The Guide to Thinking
(Originally posted by Enduring Learner)
Introduction: Who Cares?
Welcome to my guide to thinking. Notice I didn’t call it the Complete Guide To Thinking, and I have good reason. You see, there are so many subtleties and nuances that could be explained in volumes of text. I could get into the deep fundamentals of logic. I could attempt to explain the neuroscience of it all.
But that is not my goal here. If and when you get through this guide, I want you to have a working idea of what it means to think and to be able to use this information to refine your own thinking.
All too often we move throughout the day taking for granted that we know our own thoughts. Just because you know how to walk doesn’t mean you understand the biomechanics of walking.
“Why must we even care about the biomechanics?”
Well my answer is going to be two-fold.
if you don’t take control of your thinking, you will never grow as a human being.
That human being part counts, you know. A robot can learn how to do a task given to it. It can be efficient. It can create, destroy, and communicate, but that computer cannot yet take a large amount of viewpoints, evaluate them, and make them cohere with one another in order to create a wholesome perspective.
if you never learn how to think with at least a fraction of skill you will never be able to solve problems in a meaningful way.
Once again, meaningful is the word of the day. A robot solves problems. A computer can take on master chess players. However, these computers lack meaningful content of thought, which is the significance of one thing to another. A man who is disconnected in life lacks meaning. If his view on ethics are not even close to the way he acts something has gone terribly wrong. If it really meant something to him, he would take it to heart and behave himself in a manner that is pleasing to him.
Deep thinking is the connector of life. It is the the way by which you find that different, seemingly scattered areas of your life are intertwined and have profound impacts upon one another.
Dare To Study Thyself
There is an awareness that arises out of studying your own thought. Suddenly, thoughts you have are not merely drops in a stream, they are building blocks of important ideas.
This is an unsettling process. Just think, you haven’t even come close to being self-aware, and here you are, priding yourself in your ability to outsmart your dog.
So dare to become aware of your own thinking because no matter how technologically advanced our civilization is, the human tendency is to zone out, stop paying attention and start going on auto-pilot, whether it’s carving a wheel out of wood or playing around on your iPhone. There is only one cure: Take a step back and reflect on what is going on around you.
Superficial and Deep Thinking
No matter how technologically advanced we become, we run the risk of becoming drones with respect to that technology. Our smart phones, hybrid vehicles, and comfortable living become part of the routine and we zone out. From caveman fire-wielding to modern electricity-wielding, men and women still have the natural tendency to let routine, habit, and efficiency dictate their lives.
The men and women who allow for this to happen relinquish their ability to think. When growing up they are told what to believe, how to do things and what to do. As they grow these things are not questioned, not examined, and not evaluated.
As a result, when problems arise they respond to them in the only way they know and because of this, when they believe they are thinking it is merely superficial.
Think of some simple command repeated over and over when you were young and have followed ever since.
“No wire hangers EVER!”
You most likely followed it long after your parents stopped enforcing. Something like putting your elbows on the table while eating. Have you stopped to think why that’s really necessary? Sure, you could conjure up some silly answer your parents gave, but did you ever really evaluate it?
I mean, c’mon, if it’s really about manners then why are you worried about it at McDonald’s?
When you analyzed it, was there a good reason other than your parents said so?
When you react with an answer that has no foundation your thinking is superficial. You think you are thinking but it’s just not happening. You are merely regurgitating what you have heard before. When pressed, your view has no merit beyond a single instance.
Apply this to other beliefs and you get the same result.
What is justice?
What does it mean to be a good person?
How should you live your life?
These questions matter, but are your answers superficial?
Superficial Does Not Equal Suggestion
I’ve explained that the mind puts forth a suggestion when a problem arises. This is the central factor in all intelligent thought.
However, a gut reaction to a problem does not make that reaction superficial. It means something different. If you ask a novice how a car works his mind will put forth its best answer. Similarly, if you ask an expert mechanic the same question his mind will do the same.
Both will be suggestions. However, one is superficial while the other is deep.
Superficiality is not associated with timing but depth of thought. Who would you like making hasty decisions for you in war? King Leonidas or The Situation?
So what is the difference between superficial and deep thought?
There are deeper levels of thought that you can tap into if only you take the steps to do so.
Deeper thinking is about genuine evaluation. When you scrutinize an idea and try to understand it completely then you have started to think deeper. Take the elbows on the table example. Your parents informed you that it is good manners, so that is all you can say on the matter. But why is that good manners? Why isn’t it good manners to clap after your meal?
There have no doubt been articles written on this very topic. If you search Google for “Elbows on Table Bad Manners?” you get 115,000 results. That’s a lot of results for something seemingly insignificant. Somewhere down the line, though, someone wondered why the heck am I doing this?, and decided to investigate.
So how does a person access this ability to think deeper? You need an awareness to think about what you are saying and doing. Many things we say go uncontested even when they shouldn’t.
I had a professor in college who had a knack for taking some small piece, some insignificant portion of your answer and picking it apart to make you realize you had no idea what you were talking about.
This is a good thing. Being forced to think deeper on subjects makes them matter to us when those thoughts solve important problems. Those annoying instances where we have to be accountable for unfounded beliefs makes us realize just how wrong we can be and how right we desire to be.
When you take those instances and apply them to topics like justice, human rights, morals, and freedom then you have times where taking responsibility for your beliefs really, really counts.
This taking responsibility should be taken in a literal sense. When you discard a belief that belongs to another and exchange it for one that is coherent through the genuine evaluation of your own thinking then you are taking responsibility for it. When the moral accountability comes for having that belief it will be yours to take.
Men or women who conduct themselves in this manner become agents, adults, mature, or what have you. They have taken control of their own thinking and have attempted to direct themselves towards a better life.
The Novice and the Veteran
The novice has a perspective on the world but this perspective is not genuinely his. It is like taking a young boy to a cliff and announcing that “This is the edge of the earth.” If he goes his whole life without testing that boundary his perspective will always be limited by a viewpoint that was pressed from outside of himself.
If he investigates that edge for himself, no matter the outcome, the belief will be his.
This is the difference between the novice and the veteran thinker. The veteran thinker investigates for himself while the novice waits for another to let him know. The veteran is responsible and mature, knowing what he knows and why. The novice is immature, blaming others for mistakes in his thinking and beliefs.
This ability to think about your own thought processes is known as meta-cognition. It is literally thinking about thinking. It is taking a thought, freezing it, and stepping behind it to take a peak at what’s there.
It is examining your own thinking. When you are able to distance yourself from actions and become meta-cognitive then you are able to evaluate them.
Evaluation is suspending judgment until you have examined the evidence. This is a key part of what it means to think deeper, to suspend judgment. While your mind has a habit of giving suggestions, the deep thinker is the one who can say “let’s hold off on that for a second” while he takes some more time to figure it out.
Thinking deeply is about evaluating those thoughts that various stimuli throughout the day will suggest.
If you ever would like a chance to be able to refine your beliefs, take a step back and look at what is going on without judgment.
Let’s snap back to reality now. We’ve dug our way around the dream world and got just about as far as we could go. If you’re still with me, that is fantastic.
But while these woods we have found ourselves are “lovely, dark and deep,” like the poet Robert Frost has said, we’ve “got miles to go before [we] sleep.”