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Abstract Perspectives on Science

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When the corporate buzz-words "Think outside of the box!" were first barked out, some of us cringed at this new effort to motivate workers to think in abstract and new ways about old work. The flaw in the whole idea of switching to abstract thinking is that the box, if sound, does not require a person to think outside of it.

But when there is chaos that comes from the unknown, it is time to use various forms of thinking in order to make a better box, one which is sound and which will last for a time. Scientists and others have traditionally made great breakthroughs, not through logic or the scientific approach, but through abstract thinking and even serendipity.

The "box" was an ill defined term which implied that the traditional methods and skills for thinking out solutions to problems were so flawed and useless that they should not be confining forces. In some interpretations, the implication was that traditional ways of solving problems or of innovating were to be completely discarded. In even worse interpretations, ALL employees, including clerks and janitors were being ordered to "Think outside of the box!" even when their work did not require such thinking.

The "box" is  the core of knowledge, information, skills, experience, tested and proved strategies, processes and programs which gave a conceptual framework for dealing with challenges. The "box" has always been evolving and is constantly under renovation and expansion. The "box", in other words, is fine. The application of abstract thinking to routine processes is, in most cases, not fine.

The fatal flaw in the movement to "think outside of the box" was in that there was no guidance whatsoever as to how to do such thinking in the face of implied chaos. There was just a command, without provision of the resources, information, teaching, planning, observing, evaluating or other processes that are required in motivating someone else to do take on a previously unknown type of thought process.

The phrase was the equivalent to telling someone to "paint a masterpiece that everyone will love forever!" Fine. Will do. This will resolve the apparent chaos and lack of understanding.

Lately, science is often more a process of using non traditional or abstract thinking in order to deal with the increasing newness, quantity, quality and complexity of observed natural and man made phenomena or social interactions. But there always was a process of creativity in observing, creating symbolic representations, defining, describing, classifying, quantifying, and communicating with others about the layers of interrelated and previously unobservable and undefined complexities.

The need for more abstract thinking was born in the exponential rise in technological developments, which, along with linguistic complexities, have allowed vast, new and complex piles of information and observations to be collected. This vastness, newness and complexity can be overwhelming and chaotic. Threat accrues when some are able to conceptually organize such chaos and exploit the new knowledge ahead of others.  

The overwhelming diversity of information has scientists thinking more thoughts of using abstract thinking to examine chaos. When there is chaos, the human mind quickly goes to work to conquer it by organizing, describing, defining, classifying or attempting to quantify it. Thus, the new box is created, often using the framework and foundation from the old box, and frequently from serendipity.

 Abstract thinking is fine in the face of the overwhelming, disorganized, and seemingly chaotic, but not in the face of work processes that must be relied upon to produce regular, verifiable and expected results. Thus, the box will always have a place in the world of thinking.

Compelling the vast majority of working people to use abstract scientific or philosophical thinking was a project that was destined to fail, because first, by the time that work is assigned, it should be well defined, the processes well described, the chaos eliminated, and the workers well trained to carry out the job. Second, most people have not yet learned about the box, and they definitely need to do so before applying abstract thinking where it is not needed. In doing so, people will create more chaos and uncertainty than they fix.

More about this author: Elizabeth M Young

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