Letters to Readers
Where to Get It
This series of short essays will share many good thinking methods, tips, and tricks that philosophers, psychologists, and others have collected all throughout human history. They may be especially important to young people in the future now that the "easy" second half of the 20th century is over.
The author plans to hop around based on comments he gets from readers, things in the news, and the whisperings of the Muses (the Greek goddesses of inspiration). Sometimes a lesson will just be review for most readers, and sometimes you might have to read it 3 times to get it.
Some kinds of thinking come naturally for most people, and we call those kinds "common sense." Even so, most of us miss some important common sense lessons, and will benefit by the reminders in this series. Other kinds of thinking are difficult for most of us, and we easily fall into traps called "fallacies" or "delusions."
Since these lessons are numbered and in some sort of progressive order, the most recent will be found at the bottom of the page.
Lesson 1: Why bother?
Welcome to the 21st century. Things are changing rapidly. People who can't figure out what's changing, and what they need to do to live and be happy, will be unhappy ... or worse.
THINKING is the art of figuring out things that are too complicated for our emotions and instincts to handle by themselves. Emotions and instincts are good to have, but they don't handle rapid change well.
In general, good thinking skills will open "doors" in your life, and will make you more valuable to friends, partners, and employers. They will also help you spot when someone is lying, hiding the truth, or trying to use you.
When the world is changing rapidly, people who can see and understand what's going on have a much better chance of being the winners, or at least getting by. People who can't see and understand the changes become the victims.
Even if you want to hide in the woods somewhere and "go it alone," change will force you to think. The changing climate will probably cause your woods to change too, and a forest fire could make your beautiful woods into a desert.
Many more good reasons to learn to think well are unique to your life and your circumstances, and so they might be even more important to you.
Lesson 2: Thinking vs. Feeling
The human brain has been feeling and reacting to instincts much longer than it's been thinking, so any time it needs to do those older jobs, the thinking gets set aside. In other words, any time we are feeling something deeply, or we are responding to primal instincts like survival or sex, it can be very hard to think clearly.
So to handle this, we need to learn 2 skills.
The first is simply to RECOGNIZE when we won't be thinking clearly because of deep feelings or primal instincts, and put off making important decisions until later.
But if we absolutely MUST think to deal with some important (maybe dangerous) situation, then we have to be able to TURN OFF the feelings or instincts for a little while.
Suppressing feelings and instincts for very long is dangerous, and can cause all kinds of mental illness, but for a short time to get out of a bind, it's okay. Just remember to talk to someone, cry, or whatever you need to do as soon as the emergency is over.
Suppressing feelings and instincts can be especially hard for extroverts ("people people") because they naturally express emotions to get others to help them with things. So part of the challenge for them is to recognize when THEY are the one who must do the thinking that needs to be done.
Lesson 3: Ad Populum
Ad populum is a "fallacy," an error in logic or reasoning. It's also called "group-think" and "the herd mentality." People do it all the time because it's one of the easiest ways to prove their loyalties to a group or society.
It goes like this: if an idea is believed to be true (or false) by most people, then it MUST be true (or false).
Popular belief sometimes has a relationship with reality, and sometimes doesn't. When most people believe something, that doesn't prove it's true or false. It simply shows that the belief has a purpose in the group or society.
In choosing actions, "monkey see, monkey do" is a powerful motivation, and we can learn many things by copying others. But we should always remember that doing so may not lead to the wisest course of action.
It is also a fallacy to think that popular belief is always wrong. That's no smarter than thinking that the group is always right.
Lesson 4: Cognitive Dissonance and Denial
It is very difficult to hold two conflicting facts, observations, ideas, or beliefs in our minds. We get very uncomfortable, and usually push one of them away by denying it.
If the conflict is between two facts or observations, it usually means we don't fully understand one or both. When this happens, most people just get frustrated and say, "That can't be!" about one of the two.
If the conflict is between two ideas or beliefs, the most "deeply held" notion (often the one we learned or chose in childhood) usually wins, and the other is pushed away, regardless of its validity or utility.
For most people, the process of denial during cognitive dissonance seems to be necessary to avoid insanity, even though the "winner" is not always the best choice.
A person who really wants to understand the universe should go as slowly as possible when tempted to deny something that intuition tells us might be true or useful. Perhaps it is being analyzed with the wrong tools or assumptions. If the right tools are found, it may cease to be in conflict with other things, but doing that can take extra time and effort. If it leads to understanding something complicated but important, it may be worth it.
