I started with an article tracing out some of the consequences of defining belief as a disposition to act in a way consistent with that belief being true. I then followed up with an article that implied many of our assertions were not real beliefs, and wrapped up with a contemptuous dismissal of school education.
One can be forgiven for thinking me anti-thought and anti-learning, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I have great love for learning and ideas — probably more so than the average person. Additionally, my contempt of school derives from my love of ideas and learning. The remainder of this article will clarify these points.
Thoughts can be about (among other things) ideas, assertions, mental structures (e.g.: math and logic) and even ways of viewing the world. Some of these are useful and should be retained. Some are useless. Among the useless, some are fulfilling and some painful. The painful should be dropped and the fulfilling should be retained.
This may seem odd. Fulfilling but useless? Why pursue the useless? Let’s start with the following true story.
I had long lacked appreciation for abstract art, preferring the representational. But one day I went to a museum to view some abstract art with an open mind. I viewed quite a few pieces, and some of them moved me. Yet no sooner was I moved than I started wondering. What was the message? What was the subject? What was the point?
Why did this matter? Why was I second-guessing? I was still moved. Yet my constant wondering and second-guessing got in the way of an intrinsically valuable experience.
There are two attitudes to take towards a thing: instrumental or intrinsic. The instrumental attitude takes things as a means to an end. It asks what it is good for, what it means, how it fits in. On the other hand, the intrinsic attitude looks at the thing for its own sake. The problem with the instrumental attitude is that it can block intrinsic appreciation. Look at how my instrumental attitude towards art kept standing in the way. This same attitude applies to the objects of thoughts.
In many ways, thought is a victim of its own success. It has solved many problems and invented many great things. In fact, thought is the reason for humanity’s success. Yet because of its value, one can forget that some mental objects can be intrinsically pleasurable, that there is an aesthetic to ideas and mental structures.
Of the few people who seem capable of appreciating such beautiful things, all too many seem only able to do this if the ideas are true or useful. Yet false and useless ideas can also be beautiful. A beautiful painting or poem need not be true. We do not only eat for sustenance. Why should we only think or pursue thoughts only if they are true or productive?
Which brings me to school. My experience with school has been that it squelches the pleasure of thought. Books are not read for pleasure, but to repeat a pre-determined “interpretation”. Math is done not to explore the structure of objects and inferences, but to parrot a series of fixed steps. In fact, students are forced to show work to prove they did not think. Even music “appreciation” is about only listening to a piece long enough to repeat the term for the movement it represents.
Worse, school drives home an instrumental attitude even when none exists. When students ask about the point of a subject, teachers claim this stuff will have a practical application one day. Never mind that this is false most of the time. Even if it were remotely true, this toxic attitude makes subjects like literature, art and math as a means to an end.
So yes, much of thought is mental gas, but so what? If it fulfills, then that is enough. Why must everything be useful? A thought need not be true to be enjoyed. A beautiful chain of logical inference need not connect with anything “real” to be appreciated for its own sake. A pointless mental exercise can be pursued for the pleasure it gives. The history of ideas can be studied to appreciate the problems that inspired them.
A long time ago, I wrote this article about recreational math; it covers some of the same ground, but specifically on math.
Bertrand Russell’s article on why study philosophy gives one taste of what engagement with ideas can be.
Finally, this essay on the appreciation of abstract art is superb.