If you had asked me a few years ago – “Are you a clear thinker?”, I’d have said yes. But I’d have been very wrong. It’s not that my thinking is completely pure now, but at least it’s improved.
At the time, many of my opinions were muddled. They were mindlessly adopted from others – mostly from people on my political “team.” I hadn’t thought deeply enough about the ideas themselves to really own them. It was enough for ideas to sound good on the surface, and for them to come from people I thought I was like, or wanted to be like. “Good” arguments were those that sounded cozy: They fit comfortably with what I already believed.
But I wasn’t thinking clearly, even though I was completely convinced that I was. It’s one of the worst catch-22’s: Unclear thinking prevents us from seeing how unclearly we think. The best defense is to always to maintain some distance from your beliefs, and to be wary of the trap of overconfidence.
For example: Are you really exactly 100% confident that climate change is an imminent danger (or not)? The point isn’t to comment on whether climate change is or isn’t dangerous, but to acknowledge the extreme complexity of the world. Think about how little each of us truly understands of that complexity – most of us rely heavily on whatever particular authorities we choose to put our confidence into. Maybe those authorities are right; but is it blindly certain that they are right?
Being absolutely 100% confident about any supremely complicated issue is likely a sign of unclear thinking. Absolute confidence means that there’s no evidence that could ever change your mind.
The two key ingredients that helped me become more clear in my thinking were: (1) humbly admitting that my beliefs are always going to be flawed in some way, which led to (2) accepting that being proved wrong should be embraced rather than avoided.
The main idea is that if you want to become less deluded, then the right goal is to aim at becoming increasingly less wrong over time. To become less wrong we must welcome being shown we are wrong (a tall order!). But if we know we’re wrong, then we can discard or revise some misguided belief – all the better! Only for lawyers does it make sense to win an argument through clever but misleading arguments. A much wiser goal is to honestly dig at the real truth that underlies a disagreement.
The big challenge here is to be able to talk through a disagreement without becoming personally invested in what side is the right one.
The ability to think clearly is among the most important abilities that a person can have. Because without it, you can have little confidence that your understanding of reality is getting more accurate; without it you’re likely to believe what is convenient – that’s human nature.
Reality is how it is, despite however we’d like it to work. And clear thinking is what enables us to change our beliefs over time to better align with reality.
What’s the problem with having a distorted view of reality? Well, if your understanding of the world is distorted, then your actions are unlikely to have the impact you think they will.
With muddled understanding, your actions aimed at bringing about your good intentions may unintentionally lead to causing harm. History is full of tragic examples of such outcomes. Everyone is the hero of their own story-line, even if they end up causing huge suffering to others. Hence the boring (but wise!) cliche that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”