work”.
In practice, both creative and critical thinking require similar mental habits. What are the habits of critical/creative thinkers? They are curiosity, imagination and ability to look for new ideas and alternate ways of looking at events and phenomena, honesty, a clear focus, and ability to support new ideas with data and sound arguments. These creative and critical thinkers accept criticism, respect others point of view and listen even if they do not agree. They are humble and have an open mind.
Critical/creative thinkers are aware of pitfalls and fallacies in thinking and try to avoid them consciously. Beveridge listed some of these pitfalls as applied to scientific inquiry. They are: clinging to ideas that have been proved useless or untrue; inability to subordinate ideas to facts; inability to submit hypotheses to most careful scrutiny and inability to recognize that false hypotheses interfere with progress. (Beveridge W I B. The Art of Scientific Investigation. Blackburn Press, 2004)
Ingle (Is it really so? A Guide to Clear Thinking. Dwight J.Ingle, Westminister Press, 1976) supplied a list of fallacies applicable to common situations and discussions. They are: fallacies that concern associated or correlated events (eg; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. In English, this is the fallacy of relating two sequential events as definitive cause and effect); fallacies of generalization (eg; judging an individual on the basis of the general characteristics of the group); fallacies of oversimplification (eg; assuming that our hypothesis must be true because there is no proof that it is not true) and fallacies that beg the question (eg; hiding behind un-testable hypothesis). All of these are applicable to critical and creative thinking.
Based on all these facts, let me suggest you develop the following skills and attitudes so you can be a critical/creative thinker:
1. Ability to think about thinking. Without this attitude you may hang on to pet methods and views and make no progress. Without an open mind and ability to ask how one can improve, you cannot be a critical thinker and a problem solver. This attitude will automatically lead to the company of others for discussions and cooperation.
2. Ability to ask critical questions. When listening to others, ask questions about meanings of words and definitions (concept related), about evidence and its veracity (empirical), and about the logic in reasoning. You should apply these rules to your own thinking too.
3. Ability to form concepts (conceptual), ability to observe, document, question hypothesize and test those hypotheses (enquiry), ability to use logical arguments, deductive and inductive reasoning and avoidance of fallacies and ability to interpret and apply.
Finally, how do we think critically on metaphysical, political and ethical issues using these critical thinking habits? It is important that all the discussants are agreed on three major topics before there can be meaningful discussion. They are the meaning of words, definitions of concepts and means of obtaining valid knowledge. I have already written about words. The other topics will be discussed in future essays.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chapter 2: Part 5. Other impediments to critical thinking

