There is a kind of criticism that I often hear applied to myself and those I respect. It comes in many forms, but the most common is that I “think too much.” This typically is the result of my being unwilling to yield to some issue concerning a particular piece of woo or pseudoscience, though it comes about at other times as well. The episode that served as the impetus for this particular post was the result of someone asking me a series of questions on a board I frequent. Specifically, “Why are you so rational all the time? Is it fun being you? Are you a happy person? I was walking my dog today and thinking life has no meaning and at that moment a man walked by and said ‘reptilian’, and it reminded me of the Montauk Project, what do you think of that?” I responded the best I could, and afterward I was told that I am guilty of the flaw at issue now: “You think too much.”
It seems important to distinguish the accusation from what it most certainly is not, a different kind of issue that could be described as “thinking too much.” It does seem possible that someone could spend so much time thinking about some issue that it prevents them from ever acting. We could think of this as the Hamlet issue. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet spends so much time worrying about what he should do that he fails to do anything at all. This is a standard reading, and, indeed, it seems fair to say that Hamlet thinks too much. That said, it doesn’t seem that this is the flaw of which I was accused in the above quote, and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing of which so many others who hear similar laments are considered guilty either. The charge levied against those who demand evidence and good reason in general seems to be of a different sort.
So, what does it mean to suggest that someone thinks too much? What exactly is the vice in considering issues carefully and weighing out evidence? Honestly, I can’t see it. As such, it seems to me that there is something else at issue, and it is now that I’ll suggest that there is a defensive tone to the charge being levied. In that light, I think the accusing party likely feels under attack from the accused, or they feel some sort of guilt themselves at not wanting to give up ideas for which there is no rational defense. Along with the particular version of this assertion now under consideration, we often hear questions like “What’s the harm in believing X?”* When characterized in that way, it becomes more clear that the issue at hand isn’t “You think too much about this,” but, instead, is “I don’t like that you’re pointing out my irrationality.”
I want to be explicit about this: Unless you’re suffering from some Hamlet-like issue, I don’t think there is any way to too carefully consider arguments and issues. As I have suggested in an earlier post, I think we are morally obligated to believe only those things for which we have good reason. To that end, we are obligated to seriously and carefully consider the reasons that ground any belief so as to be able to determine which ones are good and which ones fall short of that. I think I should think long and hard about the arguments presented to me, and, because of this, there is no vice in thinking “too much.” On the contrary, it is a virtue, and, as such, I will take it as a compliment when the “criticism” is levied against me.
*Though I won’t take the time here, it might be interesting for my readers to check out www.whatstheharm.net. This site spell out explicit harms from believing nonsense.