Correct Thinking

Basic Principles Of Clear Reasoning

Your life is yours to live as you choose to live it. Assuming you don't want to live a life of misery and failure, you must choose to live your life in a way that will achieve success and happiness. To do that, however, you have to know how to live that kind of life and how to choose to do what is necessary to achieve that success. The faculty of your, "Mind," you must use to make the right choices necessary to true human success is your ability to think (formally called reason or rationality).

There is another reason why the principles of correct thinking are important today. There is an idea being pushed in schools and universities and other influential sources called, "critical thinking." Most people have been fooled into thinking it refers to, "careful thinking," or, "rigorous thinking," or even, "correct thinking," but it is actually a very bad movement that makes true and correct thinking impossible. There is an older article explaining what is wrong with, "critical thinking." An updated one will be available soon.

What Is Thinking

Thinking is silently talking to yourself. People accused of talking to themselves are often just thinking out loud. Just as children begin reading out loud but eventually learn to read silently to themselves, most adults do most of their thinking silently.

We do many things consciously in addition to thinking, however. We imagine and day-dream and are continuously conscious of our feelings and desires. Only those mental activities that use language and words are thinking.

Some people say they can think without words, but they confuse feelings and impressions with true thinking and of course they cannot tell you what they think without words. If what you are doing is true thinking, you can describe it in words, you can write it down (for further examination, for example), and can, if you choose to, explain it in words to someone else.

What Is Not Thinking?

Other kinds mental activity are not really thinking. Mentally reciting things, memorization, imagination, expressions of beliefs, fears, or nostalgia, may include thinking but are not thinking itself.

All undirected mental experiences are forms of perception, not thinking. We are certainly conscious of our emotions, feelings, desires and sentiments, but they are not thinking.

Thinking Is Intentional

Real thinking is done consciously and on purpose. Whatever goes on in our consciousness that is not done deliberately is not really thinking.

While it does not have to be overly serious, all thinking is done with some objective or purpose. It may be as simple as deciding what to wear or have for breakfast or as important is what career to pursue or whether to marry? Deciding what to think or to think about is itself thinking.

The four aspects of thinking, identifying, questioning, judging, and choosing must be done explicitly and consciously. To think about anything, what it is, what its nature is, and how it relates to everything else must be clearly identified. Beyond those questions, whether one is thinking about buying a new car, or changing a career, one must ask and answer the questions why consider such a choice, what will be the consequences, how can it be done, where it will be done. The answers to the questions should lead to a judgment about which choice or decision is the correct or right one in relation to what one values most, enabling the thinker to make a decision and choose an action.

Must Have Knowledge To Think

As human beings, every choice and every decision we make, literally our whole life, is determined by our thinking and the extent of our thinking (how much we are able to think) is determined by how much or how little we know. We cannot think at all about what we do not know, and we cannot think very much about that of which we know very little.

If one is really interested in thinking correctly one must learn as much as they can about as many things as they can. This is the whole reason for the emphasis of the previous article, "Two Moral Principles: Knowledge and Reason," on knowledge.

Know How You Know

Not everything in our heads is knowledge. I pointed out in the article, "Knowledge:"

"In every day speech the words "know" and "knowledge" are used to identify many different things, such as developed skills and abilities (he knows how to drive, she knows how to type, he knows how to used the computer), things one has experienced (I know what cinnamon tastes like) or is acquainted with (I know where the library is) or even for things animals can do (Rex knows his way home).

"Intellectual knowledge, however, pertains only to knowledge acquired and held by means of language."

It is intellectual knowledge, knowledge held by means of language, that one must have in order to think.

Know What Knowledge Is

Mark Twain said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Unfortunately a great deal of what most people think they know is not knowledge at all. It is things they've been taught, or picked up along the way that they believe, but most of it is untrue. Only that which we have learned that is true is knowledge.

Only thinking that is based on (true) knowledge is correct thinking.

