THINKING. We’ve all heard the word, particularly when we did stupid things as kids and our parents told us to “think!”. Yet we never really stopped to think about what it actually is, leading us to sort of know, sort of not know what it means.
Thinking is a mental process whereby you turn your sensory observations into knowledge useful for getting the things of value for your life. As such it’s our means of survival and most important value. It’s what allowed us to evolve from the caves to modern civilization, and enables us to invent and obtain what we need to live comfortable lives.
Despite thinking’s importance, however, prior to 2011 what we actually do when we think had been poorly understood. Even though parts of the human thinking process have been known for thousands of years (since Plato and Aristotle), the entire process was not yet known. Consequently thinking’s proponents couldn’t teach it formally and explicitly, forcing people to “pick it up” implicitly to varying degrees. (This is why most people have only a vague idea what it means.) Finally, from 2011 onward the human thinking process has been completely understood, allowing it to be formally taught for the first time.
So what’s the nature of this newly understood human thinking process? First, thinking is not an end in itself that we do for the fun of it; it’s a means to an end. That end is to achieve a value. Values, properly defined, are the things of value for our lives that make us happy. For humans, values include both necessities for living as well as things that may not be necessary but make life more enjoyable. Food, clothing, housing, employment, education, camaraderie, appreciation from others for the good one does, good health, financial security, leisure, romantic love, children, consumer goods, a good credit rating and lots of other things are all human values. This is the correct meaning even though the term is used loosely to mean beliefs and virtues in addition to true, proper values.
Values have to be real. For example to get nutrition you have to eat real food, not imaginary food. Values can be concrete objects like food or clothing, or abstract things like friendship, financial solvency, or contract rights. What they can’t be, however, is something arbitrary or harmful like scams, crimes or snake oil. (They can’t just be anything someone wants simply because he subjectively wants it, either; they have to have some objective benefit for human life. They have to make people happy, not merely satisfied.)
The thinking process starts when we observe things with our five senses: vision, hearing, physical feeling, smell, and taste. But just the observations are of no help if we forget them. The second step of the process is therefore consciously acknowledging what we observe. For example, when we’re looking at a red sofa, conscious acknowledgment means we don’t just gaze passively; we see it and in our minds say “there’s a red sofa”.
When we consciously acknowledge what we observe, we do it (as I just did) with words. Words are visual or audio symbols for things we observe (and for abstractions that are derived from the things we observe) that have significance for our values. There are two types of words: proper nouns, which stand for one unique thing, and concepts, which stand for one or more things of a particular type (e.g., “dog” is a concept, while Fido is a proper noun. Or, for something more abstract, “decedent’s estate” is a concept, and “the estate of Herbert Wilens” is a proper noun). There are several different types of concepts: nouns, which stand for entities; verbs, for actions; adjectives, for characteristics of entities; adverbs, for characteristics of actions; prepositions; pronouns; articles; conjunctions; and interjections.
We then string words together to accurately describe the facts of reality. Since values have to be real, to get them we therefore have to understand reality. In particular, we need to understand the facts relevant to our values. Then, we integrate those facts where they fit together to build contexts relevant to our values. The context of a value is simply all the facts relevant to that value, integrated together with all the deductive and inductive conclusions that can be drawn from them. The purpose of a context is to tell us if a particular value is attainable and, if so, how. You achieve the value by figuring out how to get it from the context.
To show how thinking works I’ll use a very simple example. The value I want is a bowl of a certain brand of cereal with milk. I have milk but ran out of the cereal. From this I can deductively infer that, if I want the cereal I have to buy more but I don’t have to buy milk. There are two grocery stores in my neighborhood that sell cereal: Walmart and Hy-Vee. Hy-Vee has the brand I want and Walmart doesn’t. From this I can infer that to buy more of that cereal brand I have to go to Hy-Vee. This is about the extent of the context relevant to getting the value of the bowl of cereal. From it, I can figure out what to do: go to Hy-Vee and buy the cereal, come home, get the milk from the fridge, and bon appetit.
Of course throughout history humans have used thinking to solve problems much bigger than this. Building skyscrapers, fighting and winning wars, inventing medicines, managing large companies, going to the moon and coming back safely, writing software programs and other such things involve creating huge contexts through extensive research uncovering and integrating thousands of relevant facts. Basically, however, the process used to get the end value is the same, as described previously.
What thinking isn’t: following emotions blindly. Unlike sensory perceptions, emotions are not infallible. Many people think sensory perception is fallible, but that’s actually not true. The senses never lie. What “lies”, in a manner of speaking, is our recall of what we observed. We don’t remember all the thousands of little details in what we observe; we just remember the significant things. But the observations themselves, as long as our sensory organs are functional (i.e., we’re not blind or deaf), are always correct.
This isn’t true for emotions. Our emotions aren’t the result of reality but rather what we think of it. And what we think about reality can be incorrect. Everyone at least every now and then fails to remember something and comes to a wrong conclusion. So, our emotions can be the result of something incorrect. If we want to act on our emotions, then, we need to introspect to examine what ideas are causing the emotions we’re feeling, and see if those ideas jibe with the facts of reality. If they don’t, we have to discount the emotion as arbitrary and not worth following. If they do, then we can proceed. But, of course, to introspect and compare our ideas to reality requires – you guessed it – thinking.
If people learn the thinking process our lives will be much happier overall and our future a whole lot brighter. Recently on television there’s been no shortage of bad news: political corruption, disease, violence, international conflicts. It’s bad enough to depress anyone and make us all wonder where we’re headed. And beyond the headlines things aren’t so great either. Way too many people are suffering in bad relationships, or from depression, substance abuse, and economic hardship. To solve these problems and take back the future, we have to think. Now that we know how, let’s get started and fix things.

Author's Bio: 

Gray Seele is a philosopher and attorney. He is the author of “YOU CAN THINK and be (Really!) Happy”, the first complete statement of the human thinking process ever. His website is