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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Order of Thought

I continue to think about thinking. Just can't get it out of my head!

I just read in SA that Neanderthals made jewelry 130,000 years ago which shows they had developed symbolic thinking in Europe even before homo sapiens came in from Africa. So if they had art, they probably had language, raised questions, mapped out their areas and days, and communicated all that to each other. I guess they learned to communicate with the newcomer homo sapiens since there is evidence that they mated with the result that most of us with European ancestry have Neanderthal genes

Terry Pratchett who I earlier named my favorite theologian is also now my favorite philosopher of thought since I read his The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Here he tells the story of how Maurice the cat and certain rats by ingesting some mysterious substance achieved the ability to think and speak together and with humans. This leads to all kinds of problems that have to be worked out. All of a sudden they have a sense of individuality and "I." Then they realize that they are part of a community of thinking speakers, a "We" that carries with it some responsibilities that they never had to deal with before. For example, they raise questions about their own existence and their purpose; they even wonder if they have gods like humans have. And they get a terrible sense of right and wrong. Maurice can still eat rats, but not rats who talk; and the same for the rats who used to eat dead rats. It just doesn't feel right. Kinda hard to get down! Linked with their ability to speak comes an ability, even duty, to respect each other, to plan and collaborate to achieve concerted action; and the struggle arises to achieve some respect from humans.

Thinking, as Eve and the Serpent taught us, is a terrible, wonderful responsibility.

Words, art forms, categories, symbols, maps, and models are not thinking; but using them is. So is designing, constructing, refining, and extending them. Memory (the ability to store and retrieve images) and sets of rules by which neurons and synapses work to process the symbols, categories, and models or what we commonly call ideas or thoughts are sine qua non conditions for thinking. But thinking is more than memory and algorithms, and therefore more than intelligence (as we discovered when dealing with artificial intelligence).

Is there any order to thinking by which we can understand its progression more? Let me briefly consider six kinds of order: Chronological, Psychological, Logical, Phenomenological, Pedagogical, and Developmental and then try to draw some conclusions.


In Hebrew mythology the Name came first. Yahweh God created by naming including Adam (Man) and then gave Man the ability to name the animals thus giving Man domination over them. Until the Fall, that is. In Christian mythology in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and through the Word everything was made. In Greek mythology the Idea was primary. Though we are chained in a cave to look at shadows on the wall, the Sun outside casts its light on real ideas that make the shadows.

Cultural anthropologists find pictures before words and then pictures as words. Children studies observe meaningful gestures that are then vocalized in interaction with caregivers.

Psychological: The science of the brain and nervous system is still in its infancy and moving fast. It was previously believed that the evolution of the neocortex over the reptilian and limbic brain is the origin of thinking. Recently however the study of consciousness indicates its association with the total brain and nervous system and seems to be an integration of all parts and areas of the brain. Nevertheless there seems to be a progression from identification of threats and benefits to biological life, to appreciation of other persons who might protect and enhance life and create community, and then to communication by using artifacts or tools as symbols to warn, plan, collaborate, and understand.

This raises the question of analysis which is a major part of science and of all knowing. While atoms and even smaller particles in physics, elements in chemistry, cells in biology, neurons and synapsis in neuroscience can be seen, do they really exist? For it is only in the breaking down through analysis that they appear. And the same for genes and memes. There is no question that the analysis is useful and leads to explanations of physical, chemical, biological, neurological, and cultural (including religious, artistic, scientific) systems. And do these systems really exist? Or are all analyzed elements analogues within one Whole, like the strings in string theory or the notes of a great musical composition? If so, we explain, understand, and even exist by undoing, masking, and even destroying the whole truth. Our signs point the way but we never get there; or put positively, infinity is our destiny through the synthesis of all the parts interacting in an Integral Whole.

Logical: The formal part of every symbolic system (i.e. language, mathematics, artistic composition, religious doctrine) has its own logic as philosophic positivism and symbolic logic has shown. But what Kurt Gödel has proven is that the formal system cannot be internally proven but rests on an informal ground or context of unproven rules and assumptions. This would mean that the logic of any proof or theory rests on a self-evident or given truth "underneath" or "behind" or "beyond" or "before" the formula.

Phenomenological: Therefore we try to reveal the experience not of the thing in the world or of the symbols by which it is expressed, but the lived act of symbolic perception and action as it unfolds "before" or in process of uttering or constructing the symbol. To do this the phenomenologist uses both scientific studies as well as philosophical inquiry to point to or lift up the experience of engaging  others in the world in the thinking act. But any language or model we use to describe the lived experience of perceiving, singing, and understanding bodies in the world become formulations that can be critiqued and refined by a return to the act which utters them.

Pedagogical: Since all the other orders of thinking are limited, we resort to the pedagogical order of thinking by turning to the great teachers from Plato and the classical philosophers to modern times. In modern times, there is Kant followed by Hegel, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, who turned to the thinking mind by Descartes, use a phenomenological method to understand the thinking mind. There is DeSaussure followed by many psychologists who observe and describe the beginning of language in children. There is Ernst Cassirer and the students of mythic and artistic symbols. There is Karl Popper, Bernard Lonergan who analyze the scientific method. And here I am I suppose trying my own brand of pedagogy by highlighting the masters.

Developmental: And so I present my own developmental model for the order and progress of thinking. I see us moving from specific images, concrete analogues, simple concepts, immediate forms towards greater and greater abstraction (vertical line of complexification), towards more and more universality (horizontal line of inclusion), and towards a synthesis into a larger and larger whole (the vector line of transcendence), all striving for the infinite.

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