Lesson 5: Three Realities
When trying to understand the universe, it helps to remember that Reality comes in basically 3 flavors.
THINGS: atoms, molecules, and energy. This includes our bodies, air, water, food, the Earth, sunshine, stars, and all things physical.
MEANINGS: only accessible by mind, it includes everything we would call information and feelings, such as ideas, words, symbols, numbers, pictures, emotions, opinions, and all things social, like culture and politics.
VALUES: only accessible by the higher functions of mind (sometimes called "spirit"), this level is about the "important stuff" contained in meanings. A being that can think at this level is called "sapient" (not "sentient" which merely means aware of the environment).
Extra credit: The well-known phrase "Goodness, Truth, and Beauty" lists the ideal states of the 3 types of reality, but in a different order than they are listed above. Can you match them up?
Lesson 6: Gambler's Fallacy
The fallacy goes like this: If an event is statistically "due" (or "overdue") then it is more probable than at other times.
For example, if we flip a coin 3 (or 10 or 100) times, and get all heads, we are tempted to think that the odds of getting tails on the next flip are higher than usual.
It doesn't work that way. When flipping a coin, or doing anything else in which the events are physically independent of each other, the odds are the same each time.
With flipping coins, that's 50% for heads and 50% for tails, every time, no matter what came before.
When dating, if four in a row turn out to be "frogs," are the chances of the fifth being a "prince" or "princess" any better? Sorry.
Lesson 7: An Example of "Meaning" and "Value"
Here are Gandhi's Seven Deadly Sins:
Wealth without Work
If you prefer, these could all be put in the positive sense by changing "without" to "with."
This list can be used for many purposes, such as analyzing the status of a society, but that's another subject. In this essay, we're just using them as examples of "meaning," the level of reality easily accessible by mind, and "value," the level of reality only accessible by the higher functions of mind (sometimes called "spirit").
Each of Gandhi's sins contains 2 "meanings," 2 concepts that most human minds can understand. For example, the first one speaks of "wealth" and "work," and we know what those are, even if we all have slightly different experiences with them.
But when we put in the word "with" or "without," we create a phrase that expresses a deep and complex "value." Gandhi called them "sins" so "Wealth without Work" was, in his opinion, bad, and "Wealth with Work" was good.
Keep in mind that a "value" is seldom just good or bad, or any other pair of extreme opposites. It can be somewhere in between, or even completely off the scale in any direction.
Lesson 8: The Foundation of Reason
Reasoning requires a leap. It's not quit as iffy as a "leap of faith," but more iffy than a mathematical proof. It's a "leap of thought," and it's called an "inference."
When we infer, we are taking our understanding of one or more ideas, deciding if we think they are true, and then "leaping" to a new idea that seems to follow from the others. Here's an example:
Because: The sun is shining.
See how easy? We do it all the time. I'm sure all mammals and birds do it (although some people would argue against that), and I think reptiles and amphibians do it some of the time. Fish? Maybe a little.
An inference like the one above is made of one or more "claims" or "premises" and a "conclusion." All together, it's called a logical "argument," but that's not the kind of argument in which people are yelling at each other.
A logical argument is not the same as an "explanation" in which we just know or assume the conclusion is true and are looking for reasons why.
A logical argument, since it's a leap of thought, is always a little tentative, because we (or someone else) could discover that one of the premises is not true, or that we've made too big a leap to get to the conclusion.
Lesson 9: Hasty Generalizations
When we reason, or infer, lots of things can go wrong. Some of the simplest (and most common) reasoning errors are just when we try to do it too quickly.
Any time we reason, we are using a "body of evidence" that we collected from our own life experience, or from other people who shared their experience. If our "body of evidence" is too small, we can easily arrive at the wrong conclusion.
Example: "Bill lied to me. Janet lied to me. Everyone lies to me!"
In the science of statistical analysis, when the sample of data is small, conclusions are unreliable. When the sample size drops to one, the reliability of any conclusion is zero.
Also, if our "body of evidence" is not well-enough related to the idea in question, we can arrive at a useless conclusion.
Example: "Lettuce is green. Spinach is green. Broccoli is green. Cabbage is green. If I run out of food, I can eat green paper!"
In this example, the person was close, but not close enough. "Green" often implies "plant," and plants are often (but not always) edible. Unfortunately for our hungry person, other things are green too.
