What is thinking?
In other posts I’ve looked into various errors of thinking. However, I have not actually looked deeply enough into what thinking is. So I’m thinking about thinking.
Most people think that, “It’s what humans do.” Some also think that animals think. I’ve often wondered about that because I’ve seen cats do some interesting things, which led me to think that ‘they’re thinking’. Other animals do interesting and amazing things too. This stuff has been at the back of my mind for years. Today some ideas have crystallised. Have a look at the video below where a cat fights off a dog to save child (I can’t guarantee that the video will always be kept on YouTube).
The actions of the cat are without doubt protective of the child. In our world we would reasonably infer:
- That the cat knew the child.
- Recognised the child’s vulnerability.
- Saw the risk of harm to the child, which had not yet materialised into actual harm.
- Understood the consequences of not taking action.
- Decided to put itself in danger by attacking the dog to fend it off.
If a human did the same, we would most probably say, “Bravo! Good thinking. Good job. Heroic!” etc. In the above sequence one can certainly infer thought and thinking (which includes things like ‘recognition’). So – it matters not if it’s a cat or a human. ‘Thought’ and thinking seemed to be at play. But then there is action, in recognition of dire consequences. Foresight is an important part of thought. Did the cat ‘know‘ the future if no action was taken? Some will say yes and some might say no. I can’t know what the cat will ‘know‘. And then I can get into a long debate about what know means. I’m not going there.
The object of this post is to document what I think about thinking and thought. I do not aim to be right. I don’t know if I am right – and frankly I couldn’t care less about that. I think the core constituents of thinking are:
- Sequencing and processing of information or sense data.
Some will immediately jump on me to deliver a beating because I’ve left out ideas, thought and reasoning. I did NOT say constituents of ‘human thinking’. I said ‘thinking’. Chrysst! I will explain why I left those out in a few minutes.
There is an assumption that ideas and thought must be about thinking because this is what humans do. What about artificial intelligence (AI) – which today is capable of doing some pretty complex tasks? Do AI machines have ideas and thought as we know it? I had seriously doubted that, some time ago. But who knows what goes on in the ‘mind’ of an AI? I certainly don’t. ‘Thought‘ is a mysterious thing. It could be an image or a sound, which could be an idea. But ideas often are not necessarily static images. They, like thoughts, are sequences containing sounds and images etc. From experience both ideas and thoughts are internal representations of the senses.
What about humans who are born blind and deaf and remain so for the rest of their lives? They are referred to as ‘deafblinds‘. Are they capable of thought and thinking? Some will say ‘obviously’ and I would agree. But realise that those people are more impaired than the average cat or dog that has a full range of senses. Some deafblinds are even more impaired than an AI. Yet those people can do things that lead us to accept that they can think. I’m not going to unpack that. If you expected me to do that, you’re truly in the wrong place. Look I’m not talking about deafblinds who are born with some fundamental impairment of the brain other than capacity for sight and hearing.
The point at this stage is that ‘humanness’ and a full range of senses are not essential factors for generation of what we might know of thinking. AI’s can think and so can deafblinds. How? Both can demonstrate the 4 key ingredients I’ve extracted. I can ‘hear’ howling laughter as some say, “Are you for real? So you’re saying that some animals and machines can think?!” I think that people who react like that are arrogant simpletons. Have a read of this at New Scientist.
Language is often assumed to be a core feature of thinking and thought. That’s correct for most of human thinking. Contrary to some definitions out there, I do not believe that language has to be with words or text on a page. A deafblind can acquire language through the use of Braille or other adaptations. In doing so they engage the 4 key elements above. Thinking in Braille, still involves the 4 key elements. So, language is the result of the 4 key things. Animals do not have a language as we humans may recognise – relative to ourselves. But animals do communicate. No evidence supplied – bugger off on to the net and do some reading. Animals coordinate and take actions based on their own ways of passing sounds, odours and visual signals. Those are often seen to be organised, which is a precursor to coordination. Coordination is about purposive action, designed to achieve a result in some future. AI machines can do a lot of ‘talking’ and communication to be able to achieve results. People reading this page may be unaware of the levels of electronic languages and communications between computers that are working in the background, to make all this happen. They are AI machines.
If you’ve ever heard the whining of a fax machine, that’s the sound of those machines communicating in their language to negotiate a connection to pass information. Some fool is about to ask me, “So you’re saying that fax machines can think?! What a fool!“. Some know who that fool is – I’m obviously wrestling to keep them out of this! I’m obviously not saying that fax machines can think. I’m saying that machines too can have languages that they use to organise and coordinate for exchange of information. Some will have forgotten or may not be aware, that humans also communicate via a set of non-verbal languages, which include signs, signals, odours and touch.
Concluding this part; language becomes an agreed common protocol for communication and transfer of information – which is contained in the 4 main ingredients. It is part of human thinking and it is part of what AIs and animals do in their transactions.
This is deeply connected to point 4 – action. In the case of the cat in the video, purpose was pretty obvious. The cat’s actions had value to itself and we would agree that its actions were protective of the child. I hate to say ‘I hope’. But I hope people can see that. I’m not about to digress into foreseeable futures, in exploring purposive actions. That comes under ‘recognition’. Animals that hunt, singly or in groups, do all of the four key things. Their survival depends on it.
Thinking and thought as we commonly know it among average non-impaired humans, is a highly evolved activity – exceeding lower forms of thinking among animals. When in our evolutionary history (for those who subscribe to evolution), we were limited in our ‘mental faculties’, we the human race would have been able to think at a level closer to that of animals. I say that we should not be so arrogant now, millions of years later, to come to ideas that seemingly lower animals cannot do thinking of a certain kind.
What’s to be learned? We as a species are still very much learning how to think more efficiently. It is a struggle because our world is becoming more and more complex. The information we need to process is often conflicting, doubtful and places heavier demands on us in our decision-making. How do we find the thinking skills in a modern ‘confusing’ world, to get at something that we can rely on and use to our advantages? Big questions. I’m not anybody’s guru. So no answers. I don’t advise people. Let us go forward with a sense of humility, discovery and a willingness to develop, in rising to the challenges.
- Thinking and thought involves 4 key factors – not necessarily in sequence. They may happen in parallel.
- Human thinking grows out of the 4 key factors to include other important factors – not listed in this post – because they have been listed elsewhere on this blog.
- Animals are capable of thinking and thought – but at a different level or in a different way to what humans may normally conceptualise.
- Artificial Intelligence machines are capable of thinking and thought, in like manner to deafblind humans – though not to the same level as humans (at this point in time).
- Nothing said above means that looking forward, I will be more forgiving of the stupid. Nope – they will be under more pressure to get their act together.
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