The Incompleteness of Thought

(Essay) Unreality, Prediction, Risk Assessment, and Motivation

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What good is thinking and reasoning if economists, pundits, intellectuals, and the like are so often wrong? Great minds failed to foresee the 2008 Financial Crisis, Brexit, the rise of Russian aggression, the Trump presidency — so what use is thought? Clearly whatever its use, even if that use is necessary and invaluable, the use of thought is still remarkably limited. Though mastering thinking is necessary (for reasons argued throughout The True isn’t the Rational), thinking alone is inadequate. If we fail to realize how innately incomplete thinking is (even genius thought), we may think that we have the tools necessary for saving the world, but when we go to make a difference, before our eyes, nothing will change.

(Audio Summary)

If we tell a Deaf person something intelligent and the person says something strange and even foolish in response, is that person stupid? No: because of how the person “is,” the person is just unable to understand what we are saying. To determine if the person was unintelligent, we would have to sign the intelligent statement to the Deaf person accurately in a way he or she could understand, and then assess how he or she responded (though keep in mind that you could never say for sure one way or the other). Without this “translation,” any assessment we made would be incomplete and inaccurate, and the truth is, all of us are like the mentioned Deaf person. Because of how we “are,” we cannot fathom all the information in the world, translate it into terms we understand, or even come close to realizing all that “we don’t know we don’t know” (as discussed in “The Phenomenology of (True) Ignorance” by O.G. Rose). And yet we respond to it, and often must respond to it, and often our responses are strange and even foolish. Does this mean we are stupid? No: it has nothing to do with us being stupid or ideological, but rather everything to do with what kind of creatures we “are.”

Great Music for Reading

To stress the point: this paper isn’t so much about how thinking is prone to error — say due to confirmation bias, conflating “thinking” and “critical thinking,” etc. — but rather this paper is about how thinking in its very structure is limited and even useless (even “perfect” thinking from geniuses). Again, this paper is not about how thinking is often poorly constructed or erroneous, but about how thought is inherently limited and incomplete. Learning the limits of thinking, we will hopefully not make the mistake of putting too much faith in thinking.

I

Thinking is always bound to the information available to it. If I am in a room that is on fire and there is a door, it is rational for me to open that door. But what if on the other side of the door was a madman with a gun and in ten second the fire department would arrive and put out the fire? Then it would suddenly be rational to stay in the room, despite all evidence to the contrary. But what if I didn’t know what was on the other side of the door or that the fire department was about to arrive? Then though it would be “best” for me to stay in the room, it would still be “rational” for me to leave: I can either do what is “best and irrational” or “worst and rational.” Thinking cannot help you escape this bind; the intelligent person, precisely because he or she was intelligent, would probably do what was “worst and rational.”

Thinking cannot ponder what it doesn’t know. If I’m a pollster trying to decide who will win an election and no data I’ve collected suggests that ten percent more people are going to come out to vote, then my thinking and rationality would necessarily lead me to construct polling data that will be missing a large chunk of necessary data. But since I cannot know that I don’t know the “random event” that will happen during the election, there is no possibility of me trying to look for it or to know that I should be looking for it: the nature of reality is such that even if I do everything rationally and follow strict procedure, I must necessarily end up looking like a fool on election day. There’s “no exit.”

Thinking is incapable of being structured by randomness, happenstance, and “black swans,” and yet thinking is always “of” a world/reality in which randomness, happenstance, and “black swans” exist. Hence, thinking is always structured by “unreality,” if you will. This doesn’t mean thinking doesn’t have a place, isn’t invaluable, and/or that thinking is never right, but it does mean that the scope of thinking is always smaller than the scope of the world of which thinking is “of.” Yes, in some ways, the scope of thinking is bigger, for I can think of abstract ideas like numbers (though there are no physical numbers in the world, because humans exist, they are still in the world through humans but not physically).

In line with thought presented in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, thinking is never thinking “of” everything, because no human can know or experience everything. This seems obvious enough and we all know this when asked directly, but the thought rises and falls in consciousness as we live our daily lives. Thinking is always incomplete relative to “what is” even when thought is complete relative to “what is known.” Relative to the data the pollster received and knew he could receive, the pollster in the earlier example didn’t make any mistakes: he was “objectively right” relative to that data, and yet “actually wrong.” If the pollster lost his job, in some respects, it would be unjust.

