Why what we desire affects how we think

Several years ago I met a very interesting man while flying to speak at a conference. He was finishing a Ph.D. with a specialization in shark research. That immediately made him cool to me. After talking about sharks for an hour, he turned the conversation to me and asked about my career. 

The first part of my answer intrigued him: “I am a professor.” The second part of my answer confused him: “I’m also a pastor.” He proceeded to ask how I can be both because, after all, belief in God is by definition belief without evidence—and that just didn’t seem to jive with having a Ph.D. in philosophy and being a professor. Of course, I was compelled to ask him: “Who said the definition of faith is belief without evidence?” 

We are all like shark guy

The rest of my experience with “shark guy” was a fascinating discussion on why I thought the Bible was trustworthy, what to make of all the violence in the Bible (he asked), and whether or not there were good reasons for thinking Jesus rose from the dead (I threw that in free of charge). In a moment of honesty, he admitted he had never given much thought to solutions to these questions; he just assumed the Bible was a story and that miracles were impossible.  

Shark guy is actually like most people. He formed a belief that seemed reasonable to him, but what shark guy didn’t consider was why it seemed reasonable to him. Alan Jacob’s book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds is an effort to address people like shark guy and to demonstrate that we are all like him in that we don’t think well.  

So what are some of the reasons we don’t think well? In some instances, it’s because we rely on “intuitive thinking” that renders snap judgments regarding a matter (16). Snap judgments are not inherently bad. If I see a mugging and say, “That’s wrong,” I’ve made a good snap judgment. What’s more, if we had to analyze every thought, we would be paralyzed. The key, according to Jacobs, is that our biases and predispositions be the right ones to “relieve the cognitive load.” Of course, forming these mental trends involves situating ourselves in the right community where truth can be found.

In other cases, we have problems overcoming personal biases regarding an issue (15). Before speaking one time, I had someone say to me, “I know what you’re going to say, and you’re going to say it because you’re biased toward Christianity.” I responded, “Of course I’m biased toward Christianity. I think it’s true. Wouldn’t it be weird to believe something is true but not be biased toward it?” He agreed. 

The crux of the matter

What we are looking for is not necessarily a lack of bias; we are looking for fairness. And even that is hard to come by. This is why the focus of How to Think centers on what Jacobs says is the crux of the matter, namely that “the fundamental problem we have may be best described as an orientation of the will: we suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking” (17). Why is this so? In short, “relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of the familiar, comforting habits; thinking can complicate our lives” (17). We can think better, we just don’t want to. But why not?

For some people, thinking will get in the way of the reward of having a belief or attitude socially approved—we “respond to the irresistible draw of belonging to a group of people whom we happen to encounter and happen to find immensely attractive” (57). It seems what we value affects what we are willing to accept. Jacobs invites us to consider the example of NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain. 

Chamberlain was a force to be reckoned with in every facet of the game, except for shooting free throws. When he was encouraged to shoot them underhanded, his free throw percentage improved. However, Chamberlain didn’t continue to shoot underhanded. People have wondered why. Jacobs suggests that Chamberlain didn’t “want to look like a sissy” because there were other pursuits that he found valuable, namely having sex with as many women as possible. He wanted sex more than he wanted a higher free throw percentage (45-47). 

To Jacobs this highlights an important point: thinking well is as much about desire as it is about having the right information. We often do not think well because doing so stands in contrast to what we want. Thus, an important observation for Jacobs is this: thinking is not just rational; it is emotional. He says, “One must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and re-assemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action” (43). Perhaps, in the example of Chamberlain, it could be feelings that, when joined to thought, produce moral action.

Jacobs does a fine job of showing the importance of learning in a community (because we don’t really think “for ourselves”), of identifying our blind spots, and of being fair to those with whom we disagree. Maybe more than how to think, Jacobs invites us to consider what is keeping us from thinking well and from receiving the truth. Bearing that in mind, the book is less about solutions to our thinking problems and more about identifying our thinking problems, which, as Jacobs says, might be all that is needed.