Counterintuitive Thinking

In the Reply field below this post, tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

Before we begin writing a semester-worthy Research Position Paper on a counterintuitive topic, you’ll be wanting to know what I mean by counterintuitive.

I haven’t always had an outlet for my particular slant on life. A some point in Catholic grade school I started to wonder if maybe God was made in man’s image instead of the other way around.


Maybe because we can’t comprehend eternity, we call eternity God. And because we can’t comprehend infinite space without bounds, we call the limitless universe God. We can’t accept the lack of justice on earth, so we imagine heaven where the scales are all balanced. If so, God doesn’t resolve the incomprehensibility of anything; deity is just a way to think about things we can’t understand.

What we believe to be the case is probably not. Call this a scientific way of thinking. Every conclusion, as soon as it’s proven, is subject to fresh dispute. That may sound like despair, or it can sound like progress. For those of us who describe our religious views on Facebook as: “Faith in unanswerable questions,” it’s nothing special.

Speaking of Facebook, you’ve probably noticed this interesting social development:

Facebook has more gender categories than the Olympics

Instead of forcing users to identify as merely male or female, Facebook has introduced a third massive category of “custom” gender options including “transgender,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “intersex,” and “neither.” I’ve chosen “gender fluid” just to be playful, but for users uncomfortable with binary gender categories, this flexibility must be truly liberating.

[Just this morning I checked again, and Facebook has updated by removing all suggestions for alternative gender classifications, opting instead to permit users to describe gender as they wish. Male and Female are still options, but the Custom choice allowed me to describe my gender as “Who’s Asking?”]

I don’t know whether this will solve or further complicate a problem social media has always had of not knowing what to call us when they recommend us to others. You’ve probably noticed oddities such as, “David Hodges would like you to view their page.” Now that I’m allowed to select the pronoun I wish to be addressed by, Facebook can comfortably call me “he” and my pages “his pages.”

I heard this news while thinking about Olympic athletes from now and ages ago whose genders created questions or disputes. Chinese gymnasts of earlier games are thought to have been as young as 12 or 13 (girls, not women; not exactly a gender problem, but a category problem). Also loudly whispered was the question: were the 14- and 15-year-old competitors fed hormones to delay their advancing development from girlhood to womanhood?

On the other extreme, were Russian athletes in strength competitions actually genetic gentlemen competing against the ladies, or again steroid-fed women whose physiques were artificially masculine?

Now finally, there are some women competing in bobsled contests, but still the gender divide is fairly complete: Men’s Downhill, and Women’s Downhill. How long can these binary categories last when in the rest of our lives we’re invited to be more selective in which gender we “present” to the world?

My Shopping List is an Argument

I will certainly tell you many times this semester that every written document is an argument. I challenge students with this premise all the time because it sounds so implausible, but I’d like to present a shopping list as an example of what I believe to be a written argument, written for a particular audience, which becomes a battleground for dispute in the hands of any other reader.


As long as I (the intended audience) have this list with me, my reader is unlikely to argue with its premises. But even so, I may decide to substitute Haagen-Dasz for Breyers if the price is right. However, if my wife takes the list to the store on my behalf, she may present compelling counterarguments to my “editorial position” on the following grounds or others:

  1. Who needs premium ice cream?
  2. Will he even notice the difference between conventional kale and organic kale (Is there actually a difference?)?
  3. We already have plenty of drawstring bags.
  4. We don’t have room for 24 more seltzer bottles.
  5. Since when do we buy beef specifically for the dogs?
  6. Even if the per-pill price is significantly cheaper, I can’t believe we’ll use 1000 ibuprofen before their effectiveness expires.

Diarists Lie

On this topic, please remind me to argue that a diary is written for a very specific audience and therefore is as manipulative and artificial as any other piece of writing. (If you need a preview of this demonstration I will direct you to Francine Prose’s wonderful examination of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, which, she argues convincingly, was extensively edited by Frank for the sake of future readers.)

Mitt’s Audience

On this topic also, I could share with you the video captured at Mitt Romney’s campaign fundraiser during the runup to the 2012 presidential election. If you can imagine him making the same speech to any other audience, then you haven’t started thinking seriously about how exactly we craft what we write to suit our intended readers.

Link to the speech.

Duchamp’s Readymades

Marcel Duchamp is a favorite of mine, and I’d recently been to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so when I found myself handling paring knives and graters in the kitchen, I asked myself the simple question: is this item art?


It’s certainly beautifully designed and crafted, but my instinct tells me its functionality prevents it from being art. My working definition is that art is something created for no other purpose than to be observed or experienced. Still, I’m disputatious, so I didn’t let that first impression stop me. It certainly didn’t stop Duchamp from calling this art:


He didn’t create it, design it, weld it, or change it in any way except to sign it and remove it from the place where it would have had a function. Placing it into an art gallery, for Duchamp, and for the rest of the art world, effectively transformed a wire bottle rack into a piece of art. So maybe my definition still works. Maybe not. Do you have a better definition for art you could pursue as a counterintuitive topic?

