Course Review | The Philosopher’s Toolkit, by Prof. Patrick Grim


Think (Photo credit: aftab.)

I’ve recently finished viewing and taking notes from this course, taught by Professor Patrick Grim of State University of New York(SUNY) at Stony Brook, who does a good job of conveying the lessons in this 24 lecture series from the Teaching Company.

The course is about both how we do think, and how we can do it better, more clearly, smarter, not harder, though there will be work involved in getting there. It involves both the descriptive and the normative dimensions of human thought.

The toolkit is a set of techniques for using logical thinking, quick rules of thumb for thinking that can work well and reliably in the right context, and methods for easier problem-solving that are remarkably effective when put into practice.

The lessons of cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the methods of the great thinkers throughout history, those who made thinking their very life’s business, are reviewed, described, explained, and put to use in a series of entertaining and enlightening presentations.

This course uses scientific data to ground the lessons, and takes a largely philosophical approach to rigorous thinking, hardly an inconsistency, as the instructor does a good job of blending the two together.

The first lecture, ‘How We Think and How To Think Better,’ lays the groundwork for the course, “to develop a set of conceptual skills that is useful in all kinds of thinking.”

‘Cool Rationality and Hot Thought,’ discusses the balance that is needed in thinking, not pure logic and not blind emotion, but a mix of the two working together, with logic working best for long-term decisions, and emotions acting as a quick method for immediate, short-term decisions when logic would be too slow to be of use.

Lecture 3, ‘The Strategy of Visualization,’ is just what it says, a series of techniques for better harnessing something that many of us are already good at, imagination, as a tool for solving puzzles, paradoxes, and problems. A completely non-mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem is demonstrated.

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pytha...

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pythagoras theorem, for reference to proof see Pythagorean Theorem at Cut the Knot Deutsch: Ein animierter, geometrische Beweis für den Satz des Pythagoras Esperanto: Movbilda pruvo de la teoremo de Pitagoro Français : Animation présentant une démonstration géométrique du théorème de Pythagore Português: Prova geométrica animada do Teorema de Pitágoras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Visualizing Concepts and Propositions,’ deals with the atoms of thought — concepts we have of things — and the propositions, the joining together of concepts into statements. The uses and dangers of categorizing concepts of things are discussed, as is the use of diagrams as a tool to make easier use of logical statements.

‘The Power of Thought Experiments,’ illustrates the use of the ideas in the previous two lectures for using the imagination as a tool for effective, real-world problem solving.

Lecture 6, ‘Thinking Like Aristotle,’ discusses the brilliant idea of seeing patterns in human thought, and the concept of making the whole messy process better, more accurate, quicker, even easier. Aristotle’s classical Square of Opposition is explained, making conceptualizing his logic even easier in this graphic layout.

‘Ironclad, Airtight Validity,’ is about just that, the notion that the conclusion of a set of statements must be true if the logic is valid in the strongest sense and the premises are true. Diagrams are used to explain the workings of syllogisms, arguments with two premises and a conclusion, as well as the limits of deductive arguments.

Particularly useful is lecture no.8, ‘Thinking Outside the Box,’ which is less a of lecture and more of a hands-on workshop for creative thinking, and one is loads of fun as well.

Next, ‘The Flow of Argument,’ makes use of a more complex, less rigorously certain form of argument using everyday reasoning, but which is nonetheless useful for telling us things we can be confident in knowing even without airtight validity. The flow diagram is introduced, and how the argument moves from statement to statement can be followed and understood.

‘Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart,’ deals with quick rules of thumb for thinking, limited, not infallible, but useful and in a pinch better than complete calculations in many situations. Caveats are given for these occasions when the heuristics may not reliably apply. The pros and cons of rational calculation and ‘going with your gut’ are discussed in detail.

The humorously titled lecture,‘Why We Make Misteaks’ deals with systematic error in human thinking and perception, bias and and better means of dealing with the different sorts of bias by making ourselves more aware of and looking out for them.

‘Rational Discussion in a Polarized Context,’ lecture 12, discusses the process of polarization and the phenomenon of Kripkean dogmatism on issues even the most otherwise rational individuals may feel strongly on, as well as suggestions for dealing with it.

Note that the effectiveness of those suggestions is not guaranteed — unfortunately, this is a philosophy course dealing with rationality in the real world, not wizardry lessons at Hogwarts!

‘Rhetoric versus Rationality,’ deals with the history of rhetoric, its dark side, the ethics of argument, rhetoric’s positive aspects, and an opportunity to graph the flow of argument with an example of a discussion between two people using techniques from lesson 9.

‘Bogus Arguments and How to Defuse Them,’ defines and describes the use of logical fallacies — errors in reasoning which undermine arguments — and how to immunize oneself against them by noting them in use and calling them out when they are.

Lecture 15, ‘The Great Debate’ is an opportunity to use the two previous lessons to graph the arguments in a live mock debate on democracy between a Mr. McFirst and a Ms. O’Second, to determine what is being argued, how, how effectively, and what logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks are in play.

The 16th lecture, ‘Outwitting the Advertiser,’ discusses deceptive advertising, and the psychological tricks advertisers use to sell their stuff, the ways they push our buttons and exploit our thinking to their advantage, and how to recognize when this is happening.

No. 17 & 18 ‘Putting a Spin on Statistics’ and ‘Poker, Probability, and Everyday Life,’ deals with the various tricks often used to mislead with statistics, the latter a good primer for the beginner on statistical math — very easy to understand.

No. 19 is about Decision Theory, the study of how we as individuals make rational choices and how we may make them better and more reliably. Interestingly, the origin of decision theory in the formulation of Pascal’s wager is discussed, and both the pros and a few of the cons of the argument are noted.

The next, ‘Thinking Scientifically,’ deals with the process of scientific thinking, the nature of science and its relation to pseudo-science, the need for falsification when testing ideas against the real world as general claims. Methods are given for distinguishing good science from bad, and merely bad science from pseudo-science.

‘Put It to the Test — Beautiful Experiments,’ is a talk about backing our own factual claims and evaluating those of others though experimentation. It deals with the structure of the processes we use in testing claims, such things as blinding, double-blinding, randomization of samples in controlled experiments, and the limits of experimentation.

‘Game Theory and Beyond’ is about the study of social rationality as a mathematical model, it’s advantages, benefits, and limits on it, on what both is and what should be rational behavior of groups. Dating from the beginning of the Cold War, and developed by John von Neumann, this field was uses simulated games to assess different strategies for personal, and national, interactions.

Lecture 23, ‘Thinking with Models’ is about the combination of visualization, simplifying, and thought experiments using rules to determine an outcome from a beginning input, and how especially with computers this is a powerful method for predicting, explaining, and simulating the past — retrodiction.

In no. 24 ‘Lessons from the Great Thinkers,’ the series concludes with those who used, conceived, or added to the techniques described and explained in earlier lectures, sort of a wrap-up of what has come before, and hints of what may come in future to clever thinkers yet unknown.

I almost felt regret at reaching the final lecture, but as in any good course, it spurs looking and learning still further. Then again, that’s why I take these courses.

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