We think that we can think.
Thinking that we can think, we think we are superior to all other living creatures.
It is possible that the genus of hominids we call modern man developed language around 40,000 years ago. Most of the human race is now believed to be descended from one small family unit which left Africa some 100,000 years ago. That is a fairly accurate estimate based on the average rate at which genes mutate. Only in the last decade or two has it been possible to analyse genetic material quickly and relatively cheaply. Where as etymologists used to trace the movements of prehistoric peoples through common words in their languages, now genetic paleontologists can do the same thing using our genes. The date for the development of language is much more vague and based on the assumption that there is some kind of link between the development of language which leaves no archaeology and ritual which leaves artefacts and cave paintings. It is also reasonable to assume that the family group from which most of us are descended had some language, if only a few tens of words. Since the development of language is an ongoing thing, the point at which we declare language to have developed is completely arbitrary. The creation of ritual objects certainly suggests that language has evolved to the point where it can be used for story telling.
Modern man developed language to the point where it could be used for thinking and was able to think just how superior humans were to other living creatures. Other creatures lack language, so we assume that they cannot think. Similarly, those individuals who have a more sophisticated command of language think that they are intellectually superior.
We have to learn language and we have to learn how to use it to think. As a teacher, I am all too aware of the fact that individual's skill at using words for thinking varies greatly. It is necessary to distinguish between that kind of thinking which consists simply of repeating to ourselves phrases that we have heard and actually using the language for deductive reasoning or creative composition.
Those readers who have discovered my Physics web-site and know enough science to have read some of it will have inferred that I think I am better at thinking about Physics than Einstein. The fact of the matter is that I now realize that I am not very good at thinking. Realizing that I am not very good at thinking makes me a better thinker. Thomas Tup, a character in the film "The man who went up a hill and came down a mountain" says of himself and his brother "Folk say we are tup (Welsh for unintelligent), but at least we knows we are tup. There's none so tup as folk who don't know that they are tup."
When I was young, I thought that my thinking was clear and logical, now that I am older, I am not so sure. This thought liberates me to reexamine my own thoughts, recognise my mistakes and rethink things out afresh. Realising my own limitations, I am free to realize the limitations of others. If I can be wrong, Einstein can be wrong.
Teachers who recognised my abilities used to encourage their development by telling me how cleaver I was. Other teachers, presumably regarding this ability as a threat used to tell me how naughty I was and put me in the corner, or send me out of the room. My earliest memory of school is of standing beside the teacher in front of the class to read and reasoning that "father" could not possibly be the word for Dad because the "a" would need an "r" to turn it into the "ar" of father. Before I could express this logical argument, the whole class was told that I was extremely stupid and I was sent to sit in the corner. Sitting in the corner, standing at the back, or outside the door gives a child plenty of time to think. I found reading difficult and spelling almost impossible. My brain compensated for this by developing perfect recall. (Fortunately, this is selective and my brain clearly differentiates between that which is worth remembering and that which is not of interest to me.)
It is apparent to me that I think differently from most people and have tried hard to understand both why and how this is so. My mind is very good at jumping from one association of ideas to the next because of both the speed of recall and the quantity of stored information that it can sift through. The thing I excel at is spotting logical inconsistencies. I do not think I would have developed these skills if I had not been dyslexic. As a child, my mind developed ways of coping without reading and writing skills. When as a teenager, I got to grips with reading and language, the two modes of thought process became integrated.
I think the way I do because I am dyslexic. Dyslexia is an interesting word because while it is very easy to recognise the condition in children, the educational psychologists whose profession it is to diagnose such conditions teach the doctrine that there is no such thing. They identify a whole variety of what they call "specific learning disorders". This illustrates just how fragile language is as a tool for thought and communication. Not only do words change their meaning and mean different things to different people, but we are continually identifying new objects and developing new concepts which have no word to describe them. Language is always evolving and the meaning of a word can never be precisely defined and is never fixed. All this makes it a very inadequate tool for thinking and conveying ideas.
