On the whole, humans are a remarkably thought-full species. Our capacity for complex, creative, projecting, and purposeful thought is astounding, and is the substance of our engagement and interaction with the world. Without our minds, we would receive data through our bodily senses, but make no judgments or attachments beyond raw instinct. My cat does that. To interact with something as a human being is to think about it, to pull it into our minds and turn it over and over, examining it and attaching real emotions and judgments to it. Relationships and world engagement start and are developed in thinking.
This is why it is remarkable how little thought we actually give to the way we think. Before going further, I’d like to ask you to take the quick quiz below from the New York Times. It’s quite illuminating.
Test Your Problem Solving (New York Times)
If you are like me, you didn’t “pass.” I was all-too quick to jump to a conclusion and I failed to test other, conflicting hypotheses to see how the evidence lined up. I wanted a right answer and was sadly satisfied with an answer that only appeared to be right. But as social media makes clear, appearance can be a very poor indicator of reality.
It’s vitally important that we actively confront the way we think about, and thus engage with, the world around us. In some respects, the way we think is more important than what we think (though I will always believe that aligning with truth is the most important thing we can do). There are consequences to how we think, because our thoughts drive our will which in turn drives our actions. If we fail to think carefully, we come to wrong conclusions and end up taking wrong actions that range from merely misguided to outright harmful.
Beyond (or perhaps somewhat previous to) determining actions, the way we think has perhaps the largest impact on our beliefs. Beliefs are what fill in the gaps between stuff that we know. They can be bolstered by knowledge, but never proven (if a belief is proved, it moves into knowledge and is no longer a belief). Because beliefs are not proven certainties, their quality rests on the way we connect ideas and how we examine new or challenging phenomena and ideas. When we jump to conclusions, fail to test new thoughts or ideas, and bull-headedly force something we want to believe into a picture of what is true – despite its obvious unfittingness – we eventually form an inaccurate comprehensive worldview. We become wrong and inflexible about a whole host of things that are beyond proof, such as ethics and and beauty and politics.
Eventually, we may become so wrong that we will find ourselves are no longer engaged with the world itself, but rather with a created facade we have projected onto the world. We come to interact with something that isn’t actually there, with a figment of our imagination and creation. We could eventually become so committed to our false view of the world that we become of no earthly good, precisely because we refuse to see the world and its issues for what they really are. Solving made-up problems is not a virtue, nor is applying irrelevant or even harmful solutions to a real problem. We cannot help real people and solve real problems until we see them clearly for what they are.
Then, on a spiritual level, to lose sight of the real world is to lose sight of or relationship with God. Part of how we can know God is through His works, His creation. To insist on seeing only what we want to see, rather than what is, is to risk making a God of our own design, to end up worshipping something false (even something idolatrous) rather than the One Who is.
The quality of the way we think is central to the quality and effectiveness of our actions, the truth-content of our beliefs, the love and grace we give others, and the way we see God. Part of being authentic and real is working to real-ize the way we think, and trying to make, as well as we can, the content of our thoughts and beliefs line up with what is true. This is far easier said than done, but it is worth the effort.