We don’t think

Few of us are able to think, and still fewer care to. ‘Man is a thinking reed,’ as Pascal said, but a thinking reed that would go to any length so as not to think, and which would soon split if it tried to. There are so many tasks that the mind is good for, but reasoning is not one of them.

‘A great many people,’ says William James, ‘think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.’ But few of us go to the trouble of rearranging them. We just apply them to new facts in the confidence that they will be proved right once more. We’re sure that we have said something witty when we trim an old cliché to fit a new context.

When we think, we try to compose believable ideas from those that we already believe.

Thinking is our glory. So why to our shame have we made it so hard? Though we have no wish to do it, we hold its fruits in high regard. It’s filthy and boring work, but we prize the gold that it yields.

Most people’s minds are too vacant to bear up under the vacancy that thinking would force on them.

1 We would rather talk and feel than think

We like to talk as much as we hate to reflect. We must speak before we think, or we would never have a thing to say. Trollope shrewdly sketched a man who ‘half thought as he spoke, or thought that he thought so.’ I feel less than I feign, and I think less than I ought. Most of us know what we think before we think. I speak before I feel, I feel before I believe, I believe before I think. And often I feel because I speak, and believe because I feel. But because I speak, feel and believe, I have no need to think.

‘In speaking,’ Trollope wrote, ‘grand words come so easily, while thoughts, even little thoughts, flow so slowly.’ We dawdle behind the truth, because we have made it too easy to talk and too hard to think. ‘It’s where a thought is lacking,’ Goethe said, ‘that, in the nick of time, a word turns up in its place.’

We don’t let truth get in the way of our style. But don’t we allow all the rest of our wants to get in the way of truth?

‘We all do no end of feeling,’ as Twain said, ‘and we mistake it for thinking.’ We prefer to feel rather than to think. But we prefer to think that we feel rather than feel in good earnest. Thinking is hard, feeling is easy and far more gratifying.

We had far rather retell common fallacies than find out uncommon truths.

2 Thinking is superfluous, stupidity is thrifty

Thinking is a surplus activity. A thinker is one who thinks uneconomically. Most of us pick up all the opinions that we need without the need to think. A thinker thinks long and laboriously to earn a few unnecessary insights.

Some people will go to great lengths to seem original, short of thinking for themselves. They cling to their quirks, but take no pains to find new truths.

We are appalled by the thoughtlessness of those who fail to embrace the precepts which we have embraced with no thought.

We fervidly long for illumination, and we will do all that we can to get it, except think. People prefer to gain their opinions by any means other than reflecting for themrselves. We are keen to acquire new information, so long as we are not forced to quit our old ways of acquiring it.

Most of us feel sure that knowledge is best got by whatever means we reckon we’ve got ours, be that by experience, research or reflection.

We have a limitless capacity not to think about what doesn’t tend to our own profit and yet to meddle in what is none of our business.

3 We choose our beliefs by whim

We choose most of our views by mere aesthetic whim, whether we hold that the world is made of matter or of mind, that we know it by reason or empirically, that our acts are free or fated, that we will soon return to dust or that we will never die. We’re deaf to the melody of some ideas, though we may grasp their meaning quite well. ‘Most faiths,’ says William James, ‘are bred from an aesthetic demand.’ The haphazard unshapeliness of quantum mechanics repulsed Einstein. What bard does not feel that rhyme proves more than reason?

I choose my beliefs with no more thought than I would a favourite football team, but I cling to them with the same ferociousness.

4 Ideas are not objective propositions but a social currency

Our convictions are meant less as a picture of the world than as a glue which we use to keep ourselves in one piece and to bind us to our milieu. They are aimed less at the things that we think of than the people that we talk to.

I cling to my convictions as I do to my wonts, not because I give them so much thought, but in order to assert who I am. A belief is a more or less sincere pose meant to affirm our own being in the eyes of the world.

How few pains we take to seek out the truth, yet how much pride we take in pronouncing what we’ve made up our minds it is.

I take up my creed on impulse, since it’s merely a creed. But I argue for it vehemently, since it is now a prized part of my self.

We refuse to part with views which we have not pondered enough to make our own. We’re willing to go to great trouble to fight systems of thought which we are too slack to make sense of.

We don’t think, since we can’t see the people round us doing it, and so we can’t mimic them. But since we can see and copy their views, we have no dearth of opinions.

Like most of what we prize, speculation subsists in this world of mirrors mostly as a mere double or simulation of itself.

5 Truth is not a human need

Most of us are agnostics on the great questions, not because we find it so hard to make up our minds what we think of them, but because we give them no thought at all.

Most people have no interest at all in general ideas. The sole thought that fills their minds is the plans for their own amusement or advancement. They never get close enough to thinking that they need to go out of their way to avoid it. Truth is not the stuff out of which we weave the fabric of our lives.

One mistake which all thinkers make is to assume that ordinary people care for ideas.

