Thinking Your Way to a Better Brain (John Dewey on How We Think)

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Learning how to think is hard.

Thinking is the core of our being, but the world is hostile to serious thought.

In an age of information overload, the depth of thinking is becoming less and less valued. Information — even good information — can become a distraction if you’re not thinking about it, evaluating it, or analyzing it.

Most of us can’t afford to think.

And some people are okay with not knowing.

Not because they don't have the capacity for thought, but because they have chosen to spend their time elsewhere.

Thinking is unfamiliar.

Thinking can force us out of comforting habits, and it can even complicate our relationships with like-minded friends.

Thinking is slow, and that’s a problem when our habits of consuming information (mostly online) leave us lost in the spin cycle of social media, partisan bickering, and confirmation bias.

Most people’s thinking processes emerge their emotional life and moral character.

And when we don’t really know a subject well enough, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts,” and go with whatever idea makes us feel popular.

Part of living well is thinking well because if one thinks the wrong thoughts it is hard to do the right things to get the best results.

Think Better. Do Better

In its loosest sense, thinking signifies everything that, as we say, is “in our heads “ or that “goes through our minds.”

A thinking process begins with a dilemma that suggests alternatives, and so thinking is evoked by confusion.

If you consistently choose not to dig deeper, you will make plans around being wrong.

Deep thinking just means absorbing important information and using that to form a decision or opinion of your own — rather than just spouting off what you hear others say.

To think means, to bridge a gap in experience, to bind together facts or deeds otherwise isolated.

In his 1910 masterpiece “How We Think”, John Dewey examines what separates thinking, a basic human faculty we take for granted, from thinking well, what it takes to train ourselves into mastering the art of thinking.

The spark of thinking, Dewey argues, is a kind of psychological restlessness rooted in ambiguity:

Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another…
Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection… This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

Thinking is synonymous to believing says Dewey.

To say ‘I think that it is going to rain tomorrow’ is equivalent to saying ‘I believe that it is going to rain tomorrow’.

When we say ‘Men used to think that the earth was flat’, we refer to a belief system that our ancestors held about the earth — they used to think, i.e. believe, that the earth was flat.

Dewey argues it’s not enough to simply have beliefs, but that we must also do the work required to examine them, to understand why we hold them, and to assess the consequences of holding such beliefs.

To truly think, Dewey argues, we ought to consider not only the origin of our beliefs but also how they affect our actions, which they inevitably do:

Reflective thought is the most potent antidote to erroneous beliefs, says Dewey: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought… It is a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of reasons.”

This basis of reasons, Dewey argues, is a relational framework for how different bits of knowledge connect to and validate one another.

To think well is to construct fruitful linkages:

“[The] function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, [is] the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking… Reflection thus implies that something is believed in (or disbelieved in), not on its own direct account, but through something else which stands as witness, evidence, proof, voucher, warrant; that is, as a ground of belief.”

There is no single uniform power of thought, but the multitude of observations, memories, imagination, and common sense, that together comprise thoughts.

To a better capacity for thought, we need to develop curiosity and the habit of exploring and testing.

These will increase questioning and the love of inquiry which will ultimately lead to critical and deep thinking habits.

Pay attention to the right details to make better inferences

Dewey encourages us to embrace systematic inference to improve our reasoning. An inference is a step of the mind, an intellectual act by which one concludes that something is true in light of something else’s being true, or seeming to be true.

People automatically make inferences to gain a basis for understanding and action.

So quickly and automatically do we make inferences that we do not, without training, notice them as inferences.

We see dark clouds and infer rain.

We hear the door slam and infer that someone has arrived.

We see a frowning face and infer that the person is upset.

We read a book, and interpret what the various sentences and paragraphs — indeed what the whole book — is saying.

We listen to what people say and make a series of inferences as to what they mean.

An important part of critical thinking is the art of bringing what is subconscious in our thought to the level of conscious realization.

This includes the recognition that our experiences are shaped by the inferences we make during those experiences.

Critical thinkers notice the inferences they are making, the assumptions upon which they are basing those inferences, and the point of view about the world they are developing.

Dewey writes:

“Systematic in­ference, in short, means the recognition of definite relations of interdependence between considerations previously unorganized and disconnected, this recognition being brought about by the discovery and insertion of new facts and properties.”

Humans naturally and regularly use beliefs as assumptions and make inferences based on assumptions (something we take for granted or presuppose.

Usually it is something we previously learned and do not question. It is part of our system of beliefs).

We assume our beliefs to be true and use them to interpret the world about us.

If our belief is a sound one, our assumption is sound.

If our belief is not sound, our assumption is not sound.

Beliefs, and hence assumptions, can be unjustified or justified, depending upon whether we do or do not have good reasons for them.

We need to make logical inferences based on sound assumptions. We need to understand our own point of view and fully consider other relevant viewpoints.

Dewey advises us to doubt our first solution, to keep searching, and to search for much longer than expected, as this is what is required for good thinking.

Better thinking doesn’t end.

The more knowledge you cultivate, the better you’ll become at thinking about it. It’s navel gazing in that you’re constantly thinking about thinking, but the end result is a brain that automatically forms better arguments, focused ideas, and creative solutions to problems.