The Power of Thought

Thursday, December 9, 2010 -- 4:00 PM
Ken Taylor

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. 

Comments (12)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, December 9, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Yes, Mr. Pinker has quite a reputation although I

Yes, Mr. Pinker has quite a reputation although I admit I have not yet read his work. My intention has been to do so, but, well, we are all a little lazy at times. All of the components of thought; desire, intention, identification and the like are indeed what make us sapient beings. We are rather more active than reactive, giving us a refined capacity for the uniquely(?) human activity we call planning.(The question mark should be self-explanatory in light of what we are learning about the capabilities of other terrestrial life.)
There has been much re-evaluation and opinionation of late on the subject of consciousness and thinkers and researchers have tried, at some length, to explain what it is; what it means. I believe we are getting closer, although it has been postulated that an organism, no matter how sophisticated, can never truly understand itself. A good friend and associate has speculated that self is, in reality, only a myth. Campbell might be proud. We think, therefore, we are. Mythology has its place in our high-tech world.
I think that thoughts are instruments of consciousness.
We have them readily at our disposal. And a good thing too. An alternative postulation might be that thoughts ARE consciousness. Let's see what your visit with Mr. Pinker brings forth.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, December 10, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

My thoughts are true. And truth is the power of t

My thoughts are true.
And truth is the power of the universe,
The immeasurable power of me.
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, December 10, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I think it is cool that Steven Pinker and Rebecca

I think it is cool that Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein are married. Two very elite intellectuals who, I see, have brought great works on Psychology, Philosophy, Neuroscience, and American Literature into the Twenty-First Century. Such subject-matter as above mentioned, is favored in both authors works, and Philosophy Talk has past interviews that to illuminate such topics.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, December 11, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

I think I'LL have a beer. Some pizza would be good

I think I'LL have a beer. Some pizza would be good, too.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

A desire is not a thought. Thoughts are assessment

A desire is not a thought. Thoughts are assessments. The assessments of the nature of desire and means of dealing with it are thoughts - in think worthy animals in any case.
Otherwise we'd have every biological entity out there thinking up a storm.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

what about the progress made with mind altering dr

what about the progress made with mind altering drugs, especially for paleolithic men and animals... we use them recreationally, but what about ritual use in a "native" shaman type ceremony? Could that have had a major affect on thinking outside our daily struggles? Could technology also be a culprit of our self-awareness, i.e. idleness buys time for introspection?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

RE: Thought and Pinker + language = form We are w

RE: Thought and Pinker + language = form
We are what we have been exposed to. From my stance, using English and computer, plus Chinese, I see things in language differently than many. Chinese, a language my Chinese friends love to have me try to speak in public as a great joke because I'm tone deaf, gives me a hint of how thought arises. Especially when I use computer. It is the form window. What is the form window for the language and you can help folks translate to your language. Chinese is a rigid form base language. Largest, next largest, and so forth. Any variance and you are telling your audience there is something in how you list the descriptors that is important to understand, the goal of thought beyond one's own mind. We drive pure Chinese speakers nuts, as we English speakers have 42 different ways to tell you the listener or reader what day it is. They have one. Unless something is more important than year, month, day, hour, minute. So English form is often noise to a Chinese speaker. Or pure confusion. Once I learned this, I became the go-to guy on the Business School staff to teach incoming Chinese students what a Harvard Business Case was all about. Because their first reaction was "Where is the question?" And they would be truly lost trying to tease it out of all that text.
Ok, you guys like fun leaps. Remember that wonderfully beat up piece of work called the "Bell Curve?" What the form window approach to language shows up in that work. Chinese speakers test higher in math functions. (The Bell Curve was cast out on its Black/White crap, but most folks here ran right by the "Asian" rankings.) If you have such a huge "form window" pushing reasoning/weight valuing (versus English, which is more a common sharing emphasis, you know...:)--see "computer" allows us to be tongue in cheek over straight written, so it is a language with improvements on the base form even to this ancient writer...)and the population evolves to represent the "window" parameters on tests administered to all EVEN WHEN a child whose parents speak Chinese learns English as a primary language.
So I'm back to my Systems Science basis on thought. We have to see what the boundaries are on our own languages to get some reflection on how thought arises or is organized inside our pre-programmed brain when it starts learning from its environment. Most of us slip through all that with out any problems and speak the mother tongue. But when we age, it is a hard road to learn new languages for unique thoughts. So the real question for all the grown ups here is what is thought to a baby brain? And how are they organizing it into a communicable form? Most of us have forgotten that part in our "adult" questions.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, December 17, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

thought: a word referring to gathered consciousnes

thought: a word referring to gathered consciousness activity.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, December 18, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

The universe has no boundries, nor should our mind

The universe has no boundries, nor should our minds.
Freedom is this Way.
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

Warmest Greetings, Although I thoroughly enjoy

Warmest Greetings,
Although I thoroughly enjoyed your post immensely, there are issues I must disagree with. Thoughts are not ephemeral, thoughts really are things. But anyhow, you have an interesting viewpoint and I thank you for letting me share this with you.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 6, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Working on Pinker's How the Mind Works. I like his

Working on Pinker's How the Mind Works. I like his characterization of mind: Mind is what the brain does. Elegantly simple and straight to the point. It is a lengthy book---one I shall enjoy, I am sure.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 8, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

I finally made some time for Steven Pinker. His Ho

I finally made some time for Steven Pinker. His How the Mind Works is a good read so far and affirms (for me) my ideas about consciousness/thought/sentience, etc. In his chapter on Thinking Machines, he discusses three "senses" of conscious being: self-knowledge; access to information, and appropriately, sentience. Humans appear to have all of these senses in greater or lesser degrees, and are therefore higher up on the tree of consciousness than other forms of animate life. And, it seems safe to say, we are more complete thinkers. We THINK so anyway.

 

Listen:

 
 
 

Blog Archive

2018

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2017

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2016

December

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2015

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March

February

January

2005

December

November

October

September

August

July

June

May

April

March