Learning to Think 1: Reclaiming Your Mind from The Google

Thinking is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, activity for us distracted, lazy, confused humans. Knowledge workers are known to burn out early and need regular vacations for refreshment. Thinking drains our emotions, motivations, and resilience. In fact, our default setting is to be unthinking beings. Part of the fall of Genesis 3 is the destruction of our minds to dark, muddy unmeaning. But if we are going to love the Lord with all of our minds, we have to develop an intentional system for thinking.

This is just an introductory post on thinking as fundamental to life, and an introduction into the act of thinking itself, something we will look at in depth next time.

Thinking is fundamental to every aspect of life.

Learning requires thinking

This should be a given. “Any learning which takes place without thinking is necessarily of the sort I have called external and additive–learning passively acquired, for which the common name is ‘information.’ Without thinking, the kind of learning which transforms a mind, gives it new insights, enlightens it, deepens understanding, elevates the spirit simply cannot occur” (Mortimer Adler).

Reading requires thinking

Too many people read to finish books, to meet a deadline, to write a paper, etc. I’ve met only a handful of people who sincerely enjoyed the act of reading with reckless abandon to the investment of time and energy required. Make no mistake, reading is an intricate discipline which takes years to master, but if you keep this quote on your mind, you will never stray too far: “If you come to a book with any other intention than to think, you fail.” (Mortimer Adler)

Writing requires thinking

“You can’t be a good writer unless you are a good thinker. This is a depressing thought for a writer.” (Andy Rooney) “Start writing by thinking, not wrestling with words” (Jonathan Price). And, my favorite of all, from the original hipster, Thoreau: “Don’t seek expressions, seek thoughts to be expressed” (Henry David Thoreau). If you aren’t a writer, you have no idea what it’s like to “see” thoughts, and I’ve found very few people today experience that level of mental acuity that comes with mastery of a certain topic. [1]

Worship requires thinking

This gets into dangerous territory with the more mystical among us, so all I want to say here is that if you are standing there in church, singing about how great your God is, without actually thinking about Him, you aren’t worshipping Him. Worship can mean a lot of things, including a lot of activities, but it certainly doesn’t mean brain-dead people mouthing meaningless sounds from minds running amok.

Worldviews require thinking

One of the primary purposes for reading is to filter out the worldview of the author and measure his view of the world (his ultimate values and truth claims) against your own. First, you have to think about your own worldview in this way enough to know what you actually think at all. Second, you have to be able to make generalizations from a string of words set forth by the author. Both require the power of thought–a skilled thinker. If you don’t think about your worldview in that way, you hand over every ounce of discernment you have to mere opinion.

The Study of Thinking Proper

This idea of thinking as a study in itself is widely covered by authors, scientists, writers, and philosophers, such as Edward Burger, Arthur Conan Doyle,[2] Rolf Dobelli,[3] Daniel Levitin, Carl Sagan,[4] etc.

Thinking is uncomfortable

It really is. Most people hate to be alone, they hate quietness and stillness, and most of all, they hate to think. There never was a person born who didn’t hate the thought of deep thinking. But, as great minds soon find out, it is extremely rewarding. As one philosopher put it, “Thinking [is] a very special type of psychic activity, very uncomfortable, but also very exciting…” (Eric Havelock; HT: Thinking is Uncomfortable but Exciting). Thinking saps major energy out of your body, but since we Americans don’t regard thinking as any sort of major effort, we are unprepared for the fatigue. We get depressed real quick and bail out, not 10 seconds in to a good train of thought.[5]

Thinking is undermined by culture

Our apps are too simple

There is a heated debate still in progress over the influence of the medium upon the message. It’s part of mainstream media to bash technology as a medium (kindle books don’t make you think like real books do), but few ever give serious thought to it. They just cite some statistic that’s supposed to prove that the electronic medium itself hinders our brain waves. The debate climaxed with Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, around the beginning of the Information Age. But, it isn’t a new idea, solely limited to the burdens of the Information or the Scientific Age. It began with good ole Plato in ancient Greece. He fought to put down the technology of the written word, claiming true education could only happen face-to-face, from teacher to student. The written word undermined his philosophy of education, which was based on questions and answers (the Socratic Method).

Our culture has exalted entertainment so much that we have accepted a new worldview, one that is centered on these buzzwords: speed, portability, progress, next-generation, accessibility, availability, simplicity, and so on, not to mention the cultural craze with technology itself.[6] We prize apps that are intuitive, bragging about how even our babies can work our iPhones. But while the struggle for intuitive design is valid, even godly, it comes with tradeoffs in functionality, functionality that is necessary for complex tasks. Thus, we force simplicity on a person and all of their daily functions, limiting their learning and thinking and growth process by the medium with which they view and interact with content. We flick, scroll, and tap three buttons, and say we’ve just thought about something.

This issue is beyond our present scope, but it does affect our thinking, because our thinking is affected by our visualizations. It’s common knowledge that form drives content. In writing, if you run into a wall and struggle making words come out, you can just use a preset form and words begin flowing auto-magically. For example, “Even though” can introduce a concession statement which demands resolution. “Even though I was tired,” demands a resolution, a statement contrary to the exhaustion, something like, “I continued to work hard.” I find myself using cues like these when journaling late at night, when my fried is brain.

