Just a thought: the limits of thinking about thinking…

Whilst I was a university philosophy student, I had what one might call a ‘mental episode’. I won’t go into too much detail as to how this occurred, or what preceded it, but it is enough to say that the bottom fell out of my understanding of the world.

Prior to this particular event, I had always assumed, though I don’t think I’d realised that I assumed it, that I had a soul or a mind. But this event forcefully made the case that this was not true. The only way I can describe the beginning of the episode is as follows: it was as if my brain switched off for a moment, and then nothing, and then it switched on again. This occurred repeatedly for an entire night. But when I say ‘nothing’ it was not ‘me’ observing ‘nothing’. It was just nothing. (How or why I knew it was nothing [if I wasn’t there to observe it] I  still can’t quite work out.)

For the next nine or so months I was terrified. Every minute of every day I spent shitting myself. Any observer, however, would not have been aware of the inner turmoil I was suffering. I could do everything I’d always done: eat; crap; write; read; have conversations – without drawing any attention to what was ‘going on inside my head’. But I knew.

I’d be doing something, and then I’d have a niggly feeling that there was a big issue I needed to solve, and then I’d remember it and have a huge brain explosion. It would all happen in less than half a second and I’d be back in the room. I’d be making a cup of coffee, or at the bar buying a pint and then – Boooom! ‘F*%$! I don’t have a soul!’ ‘That’ll be three pounds, please.’ ‘Oh brilliant, I’d forgotten it was pound a pint night.’

That ‘boooom’ thought… That was something. I’d try and work out what it was. I’d think – oh it’s A, but then I’d look closer and realise that it was actually something that appeared like A but wasn’t quite; it was actually B and C together and then I’d realise B wasn’t actually B but D and E together etc… It had a picture associated with it. It looked a bit like a circle, but then I’d look closer and it wasn’t quite a circle because there was an indentation in the sides making it actually two circles squashed together, and then I’d look closer … and so it would go on. I remember one day coming across a representation of a Mandelbrot set and just staring at it for ages, thinking that someone had broken into my brain and painted my madness.

I was called into my supervisor’s office at one point after I’d written gobbledy-gook on an exam (having strangely taken the opportunity to try and work out a solution to my problem), and he suggested that I see a doctor. At the time, I was horrified and irritated: ‘What would be the point in that? Does the doctor have proof that I have a soul?’

(In retrospect, it would probably have been wise to go to the doctor’s, and obviously, that’s what I would always now advise, but I was an arrogant young fool.)

Then, nine months later, during the summer holiday, a friend of mine wrote me an email with a quote at the end of it ‘death is not an event in life’ by Wittgenstein. Worrying, very vainly, that he had begun reading more widely than me, I rushed off to Waterstones and immediately bought a few books by the author. That evening, I read, and enjoying what he wrote, I carried on. Bit by bit, throughout the evening, the knot in my brain became untangled. I slowly came to understand that my ‘issue’ couldn’t actually exist – it was pure nonsense. One particular paragraph struck me:

It is correct to say ‘I know what you are thinking’, and wrong to say ‘I know what I am thinking.’

(A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar.)[1]

My whole problem had been that ‘I thought I had a problem with my thoughts’. But how could I possibly have thought I had a problem with my thoughts? I could not step back from my own thoughts and observe them. If I thought about a thought, I would not actually be thinking about a thought, but having a new thought entirely. Thus, it became clear to me, that my own thoughts cannot be thought about. My infinite regress vanished. And just like that, my episode ceased.

Sometimes I have flashbacks, and have to work through the logic again to untangle it. This often happens when people start talking in strange ways about thinking. Recently, someone aired the commonly help belief that neuroscience will someday explain how we think, or what knowledge really is. Such a notion is nonsense. I don’t doubt that neuroscience will come up with lots of useful information. But it can’t show us the true nature of knowledge, or what we are actually doing when we think.

What we often fail to realise is that there is a distinct difference between the 1st person uses of words and the 3rd person uses of words: I know, is not analogous to you know. The difficulty is that there are fundamental differences between 1st person uses of words and 2nd or 3rd person uses. ‘I know’ is not analogous to ‘you know’, or ‘he knows’, and neither can they be unified with reference to a ‘state of the brain’. Consider the following:

  • I want to get knowledge of his knowledge by observing his brain, using my knowledge of observing brains.

Now translate knowledge as ‘a particular state of the brain’

  • I want to get ‘a state of the brain’, of his ‘state of the brain’ by observing his brain, using my ‘state of the brain’ of observing brains.

It should be clear from this, that any state of the brain that I have concerning his state of the brain cannot be the same as his state of the brain. Thus, if ‘I’ want get some knowledge of the knowledge of someone else by observation of brain structure, there will forever appear to be a veil between the one and the other. Knowledge cannot be both the instrument and the object of investigation…

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1967) p.222.


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