»  National Review Online

August 1st, 2003

  The Importance of Not Thinking Too Much


It is conventional wisdom among soldiers, at any rate in the British army, that a man is no good for combat after the age of 35 because he thinks too much. I suppose that in the particular case of soldiering, and strictly from the actuarial, as opposed to career, point of view, you could argue that thinking too much is therefore a good life strategy. In general, however, it is a bad one. It would not do for the concert pianist to think about every note before he struck it, or for the tennis player to perform a mental exercise in mathematical ballistics before swinging the racquet, or for the courtroom lawyer to carefully ponder the pros and cons of each question before addressing it to the witness.

Recall learning to drive a car, when you actually did have to think through what you were doing: "Depress clutch… OK, bring up slowly while releasing handbrake and depressing gas pedal slightly… look in mirror…" Nowadays, of course, you can perform quite complicated driving maneuvers while simultaneously solving chains of differential equations in your head and singing "Ah, fors' è lui" to your sweetheart in the passenger seat, with proper attention to portamento and messa di voce.

All that is to speak just of mechanical skills, of course; the kind of skills that, after sufficient practice, become incorporated somehow into the higher levels of the nervous system as learned behavior — "artificial instincts." I think some parallel process applies to social skills, habits, and customs, though. Charles Murray remarked in The Corner last week that explicit government or constitutional support for marriage as a heterosexual institution is not necessarily to be welcomed. He cited government support for religion in nations like England and Italy, which has pretty much killed off religion in those places.

I think Charles is right on this. If we have reached the point where we need some government edict or constitutional amendment to tell us what marriage is, we have probably lost the game already. I'd go further. The debate over "gay marriage" has got us all thinking far too much about marriage per se. This is not good for marriage. Marriage is one of those things that works best when people don't think about it too much — or at any rate, too analytically. When I was a wee lad, we had a schoolyard joke that went as follows: "Should a married couple be frank and earnest? Or should one of them be a woman?" This was funny precisely because no-one, in those innocent days, had given a moment's thought to whether one of them should be a woman. The issue was un-thought-about.

Now we are all thinking like crazy about it, and finding that it is not easy to say why marriage ought to be restricted to the union of one man with one woman. Why should not any assemblage of people, of any mix of sexes, in any numbers, mutually contract to share their living quarters, commingle their finances, raise their children, and bequeath their property, in any way they please? Well, I have answers, and I am sure you do too, but we both know that our answers are unpersuasive to a lot of people. As with the mechanical habit of driving a car, the social habit of marriage needs to be internalized when young, and thereafter not thought about too much.

But that, of course, is the pre-postmodern way of doing things. We are all intellectuals today, encouraged to think about everything all the time — think, and analyze, and "deconstruct." Every man a philosopher, all worshippers at the Temple of Reason. Now, reason is certainly a very fine thing. I spent much of 2002 hobnobbing with mathematicians, and I think you will walk a long mile to find someone who has more respect for the power of reason than I have. However, there are regions of life, thought and behavior that are beyond reason's scope, and ought to stay there.

It was, after all, the pursuit of pure reason that led to a crisis in philosophy 250 years ago, when the British empiricists Locke, Berkeley, and Hume took the "deconstruction" of everyday experience as far as it can be taken. The end point of this particular line of inquiry was reached by David Hume, who, after thinking long and hard about mind and matter, came to the conclusion that no such things could possibly exist. Hume then turned and laughed at himself, and at what he had accomplished by all that thinking:

This sceptical doubt … is a malady, which can never be radically cur'd, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away … Carelessness and in-attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader's opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world …

It would be nice if we could get back to that innocent state of society in which things like marriage were not thought about too much, just taken for granted with "carelessness and in-attention." Innocence, unfortunately, is well-known to be a thing that, once lost, is impossible to recapture.

Or perhaps not. In the middle of writing out the above, and intending to proceed to a satisfyingly pessimistic conclusion, I happened to read the August 2003 Notices of the American Mathematical Society. That excellent journal has a review, by math professor Michael Harris, of a book titled Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought, by Serbian-Canadian mathematician-philosopher-novelist Vladimir Tasić. (Trust me, I'm going somewhere with this.) Harris opens his review with an anecdote, a true story about a conversation held in Harris's presence during a math conference in Münster, Germany.

Over a restaurant dinner (Harris tells us), three professional mathematicians resurrected an issue from the great "crisis of foundations" that racked mathematics in the early 20th century — during roughly the period from Russell's paradox (1901) to Gödel's theorem (1931). This "crisis of foundations" arose because mathematicians had begun inquiring into the logical and philosophical underpinnings of their subject, trying to find the fundamental axioms underlying all of math, trying to find unshakeably firm foundations for the process of mathematical proof, asking questions like: "What is a number, really?"

Well, the three diners all expressed different opinions on the issue in question, which is a very crucial one. ("The ontological status of the continuum" — but you don't need to know this to understand my point.) Harris sought to pursue the discussion down into deeper matters… but found that his colleagues did not have the necessary knowledge, and didn't actually care. These foundational issues, though interesting in their own right, and fine for a few casual conversational exchanges over the dinner-table, do not really matter in the day-to-day work of most mathematicians.

My point is that a field of knowledge can endure a "crisis of foundations," in which the most fundamental issues are opened up for inquiry and deconstruction, without causing any permanent harm to the field. Harris's restaurant colleagues were working mathematicians — number theorists, actually — who knew about the "crisis of foundations" and found it mildly, historically, interesting, yet went on with their daily work as if it had never happened.

Perhaps there is hope here. We Americans are going through a "crisis of foundations" of our own right now. Scholars, politicians, pundits, bloggers, and Supreme Court justices are busily deconstructing our most fundamental institutions — marriage, the family, religion, personal responsibility, equality under law. Yet perhaps this will matter as little in the daily lives of Americans a few decades from now, as Russell's paradox and Gödel's theorem matter to working mathematicians in 2003. Perhaps, in other words, we shall come to our senses and stop trying to analyze and deconstruct our society down to the bitter end. Perhaps we shall realize that in order to get on properly with life, as with mathematics, a great many things just need to be taken for granted. Perhaps, like Hume, after arriving at some nihilistic end point of our inquiries, we shall recover our respect for the much neglected, sadly unfashionable virtues of carelessness and inattention.