Thinking About Thinking

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

It is now obvious to me that thinking is an automatic process in cognition. It is evident that meaning is automatically establish through mental associations. Some of these associations are shared beliefs that are held by consensus in communities, which establish what is accepted as truth. This is this social validation that is the basis for widely held beliefs. Sometimes what we believe is not learned from others, but rather formed from our past experience. However, we are confronted with the dilemma that regardless of our beliefs, and how we came to them, we know certain things that we can't explain, either by belief or by evidence.

For example, we are certain of the fact that we are alive. We are equally certain that we know that the world exists. Both are self-evident to us. We are aware of this, yet we are unable to explain it exactly beyond the fact that these are obvious to us. But how can we explain the fact that we know it? Is it that we are conscious? What then is consciousness? How it is that we are conscious? What exactly is this phenomenon? Do we know what we know because we think it to be so in our reasoning? If so then our knowing is only conceptual knowledge or a narrative of information. Or is it based on what we experience in our sensation as evidence for it? This would suggest that consciousness is an embodied experience that has elements of cognition and sensation. After all, can the mind exist without the body? The the subconscious mind is necessarily dependent on the body. Does that mean that all of our consciousness is also dependent on the body? Our waking consciousness included?

So, what if we dismiss reasoning alone as a way of knowing and focus on the body which includes the mind, and the observable sensation and perception that is knowable through the Body-Mind Unity. Would this be a more accurate way of knowing the reality of the experience of our presence. This might be called the awareness " I Am." This view presumes that perceptions based on thought alone are imaginary because they are not grounded in sensation. In such a case, "I am" is only a concept of the mind, and not a real phenomena. Yet we are certain, that we are, in fact in existence as an identity, with body and mind.

In believing this one might assume that it is "true" that we exist, and that we can actually observe accurately, and believe what our senses tell us as being true, and form correct conclusions. That is, that we are fully conscious beings. It is also the case that we believe our consciousness is a fact about us. That our perceptions can be trusted to be reliable. Yet we do so without any explanation that justify how it is that these statements about our self and the world are actually facts. We assert that we are an observer, but what then is this "Observer"? Aren't we left again with " I Am" , the presence that observes, as an obvious fact without explanation? This "I am" makes distinctions for us, expressed as language of what is true and what is false. And, further as "Conscious Observers" we are still faced with a paradox that even when negating something abstract the very subject we are referring to itself is usually a product of thought. How can mind's thought be used to defeat the mind's thought? Can one experience negation? That something is not something? On what basis do we distinguish what we think about our experiences from our actual experiences? This leaves us with the deeper question. Is thinking about the world and our experience valid in order to know what we experience from immediate and direct sensation? Is objectivity even possible?

Now lets look at where exactly this worm-hole goes…

Can something be determined to be both real and not real at the same time? Does our knowing require sense perception as a test of reality. Is seeing believing? Is reality only what can be perceived by us? If thought and sense perception are both equally valid ways of knowing, it must the case that the real and unreal are only matters of distinction dependent on how we make distinctions. That is by rational or empirical means, which then must be considered equally valid ways of knowing something, yet we say that facts must be proven. Its a paradox.

If rationality is anything, it is logical. Yet it seems to defy logic, which requires definitions that are reliable, to say that things exist because they can be defined. We know from experience in the material world that things exist that we find, and then define. But what about the world of abstract things, such as numbers, relationships, and processes. The kinds of things that Emmanuel Kant was concerned about. These are only known as such by the mind. There is no empirical basis for them.

Is it possible that this is a good description of the state of things? That certain things can be both real and not real at the same time? That in language, something can be not only "either true, or false", but at the same time be "Both True, and false." Perhaps its equally the case that something can be "neither true, nor false? That the actual phenomena that truth refers to could be so expansive that no words can adequately contain it. In effect, at a certain level the absolute truth of things is "ineffable." That is, we cannot know it.

One is reminded of Schrodinger's cat, trapped in a box for a period of time in which the probability is 50% that a random but determinable event will cause its death, or that with equal likelihood, this event will not occur and that the cat will be found alive. For that time, what can be said of the life of the cat? In the domain of possibilities, that poor animal is simultaneously both dead and alive. But at the same time it is equally neither dead nor alive? In the present, we cannot tell, because of the condition of the box that prevents us from knowing the facts, but here we have a moment of time in which two completely contrary futures are equally possible. Perhaps it is possible that both actually do exist each only in relationship to the other. The implication is that different futures exist in potential, to be revealed through observation of occurrence. The idea of different dimensions of reality must be considered in this perspective, in which our observation seems to determine what reality occurs, and at the same time the possibility of the alternative dimension must remain still as a possibility that has not been realized and observed by us.

OK, this seems to be about semantics. But looking at it closer we see that when we speak of the state of something in truth or non-truth, it is dependent on how it is described. That of course depends upon the extent to which it is known to the observer. That which cannot be known, obviously cannot be described. Both of these facts, are a function of the use of language which defines thinking by contrasts and comparison to differentiate something. Still in this thought process, the observer is required. It is the observer that is the thinker, and the method of thinking is based on a recognition of forms and comparisons based on forms. This is formatory thinking, which compares and contrasts, and it seems to be hardwired into human biology. But reality is not so clear cut as thinking would suppose. A greater logic can see in the reasoning by form, the attributes of sameness or difference are each valid propositions. What do we do when they offer contradictions and paradoxes? That is in cases where it is also possible for an explanation to be "both true and false" on the basis of forms, or even "true, but not completely true", or conversely "false but not completely false." Since exceptions actually do exist in the "shades of grey" between black and white alternatives, can any single falsification negate anything at all? Is everything we can say about anything, actually relative and not objective?

