Meditation on Thinking

We sit and breathe calmly. We observe that we are thinking and in a first, gentle, move, admit that it is a concept that will always evade our definition. We just think. The ability to distinguish it from not-thinking requires a precise definition, hence in other words we are always-already caught in the realm of thinking. We think of Martin Heidegger, who has said, or at least written, something very similar in his signature Black Forest obscurantist way.

Let’s not use rhetoric to distract us. We must, to the best of our abilities, put into words what we think ‘thinking’ is, lest we lose our claim to rationality. Yet, we can’t offer a concise definition of what thinking means without making assumptions that should themselves be criticized. This is, in fewer words than twentieth century academic philosophers could get away with, the postmodern position. Thinking just ‘is’ – it seems a rather trivial and boring result of our meditation so far.

Don’t forget to breathe! As we must obey the above ‘call’ as I call it, aware of its religious origin, the greatest philosophers have written important texts about the concept and meaning of ‘thinking’. We will try the view that thinking is manipulation of symbols (we leave out the adjective ‘mere’ in good faith). We conjure up the image of a Turing machine and Turing’s great classification of problems. We know most contemporary philosophers wonder what is missing in that account. Aren’t we more than mere machines (here the adjective has its revenge).

When we talk about a machine capable of simulating itself, we are grasping the exact difficulty we had with the ‘problem’, or paradox, of thinking that we started this meditation with. The problem of infinite regression (the simulation simulating a further machine, and so forth in infinitum) is immediately apparent. We know that such simulations can be ran on a machine consisting of trillions of binary operators, made of silicon, proteins or at the quantum level with exponential gains in efficiency because of quantum weirdness. But does this tell us what thinking is or means?

It is of course a category mistake to think that the materialist view can define what thinking means. And when we know what it ‘is’ in terms of a reorganization of atoms in our neocortex, we will resort to philosophical irony and – think about it. Breathe out and think you are breathing out at the same time.

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