Thinking Sideways

There are three kinds of people I like most in the world.

First, the ones who tell me how incredibly good-looking I am. Even though I worked on Capitol Hill, I still haven’t met anyone who’s able to lie that brazenly. But I can hope.

Second, the ones who make the sun shine brighter, make my heart sing, and, ahem, make my loins stir. But they are few and far between. So nyah on that.

Third, the ones who make me think. Since I think for a living, it means they make me think in ways I normally wouldn’t about questions I normally wouldn’t.

One of them recently pondered whether or not people think in different ways.

The short version — and I encourage you to read the long version — is that:

  • People obviously interpret the world and themselves differently based on their background, beliefs, and concepts. A Renaissance mystic and a modern psychologist might look at the same situation and see vastly different things.
  • But the really interesting question is if some viewpoints and ways of thinking are irremediably incompatible, so that people holding them can’t possibly understand each other.

It’s different from asking if there are multiple intelligences (no, there aren’t), which I consider a well-meaning attempt to bestow the label of “intelligence” on traits that have little to do with it. The problem isn’t that other traits are unreal or without value, but that people mistake intelligence for human worth, so they look for ways to call everyone intelligent. All people are equal in human dignity and human rights, but they’re unequal in most other ways.

Notice something interesting: I just told you a story that has almost the same practical implications as the story that values people by their intelligence and claims everyone is intelligent. So in terms of how we live, each story can be translated into the other one. They amount to almost the same story in different words. People who tell those stories can understand each other. They’re looking at things differently, but not thinking differently.

That said, I’m pretty sure that there really are different ways of thinking. Creative geniuses sometimes perceive problems as patterns of color and music. By manipulating the patterns, they find the solutions. But afterward, they can translate the solutions from color and music back into normal ideas they can communicate.

Religious mystics are similar. They enter an abnormal state of consciousness like creative geniuses, but they perceive realities to which our normal concepts don’t apply, so they end up talking in metaphors about chariots and such. There’s even a specific practice called “the meditation of the chariot,” though it’s considered dangerous to try it without adequate spiritual preparation.

Even so, most of our intractable disagreements are less about different ways of thinking than about different perceptions, life experiences, and moral intuitions. For example, regardless of their political commitments, most people would agree that uncontrolled immigration poses some risk to a country’s citizens, though the amount of risk is hard to quantify. It leads to three questions that can be answered differently by reasonable people:

  • How much risk is there?
  • How much risk, and to whom, is acceptable?
  • How should we balance the risk against other moral concerns?

Because there’s no clear logical way to answer those questions, people’s opinions are easily manipulated by propaganda that draws attention to some facts and away from others.

People’s moral intuitions also differ. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes (see the figure at the top of the blog post) that people see morality along five dimensions:

  • Care vs. harm
  • Fairness vs. cheating
  • Loyalty vs. betrayal
  • Authority vs. subversion
  • Sanctity vs. degradation

However, liberals intuitively prioritize care and fairness far above loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conservatives also prioritize care and fairness, but at the same level or slightly lower than loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Both groups intuitively value human welfare. That’s why it’s so dangerous to “dehumanize” those who disagree with us, judging them as so evil that they deserve no moral consideration. That well-traveled road leads to hell on earth.

The questions for all of us are: How can we respect the humanity and human rights of other people whether or not they agree with us? How can we all live together in peace?

“When the other side surrenders” is not an answer. It’s a prescription for never-ending hatred and bloodshed. We can do better than that.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Thinking Sideways

  1. J P says:

    One problem that is going to be increasingly difficult to solve is where different ways of thinking become truly incompatible.

    I understand that there is a tendency among some (mostly) young people to consider disagreement or speech taken as offensive to be actual violence. In other words there is no distinction between calling you a name and beating you with a fireplace poker. The response to such perceived aggression would be likely to far exceed what most (now, at least) consider reasonable.

    When there is disagreement over the meaning and effect of basic words and concepts, this is going to be difficult to overcome.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      History is hard to predict. There are too many variables and too many unknowns. It seems to me that the least destructive path follows Robert Frost’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

      If groups of people (for whatever reason) are inclined to attack or abuse each other, it’s better to keep them separate. Part of the problem now is that virtually an entire industry constantly incites people to hate each other on grounds that are almost always specious.

      There are even people — I shrink from calling them “well-intentioned,” but they are at least sincere — who believe that the nation-state is a harmful anachronism. They believe that the sooner Western nations are destroyed, the better. Some are deliberately trying to tear our countries apart, on the tragically mistaken theory that “anything would be better than this.” Call it the posthumous revenge of the Soviet Union.


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