Thinking in the Age of the Sound Byte

Rene Descartes, a seventeenth century philosopher, spent a lot of time thinking about "the problem of error." If God is perfect and good and makes things that work well and are true (which he established in an earlier section), then why does anyone ever get things wrong? Why does anyone ever believe something false? His answer is basically this: people get things wrong because they jump to conclusions before they've thought things through. The problem, Descartes insists, isn't with God—he is perfectly good and true, so he never sends us mixed signals or tries to deceive us. And the problem can't be with our mental abilities, because God made all of that and God doesn't make things that don't work. So clearly, Descartes reasoned, the problem lies with us not using what God has made. Put simply, Descartes thinks that people get things wrong because they speak before they think.

I'm curious as to what Descartes would say about Twitter. Social media, from the "status update" to the hash-tagged instagram photo, asks us to share our thoughts quickly and regularly. But my quick and regular thoughts are rarely helpful for me, let alone anyone else. Some think that we are at our most honest when we are unfiltered—and that may be true—but we are certainly not at our most loving, our most helpful, or our most cogent. The idea that naked honesty trumps all is relatively new to human culture, and growing fast. Descartes would say that naked honesty is just selfishness in different clothes. (Yes, he would say naked honesty is actually still dressed). Revealing yourself and loving others is about thinking things through, not spouting off. And thinking things through requires a lot of silence before clicking "Share this" and leaving a comment.

What's more, our society at large now encourages argument by sound-byte. Politicians and special interest groups run on slogans, not essays: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," "War is not the answer." In the public square, articles abound with titles like: "This Chart Perfectly Sums Up What's Wrong With __________" or "One Sentence That Destroys The Arguments For __________." Even a friendly discussion about a controversial issue often devolves into trading sound-bytes back and forth.

While it's helpful to summarize ideas into concise phrases and sentences, we have to be careful. We don't want our beliefs determined by something that fits on a bumper sticker. These kind of sound-bytes are guaranteed to not represent complicated issues very well—at best, they give a clear picture of one piece of a complex puzzle. If we are basing our beliefs about a political or religious topic on arguments that can be summed up in 140 characters, Descartes would say we haven't been thinking very well. When all our trains of thought are just an engine and a caboose, something has gone wrong.

Christian Thinking
Christians are commanded to love God and others with our mind. Careful thinking— the kind that values true statements over pithy statements—is necessary to love. In other words, if you really love others then your train of thought will have plenty of railway cars in it.

This means Christians are required to be thoughtful. We listen quickly and speak slowly. We seek to understand others on their own terms. We are never sloppy with our reasoning if we can help it. And we are never more concerned with airing our opinion than with expressing the love of Christ.

Have an opinion on politics as a Christian? It can take you one sentence to state it, but it should take you several paragraphs to fully explain it—and that should be the simple version. Want to talk about social policy as a Christian? Your reasoning should require an essay, not a status update. Matt Kleinhans says, "every opinion we can put into 140 characters should have 20,000,000 characters of thought underneath it."

This kind of thinking can be overwhelming. That's because these are overwhelming topics that require sustained thought, chastened conclusions, and a willingness to listen even after forming an opinion.

The solution isn't that Christians only speak in essay form. Comment away, in person and on social media, with a clean conscience—so long as you've thought carefully and rigorously before you do. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry not just in the moment but as you approach each topic.

Sin, the Gospel, and Thinking Well
The Bible tells us that Descartes didn't go far enough when it comes to human error. We don't believe wrong things just because we haven't thought hard enough. Scripture says we believe wrong things because sin corrupts our mind as much as our heart. Our ideas are as compromised as our morals.

The redemption we find in Jesus touches both. Just as Christians still sin even as they grow in holiness, Christians still think poorly even as they grow in wisdom. Just as we know that grace covers our moral failures, we know that grace covers our thought failures. And grace that covers is grace that motivates. Both in our moral life and our thought life, forgiven people long to grow.

So how does the Christian think? The gospel tells us that we should always have a healthy humility about our conclusions. We could be wrong about anything but Jesus. And the gospel tells us that we will not be forsaken if we are wrong about anything but Jesus. We are free to think, listen, be quiet, speak up, and love others with our minds, voices, hearts, and strength.

We don't need Descartes to tell us to think harder. We have a firmer foundation, that is full of grace, love, and truth. So let's follow Jesus as we think graciously, lovingly, and carefully.