Why Do We Think?

I think, therefore...?Why do we think?



“The biggest fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer”

Just to share my reductionist mindset with you… i am sitting at the kitchen table with a stained and empty espresso cupette on my left. The sun is beaming one of those incredibly Perth winter days through the French windows, highlighting the collection of paint, brushes, canvasses and boards that summarise last nights efforts at completing works for a family cartoon art exhibition. Upon waking up and coming downstairs this morning, i had set up the laptop in this spot to write a quick note about “thinking”, which may appear fairly run-of-the-mill for a site named “Stillthinking” but my point today was to ask a point further up (or down) the thinking hierarchy. So i fired up the laptop, entered the site and typed my question “why”. The first thought that occurred to me was a quote from i-don’t-know-where, which is shown above. Ie,

The biggest fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer.

Even while typing it, the phrase began to annoy me, as i reacted to the use of “man” instead of “person” or “woman” or “human”. Why did it not sound as clear or as correct when i tried to type “person”? Am i so locked into the male psyche that the use of a non-male term jars my sensitivities? Am i trapped by a politically correct phase of society that sees such statements as a negative statement on females – and for that matter, why does this sentence read better when i substitute “females” (as just used) for “women”? How locked up in language and precedent am i? Can i think independently at all?

My answer is “YES”. Whether i am making a statement on the existence of free will or simply following a societally-implanted hegemonic pathway to determinism is perhaps a question for another time but at this stage i am simply going to shove all analytical argument aside and in my biggest fool manner say “YES”, i can think independently. Not because i am different to anyone else out there but because we humans have been given the magic of chaos inside our heads. It is my (growing) belief that we have been gifted by a series of “random radicals” that allow our minds to vary from any particular preset pathway. Not “at the core” but “at the margin”. That is, the bulk of the day-to-day is going to be locked up in the particular discourse we find ourselves in at a given point of time BUT our minds do not always follow preset pathways, and magnificently incidental moments can insert themselves into our mindset to kick us out past the Kuiper Belt of that discourse and into the void.

See, i wasn’t going to tackle free will and there i go, wandering off on that pathway.

Back to the original intention.

It was to ask why we humans feel a need to think beyond the physical world.

Now i can attempt a reductionist (in an acknowledged amateur way) approach to my little question.

Firstly, i want to identify the “we” of that sentence. Let me assume that all humans with the capacity to think, do think. And we could also assume a Churchill approach to that measurement. That is, all of the people think some of the time, some of the people think all of the time but not all of the people think all of the time. Let’s assume that the bulk of the people on this planet do enough thinking to allow them to interact to their social and physical environment. To get by.
Then we have the great few. Again, we could revert to a Churchillism (you cannot ponder philosophy for more than a short time before encountering an “ism” word). How about, “never have so many owed so much, to so few”. From time to time, we encounter those individuals who are considered “great thinkers”. These are people who have managed to make it through an obstacle course of roadblocks to get their internal ponderings in front of others. It is funny, you know, how carefully i ended up writing that sentence… Here were a few of the things that attempted to interrupt the flow of thoughts to my fingers, the keyboard and eventually, this website (although at this particular moment of time, you are not even on the website, little words – at least, not until i push that “save” button):

1.   Did those great thinkers mean for their words to go beyond their own self reflection?

a.   If they did, what was their underlying objective/reason/intent/motivation?

b.   If they did not, what set of circumstances conspired to get their thoughts out to the world?

2.   What contextual change occurs in each incidence, when those thoughts are projected into a new timeframe/ social perspective? Would they agree with the result of their ponderings?

3.   What component of their thoughts did we end up with? It is not difficult to perceive that we only get a certain amount of opportunity to write or set down our thoughts. How about the impact of editing? Of the drivetrain involved in getting a thought to a form of media we need to involve editors, publishers, type-setters (at least, for most of the period of Gutenberg’s ascendancy), wholesalers, retailers, and avoid sufficient censors, rubbish bins and book-burners to make it through to we current readers. Hey! And here is a modern version of all that crap – technology! i had pushed that damn “save” button only to find that the internet had “gone down” and my reflections were lost into the nether. Think of the scope of global ponderings that would be lost forever if the internet was to cease to exist (and it is not that difficult a thought to ponder its destruction). How many well conceived and beautifully written ideas or concepts were “left somewhere” or “fell into the fire while I was making myself a hot soup” or other such incidental moments of absent-mindedness? But i digress… back to the story.

4.   Did they come to regret the release of those thoughts or the subsequent interpretations that reflected back to them? Did they change their minds at a later time on key points – and if they did, were those changes lost to time or were they conveyed to the future readership/audience as well?

