What is 'good thinking'? What is 'bad thinking'?


I wish I could answer this in a few simple sentences but it is not so easy. There are many factors that go into good thinking and into bad thinking. As a consequence there are many approaches to explaining it. My approach with this will be to try to establish common ground with the reader and progress from there. Different readers may well accept different levels of common ground. To facilitate this I will try to establish the most basic fundamental common ground. Where there is an easy step where the reader already accepts the conclusions of an argument I will try to add a link so that s/he may skip the relevant material and get on to the next argument.

Before I can start to justify saying that some thinking is good and some thinking is bad it is necessary to find an acceptable definition or explanation of what thinking is:

The basic sources of knowledge: observation and reason, should be considered in terms of processes of thinking: search and inference. The search is an attempt to use our faculties, such as our senses, to identify relevant information; the second is the process of reflecting on what we discover and drawing conclusions through using reasoning. I will use the verb 'to think' in a very general way. Not only is it the process of reflecting on what the senses perceive but it is also an interpreter of the senses. It is quite possible to hear but not to listen. Listening requires that the mind is engaged in interpreting the senses. For the purposes of this explanation I shall consider 'listening' to our senses, to be part of thinking. This is of course only a convenient definition, since certain aspects of listening or seeking information will necessitate action that could not easily be described as thinking.

Thinking can roughly be separated into 2 processes: searching and inferring. These processes are sometimes inextricably interlinked but it is often instructive to see how they can be separated. We search for 'certain objects' and then we make inferences from and about the objects we have found2. Our preconceived ideas about what we are searching for may well influence what we find as they may also influence what we infer from those objects. As it stands this definition isn't very useful this is because thinking is essentially a process of exercising free choice. Free choice to reach conclusions and free choice to make decisions about future thinking. Whatever limits I might think I have discovered enabling me to describe thinking more narrowly I can in principle think in another way beyond and outside those limits. (e.g. if I discovered that I tend to make bad decisions because I am biased towards my own ideas, then I can change that). This is very closely related to arguments surrounding free will, which I won’t go into here..

For this reason the study of thinking revolves around understanding how we ought to think. The study of thinking is probably the only academic study where the words good and bad are regularly used as descriptive terms of reality(see below). Secular academic studies such as chemistry and physics are usually considered to be studying how nature works and doesn’t attribute any value to any particular aspect of it. (A possible exception is Physics where some theories are preferred by some people over others because of their aesthetic value) In the study of thinking some thinking is good and some thinking is bad. This leads to a paradox that academics get themselves into, and it is this paradox that I believe lies at the heart of the flaws of current thinking. It is the understanding that says

"It is a fundamental part of good thinking that in reality it is nonsense to talk of good and bad. Reality just is." Or - put another way- “every study should be value neutral - and that is good”. This is a lie and a self-contradiction at the heart of the 'modern' mind and I aim to replace it with the statement:

"Good and bad are determined by what is good thinking and what is bad thinking."

[Perceptive Muslim readers will recognise in this formulation a strong hint towards the hadith that says "All deeds are judged by intention." i.e. a deed is judged good because of its good intention. ]

Good thinking is often referred to as being rational thinking. Indeed the two terms are often used synonymously. Our next step is to examine the definitions that people have tried to give for 'rational thinking' and see how adequate they are.

2 Baron - Thinking and Deciding p4


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