On Philosophy

October 20, 2007

A Theory About Thinking

Filed under: Mind — Peter @ 12:00 am

Today I am going to present an initial hypothesis about how thinking works, motivated partly by my claim yesterday that certain features of language exist because they influence they way we think, and not because they add to the descriptive content of the sentence. Obviously if that is the case then a complete account of language will require a complementary account of how we think in order to connect linguistic features with the thought processes that they influence. Of course to present a hypothesis about thinking I must first indicate in some way what thinking is, and that is not exactly an easy task. In a rough way we can understand a thought as simply the part of consciousness that is not a product of perception but rather of the inner workings of the mind (produced by the minds operation on its own state). Some thoughts are very precise and may be accompanied by inner speaking of some kind, but this is not the only kind of thought we can have. There are also “vaguer” thoughts, unaccompanied by any kind of inner speaking, as well as mental images, and both can be considered thoughts. But pain, for example, is not a thought because it is a form of perception. This distinction may seem arbitrary in some ways (why not simply add perceptions in as well?) but it exists in the service of this theory, which is about thinking, how one thought is connected to another. Perceptions are, from such a point of view, a special case since they are not derived from other thoughts. And, similarly, how thoughts produce actions is also outside the scope of this theory.

The fundamental connection between one thought and another is association. All thoughts have content of some kind. For example, the thought that it is raining outside contains content about the world, specifically about rain and the fact that it is raining. Now by content I do not mean to indicate what the thought refers to, that is a different matter (and something that does not depend on the mind alone). It is hard to say exactly what content is, but I can shed some more light on the matter by pointing out that a mental image of raining and the thought that “it is raining” accompanied by some kind of inner speech have substantial overlaps in content. Thus two thoughts may be alike in sharing some of the same content, or their content may be similar (similarity between content may be a primitive relationship, or it may be that content has inner complexities and that similar content have some identical parts). Association then is a process by which thoughts give rise to further thoughts with content that overlaps or is similar in some way. I call this the fundamental process by which thinking works because it is how we think when we think without self-reflection, one thought follows another via the process of association.

The mechanism by which one thought comes to follow another is necessarily unconscious at some level, and thus I am unable to say exactly how association works. In fact the claim that association proceeds by a similarity in content is simply a generalization from my own thinking. I will make a few more observations about how association works, also such generalizations, but I will leave them for later. For now I would simply like to observe that the content which association proceeds upon can range from a small part of the content to all of the content. When association is proceeding on the basis of a small part of the content of the thought the subsequent thoughts appear very loosely connected; when association proceeds on the basis of most or all of the content it appears that we are turning over the same thought in our heads and looking at it from different “angles” (different ways of structuring that content so that different aspects are brought to attention), such reflections are also how vague unstructured thoughts can be turned into structured ones accompanied by some kind of inner speech. Finally, I would like to observe that as we can have multiple thoughts at the same time association may also proceed on the basis of several of these thoughts. For example, if we had two thoughts in mind association may produce our next thought by yielding a new thought with some new content but which has some content similar to one of those previous thoughts and some content similar to the other.

Thinking by association is a very “primitive” way of thinking. As I have mentioned previously it usually occurs when we aren’t consciously reflecting on our thought process itself. And I suspect that associative thinking, or something very much like it, is present in many animals (although the content of their thoughts is much more restricted than ours is). In addition to associative thinking there is also what I call formalistic thinking, which can be described as thinking according to some plan (the plan itself being contained in some other thought or thoughts). Any time when we are producing one thought from another on the basis of a conscious process we are probably engaged in such thinking. For example, logical deduction is an example of formalistic thinking. Causal or predictive thinking as we engage in it is also an example of formalistic thinking, we consider the situation at hand, the laws governing it, and then apply those laws to produce the situation we think will result from it. (Of course predictive thinking can also be done via association, by association with similar situation and from there the association with the situations that followed that one, but such thinking is much less accurate.)

Finally there is unconscious thinking, which, together with associative and formalistic thinking, I believe exhausts the ways in which thinking proceeds. Unconscious thinking may be a bit of a misnomer, because obvious the thoughts that result from “unconscious” thinking are themselves conscious. Unconscious thinking is really a hypothesis to explain the rare thoughts that seem to pop into mind without any connection to those that have immediately gone before them. Specifically I suppose that there exist things that might be called unconscious thoughts, similar to thoughts in their structure and they way they are processed by the mind, but unlike them in that they are not available to conscious reflection. And I further suppose that when some thoughts move out of conscious they become such unconscious thoughts rather than disappearing from the mind completely, and that associative thinking applies to these unconscious thoughts as well, producing further unconscious thoughts. And finally, for some unknown reason, sometimes these unconscious thoughts return to consciousness. Thus the apparently unconnected thoughts that pop into mind are not really unconnected at all, by my hypothesis, rather they are connected by a chain of associative thinking that is simply hidden from us.

This concludes my survey of how thinking occurs. Which brings me to the topic that is in interest in connection with language: what factors influence how thinking proceeds. For formalistic thinking the answer is obvious: the plans for thinking that we have available to us. And obviously language can influence such thinking, in a roundabout way, by describing plans for thinking or by suggesting that a certain plan be employed. More interesting is associative thinking, about which I am able to say much less. Obviously there must be something we might call “focus” that determines which content is the basis of further associations, and where the focus is seems to depend on what we are interested in, but beyond that it is hard to say much more. It may also be possible to say something about where new thoughts spring from. For example, we may observe that new content in thoughts produced by associative thinking often comes from memories, but again it is hard to pin down all the sources of this content. And finally we may observe that our emotional state leads associative thinking to produce new thoughts that are “compatible” with that state (for example, being angry will result in associative thinking tending to produce “negative” thoughts). Here I will put a close to this investigation for now, partly because I have not reflected on the possibilities sufficiently, and partly because here we are beginning to get into the domain of psychology, where our generalizations are specific enough that they must be tested experimentally and not by simple reflection.


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