Thought v Experience

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

So, where are we, and how did we get this far. This is a short history as I see it, laid out in the order of discovery rather than the chronology of events.

The Dawn (The Preparation)…

Man acquires self awareness and reasoning capacity through evolution. Maybe other members of the 2.4 million year old Homo genus had it too. Details unimportant.

Man’s Journey…

1) Man sees himself think for the first time. At this point he figures: I think therefore I am – thinking starts to dominate. Even though we did have to wait for Descartes to spell that out. Man isn’t aware of The Dawn at this time, and remains ignorant for most of his existence so far. But he soon begins to ponder origins, truth, reality.

2) Millennia of philosophical and theological musings emphasise the primacy of this purist thinking over the rough and gruesome experienced life, to the point that some speculate on the possibility of solipsism and many variations on the theme of idealism, pure spiritual existence. Philosophical logical thought develops and searches for absolute truths. Plato proposes his forms, as perfections distinct from the messiness of bodily earthly life. The simple, the pure, the perfect, become the object of our investigations, whether divine or natural. The divine thoughts invent many origin myths over time – all in the heads of the believers. These myths are expanded upon to produce complete narratives up to some important point, and ideas are refined into a monotheism, the variations of which dominate thinking. A simple but effective story that not only explains origins but is also recruited to the unexplainable of one’s personal life and times.

3) Natural philosophy bumbles along trying to figure out what’s happening in the practical world. Some progress and much nonsense. The difference here is that nonsense becomes evident as such when it turns out not to work. The still primary thinking process doesn’t suffer this setback, since, if you can think it, it must be true, or at least possible. Some start to question the balance of pure reason against a material empiricism, but without any clear headway on the empirical front we find thinking still dominates.

4) Big jump forward. Evolution discovered. It appears we evolved, not only from creatures that have less thinking capacity and self awareness than ourselves, but also from life forms that didn’t have any nervous system as we know it at all. We came from truly experience-only, non-thinking beginnings, which existed long before The Dawn. Experience is our primary means of discovery and had precedence after all – though this was hidden from our enquiring minds. And the supposed superior thinking, it turns out, is an add-on, an upgrade – a new and valuable tool when it appeared, but not the primary route to knowledge acquisition. It’s early use, as fine as that appeared to be, to the brains doing the thinking, was no better than the wobbly child on a bike for the first time, making some progress, but with little control.

5) The Enlightenment starts to show the benefits of empiricism. But there is over confidence. Dogmatic science emerges. Science has a short affair with modernist dogmatism in the 20th century, where it is believed by some that science is infallible. But this is because they too misunderstand what science is and how it is limited in the hands of humans – they are still not thinking straight. Despite the principles that are being developed many scientists and science proponents fall into the same pattern of behaviour that has plagued religion – the truth of authority, the certainty of knowledge. Our child has become a teenager, a boy racer, overconfident for lack of drastic failure, impervious to the effect on others.

6) Roll on the later 20th and the 21st centuries. The science wars break out and expose the fallibility of science, as a very human enterprise. We’re seeing more and more how flawed our individual thinking and experiential capabilities are. But they are all we have. Further revolutions in communication spread dissension against the dogmatic authority of science; with no small help from the feminist backlash to the male domination (and not just in science).

7) Science grows up, recognises its fallibility and the fallibility of it’s methods and the fallibility of its scientists. There’s a real democracy of science: open to all comers, no matter what gender, race, culture, religion; but at the same time the science itself is a democracy of data, not of people – the data speaks, not the people (in theory). Despite all the problems, this is the best route to take to knowledge. It’s not perfect. It will make mistakes. Some philosophers are listening to science, and some scientists are taking on philosophy. Science has to think about how it does science. Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. There are still philosophers in their ivory towers ridiculing science because of its flaws; and theists are still locked into ways of thinking that are being dictated by myths from the pre-scientific times. They mistake ‘ways of thinking’ for ‘ways of knowing’. They don’t see the failures of their own ‘ways of thinking’ (e.g. that faith is a good idea). They are not different ‘ways of knowing’ – since humans have only one way of knowing: experiencing the world and thinking about the experiences. Many point to the emotions, and feelings. But these are no more than internal experiences, to be experienced and reasoned about – they form part of the same one ‘way of knowing’.


So, here we are. This scientific view might not seem as perfect and as pure an outcome as it was anticipated ‘pure thought’ would produce – but the primacy of pure thought was always an illusion anyway. We only thought our thinking was our primary means of discovery. It was not, is not. It is an add-on, an upgrade that we can use to make sense of our senses. But without our senses it’s just a mental machine running on nothing but internal feedback from its own noise, destined to wonder everywhere and anywhere and to take sense and nonsense as indistinguishable justified beliefs.

In fact we can say more than that. Thinking is sensing. The neurons of the senses and the brain are pretty much the same thing. They are ion driven pulse carriers, with internal chemical systems and chemical interfaces to other cells. Brain cells ‘sense’ and ‘activate’ each other much as sense neurons sense and motor neurons activate. It’s a far more complex and incestuous relationship within the brain, but we have no evidence that our experience of thinking consists of anything other than this neuron interaction. We feel thinking is something special, and even feel we have the experience of a free thinking mind in some other realm, the mind realm. But if we consider how inefficient it would be for a thinking system to have to sense its own thinking process in great detail – an infinite regress avoidance system, a filter of internal unnecessary experience – then it seems quite reasonable that a thinking brain cannot detect the actual mechanism by which it thinks. The result is we feel we have minds free of this physical home.

But as far as we can tell we are entirely evolved empirical systems, in which thinking is just one more complex physical component process.

So, is this it? Is this the end of the line. Has science reached its pinnacle?

No, only the start…

Understanding and prediction of nature are still some of the main businesses of science and philosophy – to know how things are and to predict how things will behave. This includes all the mysteries of human nature – though the prospect of demystifying some of this seems to frighten some people – they cry ‘Scientism!’

It’s hard to say where this will lead. We have no more reliable a conception of what science, human knowledge acquisition, will be like a millennium from now, than did those living a millennium ago have of what today’s science would become.

Perhaps we need another mental add-on or upgrade. What’s the next model up from our current emotional but rational feeling mind? What extra mental tricks will we be able to perform? Given our current pace of technological change it looks most likely that it will be an artificial upgrade rather than a biological evolutionary one.

Given our remaining commitment to the primacy of thinking it seems to me like we’ll need an upgrade to progress through this bottleneck of a brain that still sees thought as the primary means of acquiring knowledge. Science seems the best, the only route to success in moving forward. The track record for religion is stagnation in past millennia; and philosophy is hard to shift out of an obsession with long discredited or unevidenced ideas.

5 thoughts on “Thought v Experience

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s