The vital art of questioning your assumptions

Assumptions are those things we take for granted: whatever we don’t explicitly spell out, but that our thinking relies upon. They’re also extremely important. Indeed, it’s the existence of shared assumptions that makes communication (and much else) possible.

As I write these words, I’m assuming they mean approximately the same thing to you as they do to me. It would be incredibly tiresome if I tried to explain every word in a sentence. It would also, in the end, be futile. I’d still have to explain my words via other words, my ideas via other ideas, and so on. Without some shared assumptions, there would be no way of building either common understandings or meaningful disagreements.

While common understanding and meaningful disagreement may sound like opposites, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. To see why, consider what happens when two people have very different assumptions. Imagine that I’m on the phone trying to help a relative with a computer problem. “Click the button on the top right of your screen, the one with a little cross”, I tell my relative. “There’s no button on the top right of my screen”, they reply. “Yes, there is!” I reply. “No, there isn’t!” they reply. Eventually, I realize that they think I’m talking about a physical button, like an on/off switch, while I am trying to describe an onscreen button that they need to click with their mouse. 

No matter how self-evident they may seem to us, the assumptions our ideas rest upon may need spelling out to others. Different people often have different fundamental assumptions and, until these are clarified, they are unlikely to be able to discuss some things constructively.

All of this sounds simple enough. Yet assumptions aren’t just unexamined ideas. They’re also the roots of identity and allegiance: the stuff of our personal and shared histories; of our communities and our morality; the source of much of the greatest good and deepest harm we do to one another. That which we take as “given” is, in some cases, nothing less than the bedrock of what we believe the world to be. 

What follow from this? Most importantly, it means that we need to be very clear about the difference between what follows from our assumptions and the status of those assumptions. To take things step by step: 

  • Any line of thought must begin with certain assumptions: those things that we both explicitly and implicitly accept as given.
  •  No matter how deep we dig, we will never be able to find a wholly clear, self-evident and uncontroversial claim.
  • A careful process of analysis can show us where our assumptions lead: what reasonably follows from them if we assume that they are true or accurate.
  • But different lines of reasoning based on different sets of assumptions are likely to take us in very different directions. 
  • One of the most useful things we can thus do is to spell out both our own and each others’ key assumptions, then to compare what follows from each.  
  • If we’re sufficiently open-minded, this may help us identify common assumptions, challenge faulty ones, and respectfully identify alternative perspectives.

In other words, working out the implications of your assumptions is far from the same thing as being definitively correct. If I claim that science is the only meaningful way of thinking about anything, it follows from this that all spiritual, philosophical and artistic approaches are meaningless. Such a claim, however, probably says more about the limitations of my assumptions than it does about the power of my intellect. How we turn the world into questions, and the ways in which we frame our inquiries, matter at least as much as the results we obtain (and often more).

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