(2) Thinking Is Hard

Ideas: Thinking Series

Introduction: There are a lot of great and helpful ideas floating around in the world through the internet. Alinea’s Ideas Series brings interesting ideas to the foreground in brief articles. These aren’t our ideas, but are ideas that social scientists, psychologists, theologians, philosophers or scientists find useful to explain and understand the world. The first Ideas Series is Thinking, which comes from my summer reading of Alan Jacob’s How to Think, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

1. Ideas: Everybody Thinks but mostly terribly
“Better” Thinking Isn’t Natural
“Better” Thinking Is Hard

Thinking is something everybody does, but most people don’t do it very well. The problem is, most of us don’t even recognize when we do it poorly, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re great thinkers. Thinking is not necessarily about making the right judgment or decision or even about reaching the conclusion—its about how we make a judgment, decision or reach a conclusion.

Alan Jacobs helpfully defines thinking as “not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; its grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant sense, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help” (How to Think, 14).

Some of think we think pretty well, and some of us don’t think we think well. But how to think better? Its far more challenging than a few rules in a self-help book, which I wouldn’t admit if I had a self-help book for sale.

Learning to think is just like other types of thinking—a paradox. One of the most humbling aspects of academic life is being critiqued on your writing, your arguments and your research. Anecdotally (and this is an overgeneralization as there are many arrogant grad students) moving from a Masters to a Doctorate program has led many fellow students (and myself) to feel more inadequate in our knowledge and our thinking capabilities. This has led to what is known as Imposter Syndrome, where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being discovered to be merely a “fraud.” As the Principal of my college pointed out, he expected all the way through his Cambridge PhD to be found out as a fraud, even after he had received his degree! Yet why is that my four-year-old son can boast endlessly about his ability to drive a car (he can’t), fly an airplane or read books? Imposter syndrome is closely related to the learning paradox ascribed to figures such as Einstein and Socrates, “I know that I know nothing.”

This paradox can be applied to thinking. The more adept and skillful a person becomes at considering, making judgments and reaching conclusions the more a person should recognize one’s own limitations, the weaknesses in one’s own arguments and the challenge of thinking well.

If the paradox of thinking well is an increasing recognition of one’s poor thinking is the first challenge of thinking well, the second is the human limitation of time. Human beings do not have the luxury of consciously thinking all the time, so we make judgments, reach decisions and make conclusions on the basis of our intuitions all the time just to stay sane. “Intuitive” or “tacit” thinking forms most of our life, and tends to be the default mode of human autopilot. When there is a problem or a difficulty autopilot does not serve us so well. My wife wants me to go to church, but I don’t want to go. I have to decide what my major in university will be, but there is nothing that is clear or particularly striking. I got engaged but a week before the wedding I realized my husband is a terrible misogynist. Suddenly one consciously reflects on ‘Why?,’ and how do I explain my decision making not only to others, but also to myself.

Oftentimes our lack of real “thinking” apart from moments of crisis makes for bad thinking, because we are both out of practice and engage in active thinking in difficult and emotional circumstances. No one emphasizes that flying is a skill that should be learned in the midst of flying barrel rolls, engine stalls or equipment malfunctions, but this is intuitively (or perhaps naturally) how we approach thinking. Imagine the disasters that would befall novice flyers if they only learnt how to fly under such difficult and stressful decisions, and why would we expect that learning how to think will be any different?

This basic recognition of these two different ways of thinking, “intuitive” and “cognitive,” is the basis of the next article. In it, Jonathan Haidt and Daniel Kahneman’s approaches will form the basis for how one might think more clearly about thinking. 

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