Clarifying Thought

You find yourself in an old library at night with only a candle to keep the place lit. Any sudden movement will cause the flame to flicker, dimming the overall intensity of light, and making the books difficult to read. Therefore you remain still as possible, breathing calmly in order to keep the text clear and vivid.

This analogy may provide additional insight into the nature of clarity. The intellect represents the light by which we reason or piece info together. With concentrated focus the intellect is able to illuminate and make sense of content, but should it falter due to distraction, we can end up with a distorted view. Just as a candle flame quivers in the passing wind, causing the text on the page to appear jumbled, our ability to reason can also be impaired or scattered.

Besides adopting good posture in body and mind, what else can we do to be clear about the things we observe or think about? How about questions? Are they useful in helping us to focus, draw out additional meaning, and locate significant patterns or relationships? Can they assist us in arranging data in a logical manner and bring distinction to vague ideas, in turn making it easier to understand something? They certainly can.

Ideally, that is what questions are for, to attain clarity. In fact, clarification has to be the first primary step of reasoning well, because without it there is no way to reach an authentic view. Whether we are reading a textbook or listening to a lecture, the content has to be grasped if we are to make an appropriate judgement about it.

Here are some questions we can ask to help clarify what is being said. Feel free to change them into your own manner of speaking.

1. Could you say the same thing in another way?
2. Please expand on the implications of such a decision or potential action?
3. What are you trying to say exactly, or what is your main point?
4. Allow me to summarize what you are saying and correct me if I am off?

You can also ask questions while reading: What, how & why, who, when & where are classic touchstones to elucidate and process information. Taking quick notes along the way can also help the mind to remain attentive and focused. There are lots of techniques for clarifying thought, so seek out other methods if something doesn’t work for you. The main thing is to get clear about whatever it is that you are bringing into your mind; seek first to understand.


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Implications & Conclusions

In all circumstances there are conditions that have come into play due to other conditions, and they in turn have arisen in like manner. Such a casual unfolding is as natural as photosynthesis or the respiratory system. Breathe in, breathe out. When this is, then that comes to be, but when this is not, then that does not come to be. No inhalation, no exhalation. No matter the simplicity or complexity of a naturally occurring or manufactured system, there will be a range of likely consequences or potential outcomes. Determining which of these implications will be the case resides largely in our power to make good inferences.

It is essential to recognize the implications of our thinking so that we might ascertain the results we need in order to reach our objectives. If we act without considering the potential consequences of our actions, then we risk the chance of being counterproductive. So to make appropriate decisions we need to realize what is possible, probable & inevitable before we choose and act upon our best options.

For instance we could say that Tom wants to be a police officer but because he is only 5 feet tall it is not possible. Now let us say that Tom meets all the requirements imposed by the police force, now we can say that it’s not only possible, but it is probable. Whereas it’s not inevitable until he passes all the initial tests, completes his training and is approved by a governing body of law enforcement officials. Trying to find out what is possible, probable and inevitable is not always so cut and dry. Sometimes it is necessary to seek out the advice and wisdom of good counsellors.

To advance our capacity to discover all relevant implications or consequences of a situation, it may be helpful to explore alternative approaches. Group dialogue with people from various backgrounds can reveal new perspectives, whereas novelty can be hard to come by when all members think and behave alike. On a basic level you will want to recognize the main implications, and weigh out the pros and cons of each act before acting on the best course of action. Also the degree of personal control one might have over an outcome is another factor to consider. By and large it is essential to keep clear about our purpose while exploring the potential implications or consequences of a situation.

Now that we have touched on the elements of thinking over the last couple of months, next we’ll explore a handful of intellectual standards that work to integrate the elements into one comprehensive whole. That is in order to construct a complete picture of a subject we will have to apply good measure & rule to our way of reasoning. Such standards we know as clarity, logical consistency & accuracy, to mention a few. For content to make good sense such standards are indispensable. If something is not clear then we are not going to be able to understand what it means, not alone discover its implications & consequences. Therefore all good thinking requires intellectual standards in order for it to remain coherent & intelligible.


