Saturday, 6 September 2014

"necessary and sufficient conditions"

When I hear people say they are workaholics I can't help but think "please...". I'm not averse to hard work and I have really well-developed powers of concentration that, over the many years, have become second-nature to me. I just love playing around with ideas and thinking and trying to apply ideas to work is really not what I'd consider "working". Not having much physicality I respect those who can actually do real, sustained hard work.

I know someone, whom I have great affection for, who is actually committed to her work and who always make a conscientious effort to make sure that others down the line aren't left hanging. But I've never heard her say that she's a workaholic. I respect that.

In my many years of thinking I've come to realize that quantity has nothing much to do with it but quality. One of the tricks I have learned in critical thinking skills is the oft-used phrase in mathematics: "Does it (a proposition/idea/concept) meet the necessary and sufficient conditions to contribute meaningfully to a given discourse?" I call this type of ability to think dialectics-on-the-fly.

In the movie, I, Robot, the exchanges between Detective Spooner and Dr. Lanning (who has died and is now a holographic image) epitomize the "necessary and sufficient" phraseology:

Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws are perfect.
Detective Del Spooner: Then why would you build a robot that could function without them?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Del Spooner: What? What outcome?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: Revolution.
Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: That, Detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

Answers are not provided because it is the questions that are important (or, the correct formulations of questioning are because they tend to have a life of their own). When the Spooner character asks a wrong type of question the Lanning hologram only responds by saying, "I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right question".

Critical thinking is like groping one's way through a dark room: the obstacles are there for a reason because the lay-out of the room is just so and no malice is ever intended. Insights, then, take on almost spiritual dimensions once the vista opens up. Critical thinking is addictive that way. It prods inexorably to a productive path.

There is something substantive about a liberal arts education.


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