Clear Thinking

[NOTE: This little primer on clear thinking was written for another project. It is not meant to be an in-depth study of human reason, but it does identify the major causes of bad thinking, and some principles required for good thinking. Most of all, it is not a "shortcut" to good reasoning, because good reasoning is not easy, not accomplished by gimmicks or secret keys. I believe anyone who desires to think correctly can use these principles to avoid mistakes in thinking, but the best thinking, creative thinking, is very difficult and requires tremendous effort and time. For that kind of thinking, every point is important, but the most important is the last, "Necessity Of Knowledge." Most people do not think very far or very well about things because they just know so little. Knowledge really is all that we have to think about and what we think with, yet most people attempt to get through life with as little knowledge as they can get away with.]

Most people's thinking about most things is pretty muddled. They are clear enough on some things, (they know when the clerk has short-changed them) but about many things, especially issues of right and wrong, life and happiness, romantic love, even honesty and decency, they are very confused. They will be adamant about their opinions on these things, but being certain about one's ideas does not mean those ideas make good sense or are reasonable. The certainty most people have about things is not based on the clarity of their thinking but the strength of their feelings.

Many people are confused about what thinking is and assume just anything that goes on in their heads is thinking. Lots of things go on in our heads (our consciousness) which are not thinking at all, like what we see and hear and feel, both externally and internally, as well as things we imagine, day-dreams, and nostalgia. Thinking refers only to that mental process which uses language to answer questions and make decisions, particularly decisions about what is true and false.

What should I do, what should I want, what should I value, what should I love, what should I despise, what should I be living for, how do I achieve it? Only the clearest possible thinking can answer these kinds of questions correctly, and we must answer them correctly if we wish to live happily and successfully in this world.

There are many people out there telling us we need to think clearly if we want to succeed, but almost no one ever explains what they mean by clear thinking. It is not really that difficult. There are six principles which if understood and followed will result in thinking that is both clear and effective. I've designated those principles as the following:

  1. Know What Truth Is
  2. Eliminate Contradictions
  3. Maintain Word Precision
  4. Distinguish Facts from Feelings
  5. Know How You Know
  6. Increase Your Knowledge
Principles Of Clear Thinking

These six principles are not all there is to clear correct thinking, but they are essential and if understood and followed, one's thinking will continuously improve. It is certain that any thinking that violates these principles will be neither clear nor correct.

1. Know What Truth Is Truth is the objective of all correct thinking. Some people actually seek to deceive themselves, to rationalize their bad thoughts and choices, but that is not the purpose of correct reason. We do not think carefully about things in order to be deceived, but to discover what is so. We are not careful in our thinking in order to make mistakes but to correct and prevent them. We think so we won't end up believing what is not true. But if we are gong to seek truth in all our thinking, we first must know what truth is.

Truth is whatever correctly describes or identifies a fact of reality. Reality is all that exists; it everything that is, just as it is.

It includes every physical entity there is, as well as every relationship between them, as well as the events which are the behavior of those entities. It includes mental things which are not physical, every thought, every feeling, every experience of pain and everything we consciously see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Whether physical or mental, concrete or abstract, it is all things, exactly as they are, that is reality

Everything that exists has a particular nature which is determined by it attributes and characteristics. If a thing did not have the attributes and characteristics it does, it would be something else and not what it is. A thing's attributes and characteristics do not make a thing what it is, they are what it is.

Everything that exists has some relationship to everything else that exists. Those relationships may be a physical, mental, or conceptual (that is, related to something we know about the them). Everything that exists, whether physical or mental, every event, every attribute and characteristic of everything that exists, and all the relationships between them are the facts of reality.

The facts of reality are absolute. Everything that exists is what it is, every event is what it is, every attribute and characteristic of every existent are what they are, and every relationship between them is what it is, and these facts are independent of anyone's knowledge, awareness, beliefs, or thinking about them.

Human beings have only one way to describe or identify the facts of reality which is by means of statements like, "water is a liquid," or, "trees are living organisms." Since "truth is whatever correctly describes or identifies a fact of reality," and our only means of making such descriptions or identifications are statements, truth is actually a quality. Truth is the quality of all statements about anything which conforms to or agrees with the facts of reality. "Water is colorless," is a statement of truth, because, "in fact," water has no color. The statement, "trees are made of stone," is a statement of untruth (or falsehood), because, "in fact," trees are living, and nothing made of stone is living.

In our thinking, there is only one way to establish the truth, which is to be certain all our statements conform with the facts of reality. To be certain what we think and believe is true, we must always be able to identify how what we think and believe conforms to and agrees with the observable or discoverable facts of reality.

Eliminate Contradictions The example of an untrue statement above, "trees are made of stone," and the true statement above, "trees are living organisms" is an example of a conradiction. Since every true statement conforms to or agrees with the facts of reality, where a contradiction exists, one or both of the contradictory statements must be false.