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Assumptions – A Means for Reasoning

Every time you leave the front door to transmute across town you are making assumptions. You assume that drivers will not run you down, that the flooring below your feet will hold you up, and that lightening will not strike you dead. Most of us take for granted that we won’t get caught in a shoot out, get arrested or have a massive heart attack. All of which are probable events. You may not think these sorts of thoughts out loud, or on a regular basis, but they are present nonetheless, hardwired into our brains so to speak. In many respects a good portion of our life is based on assumptions, from the way we think, to how we habitually behave, and in what manner we typically respond to stimuli.

In fact many of us give little attention or none at all to our underlying assumptions, which can be somewhat of a slippery slope, leading to potential complications and unforeseen circumstances. Take for instance an American President who has a deep rooted belief in the Christian evangelical notion of the rapture, which consists of God whisking away all righteous souls from the earth so that they might live peacefully in heaven. Now let us say that our elective official not only assumes that the end of the world is at hand, but he also wholeheartedly believes that God is going to unleash his wrath upon the face of the earth so as to destroy all evil men, and then later establish a new heaven and new earth.

Now one might see this fundamental belief as being an influential factor in how a President goes about making decisions and prioritizing what is important; for if a person really thinks that some supernatural power is going to level everything that the American people have been working hard to build, then such a person in authority is probably not going to give much attention to climate change and pollution. If everything is going to hell in a hand basket, then why not go down fighting with a bang, make enough bombs to destroy the world a thousand times over, and be the agent of God!? Such irrational thinking can certainly help us to understand how it is that pride comes before the fall.

This is absurdity at its finest you might say, however, it gets the point across. We have to be careful about the assumptions we cultivate and base our reasoning upon. A common axiom reads that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This kind of assumption implies that our actions may appear good and noble, but they are actually based on poor interpretations. Misunderstandings can easily come about through our unchecked assumptions and erroneous beliefs. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to search and root out all weeds of fallacy.

On the other hand not all assumptions are false or misleading. They can also help us to reason things through. For instance we can assume that our lives will remain relatively the same if x, y, and z continue as they usually do. There are no absolute certainties in life, but it is reasonable to assume let’s say that if you have been a good father for x many years, and your children are well behaved, fed & clothed, etc., that they’ll probably come home after school. In other words it is pragmatic to think that we have some influence over the way things unfold, and that there are good as well as poor assumptions that we can be more cautious about.



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Concepts – Components of Thought

Have you ever stopped to wonder how the mind immediately envisions a thing upon hearing its name? As soon as we hear the words: forest, mountains, night sky, stars, moon light reflected on a calm still pond… then there it is. Somehow we are able to instantly conceive of this natural landscape. How amazingly brilliant this power, that our minds can conceptualize these images into one beautiful whole.

What makes this phenomenon even more wondrous is that pretty much all humans who have ever lived have the same capacity to form such a concept, and not just any random abstract idea, but a concept that is similar and consistent with others. So for instance when we add 2 plus 2 to get 4, the answer remains the same, it doesn’t morph into something else over time. If someone should say look out for the flying bird, you are not going to look down on the ground for a snail, but for something above that glides through the air with wings.

Concepts are essential for helping us to understand things in relation to other things. They help us to group things together and detect when something doesn’t add up or belong. Every field of study, all the ways down to simple interactions or the use of mechanical devices, are composed of concepts of various sorts. Understanding how these components work together will add to our breadth of knowledge, making its application possible.

For instance, if a person wishes to specialize as a brain surgeon but is unable to tell the difference between the concept of a scalpel and a screwdriver, then it’s unlikely that they’ll have much success in reaching their career goal. Even if a medical doctor should learn everything there is to know about brain surgery, and become the most competent in their skill, if they fail to grasp the concept of what it means to have a good bedside manner, then it may become difficult to keep their position.

No matter the discipline or the object of investigation it is necessary to understand all relevant concepts. In order to attain clarity of such terms it will be helpful to carefully define them, as well as compare and contrast them with similar concepts. By analysing a concept thoroughly we not only get a better idea of what it is & is not, but we can also take a closer look at how it interacts with other parts of a system, as well as explore its implications, thus enhance our overall comprehension and ability to deal with whatever life throws our way.