Though invaluable and necessary, thinking is always of “unreality,” per se, but by this I don’t mean that thinking is “of” things that don’t exist, just that what thinking is “of” is never everything. It is always “incomplete,” and by “unreality” I mean something more like “incomplete reality” versus “fake reality” or “daydream.” But it really must be emphasized how “incomplete” thought actually is, virtually to the point of being “unreal.” Take right now: you are thinking about this sentence, and probably little or nothing else. You aren’t thinking about the chair you might be sitting in, how what you are reading was produced, the composition of the letters, or the atoms that compose everything you are beholding. You aren’t thinking about the desk you are sitting at, the cabinet that might stand in the corner, the people living their lives outsides your window, or the people in the plane passing by overhead. In this way, thought blinds in the very act it reveals; it fails to grasp in the act of understanding. As you read this sentence, you are thinking about the most infinitesimal percent of reality: so small is the subject of your mind that it’s almost laughable to say that your thoughts are “of” reality. Yes, this sentence is “part of reality,” but nothing even slightly close to “reality” itself.

And when confronted with this point directly, we all nod and say “of course,” but then we naturally proceed to live our lives, the thought falling away into the depths of consciousness, and we live as if thought is more real than “unreal.” It’s almost as if we can’t help it, and in many respects, thought calibrates us “toward” being this way. Thought is all we have, and if we thought all the time about how “incomplete” and/or “unreal” our thinking was, we’d all go mad. To keep sanity and to think at all, we virtually must forget that thought is never “of” reality (completely), and this makes us prone time and time again to fail to foresee a 2008 Financial Crisis, a Trump election, or worse.

II

Prediction rarely predicts: “unreal,” thought is remarkably incapable of foreseeing the future. Nassim Taleb, Thomas Sowell, and many other thinkers have warned about this for years, and yet the human race never seems capable of fully absorbing their teachings. I personally believe they are right, and yet I still find myself falling into “prediction thinking” regularly and being shocked when I turn out wrong. Even when we know that thought is limited, it seems we cannot help but fall back into believing thought is useful. Perhaps this is because thought is all we have and we spend our days thinking; as a result, we must necessarily believe that we can trust in thought, for otherwise we’d be dysfunctional (it would be like us using our hands while believing that we cannot rely on them to hold what they are holding). Similarly, if we didn’t believe that we could rely on the thoughts running through our heads, we’d go mad, and yet it is the case that we cannot rely on thinking for predictions, regardless the genius or expertise of the minds behind them.

Why do we constantly keep falling back into relying on predictions? To start, we require them: to decide if I should bring an umbrella today, I must rely on the “prediction” of the forecaster. If I’m dating someone and continue to pour time, thought, and love into the relationship, I must do so because I’ve made some kind of prediction about the likelihood that the relationship will work out, that the person I’m dating isn’t hiding his or her true self, and so on. If I start a job, I’m made some kind of “cost/benefit analysis” about working at the place and made a “prediction” about how likely it is that the job will prove favorable. Humans have to make and live by predictions, and we do so a lot more than we realize.

In other works by O.G. Rose, it is pointed out that all reasoning is relative to a truth: if I believe it is going to rain today, it is rational for me to bring an umbrella. Yet it’s important to note that I don’t actually know for sure that it’s going to rain: I’m acting rational relative to a prediction, a prediction which is based on various flows of information. The idea “it will rain” is a truth premise that organizes my rationality, but it isn’t a truth premise the same as “2 + 2 = 4;” rather, it is a “probable truth premise” or “predictive truth premise.” The point is that rationality is constantly organized and defined relative to predictions: if I believe the food at x place is good, it is rational to go there, yet I don’t know for sure that food will be good this time (I’m acting relative to a prediction and probability, which is based on experience). Why a person accepts one truth premise versus another is a question for another time: the point is that many if not most truth premises are probabilities.

We constantly live according to probabilities, and hence there is reason to suspect we are prone to constantly put more faith in probabilities than we should. We’re subconsciously trained, and it is strange to think that something we do so often is something we often do so poorly. But perhaps I’m being unfair: we tend to notice our errors more than our successes, and on a daily basis, many of our probability assessments are accurate (the door does open when I try; I’m not in a car wreck on the way to work; etc.). We seem better at making predictions about our particularities than about the future, on large scales, and the like, but of course predictions about the election “stand out” to us more so than predictions about an afternoon rain. Considering this, perhaps the error isn’t so much “overconfidence” — we tend to be mostly accurate regarding predictions bound to our particular and daily lies — but rather misapplication: thinking that we are as good at prediction on a “large scale” as we are on our “small scale.” Perhaps we are rather subconsciously trained to “misapply” our predictive abilities and must work to realize this about ourselves and “check and balance” it. Unfortunately, it seems to be the nature of thought to “misapply” and hence to give into the temptation to make bad predictions, and even if we know this, the nature of thought seems to “practice us out of” remembering.

