Thinking about thinking.
Birds fly without knowledge of aerodynamics while dolphins swim without an understanding of fluid mechanics. Most people think without striving for an insight into what thinking is.
A human can have an incredible variety of thoughts,” about objects, people,places, relationships, abstract concepts,the past, the future, real and imaginary things”. Most thought involve our senses (perceptual) while others are intuitive, involve the deployment of concepts. Thought can be unconscious as it is possible to solve a problem by “sleeping on it’. Thought can outstrip perception, go beyond the naked eye. A thought can occur in isolation and more commonly in sequence in “trains of thought” One thought can lead to another effortlessly as when day-dreaming. Sometimes we will study a subject and organise our thought into more coherent “trains”, using evidence or logic.
There are two competing world views. The first is that thinking requires a non-physical medium, a soul or an immaterial mind. The second, that thought involves only a physical process and there is a correlation between “states of brain and states of thought”. Alcohol entering out bloodstream will effect the way we think and brain damage will effect our ability to think. Therefore, thoughts are caused by physical events.
Humans evolved from animals that did not think, so what changed over time?
Was it the emergence of a non-physical mind or soul or was it physical changes in the make-up of humans? Up to now thoughts have been “essentially private. Advances in brain-coding and the use of fMRI scans has resulted in some success for scientist being able to know what people are thinking by looking at their brain-activity. The extensive preparation needed for these successful experiments and limited results means the physical view of thought has not overwhelmed those who argue for an immaterial mind or soul.
The emergence of language could have differentiated humans from animals. Put a thought into language and it can be critically evaluated. Human society could now evolve as different “communities of thinkers”. People now could by guided by experts and childhood “an apprenticeship in thinking,learning what to think and how to think it”. The thoughts of one generation could be recorded and passed to another. There could be cultural exchange and the evaluation of experiences.
Thinking can be intentional or random. It can be controlled by the application of a rule, as in mathematics. Often, a question can spring to mind and most of the time not a lot happens. Occasionally the unconscious comes forward with something intelligent, no rule has been applied. Mind-wandering, once thought as useless and wasteful is now considered as “normal and a necessary aspect of thought’. Undirected thought can lead to some of the best thinking. Controlling the direction of the thought stream at all times can be counter-productive.
Thought is not “controlled by human perceptual or physical abilities”. “There is no aspect of the world we cannot think about”. If the human thought is part of a biological system there is a chance it is constrained by bugs and blind-spots that exist in all other systems. To the question ” is there a limit to human knowledge it is argued: “If certain thoughts are unthinkable, then we cannot think about it, let alone know it is unthinkable”? But, it is possible to to “know what we do not know” the famous “known unknowns”.Could there be a category of “thinkable unthinkables”?
Makes you think.
(Source Tim Bayne. “Thought”. New Scientist. Vol. 219. No. 2935 pp 32-39)