Tim’s Vermeer

While I was puzzling over ready-mades and washing dishes, I was reminded that I hadn’t yet seen a documentary that had been on my list.

The Dutch painter Vermeer is well-known for his remarkably realistic interiors in which people and furniture are carefully arranged. He handled perspective perfectly, long before other painters had a clue how to realistically portray actual items in space.


Inventor Tim Jenison thought he might have an idea how Vermeer accomplished his remarkable achievement. He knew, as many did, that pinhole cameras had been used by artists for years to project images onto walls for reproduction.


LINK: “How to Turn a Room into a Camera Obscura”

Jenison is an inventor, not a painter, so he wondered more about how such a “machine” might help him accomplish a job than about whether the result would be art. This early question eventually led him to discover that he too could accomplish remarkably “artistic” results through mostly mechanical means. First, he built a room like the room in Vermeer’s “Music Lesson.”


Then, he dressed models in appropriate clothing.


Then, using mirrors to reflect images of the room just in front of his canvas, he mixed paints to match what he saw before him, and, without any artistic training, he produced facsimiles of the images he placed before the mirrors.

Link to the video

After years of practice, trial, error, and corrections, he has upset a lot of people by painting this:


One More About Art

Alexa Meade has a different way of representing three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional objects. She paints directly on the objects, turning them from objects into paintings.

This isn’t a painting of breakfast. It’s breakfast, painted.


And this is not a painting of a man on a bus. It’s a man on a bus, painted.

Man on Bus

Here’s how it looks when she’s working on it.


Here’s how it looks when other people look at it:

At the installation

Let’s apply a different way of thinking to some real-life social and ethical issues.

Bariatric Surgery

Do you have a strong feeling about bariatric surgery? I don’t. I’m sympathetic toward people who can’t seem to keep their weight under control despite their best efforts. I’ve conducted enough skirmishes with my own body to appreciate that our appetites are not merely desires we can control with “will power.”

I also don’t think “will power” is a commodity we all have access to in the same supply. So a person whose body conspires to withhold every calorie, who also lacks the psychological ability to deny himself, or the physiological signal that tells the rest of us we’re “full,” is just cursed and needs some help.

So, why does this story from the Wall Street Journal disturb me so much?

“As the World’s Kids Get Fatter, Doctors Turn to the Knife.”

Child Bariatric

Daifailluh al-Bugami, 3 years old, is awaiting bariatric surgery. Daifailluh is among a rapidly growing number of kids in Saudi Arabia undergoing radical surgery to control their weight. In the last seven years, Daifailluh’s doctor has performed bariatric surgery on nearly 100 children under the age of 14 from countries in the Gulf region.

Euthanasia for Kids

This one takes questions of age-appropriateness to an extreme. From the New York Times: “Belgian lawmakers gave final approval on Thursday to a measure that would allow euthanasia for incurably ill children enduring insufferable pain. King Philippe is expected to sign the measure into law and make Belgium the first country to lift all age restrictions on legal, medically-induced deaths.

“Under the measure, approved 86 to 44 by the lower house, euthanasia would be permissible for terminally ill children who are close to death, experiencing ‘constant and unbearable suffering’ and can show a ‘capacity of discernment,’ meaning they can demonstrate they understand the consequences of such a choice.”

As you can imagine, despite the majority in the legislature, the prospect of letting kids decide to die, and helping them do so, has some very vehement opponents.

Why do I consider this question counterintuitive?
There are more than two points of view here.

  • Some might object to assisted suicide period.
  • Others might insist we all have the right to end our lives if they’ve grown intolerable.
  • Those in the middle might think it’s acceptable for the very elderly to end their lives slightly prematurely but be appalled at the prospect of ending a child’s life.
  • All three points of view are counterintuitive.

What’s counterintuitive about them?

  • We can’t actively promote killing ourselves without feeling the natural resistance of our bodies to preserve themselves.
  • We can’t logically insist that our loved ones continue to suffer after they’ve concluded that their lives are worth more to us than to themselves and very little to either.
  • And if we want to claim that the elderly have a right that is somehow unavailable to youth, let me suggest this:
    • Distance from birth is one way to calculate age; distance from death is another.
    • By the second calculation, the child with the terminal illness is older than you and me.

If you want to change the world . . .

change the metaphors we use to describe it.

Here is a sleeping dog:

Sleeping Dog

But add just two little black dots, and here is what a predator sees when considering whether to attack the “sleeping dog.”