We saw how words can stand for something, but cannot prove the existence of things, particularly mental constructs and concepts. Let us now consider other impediments to critical thinking.
Ignoring evidence, jumping to conclusions, being carried away by the initial impression and being influenced by others are some of the other barriers to critical thinking.
Logical fallacies in our own arguments and those of others can lead to poor thinking and wrong answers. Aristotle is credited with enumerating these items several centuries back. (See my essay on Media Awareness posted on November 2, 2008 for details) They are: Appeal to personal prejudice; appeal to the mass emotions; appeal to the pity factor; appeal to the brute force; appeal to the purse; appeal to prestige ; stress the ignorance; and any other dishonest argument. The original list was in Latin. Institute for Propaganda Analysis (not in service now) simplified this list of fallacies and translated them into simple English as follows: name calling, glittering generality, testimonial, stacking the card and jumping into the bandwagon!
Rudolf Flesch simplified these fallacies into two major categories. In one, the discussant brings up a point that is irrelevant. In the other, he leaves out a relevant point.
Irrelevant points are usually casted in concrete terms “aiming at personal interests, emotions and prejudices”. When relevant points are omitted, they are usually “disguised by high, wide, and unspecific language”. Politicians and advertisers use these techniques all the time.
The way to cut through these tricks is to ask the question “So what?” whenever you hear specifics. For example, if the ad says that a famous actress uses a brand of soap, ask “So what”? When you hear generalities, ask for specifics! For example, when the ad says that one brand of pain-killer is the favorite of doctors, ask for details.
In the Indian philosophic tradition, the Nyaya system lists 18 such fallacies in arguments. A partial list includes wrangling (jalpa), attacking the opposite side (vithanda), fallacies of reason (hethvabhasa), quibbling with words and sounds (cchalam), objections based on similarities and dissimilarities (jathi) and rebuking the other party (nigrahasthanam). Sound familiar?
The point is that these tricks have been known for centuries and in every culture. But we still let others lead us astray with these tricks. We have to watch for all these fallacies when we are listening to sources trying to manipulate our thinking. We have to look for these fallacies in our own thinking also, if we want to make good judgments and convince others through reasoning.
Now that all the needed information has been collected and processed and all the fallacies have been exposed, the next step is to think of all the possible answers (solutions or options). This requires creative thinking habits.
Prof. Edward De Bono has done most of the seminal work on the components of thinking skills. He has also developed different tools to teach thinking as a skill. His course on CoRT thinking Method has been tested at different settings, from elementary schools to corporate retreats. The component skills have interesting acronyms such as CAF (Consider All Factors), PMI (Positive, Negative and Interesting), APC (Alternatives, Possibilities and Choices) and OPV (Other People’s Views). Even though we may not have occasion to use each one of these skills, it will be useful for all of us to be aware of the general idea at least, so that we can think creatively. Introducing these skills to children will give them a head start for their future. (For details, read his book on de Bono’s Thinking Course by facts on File Publications, New York and Oxford)
Prof.De Bono showed that the three common difficulties in solving practical problems are emotions, Inhibitions and confusion. He also developed a whole system of creative thinking called Six Thinking Hats to overcome these difficulties. (Six Thinking Hats. Penguin Publications 1996). This system is easy to learn. There are courses tailored to children. The participants are given problems to solve and while thinking about different aspects of a problem, they use hats with different colors. For example, while dealing with emotional issues all the participants use red hats, and use white hat when they think that more information is needed before the problem can be solved. They use yellow hats while thinking about all the benefits of a specific solution and black hats are worn while thinking about the negative aspects of a specific solution. Green hat is for using creative mode and blue hat when trying to assess where one is at in the decisions-making process.
My own personal method for problem solving is based on various techniques I learnt from reading and observing. My work with chronic illness also taught me how to take all factors into account and not jump to conclusions. I actually write my thoughts on paper while I am working on a problem. I still recall how I wrote out all the ideas with the positives, negatives, emotional issues and other people’s views when I was asked to decide on amputation of a leg of a girl with severe scleroderma. I will outline my style in the following paragraphs.
My first question usually is: “How urgent is the situation?” If it is, I act on it. I may continue to reflect on my decision even afterwards and make sure I have not ignored some important factor in the process of making a quick decision. In other words, I will have an immediate response and a considered response.
If there is no urgency, I try to think about all possible solutions. I often ask others who are involved in the situation for their ideas. I may talk with experts in the field. This is how I was able to diagnose many diseases that were unknown when I started my medical career. I may talk to people who have faced similar problem before. I may also talk with wise old people in my family or in my community or among my colleagues.
Then, I make a list of all possible solutions. I may take a pause at this stage and let the facts sink in. The pause may be for a day to several days. This is the time to look at the problem from several new angles. I have been amazed at the number of times I have woken up from sleep with some new factor I have not entered into the equation.
The next step for me is to write all the positive and negative points for each of the solutions I have included in my list. In my final decision, the number of items in each column alone will not count. I will often give an arbitrary weight to each of the positive and negative points based on their importance relative to my values and the possible consequences if that option were to be chosen.
I, then, choose the most logical option based on the advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits of each of the options. At this most critical point, I have to check my logical choice with my heart. In other words, I have to make sure that my final decision will be congruent with my values and personality. Therefore, my question is: “Can I live with myself if I make this decision?” On many occasions, I have rejected the most logical decision because my “heart” was not comfortable with it.
Finally I have the answer that is logical and passes my personal test. But, it is not over yet because I still have to answer a few more questions:
1 What are the short term consequences, positive and negative?
2. What are the long term consequences?
3. Who will be affected by this decision? Have I informed them?
4. Am I making this decision for positive reasons (because I feel deeply about this issue or person) or negative reasons (to avoid a situation)?
We will not have time to think about all our problems so elaborately. These steps are needed only for major issues to help us make prudent decisions.
Even with the best of plans and good intentions, the outcome may not be what we hoped for. It may even be unexpected. We just have to accept the outcome and not try to find excuses for poor results. It is best to follow the most important lesson from the Bhagavat Gita: “Our role is to do our duty according to our Dharma; we are not to worry about the results”.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Chapter 2: Part 4A. Reply to Comments and other topics