In the same way, our brains are limited by our experience with forms. If the only forms we know are a flick, scroll, and tapping three buttons, our minds begin to form into those patterns, retreating back into simplicity. With micro-blogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and blogs like Tumblr, blogger, and wordpress, ordinary people have the ability to spout out information without much effort or vetting. We can just open up an app and type away, blathering on about our newest obsession. This is why writers (and readers) of books are outstandingly better than the average American today. Because in order to write good long-form, you have to spend time researching, outlining, structuring, thinking, and writing. The sad state of American publishing is such that this core competency for writers is now gone, sold to the highest bidder–which today is risqué, flashy, emotional, controversial, emotional (oh I already said that), sensationalist (which is another form of emotional) literature.

But to get back to the main point, after that digression into the poor state of American intellectualism, we need to invest ourselves into a new way of thinking, and that demands complexity before simplicity. Our simplicity we praise in our iPhones essentially enables us to live complex lives with little-to-no cranial involvement or horsepower. We need a different simplicity, something like this: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).

So how do we take Mr. Holmes’s advice? Well, we can start by making super hard apps. This is ridiculous. But it actually is a thing. One of my favorite apps of all time took me months to learn.[7] But, there’s no guarantee that the more complex the app, the more it benefits you. It could just be the app sucks. However, it is true that the more complex the job, the more complex the app must be. As this series progresses, I’m going to introduce you to apps and analog methods that will shape and change the way you think. Just like sentence cues like “Even though,” smart app designs can pull information out of us and enable us to be better thinkers, something we need in our app-inundated world.

Our attention span is too short

Our smartphones invade us. We live in a free country, enslaved to other people’s agendas. Most of the people I know live completely reactionary-based lifestyles. If the way we spend our time determines our lives, we live jumping from topic to topic, mask to mask as we interact with everyone at once. We are totally incapable of being alone and quiet, and happy. There’s a great article by a technologist on his battle with his cell phone: (“This is your brain on mobile”[disclaimer: some profanity]) and a TED talk by Paul Miller, a tech publisher for The Verge (A year offline, what I have learned"). The talk is great, and he hits on several great points (boredom, surfing the web, meaning of life).

Thinking is fading along with the liberal arts

The liberal arts are supposed to “teach us how to think.” My favorite lecturer on audible.com is Dr. Michael D. C. Drout–hands down. He’s the modern-day equivalent to J. R. R. Tolkien (being professor of Middle English Studies) and Mortimer Adler. He does a series on the liberal arts that is quite good.[8] Drout says that the liberal arts give us the “tools to rule.” Without getting too far off track, the liberal arts consist of seven key disciplines of study: the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric: [dealing with words]) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy; [dealing with numbers]). The first three were the foundation to the latter four, the harder stuff.

Grammar teaches you logical relationships between things and actions. Logic teaches you how truth works. Rhetoric teaches you how to convince everyone what you see is true. History and literature both fit in here too. The trivium equips you with the tools to understand while history and literature give you models–schema–to see how they work. Drout says social science is fine, “but the historical and literary models give you a rich, memorable, and easily accessible picture of the world. And having that and knowing how to think that way gives you power. It gives you the tools to rule and it makes you able to exercise your will when you need to and to improve the position of yourself and those around you.”

The liberal arts give you the ability to reduce literature down to its parts, make abstractions, generalize those into principles, recognize patterns of those principles in life, and apply the truth you’ve learned. Doesn’t this process sound like a Christian’s relationship with understanding the Scriptures, the greatest literature of all?

So what do the liberal arts do? They teach us how to think by starting our Intuition Pump, by giving us mental models of the world around us, by educating us to the truth (the way things are), so that we recognize patterns in life and can compare and contrast resolutions, exercising critical thinking and problem solving to come to the right conclusion.

As David Foster Wallace eloquently said in his commencement address (“This is Water”), “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” Constructing meaning from experience. Now that is a high calling indeed.

  1. This issue of seeing thoughts has at its core the central study of linguistics. Does language help us think or inhibit us? Do we think with thoughts or about thoughts? Is there a platonic ideal out there for which words stand, and if so, can we transcend words to know it better? All of this I hope to deal with later in sections on linguistics and epistemology.  ↩

  2. His Sherlock Holmes stories are based on a psychologist he met early in life who practiced extreme methods of perception.  ↩

  3. See this excellent summary of his book, The Art of Thinking Clearly.  ↩

  4. See this excellent summary of his book, The Demon-Haunted World, a good look at what modern science esteems as a scientific mind.  ↩

  5. John Todd wrote a great book in the 1850’s called The Student’s Manual. In it he said that the German students studied 13–16 hours per day while Americans were lucky to get 6. This is a work ethic issue, but it is also just an issue of expectation derived from a worldview. Americans expect to exceed with little effort, therefore, we study little.  ↩

  6. Anytime in history when people begin to see technology as an end in itself and not a means to an end, destruction is near (e.g. Rome). A society can’t worship progress, it’s got to worship a goal that is firm and substantial, using progress as a means of achieving that goal. Progress isn’t a goal, it is a way of achieving a goal.  ↩

  7. Tinderbox, a mind-mapping, content-management system.  ↩

  8. Though my favorite course of his is the Way with Words series, a 4-part set on rhetoric, literature, grammar, and poetry.  ↩