Thinking Off the Page

Kent B. Van Cleave

They talk about "thinking outside the box" as a way to break out of conventional thinking patterns and find new solutions to pesky problems. The term comes from a puzzle called "The Nine Dots." You see the nine dots in this figure, top right. You're told to draw no more than four straight lines connecting all nine dots without lifting your pencil from the paper. The standard solution, shown in the center, tends to elude people because you have to extend lines outside the box formed by the dots themselves.

Sometimes you aren't even aware of the assumptions that might be preventing you from finding a solution. So let me illustrate just one way you can become aware of such assumptions and then work around them. What if you wanted to draw just one line through all the dots? Could you? Well, yes ... if you changed the nature of the space you're working in. Go to a spherical geometry, say. A line drawn just so through the three dots on the left will go around the sphere, run through the center three dots, then come around again through the last three.

Some readers might be looking for just a couple of practical examples of good creative thinking. I'll be dealing primarily with more abstract ideas right here, but I can offer what might be helpful cases from my years editing the Mensa Bulletin for the famous high-IQ society. If that's of interest, just click here. Otherwise, here we go....

For those who develop the automatic tendency to look at significant events deeply, seeking important ramifications that others will miss by focusing only on what they see before them, it's possible to get a head start on preparing for really important changes in the world. For me, the outstanding instance came on September 11, 2001, as I forced myself to look as far beyond the surface of events as I could (at the time). What I realized was so disturbing that I immediately sent a letter to the editor off to key newspapers around the country. It ran the next day, September 12, 2001, in the Los Angeles Times (third letter in this special archive):

Tuesday's horrendous events have produced immediate devastation unprecedented in our short history of domestic terrorism. Tens of thousands of lives may have been snuffed out. As hard as it may be to contemplate, these losses were probably not the primary goal of the terrorists. More likely they were merely bloody stepping stones along which to prod the U.S. toward becoming, irretrievably, a police state. Those who truly hate America will be most interested in watching our government pull the plug on our Bill of Rights--already in critical condition as "collateral damage" in the war on drugs and the war for votes. The sweetest revenge against America will be watching the "land of the free and the home of the brave" become, by our own hand, the "land of papers, please, and the home of staying home."

Kent Van Cleave
\o7 Bedford, Ind.

Who knows; maybe the many hours I've spent since then trying to draw attention to the erosion of rights in America have done some good. Others recently have been much more successful at bringing the issue to light, so it's probably time for redoubled efforts.

By the way, if you haven't questioned the standard assumption about Islamist terrorists (they are motivated by a hatred for everything America stands for, and live only to accomplish some destructive act that will diminish America's power, comfort, influence, or well-being), you might want to think deeper.

The most rewarding problems to solve, I think, are those that have eluded solution by others because of orthodox thinking -- especially due to unwarranted assumptions that rule out the correct solution right off the bat.

Probably the best historical example of this is the Copernican Revolution, when rejecting the comfy notion that humans were at the center of everything allowed one astronomer to consider that the Sun (not the Earth) might be the physical center of our immediate cosmological environment. Another prominent example is when Charles Darwin gave up the same basic assumption (humans are special) and discovered much about the how and why humans are related to other species on Earth.

The most important thing to notice about those examples is that they involved rejecting some idea that people found attractive, comfortable, flattering ... you get the idea. Whoa! I feel aphorism coming on....

Ego's the Enemy of Edification.
Flattery will get you 'most every time.
Pride goeth before a fall -- and might even keep you from noticing.

All my research in philosophy has stemmed from rejecting almost universally held, comfortable assumptions. I found a way to naturalize ethics, and how to make better sense of mental representation, for example. To begin the exploration at hand, though, I think we should start with a basic assumption I think is largely responsible for much of the grief in the world today: the idea that our political system works as advertised.

A cynic once said, "If voting made a difference, it would be illegal." I wouldn't go that far, but I have to say it's hard to avoid the conclusion that our political system is not designed to serve the people well. One dead giveaway is the fact that, of a whole lot of possible ways we could choose our leaders, all well understood by those who study electoral systems and have done game theoretical analysis on them, we are using the form of "democracy" least likely to satisfy voters across the board: plurality voting. On the other hand, one of the best systems could be implemented almost instantly, and is so familiar to voters they could walk in and get it right on the first try, doing nothing more than rating all the candidates as though they were judging events for the Olympics. It's called "range" or "score" voting.

I won't go into the details of range voting; you can check it out at Wikipedia and elsewhere if you're curious. The point is that our "two party" system has built-in safeguards for maintaining a political "duopoly," even if both major parties are strongly disliked by most voters! So-called "third parties" (ummm ... how many can be third, anyway?) routinely curse what they call the "wasted vote syndrome": if you don't vote for the major party candidate you hate the least, you risk helping elect the one you hate the most. It seems that a vote for an outsider in whom you really believe is a waste, at best. Yet isn't the whole point of elections having the people freely express what they do want, and having election outcomes reflect that?

Where the Republican and Democrat Parties are concerned, I've long been a member of the "pox on both their houses" party, you might say. So I was interested in dispelling the idea of "wasting" votes on non-establishment candidates. As is so often the case, the trick lay in simply believing there was a solution.

Consider a married couple who, election after election, go to the polls and vote opposite to one another, cancelling their votes out. Consider that maybe they were both holding their noses to vote for the least intolerable of the major candidates, and would have gladly voted for dark horse candidates if their votes weren't effectively being held hostage.

PROBLEM: "Wasted" votes.
SOLUTION: "Uncancelling" votes.

"I won't vote for my usual scoundrel if you won't vote for yours, and we can both vote our consciences for a change!"

Yeah, it's informal, and you have to trust your spouse (friend, co-worker, cousin, or other political counterpart) more than the strategy you've been following....

