thinking boundlessly


Why is it that for most problems the solutions we find appear to be only working in the short run, before the next obstacle we haven't thought about before appears? Why do we find ourselves constantly faced with new and unexpected situations of problems we thought we have solved already? And why does it seem that often when needing to solve a problem, no matter how hard we try to understand what happens and act according to it, it persists and leaves us feeling powerless toward it?

what focused thinking is and why it presents us with problems

Dr. Ayalew Tegegne thinks he has stated an answer to these questions with his book Boundless Thinking. According to him, when it comes to making decisions and finding solutions for problems of all sorts, may they be on a  meta-, macro-, or micro-level, people's deliberations rely on only deductive and inductive methods of thinking, i.e. focused thinking. In philosophy, inductive and deductive reasoning are defined as follows:

Imagine for example that you whistle for your cat to come to her feeding dish and she comes. You do that a few days in a row and every time you whistle, she does come. Therefore, you infer the generalization that whenever you whistle for her to come to her feeding dish, she will come and you conclude "When I whistle, my cat comes and whenever I will whistle in the future, my cat will come" (induction). Once established such generalization or theory of your cat reacting to your whistles with coming to her feeding dish, you expect her to do so every time she hears your whistling while waiting for her to come get her food. You can then infer "My cat comes when I whistle, so when I whistle, my cat will come" (deduction). 

When we take a closer look at induction, we can see that this method of concluding or thinking is based on what is known and therefore, the past. It takes what has already happened as a reliable indicator for what will happen in the future when confronted with similar situations. The problem with this is that if we base our decisions on the method of induction and think we can claim how things will become based on how they have been constituted so far, we rely on bare speculation about the unknown and the future. Only because my cat came 12/12 times when I whistled standing in front of her feeding dish, it doesn't mean that it can't happen that the next time she won't show up. Maybe she got locked in the neighbors garden hut or, rather unlikely but still possible, she found the motivation and went hunting for mice in her old age or maybe some other random cat comes. Assuming that things will just continue to happen as they have happened before is only based on isolated, instead of on holistic observation and thereby generating prejudice of what will happen

Similar applies to deduction: Thinking about our whistle-cat-example in a deductive way meant that my cat came when I whistled and did not come as long as I didn't whistle. Thus, it assumes the coming of my cat as being fully dependent on my whistling. Either I whistle and she comes or I don't whistle and she doesn't come. Assuming this shows a complete blindness of what Dr. Tegegne calls infinite context z, meaning the background which underlies the conditions of both happenings, i.e. my whistling and the coming to her bowl of my cat.  My cat may come to her bowl without me having whistled before, simply because she feels hungry. And I can whistle as long as I want to wile her if five minutes before my grandpa ran her over by backing out of his parking lot. Denying this background (which is, as he argues in his book, infinite) is the ultimate source for generating prejudice and harm not only in one's personal life, but on a global level. This is because both methods of thinking take the entity of interest out of its infinite context by engaging in not thinking-to-the-end and therefore, make possible only provisional probabilities and generalizations which lead to problematic and pseudo-solutions. In other words: With deduction, the thinker focuses on the reflection of components (whistling, cat-coming, when I whistle the cat comes) without clearly identifying the whole (all the possibilities which could get in the way). Also induction focuses on parts (part of time, space and entity, i.e. past, food bowl, me and my cat) rather than on the whole. Thus, these methods give only partial answers to the hypothetical questions like Why didn't your cat show up? Why did she do so? Why did you whistle? 

Focused thinking therefore can be seen as a reflection of a fixed spatial relationship of parts that denies change. As long as our concerns are restricted to foresee whether wiling my cat works or not, such restricted perspective doesn't generate much harm. But when it comes to real problems which are global, intersubjective and politically demanding, handling them with the methods of focused thinking can't be appropriate.

how problems produced by focused thinking can be overcome

The main argument of the book and the author's proposal for overcoming the problems generated by the methods of focused thinking is the theory of boundless thinking. The method he comes up with is called interaction. By applying interaction on one's deliberations, it is said to be possible to successfully shed background blindness for the infinite context z and therefore, see a problem's constitution and behavior in all its possible settings. 