I was about to post Chapter 5; instead, I decided to thank Linda for her comments (December 22, 2008) and add some new material relating to my previous posts.
First, here is my response to the comments by Linda. Those points are well-taken. My focus is on the negative aspects of the media. May be, I went too far. The obvious position has to be somewhere in between. There are strengths and weaknesses in any new technology. We need to use them wisely and maximize their utility. Come to think of it, I cannot be communicating with so many people but for this new technology. I did list the positive aspects of the media in my first posting; but did not dwell on them. Actually, some newer and positive aspects of learning through video games are currently being investigated.
The magazine SCIENCE has devoted an entire issue to Education and Technology (Science: 2nd January 2009). There are two articles relevant to the points Linda made. The first is on “Technology and Informal Education: What is taught, What is learned” by Patricia Greenfield. She summarizes studies that show how TV, video games and the Internet “are producing learners with a new profile of cognitive skills”. It appears that children growing up with the “interactive media”, have greater visual-spatial skills. However, they are weaker in higher cognitive skills such as abstract vocabulary, reflection, inductive problem solving, and imagination. She concludes that “the developing human mind still needs a balanced diet” and that each technology’s specific strengths should be used to develop a complete profile of cognitive skills.
Although the content of the video games is of concern to parents and mental health professionals and the time spent playing these games has health consequences, it is also true that these games are obviously interesting to children. Techniques used in these games such as “multimodal principle”, incremental delivery of information, “ multiple route principle” and learner control/autonomy keep these children engaged. Why not use them and develop “educational” games? This is the topic of an article by Merrilea Mayo on “Video games: A route to large scale STEM education”. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. She lists such “games” in algebra, geography and cell biology using the teaching principles imbedded in video games. These games have also been evaluated and show that they fare better than lectures in learning outcome. Indeed, there is an entire book on this subject by James Paul Gee reviewed in this issue of the Science.
Now I go another topic. In my introduction, I said that my intention is to make you think. I also said that you need to reflect on what you read and hear and then accept them or reject them. Here is what I found from Buddha’s teachings as referred to by S.Radhakrishnan and C.A.Moore in their book ( A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1957. page 346). “As the wise test gold by burning, cutting and rubbing, so are you to accept my words after examining them and not merely out of regards for me”.
There is a passage on “words” in Briharanyaka Upanishad (chapter 1; section5; sutra 3). I do not fully comprehend the meaning. But it says that perception is not possible without the mind and then says:”And whatever sound is there is indeed speech. Because it (the sound, I guess the word) underlies the revelation of objects, but it is not itself subject to revelation”. At the least, this refers to the relation between an object, and its cognition through the medium of words and speech.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chapter 2:Part 4. Words, Words, and Words

Word is a unit of any language. It consists of a speech sound or a series of sounds, which when put together has meaning. Words are combinations of sounds.

A meaning is assigned to a word. Word is a symbol. It stands for a thing or a thought. Actually, a word stands not for just A thing, but for a class of things.

In Vedic discussions it is said “that objects (physical and mental, I presume) cannot be made evident without words. Without objects there is no use for words. Without light, objects will not be evident. Without objects what can light illuminate? Divine Shakti is the word; the objective support for the meaning conveyed by the word is Shiva”.

Sanskrit which is the language of the Vedas recognizes two aspects of a spoken word. One is called SPOTA and the other is NADA. Nada is the word to denote a sound after it is uttered. Spota is the word for the sound inside of us before it comes out (mentalese). The root word is spu. The sound itself and the meaning are the same as the English word SPEW. Spota is that “which bursts out or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered and the impression produced in the mind on hearing a sound”. Extended into the metaphysical realm, the word spota also stands for “the eternal cosmic sound”.

The Sanskrit term for the individual letter sounds (alphabet) is akshara. This is the opposite of kshara, meaning perishable. Akshara is imperishable. The implication is that when the imperishable letter sounds (alphabets) are put together as words, they become perishable. The basis of this thought is the metaphysical concept in Vedic philosophy that the first evolute in the manifestation of the Universe was Sound.

