Using Questions in Thinking

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Elliot Temple

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Jan 22, 2020, 5:14:18 PM1/22/20
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First draft. Thoughts, comments, problems, questions?



# Using Questions in Thinking

Thinking and learning effectively involves asking and answer *many* questions. When you have a new idea, or you read about an idea that’s new to you, you must *question it*. This is a bit different than trying to criticize it by finding things wrong with it. Questions can be friendly/helpful or challenging or neutral. Think of all sorts of questions about how it works, what all the parts and details are, how those work, what the purpose is, how it accomplishes its purpose, how the idea was developed, what other ideas its connected to, how it answers various potential challenges/criticisms/doubts/objections/etc.

Treat this like brainstorming where you turn off your filter. They don’t have to be very good questions. Include questions you already know the answer to. Include easy questions and hard questions. Include questions you’re sure have a good answer. Just come up with a *ton* of them.

The **first step** is brainstorming questions. Then, as the **second step**, try to answer the questions. (The steps aren’t strictly ordered. You may think of more questions while answering some.)

If you’re learning from a book (or article, podcast, video, etc), try to find answers in the book. The author thought of many of the same questions and wrote things to help answer some of them.

Consider answers that are common sense or standard culture knowledge. What should an educated person in our society already know or be able to think of?

Consider your own answers. Try to come up with your own ideas.

Consider expert answers. What would a specialist say about this using some of his special training? Often you won’t know. You can skip this. But sometimes it’s worth looking into. Or sometimes you’re dealing with a field where you’re a specialist so you can comment on the expert point of view.

You can have an answer, or even several answers, of each type, for each question. Look for at least one answer per question, but having several is good.

Don’t filter yourself when coming up with answers. They don’t have to be good answers. They can be that you don’t know. They can be any idea you have about an answer. Like with the questions, quality isn’t a big concern here.

As a **third step**, look over what you have. Decide which questions you think are important, which answers you think are good, what important unanswered questions are left, etc. Figure out what answers satisfy you and what you still have more questions about. For philosophy and other important stuff or stuff where it’s easy to be wrong, try to be really picky and demanding and have high standards. In this step, you do judge quality and filter stuff. You get out of brainstorming mode and try to reach some conclusions.

When you look at unanswered questions, note the difference between your own answer vs. an answer the author said or would expect an educated person to know. Don’t think of your ideas as things that were in the book. And don’t think of things that were in the book as your ideas. This isn’t the most important thing about learning but it does matter. You don’t want to put words in other people’s mouths where you talk about their ideas but you’re saying ideas they don’t believe. But you also don’t wanna leave people out, and give them no credit, when you’re using ideas you learned from them. Also if you have to come up with your own original idea to answer a question, that’s a hole in the book’s reasoning, so there’s an error there. Also it’s good if you have a reasonable understanding of what the typical reader would be seeing in a book, otherwise you won’t be able to communicate with others very well.

How do you come up with questions? Try to look at what you don’t know or what more could be explained. And there are a bunch of standard or generic questions you can use to help you get started and come up with some lines of questioning, like:

- What problem does this idea solve?
- How does the idea solve the problem?
- What is the motivation for this idea?
- What sub-ideas is this idea built from?
- How do the sub-ideas fit together?
- What other ideas is this idea related to? What are the relationships? This can include both specific other ideas or whole fields.
- What are the consequences or implications of this idea?
- What are the next steps to develop this idea further?
- What are the outstanding, known problems or flaws with this idea, if any?
- Does this idea have any limitations, weaknesses or downsides?
- What background knowledge is relevant for fully understanding this idea?
- How can someone learn this idea? What steps should they take? What resources are available?
- Is it a big idea or a small idea? Is it complicated or simple?
- Has the idea been written down? Once or multiple times? Is it well known or obscure?
- When was the idea first thought of?
- Has the idea changed over time? If so, what were the changes and why?
- Are there any reasons a person might not like the idea? Might it seem bad to someone?
- Are there any common values or traditions which the idea clashes with or threatens, or might appear to?
- Are there any common misunderstandings of the idea?

Elliot Temple
www.elliottemple.com

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum

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Feb 12, 2020, 1:02:45 AM2/12/20
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On Wed, Jan 22, 2020 at 02:14:14PM -0800, Elliot Temple wrote:

> [For evaluating an idea,] there are a bunch of standard or generic questions you can use to help you get started and come up with some lines of questioning, like:

> - What sub-ideas is this idea built from?

To help myself understand this question better, I picked a few categories of ideas, picked an idea in each category, and asked the question for each idea. The results are in the list below.

IDEA CATEGORY, e.g. EXAMPLE IDEA: <*incomplete* list of sub-ideas from which EXAMPLE IDEA is built>
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

- software, e.g. Windows 10: GUI, file system, operating system with system calls.

- individual algorithms, e.g. Quicksort: loops, compares, swaps, recursion, pivot selection, divide-and-conquer.

- the *implementation* of an algorithm, e.g. sort.Strings in the Go 1.14 standard library: Quicksort, Heapsort, Mergesort, an interface for a sortable type (sort.Interface), median-of-medians algorithm for pivot selection, tricks to limit max recursion depth.

- math theorems, e.g. Pick's theorem: general lattice polygons, lattice triangles, dividing into triangles, angles, sum of angles in a polygon or triangle.

- philosophy ideas, e.g. YESNO: Critical rationalism, (maybe) Objectivism (at least, Objectivism's emphasis on yes/no questions).

- tools, e.g. a hammer: a handle and a head.