A fact of reality cannot be both as one statement asserts it is and as another statement asserts it is not. It cannot be a fact of reality both that "water is colorless," and that "water is red."

In our thinking we must be very careful never to allow a contradiction to remain in our beliefs or our reasoning. The discovery of a contradiction means we are either mistaken about one or more of our assumptions or beliefs, or have made a mistake in our reasoning. Sometimes contradictions are difficult to detect because we hold our contradictory ideas apart, and only think of them in separate contexts.

As an example, perhaps the most common contradiction held by most people is the belief that human beings have volition, frequently called "free will," but also believe any number of things "cause" people to do things, such as "instinct," or, "inborn traits," or "social programming." While most people believe human beings must be held accountable for what they choose to do, and believe in punishing criminals for their crimes, for example, they simultaneously swallow popular views that pardon much human behavior as though individuals had no choice but are compelled by their "poverty," "education," "social conditions," "genes," or "psychological problems," to do what they do. If these or anything else made people do what they do it would contradict the fact they have the ability and necessity to choose what they do. Human beings either have the ability to choose and must choose all they do (which they do), or they do not have that ability and are subject to controls and forces they neither understand or can control (which is insanity), but it cannot be both.

Maintain Word Precision All of our thinking is by means of words used to make statements, ask questions, and form judgments. It is not really the words we use to think with, but the ideas the words represent. For example, the thought, "he returned to his domicile," and the thought, "he returned to his home," are the same thought, though they use a different word for the "idea" represented by "domicile" in the first sentence, and "home," in the second. The thought is not about the words "domicile" or "home" but the idea they represent, "where one lives."

If every true statement is an assertion about some fact that must conform to or agree with reality we must know clearly and specifically what facts of reality our words represent. If I think, "water is transparent," but only have a vague, "I kinda know what it means" idea for the word transparent, my thought cannot be true. Facts of reality are exactly what they are, nothing is "kinda like" anything, and to "kinda know" something is to not know it at all.

If we are to think clearly all the words we use must be precisely and unambiguously defined and understood, and we must know exactly what every word we use identifies.

Distinguish Facts from Feelings We can think about feelings, but feelings and clear thinking cannot be mixed, and most people get the relationship between feelings and thinking mixed up.

Our feelings are reactions to what we are conscious of. Those feelings we call our emotions, as well as most of our desires, are reactions to our thinking and our beliefs, especially those beliefs that constitute our values—what we hold as the good, important, and sacred, and of course their opposites, what we regard as evil, irrelevant, and contemptible.

This is obvious in those cases where two individuals with totally different values observe the same event and have totally different emotional reactions. A hunter will have a totally different emotional reaction when seeing a animal shot from the reaction of someone who despises hunting or anything that harms animals. It is obvious it is each individual's own values and thoughts that are the reason for the emotions they experience, not the events themselves. This frequent difference in emotional reaction to the same facts illustrates that emotional reactions are determined by what we think and believe, not, as is commonly held, that what we think and believe is determined by our feelings and emotions.

Almost everything we have strong feelings about we first had to learn about before we could have any feelings at all concerning them. Children do not usually fear things, like animals, snakes, or insects, until they have learned something about them. Most of the food we like best we could have no desire for until we learned what they are, and in most cases, what they actually taste like. Whatever we ultimately choose to do for a career, we never could have had a desire for until after we have learned such a career is possible.

People's feelings about war are usually very strong, but what they feel will depend on what they know about war and what they think about it. Those who think it is some kind of noble enterprise in defense of their country will have feelings of patriotism and perhaps pride in their thoughts of war, while those who believe war is pointless killing and mass destruction may feel nothing but revulsion and anger at the thought of war. Obviously, it is not one's feelings about war that determine their view of war, much less which view is the correct one. It is their views that determine their feelings, and only reason can determine which view is the correct one.

This, however, is exactly the mistake most people make about their feelings and their thinking. Most people make judgments about what is right and wrong based on what they feel is right and wrong; they decide what is important based on what feels important. This is all backward, of course; our feelings and emotions have no way of evaluating things, or determining what is right or wrong or important.

Our feeling that a thing is right should, and usually will, follow from our judgment that a thing is right based on our values; and our feeling that a thing is important should, and usually will, follow from our rational evaluation of a thing's importance, based on our principles.

Feelings may or may not agree with our thinking, however. Thinking that is made to agree with feeling is always wrong. When our thinking and our feelings disagree, if we are to think clearly, we must identify the feelings as mistaken, and persist in our correct thinking. Amazingly, it will be discovered, our feelings will begin to agree with our thinking, as they must, because it is our thoughts and beliefs that determine them.