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Synergize – Creative Cooperation

“The essence of synergy is to value differences – to respect them, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses.” – Stephen R. Covey

Getting along with others can be difficult to say the least. Unless the chords that unite the group are stronger than the forces that would pull it apart, then the circle may come undone. Assuming the common purpose of a group is worth the effort & struggle, how can we keep working together successfully? According to Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one way to do this is to synergize.

Synergy has to do with creative cooperation, welcoming difference, and being open to alternative approaches. It allows for creative energy to be used for constructive ends. As a concept it has to do with the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Careful not to confuse it with the way it is used in business, as in a means to maximize profit. For Covey it is a habit, an acquired skill, which is to be cultivated over time.

A really good stage play may help to demonstrate what it means to synergize. From the actors to the stage manager to the director, when everyone does their part and gives their best, an extraordinary thing happens, a dynamic story unfolds. People are inspired in a way not possible from within the confines of routine. A certain kind of magic imbues the imagination, and souls are transported into another world.

Another example of synergy may be found in how a couple of people address a conflict. For instance an office worker may enjoy listening to classical music on his mp3 player while at work, whereas his supervisor is annoyed by it because she has to leave her desk and walk over to him in order to get his attention. She could pull rank on him and force him to stop, but instead she opts for a third alternative. They both talk about their needs and then brain storm for solutions to the problem. Because their level of trust and respect for one another is high, they easily locate a remedy. He agrees to keep only one speaker in his ear and leave the other free to hear her.

There is no absolute way to synergize. Each situation is unique. What remains consistent is a willingness to respond anew, to be adaptable & flexible, and to be accepting of differences. The very opposite of this spirit is rigidity and stagnation. Nothing new grows in a mind that is closed off to the opinions of others. Just as trees in a forest support one another through their roots below, we need to synergize with others to preserve unity and make our ideas grow.



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Inferences and Interpretations

There is something that we do with our minds on a regular basis without realizing ‘how’ we are doing it. That is we are constantly making inferences regarding the things we perceive and think about. For the most part we assume that our interpretation of the world is as it really is. Yet, throughout history, we are reminded that our observations of the world turn out to be something other than what they seem to be. From the earth being the centre of the universe to the way we treat disease, our underlying assumptions not only turn out to be off on many occasions, but sometimes even absurdly so. Therefore it would be to our advantage to become aware of how we typically draw conclusions or make inferences in respect to the things we encounter and deal with on a daily bases.

The oxford dictionary defines inference as: a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning. In other words, if we want to make an appropriate inference, then we must step by step reason our way to a conclusion that is based on relevant information and available facts. Now in order to do this well, we have to become aware of the impediments to such a process. Hence we may have to dig deeper into our psychology if we are to discover the core beliefs or assumptions that give rise to our inferences.

Let’s create a scenario to demonstrate how we might draw a poor inference based on a common assumption:

The situation consists of a young beautiful woman dressed in skimpy, provocative clothing, standing on the side of the street by herself late at night. A man driving home from work notices her motioning him to pull over. He infers that she is a prostitute and drives on by. The next day while watching the news on television he sees a picture of the same woman lying dead in a ditch and allegedly raped. It is reported that the 17 year old female – diagnosed with autism – wondered off and was unable to communicate to others that she was in need of help.

This scenario may appear to be a little over the top but it does get the point across. The driver is now acutely aware of his underlying assumption, namely that women who dress in a sexually seductive manner must be a whore, and now feels the need to thoroughly investigate the possibility of other deeply rooted erroneous assumptions, so that he might make more appropriate inferences in the future.

Reshaping the way we think about our experiences will not happen overnight, but applying the principles of critical thinking can help us get there. Drawing good inferences is only one part of the whole, and needs to be worked in conjunction with other elements of thinking. To be effective in dealing with a situation like this one, or any other for that matter, we need to look at the whole picture, rather than base our decisions on what we assume to be the case.


“The greatest progress men have made resides in their learning how to draw correct inferences.” – Friedrich Nietzsche


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Information – Bridge the Gap

Information is required to exercise good judgement. Not just any information will suffice, but that which is relevant, reliable and valid. To avail of information effectively we need to ask the right kind of questions. Is the primary source of info reliable; i.e. is it consistent, dependable and trustworthy? Can it be verified; is the evidence conclusive? For information to be valid it must be grounded in truth.