Here are a few names to get the idea filtering through your mind in something like the way it is filtering through mine. While reading those names try to ponder how their thoughts may have evolved, how they were taken down to be passed to us (and by who) and whether they would have any issues with how those thoughts have been interpreted or implemented (for an excellent example of the serendipity required for all these points to come together, grab yourself a good bottle of red wine and share an evening or three with the book “The Archimedes Codex”). Here is a sample of those names:

  • Aristotle
  • Socrates
  • Ramses (hard to misinterpret the relief carving of him holding the hair of an enemy in one hand and a knife in the other…!)
  • Julius Caesar
  • Alexander the Great (who killed his Diarist)
  • Jesus Christ (known only by oblique reference)
  • Mohammed
  • Confucius
  • Renee Descartes
  • Charles Darwin


Hopefully this is brining you into my thought space (in technospeak would it be “MySpace” or “my SecondLife home” or “my Lively Room”? As a silly aside, how do you think Jesus would furnish his Lively Room?). The point is to consider the gaping chasm of time and existence between their daily thinking processes and ours.

Each of these characters lived in a world completely different from ours, with social and daily living imperatives very different from those existing today (especially from here in little Perth, Centre of the Civilised Universe).

What triggers these people to think outside of their day-to-day existence? During the times that they lived there were millions of other people who woke up each morning with (it could fairly be assumed) equivalent brain capacities and similar opportunities for pondering beyond their noses. Why did these people go the extra step?

It is the familiar figures of the past who help shape our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the times that have gone before us, which is to say, how we establish the framework for the world as we understand it.

That particular paragraph lends itself to a thesis-sized discussion on the validity of that framework (for example, compared with a society devoid of such “great thinkers” – and I am not sure that you could have such a thing, as even illiterate societies still have an accumulated pool of knowledge which would be impacted by a series of anonymous authors). Can you have a “new” society? Short answer without any real thought is “No”. mmm.. Wonder if I’ll ever go back to that one?

Again, I need to ponder why the focus is on the “great thinkers”? Not everyone will get to hear of, read or know their works, so is it valid to limit my ponderings to the select, limited few?

The idea triggers in my mind that tiny paragraph hidden in the early chapters of the Douglas Adams four part trilogy “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in which the hero struggles to cope with the fact that the Earth is to be demolished to make way for an intergalactic expressway. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world an insignificant person sitting at a coffee shop suddenly understands what it is all about – they realize the entirety of the massive question “why?” and just as they are about to run into the street to tell everyone… the world is demolished (and the hero catches a lift on an alien spaceship with what turns out to be an alien friend).

Was that too vague?

It encapsulates a few points that are not quite coalescing into a sensible sentence just yet:

·        It is not a “great thinker” who gains the insight into “why” but an average person in a coffee shop

·        The individual does not appear to be part of some great media fulcrum, so the chances of their message spreading are small, and

·        The individual dies in a great cataclysm before the answer can be passed on.

 There is an underlying element of “deep thought” (pun intended) in Douglas Adam’s work and I think that this particular example is fantastic. It asks the question “what is the point of great thoughts if no-one else gets to know about them?”.

Back to my ponderings.

Do we focus on the great thinkers because we cannot believe that anyone outside of that subset has the capacity for great thought? If you read some of the material on philosophy, it is astounding how much time and effort goes into understanding what previous great thinkers were really trying to say. Some academics will spend their entire life specializing in interpreting Satre or some such deep thinker.

This is not intended as a denigration of a life spent pondering such issues. Rather, I am using it as an example of the search outside ourselves for an answer.

There is an unspoken aspect to the politically correct society and that is the disparity in “intelligence” in the population. Again, that needs clarification. What I am touching on here is the difficulty in considering society from the point of view of how much an individual “thinks”. Maybe that works if I add “thinks independently”. There are so many worms in that tin that I may have to share a few with you. Perhaps the fear of a Nazi-style approach to dealing with diverging levels of intelligence or thinking stops a genuine discussion on how these attributes impact on a society.

Let’s say that a proportion of the population is capable of independent thought. I wonder how we would measure this? I wonder if that proportion is “most”, “some” or “all”? This would need to be considered after allowing for those with health or medical issues that get in the way but even then, to what extent can people with damaged brains participate in independent thought? Who is to say that a much-desired fundamental question has been resolved in some idiot savant’s mind but hasn’t yet found a way to get out into the general public?

It is a challenging thought but would it not be true that all of those who spend their lives studying the great works of the great thinkers (without attempting their own tackling of the great questions are unlikely to find any universal answers? If a universal answer had been found, written down, identified or passed on – then wouldn’t it have been accepted by every single person that encountered it? Wouldn’t we all be sitting down in a rather dejected heap, wondering what we would do next? Or would we feel a collective sigh of relief that we didn’t need to do this anymore and could get on with the simple acts of living – eating, sleeping, procreating?

And even more scary… Would anyone feel a point in continuing to live if they actually got “it”? If you knew at a fundamental level the great answers to why, what, who and how then wouldn’t everything you do from there be just a little bit empty? Wouldn’t there be a massive chasm of emptiness about performing the daily tasks if you actually understood the elemental purposes you were fulfilling in doing those tasks? As just one example, if you knew at a front-of-the-conscious level which chemical reaction in your body was initiating your actions? Going even further – if you knew that your actions really were determined and you had no free will?