III

How do we determine what we should think about? Indirectly or directly, embedded into the structure of thought itself, I would argue that it is by risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis: we choose to think about x instead of y because we believe there is more reason to think about x instead of y (even if this is not the case). Perhaps we believe this for emotional reasons more so than intellectual (as argued in “The Heart/Mind Dialectic and the Phenomenology of View(s)” by O.G. Rose); perhaps it’s more subconscious than conscious. Regardless, the act of thinking about x and y indirectly entails a kind of valuing x over y, if for no longer than the moment. If at 11:59AM today I think about x instead of y, then relative to 11:59AM in whatever location I might be in, for whatever reason, I thought it was better to think about x instead of y, even if I’m completely wrong. This is a cost/benefit analysis, a kind of risk assessment, and every act of thought is indivisible from it. This doesn’t mean that we “will” every thought that enters into our minds, but it does mean that if we choose to “accept” whatever pops into our minds, even if we’re entirely wrong, we believe it is better to “accept” it than not.

Focus implies value: all thinking is indivisible from what I will call a “CBRA” or “cost/benefit/risk assessing.” To think of x at 11:59AM on November 11, 2016 is to CBRA x over y relative to 11:59AM on November 11, 2016, even though at 12:00PM I might be focusing on y. To think is to CBRA (it is inescapable), but this point is no more practically consequential than saying “to live is to breath.” However, this point is important to realize in order to grasp a particular irony: though we CBRA constantly, we are terrible at CBRA.

The likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack is incredibly low, but Conservatives are constantly afraid of terrorists. The likelihood of being killed by the police is also very low, but concern about police violence has led to many Progressives being paralyzed with fear. Many won’t fly in planes but will thoughtlessly drive cars; many will demand the government to stop terrorism to save their children and then proceed to install a swimming pool in their backyard. Driving a car is far more dangerous than flying in planes and installing a swimming pool a far greater risk than government takeover, but we regularly think about the danger of planes and horrors of Statism. For whatever reason, we focus on exactly what least warrants our focus. Part of the explanation seems to hark back to Heidegger’s point about doorknobs: doorknobs are “invisible” until they are broken. Likewise, we don’t notice driving and swimming pools because they are “invisible” to us, being so normal, while terrorism, police killings, and plane crashes are so horrible our “hearts” focus our “minds” to focus on them.

Much of what actually impacts our lives — what can probably affect us — is that which is “invisible” to us, and hence it is that about which we don’t accurately CBRA. Does this mean we should never think about terrorism, plane crashes, racism, or the like? Not at all: my point is only that we are terrible at keeping things “in perspective.” Certainly terrorism, racism, and police violence are real threats that hurt real people, but installing a swimming pool while worrying about Al-Qaeda is deeply ironic. People drown in swimming pools far more often than die in plane crashes, but that said, the number of people who drown in pools is much less than the number of people who die in car crashes, and that number is likely less than the number of people who die from heart attacks. Horrible at CBRA, we are more likely to buy a gun to protect ourselves from the government than we are to exercise.

CBRA accuracy doesn’t necessarily increase as does intelligence, because CBRA directs the focus of intelligence “before” intelligence; in other words, CBRA occurs and then intelligence goes to work based on the decisions of CBRA. As it’s hard to see the foundation of a building while in it or on top of it, so it is difficult to recognize the CBRA which “supports” thought. Thought has to “look under itself” to grasp this truth, and this act isn’t necessarily one that an intelligent person is more likely to do than someone who is uneducated. This is because one’s “feelings” will probably motivate the individual to just keep “building the building,” to not look back and question if the construction should continue. In fact, the more intelligent we are, the more “beautiful the building,” and hence motivated by the beauty, the more likely we might be to keep building. Intelligence hence becomes a liability.