For example, how is it that in the quantum world, at any given moment a photon of light can be observed as a particle or a wave in dependence on the fact of observation only? This is established scientific understanding, and here is a perfect example of:

It is.

It isn't

It both is and isn't

It neither is nor is not

The arising of one state of being in this sense is not predictive of the next state that will be observed. That state arises completely independently of the past state, and yet still fully dependent on the condition of observation itself. So which is true? That the photon is a particle or a wave? Its manifestation as one does not make the other state untrue. This would surely make most people question their understanding of reality, because these conditions only occur in scientific experiments, and not in or day to day life where our senses alone tell us what is true.

So where does this lead us? Perhaps it leads to a reformulation of thought? That thought is perhaps more dynamic than our minds have been conditioned to understand. Perhaps it is possible for a higher level of thinking than what proceeds automatically within us?

For example how do I listen to the propositions of others? In effect, I am observing the minds of others when I am truly listening to them. When someone speaks their firm belief, and they really, fully, believe it to be true, can I be completely impartial to their belief? Can I really think about what is actually being said without making a conclusion of my own? Can I simply observe it and let it be open to show itself in the way that it does. Or will I simply either accept it, or reject it, with or without proof, simply on the basis of suggestion, or by the way it agrees or disagrees with my own beliefs, or based on standards of a consensus about reality which has some socially accepted authority? Instead can I consider the proposition as a possible state of affairs, which may not seem obvious at first, but which is starting point for reasoning that is as a beginning point to look at all things through the lenses of all three logical forms.

The Excluded Middle (either true or not true)

The Principle of Inclusion (both true and not True)

The Principle of Negation (neither true /nor not true)

In this way, perhaps, is it possible to see what is so about something because ideas are examined for both validity and negation, and our minds are protected from suggestibility. Under these conditions, it becomes extremely difficult to claim to know anything with total certainty. Often the functionality of a belief becomes the test of its utility. On this basis of this logic, one can see that beliefs held by most people are extremely suspect. The implications of this are significant, because all of societies attempts to control the mind by conditioning beliefs through controlling the acquisition or use of information, forms, or symbols are defeated as none of this can be considered complete enough to exclude the possibility of either the inclusion or negation of contradictory material. One can then conclude that belief itself must be universally rejected, and we find that there is "nothing" which can replace it. We must be prepared for circumstances to show up merely as they are. While this can be disturbing to a mind that wants certainty, it also is enlightening.

To bring light to what is concealed is to free thought from a prison created by illusion. Perhaps the mind can then be free, at least of the influence of systems of thought that indoctrinate. This is the case of notions such as religious dogma, national ideology, economic or environmental imperatives, cultural norms and conventional moralities, etc. Even respected ancient knowledge, accepted and speculative history, and the limits of our language and mathematical theories are subject to a healthy dose of "open-minded skepticism" or at least equanimity. Instead, we simply look and see what is so, even if we must face the fact that our understanding and explanations are necessarily very limited, even as we find utility in applying them.

If the premises of anything can be;

Either accepted or rejected,

Both accepted and rejected,

Or neither accepted nor rejected;

then we are left in stunned silence at all assertions as being simply "possible states of affairs" in which all matters are explored, with proposals to be inquired into, phenomena to be experiment with, and all this in the interest of understanding the real state of things. We do not presume anything at all, and perhaps from a logical confrontation of this sort of reasoning, if something can be eventually be known with certainty, it will then be known based on considering all the factors and not simply based on suggestibility, consensus, tradition, or belief.

This reasoning process is extremely ancient. It derives at least from a second century Buddhist thinker named Nagarjuna, and is the basis of a sophisticated logical system that determines that nothing in reality can be found to exist without some cause. Therefore nothing has an unconditional inherent existence. In this view what exists is what appears to arise in dependence on some already existing phenomena. This is called in Buddhism dependent origination. In this sense, I can see that a plausible explanation my own existence and of the world's existence and also of my consciousness, is that it all co-arises, each part arising in dependence on the arising of other. In a way it is then perhaps the case that what is really mystical, more than anything else, is the fact that this co-arising occurs.

And yet this is not a natural perspective for us! In fact it is perturbs us greatly, as instead, we are taken with the set of illusions as to the absolute nature of reality, of all manner of things, as revealed by our senses, that tell us that the state of "things are either true or false" as we think of them. It is the illusion that something is correct simply because of the logic of our minds and our ignorance of an "empty" state of affairs in which "things are real but at the same time not real", and also at the same time "not so sufficiently real, nor sufficiently unreal" as to be actually and reliably known.

It is only for this reason that thought is suspect. It is also for this reason that an effort of thought must go beyond simple dualistic means to understand the nature of anything that we intend to try and understand. Our discourse on questions cannot rely on easy answers. Perhaps we can see the" already and always" present contradictions and confirmations as evidence of the fact that our understanding is necessarily tentative, subject to the limitations of our own thought and language. That being said and understood, we can no longer be satisfied only with the experience of ours bodily senses as measures of truth, as that apparatus cannot possibly reveal or un-conceal the totality of what exists beyond our senses. That scientific empiricism is not the final word, because even that has its limitations too, as evidenced by quantum cloud chamber experiments. But perhaps even this proposition is "both true and not true" and "neither completely" as well.

And so the mystery continues….

With appreciation to Russell Targ and JJ Hurtak for their book "The End of Suffering" which inspired this essay.

Photo by Steven Ramon on Unsplash

© Copyright 2008 Robert Fertman, All Rights Reserved

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