Blog: When We THINK We’re Thinking

by Brad on March 18, 2021

I know I’m not alone in being affected by the divisiveness in our world these past few years. And while it would be easy to let that drag me down or ruin my day, I’ve chosen instead to see it more as an object of curiosity, perhaps even entertainment at times. I really want to understand why and how we’ve become “worlds apart.”

Here’s where my observations have led me so far. In simplest terms, it seems we tend to believe what we want to believe, often to the exclusion of what is true. Turns out that’s exactly what happens, but there’s a reason for it, and this is where it gets interesting.

Part of what it means to be human includes a primal need to feel safe. To help, evolution has adapted the unconscious mind to program danger signals for us, so we can respond quickly if needed – a quick return to safety. This served us well when the danger was a tiger. But the adaptation falters, even to the point of detriment, when the dangers are our own thoughts … specifically about life’s chaos, complexity and uncertainty … as is true today. To the unconscious mind, a danger is a danger. Period.

This leaves us pre-disposed to believe things that make us feel safe …. even if they’re false. This is how (and why) we often prefer a comforting lie over an inconvenient or incomplete truth. And why we often deny information that doesn’t fit what we already believe …  and why we like to listen to people who agree with us …. and why two people presented with identical information often come to different, sometimes opposite, conclusions … and why we’re hooked more easily by drama than by facts … and why we like to think that we’ve thought everything through to the point of certainty. But it’s all unconscious. So we’re not thinking it through. Because the unconscious mind is not rational. And because we’re not using our conscious thought process … we fail to notice what’s happening.

The path beyond this is conscious awareness. When we become aware of our human need for safety, and how the unconscious mind impacts us, we can use that awareness to shift into conscious thought, using critical thinking to look at things objectively. (Yes, we think we’re already doing this … but.)

One of the basic tenets of critical thinking is conscious skepticism, but not in the sense of denying (for that is the realm of the unconscious mind), but in the sense of curiosity and learning. It’s how we build new knowledge, and always have. But if we don’t remain conscious, the unconscious mind steps back in, and uses this very same skepticism against us, to cast doubt on everything, rather than be open to new learning.

And here’s where divergent thinking comes in. To believe nonsense, you have to start by disbelieving truth. No better way to do that then to cast doubt on truth. And that’s what’s happening. Doubt abounds. And it’s way easy to cast doubt these days – on just about anything. Doubt, in the absence of conscious thought, leads to disbelief.

The problem here is that, as a culture, we’ve pretty much lost our skill at critical thinking. It’s no longer taught in schools; it’s no longer encouraged; to use it leaves us feeling like an outcast in a world where the comfort of community feels safer than standing alone in truth. Worse, when we jump on the denial bandwagon, one of our false beliefs is that we’re sure we are using critical thinking. This only adds to our certainty. But it’s a thinly veiled attempt at finding comfort in the middle of a lie, rather than dealing constructively with the complexity of truth.

In no way here am I trying to claim what’s true and what’s false. What I am claiming is that there’s a rational process to get us to truth, and we’ve somehow lost, ignored or denied it along the way. And we don’t know we did it. Worse, we’d swear we didn’t.

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