The eminent journalist and author James Fallows writes an influential technology column, and in the latest one has discussed Rationale, in the context of software tools to help people “develop, refine, and express ideas”.

I didn’t realise it upon first reading, but buried in the article is an account of the various kinds and levels of intellectual work. By implication, at the peak of this intellectual pyramid is… deliberative thinking of the kind supported by Rationale.

Some quotes:

    “Do computers make us smarter? Probably not. But they can reduce the burden of some largely mechanical processes through which we develop, refine, and express ideas—which is a lot of what it means to think… In a surprisingly wide range of other ways, the simple, brainless efficiencies offered by computers can assist in the tasks that make up intellectual work. Before considering one especially ambitious new offering of this sort, it’s worth reviewing the practical, chore-like components of high-level modern work and the corresponding programs that, in my view, handle each chore best…”

“An elementary step is capturing thoughts—ideas, obligations, possibilities—when and where they occur to you…The next largely mechanical task is saving material you come across in your work, whether it is something unexpected on the Internet or the result of more purposeful research…The next practical task involved in thinking is finding things when you want them—the right citation for your legal argument, the right chronology to remind you who said what when…Next is sorting, the important and subtle task of grouping items according to similarities and differences. In a sense, this kind of pattern recognition is the highest level of human intelligence… Both sorting and the next step, outlining, take us closer to the point where mechanical processes merge with intellectual ones. Assigning something to a category inevitably affects our conception of that category, and arraying ideas visually, as in an outline, inevitably affects our view of how the ideas fit…”

“This leads to the newest ambitious entry: Rationale, an “argument processor” from a start-up company in Melbourne, Australia, called Austhink…”

“In operation, the Rationale program is quite simple. You state a main contention you are trying to test—I should buy a new house, we should invade Iran—and then systematically list each of the supporting claims for it. Then you list the objections to each claim, and the rebuttals to those objections, and so on until you’re down to first principles—all of which are shown as connected boxes on a map…”

“The more factors there are to weigh in making a decision—and, especially, the more views there are to reconcile when more than one person is involved in a choice—the more helpful this logic map can be.”

You need to be a subscriber to Atlantic Monthly to access Fallows’ full column online. (In the US, everyone should be a subscriber, because it is such a great magazine and subscriptions cost almost nothing.) Non-subscribers can email me, and I’ll email you a link from the magazine website which should work for three days.