Being built from sub-ideas seems to be a common attribute of knowledge deliberately created by people. In some cases, at least, it's also an attribute of knowledge *not* deliberately created by people:

- living organisms, e.g. a bird: eyes, feathers, heart, lungs, laying eggs, eating food.

- viruses, e.g. Wuhan coronavirus: I actually don't know what viruses are built from.

- memes, e.g. the meme for waving hello: (maybe) the idea of communication with gestures, (maybe) the idea that showing an empty hand is non-threatening.

Elliot Temple

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Feb 12, 2020, 11:23:55 PM2/12/20
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I heard – no idea if true – that shaking hands helps show you aren’t hiding a weapon in your sleeve. Could apply to waving too.

Waving has good visibility at a long distance.

---

Lots of your stuff is broad, big, abstract. Here’s an example that’s more specific in some ways:

There is a criticism of minimum wage consisting of basically two sub-ideas:

1) A criticism of price controls
2) Pointing out that minimum wage is a price control


Another example: I want Mexican food for dinner.

Some sub-ideas: The Mexican restaurant I like is open now. It’s affordable. I’m not in the mood for pizza. I’m not in the mood to cook. I think the other people I’m with will be OK with Mexican food. I don’t think there will be a wait. It’s not far away.


Elliot Temple
www.elliottemple.com

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum

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Feb 13, 2020, 1:32:34 AM2/13/20
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On Wed, Feb 12, 2020 at 08:23:52PM -0800, Elliot Temple wrote:

> There is a criticism of minimum wage consisting of basically two sub-ideas:
>
> 1) A criticism of price controls
> 2) Pointing out that minimum wage is a price control

Good example. I had thought of this kind of thing, though I didn't include it in my list, when I considered *proofs* of theorems.

For example, Pick's theorem says that the area of any lattice polygon (which is basically a polygon with vertices at integer points, i.e., points on the Cartesian plane where both x and y are integers) is I + B/2 - 1, where I is the number of integer points located strictly in the interior of the polygon and B is the number of integer points on the border of the polygon. Pick's theorem can be proved by showing that:

- Any lattice polygon contains 2I + B - 2 primitive lattice triangles (i.e., triangles with no integer points located strictly in their interior).

- The area of a primitive lattice triangle is 1/2.

> Another example: I want Mexican food for dinner.
>
> Some sub-ideas: The Mexican restaurant I like is open now. It’s affordable. I’m not in the mood for pizza. I’m not in the mood to cook. I think the other people I’m with will be OK with Mexican food. I don’t think there will be a wait. It’s not far away.

Good example. I hadn't thought of a preference as being composed of sub-ideas like that. If asked, I might have categorized those ideas primarily as answers to a different question: "What other ideas is this idea related to?" But now I think it's better to think of them as answers to the sub-ideas question, as you did, because "I want Mexican food for dinner" is really a way to roll up all those ideas into one. Therefore, it's more specific to think of them as *sub-ideas*, rather than merely as *related* ideas (which is a more general category than sub-ideas).

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum

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Feb 18, 2020, 10:08:02 PM2/18/20
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On Wed, Jan 22, 2020 at 02:14:14PM -0800, Elliot Temple wrote:

> [For evaluating an idea,] there are a bunch of standard or generic questions you can use to help you get started and come up with some lines of questioning, like:

> - What are the next steps to develop this idea further?

One way I was thinking to answer this is to think of problems that the idea doesn't already solve. For example:

- a computer could be made faster

- an algorithm could be made more efficient

- a theorem could be strengthened or its restrictions weakened

- a manufacturing process could be improved so that a good can be produced more cheaply

- after noticing a mistake, one could look for a series of similar mistakes and, if found, look for a way to fix the root cause

- a plan could be made more efficient in its use of time

- corn could be bred that is more nutritious and/or disease-resistant

The "next steps" question also applies to knowledge created in nature by evolution and natural selection. Although I don't think we know how to alter organisms' DNA to make them more successful at replicating in their natural environments, we do have ideas about how to breed things so that they become more valuable to *people*. This helps those organisms replicate more, e.g., as patio11 [wrote on Twitter](https://twitter.com/patio11/status/1229250665286733826):

> ... part of me always thinks, of plants could talk about their evolutionary strategies, being a performance enhancing drug for humans would actually be a bit of bragging rights.
>
> “Oh you have fruit deer like to distribute your seeds? Hah. I rooted the terraformers.”
>
> “So they eat your fruit and distribute your seeds?”
>
> “They *cultivate* me. They put *enormous sacks of my seeds* onto their machines and then burn all the other plants to get everyone out of my way.”
>
> “Wait no way.”
>
> “They will take me to Mars with them. Good luck w/ deer!”

Elliot Temple

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Feb 18, 2020, 10:20:08 PM2/18/20
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GISTE

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Jun 6, 2020, 9:39:12 AM6/6/20
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I noticed some similarities between the ideas in this email and
something else I was thinking about earlier in the day before reading
this email.

- When you want to analyze your own thoughts/emotions, there should be
(at least) two distinct steps. (1) discovery mode, and (2) criticize the
ideas that you discovered from step 1. But people often do these steps
simultaneously. That can easily have the effect of messing up step 1.
Like you might notice a thought you had, and then you criticize it
immediately, and then you quit discover mode.

- Sometimes somebody gives personA a criticism of one of personA’s
ideas, and then personA agrees immediately and doesn’t ask any
questions or anything else. So that line of discussion ends
preemptively, before any learning can happen. It’s a superficial
agreement that does not result in personA actually changing his mind.

-- GISTE
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