Know What Truth Is

In an article about Autonomy called, "Basic Ideas," I illustrated the meaning of truth as follows:

"Truth is that which correctly describes reality or any aspect of it.

"Suppose you are very thirsty and find a bottle containing a colorless, odorless liquid. The liquid in this bottle is either water or a deadly poison. If you choose to drink the liquid one of two things will occur, your thirst will be pleasantly quenched or you will suffer excruciating pain and die.

"Reality is what the liquid in the bottle actually is. Truth is whatever correctly describes that liquid. If the liquid is poison, only a statement that says the liquid in the bottle is poison is true. If you believe the liquid is water and drink it, if it is poison you will die. If you take a vote of everyone who has an opinion about what is in the bottle and they all say it is water, if you drink it and it is poison, you will die. If you feel very strongly that the liquid is water and drink it, if it is poison you will die.

"Truth is not determined by belief, consensus, or feelings. It is determined by reality. It is determined by what is so, no matter what anybody believes, feels, thinks, or knows. In this case, the truth is determined by what really is in the bottle and only a statement that correctly describes that is the truth."

Sources Of Untrue Beliefs

By beliefs I mean anything one believes is true and includes both what is true and what is not true. (Belief, in this sense, has nothing to do with "faith.")

If we are going to think correctly we must understand how to avoid believing things that are not true by identifying the sources of false ideas. There are six main ones:

Beliefs based on authority alone, such as teachers, religious authorities, or political leaders are a frequent source of untrue beliefs. There is nothing wrong with learning from others who are experts in their field, so long as nothing they teach is simply accepted on the basis of their supposed authority. There is hardly a wrong idea in this world that is not widely accepted simply because some authority teaches it.

Beliefs based on consensus or popularity, are likely to be untrue. Nothing is true because of the number of people that believe it. Every wrong idea in history was at one time widely and popularly held to be true.

Beliefs based on custom, tradition, or culture are often untrue because truth must be based on reason, not what one is comfortable with or based on what everyone 'just knows' is true. In most cases what everyone knows is true usually isn't true.

Beliefs based on bad but convincing arguments are always wrong. Gullible and credulous people are easily deceived, but even the most discerning are sometimes fooled by sophisticated arguments.

Beliefs based on feeling, one's desires, emotions, impressions, whims, and fears, cannot be true except by accident. [See, "Banish Feelings," below.]

So long as any of the ideas you hold are not true, no thinking that involves those false ideas can be correct. [See, "Avoid Wrong Premises," below.] The following sections will help prevent embracing untrue ideas.

Allow No Contradictions (Logic)

Because, "truth is that which correctly describes reality or any aspect of it," any two statements about the same thing that contradict each other cannot both be true. At least one of them has to be untrue and both could be false.

The window cannot be both whole and broken. The glass cannot be both full and empty. No sentence can be both true and false.

Formal rules of logic and reason incorporate this principle, but the basic principle is, if you hold two ideas that contradict each other, one or both of them is untrue. The reason is because reality is what actually is, and only that which describes any part of reality as it actually is can be true. A contradiction would attempt to describe something as being one thing (living, for example) and also as something else (non-living, for example).

[NOTE: The principles of logic and reason which are based on the non-contradictory principle are The Principle of identity: A is A, The Principle of Non-Contradiction: A cannot be non-A, and The Principle of Excluded Middle: A is either B or not B; and from these the principles of formal, or syllogistic logic are derived as well. These are important to advanced levels of "Logic and Reason." Here we are only interested in the basics of good thinking.]

Of course contradictions must be avoided in one's thinking as well as one's beliefs. The moment your thinking leads to a contradiction, you know you have made a mistake. To think correctly one must always be on guard against contradictions, in both those things you believe and in your own conclusions.

Banish Feelings

At the conclusion of my article on "Feelings," I wrote: "Most human mistakes in both thought and action are the result of allowing the emotions and desires to affect one's thinking. Our feelings are our means of experiencing and enjoying life but only reason enables us to think and make correct choices."