Bon appétit !
Lesson 10: Tricky Conditionals
Before we look at the 2 fallacies (thinking errors) that can easily happen with conditional sentences, we need to get a clear understanding of what they ARE, and what they ARE NOT.
General form: If A is true, then B is true.
Example: If IT'S RAINING, then THINGS WILL BE WET.
Pretty simple, if we keep our heads screwed on. This example says that IF a good amount of rain is falling from the clouds for a fair amount of time, THEN things outside, not protected from the rain, will be wet. We are NOT talking about a rain so short that only 3 drops fell, or "virga" that evaporates before it reaches the ground, or stuff inside a garage or under a tarp. In other words, we are trying to reason, not be silly.
A conditional sentence must be taken as a whole. All it's parts are necessary. If you take it apart into pieces, the pieces no longer have any value. A conditional creates a RELATIONSHIP between the ANTECEDENT or CAUSE (A in the general form) and the CONSEQUENT or EFFECT (B in the general form).
The example above does NOT say: "IT'S RAINING."
Also, it does NOT say: "THINGS WILL BE WET."
It only says that IF it's raining, THEN things will be wet. See the difference? If you don't, you won't understand conditionals, and your thinking will sometimes be as useful as a wet, soggy ...
By the way, "antecedents" are usually, but not always "causes," and "consequents" are usually, but not always, "effects." I added those smaller words because the big ones are much harder to remember.
Lesson 11: The Fallacy of Asserting the Consequent
Don't let the title scare you -- all will be made clear, and you will soon understand and agree with this fallacy. Let's review the general form of the conditional:
If A is true, then B is true.
The most important thing to remember about conditionals is what they are NOT saying. You know 2 of them from Lesson 10, and here they are again:
It is NOT saying: "A is true."
So now, to have your head screwed on the very best it can be, you have to learn another thing the conditional is NOT saying:
It is NOT saying: "If B is true, then A is true."
In other words, you can't turn it around.
Why not? Because there might be OTHER things that could imply (or cause) the same result. Let's look again at our example from Lesson 10:
If IT'S RAINING, then THINGS WILL BE WET.
Is there anything else that could cause THINGS TO BE WET? Of course! Garden hose, bucket of water ...
We can guess that if THINGS ARE WET, then it MIGHT have rained, but we can't KNOW it rained.
Lesson 12: The Fallacy of Denying the Antecedent
Conditionals (If A is true, then B is true) have one more trick they can play on us, one more way that our poor little human brains can get confused.
Remember all the things a conditional is NOT saying?
It is NOT saying: "A is true."
And finally, for today's lesson:
It is NOT saying: "If A is false, then B is false."
In other words, you can't deny (or negate) the antecedent (the "cause" in a "cause and effect").
The reason you can't "deny the antecedent" is the same as the reason you can't "assert the consequent" (Lesson 11). There might be other things that could imply or cause the same result.
So using the same example as in Lesson 11, if we know IT DIDN'T RAIN, does that mean we know THINGS AREN'T WET? Nope. The hose, sprinkler, and bucket of water are still there.
Whew! We're done with conditionals and their fallacies!
Lesson 13: Ad Ignorantiam - Confusing Social and Physical Reality
WRONG: If an idea is not proven false, then it must be true!
This is an example of a large class of fallacies in which social opinion is confused with physical reality. The fact is, the ability (or inability) of a person (or even all people) to prove an idea true (or false) has little or no connection with whether the idea really is true (or false).
In other words, "proving" is part of the strictly-human universe, while "true" and "false" are part of the universe of atoms, planets, and stars.
WRONG: Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
In recent centuries we have made great progress at recognizing just how limited human senses and instruments are, but this fallacy is still very common.
In the version called Causal Ad Ignorantium, a possible cause is (incorrectly) "proven" to be in play if no alternative can be found, or (incorrectly) "proven" to not be in play if a possible alternative is found.
There's nothing wrong with enjoying the good feelings of a social situation. The "rules of the game" of people expressing their opinions, and trying to convince each other to believe what they believe, are pretty harmless. Just remember that when you step out of the social "party" back into the the "wilderness" of physical reality, a whole different set of rules apply.
The author has, at least temporarily, suspended the writing of these THINKING 101 lessons since the same inspirations are flowing into the writing of NEBADOR Book Nine: A Cry for Help at this time. He hopes to resume these lessons when that manuscript is complete.
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