Magic Thinking

Disastrous Substitutes For Correct Thinking

Some criticism of the article, "Correct Thinking: Basic Principles Of Clear Reasoning," reminded me of one danger anyone seeking to think correctly will be faced with. I call it, "magic thinking," which is any of a multitude of things people believe or teach as substitutes for clear correct thinking.

The Purpose Of Thinking

Behind most of the criticism of correct thinking is an incorrect view of the purpose of thinking. It is assumed that clear, objective, correct thinking in some way would be incapable of creative thinking required for science and innovation. The assumption is wrong, but even if it weren't, it gets the purpose of thinking wrong.

The purpose of thinking, after all, is not social, or collective, or for the sake of "mankind," but for the sake of individuals making their own choices and living their own lives. The purpose of thinking is not to make scientific discoveries for the benefit of, "humanity," but for an individual to be able to make right choices and live successfully no matter what their profession is.

If correct thinking resulted in less of some imaginary benefit to humanity, it would still be the only means to the truth. In fact, all truly creative original thinking is only possible by the ruthless application of the principles of correct thinking.

Substitutes For Thinking

The most common objection to correct thinking is that it only includes those mental operations that use language. It is pointed out that people also have imagination, day-dreams, feelings, and occasional sudden unaccountable insights that are not linguistic. All those things, and many more occupy our consciousness, but they are not thinking. In some cases calling them thinking is just the mistake of including just anything that goes on in our heads as thinking, a mistake easily corrected by pointing out the specific nature of thinking (the use of language) that distinguishes it from all those other things we do, like imagining, reminiscing, or simply noticing what we are consciously experiencing at the moment.

The real danger is when those other conscious experiences are mistaken for thinking, or even substituted for thinking, believing they are valid sources of knowledge.

Common Mistaken Substitutes For Thinking

  • Thinking without language. Some people claim they can think without words or language. They give as an example, "visualization," and emphasize that it is not asking and answering questions. One individual insisted, "Einstein thought in images."

    We certainly are able to "picture" things in our mind and often do so as we think, seeing "in our heads," whatever things or events we are thinking about. We sometimes picture things when reminiscing or day-dreaming. The "pictures," or "visualizations," we have in our minds, even when done intentionally, in themselves provide no more information than any other things we see.

    If you could picture a Wankel engine in your mind, or actually see one, it would be impossible to learn from that visualization to "see" why a Wankel engine works. The reason a Wankel engine works is because of it's unique geometry called a hypocycloid and a particular kind of hypocycloid called a hypotrochoid. While pictures can be used to illustrate what those geometric shapes are, the illustrations cannot explain what they are or even identify them.

    Being able to picture or visualize things is very useful, but it is not thinking. Visualization sometimes makes it possible to "see" if what we are thinking makes sense. We might "see" if the stairway we are designing really works in the room it is planned for.

    One problem with visualization is that it can be as deceptive as it is helpful. The picture we make up in our mind may or may not truly represent what we would like it to. Visualizing can also be deceptive. No matter how vivid our visualizing is, it may be incorrect and the reality may be nothing like the vision we create.

    There is an even more dangerous version of visualization. When the visions one has are not intentional but seem to occur on their own, and one accepts those visions as having some real meaning it is called schizophrenia.

    There is nothing wrong with visualization so long as it is not mistaken as cognitive (a source of knowledge) or substituted for thinking.

  • Imagination Imagination is broader than visualization because it includes much more than visualization. Imagination is not only about the senses; though one may imagine anything that might be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt; imagination is anything one might speculate about, past, present, or future. Anything one makes-up in their own mind is imagination.

    Imagination is the intentional synthesis of new concepts and ideas from material stored in memory and it can be anything from imagined organisms to imagined histories.

    Imagination is continued under creative thinking, because:

  • Creative thinking is imagination. Creative thinking creates that which does not exist from that which does, from material stored in memory, but the creations do not exist as actual material things (metaphysical), but only as mental things (psychological).

    The creations of imagination may become real existents when, for example, the imagined idea for a new kind of machine is actually produced (invention) or the imagined ideas of characters and plot are turned into a published novel (art).

