Thinking about Thinking — and Other Things: Survival and Thinking

This is the third post in a series. (The first post is here; the second post is here.)This post, like its predecessors, will leave you hanging. But despair not, the series will come to a point — eventually. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

It’s true that instinctive (or impulsive) actions can be foolish, dangerous, and deadly ones. But they can also be beneficial. If, in your peripheral vision, you see an object hurtling toward you at high speed, you don’t deliberately compute its trajectory and decide whether to move out of its path. No, your brain does that for you without your having to “think” about it, and you move out of the object’s path before you have had time to “think” about doing it.

In sum, you (your brain) engaged in Type 1 thinking about the problem at hand and resolved it quickly. If you had engaged in deliberate, Type 2, thinking you might have been killed by the impact of the object that was hurtling toward you.

The distinction that I’m making here is one that Daniel Kahneman labors over in Thinking Fast and Slow. But I won’t bore you with the details of that boring book. Life is too short, and certainly shorter for me than for most of you. Let’s just say that there’s nothing especially meritorious about Type 2 thinking, and that it can lead to actions that are as foolish, dangerous, and deadly as those that result from “instinct”.

I will go further and say that Type 2 thinking has brought Americans to the brink of bankruptcy, serfdom, and civil war. But to understand why I say that, you will have to follow this series to the bitter end.

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If the need to survive ever had anything to do with the advancement of human intelligence and knowledge, that day is long past for most human beings in much of the world.

Type 1 thinking is restricted mainly to combat, competitive sports, operating motorized equipment, playing video games, and reacting to photos of Donald Trump. It is the key to survival in a narrow range of activities aside from combat, such as driving on a busy highway, ducking when a lethal projectile is headed your way, and instinctively avoiding persons whose actions or appearance seem menacing. The erosion of the avoidance instinct is due in part to the cosseted lives that most Westerners lead, and in part to the barrage of propaganda that denies differences in the behavior of various classes, races, and ethnic groups. (Thus, for example, disruptive black children aren’t to be ejected from classrooms unless an equal proportion of white children, disruptive or not, is likewise ejected.)

Type 2 thinking of the kind that might advance useful knowledge and its beneficial application is a specialty of the educated, intermarrying elite – a class that dominates academia and the applied sciences (e.g., medicine, medical research, and the various fields of engineering). The same class also dominates the media (including so-called entertainment), “technology” companies (most of which don’t really produce technology), the upper echelons of major corporations, and the upper echelons of government.

But, aside from academicians and professionals whose work advances practical knowledge (how to build a better mousetrap, a more earthquake-resistant building, a less collapsible bridge, or an effective vaccine), the members of aforementioned class have nothing on the yeomen who become skilled in sundry trades (construction, plumbing, electrical work) by the heuristic method – learning and improving by doing. That, too, is Type 2 thinking. But it accumulates over years and is tested in the acid of use, unlike the Type 2 thinking that produces, for example, intricate and even elegant climate models whose designers believe in and defend because they are emotional human beings, like all of us.

Type 2 thinking, despite the stereotype that it is deliberate and dispassionate, is riddled with emotion. Emotion isn’t just rage, lust, and the like. Those are superficial manifestations of the thing that drives us all: egoism.

No matter how you slice it, everything that a person does deliberately – including type 2 thinking – is done to bolster his own sense of well-being. Altruism is merely the act of doing good for others so that one may feel better about oneself. You cannot be another person, and actually feel what another person is experiencing. You can only be a person whose sense of self is invested in loving another person or being thought of as loving mankind – whatever that means.

Type 2 thinking – the Enlightenment’s exalted “reason” – is both an aid to survival and a hindrance to it. It is an aid in ways such as those mentioned above, that is, in the advancement of practical knowledge to defeat disease, move people faster and more safely, build dwellings that will stand up against the elements, and so on.

It is a hindrance when, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought”. Type 1 thinking causes us to smite an attacker. Type 2 thinking causes us to believe, quite wrongly, that by sparing him we somehow become a law-abiding exemplar whose forbearance diminishes the level of violence in the world and the likelihood that violence will be visited upon us in the future.

Harry S Truman emulated Type 1 thinking when he loosed the atomic bombs on Japan, ended World War II, saved at least a million lives, and made Japan a peaceful nation for at least the next 75 years. In the vernacular, Truman followed his “gut”.

Neville Chamberlain exemplified Type 2 thinking when he settled for Hitler’s empty promise of peace instead of gearing up to fight an inevitable war. Lyndon Baines Johnson exemplified Type 2 thinking in his vacillating prosecution of the war in Vietnam, where he was more concerned with “world opinion” (whatever that is) and public opinion (i.e., the bleating of pundits and protestors) than he was with the real job of the commander-in-chief, which it to fight and win or don’t fight at all. George H.W. Bush exemplified Type 2 thinking when he declined to depose Saddam Hussein in 1991. Barack Hussein Obama exemplified Type 2 thinking when he made a costly deal with Iran’s ayatollahs that profited them greatly for an easily betrayed promise to refrain from the development of nuclear weapons. Type 2 thinking of the kind exemplified by Chamberlain, Bush, and Obama is egoistic and delusional: It reflects and justifies the thinker’s inner view of the world as he wants it to be, not the world as it is.

Type 2 thinking is valuable to the survival of humanity when it passes the acid test of use. It is a danger to the survival of humanity when it arises from a worldview that excludes the facts of life. One of those facts of life is that predators exist and can only be eliminated – one at a time – by killing them. This is as true of murderous thugs as it is of murderous dictators.

There’s much more to be said about the dangerous delusions fostered by Type 2 thinking.