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Is Thinking About the Nature of Thought Futile?

  1. Mar 16, 2007 #1
    I am operating under the assumption that one must engage in thinking when studying the nature of thought.

    Conclusions about the nature of thought are thus distorted by the process used to reach those conclusions. Are we prepared to state that thought is a tool which can be trusted to objectively evaluate itself? If the study of thought were to proceed like a trial, then thought's "testimony" would not carry much weight, just as a murder suspect's testimony is, by itself, to be taken with a grain of salt.

    I have encountered this type of recursive effect in other concepts as well. For example, can the scientific method be validated experimentally? Is there any proof that proof means anything? Those two sound like phrases that could very well come out of the mouth of a smart-alecky child, and though the scientific community has good reason to trust the tenets of science, there seems to be something awry at the most basic level. To be fair, I think there is a threshold where even the most learned person runs out of answers. We have all probably heard the line of questioning whereby a child will ask, "What happened before grandpa was born?" and, if allowed to continue long enough, will reach, "What came before the Big Bang?" I will even claim that models (this one included) which place constraints on the extent to which theories are allowed prove themselves are themselves bound by such constraints.

    With that in mind, I wish to focus this thread on the underlined portion above.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 16, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 16, 2007 #2
    Just to get the ball rolling I'd like to mention Logic. Logic may be a product of thought or it may even be a reflection of the structure of thought. If the latter, it seems as if thought has managed, quite objectively, to observe a quality of itself (ie:Logic). It is, however, quite disconcerting that there seems to be different types of logic.
  4. Mar 16, 2007 #3
    Unfortunately, since thought (or anything else) can only be examined using thought, the question is moot. Can we trust thought for anything? Since we know that we (as well as the greatest minds) make mistakes, then various degrees of doubt remain for pretty much any subject.
  5. Mar 16, 2007 #4
    As you say, thought knows it makes mistakes. Thought knows there are "various degrees of doubt", so it seems obvious, to me at least, that thought can think about what Thought is. Thought can see its own shortcomings! Whether it can see beyond those shortcomings is another question, but this leads me back to Logic. Does the acceptence of Logic demonstrate Thought's ability to see its own structure? Or is Logic the boundary that Thought cannot move beyond?
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2007
  6. Mar 16, 2007 #5
    Clearly, since we're doing it right now. Unless we're mistaken. :wink:

    Right. This may be what the OP is actually asking. Can a system fully understand itself? I believe we have evidence to the contrary.

    Unless we're mistaken. :smile:

    Thought and logic are not the same thing. Logic is a creation of thought, it is a toolkit of coherent, non-contradictory rules that lets us pinpoint errors in certain arguments. But thought is also full or errors, unsupported assumptions, poor logic, emotions and so on. I don't think that using logic demonstrates how thought "sees its own structure".
  7. Mar 16, 2007 #6
    Good points, out of whack.

    The responses to my question have been written while making use of thought. Noting this is of great importance, as explained below:

    Imagine that at a large company there is a Director of Checklists who writes and revises all the various checklists that the company uses. Now imagine that the management, in trying to cut costs, decides that all departments must fill out an efficiency checklist and make the necessary changes. When the Director of Checklists receives his department's checklist, he will look at a document that was created within his own department. The standards the director used to write his department's checklist will be the same ones he is evaluating when he is filling out the checklist. And if that efficiency checklist passed muster before it was sent to his own department, then his department must be doing quality work!

    In the real world, there are provisions when a business, agency, etc. needs to evaluate itself. An outside party is often called in to do the job. I am not certain the same is possible with thought, however, as evaluating another person's thought processes is done through the lens of one's own thought, and observing thought from the outside (wherever that is) entails leaving one's thoughts behind! At the same time, I realize that these objections, and even this sentence, have arisen as the result of my thoughts on the subject, and may therefore not count for much in the context of this thread.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 16, 2007
  8. Mar 16, 2007 #7
    There is nothing in herently wrong with studying something intrinsically, or from within. Take, for exampe, the universe.

    To address your specific examples, we are constantly testing the scientific method empirically. If suddenly one could formno hypothesis (every conjecture failed), if the scientific method did not work, then it would soon be abandoned.

    In logic the issue of meaning in proofs is called semantics. Logicians have devised ways to represent the semantics of some structures completely, which removes the distinction between the proof and its meaning.
  9. Mar 18, 2007 #8
    Obviously thought and logic are not the same thing (I make that distinction in post#2) but it must be said that, in general, thought works in a specific way. Thought is not chaotic, otherwise we could barely function. Usually it works in a very logical way (although times of great stress, heightened emotional states, the effects of certain drugs etc. alter this dramatically). Logic is the most powerful tool of the sciences and the point I was making was that, rather than being a creation of thought, logic may reflect how thought works. It seems to me that thought and emotion are intimately interlinked, but when the emotional content is removed we are left with logic (think Spock). The many errors of thought may reflect its emotional content which provide its logical nature with untrustworthy premises. When logic begins with dodgy premises error grows on error.
    Would you agree that, to a certain extent, thought works logically (ie: logic is an inherent part of thought, as opposed to a creation of thought)?
  10. Mar 18, 2007 #9
    But human thought is just a biological process. I do think it is chaotic and inefficient, just like everything else about human beings and animals in general. Yet, it is sufficient for many tasks.