Know How You Know There is one question we must always ask ourselves whenever our thinking begins with something we believe we already know, "how do I know this is true?" Is it based on clear reasoning from facts I already know, or is it something else that convinces me I know something, such as a feeling, or the assumption "that everyone knows it," or "it's what I've always believed," or "some authority says so?" Every assumed truth that is not based on clear reasoning from known facts is a mistake in reasoning, and usually follows the line of a logical fallacy.

Whatever we base our thinking on is called a "premise." A person whose premises are based on anything other than objective (reasoned from the facts) principles and knowledge, is certain to reason incorrectly. Whenever one's reasoning leads to a contradiction, for example, it is usually one's premises that are mistaken.

Even when one has developed good clear thinking habits, it is still easy to have our thinking go wrong. There are lists of what are called, "informal fallacies," which just means "mistakes in thinking." Most informal fallacies pertain to "logical arguments," but since the main purpose of clear thinking is not to win arguments, but to be certain the ideas we hold are true and our own thinking is correct, I'll mention only those fallacies that are most likely to affect our own thinking.

Truth based on authority alone. No one decides what is true. Truth is determined by reality, and must be discovered by reference to reality alone. An authority or expert might be able to point to the facts of reality that determine a truth, but no truth can be established merely on the testimony of any so-called expert or authority. If you believe anything is true only on the basis of some authority, you do not know if what you believe is true or not, and cannot know it until you understand how that truth can be established based on the facts of reality.

Truth based on consensus or popularity. No truth can be established on the basis of how many people believe or agree with it. There is no reason why the entire world might not believe something is true that is not. In the past, this has been the case. Perhaps not the whole world, but at least most of it at one time believed the world was flat.

There is only one basis for truth which is reality itself, and if you know what is true, based on reality, even if you are the only one in the world who knows it, you do know it.

Truth based on custom, tradition, or culture. It is usually truth about what is right or wrong to do that is based in this mistaken assumption. "It's what we've always done," or "it is the accepted way," or "it is our tradition or culture to do things this way." An exaggerated version of this is sati or suttee, the Indian tradition in which a widowed Hindu woman is thrown on her husband's funeral pyre, now outlawed in India, but still sometimes practiced. Nothing is the right or wrong way of doing anything based solely on what has always been done. The right thing to do can only be known by reference to reality and facts that determine the objective principles that must be met to achieve one's chosen objectives.

The stolen (or smuggled) concept. This particular kind of bad thinking is not something most people would do on their own, but are likely to have their own thinking infected with by those who teach them, especially in higher academic environments.

It is called a "stolen" or "smuggled" concept because some supposed truth or question is asserted based on an assumed concept which is not stated, but if stated would contradict the asserted truth or question. The assumed concept is used without being acknowledge, therefor is stolen, or "smuggled in," as in the following example:

"How do you know," the professor gravely intones, "you are not a butterfly dreaming you are a man?" It is mind boggling that those who call themselves educators are taken in by this kind of sophistry. It is an example of conceptual grand theft. If a question means anything, one must know what the words used to form the question mean. It is assumed (smuggled in) one knows what a "man" is, what a "butterfly" is, what a "dream" is, and what "knowing" is. If all of these are known, there is no question; if any of these are not known, the question has no meaning. If you are to think clearly, you must never allow yourself to be taken in by any of this kind of academic sophistry. [If this "riddle" really bothers you, butterflies are not concerned with such questions, only men are, so you are a human. It is doubtful the professor is, however.]

Increase Your Knowledge If we know what truth is, never allow any contradictions in our thinking, are always careful to know exactly what the words we use mean, never allow feelings to determine our thoughts, and never make any fallacious assumptions, but know how we know things, our thinking will be clear, but without one more thing, it will inadequate.

One good thing that was common, even in government schools, a scant 60 years ago, was something called "word problems" in mathematics. Each year as new mathematical concepts were added beginning with numbers and counting, then addition, subtraction, simple division, long division, fractions, decimals, and exponents, students were given word problems which described situations that would require mathematics to solve. Word problems required the student to "figure out" what mathematical functions would be required to solve the problem and then to actually perform those functions. In other words, the students were required to think, and if they thought correctly they would get the right answer, and if they thought incorrectly, they would get the wrong answer.

The example of word problems is an example of what all thinking is—using what we have learned and know to form and answer questions.

A Word Problem
Harry needs to buy flooring for his new den. The flooring material is sold in one foot squares. Harry's new den is 20 feet long. Half the length of the den is 12 feet wide and half is 16 feet wide. How many squares of flooring will Harry need to buy?

