Sunday, October 26, 2008

Je pense donc je suis

Cogito ergo sum.

Rene Descartes originally wrote, "Je pense donc je suis" in his native French in Discourse on Method (1637). He later uses a Latin version including "Cogito ergo sum" in the Principles of Philosophy (1644).

I think therefore I am.

I've thinking about this phrase a lot lately. It has been used and misused many times, paraphrased to make completely different points on other occasions, and largely, I fear, ignored.

I wonder sometimes how much most of us think. We seem so intent to go through life doing what we always do, even when we have been complaining that we don't want to do it that way any more. We parrot talking points without stopping to think for one second if there is any veracity to the point being parroted. Worse, we parrot them even when they have been proven to be false. Still worse, we parrot them even when they make absolutely zero sense, logically or in any other way.

In other words, we don't think.

I'm sure that some people have already stopped reading this article. This to a large degree supports my very thesis. They simply do not want to think. Thinking is hard, and requires taking responsibility for our actions, our decisions, and our words.

There are others who are on the verge of labeling this as merely the pedantic musings of a self-absorbed intellectual elitist. I thank them for getting this far and ask that they stay a little longer and take to heart the point that I'm hoping to get across with this piece.

My point, of course, is that I am deeply concerned that we appear to have decided that thinking is a bad thing. That we appear to take pride in ignorance. Think for a second. What is ignorance? It is not so much the lack of knowledge, for we can never know everything. Rather it is the willful refusal to acquire knowledge. The more information we have, the more we must evaluate, assimilate, and integrate it into our thinking. In other words, the more we know the harder it is to think through the information, and the harder it is to make an informed decision.

Herein lies the problem. We all have our daily lives...our work, our family, our faith, our priorities...and it is easier to simply go with the flow. Changing our routines, built over years of rote learning, is seen as disruptive. More information simply takes more time to assimilate. And so we avoid more information. It's too hard to think. It takes too much time.

Which is why the "sound bite" generation has taken hold. We "don't have the time" to watch an entire interview, so we seek a sound bite to latch on to as "representative information." Unfortunately, as I discovered through a year of posting quotes by Abraham Lincoln, single lines taken out of context can easily be interpreted differently. They can easily be seen to support the viewers positions even when the point the speaker was making is diametrically opposite. And since information may show differently than what we are predisposed to believe, assimilating it can be hard. Sometimes it requires us to rethink our previous conceptions. It requires us to think. Therefore we tend to focus on those sound bites that appear to support our predetermined view. The networks dutifully feed us the sound bites we want to hear.

And we accept them without thinking.

The trick, of course, is to stop long enough to think. Blogs and sites like Gather allow people to create our own sound bites. Most articles are short, because people tend not to be able to focus long enough to actually read the more informative ones. Our comments are often short as well, and too often they reflect the predetermined opinions, biases, and even prejudices of the commenter and have nothing to do with the article itself. Often the commenters don't even read the article, including the short ones. We prefer simply to parrot our favorite line without thinking.

Needless to say I thank anyone who has read this far. I suspect that only a few people would be curious enough at the foreign title to click on the article in the first place. And of those who did come here, I suspect only a small percentage will read the entire post.

I'll conclude with a plea for all of us to think a little more. Let us break away from the sound bite mentality. Let us stop...long enough to question what we see and hear and read. Don't take everything (or perhaps anything) at face value. Think about what the question meant - was it a "gotcha" question like "Do you still beat your wife?" in which no answer can be made. Think about the answer - was it a simple parroting of the talking point...or did it show that the person understood the multiple viewpoints and deeper ramifications of the issue?

Let us all take just a little bit of time to think.

I think therefore I am.

No comments: