node created 2012/06/17
last changed 2013/02/04
There was a wonderfully illustrative story which I thought I had bookmarked, but couldn't re-find: it was the story of a man whose know-it-all neighbor had once claimed in passing that the best way to remove a chimney from your house was to knock out the fireplace, wait for the bricks to drop down one level, knock out those bricks, and repeat until the chimney was gone. Years later, when the man wanted to remove his own chimney, this cached thought was lurking, waiting to pounce...

As the man noted afterward—you can guess it didn't go well—his neighbor was not particularly knowledgeable in these matters, not a trusted source. If he'd questioned the idea, he probably would have realized it was a poor one. Some cache hits we'd be better off recomputing. But the brain completes the pattern automatically—and if you don't consciously realize the pattern needs correction, you'll be left with a completed pattern.

I suspect that if the thought had occurred to the man himself—if he'd personally had this bright idea for how to remove a chimney—he would have examined the idea more critically. But if someone else has already thought an idea through, you can save on computing power by caching their conclusion—right?

In modern civilization particularly, no one can think fast enough to think their own thoughts. If I'd been abandoned in the woods as an infant, raised by wolves or silent robots, I would scarcely be recognizable as human. No one can think fast enough to recapitulate the wisdom of a hunter-gatherer tribe in one lifetime, starting from scratch. As for the wisdom of a literate civilization, forget it.

But the flip side of this is that I continually see people who aspire to critical thinking, repeating back cached thoughts which were not invented by critical thinkers.
Tagsthinking
Within the affluent democracy, the affluent discussion prevails, and within the established framework, it is tolerant to a large extent. All points of view can be heard: the Communist and the Fascist, the Left and the Right, the white and the Negro, the crusaders for armament and for disarmament. Moreover, in endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood. This pure toleration of sense and nonsense is justified by the democratic argument that nobody, neither group nor individual, is in possession of the truth and capable of defining what is right and wrong, good and bad. Therefore, all contesting opinions must be submitted to 'the people' for its deliberation and choice. But I have already suggested that the democratic argument implies a necessary condition, namely, that the people must be capable of deliberating and choosing on the basis of knowledge, that they must have access to authentic information, and that, on this. basis, their evaluation must be the result of autonomous thought.
"Repressive Tolerance" (1965)
There are many people who are not entirely themselves because as children they were not given time to think about themselves. And because they don’t know everything about themselves they can’t know everything about everything. But no one likes to admit that she doesn’t know everything about everything. And so these people try to make up for not knowing everything about everything by doing things.

[..]

People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing. They try to pretend that doing is thinking.
It is very sad then that so many children are hurried along and not given time to think about themselves. People say to them when they think that they have been playing long enough: “You are no longer a child. You must begin to do something.” But although playing is doing nothing, you are really doing something when you play; you are thinking about yourself. Many children play in the wrong way. They make work out of play. They not only seem to be doing something, they really are doing something. They are imitating the grown-ups around them who are always doing as much instead of as little as possible. And they are often encouraged to play in this way by the grown-ups. And they are not learning to be themselves.
The only possible metaphor one may conceive of for the life of the mind is the sensation of being alive. Without the breath of life, the human body is a corpse; without thinking, the human mind is dead.
The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality.
"The Origins of Totalitarianism"
If the ability to tell right from wrong should have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to "demand" its exercise in every sane person no matter how erudite or ignorant.
"The Life of the Mind: The Groundbreaking Investigation on How We Think"
The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, "normal" knowledge of murder and lies. Eichmann's great susceptibility to catch words and stock phrases, combined with his incapacity for ordinary speech, made him, of course, an ideal subject for "language rules."
"Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"
When confronted with situations for which such routine procedures did not exist, he [Eichmann] was helpless, and his cliché-ridden language produced on the stand, as it had evidently done in his official life, a kind of macabre comedy. Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.
"Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil"
The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.
There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.
Tagsthinking
Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty — so, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.
"A Call to Greatness" (1954)
Think deeply about things. Don’t just go along because that’s the way things are or that’s what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...

The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.
"The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark"
I feel like the inability to focus for long periods of time is holding back progress in many areas. If we can't even stay away from email for a few days, how can we clear our minds of conventional thinking?
I know what it looks like when a person is thinking -- even fallaciously or sloppily, but still rubbing neurons together -- and I know what it looks like when a person is bullshitting to give the appearance of thought when they really have nothing at all going on upstairs.
All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. [..] But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Stallman is just always swimming against the tide of what people actually want.

Isn't that the mark of a thinking man? A drug dealer gives people what they want; a thinker tells them what they should want. So what if they don't listen? That's the normal division of labor: the prophet warns and the people ignore him.
Most Americans are educated in name only — we do not have the comprehension of ideas that would be required to think for ourselves, and we also are not trained or encouraged to do this. Not only are we unable to think creatively, we don't even possess this expectation, and this is not an accident.

There are many vested interests that prefer us as we are — in government, religion and in corporate America. Think how much more trouble we would be if we could think for ourselves. Not only would we be much more difficult to govern (to the degree that politicians would have to explain their actions), we would be much more alert to the public stupidity that so often surrounds us.
I fortunately come from generations past that learnt to think using paper. If I have to cut off my right arm to escape computer addiction, I can do that. Generations now and especially in the future will quite literaly be unable to think straight without an electronic device in their hand. To them, life will be brutually stressful with no inner peace to be found because they will be assaulted non-stop by disingenuous companies who have every kind of life-sapping wares to peddle.
If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.
Let no man imagine that he has no influence. Whoever he may be, and wherever he may be placed, the man who thinks becomes a light and a power.