To solve this problem a student must already know how to compute the area of a rectangle, which normally is length times the width. But there are two different widths, one width for half the length, and another width for the other half. To solve the problem the student may think, "there are two rectangles, one 10 by 12 and another 10 by 16. Computing the area for each and adding them together (120 plus 160) will give me the total area (280)." Another student might think, "since exactly half the length of the room is 12 feet wide, and the other half 16 feet wide, the average width of the whole room is half of 12 plus 16 or 14 feet, so the total area is 20 times 14 feet or 280 square feet." The second solution requires more knowledge than the first, because it requires knowledge of averages, and the fact that an average width may be multiplied by a length to compute a total area. A student who did not know about averages would not be able to think of the second solution.

So thinking requires knowledge which is used to answer questions or solve problems, and lack of knowledge limits the scope of our thinking. In addition to the illustration this example makes for the necessity of knowledge to thinking, it illustrates two other important points:

The "facts" of reality to which truth refers, do not have to be physical facts, but any kind of facts. For example, the necessity of knowledge to thinking is itself a fact of reality, the reality of the nature of thinking, though none of these, "knowledge," "necessity," or "thinking," are physical.

The other point our example illustrates is that there is frequently more than one way to think correctly and arrive at the correct conclusions. What determines whether our thinking is correct or not, is whether one's conclusion is true, and it is truly the thinking that led to that conclusion.

We have identified six things that must be observed if our thinking is to be clear and correct, but we need to look at one more thing before we really know what thinking is.

It's All About Choice

No matter what else we are doing, we are always thinking. Even when we are doing other things mentally, we are thinking as well, because everything we do as human beings we must consciously choose to do. Of course we do not choose those physiological actions like reflexes and the animal functions which occur more-or-less automatically, but everything else we do, from eating a meal to composing a symphony, as well as thinking itself, we must choose to do, and every choice we make, we must first think that choice, before we can make it.

It does not always seem that we think about everything we do, because some things become more or less automated. If you have learned to touch type, for example, you do not have to explicitly think about each key you strike, but will be conscious of a missed keystroke and can take complete conscious (thoughtful) control of your typing at any time. Except for those kinds of action which we have habitualized, before we can choose to do something, we must first be conscious of the choice, that is, we must have it in our mind as a thought.

If we are thirsty and choose to take a bottle of milk out of the frig and pour ourselves a drink, we must first think, "I'd like a glass of milk," then, implicitly, if not explicitly, "open the refrigerator, take the milk bottle out, close the refrigerator," then actually perform those "thought" actions. Before we actually perform the action, however, we have to mentally assent to the thought action, which is the actual, "choosing," to do them, but we might just as well, mentally not assent to the "thought" action, perhaps because of a new thought, "I think I would rather have a glass of water."

This mental dialog is typical. We carry on a continuous conversation with ourselves, which is very much like talking to ourselves (only silently), and that continuous conversation is thinking. Notice that even what we think about is a matter of choice, because every thought we have suggests others which we either choose to move on to, or choose to ignore.

Because we are human beings, everything we do is by choice, and ultimately everything we achieve and become as human beings is the direct consequence of our choices. Thinking or "reasoning" is our only means of determining what choices are right. If we do not take extreme care to insure all our thinking is clear and correct, we are preventing ourselves from being all we can be to enjoy life to the fullest.


Our enjoyment of life is directly experienced emotionally, but for many, the emotional experience is not one of joy and happiness, but a kind suffering. Bad emotional experiences are not causeless, but the direct result of those things we think, believe, choose, and do.

If our thinking is muddled, or our choices based on feeling and whim and we have no certain foundation for what we believe and think, our emotions will be equally muddled and erratic, often experienced as baseless fears, impulsiveness, confusion, and chronic depression.

Since it is our own thinking that is the cause of our emotional turmoil, the solution is to correct our thinking.

The objective of our thinking is truth which will provide us with an understanding of reality and make us able to deal with it. Truth consists of all statements about anything which conforms to or agrees with the facts of reality. We must know what truth really is.

Nothing can be both true and false, there are no paradoxes, and every contradiction means something we think or believe is not true. We must seek out every contradiction we hold, explicitly or implicitly, and determine how to correct it.

Since words are the tools of our thinking, our thinking can only be correct and clear if the words we used are correctly defined and clearly understood. We must eliminate all vague or fuzzily defined words, or learn what the precise meanings of our words are.

The facts of reality are what they are, no matter what we feel about them or what we desire concerning them. We must never let feeling interfere with our clear objective reasoning.

If what we base our thinking on is just assumed, if we do not know how or why what be believe is true, if it is just what everyone believes or some authority claims, we can never be sure our thinking is correct. We must know that what we base our thinking on is the truth, determined by the facts of reality.

Knowledge is both what we think about and what we think with. The only limit to our thinking is the limits of our knowledge. We must learn all we possibly can about ourselves and the world we live in for our thinking to be all it possibly can be.