If there is anything everyone can agree upon it’s that clear thinking is much better than muddled thinking. After a rare bout of clear thinking I sometimes feel a sense of accomplishment. Something has been learned. Progress has been made in solving a problem. Sometimes this new insight may be accompanied by a strong emotion, a feeling of beauty, of gratitude. “Life is beautiful.” Many famous philosophers from Descartes on have believed that clear and distinct thinking was the means by which to discover the nature of things around us.

Clear thinking thus seems like a very good thing, but how good is it? My limited personal empirical research suggests that the best thinking is still very muddled; communication is chaotic except in very controlled situations. Example: A recent post at Scientia Salon (reblogged here) by Julian Baggini on free will (Freedom Regained) led to a lively discussion by accomplished scientists, philosophers and others. The discussants were all very disciplined thinkers, adhering to a high level of logic but, in the end, there was no evidence that mutual understanding was reached or that ‘minds were changed’. Basic disagreements on the most basic concepts persisted till the end.

Probably what happened was that everyone was learning something that lead to a fine tuning of their own understandings. Some discussants learned perhaps to have a little more sympathy for differing views, but others were outright dismissive of opponents. Basic changes of conviction apparently did not occur.

Convincing our fellow human beings that we know what we are talking about is a key goal in life, whether in business, science or politics. Success can even be secured by simply convincing others of the value of one’s opinions. The same seems to be true in religion and philosophy. However, given the great profusion of different opinions on just about everything, it is clear that most (all) of us do not actually know what we are talking about when expressing strong convictions, i.e. when we think we know what we are talking about.

The inconvenient truth seems to be that evidence and rational arguments do not determine people’s beliefs about themselves, society and reality. Rather, if we were lucky, we had ourselves brainwashed by intelligent, knowledgeable and loving parents – the alternatives are so much worse. But brainwashing nevertheless occurs, even under circumstances of neglect.

The culprit behind all this ‘pointless’ arguing and discussion is our vaunted human consciousness. It is the ever-present center around which all revolves. In most cases consciousness seems almost totally dedicated to cultural communication. Everyone spends most of their waking time pursuing cultural goals such as food, clothing, relationships, work, rest, pleasure, security and other community needs. What has clear thinking to do with success in society? Our ability to communicate and cooperate with our fellow humans is the fundamental goal and preoccupation. Being agreeable and sympathetic is far more important than being right, as we are often reminded.

By the way, the discussion went on and on about libertarian free will versus compatibilist free will versus determinism. My personal favored option is virtual free will. The content of consciousness and culture is all virtual, i.e. none of it is composed of reality as it is. The reality that we routinely refer to all day long is a virtual representation in our consciousness. While the still mysterious processes of consciousness are really real, its content is virtual, subjective and may be almost completely non-real or immaterial. This is explained in some detail at johanneslubbe.wordpress.com in a series of somewhat lengthy posts.

Scientistic Perspective on Consciousness by Johannes Lubbe