The Philosopher’s Problem: When and Why Thinking Can Be Harmful
Cogito ergo sum. It’s arguably the most famous phrase in Western philosophy.
It can be traced back to the French philosopher Rene Descartes, considered by many to be one of the most influential modern thinkers in Western history.
The phrase roughly translates to “I think, therefore I am,” and the story behind it begins with a simple question that Descartes asked himself — is there anything in the world that I can be completely certain of?
How do we reconcile the doubt we feel about our understanding of reality with the fact that there must be something, anything, that is foundational?
He thought, and thought, and thought, and ultimately, he settled on his famous statement. To him, this fact had to contain some aspect of a truth.
He knew that he couldn’t completely trust his own observations through his senses, and he was also aware of how easy it was for his mind to confuse him, but the fact that he was able to ask this question in the first place was proof that he, on some level, must exist as a thinking being.
Regardless of the fact that all of his thoughts may be wrong, doubtful, and uncertain, the mere ability to think proved something.
Well, it was definitely provocative. For the next three centuries many other philosophers came and went with their own opinion on the matter. Some building off of Descartes reasoning and others refuting it.
In the end, however, it offered nothing more than a semantic game.
The Problem with Thinking
As far as we know, humans are the only animal that can think about thinking. That can imagine what is and what is not and question it with awareness.
For philosophers, like Descartes, this poses an interesting challenge. It gives them something to work at. It creates branches of thought like metaphysics (the nature of reality) and epistemology (the nature of knowledge).
While the study of metaphysics and epistemology have indeed contributed something to our prosperity — in some small ways — their study is less about adding anything useful to our day to day lives and more about creating depth and dimension to our thinking about what is real and what isn’t.
And given this fact, they can make the thinker of these subjects and thoughts run around in circles questioning and re-questioning themselves. Eventually, they start talking about things that most people can’t even relate to.
While very few of us spend our time diving into questions about the nature of reality and knowledge, we also fall into these same loops of thought in our day to day life, and we do so without realizing and without control.
The fact that we can think deeply almost instinctively creates the conditions in our brains that encourages us to do so, regardless of whether it adds value.
We are programmed to think deeply even when there is no benefit to thinking deeply. In fact, quite often, rather than providing a clearer foundation for our thoughts, the added depth simply detaches us from reality.
We start thinking about things that have little relevance to what it is that we need to figure out and make sense of, but at the same time, we confuse this added depth for clarity and organization.
Oftentimes, thinking deeply is the antithesis of thinking clearly.
Separating Your Mental Worlds
I like to separate reality into two different worlds that interact with my mind at any given time. The real, tangible world and the invisible world.
These are very rough separations, and in many ways, they do overlap with each other, but this distinction helps me categorize them so that I can better make sense of my interactions with reality.
The real, tangible world is what I visibly see and what my senses interact with. The invisible world is what adds depth and context to my vision of the tangible world. The latter is where metaphysics and epistemology reside.
The purpose of interacting with the real, tangible world is to help us effectively navigate our surroundings so we can live sustainably. The purpose of the invisible world is to play a secondary role in supporting the former.
The trap that most of us fall into is one in which we impose too much of the invisible world onto the real, tangible world. The result of this is that we add needless context and depth that detracts from the clarity provided by the senses we use to paint the part of reality in which we commonly live.
To exist happily, effectively, and with minimal confusion, what we need is the ability to think clearly in the real, tangible world. And the invisible world is only as useful as its ability to use its depth to add to that clarity.
If all the invisible world does is make us more confused about how to live in the real, tangible world, then it’s likely too involved.
At the end of the day, your overarching purpose is to make it through life in a way that has been meaningful, pleasant, and engaging. If you can’t think clearly, then making the right decisions becomes that much harder.
The power of depth has its time and place. And philosophers, like Descartes, who have engaged this depth have given us some striking insights.
That said, if this ability to think deeply isn’t controlled and managed, it spills out beyond the domain in which it finds its strength. We have to be very careful about the degree to which we engage it.
The thing that actually makes the world work is clarity, and this clarity can only be found if we adequately train it to come through.
In the words of the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla,
“One must be sane to think clearly, but one can think deeply and be quite insane.”
Not every tangent we think about is worth exploring. Not every idea that pops up is worth considering. Not every nuance needs to be given its time.
Sometimes, all life demands of us is the ability to see the parts of reality we need to engage with, clearly and simply. It means that rather than adding more to our vision and observation via thought, we have to be disciplined about removing what isn’t useful and relevant.
This takes practice and intention. It requires you to think about thinking and slowly develop the awareness to watch your mental processing occur.
It’s not easy, but if honed, this kind of clarity changes everything.