Thinking and Thoughtfulness (Part 1)

Since a major theme of my blog is “thoughtfulness in religion,” I owe it to you to explain what I mean by thoughtfulness and why I believe it is so important. Today I begin a short series on thinking and thoughtfulness. So, think with me for a while about thinking.

 

To understand a concept thoroughly it is not enough merely to define it. We must grasp its relationships to other concepts in the neighborhood. Only by bringing to light how it differs and resembles to those nearby ideas can we locate it on a conceptual map. The larger the scope of our vision, the more precise will be our sense of its location. Hence I plan to consider thoughtfulness in relation to such concepts as intelligence, reason, observation, common sense, critical thought, introspection and thoughtlessness.

 

A few years ago I read Bernard Lonergan’s huge book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (1957). This book stands in the long tradition of books with similar titles: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). Lonergan surveys the map of concepts and activities that orient us to the human act of insight, which is the act of understanding. I will not attempt to summarize his study here. But I want to acknowledge that my thinking about thinking and thoughtfulness has been influenced by this profound book. Specifically, the distinction I make below between common sense and critical (or scientific) thought comes directly from Lonergan (p. 181).

 

Intelligence and Reason

Intelligence is a more encompassing concept than reason. Intelligence is the power of a living being to perceive and respond appropriately to the information it receives from its environment. Billiard balls and hydrogen atoms do not possess intelligence even though they respond to physical contact by other things. Intelligence involves interpretation or processing of information by internal systems capable of such activity. Many intriguing questions arise at this point. What is information? Is information always the product of intelligence? Is it possible to construct an intelligent machine? But I won’t pursue them here. Human beings are not the only living creatures to possess intelligence. Horses, rabbits, mice and even one-cell creatures are marked by intelligent behavior.

But human beings possess a higher form of intelligence we call reason. Reason is not simply more intelligence; it is a qualitatively different kind of intelligence. In brief, reason is intelligence combined with freedom. Human beings not only respond intelligently to information in the automatic ways animals and plants do, they are conscious of their intelligence and partly in control of its application. We can initiate the processes of thinking and imagining apart from external contact with information bearing systems. We can resist being determined by the information pressing in on our senses, and we can anticipate several steps ahead to future states of our world. Reason is the power to see, understand or comprehend relationships— spatial, temporal, mathematical but especially causal and logical relationships. Information is always encoded in a system of relationships, and reason can see the relationships and read the information written therein. Only reasoning beings can attain insight or understanding.

Observation

All intelligent beings can receive information from their environment but only reasoning creatures observe the world. Observation is an intentional act designed to raise mere perception to a higher level by giving the object the kind of attention that will allow it to show itself in its fullness. In ordinary life it usually suffices to see things as images in their wholeness. To avoid hitting the car in front of us, it is enough to see the image as a car. We need not observe it in detail. In that situation, observing would be a foolish thing to do. Observation is the skill of focusing intently on the appearance of something. It is taking note of the details of its parts and shades and activities. If you don’t notice something you can’t think about it or take into account how it might affect you. So, observation precedes serious thought and analysis. To become a good observer you have to train your mind to notice things that we ordinarily overlook. Description is the way we communicate the results of observation.

Common Sense

As I said above, reason is the power to see all sorts of relationships. Common sense is reason’s power to grasp relationships between things and us; that is, common sense enables us to anticipate how things will affect us in practical ways. It learns from personal experience and the experience of other people how things work, how to adjust to them and use them for our benefit. It also works to avoid danger, to make a living or to achieve success in our activities.

It reasons like this: when you do this, that happens; or when that happens, it affects us like this. It is the form of reason used in learning a skill: auto mechanics, bricklaying, getting along with difficult people, or playing basketball. It is not directly interested in theoretical explanations. It gets impatient with any line of thought where the practical relevance is not evident.

Clearly, common sense is very important for daily life. We are related to everything in our environment, and to act wisely we need to anticipate how our actions will affect other things and how those things may affect us. Common sense conforms to the general pattern of reason; it sees connections, analogies and relationships of all kinds. It is especially sensitive to causal relationships. It can use this knowledge very creatively to solve problems. To be continued…

Next: critical thought, introspection and thoughtfulness

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