There are three levels of meaning for words: 1. popularly accepted meaning, conventional meaning; 2. etymological meaning based on the root and derivatives and 3. secondary meaning. Secondary meaning can be by implication as in “house on the river” meaning house on the bank of the river. There are different levels of implication.

The same word (name) may be used with different meanings, like the word “star”. Different words may mean the same thing or the same thing with subtle differences (ice and snow for example).

Words are not useful by themselves for human communication. There has to be an assertion or a statement. That needs a string of words making a sentence. As children learn to speak they start using naming sentences “This …....tree” which stands for a perceived experienced object, linked to a sound that stands for a class of things (tree). Later they make syntactic sentences consisting of noun phrases and verb phrases.

Words, as useful as they are for communication, can create problems in understanding. When we use a word to name a thing, we get a false perception of “knowing” the thing. Indeed, we seem to think that we get control over the thing named. That is why in both the Bible and the Vedas, God refuses to give a “name” or gives an alternate name. Also, when a word is created to name an idea or concept, the idea takes a life of its own even if that idea cannot be supported with evidence. One example is “heaven”.

In his book on “Transformation at the base”, Thich Nhat Hanh summarizes the wisdom of the Buddhist psychology in this area. When we see (perceive) an object, we see its “sign” (called lakshana in Sanskrit). This sign or lakshna or appearance is the image created in our mind by our perception of it. We, then, assign names and words to the objects of these sensory perceptions such as “mountain”, “song”etc. These words and associated appearances are stored like “seeds” in our consciousness. These seeds (words) give rise to other seeds in our minds. These are the “images”. When we hear the name (word) of one of these things, an image arises in our consciousness. We then take that image to be a reality.

This is applicable also to the objects of our mind, which are thoughts. These are the “concepts”, as differentiated from the objects of our sensory system which is perception.

Words are symbols and stand for some thing or some idea or some thought. When man uses words he connects or pairs two things: “the word he speaks or hears and the thing he sees before him”. Words help express what is in our mind and elicit the internal state of another. But the other may not understand at all, misunderstand, partially understand or may react in an unexpected way, even when the speaker and listener speak the same language and mean the same thing. This gets even more problematic in metaphysical discussions since the words are used to deal with “theories of Reality”.

Symbols can stand for something, but cannot prove the existence of things, particularly mental constructs and concepts.

Another problem with words as symbol for a thing or an object is that it freezes the object caught at the moment. Usually we do not think about that object extended in space and time. Let me explain. When I see a piece of paper I see this paper now. Extended into space and time, this paper was a tree at one time. Therefore this tree carries minute particles of the sun and the rain that helped the tree grow. In the future this paper may be carried to another city etc. This concept is well-developed in Buddhist psychology.

A symbol (the word) pointing to something may not be interpreted the way the originator intended because the relationship between the speaker, the listener, the word and the thing named by the word have a complicated relationship as pointed out by Walker Percy and Charles Pierce.

Me

The word -------------------------------------------> The thing named

You

In this relationship (what Walker Percy calls the quadratic relationship), there are bound to be inter-subjective (you and me) variations. In addition, the relationship between the word and the world is NOT identity but one of “quasi-identity”. The word is our own creation with sounds, phoenemes, and morphemes different in different languages. The world signified is perceived, interpreted, abstracted and segmented by the human mind before it is named.

Symbols can also be used as signs. Signs point to something, and therefore are separate. This is the basis for the Zen Buddhist dictum “When the finger points to the moon, do not look at the finger”. Signs can be studied by stimulus-response models and such tools of objective knowledge. Not so with the symbol and its quasi-identity with the thing named.

Thus, a basic understanding of words and how we use them is essential to think clearly. It is particularly important in critical thinking. You want the other person to define what he means by the words he uses. We are not discussing the semantics aspects yet.

We now move from words to sentences. Words, by themselves, are not of much use without becoming part of a sentence. A sentence has to refer to something (an object) and SAY something about that object.

A sentence carries a message in the form of words. It may be for personal use, as a thought. It may be for another person. The other person hears the words and hopefully receives the intended message. What does he/she do with the message? What are the factors which will influence the receiver of the message as to what he does with it? Walker Percy wrote about this in detail in his book on “The Message in the Bottle”. His sources are many, particularly Charles Pierce. I have read Walker Percy extensively; but not Pierce.

