The Art of Thinking

I am not an expert on thinking. It is something that I do a lot of, but most of the time I do it badly. Thinking isn’t, in itself, the most important thing we do. The most important thing is that we respond appropriately to any given situation.

Most of our responses to people, things, and situations are determined by, what we call in programming, a look-up table. This just means that our response is preconditioned. This is not exactly the same as a habit because a person might choose between multiple strategies for handling the situation. Habits are, however, one example of a look-up table response.

While it may seem less than ideal to be so unthinking about so many things, this is actually a tool, without which we could not even get up in the morning. It is impossible to analyze every action. Relying on our conditioning allows great freedom of action into ever more complex situations as we build our tool set. Eventually, however, a time comes when our current table of responses is insufficient to a new challenge or it comes to our attention that we have not been acting or believing rightly. At this point a person has a few options.

The simplest is to just do or believe whatever we like. This option is very unlikely to produce a correct response, but this is how we all start as children. When it fails we hopefully begin learning more advanced strategies. The second is mimicry; modeling our response on the behavior of the people around us. This doesn’t take much thinking, but in the right company it can easily instill correct responses.

The third option is to analyze our existing list of known responses and pick on that we hope will work. Very young children try this when asked an unfamiliar question. They might reply “yes” or “no” seemingly at random because that answer worked in the past and they are hoping that it will again get them through the interaction.

The final option is to think long and hard about the situation and try to come to a logical conclusion about what might work. This is what we all think of as “thinking” and is what we all think we are doing. Generally it is not. Usually when we consider ourselves as thinking we are in reality combining options 1-3. We think about how we want to respond from our current list and then pick one that is most like what the people around us would do.

This isn’t a bad strategy most of the time, chances are that things that have not killed you in the past will also not kill you in the future and mimicking your in-group is a strong check on harmful behavior as harmful behavior will eventually suffer Darwinian ends.

The time comes however, that all of the above will lead you astray and it is time to buckle down and do some thinking. We begin with a question. If the question isn’t clearly stated then the answer won’t be either. If the question isn’t honestly posed the answer will be useless. You have to know what exactly you are asking and you have want to know the answer. You must think hard about what it is that you want to be true. Be aware of confirmation bias for in your thinking you will discover data and reasoning that confirms what you were hoping to be true. Being aware of your own bias at the outset allows you to Flag that information as suspect and needing further review.

Next you need an equation; some formula that will determine the truth of the matter. The equation can be as simple as an ‘if’ statement. For example “If there are puddles in the road then it has rained.” Or it could be complex statistics. Doing this first keeps you from being able to cheat yourself later.

Once you have your equation you need to collect data. Look to see if there are puddles in the road, read actuarial tables, find polling data, read studies, do your own experimentation. Write that data down and assign it a level of certainty.

Next comes the math. Every class has the clown that demands to know when they will ever use the math in question. The answer? Never, if you don’t learn it. If you do learn it, you have a tool to discovering truth that others have discarded. True critical thinking always “does the math” Once the math is done, we have our answer. It may be wrapped in some uncertainty from imperfect data and an imperfect understanding of the question, but the math, as they say, doesn’t lie.

All of this is really hard to do correctly and so we generally don’t do it at all. There are two traps that people fall into in their haste to avoid unpleasant work. The first is one of ignorance. The person in question never really understood how to dive into a question and so “Doing research” means watching YouTube videos with pre-chewed conclusions.

The second trap is that of pride. People who are fully aware of how to ask and answer questions start believing that because they are capable of thinking rigorously they are thinking rigorously. This is like a sprinter who is capable of running 100m in 10 seconds claiming that they are always running 100m in 10 seconds. It just isn’t true, and many intellectuals ends up leading a mentally sedentary life-style while their pride tells them they are winning marathons. The result is the idiot genius who is now firmly stuck in the infantile regime of believing whatever they want to be true.

One unfortunate consequence of deep critical thinking is that one continually runs into limits in their ability to properly formulate questions and collect trust-worthy data. This leads the critical thinker to very often assert that they just don’t know the answer to an important question and fall-back on mimicking a trusted source of truth. Perhaps such humility was the point of the exercise all along.

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