Last week I said to watch me for the changes. Well, we’re not there yet. We’re going to take real ideas and evaluate them using philosophy. I’ve said that. For the past year, I’ve been doing it. But I’ve never talked about how it works, not directly. Today I’ll discuss the five elements of philosophy that are really relevant here, and how they apply in the big picture. You know that each one of these has applications, because you already use them to one extent or another, but let’s pick them out.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Any time you ask “How do you know that?” you’re asking an epistemic question. A lot of it focuses on how we can know something is true and what it means for something to be true. As you can imagine, this comes up a lot. In business, non-profits, relationships, and other areas of our lives, we make promises and create expectations. There are always challenges to that. How do we know we can deliver on time? What justifications are there for our expected outcomes? We have beliefs about these things, but how do we know they’re good ones? Not all beliefs are created equal, after all.
One of the tools you use a lot for this is counterfactual thinking. You wonder “What if…” imagining outcomes and coming up with the best justifications for which one seems the most likely. All planning involves this, and you’ll usually run through arrays of possibilities, ruling some out and leaving others in. How do you do that? Well, that’s where we do the work. Why is expected outcome A more likely than B? What do you do when something totally unexpected happens? Ideas have to be able to adapt quickly, especially in business or media, so being able to quickly run down the course of likely outcomes can help you switch streams before things go south, rather than scrambling afterward.
2. Critical Thinking
I can’t stress it enough. I’ve talked about it at length with logic, and in the future we’ll do more of that, as well as looking at probability and a host of other interesting problems. Human beings come built with blind spots, but the more aware we are of their existence, the more we can take steps to avoid them, or to establish a system of checks and balances to weed them out. Some of this has to do with the way our biases work, and some of it is just hardware, when things get so big that we can’t fit them into our heads. I’ve already written about how you’re not a good critical thinker, even if you think you are, but you can always get better.
A lot of it is about being skeptical, about picking out the parts that sound too good to be true, or that don’t seem to follow from the rest. It doesn’t mean discarding those parts, but it does mean examining them and making sure they work. Critical thinking builds better ideas, and in the long run, better projects.
Sometimes the question isn’t “Does it work?” but “Should we do it?” You can solve world hunger and the population problem simultaneously by cooking up half the people on earth and serving them to the rest. That doesn’t mean you should do it (seriously, don’t do it). Evaluating the ethics of an idea can be pretty tough sometimes, but at its core it involves taking into account how the outcome and execution will affect other people’s interests. There are lots of accounts of how to sort these out, and we’ll look at a few of them. As you know, finding the right thing to do isn’t always as clear as you’d like it to be.
There are lots of other ways to evaluate ideas, and we’ll look at those too. Effectiveness for one, the ability to accomplish their chosen goals. Potential for growth, ease of sustainability, and return on investment (though sometimes a dirty term) are all decent ways too. A comprehensive look will incorporate all of those and more. But each of those breaks down into epistemology, critical thinking, and ethics. How do you know it’s effective, or has growth potential? What have you overlooked, what’s too good to be true? Does it take people’s interests into account in the ways it ought to? These are some of the things we’ll be looking at in the coming months, to sharpen skills and then apply them to real ideas that do or will operate in the world. What’s the most important thing to you when thinking about an idea?