Here’s an analogy to help divide information into strong & weak, solid & air-like: The foundational bedrock that resides under the surface of the ground constitute the hard facts of information. That is to say that the bedrock UNDER the ground permits things on earth to firmly STAND and have some kind of fixed position or bases in reality, thus giving us the ability to UNDERSTAND information.

Whereas the air-like clouds in the sky reflect what is confusing, vague and airy-fairy about information. In other words the far out clouds are an extension of scattered thought that give little or no substance to information. Open space has no parameters, no rule or measure to give definition to info, thus it remains formless and incoherent.

Do consider that analogies such as these can be useful, but like other metaphors they can’t be taken literally or applied in all situations in the same way. Nevertheless by equating good information with what is concrete, we have something tangible to wrap our heads around so as to make sense of things. Whereas clouds, like mental fog, can diminish our ability to clearly decipher information.

On the other hand we can also say that clouds possess shapes and patterns that can be likened onto the nature of thought as it comes in and out of mind, thus depicting a useful analogy of consciousness itself. So you see, information, similar to metaphors, can sometimes be reversed to mean something entirely different. In other words the exact same information can be used to support or debunk ideas.

This stresses the importance of being careful with the way information is applied. To wield the two edged sword of penetrating decisiveness, we must not only come to terms with the principles of reasoning, but decide upon worthy end goals and standards that allow for good orientation. If we want to build a solid case or pursue a lasting purpose of some kind, our success will largely depend on the quality of info we gather.




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Question at Issue

During our pursuits in life we’ll be faced with hindrances of various sorts, so coming to terms with the nature of such difficulties is a step in the right direction. The more we know about potential obstacles the better we can prepare to handle them, therefore it would be helpful to formulate relevant questions so as to adequately deal with what lies ahead. For such a purpose you may want to write a leading question of inquiry so that it directly addresses the central problem of your undertaking or whatever pursuit you wish to embark upon.

For example let’s say that Susan’s primary purpose in life is to be a mother and happily married to a loving man, but she is faced with a major obstacle. All the guys she attracts into her life are pretty much interested in the one thing, namely the act of making babies. Offhand there’s no telling why she continues to end up with promiscuous men, but the fact of the matter is that she does, so if this behaviour continues as is, it does not look as though she will attain her goal anytime soon. Therefore, if she is serious about her pursuit, it would be most helpful to figure out exactly what the problem is, so that she might take steps to resolve the issue and make progress towards her ideal.

From this scenario we could say that Susan’s fault resides in her inability to draw healthy borders with the men she meets. Her reputation may precede her, giving incentive to the sort of fellows that will place themselves in her vicinity. Susan may be easily charmed with their demeanour, which for her may oddly enough seem to make up for her own lack of confidence. Perhaps her low self-esteem may play a significant role in her orientation towards such men.

Exactly why are her goals in conflict with one another. We can speculate at length about the various reasons for such complexity, but the main thing is to draw up a ‘question at issue’ that will address the central problem. In this situation we could begin with this one:

Why does Susan continue to end up in poor relationships?

In time – with delineation and dialogue with others concerned – it is possible that we’ll end up with a more fitting ‘question at issue’ that will not only provide better navigation, but may assist in generating additional questions so as to sharpen our inquiry. Beginning the question at issue with the word ‘why’ is not necessary or adequate for all circumstances, but sometimes it can be an effective way to brainstorm for reasons to support an investigation.

Even though the question at issue may be difficult to answer, ideally you will want to keep the question simple and easy to understand. Try writing it in several different ways before you pick the one that is most clear and comprehensible. If there are a number of sub-problems or parts to the central problem, then it may be best to tackle the easier parts before getting into the more difficult ones. In other words deal with the less complicated aspects of a problem first, especially if it helps to untangle the overall perplexity, confusion or jumble.





