Consciousness — thinking

by Neil Rickert

Today’s post is about thinking, and about what thinking really is.

People broadly agree that we think about ideas, and somehow we make decisions about those ideas.  But, beyond that, there does not seem to be a consensus on what thinking really amounts to.

I will be discussing my own view on that.  I don’t doubt that some people will disagree with my view.

What is thinking?

I see thinking as rehearsal of behavior or rehearsal of possible behavior.

The idea that it is rehearsal of behavior is not original with me.  I read that recently, but I don’t remember where.  I had previously been thinking of it as a simulation of possible behavior, which is a similar idea.  But I really like the term “rehearsal” here, as it better captures my ideas.

Some people want to connect thinking with language, and want to see thinking as uniquely human.  But that does not seem quite right to me.  A leopard looks at an antelope, and begins to tense its muscles.  The leopard is rehearsing a possible move to go after that antelope.  I see that as thinking, even though language is not involved.  Or a golfer thinks about his stroke before he tees off.  Or he thinks about his putt stroke as he tries to sink the golf ball into the hole.  Those are examples of thinking about behavior that do not involve language in an essential way, though the golfer might also be talking to himself during his thinking.

Judging our thoughts

Thinking is important as part of our decision making.  So we are, in some way, able to make judgments based on our thinking.

In my previous post, I suggested an experiment where you try to touch the tip of your nose with your eyes closed.  I can do that reasonably well, but I often miss by around one half an inch.  Instead of trying to touch my nose, I can just think about touching the tip of my nose.  And I experience similar sensations for that, except that the sensations are a lot weaker.

Changing the experiment, I can try to lift off my glasses with my eyes closed.  I am pretty accurate with that, probably because it is something that I often do.  But now, instead of lifting off my glasses, I can think about lifting off my glasses.  The sensation for that is a lot stronger than the sensation from thinking about touching my nose.  And again, it is very likely that it is stronger, because lifting off my glasses is something that I do, so it is well practiced.

We already saw, in that previous post, that we are able to perceive our motions and actions via proprioception.  So it looks as if thinking is really something like proprioception.  The action centers of our brain generate actions, but keep those disconnected from the final motor neurons.  Thus we are able to rehearse actions in our minds.  And apparently our internal perception (or proprioception) is partly tuned to the generation of actions, so we have some ability to perceive those rehearsed actions even when not connected to the final motor neurons.

What this amounts to, is that we somehow are able to perceive our own thought.  And the decisions that we make while thinking are really a kind of perceptual judgment.  And, very often, perceptual judgment is something similar to measurement.

Our ability to measure and judge our own actions is calibrated by means of our interactive experience in the world.  We get better at this measurement and judging the more we practice it in our own behavior.

Thinking, then, involves a rehearsal of behavior and a measuring and judging of that behavior using our our skills at perceptual judgment that have been calibrated by means of our real world experience.  And this is what connects our thinking to reality.

Thinking and language

Our use of language is a large and important component of human behavior.  And so, unsurprisingly, thinking about speech is a large part of our thinking.

If I am thinking about mathematics, my perceptual judgment of my thinking is, at least in part, on whether I am properly following the rules of mathematics and logic that are involved.  But my linguistic thinking isn’t all about logic.  As I write this blog post, I am trying to make judgments as to whether my choice of expression will be clear enough to the reader.  Sometimes we might be judging the poetic qualities of our speech.  There is a lot more that we think about than just logic.  And, of course, we think in terms of the meaning of what we are saying.

Can a machine think?

Whether a machine can think — that was roughly what Alan Turing was considering in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, where he come up with what we call the “Turing Test”.  And the field of Artificial Intelligence arose from that consideration.

We know know that we can have highly complex logic machines.  Such machines are all around us today.  And they can do logic very well.  But I’m inclined to say that they do not think.  The logic machines are really switching devices.  They are not rehearsing or simulating behavior and then perceiving that simulated behavior.  So what they do is very different from what I take thinking to be.

Computers can handle logic very well.  They can handle it better than humans.  But they lack the ability to make other kinds of judgments, such as of the beauty of speech.  Perhaps that will change over time, although I think that unlikely.


2 Comments to “Consciousness — thinking”

  1. Thanks for your ideas. We have very different conceptions about what thinking is, I see. For me, thinking is primarily concerned with concepts: manipulating them, combining them, and searching for them. The concepts only rarely have anything to do with proposed behavior(s). There is a kind of resemblance between the inner activity of thinking and the sensing done during proprioception. I think in a simple way, it is due to the fact that engaged thinking very much has a feeling quality of inner movement associated with it. Thoughts move, and we ‘move’ between and among them, forming correlations. But the other way is that thinking is very like using a sense organ: we strive to sense a specific thought, a concept fitting some perceptions we’ve received (externally usually but not always). We hunt for the thought, for the concept. This experience is palpable when we find a heretofore new thought which is ‘right’. This happens a lot when younger, and when doing math, as you alluded to. Not calculations, but intense reasoning, working things out fueled by intuitions. Main thing is, thinking is activity, sometimes intensive activity. In feeling and knowing this, we see it’s unique position, how different it is from pure sensory perceptions, like visual or olfactory percepts, which are simply given to us. We search for the explanations of sensory perceptions often, and this demands thinking in order to suss out the accompanying concepts for the perceptions.


    • Thanks for commenting. It’s always good to hear how other peoples ideas relate to mine.

      I sometimes think of Einstein’s thought experiments on relativity. And I see those as thinking about measuring and observing behavior, as in measuring and observing mass, force, length, time. You probably look at it as thinking about the concepts of mass, force, length and time. And maybe that’s not really very much different from how I look at it. Our concepts are connected with our behavior.


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