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Thinking isn't Rational: It's Embodied Reasoning

David Weinberger at University Bookman

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros / Unsplash
The Inherent and Severe Limitations of Thinking
In the early 1990s, I practiced law with a lot of impressive Jewish attorneys. One, particularly so. He was brilliant, aggressive, and driven. He also held a Ph.D. in philosophy. I always wanted to ask him why he got a doctorate in philosophy and then went to law school,

Ever wonder what it means to have a mind? Is thinking, for example, unique to the human species? Or might we one day create Artificial Intelligence (AI) that “thinks” the way we do? Moreover, how is the pursuit of AI shaping the way we understand ourselves as human beings? If you have ever asked yourself these questions, pick up the gripping new book by philosopher Dr. James D. Madden, Thinking about Thinking: Mind and Meaning in the Era of Techno-Nihilism, which offers fresh insight into these issues and more.

Philosophy of mind today is generally split between two camps, materialists who believe that the mind is ultimately reducible to physical bits of matter, and dualists who believe that the mind is more than physical matter alone. In this book, however, rather than engage directly in this debate, Madden primarily considers a separate (though related) question: What are the necessary conditions for having a mind in the first place? That is, what does it mean to be a thinker and what might that tell us about who we are as human beings?

Drawing on insights from philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others, Madden explores what thinking is by first examining what it is not. Specifically, he argues that whatever else may be said about it, thinking cannot be a thing—whether material (like a neurological event in the brain) or immaterial (like a ghost). For being a “thing” entails being the kind of entity that is limited by the boundaries of its dimensions (e.g. a basketball is limited by its shape and size). But thinking, Madden suggests, has no boundaries because it has no dimensions. Consider, for instance, that thinking is always about something, about an object of thought, meaning that thinking goes beyond the boundaries of the thinker and “out to” the object of thought. “A thought is then not a process strictly internal to the thinker, whether we conceive of thinkers as material or immaterial substances, but always something that extends beyond boundaries of any discrete individual,” writes Madden. “Anything that can be discreetly located, e.g. a neurophysiological event or mental episode, does not by itself reach out to an object of thought.”

Furthermore, two points closely follow from this observation. First, thinking is not something we do in isolation. Rather, thinking entails being involved in the world. For example, to think about a summer cabin requires actual acquaintance with such a cabin, either directly (by, say, having gone to one in the past) or indirectly (by, say, a friend who has a cabin and who has shared her experience of it). Second, all thought is inextricably bound up in a web of other concepts unique to one’s personal history. For example, one’s thought of a summer cabin may entail concepts not only of “summer” and “cabin,” but also of boating, family adventures, board games, swimming, lying on the dock, bonfires, gazing at stars, laughing with friends, and myriad other concepts tied to one’s own experiential history of summer cabins. In other words, as Madden explains, “Having a mind is not to possess something, but to be involved with or a participant in, as it has been famously put, a ‘form of life.’”

What this ultimately means is that a “form of life” is not only something we participate in, but something for which we must finally take responsibility, if we wish to be authentically human. For example, we are all born into structures, traditions, and worldviews that we receive from our parents, peers, community, and culture. Yet, while we grow up as mere practitioners of the form of life we inherit, at some point responsibility demands that we subject that life to critical scrutiny to see whether it is in fact the good, right, and true form of life, or whether it ought to be abandoned for a superior one. In other words, having a mind enters us into the “space of reasons,” where we face the essential human task of critically assessing the life we lead and seeing whether it withstands rational analysis. “Thus,” Madden observes, “one must ask stark questions and face possibly dark answers about her form of life, if she really cares about it. This is what it means to refuse to live in a sham world.” As Socrates recognized long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living, so putting one’s life under scrutiny and being open to “dark answers” is essential to human authenticity. Anxiety, in other words, is the price paid for living a fully human life.

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