“A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.” Oscar Wilde
Often in life we are asked the simple question “So what do you think?” The issue at hand can be business, a friend seeking advice as to some problem they’re having, or just what’s going on with your favorite baseball team. None of the issues matter, what matters is what you think. But do we answer correctly if all we’re doing is providing opinions or beliefs? Actually were not as those things aren’t what we’re thinking, but are what someone else is writing or saying we should be thinking.
So what does it mean to think? This is not meant as a deep philosophical question, but something that is basically common sense. Try to remember the last time you were faced with a problem and despite all the advice you were given, whether you asked for it or not, you decided to move past all that conventional wisdom and came to your own conclusion as what to do based on your own experiences. I wonder what the reactions were of those that gave their advice you did not take?
True thinking is definitely something that is not what many say it is. It is not opinion as that is something subjective and usually founded on the absence of factual information. Take for instance opinion polls. All too often the polls show that people’s opinions are based more on what they read and hear others say about whatever the subject of the poll may be. As an example, consider the pool on COVID19 vaccines wherein many hold the opinion that it causes infertility in women. While there is still much research needed on these vaccines, this opinion is contrary to factual information.
Neither is belief based on true thinking. Belief is a “thought” that some have decided is true; it does not require facts, but it does require faith that what we believe is true even in the absence of a factual basis. Thinking on the other hand requires facts, which are irrefutable pieces of information. The trick of course is determining the irrefutable.
So back to the question as to what it means to think. In his last interview in 1996, Carl Sagan said “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” Taking that word “science”, derived from the Latin word “scientia”, which actually means knowledge or experience, we only need our common sense to understand what really thinking is, i.e. that which we know is fact based on our own experience; everything else is opinion or belief, usually based on what others have said or written.
Is thinking something that can be taught? Based on my own experience, I think so, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily is the only way to learn how to think. While I’m no fan of much that John Dewey represents, he was a humanist who actively supported independent thinking. It is still odd that as a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist he said that “The children who know how to think for themselves spoil the harmony of the collective society.” Thinking for oneself is viewed as disruptive by conformist cultures and authoritarian societies, but by its nature, thinking is an empirical process, and since no two people have the same life experiences, how can it be possible for all people to always really think alike?
To put it as simply as George S. Patton did, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”