In The Life of the Mind (Baker, 2002), philosophy professor Clifford Williams reflects on the power of thinking and learning in leading us to greater knowledge, allowing us to make our beliefs more coherent, and giving us intellectual pleasure. In the excerpt below he describes how he went from teaching philosophy as a mere academic matter, the kind of thing that may remain within the four walls of a classroom and not have hands and feet, so to speak, to realizing that in philosophy he could teach students to live well, that is, with virtue, and even to “prepare to die,” as so many philosophers before have remarked about their vocation. This is the sort of vision that I believe motivated one of my college professors, who taught a philosophy course on Dante’s Divine Comedy, to state at the beginning of the semester that, “We read Dante for joy.”
“For more than two decades of college teaching, I listed three objectives in the syllabi for the philosophy courses I taught: to become acquainted with core philosophical issues, to interact with these issues, and to assess them from a Christian perspective… It did not occur to me that the courses could have more aims. And I never asked myself what else I wanted students to gain from a course. Courses were academic enterprises, I presumed, and should not be tainted with extraneous intentions.
“…Then I changed… I began reading the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy. Some of their probing inquisitiveness into human motivation rubbed off. I read some of the master analysts of the human condition – Augustine, Blaise Pascal, Ernest Becker, Søren Kierkegaard. I began listening to students in my office, at lunch, in the hallway, on the telephone. I discovered that they had deep feelings and dreams for the future. Then I turned forty and realized I would die someday. I asked students, ‘What do you like most about living?’ I gradually became less of an emotional hermit and ceased regarding myself largely as an academic machine.
“One afternoon during my twenty-eighth year of teaching, a question hit me: What do I really want students to get out of my courses? I promptly got out a piece of paper and started writing. The list of objectives grew to thirteen. I wanted students to become more imaginative, more adventuresome, and more courageous. I wanted them to develop a passion for learning while maintaining habits of self-discipline. I wanted them to think for themselves and make the Christian faith their own. I also wanted them to become more prepared to die.” (44)
Confirmation bias is what happens when we seek out information which confirms our beliefs. Now, doing this isn’t always bad, and it doesn’t mean that what you believe is wrong, but if you only seek information that confirms what you already believe, or your biases, you risk having a very lopsided perspective on a number of issues. Worse, it becomes harder for you to think critically about these issues and to change your mind when it would be right or intellectually honest for you to do so.
Exposing yourself to a variety of sources not only gives you a more balanced and complete view of something, but it will also help you better understand your beliefs and defend them more ably. I first learned this in college from Father Schall, who in our political philosophy course would quote Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): “You don’t really know something until you know the reasons against it.” I’m impressed by that quote.
Now, these insights also apply to our social lives and the people we surround ourselves with, as Clay Johnson writes in his excellent The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (O’Reilly, 2012):
“We all live in our own social bubbles, which we create and empower through our social relationships – and interestingly, new research says that these relationships have profound impacts on us. The friends we select, the communities in which we work, play, and love serve as filters for us. It’s too high of a cognitive and ego burden to surround ourselves with people that we disagree with.
“If you’re a Facebook user, try counting up the number of friends you have who share your political beliefs. Unless you’re working hard to do otherwise, it’s likely that you’ve surrounded yourself with people who skew towards your beliefs. Now look beyond political beliefs – how many of your friends share the same economic class as you?” (60)
Considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a pastor, husband, father, the first president of what today is Princeton University, and credited with the First Great Awakening.
On Monday it was like Christmas in the spring for me, because I opened up our mail box to find the Essential Edwards Collection, written and edited by Edwards scholars Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney. The following quote is from the first book of this neat volume – Lover of God, a short, introductory biography.
“He loved to study and to think about his life and world. But he was not lost in the clouds. Jonathan excelled at putting his contemplative faith to practice. His deep thinking did not weaken his decision-making and his capacity to act – it fueled it” (37).
I love how the authors make a clear connection between thinking and action. One ought to lead to the other, and this was no exception for the brilliant Edwards. So if it’s true that if you want to feel deeply, you must think deeply, as my previous pastor Joshua Harris once put it, then I believe one can also say, if you want to act vigorously, energetically, then you must first think deeply.
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.'” (21)
In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010), LA Times book critic David Ulin cites a 2009 study showing that in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 12 hours per day, and about 100,000 words per day. This, he explains, is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel, which at first seems encouraging. Except that much of this is a fragmented consumption of the “back-and-forth between texting, e-mail, print, Twitter, blogs and other websites,” amounting to what he calls a “collective data dump” (80).
He then writes:
“This is where reading, real reading, comes in – because it demands space…Perhaps most important, there is the way reading requires us to pay attention, which cannot help but return us to the realm of inner life” (80).
Then it gets really good:
He quotes a co-author of the study mentioned above, on the impact of these kinds of reading on deeper thinking: “Our attention is being chopped into shorter intervals and that is probably not good for thinking deeper thoughts.”
And from a psychiatrist working with ADD: “We have a generation of people who…are so busy processing information from all directions they are losing the tendency to think and feel. And much of what they are exposed to is superficial. People are sacrificing depth and feeling and becoming cut off and disconnected from other people” (81).
These insights should caution us against our often superficial habits of mindless information consumption (I myself am guilty of this), and more importantly, they should move us into being more intentional about doing the kind of extended, concentrated deep reading that is fast becoming a thing of the past for many.