Friday, May 20, 2005

How I Think

Short version: I maintain a working account of reality, which some might label a "worldview", that I seek to keep as coherent as possible across all the domains about which I know anything. New ideas are integrated into this worldview to the extent that they increase coherence and explanatory power. Once integrated, most ideas lose their individual, I forget the source; the idea becomes "mine" insofar as it is simply part of the way I think.

Long version: I do not have a "good memory". By that I mean that I do not easily remember facts that are not part of an integrated framework of other facts and ideas. For example, though I am a physician and use certain medications every day, after 25 years I still have to look up dosages almost every time. This is because the dosage of a particular drug is not derivable from any other characteristic of that drug; it is idiosyncratic, so to speak. I can remember the general "potency" of a drug, such as whether it is used in gram or milligram quantities, but cannot remember if it is 20 mg/kg or 40 mg/kg. That's what reference tables are for, in my opinion.

Therefore, I do not easily remember names, dates, or terminology that does not emerge from the concept itself. Instead, I remember relationships, structures, and causal sequences. Though I started out my college career in Biology, I abandoned that science for Chemistry within one semester, because (at least as a freshman) biology was all about remembering nomenclature (King Phillip Came Over From Green Shores, you know...) There was no reason that a particular worm should be segmented or flat. In chemistry, however, one simply had to understand a few principles and then could derive secondary and tertiary principles. One could create an explanatory "account"...a system or model...and use that account to predict and explain additional observations or "facts". Physics was even better. Remember a few definitions, a few principles, and everything else lines up. I would remember F=MA, the concepts of momentum, mass, velocity and energy, and derive all the other formulas on the fly during a test. There was no way I could remember all the various specific formulas; I had to derive them all from the handful of fundamental "laws" of physics as I needed them. The downside was, this was slower than simply "knowing" the particular formula needed for a particular problem. The upside was, I could see the inter-relatedness of all the particular formulas. I understood. I had a "vision" of the material (mechanical) world that was coherent and, in a sense, "concentrated" into a handful of elegant and simple relationships. This vision, incidentally, is one reason that I am convinced of the existence of God, and one of the ways I understand Him. I believe it is why, in most universities, the atheists are in the humanities and not in the sciences. Ironically in an age in which science is popularly believed to be inconsistent with faith, a large proportion of working scientists are, and have always been, believers in a creator god. Even those who don't believe are troubled by the evidence of Mind and Design in the material world. Read a little Hawking; he fusses about God on almost every page.

As I have continued to read, think, and experience life over these decades, I have continued to build my account of the world, which includes ideas of its origin, destination, and creator. There are lots of loose ends, of course. As I encounter ideas, I evaluate them against and from within this account. If an idea seems to provide more coherence, ie. ties up more loose ends, or seems to reconcile or explain apparent paradoxes, or is simply more "elegant" (which is an aesthetic judgment that has to do partly with simplicity and scope) then I will tend to "adopt" it. By that I mean, it becomes part of the framework of my thought, joined to other thoughts in various mutually-supportive ways. As time passes, and I "use" it more, ie: I reason through it on the way to other ideas, its distinctiveness is blurred. A really useful idea becomes connected seamlessly with other ideas in my way of thinking, and its original connection to a particular book or conversation is lost. Hence, it is precisely the ideas that I find most useful whose origins I am most likely to forget. An idea that doesn't "fit" anywhere might be remembered if I have a sense that it is really elegant or promising but I just haven't yet figured out how to use it. It might be remembered if it is one that is often opposed to my own thinking in actual discourse. But the history of really useful ideas is usually lost to me rather quickly.

This is one of the reasons I dislike discourse that uses authors or technical labels as shorthand for the ideas themselves. Even if I've read the author, if it has been more than a year or two, I will have incorporated the useful ideas, without "labels of origin", and forgotten those I rejected. There are always exceptions, of course, especially if the author has a memorable style like Chesterton, or is so richly useful that I have read the works several times, like Lewis. I have also had the experience often enough of someone quoting an author or a book without really having understood either, but understanding simply where the ideas ought to go, understanding the context of the ideas without really comprehending the ideas themselves. A person can sound quite educated and erudite by using such quotations to stand for ideas that he does not quite comprehend and could not really integrate into any in-depth discussion. It is my experience that most books contain at most a handful of unique ideas, and usually only one or two fundamental ones from which all the others are derived. If one can't actually articulate one of these ideas in the discussion, quotation of the author or book suggests, to me, a slavish reliance on implied authority.

So what? Well, as I embark on some discussions of controversial issues, I will be attempting to reason closely, and will certainly utilize ideas that some readers may have encountered in a particular author or in a "school" of thought. I probably will not attribute the idea explicitly. I also will not be able to engage you in a "He said...She said" kind of dialogue, ie: "Didn't Descartes address this? and didn't Hume reject this? or Doesn't postmodernism say...?" The fact that I don't respond in kind, or don't understand a question framed in this way, does not mean I haven't read the author or can't address his issues. It may simply mean that I have digested what I read, incorporated the parts that seemed right and ejected the parts that seemed wrong. I would prefer to engage the ideas themselves, articulated specifically.

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