This sounds very abstract indeed and only gets clearer and starts to make sense since you really start to put more complex and closer to life problems in consideration than getting your cat to her food bowl. One of Dr. Tegegne's 140 examples of problems existing in the world he states in his book is the discomfort level of life. To be able to constructively process the discomfort level of one's life, it is necessary to see how it is constituted and how the variables it is constituted of interact with each other. We need to think about what feeling uncomfortable with one's life amounts to. Since with this example we're operating on a quite general level, we could say for instance that a fear of suffering and a desire for happiness are what the feeling of discomfort with one's life depends on. (When choosing the variables, it is important to know that there is no general rule or formula for approving some variables as right and some as wrong. You have to see the entity of interest, i.e. here, the discomfort level of life, as a whole in its infinite context and think about where the correlations might lie; can be very generally formulated or related to specific problems the feeling rests on, if known). 

Having stated the entity of interest (discomfort level of life) and the variables (fear of suffering and desire for happiness), we want to take the next step in our enlightenment and see how the problem interacts with its variables, what their relationship is.  An easy schematically represented figure can help us to understand that:


Let's look at our problem, the discomfort level of life, as being an interplay or the result of an interplay between of the desire for happiness and the fear of suffering. Each of the variables can increase or decrease in an infinite direction, both simultaneously. We can see with the help of the graph, that there are four different forms of variation of the discomfort level of life according to the interplay of its variables. If we go through the possibilities from left to right, we can see that

  • for the 1st quadrant, fear of suffering increases, while the desire for happiness decreases. So, an increase in being afraid of suffering is background for a decrease in wanting happiness vice versa.
  • for the 2nd quadrant, both feelings are increasing. Thus, an increase in wanting happiness is background for an increase in being afraid to suffer and the other way round.
  • for the 3rd quadrant, the fear of suffering decreases while the desire for happiness increases. This means that a decrease in the fear of suffering is background for the increase in the desire for happiness vice versa.
  • and for the 4th quadrant, both feeling decrease. Thus, a decrease in fearing suffering and a decrease in desiring happiness both are background for each other. 

So far so good: we can now see how differently a problem can be constituted by two variables staying the same throughout deliberation. The next step is to understand what the different interplays mean for our defined problem, i.e. discomfort level of life. The four forms or the meanings of the four quadrants we have worked out now, direct to four tendencies of a variation in the discomfort level of life. So, corresponding to the quadrants, we can say that:

  1. for the first quadrant, the entity (discomfort level of life) "gets" worse as fearing suffering increases while one is also not engaged in pursuing happiness.

  2. here, the entity grows and becomes reinforced both in permanence and intensity, as wanting happiness and fearing suffering both grow.
  3. in the third option we can see a turn starting: feeling discomfort seems to start fading when the desire for happiness increases and gets stronger than the fear of suffering which starts so decrease.
  4. and lastly, when both feelings decrease, the entity (feeling discomfort in life) starts to diminish in anxiety and permanence. 

Okay, so what to do with these insights now? I propose to not try to see them as an instruction manual but to see them for what they really are, i.e. an impulse for broadening one's horizon. So, put very trivially and simple, if you're facing a feeling of discomfort in your life and ask yourself what you can do against it, it might help a lot to see and then reflect on what it depends and how the things it depends on can interact with each other. It can be very illuminating to realize that if you keep on being afraid of bad stuff happening to you and at the same time don't think about your future self being happy, it won't change much about your situation. Instead there will be changes ahead, if you engage in establishing the will for happiness while trying to be less afraid of what will happen.

As you might have noticed, the method of interaction is no wonder-rule that all of a sudden solves every problem in the world, telling the one using it the correct solution or the perfect way. But it helps to understand how things interact with each other and therefore, to understand the world and ourselves a little better, ideally using this understanding to approach new ways of seeing things and new perspectives of addressing problems. 


Julia Held

I am a philosophy masterstudent, a writer and host of the podcast of "Transformatorenwerk Leipzig". I am interested in philosophy as practice - for creating one's life, for personal and emotional development and for a balanced and exciting life. My vision is to strengthen the person as a responsible subject which thinks and acts by itself while answering to the world it encounters.