Austhink Critical Thinking

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Tim van Gelder was a founder of Austhink Software, an Australian software development company, and is the Managing Director of Austhink Consulting. He was born in Australia, educated at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1984), the University of Pittsburgh (PhD, 1989), and held academic positions at Indiana University and the Australian National University before returning to Melbourne as an Australian Research Council QEII Research Fellow. In 1998, he transitioned to part-time academic work allowing him to pursue private training and consulting, and in 2005 began working full-time at Austhink Software. In 2009 he transitioned to Managing Director of Austhink Consulting. He co-leads The SWARM Project at the University of Melbourne.


Van Gelder's research has had three main phases, corresponding to his PhD research on distributed representation, his subsequent research on dynamics & cognition, and his current phase, research into reasoning skills.

Distributed representation[edit]

In his PhD thesis, completed under the supervision of John Haugeland and entitled "Distributed Representation" (1989) van Gelder gave the first sustained exploration of the general concept of distributed representation, and argued that it was a third fundamental kind of representation alongside language and imagery.

Dynamics and cognition[edit]

Van Gelder is a proponent of dynamicism or dynamic cognition in cognitive science. This is a theory of cognition that proposes that dynamical systems theory provides a better model (or metaphor) for human cognition than the 'computational' model. For example, that a Watt governor is a better metaphorical description of the way humans think than a Turing machine style computer.

In his first regular academic position at Indiana University, van Gelder was heavily influenced by researchers such as Robert Port, James Townsend, Esther Thelen and Linda B. Smith who were exploring cognition from a dynamical perspective, i.e., applying the tools of dynamical systems to studying cognitive processes. Van Gelder published a series of articles providing a philosophical commentary on the dynamical approach, culminating in his 1998 paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, where he articulated the dynamical approach to cognition and argued that it should be taken seriously as a broad empirical hypothesis comparable to the dominant hypothesis that cognition is digital computation. In his most well-known paper, 'What Might Cognition Be If Not Computation,' [1] van Gelder used the Watt Governor as a model to contrast with the Turing Machine. Van Gelder came to be known as one of the foremost proponents of the dynamical approach, and even as an advocate of anti-representationalism, though he explicitly disavowed that extreme position.

Informal reasoning skills[edit]

Since around 1998, van Gelder's research has been almost exclusively devoted to informal reasoning and critical thinking. In particular, he has been developing and evaluating an approach to improving these skills, known variously as The Reason Method, and LAMP ("Lots of Argument Mapping Practice"). The core idea in van Gelder's approach is that informal reasoning is a skill, and so should improve in the same way as any other skill. According to the leading theory of high-level skill acquisition, the critical ingredient is extensive "deliberate practice" (Ericsson). Van Gelder and his colleagues have shown that extensive deliberate practice can substantially enhance informal reasoning skills.[2]

The main practical challenge in the LAMP approach was finding a way to enable students to engage in extensive deliberate practice of reasoning skills. To confront this, van Gelder and his colleague Andy Bulka developed the argument mapping software packages Reason!Able (2000) and Rationale (2006).

Van Gelder uses this software to help 'teach' the first year philosophy subject Critical Thinking: The Art of Reasoning which reliably achieves substantial gains in the critical thinking abilities of students (0.7 to 0.85 standard deviations) as measured by pre and post semester testing with the use of control groups of the same ages as the student cohort both studying at Melbourne University and not studying at university.[2]

Van Gelder has also applied argument mapping to business decision making, and has released the Reasoning PowerPoint App for this purpose.


Chris Eliasmith wrote a critique of Tim van Gelder's dynamicism and his proposal to replace the Turing machine by the Watt governor as a model of cognition. Eliasmith argued that the Turing machine concept is more encompassing and better suited as a guiding metaphor than the Watt governor, because the latter is a concrete machine and the former is a mathematical abstraction representing of a whole class of machines.[3]


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Argument maps, belief networks, debate maps, decision diagrams … all are ways of setting out the logical development of a line of thinking, discussion or deliberation where the aim is to reach a conclusion in a complex set of circumstances.  Where a topic is under discussion among several people, or even where an individual is making a decision alone, a formal and visual approach can help in making an agreed position clear.

Austhink (now owned by Critical Thinking Skills BV) have long had desktop versions of their argument mapping tools, Rationale and bCisive.  These have been in the database at Mind-Mapping.Org for more than eight years.  Late in 2013 they released online versions of these two products: Rationale in September and bCisive in November.  As these are tools for discussion and argument, having an online option is a useful and significant advance.

Rationale is a tool aimed at anyone wanting to improve their critical thinking skills, and is presented primarily as an academic tool, though it could also be seen as a tool that would help in legal argument.  bCisive targets business decision making and has many capabilities related to evaluation, review, documenting and implementation of decisions.


In use, Rationale is different from mind mapping products, but is not difficult to use, with a drag and drop approach.  Arguments are laid out with ‘supports’, ‘opposes’ and ‘rebuts’ elements so that the users can see all points raised in support of or against a contention.  When an ‘opposes’ item links to another ‘opposes’ item above it, Rationale automatically changes the lower one to ‘rebuts’ (see on the right):

There is a collection of images that can be used to highlight visually and in words the basis for each element of the argument.  For example, ‘expert opinion’, ‘law’, ‘statistic’, ‘web’, ‘media’, ‘assertion’, ‘common belief’, and more.
Here is an argument map I made with Rationale:

click for full-size image

Not everyone likes a map or visual format, and for the traditionally minded, a map can be rendered as an outline in various formats using one of the Text Panel tools (see on the right):

An advantage of mapping out an argument is that it can take the heat out of the conversation in the early stages.  That is, we can take the approach of “We’re just trying to record all views here, let’s make sure we have everything down before we start arguing.”


bCisive, being intended for business use, is less about argument or debate, and more concerned with evaluating the pros and cons of a proposal.  The principal of operation is similar, and again it is easy to use.

Here is a map I made with bCisive:

click for full-size image

Again, one of the Text Panel tools  can make a text-based outline (see on the right):

For now, neither of these online tools allow simultaneous collaborative work, but the developers are working on that, as well as on a tablet version.  Also in the works is the ability to embed maps in web pages.

Others in this field

If you go to the Master List main page and in the ‘Refine software list’ tab at the top right select ‘argument maps’, ‘belief networks’, ‘debate maps’, ‘decision diagrams’, you will see seven entries in addition to the two above, namely Argunet, MindDecider, Netica, Cohere, Debategraph, Flying Logic and GeNIe.  On my future-additions list are nine more: Araucaria, Argumentative, Carneades, Copeit, Deliberatorium, iLogos, jCollam, PIRIKA, Riyarchy, Theorymaps, Truthmapping and Wrangle.  It’s quite a crowded field!  Now some of these are not strictly comparable … GeNIe and jCollam are oriented towards developers, Netica is for Bayesian networks, and some look more like student projects than mature products.

Right now if I had to choose for business use, I would be looking at Rationale and bCisive.



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