The Myth of Independent Thought

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” -George Bernard Shaw

Whenever we want to convince someone of something, we like to say, “Hey, why don’t you think for yourself?”

But do we really know what we mean when we talk about independent thought? And is independent thought truly possible at all?

To think about this, let us travel back a short while to the time of our ancestors…

This is you:

Despite how well-fed you look, you’re very, very hungry. All week, you’ve had nothing to eat but a few bitter berries. It’s Thanksgiving today, and your kids are waiting hungrily for you back at the home-cave.

You don’t want to let your kids down, so you decide to hunt one of these fellows:

Hmm, but it’s big. Oh my, those tusks look sharp. There’s no way you can do it on your own.

So you call your second cousin Oot, who is handy with a spear. Then you visit Aunt Oog, who, despite her age, is a talented spear-maker. Then you go on to call Ood, Oof, Ooh and all the other members of your extended family.

You couldn’t do it alone, but together, you can! You defeat the mammoth, cut it up, carry its pieces back to the home-cave, and then start cooking over the home-cave fire. Mmm, delicious. Your kids are grunting and smiling. Your wife winks and flashes you a toothy smile.

And all the cave people lived happily ever after.

Wow, that was a terrible example.

Intelligence is Overrated

We don’t have a clear idea of how our ancestors hunted, but, whatever they did, it’s clear that they didn’t do it alone.

This means that, from an evolutionary perspective, individual intelligence may have mattered a lot less than we think.

In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone cognitive scientists Sloman and Fernbach write:

“Clearly, individual intelligence is useful for hunting. It takes an impressive intelligence to build an effective weapon, to predict how an animal will react when threatened, to butcher and preserve meat, and so on. But none of this is even close to sufficient to take out multiple bison in a single hunt, not to mention even larger animals like mammoths. No individual could do this alone. What made all this possible was the division of cognitive labor. Each community member mastered a skill that contributed to achieving the community’s goals.”

From the very beginning, we evolved to solve complex problems not independently but dependently in a group setting.

Take this coffee I’m drinking, for example.

I know almost nothing about it. I don’t know how to pick coffee beans, how to package and ship them overseas, how to preserve their flavor, how to roast them or grind them, how to brew them, and so on.

Despite that, I manage to order and drink coffee each morning, and I’ve never, ever failed.

This illustrates a concept that the authors refer to as the knowledge illusion.

The Illusion of Knowledge

Do you know how to use a toilet?

I hope so.

But do you know how a toilet works? I sure don’t. All I know is that I do my thing, press the lever and swoosh — the deed is done.

We think we understand the causes of WWII, why our spouse left us for the mailman, where humans came from, how economies work, etc. But when our knowledge is tested, the overwhelming evidence is that we barely understand these concepts at all.

What’s going on here?

Sloman and Fernbach argue that much of our “knowledge” is not knowledge in the sense of understanding how things work but rather an abstract belief — call it faith, if you will — that someone out there does understand.

“The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, individuals store very little detailed information about the world in their heads. In that sense, people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people. When you put it all together, human thought is incredibly impressive. But it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

I believe that the Earth is round and that climate change is happening. But if you ask me to explain why I think so, the best I can do is mumble something about gravity or greenhouse gases.

So my “knowledge” here really consists of a kind of faith in other people — scientists, smart people with PhDs, veteran practitioners, whatever — who I trust to know these things that I do not know.

The line between what we know (what’s “inside” our heads) and what we don’t know but believe (what’s “outside” our heads) is not clear at all. Because of this, we drastically overestimate our knowledge, producing an illusion:

“Because individual thinking and group thinking are so intertwined, it’s hard to keep track of the boundaries. If you ask people to estimate the percentage of their contribution to a group project, they take advantage of the uncertainty by giving themselves more credit than they deserve. The total estimate reliably exceeds 100 percent! … This tendency to overestimate our individual contributions can lead to conflict, especially when it results in devaluing the contributions of other group members.”

Okay, okay. So a lot of our thinking is social and we know less than we think.

But surely that doesn’t mean all independent thought is impossible.

Or does it?

The Dream of Independence

In How to Think, one of my favorite books so far this year, philosopher Alan Jacobs writes:

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said.”

This claim seemed absurd to me at first — no matter how important social interactions are, it seems to me that we are still capable of having original thoughts, being critical, inventing new technologies, etc.

But that’s not what Jacobs meant, I think.

Take the philosopher Descartes, for example.


In the standard grade school story, we learn that he withdrew into his study and proceeded to doubt everything he ever believed about himself.

He doubted his friends, his possessions, his memories, etc. until he found something he could not deny. That thing was his thoughts.

Hence the words cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.

When you hear this story, it sounds like Descartes reached his conclusions on his own.

But we are missing something.

We also have to ask why Descartes decided to doubt himself. What philosophical problems was he struggling with? Why did he decide to doubt himself? When we start to ask these questions, it becomes clear that everything Descartes did was socially situated.

For example, his idea of self-doubt was inspired by Christian spiritual exercises (from Descartes: A Biography):

“The Spiritual Exercises that Descartes practiced … were designed by Saint Ignatius as a way of breaking habitual patterns of thinking, and of redirecting a Christian’s attention to episodes in the life of Christ and to the moral and religious implications that may be drawn from them. Descartes seems to have understood the principal obstacle to doing metaphysics in similar terms.”

Descartes studied thinkers before him, he struggled with problems others proposed, he corresponded with his contemporaries, etc. Everything leading up to, and following, that moment of his reflection was totally, wonderfully and unavoidably social.

To say independent thinking is impossible is not to say that we are not capable of original ideas. Rather, it is to say that the ideas that we do have are always related to ideas or problems generated by other humans.

After all, without the social web of ideas, traditions and beliefs that reach back through time, we would still look a lot like this:

Now, a practical point.

If our thinking is a lot more social than we would like to think, what should we do about it?

A Thinking Community

We in the West are individualistic, and there’s a tendency for us to distrust groups.

It’s true that people in groups will rape, pillage, murder and do all sorts of things they would never do alone. But that’s not to say all groups are bad.

For example, in his book The True Believer the social philosopher Eric Hoffer mentions that group identity is an important part of resisting coercion:

The capacity to resist coercion stems partly from the individual’s identification with a group. The people who stood up best in the Nazi concentration camps were those who felt themselves members of compact party (the Communists) or a church (priests and ministers), or of a close-knit national group. The individualists, whatever their nationality, caved in.”

Alan Jacobs, again in How to Think, distinguishes between a collective — where participants believe in the same things and can be substituted for one another — and groups organized by what he calls membership.

Referencing C. S. Lewis, Jacobs writes:

“How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself….If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.”

So, for those of us interested in thinking more clearly, the most important thing we can do may not be to retreat into solitude or to find like-minded people.

Rather, we should try to associate with people who hold differing beliefs about politics, art, economics and life but also share the same values — values such as a respect for others, a willingness to criticize (but not demean), and an open-eyed thirst for the truth.

In the past, such conditions have come together in certain times and certain places to create some of the most beautiful periods of flourishing we’ve ever seen.

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