    Creative thinking is not a different kind of thinking

    Creative thinking is not a different kind of thinking, however. Creative thinking uses the same principles of correct thinking as all other thinking in a specific area—the mental creation of original concepts and ideas. It is the mode of thinking used by all innovators, fiction writers, artists, inventors, and designers, and it only works when the principles of correct thinking are strictly adhered to.

    When imagination is not controlled by the rigorous application of the principles of correct reason it becomes a source of every kind of irrational belief and fear. Every God, every superstition, every form of paranoia is the product of imagination uncontrolled by the principles of correct thinking.

    [NOTE: Creative thinking is such an important part of thinking a separate article will be dedicated to it.]

  • Leaps of imagination are not thinking at all. It is a belief in a kind of mystical imagination that in some unexplained way injects the mind with ideas, or concepts, or knowledge without thinking.

    The idea is a new one to me but I think it is a variety of "sudden insights," discussed below.

    It is doubtful that, "leaps of imagination," exist at all, but if they do, they are no form of thinking and not a source of knowledge.

  • Dreams are like "free running imagination." They occur when we are asleep and our conscious volitional control is, "off." Since thinking is a consciously deliberate act, while asleep there is no conscious control of our ability to imagine. The imagination still functions while we are asleep but our rational (thinking) control of it is does not.

    The relationship between the mind and memory is complex. It's briefly described under, "Conceptual Relationships to Knowledge," in the, "Propositions," chapter, in the online book, The Nature Of Knowledge.

    Essentially, (and over-simplified), there is a connection between material in memory and whatever one is presently conscious of. One's immediate consciousness, "suggests," those things in memory related to whatever one is currently perceiving or thinking as the next thing to, "think," or, "imagine," and one volitionally chooses which of those memory sources to recall. When asleep there is no conscious control of the process, and the recall from memory has only the loose order determined by the fact of the relationship between memory and dream content. As jumbled as dreams are, they are never completely chaotic because of the nature of the mind/memory relationship.

    It is not important to understand exactly how dreams are formed, it is very important to understand there is nothing mystical about them and that they are incapable of providing knowledge of anything other than the dreams themselves. They must never be mistaken for thinking and are only possible when one cannot think.

    Claims of discovering solutions to problems or new ideas while dreaming are always doubtful. It is possible, because of the almost free-association of dreams, for some aspect of a dream when recalled, to suggest some relationship that when attended by careful thinking might accidentally provide a new viewpoint or insight. Such a case would be very rare and sheer accident.

  • Daydreaming is not dreaming while awake. In some cases it is like sleep dreaming when one suspends their conscious control and more-or-less let's their imagination, "run free," but most daydreaming is under one's control and usually includes some thinking.

    What distinguishes daydreaming from thinking in general is that it has no specific purpose or goal beyond itself. We daydream simply to enjoy the process of thinking about and imagining the future, or remembering and enjoying times past, or perhaps just the pleasure of thoughts that please us. We do a lot of thinking for its own sake because it is our nature to think, it's how we understand our life and the world we live in, and much of what we think is a matter of refining that understanding and discovering the joy of life and existence.

    But daydreaming is not a different kind of thinking. The thinking that accompanies the imagination part of daydreaming is the same kind of correct thinking as any other thinking; otherwise daydreaming becomes a source of worry, or regret, or disappointment with life. Instead of being a pleasure, daydreaming becomes a source of dread.

  • Sudden insights are "thoughts" the source of which are unknown. It is supposed they occur without any thought or attention.

    One supposed explanation for where these sudden insights come from is the subconscious, a mistaken idea foisted on the world by the Freuds. There is no subconscious, there is only what we are conscious of.

    The idea that anything in our consciousness is there without explanation is a very dangerous one and the actual experience will be frightening to anyone with a healthy mind. It is a common experience of those who use certain kinds of drugs and of those who suffer from certian kinds of neurologic disease. When severe enough, such experiences make correct thinking impossible.

  • Gut feeling is as untrustworthy as any other kind of feeling. The, "Correct Thinking," article explains why no feelings, including, "gut feelings," should be allowed to determine one's choices or actions.

    I have pointed out that bad feelings should never be ignored. They might be the consequence of wrong thinking (and usually are) but in some rare instances, a particular situation might arouse a sense of unease one cannot immediately see a reason for. In such cases there is often something about the situation that is similar to a previous situation in which the consequences were not good. Such feelings should stimulate a careful examination of the current situation, but no choice should be made on the basis of the feeling alone.

