Friday, September 07, 2007

What is Thinking?

I think I don't know how to think.

Must thought be structured? I think it must. How would you define legitimate thought? I don't think I've mastered anything near it. In fact, I think I misunderstand it. I'd like to clarify the misunderstanding, but I'm not sure how to do so consistently and clearly, so that even I comprehend what I mean.

Do you ever look at your life from a very detached and old perspective, an intelligence larger than yours? I have flashes of this sometimes, and it's never a pleasant experience because everything I see is littered with mistakes, mostly mistakes in the assertions or opinions that I define as being thought, but which aren't thought. And then I hope to fix them, but I never quite do, and it's because I'm missing the underpinning, something fundamental, when it comes to how to see things.

I hope this makes sense, even to a small degree. My head is off doing somersaults without me, but they're the pointless kind. Energetic gymnastics mean nothing if they go nowhere, except that you are wasting energy.

So, let's identify the problem. The problem is that my "thinking," if we can call it that, is very large and clunky and stumbles around like an elephant and is impacted by whatever colorful emotions get in the way at the time. It's not a derivation of logical precepts that stand in their own right. It's very simplistic and divided. But how am I going to fix all this? I realize it's a problem and have been told so by not one, but numerous people, and now even I see it, but somehow just realizing it doesn't work. I need a regimen or something; isn't there something I can do, like read a thousand books or make a thousand paper cranes?

I'm only half-joking.

Or maybe the only way to learn really is to just keep on making mistakes. Keep on saying or writing things that you regret after further reflection, and that will clarify the next idea to you- maybe. But that's not a very pleasant way to learn. Then again, who said this would have to be pleasant?

So I'd like to learn, don't know how, and probably aren't at all ready to be taught, but it is worth learning how to think. Maybe a way to start would be to study different patterns of thought, or derivations of thought, different methods and methodologies, and maybe through that study I can come to a better grasp of the whole idea. Or maybe it would be better to leave it all alone, and I will simply come to learn through the process of growing up, that is, through experience.

Or maybe, and this is something I would have to consider also, I am simply not proper material for this venture and whether or not I try, I just can't grasp this and I can't learn how to think properly. But that would be very disheartening.

What do you think true thought is? And how do you think it is attained? And what course of study ought one to embark upon to attain it, or should one leave well enough alone?

I feel like I need to redefine everything; there are so many perceptions I've shed this year, and so many more I have yet to lose, but somehow it is both amusing and frightening that I have decided I need to redefine the very word "thought." At least I can laugh at myself about all this! I provide myself with very good entertainment. Laughter really is the saving grace, because without that, there would be so much to be sad about.

Incidentally, I find that every day I learn about a new facet of the meaning of humility. So much that I once took to be accomplishments, especially my accomplishments, are merely shadows; so much that I once thought I knew I simply have to unlearn. And there is so, so much more to learn and so very little I know in the scheme of things, that in fact everything is really overwhelming at times. I feel like I have spent more of the past year unlearning ideas than learning them, but it has been very useful to me.

I'm really lucky to have readers or people who are willing to take the time to help me unlearn my ideas, although I should tell you that it's generally best when you do this in a nicer way, as that makes it easier for me, though I have learned from the harsher comments as well and try to do so. In my case especially, unlearning is crucial. Much of what anyone tries to teach me is wasted on me unless I am willing to listen, and how can I listen if I am stubbornly clinging to my own idea and trying to defend it? I have to drop the preconceived notion or abandon what I was formerly taught in order to assimilate or at least understand the new information. This is not something that comes easily to me, but I realize now how much I need to try to do it. There is no gain without an effort, after all; "yagati u'matzati."

At least I have a place to start, the desire to want to know or figure out how to develop thoughts and ideas. Now I just have to figure out how to do it, or if it can even be taught.


Daniel said...

It depends what you mean by thought. From the context, I presume you mean logical, analytical thought, rather than creative thought. Logical thought must certainly be independent of emotion, which isn't to say you can't passionately believe in what you say, but that you can't rely on your emotions as the basis of your argument.

I don't know how one learns how to do this. There probably isn't one way. Certainly being open to criticism is a good start. As for feeling you have to unlearn everything to think properly - that's quite normal, at least among intelligent people, especially at universiity. It means you are moving from a simplified outlook to a more complicated, mature one. It is unnerving, but good.

If I can't tell you how you can learn to think, I can at least say how I have learnt:
spending years at university, writing weekly essays, having them critiqued by my tutors and having to critique those of my tutorial partners;
reading arguments between academics in journals;
reading serious academic works and having to understand and critique them for my own essays;
reading intellectual books and not being satisfied until I really understand how the argument is being made, and whether it stands up to reason;
blogging - even before I post something and get feedback, while writing it I am thinking, "does this make sense? Can I defend it? How?".

I suppose the pattern emerging is the willingness to challenge every assertion, even if it seems obviously true. Test your own arguments thoroughly before making them to anyone else. Test every argument made to you, even if it is by someone you respect. Don't accept anything on trust. Only tell yourself you know something when you actually understand it, not when you've learnt it by rote. This isn't something you can learn from books, because it's about going beyond just reading books and picking up ideas from authors to actually thinking for yourself.