The article that quote is from is very important because it describes what feelings and emotions actually are. At the end of my article on the "Mind," I wrote: "Though our feelings are determined by the mind, and we are conscious of them, they are not part of the mind, and are non-cognitive; that is, they provide no information about anything beyond the feelings themselves. Decisions or choices influenced by feelings, which are not fully determined by reason, are irrational, and almost certain to be wrong."

I describe the dangers of allowing feelings and sentiment to influence thinking in my article, "Sentimental Journey," but here it must be emphasized that the feelings are never a valid basis for thinking, and no decision or choice based on feelings can be correct.

The feelings and emotions are very important. "The emotions are our nature's way of converting the abstract elements of conceptual consciousness, our concepts, values, and thoughts, into "physical" experiences. The emotions make our minds, as well as our bodies, sensuous." The emotions provide an actual conscious experience of what we otherwise could only know mentally and abstractly. It is our emotions that make it possible for us to "feel" joy when we achieve good and experience "happiness" when we know we are living our lives successfully.

We should never ignore our emotions, especially unpleasant ones, because unpleasant emotions are an indication of something wrong, and what is wrong in most cases are the wrong beliefs and bad reasoning we base our values and choices on. The emotions can provide us pleasure when things are right, and be unpleasant when things are wrong, but the emotions can never tell what is right or what is wrong. Only reason and careful examination of our beliefs and thinking can tell us those things.

When I say, "banish feelings," I do not mean banish them from our lives. I mean, banish them from our thinking because they can only interfere with correct thinking; but when our thinking is correct so will our feelings be.

Using Words And Language Correctly

Since thinking is identifying things, asking and answering questions, making judgments and choices in the form of silent conversation with ourselves, our thinking can be no better than the accuracy of the words and the correctness of the language we use in that process.

If every true statement identifies some fact of reality we must know clearly and specifically what facts of reality our words represent. If I think, "water is transparent," but only have a vague, "I kinda know what transparent means," idea of transparent, my thought cannot be true. Facts of reality are exactly what they are, nothing is "kinda like" anything, and to "kinda know" something is to not know it at all.

If we are to think clearly, every word we use must be precisely and unambiguously defined and understood, and we must know exactly what every word we use identifies.

Correct thinking, except in a rudimentary sense, is also impossible if one does not use their language correctly. One's thinking can be no better than the clearness and precision of their use of language. Grammar and syntax are the rules by which ambiguity and confusion are eliminated from one's language.

Most people understand the necessity of using language correctly when communicating with others if they want to be understood. What is not always understood is that communication is a secondary purpose of language. The primary purpose of language is for gaining and holding knowledge and using that knowledge to think. One must first know something before it can be communicated.

While most people understand they must use language correctly if they are to be understood by others, they do not realize they must use their language correctly when learning and thinking or their knowledge and thinking will be as confused as their communication with others.

Avoid Wrong Premises

All thinking is based on ideas and principles we already know, or we "believe" we know. If what we believe we know is not true, any thinking based on that false knowledge will not be correct.

An idea or principle that is the basis of a particular thought is called a premise. For example a lot of food fads are based on the premise, "you are what you eat." A thought based on that premise might be, "if I eat fat I'll be or become fat," which is not true. Some people do not get fat no matter what they eat. No animal is what it eats. If animals, including human beings, were what they eat, cows would be grass. The premise is false because it is based on a faulty understanding of the relationship between nourishment and health.

All wrong premises are based on incomplete knowledge or beliefs that are simply false. The example may seem trivial, or even silly, but most people have beliefs just as baseless which form the premises of all their thinking; such as beliefs in various forms of the supernatural, or beliefs in the superiority or inferiority of races, or beliefs in political or social solutions to individual human problems. Perhaps a most common false belief is in inherent value, that is, the belief that anything is inherently or intrinsically good, bad, or important.

On the basis of that premise almost anything can be put over as good or as evil and any thinking based on that false premise leads to wrong conclusion and bad choices.

