Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Having an enquiring mind

Having an inquiring mind: Making new connections


Robert Leslie Fielding

  Having an inquiring mind means having the ability to make connections which are not always immediately apparent’   It is akin to having intelligence: the ability to form sensible conclusions based on incomplete evidence.  ‘Intelligent behaviour is that which involves reasoning, judgment, planning, inferencing and other generalized and complex mental or intellectual activities.’

To a greater or lesser degree, we all have it.  We all possess the quality of intelligence.  
Exercising those faculties that contribute to and are part of our intelligence is something that we do to a certain extent automatically, every day of our lives.  How many of us make a conscious effort to exercise those faculties creatively?

Those mental faculties: reasoning, using our judgment, planning, and inferring, are not unlike the muscles of our limbs, in that if they are not exercised readily they lose some of their power.

Exercising your creative powers does not have to be Earth shattering.  It can start from thinking about the most seemingly insignificant things.  Concentrate on the process rather than the end product.  If you do that, your thoughts will flow in all directions.  If you try to force the issue by thinking purely about your ultimate destination, the journey will be spoiled.  Here is an example of what I mean.

Sitting in a restaurant, trying to use chopsticks for the first time in my life, recently, I came to wonder why some people use them while other people use the knives and forks.

I remembered thinking that it probably had nothing to do with their effectiveness as utensils:  Chinese people can remove food from their plates just as quickly as I can with my metal knife and fork.

Of course, tradition has something to do with it.  I was taught how to use a knife and a fork at a very early age, and have used them ever since.  No doubt the same is true for those people who use chopsticks every day of their lives.  The answer to the question lies somewhere else.

It surely has something to do with the materials they are made from, and the way they are made.  A couple of straight shoots from a bamboo plant will suffice for chop sticks, whereas knives and forks are made of steel, usually stainless steel, or chrome plated steel, and so can virtually only be made using heavy presses and precision-made press tools, in factories, by skilled craftsmen.

Chop sticks tie in with rural economies, knives and forks with industrial ones, which almost certainly means chop sticks predate metal utensils, and probably by many thousands of years too.

The exercise of thinking involved in reaching that conclusion was not anything brilliantly intelligent, but it did include reasoning, judgment and inferring, though not planning, but it did involve combining known facts with a certain amount of reasoning until something new emerged.

Without planning, without direction, mental activity of that kind is usually referred to as daydreaming.  I was always being ticked off for doing it at school, I remember.  

Considering problems logically without jumping to conclusions that cannot reasonably be supported by evidence or rational judgment is what having an inquiring mind is all about.

The corollary of this proposition is its opposite: considering problems without full recourse to reasoned judgment and jumping to conclusions that cannot be supported by evidence is prejudice.  That is reaching conclusions that are based on incomplete or unsubstantiated evidence.  

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound very different to the definition of intelligent behavior outlined above.  In fact, the main difference is in the absence of the word ‘sensible’ in the second definition.

‘Sensible’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘Having or showing good sense – reasonable – judicious – moderate – practical’.

The word ‘reasonable’ is defined thus: ‘In accordance with reason – not absurd – having sound judgment – within the limits of reason’.

And in turn, ‘judicious’ is defined as: ‘sensible – prudent – sound in discernment and judgment’.

‘Moderate’ is: ‘Avoiding extremes – temperate in conduct or expression’.

There seems to be a certain amount of circularity in working out what intelligent behavior consists of, but that circularity is mainly semantic.

In more practical terms, intelligent behavior is that which has a large component of what we refer to as ‘common sense’.

Reaching sensible conclusions based on incomplete evidence must be tempered with common sense.  If the conclusions are reached are based on factors such as personal bias and motivation then the chances are that they will not be reasonable, judicious, moderate or practical.

This is not to say that emotions have no place in rationality, in making reasoned judgments, but rather that an undue amount of emotional input can be detrimental to an argument one is putting forward or that one is defending.

Instead, exercising one’s rational judgment is nearer reaching those conclusions that any other reasonable individual would reach, armed with the same knowledge.  It is rather like utilizing the intelligence of other intelligent people in order to verify one’s own thoughts on a particular matter.

The largest organism in the world is a grove of some sort of shrub in the state of Colorado that botanists thought were unconnected.  They subsequently found that all the shrubs in the grove had root systems that were, in fact, interconnected.

In terms of mankind, perhaps we constitute an interconnected state too.  What reasonable people would call reaching reasonable conclusions based on common sense would surely constitute some kind of interconnectedness, wouldn’t it?

Set in a historical framework, and taking into account the fact that Western modes of thinking constitute only a fraction of the totality of modes of rationality, having an inquiring mind is tantamount to no less than inheriting the critical faculty of one’s predecessors, and passing it on to those that follow.
Robert L. Fielding


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