Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Can you think?

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

Karl Popper

I have noticed a thing: everybody I know or have read, no matter how much I respect their intellect, no matter how much I have learned from them, has some beliefs and opinions which are absurd. There is one exception – me.

The funny thing is that there are people, whom I respect for their intellect and insight, who agree with me on many things (obviously prima facie evidence of their intellect and powers of perception) – but don’t except me from that general rule. I am forced to consider the possibility that I may hold beliefs and opinions which are false, even absurdly so, without knowing what they are.

Now let me ask you a question. Can you think?

“Of course I can!” (I hear you say indignantly.) “Whaddaya think I am, dumb?”

That’s not what I asked though. What I asked was whether you can think, i.e. can you examine data presented as fact, assess its reliability and use it to reach conclusions reasonably free of preconception and emotional bias?

“Of course, I’m a rational person after all.”

Do you do it all the time? Trick question, say “Yes.” and I’ll laugh in your face. Nobody does it all the time – nor can we, there are only 24 hours in a day, some of which we must spend sleeping. For most of our day-to-day activity we rely on preconceptions, conditioned responses, early-formed habits, decisions made once and never reassessed (which the marketing industry relies on and the advertising industry fights against) etc. If we subjected all of our ordinary activity to deep cognition we’d be paralyzed by indecision.

So perhaps it would be better to ask, how much and how well do you think – and about what? More to the point, what does it mean “to think” and how do you measure it?

Well, fortunately I’ve come up with a short quiz that ought to give a rough idea of what level your cognitive processes are operating on.

Take this simple test, answering each question as honestly as you can. Each question is worth from 1 to 4 points, scored as follows:

4 points: never
3 points: almost never
2 points: sometimes
1 point: probably not often enough

The questions are:

1) How often have you changed or abandoned a deeply held belief because of either:
a. Personal experience?
b. A persuasive argument backed by compelling evidence?

2) How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?

3) How often have you admitted honest confusion about an issue that was important to you and decided to defer judgment – or simply live with the uncertainty?

4) How often have you realized while listening to someone speak for a position you agreed with, that it was nonetheless being supported by a weak or invalid argument?

5) How often have you listened to two sides of an issue and concluded that you agreed with someone you disliked and disagreed with someone you liked?


16-20 points: Congratulations, you win! Now go back to sleep.

11-15 points: There’s hope for you yet. Not much though.

6-10 points: You’re definitely thinking at least some of the time. It probably hurts.

1-5 points: You’re thinking enough to make people around you uncomfortable.

OK, obviously I’m making a point here. Nobody thinks rationally all the time and in every case, or perhaps we could put it, nobody thinks all the time, as opposed to reacting to stimuli with responses learned earlier and not though about since.

Nor, when you think of it, is it desirable to think rationally all the time about everything. To begin with, rational cognition is slower than reflex. How often do you think about what you’re doing when you’re driving? If you’re an experienced driver, most of what you’re doing is going on at a level way below articulated thought while you devote your higher attention to planning your route, looking for your destination etc.

And how much time out of our lives do we have to spend doing the research and deep thinking to form rational opinions about things of no immediate importance to us? Not to mention frequently reexamining them in the light of new data. There are things I should be thinking carefully about, and things I really needn’t bother with.

The point, one which sometimes keeps me up at nights, is this: How do I know the difference?

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here... I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.”

Richard P. Feynman


  • At 10:08 AM, Blogger Mollie said…

    Once upon a time, I knew that I had never done anything, or had any opinion, that I could be ashamed of. Well, that has completely changed now.

    I try very hard, all the time, to do something nice for other people, in order to make up for all the dreadful things I did back in the day when I had no shame...

    It comes with age.

  • At 1:19 PM, Blogger Icepick said…

    1-5 points: You’re thinking enough to make people around you uncomfortable.

    How does one get fewer than five points on this scoring system? By refusing to answer questions?

  • At 2:36 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Ah-ha! You got it! Take off a couple extra points.

  • At 6:41 AM, Blogger Jimmy Gatt said…

    I scored an 8. Very interesting and insightful posting! And I agree completely: my ability to think is directly related to my ability to change my views in spite of the discomfort that doing such a thing brings. And each change brings me farther away from, not closer to, any notion of "enlightenment". This is because I think the notion of "enligtenment" is a bogus and pompous notion, one designed to make us feel better about ourselves in a life filled with uncertainty.

    You're quickly becoming one of my favorite blogs, if not one of my favorite writers.


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