Dog Awake2

Now that you’ve seen the extra set of “eyes” above the dog’s eyes, you can never un-see them. Practice finding that in your arguments. Give your readers a perspective they can never un-read.

In the Reply field below, tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

25 thoughts on “Counterintuitivity”

  1. The idea that a functional object when placed in the right scenario or when one decides to see it as art can be art was the best example for me. It is a simple idea that something we would normally consider a functional object could also be art. For me, this displays counterintuitive in the simplest, most understandable manner.


  2. The grocery list was the best example of counterintuitive. You can give someone a list of things we want, but it is just a reference. The reader can just not follow the list (writing piece) word for word, instead, they use it as a reference point for what needs to be purchased.
    Even if the author’s ideas and argument is specific, the reader can interpret it in anyway; That is counterintuitive. The author might have a point to make and shared it in their way, but whoever reads it, can substitute each original thought for their own. It is a the opposite or different than the common knowledge… or the authors knowledge. The expected interpretation is different than what the reader actually takes away from the original argument.


  3. The thing that helped me understand what counterintuitive meant the most was “My Shopping List is an Argument”. It helped me because not everyone reads a shopping list the same. Most will follow what the list might tell them while some might think that the list has to many things or there are “better” options.


  4. The euthanasia example provided me with the clearest understanding of the meaning of counterintuitive because it taught that so many counterintuitive arguments can come out of a topic.


  5. The example that helped me understand counterintuitive the best was the grocery list. The reason being is it was clear that the list can be argued against by the author and the reader. The grocery list was written by the person who is going grocery shopping. However, if the person who wrote the list goes to the store and see items are on sale they might purchase the on sale item instead. If the person who wrote the list gives it to someone else to go shopping then they could pick up items that go against the list and the writer. The grocery list can be different for whoever reads it and does the shopping.


  6. All writings should be considered to be arguments. The grocery list is a great example of counterintuitive. Everything on the list is an argument for the person following it. Just because its listed it doesn’t mean you have to follow it, its a reference point. The author and reader can have a different point of view and can be interpreted different.


  7. The best way that I viewed as to how best to describe counterintuitve is the example of how a shopping list is an argument. Initially I thought that a shopping list is a piece of writing that is a statement, it says what needs to be purchased and nothing more. When we discussed counterintuitive thinking regarding the shopping list, the point of how it is an argument seems to be counterintuitive in the sense that a statement cannot possibly be an argument. Due to thinking in more creative ways, shopping lists can be viewed as arguments as its purpose is to bring a point across; what SHOULD be purchased based off of the writer, even though the writer is generally the person that is going shopping. The same can be said about diaries. This fact is very intriguing, and only furthers serves the point that writing can be interpreted in many different ways, and moves points in ways that are very powerful and innovative.


  8. I would say the example that provided me with the clearest example of what is meant by counterintuitivity is how diarists lie. The argument of how diaries are really meant for a specific audience really makes sense on how it is counterintuitive because, diaries that are published are almost lies. Diaries are written to by read by those who wrote it at a different time, meaning any diary that is published is probably not completely true. Why would the person who wrote it want people to know what is in it, when people who write diaries have extremely personal thoughts? Furthermore if a person feels or knows that the diary may not be completely true then why read it it? In my opinion this is very counterintuitive.


  9. The best example in my opinion would be the dog with its eyes closed because it is like my paper, always another way of thinking of a topic. Just like how we never thought the dog’s eyes were used to “look” at prey.


  10. The example that provided me with the clearest understanding of counterintuitive is “Euthanasia for Kids”. From my point of view, the example is successfully organized and clear because it shows not only how different perspectives can come from a single topic, but how one is able to respond to different opinions using counterarguments as a method of counterintuitive. “The only way to know if we are capable of committing suicide is to actually trying,” I definitely categorize this statement as a counterintuitive argument, and it helped me comprehend the meaning of counterintuitive better. It is a perspective that I cannot un-read.


  11. The way I understood counterintuitivity better was through the explanation of the grocery list. There could be an argument between the author of the grocery list and the reader of the grocery list, for example if my Mom wrote the list and wrote down breyers ice-cream, my dad goes to the grocery store and gets turkey hill because it is on sale 2 for $6.00. Grocery lists are just a reference because the reader can interpret the list in many ways.


  12. Based on todays lecture on counterintuivity, I view counterintuive responses as seeing through the looking glass; drawing factual conclusions that are unexpected, allowing the reader view things from a new perspective. The example from todays lecture that was most beneficial to my understanding of the subject was euthanasia for children. One could argue that euthanasia for the elderly is compeltely acceptable, but for children is an absolute abomination. The counterintuive thing about this is that children may be younger than you and I based on our distances from birth however, distance from death is a completely different way to calculate age, thus making the child older than you and I. Counterinutivity proves that things are not just black and white. Having a counterintuitve train of thought leads to new revelations.


