Sunday, 3 August 2014

Thinking vs. Knowing

OUR PRESENT AGE is identified as the Age of Information. Different eras were characterized by the product that dominated the times, such as Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, etc. Quite literally, we excel in knowledge. Our accumulation of facts exceeds that of the greatest minds in the past. Neither Aristotle nor Galileo knew the distance of the Earth from the sun or moon. Neither Plato nor Isaac Newton knew the speed of light. Today, however, most grammar school kids can access that information.

Information–that is, facts–is an absolute necessity for living. Contrary to some contemporary educators, we need to learn facts and learn them well. One doesn’t think in a vacuum; one needs material to work with. Facts are stubborn and, when resisted, one always stubs one’s toe against their rock-hard nature. Yet, as the classic Japanese movie, “Rashomon,” pointed out, all facts need interpretation–and that is done by thought.

Despite our incredible wealth of knowledge, the question still can be raised, “How much thinking do we do?” Many of us might find this puzzling, for we tend to identify thinking with knowing yet the two are far from identical. One can be passive and absorb information like a sponge. Some learn a language with earphones and a tape recorder, even in their sleep. We are essentially passive in being informed. On the other hand, information comes from without and produces knowledge.

Thinking, though, is an immanent or inner activity. It is tiring and may prove difficult. It also may require intense concentration. Sometimes, it takes the form of contemplation. When one watched champion chess players such as Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer considering their next moves in a chess match, one observed humans deep in thought. They reminded us of the famous statue of “The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin, where the figure is seated, elbow on knee, with a hand supporting his head. One is almost forced to ask oneself what Rodin’s subject is thinking about.

The supreme achievement

Thinking is the supreme achievement of the human species and the reason for its continuous advancement since it came into exitence. An example of such activity is the fundamental question of Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz, the co-inventor of calculus: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Ariel’ all, nothing is easier to accomplish than something! So, too, the remark of nuclear physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer on the initial occasion of the explosion of the atomic bomb: “For the first time, physicists have known sin!” One may disagree with this statement, but its assertion certainly makes one think.

Another provocative thought came from existentialist Albert Camus, when he declared that the only fundamental question was that of suicide. In our times, Rabbi Harold Kershner legitimately asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” None of the above can be dismissed out of hand, but few will take the time to ponder over them.

Now, though, we are beginning to recognize the distinction between knowing and thinking. Companies such as Microsoft and 3M specifically give “think time” to employees–a time not for producing more data, but for doing nothing but thinking. There also are a number of think tanks, such as Rand Corporation, which serve various purposes. Dow Chemical has a TV commercial with the simple message, “What good thinking can do.” The commercial itself forces one to think.

Yet, it doesn’t take a shrewd observer to recognize that most people not only are uncomfortable with thinking, but literally are afraid to think for themselves. They may not admit it, but they prefer that someone else do their thinking for them–say, the “authorities.” This especially is true in certain areas, for thinking often raises doubts, and it is tough to live with doubts. Such persons pay no attention to St. Paul’s statement that, “When I was a child, I thought as a child, but now that I am a man, I think as a man.”

Many prefer to stay at the child’s level, for it is easier than to take on the burden of deep thought. They hesitate to speculate about issues that do not appear to be resolvable–or to face seeming contradictions, not wanting to recognize that much of what we stake our very lives on is uncertain, paradoxical, and ambiguous.

Seeking meaning

Is there meaning to human life? Is there some kind of life after death? What would even make us think so, rather than believe so? Is there really a God and, if so, what is the relation of such a being to ourselves? The fact is that most of us are not honestly willing to face such issues and weigh the rational evidence for or against. (One can understand Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasser’s comment that the only true hero is the intellectual.) Most relegate these issues to belief (faith), but often this merely involves a failure of nerve to confront them rationally.

As rational beings, though, we shouldn’t be upset when people question “cherished truths,” for often they are trying to think things through. Although Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s remark that “religion is only for the weak-minded” was a political no-no of incredible proportions, he was trying to make a point, albeit most clumsily. In substance, it was not much different from the Marxist contention that “religion is the opium of the people.” Is there some truth in those comments? Just take a look at the Jim Jones cult, the Branch Davidians, and the Heavenly Gate people. Nor are mainline religions without their faults.

We all could benefit by attending to philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous insight: “I think, therefore I am.”

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