As I am writing this, and as you are reading it, we are using language as a means of thinking. It appears to us that the words in our minds are the thoughts: that thinking is contained in the process of using language. My experience as a dyslexic person suggests to me that the words form only a small part of the overall process of thinking. When I say "the cat sat on the mat" the word cat is linked to my entire experience of cats and it probably conjures in my mind an image of a particular cat on a particular mat. But even as a think about it, images of different cats on different mats flash though my mind. Fatty sitting on the door mat waiting to be let out is replaced by Rupert asleep on the sheep skin in front of the fire and then by an indistinct image of the picture in the child's reading book. You may hear my words as just words, or you may draw on your own memories of cats and mats. Whatever the case, I will have conveyed to you only a tiny fraction of what the words meant to me.
I want to pick up on a phrase I heard recently: "Clear thinking people" ( I think it was Tony Benn who used it something like this: "being a clear thinking person, he made the mistake of all clear thinking people in assuming that other people think.") I shall define a clear thinking person as one whose thoughts are logically consistent. I am very good at spotting evidence that someone is not a clear thinking person because my mind cross references what they are saying with things I have heard them say before, checking for logical consistency. I am not so sure that I always apply the same rules to myself. Indeed there are matters which I think can only be addressed by holding conflicting ideas in tension against each other.
I want to assert that because of the limitations of human perspective and language, there are issues which need to be looked at from different perspectives, and that when each of these views is reduced to language, they are not necessarily logically consistent with each other. So I would add that clear thinking people need to be able to recognise such situations and realise that they can only be described by a set of logically inconsistent statements. The obvious example from the world of science is that of wave particle duality. Light can behave as if it consists of particles and it can behave as if it consists of waves.
It is traditional for psychologists to divide mental functions between the conscious and the subconscious. I suspect that much of the way they think about this is distorted by placing too much emphasis on language based thinking. There is a story about Buddha picking up a tulip and asking his disciple "what is this". When he replied that it was a tulip, Buddha rebuked him saying that as soon as he gave it a name, he replaced everything about what it was with a single word and lost the wholeness of its wonder. Likewise, labelling mental functions as conscious and subconscious reduces a very complex interaction to two mere words.
If we are to think clearly, we need to understand the complexity of how we think. Learning to drive is a good illustration of the way the mind works. There are so many skills that are needed: letting in the clutch, steering, changing gear, analysing the road ahead, noticing hazards, taking other road users into account and finally constructing a predictive model of the movement of other vehicles. As we learn each of these skills, the conscious mind has to work very hard to acquire the required thought processes. Once each is acquired, the brain is able to perform that skill automatically and the conscious mind can move on to the next. Learning to drive is much harder if you try to think about it using words. "Oh, look, I appear to be wondering over to the right of the road. Ah yes, I know what to do: left hand down a bit...." Driving my car, my brain is thinking about the task at many levels, but I am only aware of the higher level functions. It seems reasonable to assume that thinking about ideas is no different. We are aware of only the higher level function of manipulating words, yet our brains are doing a vast amount of work at many different levels of function in order to achieve this.
I am aware from the fact that my thoughts often contradict accepted wisdom, that I think differently from other people. My best guess is that as a result of the dyslexia, my brain developed both its powers of recall and its ability to look for logical inconsistency and that these processes are all the time working hard in the background. One might say, at a subconscious level, but my understanding of that is in line with my analysis of learning to drive.
In everything we do, the brain is working hard thinking. Hominid brains were functioning in this way long before we evolved language. It is important to understand that our brains continue to function at these levels. Language based thought is just the icing on the cake, perhaps just the rosewood veneer on the oak furniture. But long before animals evolved the ability to think, their behaviour was controlled by more primitive biochemistry based systems. These systems are still present. Anyone who has fallen in love knows that they can cut straight though our ability to think rationally. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the thought process integrates many layers of brain function, each evolved in succession over many epochs.
