29 December, 2018

I think writing can help us think better.

Not the act of writing itself, but a particular writing process where you take an idea, think deeply about exactly how you want to express it, and then write it down. I think the process itself provides part of the value, as a form of “brain exercise”, but also the end product, as a foundation upon which we can build more robust ideas.

This post is a funny self-referential exercise where I explore what I’m writing about as I write it.

When I have a thought, I feel pretty confident about it. It seems real and solid and it feels like I understand it. But most of the time this is an illusion. If I try to go deeper and ask myself questions like “Why do you think that?” or “Can you elaborate?” I often find it hard to come up with an answer. When this happens I say my idea lacks ‘substance’ or ‘structure’. There are no justifications or consequences bundled along with the thought; it’s kind of empty. Substance is important for ideas to be meaningful - at best, an insubstantial idea is a platitude, and at worse, outright nonsense. So if I have an idea, I’d like to give it some meaning (or figure out that it is actually as empty as it seems).

If I want to uncover the structure of an idea, I need to think more about it. I need to ask questions and explore perspectives. I’ll have a stack of relevant sub-ideas that all need to be related to the larger idea. If I tried to do all this in my head then I wouldn’t get very far. My working memory is really tiny compared to the ideas I want to tackle. So my first use for writing is as a tool of thought: I can store all my relevant thoughts onto a page and devote my full attention to the particular problem at hand. Sound reasoning is an important component of ‘thinking better’, and writing enables me to devote more attention to that process. Not only can I reason better, but I also have the freedom to reason more, because I can explore more sub-ideas without getting lost. Writing allows me to increase the intensity and volume of reasoning, which seems like it should lead to greater improvement in the area.

In addition to being a personal tool, writing also is used to transfer information between two different minds, and I think being conscious of this is an important part of the process. To me, writing seems like a kind of telepathy. It’s a way to transmit thoughts between minds via a physical medium. But high fidelity transmission isn’t guaranteed just because you wrote something down. We need to put words together in a way that makes it more likely for the telepathy to be successful. I think that to succeed at this sort of language game requires a clear understanding of the subject matter. When you understand what you’re talking about, you can play with the descriptions you use and compare their accuracy, then use the best description in your final work. But if you don’t understand what you’re talking about then there’s not much to measure your words against in the first place. I think that focusing on communication forces us to search for the ‘essence’ of an idea, which further engages our critical thinking abilities.

My hope is that putting all this effort into exploring and refining an idea creates new intellectual opportunities in the future. Kind of like taking blobs of clay and forging them into bricks: if you want to build a tower, you want to start with the foundation and work up, brick by brick. You won’t get very high by stacking clay. Similarly, this writing process might be refining ideas in a way that is necessary to make further intellectual progress, and that without it, there would be a much lower ceiling on what we can achieve.

Having written all this down, I think a summary of this process is: the deliberate practise of organising thought, critical thinking, and effective communication. Writing serves dual purposes: as a tool it enables us to better explore ideas, and treating it as an end in itself requires us to better understand those ideas.