Thinking About Thinking - 2020


I Think, Therefore I Cram

By Balaji Prasad

“Cogito, ergo sum."
(I think, therefore I am)
~ Rene Descartes

Thinking is not all that it's cut out to be. The world is strange, and everything is not as it appears to be.

From good to bad in 60 seconds

Don't great intentions and visions sometimes take things in a direction that we least expected them to? Let's take the education system. The vision is that young malleable minds get shaped by mature minds with deep knowledge of the things that matter, so that they are positioned to think better, live better and be better than they otherwise would. Maybe some of that does happen. But does it also come with collateral damage that we didn't quite foresee?

Do we get children who end up calibrated by artificial metrics that make them feel things about themselves and others that may be unhealthy? Do we create kids who learn to be competitive about the wrong things? And perhaps even parents who end up in proxy wars via their kids? Do we have kids who are compelled to engage in contrived activities that are valued by colleges, but that are little more than shams designed to pander to the whims of a college selection committee?

All that collateral damage would be okay if the original intent of education, i.e. better thinking and living, were delivered to a large degree. But often, it is not. We may end up knowing which king cut off his opponent's head in the year 1272 during the xyz war, or know how to do complex-number fractions without ever understanding what a complex number is, and why we even care.

Please accept my apologies for selecting education as the “whipping boy" but we needed a good example, and it is easier, though unkind, to use something that everyone seems to tear into nowadays. The point of the example is to illustrate that any “good" idea can turn out to be pretty bad in the end. The devil is in the details of how things pan out when idea meets real-world, not how noble the intent is.

Earth is hard, but outer space is worse

The real world is a pretty wild place. It holds all kinds of possibilities, try as we might to bring it all under our control. The wise among us sometimes detect the distinct, uneasy feeling that arises when we have unwittingly ended up catching a tiger by its tail. Some of us, though, plod along blissfully until the tiger savages us. Which is better is hard to say – to live in anxiety of being mauled, or to be in an ignorant bliss until we're torn to pieces. Regardless, the point is that the real world is not easily predictable.

But it gets worse! If we worry that reality has a mind of its own, we can surely see that we have a mind of our own too! And that our mind is not a pretty one. It conjures up all kinds of nonsense that don't bear resemblance to anything in the real world. We have the dubious gift of being able to create a completely parallel universe that attempts to finesse the real one that it purports to model.

If the real world is earth, our minds are outer space, and we can go there in the blink of an I.

I think, therefore I cram

Over time, a human head can come to cram in all kinds of nonsense, pushed at it from everywhere and by everyone. It is possible to believe that something is something when it is decidedly not that something. And, to label this “knowledge". It is also possible to think in ways that are inconsistent with how the real world works. We humans have been quite innovative in this regard, and have found countless ways to distance ourselves from the reality that we find ourselves in. (Without naming names, suffice it to say that there are numerous pieces of nonsense that many among us subscribe deeply to).

One of the craziest of all ideas that we come to believe is the “I". It is not that there isn't some entity on this side of the page, writing these words; clearly there is. But we might take issue with the manner in which the thing – this I-thing – is conceived: with a sense of identity that seems to originate from within, but which may be mostly imported from others, and plays more to an external audience.

If I live in a parallel universe and try to remote-control the real world from there, how good am I likely to be at this task? Probably not very, I am saddened to project.

So maybe I can learn to distrust myself a little? Maybe even a lot? Then maybe I can live more on earth, and less in outer space? And while reality is wild, maybe it is a little less wild than the thing I call “me", and if I free myself from “me" then maybe I would be able to devote myself more to the real thing. And live. Actually live!

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com