    I call the reliance on "gut feeling," the "beef-and-bean burrito," theory of knowledge. It is like the man telling his friend about his date with the girl he recently took to a Mexican restaurant. "I knew I was in love with her that night. My 'gut feeling' told me she was the one."

    "Are you going to marry her, then?" his friend asked.

    "Oh no," he said. "I don't even like her. What I thought was love turned out to be the beef-and-bean burrito."

  • Instinct is not a kind of knowledge even in those creatures that have instinct. Human beings do not have instinct. Please see the article, "Instinct," for an explanation of what instinct is and why the human mind excludes the possibility of instinct.

  • Intuition is a kind of "magic" knowledge. Wikipedia defines it as, "... the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired." Sometimes interchanged with the word, "instinct," it is just another superstitious belief in knowledge without thinking.

  • Trial and error is sometimes suggested as a kind of thinking different from correct thinking. It is in fact a perfect example of correct thinking. Whether it is a purely mental exercise considering different possibilities or carrying out physical experiments to test various hypotheses, trial and error is asking (will this approach work) and answering questions. It was the preferred method of Thomas Edison.

  • Symbols, especially mathematic symbols, it has been suggested, are a method of thinking that does not use language. Symbols are language, or more exactly, a symbolic short-hand that represents concepts described by language. The meaning of mathematic symbols are precisely defined using language. Another suggestion is that drawings, graphs, diagrams, and other visual tools constitute another kind of thinking. There are all sorts of tools that can be used to illustrate or discover things, from microscopes to telescopes, from drawings to cad cam, from slide rules to super computers. Without language to describe what the illustrations illustrate or the instruments' output means, they are all useless.

  • Observation, especially of differences, oddities, and unexpected relationships, it is asserted, are sources of new ideas and knowledge without thinking. An observation is not simply seeing. Seeing a tree growing out of the side of a building would dismay any animal except a human building. The reason it would seem odd to a human being is because a human being knows what the nature of a building is, what the nature of a tree is, and can think to the mental conclusion that trees do not grow out of the sides of buildings.

    Observation and Identification are the basic functions of concept formation and all scientific discovery, using the same principles of correct thinking as all other thinking.

    [NOTE: If you are technically minded and have a keen interest in the nature of observation and identification as the basis of concepts and science (mistakenly called 'induction'), see the chapter, "Cause, Induction, and Mathematics," in the online book, The Nature of Knowledge.

  • Different "kinds" of thinking, other than correct thinking are often promoted, especially by certain motivational-training and personal-development industry scam artists promoting shortcuts to success and achievement. Those who have fallen for the false promises of these promoters refer to correct thinking as "linear thinking," and assert, "there is vertical thinking and lateral thinking and parallel thinking and others."

    The derogatory description of correct thinking as, "linear thinking," is meant to imply correct thinking is limited in some way and that violating the principles of correct reason (with non-linear, i.e. lateral, vertical, parallel, and crooked thinking) is superior to simple correct straight thinking.

    There are no other kinds of thinking and these bad ideas all come from the work of such as the de Bono brothers. I wrote a series of articles some years ago called "Mind-benders" which included an article specifically about the nonsense "The de Bono Brothers" were promoting, and another specifically about the abomination Edward de Bono called, "Non-linear Thinking"

    It is not necessary to read those articles unless you have personally been taken in by their intellectual snake oil.

These are not the only things people attempt to substitute for correct thinking and true knowledge, however. There are also all those varieties of what is called a priori knowledge, promoted by academic philosophers which is supposedly knowledge one has without any learning or thinking. There are also all those modern scientific versions of mysticism that claim something other than or own choices determines what we know and think, such as culture, society, or our genes. There are endless assaults on correct thinking. Nothing good or right can come from incorrect thinking; one has to wonder why anyone would reject correct thinking and advocate some mental distortion in place of it?

Motives For Rejecting Correct Thinking

Why do so many individuals reject or deny the principles of correct thinking? Many of them are obviously intelligent and erudite. It is very much like a mystery, but the reasons are actually common enough. They are the same reasons people are so gullible in other areas of their life. There are four main reasons correct thinking is rejected.

