A Technique for Thinking Clearly

In Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the protagonist describes a mental technique he often used when working on scientific and philosophical projects, to keep himself objective and neutralize his biases as much as possible. I’ve been trying it out as I’ve been traveling, and it’s been really helpful in staying grounded and thinking effectively.

Here’s the idea:

Often, when people see/hear/experience something, they’ll come up with some interpretation (we’ll call this their “hypothesis“) of what it means. This, of course, is completely natural and necessary for surviving in the world. Human beings need to be able to absorb things from their environment, compare it to what they’ve known in the past, and project into the future. In a sense, this is the process that underlies most action.

However, as people get older and they amass more and more experiences, they develop a tendency to interpret too quickly and over-confidently  They tend to think they know more about the world than they actually do, and as a result they unconsciously inject large amounts of their own biases and beliefs into their interpretations. This can lead to people making bad decisions or overlooking important details, as well as to a general constricting of the world as people lose their ability to see past what they’ve already seen.

The technique used by Pirsig’s protagonist is this: whenever you develop some hypothesis based on an experience, develop a second hypothesis exactly opposite to the first, and see how that fits with the same evidence. If the set of facts supports both conclusions equally well, then neither of them have any particular justification outside of your personal hopes and expectations. If one of them is more supported than the other, then that is a good sign that you’ve got the right idea.

We humans put enormous pressure on ourselves to feel as if we know and to understand, convincing ourselves we have a grip on what’s going on even when we have no idea. This technique has been very helpful in helping me get a handle on the limits of my knowledge, freeing me from the temptation to lie to myself. Maybe it’ll do the same for you?


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