Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts on Thinking

According to Daniel Kahneman, in "Thinking, Fast and Slow", published in 2011, there are two ways of thinking, intuitive (system 1) and analytical (system 2). Intuitive thinking is the fast thinking; it is the thinking we do in making quick decisions with limited information. Along with instinct, intuitive thinking likely arose in our pre-primate ancestors.  Intuitive thinking helped our ancestors survive by avoiding the noise in the bush that may have been caused by a lion or other dangerous predator rather than just the wind. If you don't know, it is safer to react to the noise as coming from a dangerous animal. Those early hominids who lacked intuitive thinking, which includes common sense, may have attempt to investigate the noise and ended up removing themselves from the gene pool. Those who avoided the bush survived to pass on their genes, whether or not a predator was in the bush.
Analytical thinking may not have evolved until modern humans appeared. Analytical thinking would have been needed by early hunter and gatherers in planning hunting and foraging excursions. These humans would be able to process data from different sources; tracks to determine the kind and size of the animal, droppings to tell how long ago the animal had passed, wind direction to plan the direction they would approach the target animal. Analytical thinking was probably also important when early humans learned to create stone tools. It became further developed when civilizations arose and together with critical thinking got a boost from the Greek philosophers and again during the Enlightenment.
Today most of us use both intuitive thinking and analytical/critical thinking skills. However, many seem to stop with intuition; they feel intuition serves them just as well as analytical thinking. There are also times when intuition may be all you have available, or all you think you have available. Sometimes when people think they making an intuitive decision, it is because they are not aware they are actually making a decision based on past knowledge and experience. There are times people can't explain why they made a particular decision that in the end turned out to be the right one. They probably did is subconsciously; their mind was capable of analyzing the knowledge that resided there in making what seemed to be an intuitive decision.
If data is available, it is better to use analytical thinking rather than ignore the data in favor of intuition. Many people, however, don't like to think analytically. It's too hard or takes too much time. They would rather just know rather than have to think about it. That's why religious and political leaders are popular; they tell people what to think, saving the people the effort. And, that's why people often stay with the same religion or political party as their parents. They really don't think much about either.
Analytical thinking can also be abused. When some people try to make a decision about something, they will investigate the available data until they find something that feels right and then stick with that position no matter what other evidence may eventually become available. Once they have decided, they only see the evidence that confirms their belief and none of the evidence that denies it. This is called confirmation bias and is very common in pseudoscience beliefs such as astrology, alternative medicine, ESP, conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc.
If data is available, it is best to use analytical thinking and consider all the data. Intuition can often lead one astray; particularly in this modern world of science. Much of science is not intuitive; it cannot be arrived at using common sense. For example, intuition without science tells us that the sun orbits the Earth; rising in the east, passing overhead, and setting in the west. Intuition tells us that we are standing still on a stationary Earth and not traveling with the Earth's rotational speed of 1,040 miles per hour (at the equator) and it's speed of 67,000 miles per hour as it travels around the sun. If we are traveling that fast, why isn't it messing up our hair? Intuition tells us the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon were always there. Analysis of the science tells us something wonderfully different. It took the Rocky Mountains tens of millions of years to be uplifted and millions more to be eroded down to their present landscape. It took rain and rivers millions of years to erode and sculpt what we see when we view the Grand Canyon today. That is where the wonder and awe of science come in to play for me. When I see a beautiful forested valley leading up to snow-capped peaks while hiking in the mountains, I see the time involved and the forces acting in and on the Earth that created the scene I am seeing. Intuition alone will likely tell you God did it all.
1. Kahneman, Daniel, 2011,  Thinking, Fast and Slow,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512p.
2. Mithen, Steven, 1996, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Thames & Hudson, 288p.
3. Ehrenreich, Barbara, 2009, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Metropolitan Books, 256p.

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