Most people are impermeable to ideas. They can grasp what they mean, but they can’t see why they matter, since they lack the rich grounding of thought which might cause them to resonate.

Few of us care enough about the truth even to resist it. It never comes so close as to cause us a fright. We’re too far away on the trail of money and amusement.

Most of the deepest truths are too scandalous or else too obvious to be spoken. But few of us care enough for the truth to be scandalized by it. How could we be horrified by the truth? We are just too heedless of it for that.

Few of us think enough to be perplexed by life’s mysteries. We’re just scrambling to ride its rapids with as few bumps and overturnings as we can manage, while scooping up all we can of the rich jetsam that floats past.

6 The stupidity of opinion

We treat our opinions as a carefree holiday from the exacting rationality to which we needs must submit in the prosecution of our day to day schemes.

We collect opinions like a hoard of tawdry keepsakes. They’re all we have to show for the decades and regions that we have idled through. Most people contribute to the conceptual economy by circulating borrowed ideas, but they turn out no new ones of their own. Their minds orbit in a closed loop of rattling platitudes, which they couch in current clichés and fill out with a padding of irrelevant anecdotes.

Few of us think, yet we all hug our obsessions and convictions.

We need opinions like small change to deal with the exigencies of day to day life. And who wants their thoughts to do more than that? They are the dust flung up by our careening greed.

Most intellectual life is now just a more prestigious make of patter, journalism, showmanship, storytelling and self-promotion.

7 We believe without understanding

With what certainty we ground our lives in a sophistry which we have made no effort to examine. And we will glibly bet our souls on a creed which we have not gone to the trouble of understanding.

Faith is a substitute for understanding rather than a spur to it. Most beliefs don’t have reasons but causes, and those not overly deep ones. We keep up our faith, because we have never taxed our mind to grasp what it means. We take pride in spouting opinions that we don’t quite understand. ‘There are,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘few who do not hold a lot of things which they would, if they put them to the test of close inspection, find they did not comprehend.’ They sign up to a creed without penetrating nine tenths of the articles to which they’re subscribing.

A sect must profess a welter of dogmas which are obviously nonsensical, but which train its adherents to give in without demur to superstitious explanations.

8 We believe without believing

If we gave more thought to our beliefs, we might find that we don’t much believe them. ‘Most people,’ Montaigne says, ‘force themselves to believe, having no idea what real belief would mean.’ They will assent to a proposition sooner than devote serious thought to it. They believe not in order to make sense of the world, but so that they won’t have to, just as others doubt for the same purpose.

We don’t understand a great deal of what we believe in, and we don’t even believe in a great deal of it. Our faith is what we believe we believe in, and most of us believe much less than we believe we do. ‘Religion,’ as Twain notes, ‘consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes in.’ Faith is a respectable shared form of delusion and insanity, which most of its votaries only dream they suffer from, and by which they are enabled to take up and act out a creed that they don’t quite believe. We must make our choice between no faith and bad faith.

Because we have faith in so little, we can coax ourselves to lend our faith to nearly anything. Our self-interest will suffice to heal our unbelief.

9 ‘Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith’

We believe truth itself, not because it is true, but because others believe it. So we have faith in our fellow flesh and blood more than in the vaporous fabulations that it dreams up. We put our trust in a creed, not on the strength of the reasons that we have found to think it true, but on the strength of the trust that we see the rest of the world puts in it. Most of us catch ideas by contact with close-by infected bodies. ‘Our faith,’ says William James, ‘is faith in someone else’s faith.’ And even our doubt is faith in someone else’s doubt. Our minds are too weak to keep up a single opinion on their own without the concurrence of those round us.

If you can hold fast to your own standpoint when no one else agrees with you, you must be a sage or else a crackpot.

We get our precepts by borrowing them from others. So we feel that we prove them most conclusively not by grounding them in logic but by cajoling others to take them up in turn. It is by converting others that we convince ourselves.

10 The stupidity of habit

Most of our habits are more premeditated than they seem. But most of our thinking is more habitual than it seems. Much of what we appear to do by rote we in fact do by express though routine intent. And much of what we reckon we think intuitively we in fact think by rote.

We assume that we do so much from habit because we reflect so much from habit. It rules how we think far more than what we do. We allow torpid routine to fence in our meditations, and unresting self-interest to thrust us on to act.

Habit is a kind of thrift, and what we wish to skimp on is the work of the mind. Most of our habits of thinking are makeshifts which save us from the need to think. Our habits of conduct free us to act without the need of reflection. And our habits of thought enable us to get and keep opinions without the need of reflection. We even think without thinking.

Some minds run with clockwork regularity on tracks laid by a maniac. They are dependable and efficient, but inflexible and misguided.

11 Hardening into belief

By the time that we are of an age to think, most of us are crammed with so many opinions, that we have no more need to, and would scarcely be able. ‘We acquire our ideas,’ Lichtenberg said, ‘at an age when the understanding is at its most unsound.’