Ezzie said...

As for feeling you have to unlearn everything to think properly - that's quite normal, at least among intelligent people, especially at universiity. It means you are moving from a simplified outlook to a more complicated, mature one. It is unnerving, but good.

Disagree with the idea, and that it necessarily takes you from "simplified" to "mature".

e-kvetcher said...

I am willing to help, not that I consider myself smarter than you, but frankly I don't understand the problem.

Does this have anything to do with the phantom post? 'Cause I had some comments for that one before the rug got swept from under my feet :)

Chana said...


Yes, because I realized that my thinking was flawed there, and regretted it upon reading it this morning. That's something I'm coming to do more often; I write something, then read it in the morning and go, "What the hell?" I need to think things through before writing them, but first I need to think to begin with.

Basically, I am confused.

e-kvetcher said...

Well, my first suggestion is to not delete the posts, even when you realize that you don't mean what you wrote.

First of all, it's a blog and not the Congressional record.

Second of all, as long as it doesn't "name names", what does it hurt? And as you just wrote, there is no problem with laughing at yourself, a certain bitul of the ego and it lets you analyze what you were thinking and identify why you changed your mind.

You say "let's identify the problem", but it is not clear to me what you're confused about. I don't understand what it means to have thinking that is "large and clunky and stumbles around like an elephant".

haKiruv said...

"You must unlearn what you have learned" – Yoda

e-kvetcher said...

>"You must unlearn what you have >learned" – Yoda

This is a buddhist concept.

A philosopher asked a Zen Master to explain Zen to him in as few words as possible.

The Zen Master started pouring some tea to a cup. The cup filled up quickly, but the Zen Master kept pouring.

"What you are doing makes no sense," objected the philosopher. "The cup is full. You cannot pour any more tea into it unless you first empty it."

"So it is with your mind," said the Zen Master. "It is filled with ideas and conceptions. I cannot teach you Zen until you empty your mind."

haKiruv said...

No, it's Jedi.


e-kvetcher said...

>>This is a buddhist concept.

>No, it's Jedi.

Well, I heard of Jubu, so maybe its Jebu


Myles said...

Another thought provoking post, in my opinion (an over used and redundant phrase, but I digress) this is the process of growing up. The world is a simple place when you’re young, its black and white, good and evil, etc. When you start to mature a lot of grey slips in, and you begin to realize that there are few easy answers. And that is incredibly scary, to the point that it often makes one question the things they hold most dear. Never be afraid of your ideas, even if 10 minutes later your not so sure anymore don't be afraid of them, and please don't delete blog posts censoring yourself will just lead to more self doubt and you'll lose your trust in your ideas and that would be terrible.

Scraps said...

There are many ways of thinking, all with their proper place and use. Wisdom lies in knowing there is more than one right way to think, and in knowing when to use which type of thinking.

I think you're well on your way.

haKiruv said...

E-Kevetcher: you're funny. :-D

More on the topic though...

From my work with AI programming, a lot of thought is really just a process of decision-making along a tree of weighted paths. As someone believing in G-d, I see the root/trunk of this tree as being G-d, who is the ultimate axiom. From this trunk comes other axioms that may branch out to other axioms or conclusions. My brain consists of many of these paths, each with it's own conclusion, node, leaf, what ever you want to call it.

Each one of these paths is weighted, however, so following the rules of rational thought, we'll choose the path with more weight.

Sometimes however, along this path, the very rules we use to rationalize get changed. For instance, what if the weight of a certain path changes. We'd then have to back-track and go through the process again. This is time consuming. Although I've never been diagnosed with depression or a mental problem, but I believe this is why people get a form of depression. They have so much new and old input too process, yet continue to deal with new input daily, that it becomes overwhelming and people just shutdown. In my case, if I come across something of significance that happens in my life, I have to take time to deal with it.

So in conclusion, I'd say thinking is a process. A process that follows the tree of thought that is weighed by previously defined axioms.

e-kvetcher said...


Normally I would not reply for fear of scaring off the non-geeks, but I think no one else is monitoring this thread...

I have never been comfortable with using current AI techniques for modeling human cognition, even the neural network stuff you seem to be alluding to. But I haven't dabbled in AI for at least 15 years so the field may have progressed significantly since last I checked.

Have you checked out Marvin Minsky's "Society of the Mind"?

haKiruv said...


I haven't, but after reading about it I think I will. That looks very interesting. Thanks for the heads up! Books like this are my toys. :-D

In my previous AI class, we designed decision making agents with alpha-beta searching, which is basically what I described in the previous comment. I have yet, but hope, to get into learning techniques in the Spring semester, and not just decision techniques. After I get more understanding of that, then maybe I could have a better conversation with you.

I also have personal issues with the definition of "intelligence" anyways. It leads to concepts in predeterminism and free-will, and touches on a lot of things I read about when studying Chassidic works and the like.

Actually, I find many Chassidic models to coincide with my comp sci studies, such as object oriented programming. It was actually the design of the UNIX os that helped me understand the outlay of the Beit haMikdash and it's role with Jews and non-Jews(different courtyards, etc). I find it amazing that modern computer systems are adopting a system that is actually thousands of years old.

See, now you got me all worked up. :-D