Thinking is like Falling in Love

Filed under: thinking, philosophy, how-to-think

I often find myself thinking about 'what I think about' and the irregular periods of intense engagement versus a general indifference associated with any given topic. I've tried to mentally model this dynamics in various ways (sinusoidal - maybe its just an up and down kind of thing?, diffusion - do I gradually bleed out from one idea to another?) but have never quite been able to put a finger on it. There are too many irregularities, too uneven of intervals between one engagement versus another.

Then I came across a piece by Paul Griffith that presented another analogy: falling in love.

"The first requirement is that you find something to think about. This may be easy to arrive at, or almost impossibly difficult. It’s something like falling in love. There’s an infinite number of topics you might think about, just as there’s an almost infinite number of people you might fall in love with. But in neither case is the choice made by consulting all possibilities and choosing among them. You can only love what you see, and what you see is given, in large part, by location and chance. Among those you see are some you love; and among them, perhaps, is some particular one with whom you’d like your life to be intertwined. So with topics for thought. Your gaze is drawn, a flirtation begins, you learn more, you find some interlocutors, and, sometimes before you know it, your topic is before you and your intellectual course is set. There’s no algorithm for this: It’ll happen or it won’t."
   — Paul Griffith

It'll happen or it won't - there's no algorithm. It may seem like a cop-out (we are modeling by non-modeling?) but our intuitive understanding of 'love' and how the properties of location, exposure, timing, and intensity affect it give us a mental model of how to think about 'topic selection' around those same properties.

I saw it again in a slightly different way in a quote by C.S. Lewis:

“Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love.”
   — C.S. Lewis

Then the model came up again in a more involved way when I was reading an interview of Alan Jacobs:

"You know what it’s like to be around people who share your core convictions… and yet you can’t stand to be around them. In one sense, they’re your “in” group, in another sense, it’s like, “When can I leave this party?” It can be stultifying. And it closes you off to spend all your time around people who may be like-minded, but whose spirit is unhealthy. They’re just not fun people to be around.

I started thinking about the fact that back when Twitter was more or less inhabitable by human beings (some years ago), I met a number of people on Twitter, including [you], and then at one point I decided it was just getting too poisonous, but I didn’t want to lose all those friends, so I made a private Twitter account.

There’s about 100 people there. When I was deciding who do I want to be talking with on social media, I realized it wasn’t necessarily the people who agreed with me about all of my religious beliefs or political beliefs. What I wanted was people who were generous. And kind. And caring. And thoughtful. So that when I said something, they would think about it, rather than just simply react.

That’s how I chose my company on social media. I chose to be around people whose disposition and whose character I found trustworthy. So that when I’m with them, I feel good about being in their presence. And I don’t always feel good about being in the presence of people who might, you know, if you made a list of 100 core beliefs, they might line up more, but they’re just not people I want to spend much time with.

I really think that matters. If you trust in the character and the generosity of people, one of the things you can do is you can take risks in your thinking a little bit. You can say, “Hey, I’m not sure about this, let me try this idea out on you.” You can count on them giving you an honest but also charitable response. If you can find a body of people like that… you’re incredibly blessed. It’s a fantastic thing to have. Not everybody has that. When you do have it, it not only makes you a happier person, I think it makes you a better thinker, as well."
   — Alan Jacobs

Jacobs separates the 'like-minded' from the 'like-hearted' - like-hearted being those who think the way you think vs. those who think what you think . In the last paragraph, he describes generous people, charitable people, honest people, people whose character you trust - isn't he describing a kind of 'love'? A love that's not bound up by an 'in-group' topic set, but by a 'spirit of engagement'. I think the people Jacobs is talking about are people who tend to view the process of 'thinking' less rigidly and more as 'falling in love'.

I 'love so-and-so author/thinker' takes on a more specific meaning under this model - it doesn't mean I agree with them, or that I necessarily admire them holistically, or even that I remotely believe in their claims.. it simply means there is something about their 'methods' of thinking that resonates with me. Perhaps this only applies to the way I engage curiosity but I've long given up building up profiles of thinkers based on their content - I measure them more and more on the spirit that Jacobs talks about. I have found again and again that if I find a like-hearted thinker, more often than not, the next topic that I will fall for is right around the corner. In that sense, maybe like love, the choice of thinking is also somewhat blind - to me, this is a nice thought.

Montaigne is someone who I often return to for his attitude towards learning:

"Off I go, rummaging about in books for sayings which please me."
   — Montaigne

Maybe in today's polarized, echo chamber-ish times, we all should adopt a little Montaigne in our life and go rummaging about to find something to think about.

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