Friday, July 5, 2024

Thinking hard

I don’t remember seeing much philosophical discussion of the duty to think hard.

There is a distinction we should start with. For many xs it sounds right to say:

  1. If you’re going to have an opinion about x, you should have thought hard about x.

But that doesn’t imply a duty to think hard about x unless you have a duty to have an opinion about x.

What I am interested in are things that you simply ought to think hard about. Some of these cases follow from specifics of your situation. If someone is drowning, and you don’t see how to save them, you ought to think hard about how to save them. But the more interesting cases are things that human beings at large should think hard about.

Consider these two statements, both of them likely true:

  1. There are agnostics who have thought hard and honestly about God.

  2. There are agnostics who have not thought hard about God.

Clearly, it is not crazy to think that (2) is a version of the problem of hiddenness: If God exists, why would he stay hidden from someone who thought hard about him? But (3) is not troubling in the same way. If there is a problem for theism from (3), it is just the good ol’ problem of moral evil: If God is perfectly good, why would he allow someone not to think hard about him. And it doesn’t feel like an especially problematic version of the problem of evil (it feels much less problematic than the problem of child abuse, say).

The intuitive difference between (2) and (3) suggest this plausible thesis:

  1. All humans in normal circumstances should think hard about God.

Or maybe at least:

  1. All humans in normal circumstances should think hard about fundamental questions.

How hard are people obligated to think about God and similar questions? Pascal’s Wager suggests that one should think very hard about them, both for prudential and moral reasons (the latter because our thinking hard about fundamental questions enables us to help others think about them). After all, God, if he exists, is the infinitely good ground of being, and there is nothing more important to think about.

I should note that I don’t think (4) means that everyone should think hard about whether God exists. I am inclined to think it is possible, either by faith or by easy observation of the world, to reasonably come to a position where it’s pretty obvious that God exists. But one should still think hard about God, even so.

All this leaves open a further question. What is it to think hard about something? The time ones puts into it is a part of that. But note that some of the time is apt to be unconscious: to think hard about something may involve significant periods during which one is not thinking consciously about the matter, but one is come back again and again to it. But there is also a seriousness or intensity of thought. I don’t know how exactly to specify what that means, but one interesting aspect of it is that if one is thinking seriously, one makes use of external tools. Thinking seriously can require actions of larger muscle groups: getting up to talk to friends; going to the library; performing scientific experiments; getting some scrap paper to make notes. (I sometimes know that I am not doing mathematics seriously if I don’t bother with scrap paper.) Thinking seriously involves more than just thinking. :-)

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