IV

As thought is terribly unreliable at predicting, thought is remarkably incapable of changing people. As discussed by James K.A. Smith and in “The Postchristian Church” by O.G. Rose, humans are not primarily “thinking beings:” thought changes us much less than do experiences, feelings, and the like (though this isn’t to say thought doesn’t play a role at all). An argument for LGBT marriage will not change people’s view of LGBT marriage as much as will a movie about LGBTs living their daily lives. Yes, arguments can help people “open up” to such a movie, but arguments without art tend to leave a hole with nothing to fill it. Beauty changes more than syllogisms.

To revisit thought from “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, thinking is inherently reductionist. I cannot think of everything, especially not simultaneously, and hence to think is to reduce. I never think of everything in the room I am in, just one thing at a time “as if” that was all that the room entailed. To put the point in Heideggerian terms, thought translates Being into being more so than does art: both unveil and hide Being in being simultaneously, but thinking commits the trespass more so.1, 2 Thinking is always less than experience: the thought of x is always much smaller than the experience of x (and understanding this is the key to grasping why ideas never motivate as powerfully as do experiences).

Unlike philosophy, sociology, or other schools of thought, art tries to create a “full” experience versus a “reduced” idea. We live in experience, not ideas, and hence art tries to create something “more like” what we live through daily than does thinking, not because thinking doesn’t try, but because thinking inherently cannot. Invaluable and necessary, thinking is always “smaller” than experience, though that doesn’t mean experience is necessarily “better.” Thinking is necessary for experience, and deep thought can “open up” a person to experiences that without thought a person couldn’t receive. “Bigger” isn’t a simile for “better,” but when it comes to motivation, experiences do have an advantage over thought. Furthermore, the brain in “shrinking” things can actually make things that don’t matter seem “a bigger deal” than they actually are, for these things can dominate a person’s focus. The brain’s tendency to “shrink” takes things out of proportion, which can both make them seem irrelevant and overly relevant.

What about thought that manifests through engineering into the form of a building? A fair point: there is an argument to be made that all manifestation of thought into a table, a book, etc. are a kind of “art” and/or are more “motivational” than thought without manifestation. To allude to “Sensualization” by O.G. Rose, all “sensualized” thought is more motivational than “unsensualized” thought, but I believe thought “sensualized” into art is more motivational than thought “sensualized” into other forms. Art is uniquely powerful because it “opens up” the viewer to change in ways that the sight of a skyscraper usually doesn’t: while a bridge may paralyze a person in awe, it doesn’t tend to change a person’s worldview. It can, but not like art, simply because of what art “is.”

Admittedly, I realize this point opens the door to a huge question — “What is art?” —

and for now, I will have to sidestep a full explanation, pointing to “On Art” by O.G. Rose as at least a start. But for now, I will say that art is an experience that suspends the self from keeping itself from hearing a question the art asks: “Will you change?” This forces the self to ask “who am I?,” “can I change?,” “what do I want?,” and other existential questions that can profoundly change a person’s life. Does all art do this to people equally? No: one person might be impacted by one piece of art while another person is impacted by another. Furthermore, we have to explore questions of what makes art not merely entertainment, and acknowledge that mediocre art doesn’t motivate people as much as does excellent art. And paradoxically, art that can be reduced to syllogisms and “the meaning” tends to be art that — though easier to discuss in philosophy textbooks — doesn’t change people existentially, personally, and motivationally, as well as does art that is much more immune to “reduction,” art that “you just got to see to get.”

Art is more so an experience than ideas. Art requires ideas to exist, but the particular manifestation of ideas into art can motivate more so than do ideas that only manifest into syllogisms. To be human is to experience: though it is possible to exist in a state of thoughtlessness, it is not possible to exist in a state of “experiencelessness.” As humans are necessarily bodily, we are necessarily experiential. Hence, art more so “gets” at what is “inescapably human” than does syllogisms, deductive arguments, and the like. Humans are not just “brains on sticks:” we are bodies stumbling through experiences and thoughts. Art tends to guide us better than do ideas, for it is easier for humans to learn “direction” from an experience than a thought (for we are more familiar with experience and it is clearer how to apply lessons from experience to experience). Yes, thoughts can change people’s lives, but not the majority and not as regularly as can art. Without artistic manifestation, thought is never a strong motivator: we simply don’t connect with it as well (even though we think all the time).

