Boosting Your Reasoning Skills

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It may seem hard to believe that the person who was perhaps the greatest thinker of the ancient world was commonly thought of as a gadfly by his own contemporaries, but it’s true. Socrates, the intellectual progenitor of Plato and Aristotle, was a much-disliked man in his time. In his day and age — during Athens’ golden age in the 5th century B.C. — the academic climate was dominated by the Sophists, a class of instructors whose educational methods were primarily designed to steer learners toward professional success rather than teach them how to think. Socrates, however, held that behind the admittedly polished and skillful rhetoric of the Sophists and their students were muddled meanings, sloppy argumentation and little substantive information.


In contrast, Socrates offered what’s called dialectical reasoning, though he wouldn’t have recognized that term. This is more or less a perpetual process of exhaustively questioning an idea or principle: The accuracy of any concepts or facts, regardless of how important they may or may not be, is never taken for granted, and any position taken must be carefully thought through. In Plato’s accounts, Socrates regularly shot holes in the arguments of the Sophists in public debates via this dialectical methodology and, not surprisingly, they hated him for it. In fact, Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 B.C. because his unique approach to teaching was eventually ruled as being dangerous to the state.


Although he passed long ago, the dialectical technique Socrates espoused has lived on into our times. Whenever students attempt to go beyond passive learning and venture into active reasoning — questioning and evaluating information instead of just absorbing it — they’re wittingly or unwittingly employing this method. IT professionals at all levels and in all job roles should seek to boost their ability to reason. Although this will help them in their training and certification endeavors, particularly in advanced learning and testing environments such as labs and simulations, critical thinking is more than just a means to prepare for and pass an exam. It’s something that will aid you in your progression through your professional and personal life.


A few relatively simple ways in which you can boost your reasoning skills include:


Make a Case for a Point of View at Odds with Your Own
As Socrates questioned everything — even his own viewpoints — so should you. Think of one of your most closely held beliefs, then try to refute it with an opposing fact-based argument. The point is not to change your values, but rather to enhance your critical thinking skills by shaking yourself out of restrictive thought processes. By debating yourself, you’ll boost your ability to reason through dialectical methods, and your own convictions will likely come out stronger for having been challenged and defended.


Play Reasoning Games
When you work through puzzles such as Sodoku and crosswords, or play strategy games like chess and Risk, you’re giving your brain a workout. These help you develop reason and logic by putting you in situations where you can identify patterns and relationships, overcome various obstacles and take the appropriate measures to achieve an objective.


Think Through Paradoxes
Paradoxes, or numerical and verbal expressions that are contradictory in nature, are another interesting way to challenge the mind. Here’s a really basic one: There is an infinite amount of numbers after zero. Yet there is also an infinite amount of numbers between zero and one (0.1, 0.01, 0.001 and so on). Which infinity is bigger? Can an infinity exist within an infinity? You can build up your reasoning skills by setting your mind loose on these mental games and seeing if you can come up with a satisfactory explanation. (For more on paradoxes, go here and here.)

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