The Bracket, the Intellectual, and Answering How to Think

At work I’ve suckered my coworkers into a recreational bracket:

Who is the best Star Wars character?

Of course on our bracket showed up the likes of fan favorites Darth Vader, Han Solo, and Rey. But I am not a man for easy brackets—no, I demand variety. I am not content with a bracket solely comprised of protagonists and main characters. I need a dark horse. And that is why, as the “bracket master,” I smuggled into our little tournament, The Death Star itself. My shoe-horning was not appreciated, however, and I was soon the victim of several unwarranted complaints—The Death Star’s just a setting! The Death Star’s not even a character! All petty objections, I told myself.

One of my coworkers said to me, in what he thought was defense of the bracket’s integrity, “Daniel, don’t you know, the people don’t want this.” I had no response; I wanted to be a man of the people. But unexpectedly, another coworker came to my aid: “The people don’t know what they want.”

82397-2016-bracket
Not actual bracket.

While on the surface the idea that someone wouldn’t know what they want is laughable, the evidence suggesting otherwise is beginning to build-up. To know one’s own desires, to know one’s mind is seeming to be an increasingly elusive feat.

Yet knowing how we think is of the greatest importance, because how we think determines what we think. And if we are ignorant of our biases and dispositions, we are forever slave to them. There is a better way available to us; we must only seize it.

And with that said, it should be clear that this exploration of the “how” is, admittedly, a thinly veiled attempt at deciding the “what.”

How We (Should) Make Decisions

The process by which we make our choices and decisions is far more convoluted than a mere assent to free-will. You and I do not simply decide to do A or B. For a starting point, I remember a conversation I had with the Chair of Harding’s Psychology Department where he casually mentioned the interwoven factors of biology, psychology, and sociology on every choice we make, factors beyond our conscious control.

This should at least begin to suggest to us the thesis of The Righteous Mind, which we discussed in a previous post, that we are not rational creatures, but instead our behavior is dictated by our intuition. Malcolm Gladwell does not try to make this case directly, but in his bestseller Blink, he delivers a sort of ode to our intuitive mind. One anecdote from the book describes our ability to thin-slice”:

We are constantly thin-slicing when we go on a date, meet a prospective employee, judge any situation. We take a small portion of a person or problem and extrapolate amazingly well about the whole. A psychologist named Nalini Ambady gave students three 10-second soundless videotapes of a teacher lecturing. Then she asked the students to rate the teacher. Their ratings matched the ratings from students who had taken the teacher’s course for an entire semester. Then she cut the videotape back to two seconds and showed it to a new group. The ratings still matched those of the students who’d sat through the entire term.

Undoubtedly, our subconscious mind is a powerful tool, and as the studies keep rolling out, we see just how much control it has over our routine decision making. We are, indeed, creatures of intuition.

And I feel that I may need to clarify: I am a big fan of rational thought. In fact, I’m  it’s biggest fan. I’m a get-thrown-out-of-the-game level fan of reason. I’m proud that I’ve been accused of being an emotionless machine more than once, and I’ve used ol’ Ben Franklin’s Pros and Cons list a few times, if you know what I mean. But, if we are to use rationality to its greatest potential, we have to know how the above is affecting our decisions.

500 Days of Summer, in addition to its commentary on relationships, is also about the mind, our biases, and our expectations of reality. This is one my favorite scenes from the movie:

500 Days depicts a man, Tom Hansen, consumed with a certain idea of love, and it dominates his thoughts. Throughout the film, he goes through a lot of unnecessary pain for it, and it takes him the entire course of the movie to dispel this idea. He was never asked to forget his long held belief, though, merely to acknowledge the belief. As with Tom, if we could only understand our lack of control in the decision-making process, we would gain control.

As a side note, a lot of decision-making by religious people is dictated by their expectations of God and his will. And while letting God handle your big decisions is good in theory, it’s awful in practicenot because God fumbles the situation, but because your inactivity does. Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, a light read, gives a good critique of this attitude.

Understanding Authority

One of my favorite books I read in high school was Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. I haven’t heard it mentioned in some time, and I get the impression not many read it. The novel deals with two Jewish boys growing up in New York and their relationship with their fathers and with their faith. In this way, it also deals with authority.

As you move through the story, you witness the struggle of these two boys encountering the rigidity of their fathers and the traditions of their faith. But by the end, there is quiet respect in both of them for these authorities, very much unlike the unquestioning obedience they held as children. Yet their contentions with religion were formidable and real.