Thinking changes the world mostly to the degree that it enables us to have deeper experiences of beauty, truth, and goodness. Without thought, beauty, truth, and goodness cannot be experienced deeply, and since we are “heart/mind” creatures more than “heart and mind” creatures, we need thinking to change our hearts. But don’t let this lead you to think that thinking can never fully grasp the world or change the world without beauty, truth, and goodness. Mediocre ideas that inspire art change the world more than brilliant ideas that don’t inspire art. Ideas without art can change people, but never the majority, while thoughtless art changes the majority more than does brilliance. Though necessary and invaluable, regardless its genius, thought alone can never be art.

V

This paper has focused on four ways that thinking is unreliable and “useless,” and this paper believes those four ways have major implications. We live by predictions, yet thinking, bound to “unreality,” is prone to be wrong in its predictions. It is by CBRA that we determine what we should focus on and think about, but for various reasons, we are terrible at CBRA. Lastly, thinking and ideas alone have little motivational power: without beauty and emotions, they can do little to change the world.

As has been emphasized, please don’t mistake this paper as saying thought has no use at all; feeling that way, I wouldn’t have bothered with most of my essays. Yet that said, we certainly shouldn’t overestimate the range, scale, and influence thought can have on human life. We must master thinking, but even if we become masters, this will not be enough alone to save ourselves. We need art. We need emotion. We need experience.

Does awareness of the limitations of thought help? Yes, but then again, no. We have to predict; not everyone can be an artist; there’s not always time for art. We cannot avoid using thought to do that which thought is virtually useless at doing: ironically, we must think to do x, and thought is that which keeps us from doing x. We must do what we cannot do, and this being our ontological predicament, epistemological humility seems to be the virtue we all require, and yet it is the virtue our thinking is — in its very structure — against.

Great minds are prone to overestimate the influence of ideas-in-of-themselves, being overconfident in what they are talented in (like most), and in so doing, fail to direct ideas toward influencing art, culture, and markets in a manner that will greatly impact society. Again, don’t mistake me as saying ideas don’t matter: my point is that ideas are innately limited in their capacity to accurately predict, influence, and grasp the world. It is essential we master “the life of the mind,” but we must never be deluded into thinking that the mind is all we should master. We must also master the heart. We must also be open to what we could never even begin to comprehend.

Though necessarily and invaluably, thinking is limited. Experience is bigger and richer, but without thought, we will be unable to receive much of the experience that can change us for the better. We must never forget that though thinking is a road we must master traveling, experience is ultimately the destination. We must not make the road a home.

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Notes

1Philosophy without stories tends to call Being “being,” and hence there is a need to deconstruct the traditional border drawn between philosophical and artistic work: mixing the two helps being resemble Being; truth, Truth; “(un)reality,” Existence.

2Alluding to “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, Heidegger shouldn’t have made thought more thoughtful but more perceptive. But perhaps he knew this, yet the only tools available to him, like us, were thought-ful?

There is a sense in which Heidegger wanted the act of thinking to be the act of art: he wanted thought to be experience. This is an impossible goal, but it seems Heidegger wanted to find a kind of thought that could at least “point to” a solution, even if that solution was unachievable. Such “artistic thought” could expand the possibilities of being(s) (in the world) (though not necessarily), while natural thought tends to actually shrink possibilities, for it tends to separate being from Being, to reduce “holistic things” into “mere things” (as usually determined by their “usefulness” to (the) thinker(s) — in this sense, art is a thing without usefulness, without “thingification”). And yet thought is required to deconstruct and/or evolve itself into “artistic thought.”

Generally, we realize what a thing “is for” by thought/use, and what a thing “is” thanks to art/perception. Considering this, there is a sense in which a portrait is better than a photograph, for while a photograph more so “thingifies,” a portrait depicts essence. It could be argued that a beautiful building is better than a purely utilitarian one, for beauty says something about the society the building is in: it says something about the “truth” of the society (a society that only focuses on “use” still speaks about its self in its buildings, but it can be harder to tell what it says). Considering this, does “artistic thought” experience truth better than does “thought?” It would seem so: it would seem that thought is somewhat useless to experience Being without translating Being into being.

Our being is always trying to devour Being; our world is always trying to devour the earth. Thought always tries to devour perception; thought always tries to devour meaning. Does this mean thought is bad? Not at all — it’s necessary and invaluable — but what it does mean is that what’s “necessary and invaluable” for knowing truth is at the same time what makes truth so hard to know.

We are our own obstacle.

2.1There is an argument to be made that “artistic thought” would useful for overcoming racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, for “artistic thought” would open a being up to “the other” as he or she “is,” versus as he or she “is thought to be” (as determined by the being). Art reconciles.

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