How We Think

Rendering of human brain.

Image via Wikipedia

Given that this is a blog about thinking, I really should write more about thinking in the abstract. So here goes…

I have no scientific theory of thinking. Instead, I have observations and a model that fits the observations. It seems to me that we think on multiple levels.

The highest level of thinking is reason. Reason is simply logic applied to the subject at hand. Reason has a pitfall: it depends upon the correctness of our a priories. If you get the assumptions wrong, you get the answers wrong too. Garbage in, garbage out. Nevertheless, it’s the best kind of thinking we do. Unfortunately, reasoning takes a lot of time and we don’t have enough time to reason everything through, so we rely upon…

Heuristics, or rules of thumb. Heuristics are usually useful, but they have many well known flaws. A heuristic which is good in one situation might be awful in another situation. For example, poor people are often enthusiastic supporters of policies that keep them poor. Bad heuristics! Moral heuristics seem especially troublesome.

We don’t always have a convenient heuristic, so we sometimes fall back on tradition or custom. That’s not all bad. Tradition is merely the result of experiments of prior generations, and there is some truth beneath all traditions. But Grandpa’s ways were often driven by circumstances that no longer apply.

Finally, if we lack reasoning, heuristics, and tradition, we fall back on our evolved genetic knowledge – our monkey brains, as it were. This is thinking at a very low primitive level, but it is still thinking.

So, what does this all mean? I think it means that we should have great humility in our thinking. When we reason, are we really logical? Are our assumptions and “knowledge” correct? (This is the value of studying epistemology.) When we fall back on heuristics, are they appropriate? When we support tradition, have circumstances changed? When we defy tradition, have we really considered the condensed wisdom of all who came before us? When we resort to our monkey brains, are we just asking for trouble?

Thinking things through is hard work!

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