We take up tenancy in our cramped house of thought when we’re young. And then instead of broadening it, we spend the remainder of our life bricking it up as a thick-walled prison.

The doctrines that are drummed into our heads when we’re children keep such a hold on us, not because we think about them for the rest of our lives, but because we don’t think about anything much at all. ‘Most people grow old within a small coop of notions,’ Vauvenargues said, ‘which they have not found out by their own efforts.’

At the expiry of forty years of strict reasoning and intrepid speculation, most philosophers still hold at sixty the same viewpoint that they did at twenty.

12 Restless sloth

We are too restless or too idle to think. But we are too slovenly and skittish to do nothing. Our indolence whirrs so frenetically that it looks like a kind of animation. We have the roving lethargy of those who can’t keep still. ‘The shiftless,’ as Vauvenargues says, ‘are always anxious to be doing something.’

We itch to learn new things, so long as we have to flap about to learn them and not sit motionless where we are. And so what we end up with is a mishmash of busy, pushing information, and not a sanguine wisdom. We don’t love truth so much as the rush and ruckus that we make to find it out and show it off.

‘Mankind,’ as Johnson points out, ‘have a great aversion to intellectual labour.’ Mental sluggards are pushed on by a physical restlessness, and their stir and hustle is the mark of the torpor of their minds. The faster you rush, the more indolently you reflect. A thinker such as Pascal claims that we can’t bear to stop moving because we would start thinking. But we don’t wish to think because we would have to stop moving. Our physical activity cloaks the lassitude of our minds, but so does most of our mental activity. We love to be swept up by hurry as much as we hate to fix our minds on ideas. I’m so fond of travelling because it gives me things to chat about without requiring me to think.

13 Too impatient to find the right way

Nine tenths of the thinker’s work is waiting. ‘Leisure,’ Hobbes wrote, ‘is the mother of philosophy.’ Thought thrives by boldness, but dies by impatience, which is, as Kafka says, the one cardinal sin.

We are so impatient that we take the most meandering way in all that we do, since we won’t spend the time to find a more direct one.

We’re in such a rush to make up our minds, why would we slow down to reflect?

We lose our time by rocketing so fast. We are stupefied by our own speed. Move briskly, and you have to give all your mind to how you move. Loaf, and you’re free to let it wander where it will.

Most discoverers don’t start right, because they start too soon. They begin to build their house of thought before they’ve laid the groundwork. Commencing in air, they never reach the light. They would have done well to heed Lec’s admonishment to ‘Think before you think.’

We are so impatient that we never have time to start on our true work.

Most of my ideas are inevitable approximations, which I keep till I fix them in their final precise untruth. Some misleading shortcuts may lead you to the truth as unswervingly as others lead you from it. You have to use the simplifications of yesterday if you’re to form the thoughts of tomorrow.

Truth, if we ever do see it, is a blurred smudge which we glimpse in our peripheral vision while we zoom on to grab what we don’t really want.

14 ‘The idiot questioner’

When critics ask how a bold mind works, why do they all come up with the same stale reply, that it doesn’t smell out fresh answers but asks fresh questions? Questions are what you make of your patrimony. Answers are what you make of your own best gifts. A fine rejoinder may form the most fruitful queries. ‘To ask the hard question is simple,’ as Auden wrote, and jesting Pilate proved. A probing retort mocks Blake’s ‘idiot questioner, who is always questioning but never capable of answering.’

I mistake my own horizon for the farthest rim of the world. I trust that I have hit on the one field where all that’s gone before needs to be corrected by my own inquiries or where corrections count. We assume that our intellectual responsibility ends where our own questions end. For most of us it has not yet begun. We each lift a small square of the sheet of unreality, to catch a peek of the inch or two of the truth that lies adjacent to us.

The best method would work like a mechanism to turn out answers which modify the mechanism so that it can ask further questions.

The seeker’s task is to fill a capacious why with an adequate because.

Glib people reword deep questions to chime with their own glibness, and then plume themselves on answering them with such easiness.

15 Superficiality

We bob up and down like corks on the surface of life. I skim along where the world has strewn the gilt refuse which I want to scoop up. We feel borne up by its unfathomable depth. But it’s our own lightness that keeps us afloat. Some of us are emptier than we appear on the outside. Even our innermost qualities don’t go very deep. Go as far down as you may, what do you meet with but one more exterior and front? How many break their necks when they plunge into the sea of truth and find it so much shallower than they guessed. But some of our thoughts may reach farther down than we judge, since we leave off before we get to the bottom of them.

You don’t glimpse how shallow some people are, till they dredge up their deepest beliefs. Most of our visceral convictions don’t go even skin deep. They’re as thin as the paper or the blinking screens from which we filch them.

A few mouldy crusts and parings of prejudice are sufficient to keep most souls from starving. The most feathery stuffing is enough to fill our light and hollow hearts.