This is the VoteBuddy strategy I developed for the 2004 presidential election cycle. Come 2016 it will be time for another facelift for the website and a few more media interviews....


Election reform took the country by storm more than a decade ago. It was just too hard for some people to cast their ballots, but that's all been fixed now. The only downside was that you can't verify the integrity of elections anymore. See, we had to install electronic voting machines that provided no auditable trail in the event there was a call for a recount. No worries -- you need a recount, you just rerun the algorithm that gave you the initial results.

Maybe there's a problem when there's no way you can find out for sure whether the machine you used counted your vote ... or "fixed" it. Backing off on the sarcasm a bit, let me just say that your bank's ATM machine can readily confirm any transaction you make. You can see scans of your canceled checks or deposits online. What's so hard about verifying people's votes? Ah ... privacy. How do you record your vote so that it can be verified, yet keep it secret too?

PROBLEM: Deterring electronic election fraud.
SOLUTION: Open data.

Traditionally, voters cast secret ballots, and once all of those are collected they are counted to determine the election's outcome. That outcome is ruined if illegitimate ballots are added, legitimate ones are lost or changed, or the tabulation process diverges from strict counting and recording. Opportunities for fraud occur from beginning to end in such a system.

But, with electronic voting, it is actually simplest and most secure if the vote collection and the tabulation occur simultaneously. When a vote is cast for a candidate, it immediately increments the recorded total for that candidate -- at the precinct, county, state, and national levels (as applicable) all at once. Then, if the running totals for all the candidates are published effectively on-the-fly (hence the term "open data"), they can't be changed later without detection. If all, and only, legitimate ballots are accepted, the election is good.

The best way to make sure ballots are valid is to store a record of their contents in an election database. The record wouldn't identify the voter, but could only be created with a valid voter ID number (which expires once used). The voter would create a personal code to be added to the record, and would receive a receipt of the entire record after voting. The personal code would enable online access to the record at any time. When any voter can verify the accuracy of her vote, and any person can retrieve the database with all recorded ballots and check their own tabulation against official results, any tampering with the database or with the running cumulative totals for candidates is open to exposure. While fraud probably can't be prevented outright, it can be put in public view for ready exposure. And that may be the most reliable approach to elections we'll ever have.

Natural rights is a topic that has been difficult for philosophers to pin down. Most people think it's self-evident that life and liberty are natural rights, but it isn't clear what else should be included. Worse, it's not clear what makes something a natural right. I think the problem has been that we imagine natural rights as an almost ineffable, Platonic quality, when they readily explained simply as a consequence of being social organisms.

PROBLEM: What are natural rights?
SOLUTION: The Opportunity Theory of natural rights.

I think natural rights are simply types of opportunity that humans have absent interference from (or with) other humans. I say "types" of opportunity because we need to lump them together for convenience. I can live my life on Tuesdays, in Greece, or in countless other contexts, but we really just want to speak of my general right to life.

My life is one form of natural property (I have exclusive natural control over it); other kinds of natural property derive from mixing your life with stuff in the world, you might say: transforming, say, a bunch of grass (not taken from anyone else) and weaving yourself a hat. In doing so you create for yourself the opportunity to use the hat exclusively (or set the terms for when and how others may use it) so long as interference doesn't rear its ugly head. Indeed, that sort of rightful exclusivity of use is the very essence of property -- which makes the idea of owning, say, the Sun downright ridiculous (and figures into controversies over land ownership).

We choose the term "right", I think, because of the implied possibility of being wronged. And we usually don't imagine our rights being violated by non-humans. If a hunter on safari becomes lunch for the local lions' club, we don't wail about his rights. So I think our talk of rights is really about the need for a social convention among humans -- one whereby people don't interfere with one another.

Being free of interference by others doesn't mean being apart from them. Our rights aren't diminished by peaceful and voluntary interactions with others -- and in fact, such interactions are opportunities we have unless someone else meddles. They're among our most important rights.

Civil rights are important, too, but they come along with membership in organized polity. They involve equality in the eyes of the law, with such things as voting rights, trial by a jury of one's peers, no special privileges for anyone, etc. Civil rights are conventions rather than natural opportunities.

One consequence of my view is that pretty much every kind of peaceful and honest human activity turns out to be a right, and some people might object to that. A reasonable inference from it is that governments should be libertarian, leaving unmolested those who just want to be left alone, compelling no involuntary relationships among people, and treating as exceptions only those individuals, such as minors, who just can't be fully responsible for themselves. A government whose only business is to prohibit unprovoked harms (including assault, theft, extortion, broken contracts, fraud, etc.) and obtain redress (from the guilty, not from "society") when they happen is, in my view, about as good as government can get. Maybe the only good government possible.

On my view, other social animals have natural rights just as we do. They often have social norms against particularly eggregious forms of interference by their fellows, though it's doubtful that they concern themselves with interference in the abstract. Now, what we call "animal rights" is a different matter, not being about how we think they should treat one another. In this case our concern is how humans should treat our fellow creatures. I think my opportunity theory might illuminate discussion of the matter, but it's a separate issue.

The real value of natural rights as an abstraction is that it provides a shortcut for identifying violations. You don't have to puzzle out classes of opportunity. All you need is to spot someone interfering with someone else without provocation. Interference in order to prevent or remediate unprovoked interference by someone else (say, stopping a beating) or protecting those who can't help themselves (pulling a child out of traffic) are naturally desirable in a society.

I don't know how helpful such examples of "thinking off the page" are, but I hope that reading just a little about the thought processes might make it easier for others to become comfortable using them -- not only solving problems, but identifying ones they otherwise would have missed. And I hope others will find, as I have, a bit of a thrill in applying a fresh and sometimes seemingly outrageous perspective to the challenges they find in life.