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Purpose Guides Thinking

Purpose is fundamental to the way we think, speak and act. You have probably heard of the saying, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Well there is also a purpose for everything we do. These statements don’t mean the same thing however. Falling down a flight of stairs may be on purpose should someone intentionally push you, but if the wind were to blow you down, well that would be the reason for your fall, not its purpose.

Whatever action we undertake in life, whether small or great, by preference or coercion, we act due to some kind of purpose. Our purpose might be well planned out or off the cuff, or something in between, either way purpose becomes the ground by which we proceed through life.

It is practical to be clear about our purpose/s. The more specific we are the better our odds of attaining it. For instance let us say it is one of your objectives to maintain good health, thus one of your goals might be to lose some extra pounds. That might be a great idea, but unless it becomes a plan that is put into motion, then it’s unlikely you’ll make much progress. Wishing things in or out of existence can certainly ignite the imagination but it’s a far cry from making the goal real and tangible.

Besides keeping your purpose specific, realistic and measurable, you’ll probably want to choose things that are significant. It is not uncommon to get lost in the thick of thin of things, to get overly caught up with minor concerns, therefore it would be practical to choose purposes with care, especially with a view to choosing goals that complement one another, rather than work against each other and stifle progress.

We can’t always assume that people will be clear about their wants & desires, not because they necessarily have a hidden agenda as such, but by and large they may not have taken the arduous task of getting to know them-selves. Their priorities may be incoherent or mindlessly passed down through social ideals without any consideration to their validity. Some may compromise their values in order to attain employment or lie about past relationships in hopes of exploiting another partner. Regardless of the various reasons for not having constructive, ethical, or well thought out purposes, it is incumbent upon us to cultivate the insight to detect what another’s purposes may actually be. No matter how intermeshed ones desires, intentions and inclinations might be, with the light of reason we can work to pierce through the veil of ignorance and confusion.

As vague as this analogy might sound it nevertheless chimes a certain truth. To get at the heart of a matter, purpose itself is only one note on the flute. If the piper is to lead us to reason we must hear the full spectrum of notes in order to comprehend the tune. In other words purpose is only one of many elements of thought required to analyze a subject or situation. In the presentations to follow we’ll take a look at some other components of critical reasoning in view to analysing and constructing a more complete picture of things.





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Critical Thinking – Point of View

Our ‘point of view’ is the place from which we view things, which entails our biases, values, beliefs & limitations. While in the process of trying to understand something more fully it is necessary to consider the point of view of all those involved. For this purpose we can divide this concept into three main components: frame of reference, perspective & orientation. In particular, these three modes can assist us in gathering info, in turn allowing us to better evaluate, analyze and integrate a subject or situation. Let’s briefly explain these three aspects of viewing:

Frame of reference can relate to the way we structure and/or contextualize a situation or subject in order to make sense of it. Figuratively speaking it includes the kind of window pane we are looking through. Rosy coloured glasses will impact the way we perceive an object. So for instance, a person who is overly optimistic in their manner of dealing with a problem may overlook things, whereas a person who has a tendency to be moderately sceptical about matters may be better suited for spotting potential pitfalls or negative implications.

Perspective pertains to our particular slant on things; i.e. from what angle do you perceive the situation. For instance, if we are watching a parade on Water Street from a balcony on the second or third floor, our view will likely be more encompassing than from the ground or basement level. Another example might be two people overhear the exact same story but they each recite the event with a different slant. Perhaps the first person adds their own twist while the other unconsciously omits relevant details.

Orientation is related to where the observer is coming from and where they are headed. A person with a career in medicine may not approach the same issue as a person coming from a background in security. As an example let us say that the economy should get really bad and tens of thousands of homeless people started to fill your city streets. How a medical team consisting of various health professionals will address this crises compared to a security team of police officers & combat soldiers will be largely different. The medical team may focus on opening more clinics to treat the influx of patients, whereas the police may endeavour to round up and put the disadvantaged into camps well outside of the city parameters.

Based on these three relational approaches to gathering information we can more effectively detect weaknesses and strengths, thus work towards a more fair and objective overview of a situation or subject. If we fail to consider all the points of view regarding any state of affair, then we’ll probably end up with a lopsided understanding. Therefore to affirm and validate our position it would be prudent to know – and know well – the views of all those concerned.





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