Jonathan Dodd: To think or not to think?

Jonathan Dodd returns with his weekly column and explores why, and whether, we think about what we do. As always, it’s a great Sunday read.

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Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed


There are always a lot of reasons for not doing something, almost always far more than the reasons available for actually doing it. Of course, very few of us actually know why we do things anyway, or maybe we think we do, but we’re kidding ourselves.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. There’s a column to come that isn’t ready, and this column isn’t fit even to tie its shoelaces together. It’ll be called ‘Effect and Cause’ and it’ll be awesome, but this one has to come first, and maybe by some time. I have a feeling that unravelling the reasons for people doing things is likely to end up resembling a can of worms.

Few people actually think about their decisions at all
But am I not heroic in my determination to venture into realms where other column writers dare not tread with their nimble fingers and old-fashioned non-lit-up unfunky keyboards? I work with developers who have these monsters. I sometimes expect them to emit clouds of steam and devilish laughter. The keyboards, obviously, not the developers. Perhaps they do, but they’ve disabled these effects through respect for their more venerable and more easily frightened colleagues.

Computer Keyboard

My thesis here is that very few people actually think about their decisions at all. There are categories of our behaviour where we’ve made no decisions, but simply follow some trigger or source that’s unknown to us. Football supporters, artists, astronauts, lovers and prophets are all equally dedicated to their causes and all quite rightly have no idea where their urges come from.

They’re usually obeying some inbuilt imperative
I think their behaviour is quite proper, and they’re usually obeying some inbuilt imperative. It’s only when it spills over into unacceptable levels or activities that it becomes a problem. There’s always a danger of these things taking over and shifting towards obsession, and it can become uncomfortable for friends and family members, not to mention the effects of spending too much time or money on it and neglecting other parts of one’s life.

merkell banner

Not everybody feels this imperative, or gives in to it or follows it too far. But we all do things regularly that look like decisions but aren’t based on any actual decision-making beforehand. We can all come up with some sort of reason for why we do things, but anything we come up with afterwards is usually some kind of justification. If we supply reasons beforehand, they’re more likely to have been thought out, at least to some extent.

Say the thing that the person who asks will most easily accept
There are often good reasons to have good reasons as well. If you want to make an expedition up the Amazon in search of something or other, you’re probably going to have to attract some finance, or take time off from work, or explain to anxious family members why you want to do this thing, and you have to come up with enough so-called reasons to allow them to decide to help you, or give you their blessing, or not make too much fuss.

monkey on boat

The thing about these so-called reasons is that there’s still a lot of justification involved. I suppose I had better explain what I mean by ‘justification’. A justification is, quite simply, where you say the thing that the person who asks will most easily accept. It’s always presented as ‘a’ or ‘the’ reason, but it isn’t. Some would call this ‘lying’, but since we do this automatically and don’t usually think about it, we probably don’t realise what we’re doing, so it would be difficult to accuse us of ‘lying’, because lying contains an element of intent.

A lot of tosh invented to get our own way
So we can tell ourselves or anyone else any old thing and as long as we don’t think about it, we can also tell ourselves and those others that it’s the truth, rather than a lot of tosh invented to get our own way. And it does work, especially when the ‘others’ are well-meaning and rational people.

innocent drinks van

For instance, it’s easy for people who don’t as a rule think to demand the banning of Muslims or the reinstatement of the death penalty, because it’s an easy answer, and that’s easier than thinking about it. The trouble is that once you start thinking, all sorts of other ideas and situations come into play. For instance, there are many examples of people wrongfully imprisoned for murder. It’s difficult to free them if they’ve been executed, and a lot harder to compensate them or their families after they’ve been freed.

To use reason rather than emotion as my guide
I’m not arguing for uncontrolled immigration here, or for going easy on criminals. Far from it. I’m suggesting that a population that thinks and discusses ideas makes a better, safer and more humane society. I take that as a self-evident truth. Why do I do that? Because I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and discussing, and I’ve come to that conclusion after reasoning with myself and many others. And I’ve attempted during all that discussion to use reason rather than emotion as my guide.

swiss army knife

I’m not saying I’m superior here, or that I’ve been in any way brilliant. I could be completely deluded, and indeed people have often accused me of that. Besides, it’s not an easy thing, and requires a lot of energy, and I’d hardly embark on any of that unless I wanted to make a good job of it. It’s rather like going up the Amazon. You need good boats and tents, and food, and medicine, and good footwear, and innumerable other supplies, and you need to have them with you before you set off, because there won’t be a Tesco up there.

I admire people who simply don’t give up
I admire people who embark on any voyage of discovery or great expedition in their lives. I understand that these can take a variety of forms. Becoming a magician or a pianist is just as exhausting and uncertain as exploring the Amazon. Learning the Periodic Table completely daunted me, as did German and Greek, although French was much easier. So what did I do? I opted for the easy language, of course, although there was plenty of struggle involved.

medical team battle of Normandy

I also admire people who simply don’t give up. Writers and athletes and those who risk life and limb standing up for their beliefs (as long as that doesn’t involve killing others). And people who volunteered to go to Mars. That’s probably the most daunting of all. They’re not coming back. Ever. At least not in the foreseeable future. And they’ll have to take everything they might possibly need with them, or invent ways of going without and surviving.

They have to justify themselves far more often than most of us do
I believe that we all have the ability to do great things. Not necessarily visibly great, but things that challenge us personally. I admire people who give up drinking or smoking, or who overcome fear and mental illness or who live a full life despite disability or other hardships. All these people are aware of some of the reasons for their behaviour, partly because they have to justify themselves far more often than most of us do, and partly because they have to forgive unthinking people who make their lives worse. Over and over again.

wheelchair basketball

What I have trouble with is people who don’t think, who imagine they’re making decisions, but who do nothing beyond simply reacting without thought. If you poke a stick at a dog it’s likely to try to bite you. A well-trained dog will not knee-jerk react in that way, and we admire those dogs and their owners and trainers. There’s no excuse for the person who owns a dog that kills a child.

Why would anyone be proud of that?
The difference is that the dog isn’t capable of thought in that way, but just about every human is. We don’t have the excuse of not having had any training. We have innumerable examples all around us of both stupid and intelligent behaviour. We can all tell the difference. Why would anyone choose the former rather than the latter? Why would anyone be proud of that?

senior woman dog walker

Sorry. End of rant. I have no idea why I feel like this. I have no excuse or justification, I just felt impelled to say it.

If you have been, thank you for reading this.


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Opinion Piece

Sunday, 5th February, 2017 11:51am

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Robert Jones
With what confusion thinking’s fraught; I sometimes think I’ll think no more – For when I spend much time in thought, I un-think things I thought before. I don’t remember who wrote that, but it’s rather lodged in my mind since I read it around half a century ago. If you do think too much about why you do things, would you do them at all? I… Read more »
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