What’s a thinker to think? What’s a thinker to do?

Je pense, donc je suis…irrationnel” – (with apologies to both Rene Descartes and Daniel Kahneman)

According to Psychology Today,

…dreams are about events from our waking lives, including real events and modified ones. About 70% of dream content is based on events from the previous day, which are called day residue dreams. Dreams can also include events, places, and people from the past.

Good to know.

My previous LOTRW post had noted with regret the passing of Daniel Kahneman. And PBS recently aired an amazing four-hour, two-part series on Dante Alighieri’s life and the Divine Comedy that made a huge impression.

Maybe that juxtaposition accounts for my dream last night, in the early hours of April 1st, about Daniel Kahneman’s ascent to heaven. Of course he entered at Dante’s fourth level of paradise – the Sun, which Dante tells us is the realm of the wise[1]. Where else? In my dream, Kahneman ran into Rene Descartes early on, and they naturally had a rich get-acquainted conversation. But Descartes was heard to sigh, as he walked away, head bowed, “I think, therefore I am… irrational.”

This is the nagging negative part of the extensive legacy Kahneman leaves behind. Prior to the arrival of Kahneman, Tversky, Slovik and other scholars of thought, it was possible for intellectuals of every stripe to share their wisdom and judgments with full throat and relatively free of care. But now, confronted with the extensive, unflattering litany of the logical fallacies and pitfalls that characterize all such work, it’s impossible for thinkers to proceed with even the merest shred of self-confidence. They are forced to acknowledge that most carefully crafted of their ruminations, if extensively scrutinized, can be found flawed. In this light their best thoughts do little more than add to the burgeoning mountain of defective logic and misinterpretation of data already out there.

To be clear: Everyone thinks. Indeed, everyone thinks for a living. From janitors to judges, historians to homemakers, pizza bakers to physicians, teachers to truckers, thought and action are closely linked in the job. It’s the action that earns the pay, but the thought behind the action that makes the difference.

But a few make their living by thinking in a purer form. Their thinking is less connected to doing. Their thoughts are their stock in trade – and they are correspondingly vulnerable at a deeper level. We’re talking about philosophers, writers, authors, columnists, consultants, futurists and myriad influencers.

Including, for the sake of completeness – bloggers. (Finger pointing to self. Much as “a pun is the lowest form of wit,” a blogger might be considered “the lowest form of intellect.” After all, there’s little or no peer review, there’s often an element of haste, the thoughts are popcorn-sized, offered in isolation rather than context, the prizes go to those who attract eyeballs, by whatever means. When I started LOTRW in 2010, a colleague whose opinions I respected greatly, who put most of her opinions in peer-reviewed journals, said to me, archly: “Go ahead, blog away”…

So how can a blogger – or any thinker of a higher caste – live with himself/herself/themselves? What follows are a few ideas. You can be the judge – or offer your own improvements or substitutions.

1. Clam up? That’s not the solution. Let’s start with what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t throw in the towel. The world needs more shared thought, not less. We all have the responsibility to put ourselves out there. Theodore Roosevelt captured this spirit with his short piece The Man in the Arena (hopefully if he were writing his piece today it would have been entitled The Person in the Arena):

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt censured those who substituted mere criticism for deeds and action, but this logic applies equally well to those who have constructive or critical thoughts but fear to expose them to the light of day.

2. self-Critical? Some point out that scientists (one flavor of the thinking class) should be the strongest critics of their own work. Unsurprisingly, it turns out human beings aren’t particularly gifted in this way (as reflected in the so-called replication crisis in science). What’s more, self-criticism may be hurting our work. The rationality sought comes too heavily laden with emotion.

2. Criticism? As for outside criticism, there may be too much of it. Since most of us are only too well aware of our shortcomings and failings, we need words of encouragement, words offering positive suggestions and ideas, if not outright affirmation. And constructive criticism is resource-intensive, and growing more so every day as eight billion people add to the world’s store of experience and insight. At the same time, criticism of the noisy, noxious sort is all-too-readily available and becoming even more prevalent in the age of social media (including blogs – sigh). Not just when it comes to blogs, but also in ordinary conversation, we might instead develop more of the spirit of improv – using our brainpower to see how far the ideas of others might carry us, and where they might take us, versus finding fault.

3. Conjecture? Maybe we could use more of it. Consider this thought from Charles Darwin (another denizen of the fourth level of paradise?) that used to be on LOTRW’s masthead: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” Instead of vainly striving to upgrade our mere conjectures into solid truth we might better foster human progress by putting those partially-formed ideas out for review.

4. Collaboration (or competition)? Sharing partially-formed thoughts, inviting comments, corrections, and outright alternatives? According to Darwin, conjecture can invite collaboration. These days, such ideas have a name: open science. Instead of sharing results only at publication, scientists are exploring the need for and the means for sharing/communicating progress at every step in the research process – experimental design, data collection, etc., etc.  One small cloud in this otherwise bright picture? The rewards in science still go to those publishing novel results in high-impact publications.

Back to my April 1 dream:

As Descartes shuffles along, he shortly encounters his old friend Francis Bacon (another post-Dante arrival in the Fourth level of paradise).

Bacon says, “Cheer up, mon ami! Fais de l’amour ton objectif (make love your aim).”

(Recall that Bacon famously argued that charity (that is, love) is the most defensible motivation for pursuing natural philosophy).

If we could only find a way to monetize love in a free-market world…

Whew! What a day. Perhaps April 2 will be better!

[1]There Dante encountered Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon, Bede and others of that ilk. Descartes would eventually arrive, of course, but only two centuries later – so Dante gives him no mention. (BTW, Dante states – fittingly, given the timing of this blogpost – that he arrived in the lowest levels of paradise on Wednesday, March 30, 1300, the day after Easter of that year. A mere coincidence? Kahneman would probably say yes.

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2 Responses to What’s a thinker to think? What’s a thinker to do?

  1. As I’ve found on most things, Nietzsche offers some cogent thoughts:

    “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

    “A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions — as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.”

    “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”

    And finally, on conjecturing, “The errors of great men are often more valuable than the truths of lesser men.”

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