goop-think

Philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein to Rorty have speculated that perhaps problems of philosophy are really problems of language.

Thinking and communicating are messy processes. I want to serve up a freshly boiled mess, so put on your lobster bib.

Thinking happens in stages or layers. The most basic layer I think I understand somewhat is a process of forming sets or clusters of loosely-structured associations.

Neurons in the brain are organized in layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networked circuits. The organization is dynamically configurable. Different logical associations between  the layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networks are forming and reforming to accomplish different jobs.

One of those jobs is to assemble sets of associations that are organized around some theme. Lets say this set of associations on a common theme is the precursor of a unit of thought. I’ll call this cluster of associations on a theme a proto-thought. This proto-thought is not yet something that is represented in language. It is just a semi-structured set of associations–associations between various items that have been plucked from memory or incoming sensory data and grouped together around some theme. This semi-structured cluster of associations comes bubbling up from wherever it was assembled into a “higher” layer or network of the brain and it gets a snippet of language assigned to it–perhaps a word or group of words.

The snippet of language is like a container that is selected to hold the proto-thought so it can be further “handled” without falling apart or dissolving or getting mixed up with other proto-thoughts. The upside of using this language container is that it gives the proto-thought some persistence and some ease-of-handling properties.

The downside of using the container is that the proto-thought is somewhat fluid and, like any fluid, once in the container it assumes the shape of that container.

In assuming the shape of the container some of the original structure of the proto-thought is altered.

Once altered, its exact, original structure is forever gone. That change in structure that results from assuming the shape of the container represents a change of information or meaning. So the more closely the shape of the container matches the original shape of the proto-thought the less the original information or meaning of that proto-thought is altered. To retain as much fidelity to the original information as possible it is very important for the brain to select a container that matches the original shape of the  proto-thought as closely as possible.

Once the language packaging is completed a unit of proto-thought becomes a unit of thought.

As the thought-binding process proceeds, many such units of thought are passed on for futher processing and assembly into bundles. By this point the thought may have become a sentence or even a pragraph. These bundles of thought continue to be combined and recombined according to some purpose the brain has set for itself. This may involve only internal self-talk or it may eventually be transmitted in some finished form to another person.

As batches of  language are received by another person they are unpacked and parsed in roughly the reverse of the original process of assembly. They are broken down into units small enough to compare against the reciever’s own internal inventory of “stock” language containers.  The fluid contents of those stock language containers are then poured into another part of the receiver’s brain where they become absorbed as proto-thoughts.

The above is only intended to be taken metaphorically. The details are not important–the main point is that features of language modify and limit the content, shape, and  meaning of our thoughts. In the transition of associations into and out of language, information is lost and noise (which may be interpreted as information) is added.

We can’t really think outside the box of language –or even if we sometimes do, these non-language-conforming thoughts will be very transient. They will quickly “snap” into conformation with language, loosing some of the original meaning. In this way language is a powerful “snap grid” that makes it difficult for us to read or write outside the lines. I think this may be one of the neuro-cognitive underpinnings of confirmation bias.

The take-away message is that we must examine our use of language, especially our choice of vocabulary, very closely. It not only affects how we communicate, It affects how we think.

Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.“—Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

Poor Richard

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6 Responses to “goop-think”

  1. nobody Says:

    This would have been a much more user-friendly read if you would have entered in a few more commas in certain spots; still not that big of a deal, though.

    Have you read the book “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson? I just began reading the book, and they too talk about words as containers.

    Also, it’s crazy if you think about it: a little bit of the essence or the meaning of any idea is lost in the packaging process, then in communication, then in the others’ vocabulary, then in the others’ interpretation, and if the essence or the meaning gets that far, possibly in the others’ application.

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Sorry nb, I usually put in plenty of gratuitous commas. If I ever edit this post again I’ll see your comment and add some.

      …a little bit of the essence or the meaning of any idea is lost in the packaging process, then in communication, then in the others’ vocabulary, then in the others’ interpretation, and if the essence or the meaning gets that far, possibly in the others’ application.

      Yeah, well put. Its a wonder we can communicate at all.

      I haven’t read “Metaphors”, but I just listened to a philosophy video on the subject: Metaphor and Knowledge, by Nick, the YouTube philosopher. I’m not sure if this editor will let me embed it…

      • nobody Says:

        Yeah, that’s actually how I find out about your post.

        You should definitely check out that book, it just got really interesting after the first few foggy chapters.

        St. Augustine once said, “What then is time? if no one asks, I know; if one asks me to explain, I do not know.” And, personally, I find such perspective to be more widely applicable to human understanding than Augustine had probably anticipated. The depths of human understanding are, for the most part, superficial, shallow and lacking substance; for instance, ask somebody what love is, or beauty, or art, judging by their knee-deep explanations, one can assume their understanding is also knee-deep. Or, even if you inquire further into what somebody has just said — their choice of words or what have you — or the motivations or reasoning behind their actions, more times than not you will be confronted with similar results. It is really something to think about, that we act on the basis or the foundation of belief that we know what we are doing, that we and especially the I knows what s/he or it is talking about. Just some food for thought.

        • Poor Richard Says:

          “It is really something to think about, that we act on the basis or the foundation of belief that we know what we are doing, that we and especially the I knows what s/he or it is talking about.”

          I agree with you. nobody. That may be the most common subject on this blog of mine. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but how many of us really knows how to examine our lives? I think we assume we’d know how to do that if we chose to, but do we? The brain evolved in some very idiosyncratic ways, and self-examination was apparently not high on the to do list for natural selection.

          Begining of Wisdom 3.0

          PR

  2. Anthony Says:

    “Ignorance is bliss,” the proverb didn’t come from nowhere.

  3. Learning: from parts to wholes « Poor Richard's Almanack 2.0 Says:

    […] (The above “synapsis” obviously leaves out a lot of intermediate steps from simple associations to neural cooperation and division of labor to increasingly sophisticated pattern-detection capabilities on the assumption that a word to the wise is sufficient…and because we haven’t learned all that stuff yet.) Poor Richard Related PRA 2.0 Posts goop-think […]


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