Why Thinking And Philosophy Are Difficult To Understand

Yes, I know that the title seems to promise grand technical wizardry or some breakthrough in neuroscience. I don’t have any of that, but I do have an idea why these are difficult for most of us.

It has to do with the nature of thoughts themselves. We all have them. We know they happen in our brains. Still, we don’t really understand what they are and use all manner of descriptive language to validate and substantiate concepts which are nothing more than thoughts because they are common to many or all of us, even animals that are not human.

When someone uses Lego blocks to build something like this picture they are using their brain’s ability to project an outcome using rules of behavior for the various elements and actors in the simulation used for the prediction making.

That is to say that to predict the future state of something we model the world related to the goal in our minds using the rules of behavior we know about the elements of the simulation. In an oversimplification, the creator of the object pictured knows how the blocks fit together, visual perspective, the shape of our brains and so on to predict how to arrive at the final object one small brick at a time. The creator had to think about how all the pieces would fit together and whether the end product would be close enough that all or most viewers would recognize this as a representation of the human brain.

That is an entire sequence or cluster of thoughts. The selection of each brick took dozens of thoughts. Is it the right color, shape, size for the place I want to put a brick? While those thoughts are happening there is another huge sequence of thoughts governing what a brain looks like and from which angle or point of perspective. All of the smaller, seemingly single, thoughts build upon one another like the bricks in the picture to form what we like to think of as a thought.

That is to say that when we think we have a thought what we mean is that we had millions of thoughts and in summary they can be presented as a single picture. We have so many thoughts that we are not aware of most of them, only the higher level summaries. When you sit on the grass in the park, you see a blade of grass ‘wave’ yet are not aware of the thoughts that happened to process that bit of information. That blade has to be located in an ocean of visual data, recognized as a blade of grass, and if the analysis of that blade shows nothing ‘unusual’ nothing more is considered of it because it matches our concept of normal. Our brains matched that object against expected behaviors of grass and more specifically grass you find in a city park, not other types or locations.

Combine that process dozens of times and your conscious mind says “I think there are a lot of blades of grass here” – you have what you call a thought. In reality, over the course of milliseconds, your subconscious mind and conscious mind worked together forming and processing millions of ‘thoughts’ to form a summary.

Back to the title

When people have to consider objects which do not conform to the rules of behavior in their mind already it forms a kind of pain. Any effort required adjust the rules acts on the brain in a manner similar to how physical pain acts on the brain. Kids will tell you that learning hurts. Adults who use their brain all day at work will tell you that it wears them out. This act of thinking is a very resource hungry process.

Thinking is ‘painful’ for the conscious mind… in a manner of speaking. Thinking about god and philosophy causes pain. This is why people avoid it if they can. The human brain is capable of huge computational powers and we see this in the brains of people with not-normal brains… like Kim Peake and the many like him whose brains don’t work quite the way most everyone else’s brain works. Everything human was evolved over time to be ‘just good enough’ to survive so it is that there are compromises in the design or function of it. We trade off Kim Peake’s skills for other skills and it was evident that he lacked certain skills that most of the rest of us have to one degree or another. (Kim Peake was the actual Rain Man)

The pain of changing the rules is a reaction to reforming all the chunks of code we have written over time that include the rule we have to change. If tomorrow we woke up and found that balls never bounce we would have to rewrite a lot of code to deal with that, not to mention the changes to sports. So let’s just say that stuff only bounces 1/10th the amount it used to. Think of all the rules of behavior in your head that you’d have to rewrite to function in life based on the one simple change: stuff only bounces 1/10th as much as you think it does. Okay, so that sounds drastic, lets make it only 90% as much as it used to bounce. Now, you still have to rewrite all those same rules.

Philosophy represents the same type of problem to the human brain – rewriting rules and that causes ‘pain’. Thinking, all by itself, requires the brain to move chemicals, expend energy, engage more neurons etc. People who suffer migraine headaches will tell you that all of these things exacerbate their pain.
Because we think all the time, we underestimate the effect of having to think… until we are hip deep in the thinking and decide the effort required is worth more than the return expected for the exercise.

Yes, I’ve just broken it down to electromechanical terms. I’ve done so without explaining the exact function of any given part of the brain. Rather I’ve looked at it from a system design perspective. Our brains use the subconscious parts of our brains to do most of the heavy duty computing for us. It is only when our subconscious subroutines cannot clearly make a decision that our conscious brain gets involved. When you see clouds in the sky you think nothing of them consciously unless your subconscious brain recognizes a patter that is not expected, then your conscious mind focuses on the data and gets involved to do the less structured analysis of the data. When this happens it costs us in terms of energy expenditure and effort.. it in fact drains us and our resources. We work to avoid pain and maximize pleasure as an overarching guide to what our brains do. This means that thinking and philosophy cause this pain and we are wont to avoid it.

Under such understanding, it’s easy to see why a lot of people would accept a god as an explanation for the universe and stuff that we don’t understand easily. It takes no thinking and we were trained at a young age to accept this set of rules as real. In adulthood, changing those rules is difficult and costly.

A thought? The simple but complex act of simulating the action of an object in the world as we know the rules of how that world works. We’re capable of running simulations of world that do not exist or in which the rules are different – such as other planets or game worlds. The very same way we simulate the surface of Mars in our thoughts is how we simulate the world around us.

We do not live in the real world, but in our thoughts. We live in a simulation of the world around us that runs about 500 milliseconds behind reality. Our brains adjusted to the lag/delay when we were too young to speak. Now, the pain we feel seems instantaneous, but it is 500 milliseconds delayed from point of pain to comprehension of pain in our brain.

As a segue, Sam likes to think our subconscious mind is not part of our mind. He’s wrong. If your conscious mind had to worry about everything we’d die because we forgot to breath or cause our hearts to beat. Our subconscious mind is very capable of doing learned tasks. This is handy for professional sports players and others. There have been brain injuries where the victim could not tell you what a piano is, but they can play one. The code to play the piano for a song is stored in the subconscious and even if the victim could never learn another song, that code is still with them. Everyone signs their names many times per year. When was the last time that you had to think about every movement of the pen when doing so? Do you do it without conscious thought now?

Anyway, enough for now…

What are your thoughts on this? Don’t hurt yourself…

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  1. What was that remark that Data spoke in Star Trek Next Generation when he was trying to learn to dance? “A complex set of variables”?
    Every endeavor entails activity in our brains beyond that of which we are aware. I am trying to learn how to pencil draw landscapes. A complex set of variables, indeed.

    • And your visual cortex processes that complex set of variables many times per second, analyzing the visual data in at least 5 different ways. Thankfully we don’t have to think about it much….

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