Thursday, July 31, 2008

Forward vs. Backward Thinking

From Humanist Dad

I've begun to wonder if there are only two different ways to think about truths in reality. The non-scientific mind tends to reason 'backwards' and scientists are trained to think 'forwards'. I believe 'forward thinking' is superior but it takes some work to explain why 'backward thinking' doesn't work yet appears, on the surface, to be legitimate. I'll look at these two ways of thinking by imagining a murder scene:

Backward Thinking - The detective comes to the scene and sees a dead woman, a kitchen knife in her chest, lying in the living room. A crying man is sitting at the kitchen table with blood all over his shirt and hands shouting, "I killed her!" The detective decides that the man is most likely the killer and begins finding evidence to support his theory: signs of a struggle, the man's fingerprints on the knife, the next-door neighbour whispers that she always heard them arguing, they have high debts. The man is obviously guilty, no need to waste money doing more investigations, case closed.

Forward Thinking - Another detective enters the same scene and collects the same evidence. However, he then looks for other evidence as part of his routine: fingerprints are taken from all doors and windows, footsteps around the house are collected, tires marks on the driveway are analyzed, cigarette ashes are found on the floor but no ashtrays. This evidence suggests a third person was at the house recently (who the detective simply calls Mr. X). The detective formulates a theory - The man owed a debt to a shady character (Mr. X) who smoked. Mr. X entered the house and argued with the man and woman. Mr. X grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed the woman. The distraught man tried to remove the knife but couldn't and hugged the woman while she died. He blames her death on his debt to Mr. X.
The detective has a valid theory but still requests more time to investigate further. The backward thinker quickly forms a conclusion and seeks out evidence to support it. The forward thinker never assumes a conclusion and looks at ALL evidence to see where it leads.
This, I believe, is the fundamental trap that theists fall into. They become backward thinkers. They start with an obvious conclusion (god exists, Jesus lived, Mohammed was the final prophet) and look only for evidence to support it. Conflicting evidence is ignored or a twisted explanation is offered. They are not interested in changing their conclusion - they want to be right. Forward thinkers don't assume any knowledge. They use a much more difficult mental process that forces them to base a conclusion on all available evidence - even if this conclusion conflicts with what they hoped was the right answer.So, how do we teach a new generation to abandon backward thinking? Certainly more science education but teachers need to spend more time on the process (collecting evidence) and less time on giving the solution and asking students to confirm it. Even in literature studies teachers will point out what a character did (a conclusion) and ask students to find evidence for why they did it. Students need to be required to find evidence that also conflicts with a character's actions. Critical thinking is an advanced form of forward thinking so teaching students to think forward may be the first step to raising a generation of truth-seekers.