Mine is not the first generation to struggle with authority (as the publishing date of The Chosen might suggest). We can see the waves of this lasting struggle in the current election. I see it in the stories of my teacher friends, disallowed from failing students who refuse to complete homework. You can see the struggle, in all of its bright colors, in how society treats movies and movie critics (something to be discussed soon).

I think, however, the clearest example is in the Black Lives Matter movement. On one side there is the complete distrust of law enforcement officers by more than just the black community, and on the other—generally for conservatives—there is a disillusionment with the religious and social authorities who have advocated for the BLM movement. This is merely a byproduct of the growing distrust of the intellectual in much of the country. Not long ago, the intellectual held a very real place in the public sphere, directly leading the people in thought and philosophy. But now their wisdom is dismissed in favor of personal opinions.

This same struggle with authority can be found in the genesis of Protestantism. Originating as a religious rebellion against the power of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism continued its heritage of anti-authority by continuously advocating a personalized faith with a personal savior, a personal salvation, and a personal interpretation of the Bible.

This Protestant legacy can be found in modern liberals who are also classically defined as anti-authority. Traditionally the liberal doesnt want to be told what to do, elevating freedom as the highest value.

The conservative, though naturally accepting of authority, is still guilty of an anti-intellectualism, another sort of authority. This is clearly detrimental to the conservative individual and the community of which they are a part as the wisdom of great thinking is instinctively rejected as foreign and hostile.

Gaining Intellectual Experience

I wrote a few weeks ago on experiencing new things. And while my thesis was that newness at the expense of holiness is dangerous, the importance of experience cannot be understated. 

If all that mattered was media, this wouldn’t be a hard case to make. Countless films reiterate this wisdom: classics like The Bucket List, as well as Carrie, The Truman Show, and Finding Nemo. And while a case could be made in favor of sheltering ourselves and our children in certain situations, the truth is that we need to be exposed to ideas and to art.

Circling back to Gladwell, in his work The Tipping Point, when he talks about the archetypes of maven, connector, and salesperson, he explains that a constant exposure to new and better ideas is necessary to make a radical, positive change. When we continuously intersect with fresh ideas, our brain will take over and do the rest—i.e. it will make grow and make your own new thoughts.

In the above section, we mentioned conservatives and the Reformation, and I think that pairing is an excellent example of the dangers of not taking this seriously. Five hundred years ago, the members of the Catholic Church would be considered conservative and the Protestants liberal. But now, centuries removed, the status quo has readjusted, and among many reformation circles (those that insulated themselves from Catholic teachings), Roman Catholic doctrine is seen as dangerous. There is no longer a healthy debate but, instead, a growing animosity. Chances for a communion are all but lost.

Knowing the Other Mind

The shaping of one’s mind can never be complete until one learns to know the mind of another.

Of course, our tools are the same as all those mentioned above. We remember that others—possibly, despite their efforts—are also creatures of intuition; we remember that human will is not the only factor in decision-making; we remember people have inescapable biases; we remember that liberals may reject authority and conservatives may reject intellectuals; we remember that some may be well-read and some may be ignorant; we remember that some may be familiar with an idea and some may not; we remember that some know the truth and some have been lied to.

Haidt’s Moral Foundation Theory is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes natural dispositions that every man and woman has. There are personality types, mood swings, religions, traditions. There is so much going on in each person.

And that’s why we look to the philosophy of Krister Stendahl—someone we’ll look more at in a couple weeks—and his pleading to give others the benefit of the doubt. That’s where centrism finds its value—in the balancing of ideas, in understanding every position has its past.

You’ll find in your attempts to understand others, to develop empathy, that this is the hardest exercise in shaping our minds. That’s because it requires humility. We must confess that we are too simple to grasp the infinite factors that make up the mind of another, and instead, when we try to understand their mind, we begin to sympathize. We may find in this process that decisions that we don’t like begin to make a lot more sense. We may, even, begin to hurt, as we are tugged between our own desires and the desires of those we have begun to empathize with. 

Art is excellent at giving us a taste of this phenomenon. The life of Frankenstein’s monster, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Snape, Mr. Freeze, and Fredo Corleone—all tastes of the sympathy we can feel for a wickedness when we understand the individual.

In order to act rightly, we must think rightly, and in order to think rightly, we must know how we think. Above we discussed a lot of factors in human cognition and we also discussed different ideological leanings and pitfalls. We have to take these, master them, and grow from them. If we do not evaluate our minds, if we are not self-critical, we can achieve nothing. The consequences far outreach the best Star Wars character (i.e. Mace Windu) and have an importance for the fate of ourselves and our communities. We cannot take that lightly.

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