I live in a community that makes decisions by means of a consensus process. Deciding by consensus requires people to think together, but while there are many positives about consensus, unfortunately, the process can get bogged down, and sometimes it just doesn’t work the way it is designed to work. At a superficial level, one might conclude that the process should be abandoned, but but I prefer making an attempt to observe the quality of thinking that goes into it. I hope that greater understanding about the nature of thinking can improve how it functions. Rather than writing specifically about thinking and consensus, I plan instead to write a series of more general posts about some of the elements of the thinking process. I hope that these reflections can be useful in any setting where thinking is required or is at least useful. I do not intend these posts to be an academic exercise. Rather, I will try to keep them at a practical level so we can all improve the clarity and validity of our thinking.
Many people know the first three words of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.” Peck later asserts in The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in the Age of Anxiety that “Thinking is difficult.” (Page 24) I agree with him, and plan to write about why that is true and how we can learn to think more clearly.
The first of these posts will begin to address the complex question, “What is thinking?” My essays will not be dealing with how the brain functions, although that might be interesting, too. I will, instead, look at thinking more in terms of its functions.
The later posts on the topic will address the ever-present barriers to clear thinking: that is, what gets in the way, and what skews our thinking, often without our being aware that such modification of the process is even happening.
So, let’s begin to explore what it is to think. It the most basic level, thinking is the process of collecting relevant information, putting it through some kind of analytical process, and producing a conclusion that we take to be true. If only the process were as simple as those few defining words seem to imply.
If we are to think clearly, we must first consider the accuracy and scope of the information we employ, including the validity of our sources. When computers began to be used for analytical purposes, the validity of the process was determined by the clever slogan “Garbage in – Garbage out!” In other words, if a thinking process is to be valid – either by machine or by human mind – the informational raw material we use must be accurate and sufficiently comprehensive.
Once we have accumulated sufficient valid information that includes a mix of scientific and experiential/emotional data, then we must analyze it by means of a reliably logical process. It helps if we know what kinds of logic we are using. When we reach what we believe to be a valid conclusion, we must then consider the situational scope of our conclusions. This might include present/future considerations, gender, geography, and an understanding of what specific measures can determine the quality of our conclusions. For example, a conclusion can be financially valid and be morally bankrupt at the same time.
Here is a list of some of the topics I will address in subsequent weeks. I may address several in a given post.
Regarding what it is to think:
  • The ability to gather relevant information
  • The ability to acknowledge and accommodate competing values
  • The ability to see the scope of a particular position (e.g. regarding longevity and geography)
  • Problem solving is not the equivalent of thinking.
  • How wants and needs affect conclusions
  • Opinions and logical conclusions are not the same
  • How honest are thinkers about their self interest ?
  • How does your given moral framework affect your conclusions?
  • What are the underlying metaphors representing “truth,” and how do they affect the validity of conclusions
  • Recognizing that we seldom have enough information to generate completely true conclusions
  • New information should lead to modification of our conclusions.
I will then write about some the barriers to clear thinking:
  • My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts”
  • How emotionality (as distinguished from emotional experience) blocks the validity of conclusions
  • What if I must be right?
  • How credulous am I in collecting information?
  • How much faith do I have in my conclusions even if they turn out to be uncomfortable (or “inconvenient”)?
Well, this post gives you a glimpse of what is to come. I hope you enjoy the series. Please read and comment. Let’s think clearly together about these matters.
Wayne Gustafson
The Promised Land is within and among us.”

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