The first condition is the predicament of the “hearer” of the sentence? What are his needs? Is he in a dire predicament and is he looking for an important and urgent message? Is he looking for usable practical knowledge or for a message that will make him feel good ? Is he looking for a message that will lead him to the "ultimate truth"? Is he a skeptic or one who swallows whatever reaches his ears?

The second condition is the content of the message. Is it a piece of news with practical value? Does it demand immediate action? Is it an analytical (as is) or a synthetic statement (as it should be)? Is it just a poetic statement that makes one feel good? Is it metaphysical, one that can neither be refuted nor accepted?

The third question is “Is the sentence a generalization from a concrete situation?” If so, how applicable is it to all and every situation? Specifically, how applicable is that message to this specific “hearer” (me, in my condition)?

Finally, how reliable is the “speaker” of the sentence? What level of verification is needed to accept the sentence? Has that verification to be experimental or experiential? (This will be the topic of another essay on the Means of validating knowledge)

These rules of reasons have to be applied to understand all messages and assertions, particularly metaphysical assertions. How will the message in sentences such as “ Atman is Brahman”, “God will take care” etc be received by the hearer of the statement. For example, let us apply these guidelines to one Vedic statement “I am That Brahman” (Aham brahmasmi).

The sentence talks about the primordial original cause called Brahman. But, that name in Sanskrit was coined in India to symbolize the Unitary Time-Space event from which this universe and all of us came. The sentence says something about that Original Source. It says that the original Force, Brahman is myself (I). In other words, It is in me (in all of life forms) and therefore I am That.

The sentence itself is short and pithy (sutra in Sanskrit, an aphorism, ideas condensed into as few words as possible) that says something about the relationship between the Universal and the Particular; between the original Unitary Force and the universe of objects in this world including the individual self. There is no way anyone can verify this statement since none of us were there at the time the universe started! I am content accepting this mystery, stand in awe and humility in the face of this unanswerable question and meditate on it just as Nasadiya Suktam in Rg Veda (to be discussed in a future essay) asks me to.

I am the hearer of this message. I am receiving this message sent several millennia back. Applying the four questions listed earlier, what is my predicament? What is my need? This is the first question in our list. Personally, I am interested in reflecting on the origin of the Universe. How did it all start? What was there in the beginning? How did something come out of nothing? How did the One become many?

I am not asking for a definitive answer for these questions, because no one can truly answer them. I am looking for inner peace and harmony. I am looking for “experiencing” the unity in diversity, if I am fortunate. Therefore this message is relevant to me. (This answers Question 2 above)

The sentence is an assertion of things as they are, as experienced by great souls. It is an analytical statement (As is) made by the “experiencers”. It is metaphysical. Therefore, one cannot verify by experiments. However, our rishis tell us that each one of us can experience this state of oneness with the Original source. The rishis ask us to believe in these statements not with blind faith, but with reason and experience. These great souls are full of compassion and want to help all of us simple mortals to experience the bliss they had experienced. Also, Nyaya Sastra of Gautama, which accepts “testimony” as one of the four means of obtaining reliable knowledge defines testimony as: “It is the instructive assertion of a reliable person”. Who is a reliable person? It is someone who has lived a life of spirituality and wishes to share out of compassion. This applies to Vedic Texts such as the Upanishads as documented by the sages (rishi) of India.Therefore I believe them. That answers the third question for me.

This statement is a general statement based on concrete experiences. Our rishis say that all of us have the capacity to get there. As pointed out earlier I trust the rishis who made this statement. That answers the fourth question.

In conclusion, I believe in the metaphysical concepts expressed in the statement “Aham Brahmasmi” “I am Brahman” etc. However, there are other words such as Lila, Maya, Karma and Moksha to indicate other concepts. These concepts are used to explain how the One became many, why there is suffering and what happens after death. I went through the same exercise with these words. They may help comfort me at moments of distress. They may make me feel good. However, these words indicate concepts created by the human mind that do not appeal to my reason or experience. They are meant to explain (away) the mysteries which can never be solved by human minds. These words (concepts) only lead to erudition, never-ending discussions and arguments, misunderstandings, difference of opinions, cults and conflicts. Therefore, I do not take too much interest in these words.

You may wish to follow these tools for thinking and find out where they take you. You may end up differently. That is OK, as long as you do not insist that you have the only correct answer.