  13. The example of the shopping list is the best idea of counterintuitive. In my opinion, this helps show that there is always an argument between the person who is buying the items created on the list. One person may think that something on the list is needed and another person reading the list may not believe that it is required. Depending on who is doing the shopping, it will always be an argument regarding a shopping list.


  14. Create a hypothesis within the next week. Professor Hodges tends to doubt things. Eight year olds should not be thinking about time and space, it is too complex. You look at God to answer questions we can not answer. Doesn’t actually answer the question. Professor has faith in questions he can not answer. Divinity goes into the category of unanswerable questions. Professor’s new gender according to Facebook is “Who’s asking?” Every written document is an argument. You see everything upside down then your brain flips the image. Art is crazy to think about. Bariatric surgery is controversial. Euthanasia for kids. Belgian lawmakers passed a law to allow euthanasia for incurably ill children enduring insufferable pain.


  15. – we don’t understand some facts and things going around us; but it is believed to be answered by the god. the divinity goes into the category into the ‘unanswerable questions’.
    – Facebook only lets us change our name once. also the Facebook has invented another category of gender which is “custom” your gender. even the custom gender has other sub-genders like transgenders, intersex, etc.
    -the professor has invented a new gender that is “who’s asking?” for Facebook.
    -the every written document is a document. for example:- note written outside the class ‘the class is cancelled.’ or ‘STOP sign’ and also a ‘Diary’ is also an argument.
    -an art means functional. but also it doesn’t mean that non-function things or stuff is not a art. for example a cycle wheel and stool; they both are functional. but as soon as we join them they are non-functional as they cannot be used anymore; but is still an art.
    -Bariatric surgery is a controversial argument. as it required a great courage to undergo the surgery.
    -Doing euthanasia for kids who are suffering from incurable diseases.


  16. The example of the kid euthanasia vs adult euthanasia really conveyed how to be counter-intuitive. It shook up how I thought about life, and made me reclassify what “age” really is.


  17. Haha!!!! Today’s Class was hilarious! Before I forget, thanks for the tip about Facebook and their policy. Today’s class didn’t require me to take notes, rather follow along class discussion and contribute. Anyway, I digress!
    For starters, every written document is an argument. We see these arguments are seen in our daily lives, for instance, a stop sign, warning note etc.
    “How truthful is a diary?”- My question of the day, after it’s still a pile of writing.
    The perceived difference between arts and crafts is arts are thins to be appreciated, and crafts are functional objects.
    Also, I’m an artist since everyone is an artist these days; just kidding.


  18. To me the example that helped me understand what counterintuitive means was the shopping list. The list is useful for the person who made up the list and they could use everything on it. But in reality it is just a reference. The next person who reads the list can decide if it relevant to them. It can be considered an argument because the next person who reads it can argue that they don’t need half the things that were listed. Both the author and the reader can have different points of view. Therefore, anyone who reads the shopping list can interpret it differently.


  19. The example that best represented counterintuity for me was the cheese-grater, bottle rack art example. The artist of the bottle rack thought counterintuitevly by putting his name on a simple bottle rack and calling it art. However, objects that are functional are not usually considered art, and art is usually not functional. This is why it is counterintuitive. Also the cheese-grater looks like art but it is not art because it serves a purpose as a functioning kitchen tool.


  20. The shopping list was the best example of counterintuitivity. Just because you write certain things down that you need to buy, doesn’t mean that you will end up buying them. You don’t always need a certain type of product, as you can always alter what you need. Maybe there is a better price for a different brand that you wanted, or the store didn’t have the exact type of food you wrote down. You can change your mind when shopping and argue with the list. Someone else could be shopping and using the list that you wrote and can argue what they need to buy.


  21. The example of art provided me with a clear understanding of counterintuitive. We can take normal objects we wouldn’t even think of and turn them into art. Then placing them into art gallery, showing others your perspective on the object.


  22. The topic that i found to be most helpful was the dog and its eyes being open at all times. It makes u question the way god made these creatures. If an animal looking to hunt a dog is about to pounce, but sees the little spots on the eyelids of the dig why take the risk? If you have a pet rottweiler or a pet german shepard and you walk into a dark room and see the eyelids of the dog and think its awake, it makes you think about the creation process of these animals.


  23. “This isn’t a painting of a man on a bus. its a man on a bus, painted”. This was a great way of using words to explain the definition of counterintuitive thinking. The painter did not have a bus setting with a man in front of her as she painted it. She created the entire setting from thin air with her paint brush (which is much more difficult, and requires an incredible amount of skill and imagination). Thus, the perfect way to describe this is “a man on a bus, painted”. Well done


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