The key to powerful thinking is powerful questioning. When we ask the right questions, we succeed as a thinker and progress as a society.
If we think of all of the big innovations in our world like the internet or the lightbulb, they all started with one question “How can we make things better?”. We didn’t settle for the status quo. We wanted to break the norms or at least understand them.
There’s so much upside to asking questions yet most of us aren’t using this superpower in the right way.
Recently, I started learning about the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes(1596–1650) who doubts in his work “Meditations” about everything because he wants to know the underlying truth.
Meditation as a literary genre is where the author is self-reflecting and presenting his thoughts, and the reader is encouraged to strive for similar reflections.
I learned a TON from researching this book about how we can continuously ask questions and build our own opinions about topics. There’s a whole deal in here about how we can become better thinkers. Hint: we need to start doubting things more.
The 3 main lessons I learned from Descartes are:
- Your senses don’t always tell the truth.
- The fact that you think proves that you exist.
- There are three levels of truth in the world.
Questioning your senses.
How often do you question the things you believe in? For most people, the answer to this is not very often.
A lot of us have built up our understanding and view of the world on things that aren’t 100% true. The way I like to see it is that anything that can be doubted in even the slightest way is probably not the truth.
Approaching life with a healthy dose of skeptical doubt means first not believing everything your senses tell you.
I think the best way to practice this is by using First Principles Thinking. This is just a fancy way of explaining the breakdown of information to its core where no assumptions hold true anymore.
Here are three main steps that influencers like Elon Musk have deployed this:
- Identify and define your current assumptions
If you’re ever faced with a problem or challenge, simply write down your current assumptions about them. Assumptions = anything that doesn’t have data to back it up.
2. Breakdown the problem into its fundamental principles
These fundamental principles are basically the most basic truths or elements of anything. A lot of our insecurities, fears etc. are rooted in these.
The best way to uncover these truths is to ask a ton of questions.
3. Create new solutions from scratch
Once you’ve identified and broken down your problems or assumptions into their most basic truths, you can iterate and come up with solutions from scratch.
Your ability to think = proof of existence.
This is where Descartes most famous line “I think, therefore I am” comes in. Given that all our senses can be doubted, what’s even left?
According to Descartes, the one thing we can rely on is knowing that as long as you think, you truly exist. Even if your nose tells you that there’s a smell coming from around the corner, by thinking about it you can challenge this. Maybe the thing does exist, maybe it doesn’t, maybe you’re just dreaming but regardless, if you think about the thing it proves that you exist.
I think the two things that lead you to this level are: 1. a deep self-understanding of yourself and your surroundings and 2. a constant need to understand.
Whatever our brain perceives, true or not, and can make judgments about, is further proof for our own existence. This means that most things in our brain hold true, but what about all the other stuff in the world?
Everything in the world fits into one of three categories of truth.
Okay, so your brain is reliable, but your senses aren’t. That leaves us with three different levels of truth then:
- The truth of things you can explain using only your mind.
- The truth of things you can explain by using your senses.
- The truth of things you can explain with a mix of your mind and senses.
Descartes says the first level is the most sound, simply because thinking is our most reliable asset. That’s why math, a sole construct of the mind, for example, is very rational and will often be harder to prove wrong.
Level two truths are less reliable because they rely on our senses. A lot of this is based on our perception of something in particular and might now always be accurate.
The last level is usually quite far from the truth.
Although there can be nuance, the next time you need to solve a problem try to think about which category it goes into and using first principles create a new solution from scratch.
Here are some ways you can deploy this into your life:
- Figure out your current framework for solving problems, dismantle it by breaking down any assumptions you make.
- Develop a new framework for problem-solving using first principles.
- Break down your fundamental elements for things like your fears and insecurities.