How to Think

(Part of the Art of Learning series.)

In order to learn anything at all you have to make up your mind about what you think is true. You have to get your mind around it. You can’t know something if you don’t believe it, and you shouldn’t believe it if you don’t understand it. Our ability to reason therefore plays an essential role in the learning process. In this talk, I offer some basic strategies to help you get the most our of your thinking.

This talk went a bit strangely for me as I was standing there listening to myself talk — think out loud, if you will. But there was a stretch where I really felt like I was getting to the thing I was trying to say. Unfortunately, the audio cut out because I had forgotten to put fresh batteries in the wireless microphone I was using. I’m going to try to reconstruct my thinking at some point, and I will update these notes when I remember (or rediscover) what I said.

In the Q&A afterwards (which we don’t record on purpose) I said something that I think is worth emphasizing: To believe something is to think it is true. The “something” and the “it” are what I called a proposition in this talk. A proposition can be meaningful (you can understand it) even if it isn’t true. “It is raining,” for example, is a proposition that isn’t always true. (“Sometimes it is raining, sometimes not,” as Quine put it.) What you believe is neither the weather nor the rain. These just are. You believe (or don’t believe) a proposition about the rain. And propositions are made of concepts and objects; concepts are tools for thinking about things. Most of our thinking is just freely combing concepts and objects in propositions, comparing them with experience (sometimes with our memory of experience), and deciding whether or not they are true, making up our minds.

What struggled with in my talk (and in the question period) was how (and when and why) to get deeper into our thinking. How we can use thought to really understand what our propositions mean by imagining the facts and situations they imply. And I struggled even more (or at least it felt like I was struggling when I stood there) to explain how intuition serves as a kind of limit to what we can imagine. Thinking helps us to imagine what is possible; and thinking a little harder lets us expand our sense of the possible, broaden our imagination. Thinking allows us to be counter-intuitive. Indeed, maybe thought is simply counter-intuition.

There is a moment around 31:47 when I have something like an epiphany: perhaps “thought” is simply an openness to being wrong about things. To be capable of thinking is a capacity to acknowledge the possibility that our beliefs may be false. That’s what we have propositions for: they are what mean, whether or not we are right. Thinking exercises our ability to admit that we are wrong.

See also: “The Art of Thinking”, “How to Imagine Concepts” (and “…Dragons”), “Conceptualize, Analyze, Discuss”, “Theories, Concepts, and Models”.