Fortunately, at this point in time we humans do not appear to have identified the universal answer. Or the universal question. A good thing too. But we do keep trying. At least, some folk do. And so we return to the original three second thought… ‘why do we think?”

I had originally said that I was being reductionist. Ramblingist would be a better (though grammatically disingenuous) assessment but I will push on, as there are points that I need to get out here so that I can put it into better order at a later date.

Some deep thinkers seek to identify the universal answers but to me they seem to be locked in a paradigm whereby the fact that we do think makes us not just unique but uniquely important (can you be unique and not be special? I think that you can. You could be a rather unique pile of dung but to anyone outside of the dung-beetle species, you are just an obstacle to be avoided).

Here are a few bullet points of contentious thoughts that occur to me when I let that passage drift through the grey matter:

·       Some suggest that the world exists because we think it into existence. I really don’t understand that one.

·       Some suggest that we humans are so unique that we must surely have a special purpose. I just don’t get that. So what if we are the only thinking animal (at least from the point of view of being able to think on multiple planes – such as thinking about how we feel about what another person thinks of us)? Just because we think we are important, it doesn’t follow that we are.

·       Most people want there to be “a reason” or an answer. I have read many times that if there is no answer then we are just randomly generated outcomes in a randomly generated universe. So what? I cannot see why that should be a bad thing. In the terms of our tiny little lifespans, we have the capacity to experience a huge range of sensations, emotions and paradigm moments that would be no less satisfying if there was some great answer that we were not yet aware of. It strikes me as a form of “dissatisfaction” with some aspect of self or an individual’s living environment to feel a need to know that there is something “better” or an underlying reason for being.

·       The random outcome idea stumps philosophers who are trying to work out how we should live. It makes impossible the concept of “what is good”. We end up swerving from utilitarianism through to some form of absolute determinism through to the moral abyss of relativism.

·       Is deep thinking nothing more than another aspect of natural selection? Is it the mental equivalent of stronger muscles or better eyesight?

·        The idea that we are important leads us to find out why we are here (given that we are so important) which leads us to find a higher purpose which infers that there actually is one. Our mortality makes any individual a bit of a short-term answer so we ponder immortality. That leaves us a bit lost so we anthropomorphise an answer in the form of a deity or being (or set of beings) that I’ll just refer to as “God”. So for me, any statement of a God can be distilled to an inflated level of self importance. Sorry if you are on that team but the only way that I can see a God hand in this existence is if we argue one into existence.

(Notice how I changed the points into arrows? That was because I referred to them as “bullet points” initially and just wanted to throw a bit of anarchy into this section. Radical, huh?)

And so I weave my way to the term “anarchy”. Neat term. I like it. As an unintended conservative with boringly deep-thinking tendencies, it seems to me that anarchy holds a bit of a bright light to our potentially determined lives. Anarchy would actually be a rather handy tool for a determinist approach. It would help to engender a feeling of free will. And that could keep the people happy while the live their deluded little lives.

It is clear to me that I am in need of a coffee at this point – or at least some form of breakfast. These ponderings have moved on from ramblings to be just “ings”.

Hey! Here’s a thought…

What if there is a God – but He isn’t perfect?

I’ve purposefully stuck with my societal bias when phrasing that one, just to try to keep the intent clear. If you are from a different thought sphere then substitute “He” with “Her”, “Them”, “It” or whatever.

The idea of a perfect God creates all sorts of conflicts. Conflicts that can only be resolved if we regress to some form of conundrum – or if we abandon any form of reason and rest on the edifice of faith.

Here’s an example… If there is a God and He(?) is the Christian God then why did he decide to only pass his story on to a few wandering tribes in the desert? Why did he decide to abandon the bulk of the human population to eternal suffering in the afterlife simply because he chose not to let them in on the secret?

It is not possible to resolve the Christian/Muslim God into a “good” god. The god of these religions holds most of the emotional failings of we poor mortals.

So why not just accept that God is not perfect. That he passed a message on a while back and hasn’t been in to check on how it is going for a while?

If you believe in a God then you have a bit of a problem with both determinism and free will as both leave you with a flawed God. If all our actions are determined then all that we experience and endure is for the unknown benefit of that God. Which entails a need, which negates perfection.

If there is free will and that is the basis of our “salvation” then we are in the same cast-adrift boat. A perfect God (whatever that is) would have no need of we mere mortals to achieve any particular outcome as that would imply an imperfection in the perfect works of the perfect God. So giving us free will has no purpose as it suggests an ability to affect the outcome for a perfect being, and if it does have a purpose then it suggests imperfection.

The mystics of the world leave me just as cold. Interested but cynical. Most of the great thoughts can be condensed to an expression of a need to self-inflate the self.

All of that was quite dismissive. Clearly a greater need for that coffee. Or breakfast.

So why do we think?


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