Think for Yourself?

Thinking, like learning, is a distributed human activity. Don't try to do it all by yourself.

It’s fascinating how vehemently people cling to the words of some clowns and charlatans — clowns and charlatans who also preach, “Don’t follow blindly! Don’t be sheep! Question people who claim authority! Think for yourselves!”

I suspect the paradox boils down to this: A timeless trick for duping people into following you is to convince them that someone else is trying to dupe them.

Arouse enough distrust of “the other” and it seems like people will believe whatever you say. Distrust is powerful and, like jealously, it’s prone to self-fulfillment. You just need to nudge the ball to get it rolling and the innate need for group affiliation does the rest.

I think this is how slogans like “Think for yourself” get turned into cultish mantras that signal, “We ‘thought’ our way the truth,” and, by extension, for the leader, “I have shown you the way.”

I suspect this may be why “Think for yourself” is so often parroted — to no ironic end — by people who, it appears, have either stopped thinking altogether or who are hellbent on convincing other people to think like they do.

You have good reason to suspect anyone who begins their pitch with the implicit suggestion that you are not already a thinking person. We might consider “Think for yourself” as a camouflaged insult; a sleight of hand intending to inflict an invisible blow of self-doubt.

In reality, I don’t think for myself. My ideas, thoughts, instincts, heuristics — these are evolved, socially constructed, and, if they have any human meaning beyond myself, culturally distributed in some way. I can only think because others think. Thinking is an interdependency.

Convincing yourself that you are a preeminent brain in a vacuum is the first critical error on the way to believing just about any other nonsense. You are left with nothing and no one external to falsify whatever some attention-seeking poser wants to put in your head.

Case in point: telling a brainwashed cult member to think for themselves is pointless. They are already convinced they are thinking for themselves, hence their steadfast allegiance to the cult. They need access to other brains — different brains — not more of their own brain.

So, as an individual, I actually need more people to think for me. Pretending I’m an autonomous brain is the precursor to swallowing the prepackaged ideas of a shyster. I don’t want to forego the buffet of knowledge in the distributed brain of humanity for one person’s snake oil.

The point here is not that we ought to abandon critical thinking. I trust and hope this is obvious. But I think we ought to be equally critical of people who say, “Think for yourself” as we are of those who say, “Let me think for you.” They might be closely related.

(This post is also published as a Twitter thread.)

Curated Responses

@jamesshelley What a really great post. I truly believe that just like The Borg from the Star Trek universe, humanity also has a certain collective consciousness of its own.

"I can only think because others think. Thinking is an interdependency." Always grateful for the thinking of James Shelley.

— Masked Paul Seale (@PaulSeale2) September 7, 2021

Great thread on the downsides (yes, more than one) of "think for yourself"

— isabella mori (@moritherapy) September 3, 2021