  1. Love of sophistry, resulting from an extreme form of cynicism or skepticism that becomes the basis of all one's thinking. While a healthy skepticism about the wild claims of self-proclaimed experts promoting absurdities is good, and a cynical doubt about every popularly accepted belief and movement is good, doubting everything and dismissing all values and principles is a terrible mistake. The sophist is interested in nothing positive and sneers at every real value, but never has anything positive to replace the principles and values he tears down. What motivates the extreme cynic or skeptic is not important; recognizing them is. Their method of, "reasoning," is never direct, or correct, and has no other purpose than to cast doubt on all truth and knowledge.

  2. The desire for shortcuts is one of the most common reasons for rejecting the principles of correct thinking. Correct thinking is not easy. It is very demanding and many people are not willing to expend the mental effort necessary to think correctly. What they want is a short-cut to knowledge, a simple formula that provides all the answers or some easy and simple "explanation of everything," they can accept and not have to bother thinking about what is right, or wrong, or important.

    It is easier to accept one of the substitutes for correct thinking, like gut feeling, or intuition (which is really just feelings) or defy the principles of correct thinking and simply trust in authority, consensus, popularity, or tradition.

    In life, there are no short-cuts to success or happiness, and no short-cuts to knowledge and no short-cuts to right choices and actions that are only possible by correct thinking.

  3. A relief from responsibility, for everything one thinks, chooses, and does is one reason people embrace a belief that contradicts correct thinking. Most people understand, however poorly, that all they choose, all they do, and all they are is determined by their own choices and actions. If they are responsible for everything they think, then everything they choose, and every bad consequence of their wrong choices is their own fault. There is no excuse for the choices they make and the things they do.

    But if what they have in their minds and thoughts is there without their choosing it, if what they do is not determined by their own thinking, if something else is the reason for their thoughts and choices, like instinct, intuition, their feelings or insights, or their subconscious, or society or genes, then they are not responsible for what they think and do. If anything other than their own thinking and choices determines their behavior, then the ignorant and stupid things they do are not their fault, they can't help it, and everyone should feel sorry for them instead of dismissing them as the ignorant fools they actually are.

  4. Mysticism and religion are the most common "short-cuts" and "relief from responsibility" embraced by human beings. Every form of mysticism is based on some form of faith, which is believing something with no other basis than the belief. The Wikipedia definition of intuition is an amazingly accurate definition of faith as well, "... the ability to acquire knowledge without proof, evidence, or conscious reasoning, or without understanding how the knowledge was acquired."

    Religion offers everything people want to have without having to do the hard work of actually thinking, making right choices, and earning what they have and are. It promises unearned blessing, forgiveness of all wrong, and perpetual happiness no matter how evil or worthless an individual is. Of course, all those promises are not for those living in this world, but some imaginary next world, where they are safe from being examined.

    One may be a mystic if they choose to be, but mysticism and correct thinking and the rational pursuit of success and happiness are mutually exclusive.

There Is No Substitute For Correct Thinking

The only attribute you have been endowed with for making sense of the world and learning how to live in it happily and successfully is your mind, the necessity and ability to learn, think, and choose all you think and do. You have no choice about whether or not you will learn, or think, or choose; you do have a choice about how much you will learn, how well you will think, and how you will make your choices.

If you do not choose to learn all you can, if you choose to evade the necessity to think by depending on one of the substitutes for thinking, you will never know if what you think is correct (which it surely won't be) or if what you choose, based on that thinking, is right or wrong.

If you wait for some magic form of thinking to provide you knowledge or right choices, if you wait for "leaps of imagination," or, "sudden insights," or, depend on, "instinct," or, "intuition," or trust in some knowledge you know neither the source or reason for, like "gut feeling," or, "a priori" knowledge, you may for a while be comfortable in views, but the consequences will be that the knowledge you wait for will never appear and choices you make based on instinct or gut feeling will not lead to success, but to failure and regret.

Learn and choose to think correctly, and even when you make mistakes you will be able to correct them and you enjoy the benefit of all right choices because they are based on reality and all your success and happiness will be enjoyed without doubt or guilt.