The Seven Sins of Modern Thinking

The-ThinkerThere are seven sin in modern thinking that have emerged in recent years. To my mind, these holes are as damaging to society as the logical fallacies of old (and still include some of them) as they taunt us with irrational thought and judgment that leads to bad decision-making.

They Include:

1) Systems cannot be changed:

The idea that systems cannot be changed has a short history (because before that point, history would substantiate that systems can be changed, and therefore invalidate the proposition).

Despite the obvious falsehood of this claim, the cliche of “that’s the way the world works” has become a dominant means of expressing resistance to change. The idea that the world “works” in any particular way is a falsehood, except in the case of the natural sciences. Other than that small area most of what we talk about are human systems that can change, have changed, and will change in the future. Any idea that human systems are stagnant or cannot change whatsoever can be disproven with a quick glance through history:


  • Money (in silver and gold coins) can be dated back to 600-650 BC. Before this point barter systems were the largely ubiquitous means of transaction.
  • The modern employment system came to fruition after the Industrial Revolution. Prior to this point, it was much more common to have craftsmen working in small teams, as opposed to large transnational organisations.
  • The 10 hour work day only began after a series of labour protests in mills in the Americas in the mid-to-late 1800s, followed by the introduction of the 8 hour day at Ford in 1914.


2) The Refusal to Admit “I Don’t Know”:

In modern day life we are viewed as idiotic if we admit that we do not know exactly what we are talking about. In common parlance we are told to “take a stab at the answer”, “have a guess” or “have a go at it”. In performance tests (at school, university and work) we are given a zero if we leave a space blank, instead of being rewarded for acknowledging our individual lack of knowledge. Politicians are condemned if they utter the words “I don’t know” in interviews, and are instead expected to duck and weave around the utterance of the phrase. This is all very unusual, given that several of our most celebrated, enlightened thinkers of the past have insisted that we should admit our fallibility, our ignorance, flaws, etc and that these admissions are the key to acquiring wisdom.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius
“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates


3) Confirmation Bias:

In argumentation lessons we are taught that we can win an argument by providing our opponents with more information.

“We might call [this] the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, the thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.”

However, this idea that we simply need to provide “more information” to win an argument has recently been disproven. The reality is that, when we are dealing with a particularly sensitive issue (as in politics, religion and so on) “our reasoning becomes rationalizing.” We can start making huge mistakes of logic and rationality at an almost subconscious level (a form of mental gymnastics) to try and avoid agreeing with evidence that is placed before us. Equally so, we start defending our propositions as if they are actually ours (our babies; our ideas). Instead of admitting that we got something wrong, we’ll defend what we got wrong till the end. We also tend to seek out news sources that we already agree with, rather than seeking out news that challenges our views.

Yet the whole purpose of human knowledge is to get to the truth. Hence, as much as possible we must avoid confirmation bias.

As J.S. Mill says:

“In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious.”


4) Generalisations:

When we generalize we take leaps in logic and rationality based upon very little evidence. The worst kind of generalization, therefore, is a generalization based upon a single instance. Where we have encountered something to be one way once, and proceed to argue that it is one way always.

Generalizations are dangerous because they lack the requisite contestation against opposing evidence that any mind would admit to be necessary to form a conclusive judgment. A single shred of evidence to the contrary of any generalization should  bring it crashing down upon our heads. Yet too often we deny any such evidence exists, or never look for it.

When we are confronted by it, we squirm, and try to deny it’s validity or ignore it altogether. Too often confirmation bias gets in the way. We especially remember the red traffic lights, when 60% of the lights were green.




5) Irrelevant Specialisation of Thought:

I recently wrote an article about the “death of the intellectual,” a profession that has rapidly been replaced by the modern irrelevant expert.

William Deresiewicz summarises: When students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.”

The problem with modern academia is that the depth of thought has shrunk, so that people are willing to weigh in on topics at a very shallow level. When they are willing to invest time and energy, they invest it in a niche: an area that they can cover comprehensively.

This results in a lack of general, deep and meaningful engagement on worldwide issues. The reality is that you do not have to be an expert to consider some of the biggest problems in the world, rather, you need to have an engaged and enquiring mind.

As Bertrand Russel states in his Preface to his History of Western Philosophy:

“If… books covering a wide field are to be written at all, it is inevitable, since we are not immortal, that those who write such books should spend less time on any one part than can be spent by a man who concentrates on a single author or a brief period.”



6) What’s good for the economy…

The recent thought along the lines of “we should only ever make decisions that benefit the economy”, would leave a gaping hole in several fields, and tends to lead to a stripping back of resources given thereto.

There are some areas that do not contribute to the economy whatsoever. Philosophy is probably one of them. There are certain areas of our life (art, music, philosophy, religion) where we get immense personal joy and satisfaction, but which do not enrich us much in a financial sense.

There must be some recognition, brave as it may be, that certain areas of our life will probably have a net negative effect on the economy. (Having kids and not working as long has a negative effect on the economy). But these decisions may enrich us personally on a more individual level.

If I decide not to go to work one day, and go on a stroll through the parks, beaches or other beautiful places of our city (and in doing so get wrenched back from negative feelings I may have experienced in my work life), then that activity, though useless in an economic sense, is profoundly meaningful in a personal sense.

The strict view of all humans as rational economic actors is akin to a lapse of thought (which is why I include it here), because those who state as much would never enjoy music, theatre, art, religion, philosophy or any other activities of no and low economic value, if they wish to prove their point. Since they do enjoy these activities, they are revealed to be base hypocrites, with very little insight into how humans actually function.


7) The Implication that the Young Have Nothing to Contribute Until they “Pay their Dues”

Often implying that the “young” can do nothing until they are 30 or over. Easily disproven:

Mozart. Zuckerberg. Alexander Graham Bell. Galileo. Nietzche. Keynes. James Joyce.

Need I continue…