    Consider this. Traveling is much more efficient using wheels than legs. But no animal has wheels due to biological limitations: you cannot run nerves and blood vessels through a spinning axle. So, no propeller either. Animals are restricted to flapping their legs for walking, their wings for flying and their fins for swimming. But then of course, these appendages provide more versatility. Likewise, a number of mental processes would be more efficient if you didn't have to deal with instincts and feelings of hunger, fear and so on. But then of course, without these you wouldn't survive.

    I disagree with the "usually" part. The way thought works is mainly reactive. I wake up from an illogical dream that sets my mood and train of thoughts. My mood is predominant to determine how quickly I get out of bed. If it's sunny outside, my mind is clear and full of energy. If it rains, it is depressed. Then I become subject to the irrational realization that I am hungry. My auto-pilot brings me to the kitchen. I hardly remember putting on my slippers. It's only later that I tell others how I "logically" decided to sleep in and then to get breakfast. Just like my dog who went through the same steps, except for the slippers.

    True. But don't disregard our frequent faulty application of logic. Even knowing about the rules of logic, we often find ourselves unable to apply it correctly, just like long division. People who start with perfectly trustworthy premises will still reach completely different conclusions: she can read, clearly she's a witch.

    I think the word you should be using is not "thought" but "reason" instead. What is rational is logical as far as I can see. But this does not advance us very much beyond the use of a different word. Is reason a product of thought or is it its foundation? I continue to think that it is a result. Thought comes first, then reason appears.
  11. Mar 19, 2007 #10
    mosassam, I don't think you are grasping the objections that I raised on thought's ability to think about itself.

    To rephrase what I am saying, I think it is fair to start by saying that science requires third-person observation of the subject at hand, a detached view. Whether it is a zoologist studying ants, an engineer observing a wind-tunnel test or an astronomer peering through a telescope, all good science comes from the separation of the subject and the examiner. Research becomes questioned when the researcher is too close to his/her subject. Such proximity may not be physical; health researchers for tobacco companies and sociologists too engaged in a culture are arguably more likely to generate biased/inaccurate research. You might see where I am going with this, that research on thought needs to adhere to the same standards.

    It is true that we have plenty of brains, human subjects and behavioral models to study from the third-person, but these do not represent the actual nature of thought. I am saying that one actually needs to step back from the process of thinking in order to study it. Unfortunately, one must leave Thought behind in order to observe it scientifically (from the third-person). Kind of a Catch-22 if you ask me. And I know it is tempting to try to come up with a workaround or some neat trick that will allow us to indirectly observe thought from the third-person, but one must remember that any thoughts of such workarounds are just that: thoughts, and should be cautiously approached in these contexts.

    I am, however, reluctant to stand solidly behind the above objections because, after all, they arose from my thoughts on the subject, as did this sentence.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 19, 2007
  12. Mar 19, 2007 #11
    i find the more i think the less i know :rolleyes: the kids got it right, usually is the first time.
  13. Mar 19, 2007 #12
    What other tool exists that can evaluate thought? Only thought can 'evaluate' (or can computers do it as well?).
    I do seemed to have lost my footing in this thread. I'm somewhat surprised that you have not observed logic as an inherent aspect of thought. Obviously when I communicate this I must then, as far as science is concerned, provide empirical evidence for this assumption (although it remains a fact for myself as long as I don't communicate it). Obviously I cannot provide empirical evidence for the existence of thought. Thought cannot be weighed or measured, science cannot prove that thought exists (oh, the irony).
    I suppose the answer to your question is No - we are not prepared to state that thought is a tool which can be trusted to objectively evaluate itself?
    PS: It is possible to observe one's own thought processes, however, it is impossible to communicate this fact meaningfully.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2007
  14. Mar 19, 2007 #13
    Even if we manage to isolate the thinking process in a manner that permits observation, we will still be left thinking about our specimen. And in that event, the thinking process will not have been truly isolated.
    Perhaps a person could objectively observe his own thoughts if he were programmed to record everything he witnessed, and was capable of entering a state in which he would not reflect on his thoughts. One would hope, however, that our thought process in devising this method would not compromise the objectivity of the research.
  15. Mar 19, 2007 #14
    Science cannot prove thought exists. Science cannot isolate, observe and measure thought. This cannot happen. But does this mean thought cannot be objectively observed? In your own mind can you not use awareness to isolate the thinking process?
    We have different ideas about 'observing'. I view observation as a state in which thought does not intrude. Whilst it happens, observation should be free of judgement, prejudice, precondition, interpretation (any thought process). Observing should be a completely impartial act. Once observing has ended then thought rushes in with interpretations, analysis, the quest for 'sense' and all that.
    Observing should be a simple, open awareness. In this state of open awareness it is possible to observe one's own thought processes without reflecting (ie:thinking) about anything. The program that records everything the observer witnesses is called Memory.
    The problem is this:-
    You can objectively observe your own thought processes (in a state of open awareness). After the observation you can draw some conclusions about what you have witnessed. However, you cannot tell anyone about your findings because then you bring it into the realm of empirical proof, where your findings are held up as unfounded assumptions (ie worthless or meaningless).
    If two (or a million for that matter) observers draw the same conclusions from their own internal observations, they can never communicate the 'reality' of their observations in a scientifically meaningful way, even though each individual observer 'knows the truth' of their findings. The only way they can genuinely communicate is through trusting each other (having faith in each other). Hardly scientific :bugeye:
    This seems to be the true problem of studying thought - any results you glean can never be communicated.
    PS: I think it is important to note that thought is one of many aspects of the mind. Thought itself seems to be composed of many aspects that work in unison to provide the impression of a single 'thing'.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2007
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