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20180309 – How to Think


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The main idea here is to review the process of thinking and maintaining or changing one’s believes. This process includes a number of important abilities:

  • Ability to tolerate and analyze opinions outside of one’s comfort area, overcoming “true believer” behavior patterns
  • Ability to avoid assigning opponents some evil qualifications that would automatically invalidate their points
  • Ability to be careful with words so to prevent unconscious accepting or rejecting of ideas based on aura of words used
  • Ability to avoid lamping of notions into one bunch, making it difficult differentiate between them
  • And most of all ability to understand opponent’s view on its merits, rather than reject it wholesale.

Another part of main idea is to provide tool in form of checklist to organize oneself for better and more effecting thinking.



It starts with the statement that the process of thinking is very important and that we often get it wrong. Author then provides an example of “thinking in action”: buying a car and then reviews all considerations that are going into this decision. After that he moves to Kahneman’s idea of thinking quick and slow, trying to demonstrate that “speed kills”. Next, he moves to an essay by Robinson that discuss consensus and emotions using example of Puritans and their image in popular culture that has little to do with historic reality. He uses it as an example of “everybody is knowing a little bit about a lot of things”. Another point is that when we do not know, we tend to develop emotional attachment to socially approved views. For many people it is becoming quite complicated because we all belong to multiple communities with not necessary consistent socially approved view. The final part of introduction refers to author’s believe that his book provides kind of “diagnostic” approach to the problem of quality thinking, similar to medical approach to symptoms of diseases.

Chapter One: Beginning to Think

This starts with the story of a member of Westboro Church being converted to more civilized attitude via Internet connection to the person with different views who treated her nicely. One of the most important steps in this process was her initial attempt to reject all communications with this person in order to protect her believes. From here author moves to a notion that “thinking for self” is not really possible because humans exist in connection with others and even if one comes up with original deviation from common believes, he would encounter active and sometimes violent resistance from other members of a group. After that author looks at the experiment with Mills junior who was raised in environment of reason and forceful logic that he eventually rebelled against. Author uses this as a study case of relations between reason and emotions. The next point author makes is by using the story of basketball player who was applying in his game less effective, but more attractive to viewers technic, explaining that his real objective was attract girls rather than win games. Author completes this chapter with reference to “What’s the matter with Kansas” pointing out that nobody really can say what is good for other individuals, only themselves.

Chapter Two: Attractions

This chapter once again starts with a person who moved away from the set of believes he grew up with to another set. This time it was from atheism to religion. Interestingly, it occurred in framework of Yale Political Union debate society. The atheist just failed to find logical reasons to contradict theists. Here author refer to Jonathan Haidt’s idea of personality-defined views to which people attracted. The next point is coming from Lewis and Hoffer’s “True Believer” about the need of belonging and links to it membership and compliance with the group worldview. The next part of this chapter is about adjustment that one makes to get what he wants – in author’s case it was correct his views to get his article published in Harper’s. Finally, author uses Ta-Nehisi Goates’s demand for reparations to discuss notion of who derives what and when and how it all should be negotiated.

Chapter Three: Repulsions

This chapter is about tolerance in thinking. It starts with a nice piece on outgroup and how people tend to punish outsiders for being outsiders. Author looks at it from the point of view of two somewhat hostile groups to both of which he belongs: Christians and Academia. Next, he discusses what he calls Bulverism after the name of one of personage of C.S Lewis who present such attitudes: “First assume that your opponent is wrong, then explain his error, but do not try to really find out if he really is wrong or not”. As historical example author provides polemic between Martin Luther and Thomas Moor, which was by far viler, than whatever we can hear now. Finally, author looks at the idea of Rationalia and demonstrates that this could not possibly work in real live because it would require constant System 2 slow thinking that would make all actions all but impossible.

Chapter Four: The Money of Fools

These money are would-be words, which are issued easily, but could convey no meaning or just pure falsehoods. One of the interesting uses, however, is use of some key words that signify common attributes and group belongings. Author provides a number of example and a nice quote from Orwell. Then he goes into power of metaphors, especially war related that put argument into its own fight category. Author then refers to Lakoff’s and its companion Mary Migley book “The Myths we live by”. The point here is that myths are not lies, but rather self-contained representation of the world. Author also discusses contemporary, somewhat Twitter related trend to convey information and ideas produced by others in form of “shorter”, which often distorts transferred ideas, sometime to the level of completely opposite to original. The final discussion of this chapter is about notions of dual booting coming from computers using two operating systems and method acting of actors, both being used as metaphor for attitudes defined by circumstances.

Chapter Five: The Age of Lumping

This is about contemporary habit of lamping together often poorly related people, ideas, and everything else. Author discusses continually growing abbreviation monsters like LGBTQ… and such. Then he moves to poorly translated Lenin’s “Who Whom” changing meaning from who will win in a struggle, into who control whom. This lead to discussion of removing historic names and statues as result of lumping, for example the lumping of the all people of Civil war period South and its soldiers together with idea of slavery. As a countermeasure, author presents value of idea of splitting that should lead to the analysis at the level of individuality, which would be much more reasonable approach to their merits or demerits.

Chapter Six: Open and Shut

This starts with author pointing out that open mind is not only impossible because everybody has convictions, but also unadvisable. As example he brings kidnapping – the activity for which open-minded approach would be more than strange. After that author goes into details of looking at vices, virtues, and sunk costs. As the final point author brings bubbles whether market or ideological and true believers that shut their minds so profoundly that they continue believe regardless of how many times these believes were falsified by events.

Chapter Seven: A Person, Thinking

This is an interesting approach to the connection between language, thinking, and acting. Specifically, it is about English and Democracy. Author uses work of David Foster Wallace. He discusses an interesting notion of Democratic Spirit:

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As example of forbearance necessary in democratic debates author uses long going abortion debates in America.

Conclusion: The Pleasures and Dangers of Thinking

The conclusion is about such dangers as change of mind leading to ideological conflict with one’s environment, loosing friends, and eventually being thrown out into the cold. On the pleasure side is finding the truth, getting joy from helping others do the same, and, very important, continue the intellectual journey without final destination.

Afterword: The Thinking Person’s Checklist

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It’s a useful book, but it makes a very big assumption that objective of thinking is to obtain some truth and/or convince opponent that one’s opinion conveys such truth. In reality people generally have objective of confirming their own goodness, maintaining whatever benefits they have material or immaterial such as prestige, self-esteem, and confirmation of relevant members of one’s group. Examples of ideological transformation that author provides mainly occur in the process of individual changing his/her group association. I personally believe that the best way to achieve conversion from any ideological position to any other ideological position if to demonstrate very convincingly for individual that he would be better off after changing group association, again either materially or psychologically or both. Neither facts, nor logic, nor anything else would change person position if he/she convinced that continuing association with current group is the most beneficial materially or psychologically.



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