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.

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.

‘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.

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.

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

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. There are so many activities that might set us on to think, such as reading, travel or conversation, but we keep busy with them so that we won’t have to think, while averring that they prove how much we have done so.

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 impose on them.

Reasoning would isolate us, and cut us off from our unreflecting herd, and leave us shivering in the dark. But we want to huddle close in a bright warm fug of shared prejudices.

Insomnia is the emblematic lot of the thinker, the eerie emptiness and despair, lost in a fog haunted by zombies, to feel one’s being evaporating into the night.

Most of us have cheap substitutes for thinking so that we can live at peace. Thinkers are content with cheap substitutes for living so that they can think at liberty. You have to get hold of a few chattels that you don’t prize, so as to be free to risk all that you do prize. You have to learn to live safely, so that you can think dangerously.

The stance of the thinker ought to be a decent outward obedience and a licentious inner freedom.

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 are 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. 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.

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.

We fervidly long for illumination, and we will do all that we can to get it, except think. We prefer to gain our opinions by any means other than reflecting for ourselves. 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.

1 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 thought 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 deaf 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 people care enough about the truth even to resist it.

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.

Few people feel any strong need to give a meaning to their lives beyond their own careers and amusements. But the creeds tell them that they do and then supply them with a shallow stopgap to fill it. Religion is for the most part a patched-up answer to a question which most of us fail to ask.

The gods were born to serve not some grand metaphysical need for meaning, but our gross physical fears and greed.

2 The stupidity of opinions

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

We collect opinions like a hoard of tawdry keepsakes. They are all we have to show for the decades and regions that we have idled through. We spend no pains to position them in their proper array, but a great deal to defend them from those who oppose us. ‘Most people grow old within a small coop of notions,’ Vauvenargues said, ‘which they have not found out by their own efforts.’ They 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. 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.

3 We believe without understanding

With what certainty and satisfaction we ground our lives in a sophistry which we have made no effort to examine. 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. 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 don’t take up a system because we have thought so much about it. We don’t need to give it much thought, since we’ve made up our mind to take it up. And 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 ridiculous, but which train its adherents to submit without demur to superstitious explanations. 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.

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

We believe truth itself, not because it is true, but because others believe it. The received opinions of our herd teach us to trust in the supreme being. 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.

Many people believe things whose absurdity would be clear to all, were it not for the fact that so many people believe them.

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.

The most outlandish creeds have gained acceptance as official teaching. They seem like common sense once they capture common minds. But when they lose their hold, they start to look as aberrant and perverse as they always were. Orthodoxy is deviancy and blasphemy sanctified by time.

We don’t want to think, and we don’t want to be free to think, but we do want to be free to choose who will think for us. Or more often we want to choose those who will choose who will think for us. And whom do we choose? Those whom we trust. And why do we trust them? Because their interest has in every case coincided so closely with our own, that they have caused us few pains. Evidently we choose well.

The proofs that appear to me the most cogent and undeniable are the ones that I have found by my own efforts, though I don’t quite trust them till I know that a lot of other people do too. No argument seems more unanswerable than one that dominant prejudice makes redundant. Why else would we be so sure of our categories of right and wrong?

5 Habit and stupidity

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.

6 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.

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.

7 Slothful stupidity

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. 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. ‘The shiftless,’ as Vauvenargues says, ‘are always anxious to be doing something.’

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.

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.

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 hustled 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 would have us believe 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. We are so fond of travelling because it gives us things to chat about without requiring us to think.

We are so unused to reflecting, not because we find it so hard to do it, but because we find it so convenient not to. We have a mint of plans and pastimes to take its place, or whose place we don’t want it to take.

Most of us stay home in the cosy fug of our own preformed views. We don’t venture out in the bleak midwinter of new truth.

Most people are not slothful or undutiful, though they seem so to me, since they are too busy doing what they want to do, to do what I think they ought to do.

We may be too remiss to track down the truth, but how perseveringly we work to keep up our indolent bunkum. Why do we tax our miraculous capacities to dream up ways of avoiding the truth, when we could have used them to find it out with so much less toil?

Nine tenths of the thinker’s work is made up of 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. 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. They commence in air, but don’t 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.

8 ‘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.

9 Superficiality

We bob up and down like corks on the surface of life. We skim along where the world has strewn the gilt refuse which we 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.