There is a certain state of mind. It is not something you can attain easily. To reach it requires constant work, an insuppressible curiosity, and years of experience. As far as I know, there is no technical term for it. If I had to name it, I would call it “complex thought”.
It is perhaps best contrasted to the typical way of thinking of an adolescent: “I know that there is only one answer; It is my answer, and it is the only correct one.” When we’re young, the answers seem simple and pure, and we marvel that the adults around us do not see it that way.
So here I find myself, years later, and my perspective has turned 180 degrees. If there is one thing I have learned by now, it is that the simple truth is neither simple nor true. Always we are working with incomplete knowledge, never fully understanding. And there are always more ways than one of looking at something, of thinking about it.
For example, let’s take one of the deepest rooted assumptions of western civilization: “All live is sacred.” It is this deep-seated belief that underlies two of the toughest moral issues our society is now facing: euthanasia and abortion. In recent years, we have started to question this assumption. We ask ourselves at which point life stops being sacred, when it can and perhaps must be ended, guilt-free.
The easy approach to thinking about such an issue is to pick one side and blind yourself to any other viewpoint. You pick up one, two, maybe three core arguments and then repeat those arguments in varying forms until the opposition gives in.
In the mindset of complex thought, the problem becomes multi-dimensional. Rather than looking at the surface characteristics, you dig deeper and try to find the root of the problem. First: where are both sides coming from?
One side is leaning heavily on what has for nearly two millennia been the philosophical underpinnings of our world: Christianity. As all life is created by God, it is not for us human beings to decide when to end it. But the story doesn’t start there: the sanctity of life is something that, along with many other things, was inherited from Judaism, going back another millenium. So on the one hand we have an idea that is at least three thousand years old, probably older still. It may be because of this idea that most of the world is now Christian rather than pagan: caring for the sick, monogamy and prohibitions on birth-control, abortion and infanticide were part of why Christians did so much better than Romans and became a dominant force in the empire. Clearly this idea has merit.
The other side of the argument reasons from quality of life. For euthanasia, this means asking whether life spent in constant discomfort is worth the trouble for its own sake. In the case of abortion, it is the prevention of life spent among unready and possibly unfit parents. These things are observable, measurable, empirical. Metaphysical implications need to take a back-seat to what we can know for certain in the here and now. Such thinking is far more recent, popularized by science and first formalized by late 17th century philosophers, notably John Locke. Locke found himself surrounded by extremists among scientists, clergy, and laymen alike, who acted on whatever wild idea came into their minds. He sought to bring reason and moderation by encouraging a distrust of any line of reasoning that did not find its root in provable, observable evidence. This has been at the heart of the overwhelming success of the scientific method. Clearly, there is something to be said for this as well.
Besides the mindset of both sides of the argument, there is the framework in which the problem is discussed. What counts as admissible evidence? What are we counting, along what scale? What is the most desirable goal? Within a theological framework, the metaphysical implications are important. Within a scientific framework, they are not. A humanitarian framework focuses on the rights and abilities of the individual, a sociological or political framework looks at everything but the individual.
These are things that a complex thinker considers as a matter of course: history, philosophy, logic, beliefs, causes, primary and secondary effects — the list goes on. Of course, this doesn’t make it easier to make a decision. In fact, it becomes much harder. But that is the way it should be. We live in a universe that is “not just more complicated than we imagine, but more complicated that we can imagine.”
As a result, the complex thinker is never completely sure of his or her answer. After all, if there are so many different ways of thinking about the same subject, how can one person claim to have understood them all, united them all to one absolute answer? A complex thinker does not believe in absolutes. She has seen them fail too often.
In fact, the true complex thinker rarely feels the need to settle on a single answer. He does not judge, does not define, does not try to narrow his thinking into a single point. He keeps all the lines open, considers them besides each other. If an answer is required, he can condense his current perspective to one, but it is temporary — something lightly held and easily changed.
A complex thinker needn’t tie herself to one system, one set of values, one way of thinking. Therefore context becomes vastly more important. What is the right thing to do, if there even is such a thing? At one time, it may be dictated by a the golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do unto you. Another time, she may apply the rule of the jungle: the fittest survives for the good of the species. The brain of a complex thinker is always in a storm, but she finds harmony within the storm.
Hopefully I have convinced you that being a complex thinker is something worthy to aspire to. If you feel inclined to pursue this idea, here are a few hints from my own, still growing,experience.
Question your assumptions.
This is not easy to do. Our brains are understandably geared toward preserving energy, and having to think constantly is not something that comes naturally. Especially when the rewards for doing so are not readily apparent. So you have to make it a habit. Teach yourself certain triggers. Whenever you find yourself saying or thinking words like ‘naturally’, ‘everyone knows’ or ‘of-course’, that is when you know that you’ve just based your thinking on an assumption that needs to be examined. For example: Should making money and holding a steady job be my goal in life? Does that give me happiness? If society claims that this is the road I must take, should I believe that without question? What alternatives are there? Do any of them work better for me?
After doing this for a while, you may be surprised to find how deep certain assumptions go. It also helps to be aware of the society you were brought up in, because that will most likely be the source of your deepest assumptions. Study foreign culture, anthropology: bring your own societal values into clearer focus by contrasting them. Study history: learn where your basic ideas came from, in what conditions there first arose and whether they still apply to your situation today.
Don’t invest yourself
Learn to let go. You needn’t tie you self-worth nor your identity to the way you think. Hundreds of years of increasing human understanding, personal freedom, education and modernism have led to this: that you are completely free to believe what you want. So don’t waste that right by using it only once — by finding one belief, one way of thinking for yourself and sticking to that from then on. You are allowed to change your mind. A lot. To the point where you give a different answer to the same question every time it is asked.
Be widely, wildly, impulsively interested
To be a complex thinker, you’ll need to learn about as many ways of thinking as you can. This has to be something you want for yourself: it won’t work if you think of it as work. You’ll need to have an interest, a passion for discovering new things and new perspectives. Vary widely and wildly. Study science, by all means, but study history, psychology and economics as well. Learn about religion, and moral philosophy. Whenever a new subject catches your fancy, seize the opportunity to immersive yourself in a new way of looking at the world.
Whenever you encounter somebody whose point of view you cannot understand, like e.g. a fundamentalist or a religious extremist, your first reaction should not be to judge nor to argue, but to seek understanding. You cannot argue if you cannot understand what you are arguing against. Reserve judgement. Find a good book that explains how this person is thinking and read it. Understand this person, his ideas and the world that gave rise to those ideas. Understand these ideas as intimately as you understand your own.
When you’ve learned all these different perspectives on the same subject, you can compare, contrast and finally integrate. Build your own line of reasoning from what you perceive as the best traits in all the systems you’ve learned. But always remember: the perspective you build is, in the end, always one among many, and not necessarily better than any other. In fact, the word ‘better’ is, you may find, highly problematic and you may want to give up thinking in such terms. Never allow yourself to invest enough in one way of thinking that you can lose sight of others. Hold open all the lines, consider all possibilities, make no judgements unless you have to.
Always be aware that no matter how much you know, how rich your understanding, there is still more that you do not yet know, do not yet understand. From that come two things: A profound humility, that will enable you to come to understand other human beings more fully. And a neverending thirst for more knowledge, deeper understanding, and new perspectives.
Finally, I’ll leave you with the cartoon that started me thinking about complex thinking in the first place. It shows in one image what takes me hundreds of words to describe. May it give you the same intuitive understanding that it gave me. Have a great day, and a better one tomorrow.