Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Purpose of Thinking

Edward de Bono's work deserves more attention than it seems to get.

I want to talk about some things he's said that, stated baldly, are almost guaranteed to start a virtual fistfight. Here's one. Socratically, he asks:

"What is the primary purpose of thinking?"

Think about that for a while, please---or try to; it can be a big slippery question, like a 600-pound lamprey: what the hell is this thing doing in the boat with me?

(Pardon me, please: I'm deliberately formatting this so that the latter part of this post is "below the fold" on most browsers. Scroll down when you're ready.)
de Bono provides this answer to his question:

"The primary purpose of thinking is to abolish thinking."

What could he possibly mean by that?

Audience participation is encouraged. I'll tell you what he says soon enough.


Blogger Leon said...

I'm stumped by his statement.
Could you explain it to me?

For if I do want to abolish thinking, I shouldn't think about how to abolish it. The act of thinking itself contradicts the purpose. Thus I come to the conclusion that

1. He abolished his thinking fully. Thus he managed to come up with this nonsensical statement

2. He tries to abolish my thinking by setting me in an Empedoclean paradox until I go crazy

3a. He is trying to say that there's no purpose in thinking

3b. For thinking of the purpose of thinking abolishes the thought of abolishing thinking. (This is the only scenario where his statements holds true...but still does not hold water)

4. I cannot think properly. By which means I have been more successful for I have already abolished thinking without thinking of abolishing it.

23 July, 2005 07:11  
Blogger Nortius Maximus said...

Yes, it does seem Empedoclean. And by the way, thanks for dropping by and giving it some serious thought.

Permit me to contextualize, and in the process give you a hint of where de Bono is headed:

His approach here is descriptive, rather than prescriptive; and yes, I think he intends to be provocative.

Look at the world, and look at how people generally appear to use thinking.

23 July, 2005 07:59  
Blogger Nortius Maximus said...

Here's another hint: In fiction (movies, etc.), when a character the audience is supposed to identify with (let's call her Marsha) is in a tight spot and trying to solve a problem, what does she say to herself?

"Think, Marsha! Think!"

What does this reveal about the primary purpose of thinking for such a person?

23 July, 2005 08:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The primary purpose of thinking is to abolish thinking." - de Bono

"What could he possibly mean by that?" - Nortius

I have some ideas. First I need to look at what you possibly could mean by *your* statement, Norty.

1. You may want us to list possible meanings of de Bono's statement.

2. It may be a rhetorical question indicating that you think he didn't mean anything important or reasonable by it.

3. You may want to provoke some action by your readers that will demonstrate some point.

4. You may want us to list plausible meanings of the statement.

5. You may want us to specify the actual meaning de Bono himself had in mind when he first wrote that statement.

The first interpretation is easy to answer. There are an infinite number of possible meanings. To name one, it could have meant "Wait 51 days and then end the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas" After all, de Bono published the phrase in his 1992 book Teach Your Child to Think. Shortly afterward, the whole Waco siege happened. It is possible, though absurdly unlikely, that the FBI was taking direction from de Bono, who communicated with them by key phrases published in his books. The phrase in question occurs on page 51 of de Bono's book. The FBI ended the Waco siege after 51 days in early 1993. Coincidence? I think so, but it is POSSIBLE that it was a message.

(I used Google to discover the Waco coincidence. Thus the thinkers at Google abolish some of the thinking I would have had to do without Google.)

The second interpretation is for lesser men than you, Nortius. I reject it.

(Here I used a cliche phrase. Sometime, long ago, a thinker first conceived of that phrase, the rest of us have copied it off each other, ever since. Thinking abolished thinking.)

The third interpretation would mean that my thinking is probably irrelevant.

(That means your thinking may have abolished mine.)

The fourth interpretation is fun.

"Primary purpose" could mean:

- de Bono's main purpose
- my first purpose
- the elementary motivation for all humans
- evolutionary utility
- political utility
- emotional utility
- {X} utility
- the biggest reason a programmer has with regard to create an artificial intelligence

"thinking" could mean:

- conscious reflection
- symbol manipulation in a formal systemm
- feeling
- snap judgment
- talking
- problem-solving
- dreaming
- unconscious incubation of ideas
- participation in a swarm intelligence
- participation in a genetic algorithm

"abolish" could mean:

- make unnecessary
- make illegal
- prevent
- formally put an end to

(From this we can mix and match terms to produce lots of plausible meanings. For instance, he could have meant that "the emotional utility of being part of a swarm is to be absolved of responsibility for solving problems for yourself". Ah HA! Thinking up the individual terms has abolished the need to think of each complete interpretation from scratch.)

The fifth interpretation is simple: de Bono himself explains that what he meant. He's referring to our ability to use thinking to make routines for ourselves so that we don't have to think.

(Had I thought of this interpretation first, all the rest of my thinking could have been abolished.)

-- James Bach

02 August, 2005 18:26  
Blogger Nortius Maximus said...

Dear Mr Bach:

Please choose from any or all of the below as your reward, along with a hearty virtual handshake:

1) Master Po nods at the student who has snatched the pea, and says to Kwai Chang Caine, "Time for you to go."

2) The Stranger (who drifted into town and has just watched the Kid take out ten ruffians with his two sixguns) tips his battered gray ten-gallon Resistol hat back off his forehead, smiles real slow and allows, "That was some powerful purty shootin', feller. Buy you a drink?"

3) It is a pleasure to watch you work, and an honor to have you grace my humble blog. I hope you'll continue to stop by.

Now, let's see about digging deeper. I think there is good news here, even though it can be seen that it is easy to criticise people whose primary purpose in thinking to to stop thinking as quickly as they can.

Rather than tease, I'll say it straight: The good news is that de Bono's two claims, if taken as you, James, have read them do not have to mean that (most?/all?) people are bad, for all that they behave that way--or even "stupid", much as people who pride themselves for thinking more than average might accuse them of being.

It could mean they're/we're (just?/mostly?) somehow disposed to associate thinking with pain and stress--and consequently aren't good at it.

Now, I invite the reader's consideration: granting this proposition for the moment, what are some possible sources of this conjectured disposition?

Cf.: Adjectives are Bad, Adjectives are Blue; "The Problem Is 'The Problem Is'"; de Bono on Critical Thinking (all TBW, links to follow)

02 August, 2005 23:04  

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