False Teachers and Logical Fallacies

Every true idea and all true knowledge is discovered. No truth is simply declared or determined by an expert or authority. None of us live long enough, however, to discover even a tiny fraction of what we know ourselves. Most of the things we learn we have to learn from others, like all the scientists, thinkers, mathematicians, and explorers who discovered the things we have learned and even take for granted.

If our knowledge is not to be limited to the tiny bit we can discover ourselves in our own lifetime we must learn from others. In the world there are endless professional and self-proclaimed teachers, experts, and authorities clamoring to teach us, and most of what they want to teach is untrue. The question for anyone who wants to think correctly is how to determine which teachers to listen to, and which to ignore.

It is not possible to judge what is being taught by judging the teacher. What must be judged is what is being taught.

A teacher's apparent sincerity, air of authority, charismatic charm, credentials, certifications, popularity or broad acceptance do not matter, only the content of their teaching matters. One may only learn from others if one completely understands why what they are taught is true and it does not contradict any certain knowledge they already have.

False teachers are not necessarily deceitful. Many leaders and teachers sincerely believe the things they teach, but are deceived by their own bad thinking and lack of knowledge.

Many false teachers are intentionally deceitful for any number of reasons, which are not important. What is important is being able to discern the methods by which they spread their deceit.

Many false teachers attempt to by-pass reason altogether appealing directly to the irrational feelings and emotions—especially, fears, desires, guilt, sentiment, fantastic aspirations, and unrealistic ideals.

The teachings of these scam artists can be avoided by the thinker who has banished feelings from their thinking as described above.

Both the self-deceived and nefarious false teacher use a number of mind-numbing "logical fallacies," which are arguments that seem plausible when not carefully examined. There are endless varieties of logical fallacies which you can examine here: Logical Fallacies, Formal and Informal.

The Purpose Of Thinking Is Not Debate

Every individual is endowed with the ability to learn and think. The purpose of knowledge and thinking is for the individual to be able to make right choices in conducting one's life.

The purpose of correct thinking is not to win debates or convince others. Others have their own minds and must do their own learning and thinking. To attempt to interfere in another individual's learning or thinking is in fact immoral.

There is nothing wrong with friendly discussion and defending one's own opposing views, and there is nothing wrong with teaching if those being taught choose to be taught. But these are not the purpose of correct thinking.

If others disagree with you, even if you know what their mistakes are, it is just none of your business. Others' mistaken views are their problem, not yours. If you are certain you have done everything possible to learn what is true and to think correctly, you do not need anyone else's approval or agreement. If you have learned the truth, then you know it, even if you are the only person in the world that knows it.


The whole field of knowledge and reason is very broad. This has been an introduction to the most important principles that must be observed to think correctly. The whole field of the nature of knowledge (formally called epistemology), reason, including formal logic, the nature of propositions, and a host specific fields of reasoning is very broad; nevertheless these principles are fundamental to all correct thinking.

Here is a brief summary of the principles of correct thinking:

  • Thinking is using language to ask and answer questions.

  • Thinking must be done intentionally and deliberately.

  • Knowledge is necessary to correct thinking. What one can think and how much they can think about it is determined by how much they know and how well they know it.

  • Knowledge must be true knowledge that correctly describes some aspect of reality.

  • Beliefs that are not true and based only on authority, consensus, popularity, tradition, false arguments, or appeals to emotions, must be rejected.

  • There are no contradictions in true knowledge or correct thinking. A contradiction means one's knowledge is wrong, thinking is incorrect, or both.

  • Feelings and desires must never be allowed to influence one's thinking.

  • One's language must be used correctly and one's word's unambiguously defined.

  • One's premises must always be based on true knowledge.

  • Never accept anything on the basis of authority and only accept what you, using your own thinking, understand to be true and does not contradict what you already know is true.

  • Correct thinking has nothing to do with influencing others, only with ensuring you know what is true in order to make right choices and to live happily and successfully.