Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us not only science, literature, and morality, but also superstition, slavery, and war.
Our topic his week is the power of thought. Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us science, literature, morality, and last -- but certainly not least -- philosophy. Thought even has the power to create new realities. And I’m not primarily thinking of literature and the arts or even of technology. I’m thinking of the entire social world. Every size social reality from clubs to nations and every thing in between is a creation of the human mind, of human thought in particular. They all exist because we simply think them into existence.
Of course, the mind is not all sweetness and light. Besides all the things I just mentioned, it has also given us superstition, slavery, and war. But that just makes the nature and power of human thought all the more puzzling. The mind that spent millennium after millennium, mired in archaic social formations, in the grips of irrational superstitions is the very same mind, with the very same powers of thought, as the mind that produced science, philosophy, and art. Our goal is to understand just what human thought is such that it produces both the science and superstition, both democracy and slavery.
So let’s start at the beginning and ask just what thoughts are in the first place. When you ask the person in the street, like our roving philosophical reporter did, she or he is liable tell you that thoughts are that little voice inside your head -- where that means inside the brain, if the person is a materialist and inside the mind, if person is a dualist. But we’re trying to figure out what thoughts are, not where they are. If we’re going to understand the power of thought, we need to first understand the different kinds of thoughts and how each different kind works.
Take a simple thing like the belief that there is beer in the fridge. That’s a thought. But it’s only one kind of thought. And suppose that you want a beer. That’s a thought too. But a different kind of thought – a desire. Beliefs represent, or misrepresent, how things are in the world. They are the kinds of things that can be true or false. Hopefully our beliefs are more true than false. If our beliefs are false, the rational thing to do is change our beliefs to match the world. Desires, on the other hand, don’t represent how the world is. We don’t say that my desire to have a beer is false just because I don’t have one. But we do say that my desire is unsatisfied, when you want a beer, but don’t have one. The way to satisfy a desire is not to change it, but to change the world. That’s where a third kind of thought comes in – intentions. If you believe there’s a beer in the fridge and you really want a beer, then maybe you will form a new kind of thought – an intention. An intention is the kind of thing that can make you get off your duff and walk over to the refrigerator and get a beer. Or not -- if you’re a weak willed, lazy sort.
Now we really want to understand the power of thought and what it actually does in the world we have to to understand how beliefs manage to represent, or misrepresent, the way the world is; how desires manage to set forth ways the world might become; and how intentions move us to act to actually change the world. That may seem like a very tall order, but it’s a little more simple than it might at first seem, because beliefs, desires, and intentions are built out the same basic building blocks -- just put together in different ways. In particular, they are all built out of concepts or ideas. My belief that there is beer in the fridge, my desire to drink a beer, and my intention to go and get a beer all involve the concept or idea of beer, for example. So we can make a start on understanding the power of thought by thinking about the nature of concept or ideas, where they come from, and the different ways they can be put together to create such a wide-variety of thoughts. And once we’ve got a handle on that, we can think more about the different things that different kinds of thoughts do.
Unfortunately, that’s probably more than John and I can handle on our own – especially in a one hour radio show. But luckily for us, we’ll have help in the form of Steven Pinker, the world-renown author of an amazing series of books about the human mind – including his most recent, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window on Human Nature. Should be a fun hour.