Thinking is a risky business. We may think that we are thinking clearly, but so many things can go wrong with the thought processes that we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we are wise when our wisdom is simple a load of old twaddle. From an evolutionary perspective, language performs two functions, first as a means of communication of information and strategy, but also a means of social cohesion within a group. Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that the ability to think using language has evolved in this context. Thus we judge wisdom through conformity. If our thoughts coincide with those of others, we are considered wise, but if one's thinking strays too far from accepted wisdom, one is judged to be foolish, even mad.
While I have every confidence that the theoretical physics of the future will be based on my ideas, this generation of physicists labels me a crackpot. It is not easy to be an original thinker because it is so easy to come to the conclusion that since one's own thoughts do not conform, they must be wrong. I experienced this for myself when after my breakdown, I returned to the study of physics and came to the conclusion that Einstein was wrong and his his theory of relativity a mathematical fudge. It took me two years before I believed myself. I was overpowered by the thought that Einstein and all of those who taught his theory could not possibly be wrong. In the end, I was convinced by the mathematics that I was right.
It is easy to understand why mathematics has developed with such explosive vigour since the time of Newton. Every word in its vocabulary is precisely defined and its language enables logical thinking. What is more important, it can easily be ignored by those who are ignorant of it. [I found a quote on the internet as I was searching for the origin of the phrase "clear thinking people": "The math portion killed me both times, as I (like all clear-thinking people) despise mathematics." This is so illustrative of a muddled thinking person's self justification.] Mathematics has provided a haven where clear thinking people can exercise their ability without fear of ridicule, banishment, torture or execution. It is however interesting to note just how many mathematicians were involved in the explosion of the new ways of thinking which we call the Enlightenment. Mathematics opens the mind to logical thinking. It also sets thousands of problems before the student which must be solved using the knowledge and skill they are acquiring, each stretching their mind a little further. Each having a definite single answer which once obtained confirms the student in the correctness of their thinking.
The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason as it is also known saw the development of science or natural philosophy as it was called. People were no longer willing to accept the teaching of the church, but wanted to understand nature. The Church taught that the Earth was the centre of the universe. This assumption made it very hard to analyse the motions of the stars and planets about the earth. The discovery that they could be described far more simply by assuming that the sun was at the centre of a system of planets and moons contradicted the teaching of the Church. When Galileo constructed a telescope and observed the moons of Jupiter to be in orbit about it, he confirmed that the mathematics of Kepler applied to nature. When he tried to teach this, he came up against the might of the church and, faced with torture, recanted. Even today, the battle between Church and Science continues over the issues of creation and evolution.
I have come to the conclusion that the human brain has evolved to make decisions and value judgments on the basis of limited information. We cannot feel the earth moving. We can see the clouds scudding across the sky. There is no reason to suppose the earth is moving back and forth under the clouds. On the basis of this information, it seems reasonable to assume that the sun, moon and stars move across the sky. We need three more pieces of information before there is any reason to think otherwise. The first is that some of the stars are moving relative to all the other stars. The second is the geometry of their motion across the background of the other stars. The third is a knowledge of the geometry of cycloids which only mathematicians learn about. Since the number of people who have ever been capable of performing the detailed calculations to predict the movement of the planets is very small, there was no chance that anyone other than a few mathematicians would ever be convinced that the earth and planets orbit the sun. It would take generations and the growth of the education system for this to become part of the accepted wisdom which we take on trust.
Much the same applies to geology and the study of the age of the earth. When very few people have ever seen the twisted layers of rock exposed in a cliff face, and the only available data are the myths and traditions recorded in scripture, why should anyone ever doubt an age calculated from the recorded generations of ancestors from Adam to Jesus. Not only have we evolved to make decisions and value judgements on the basis of limited information, but we have also evolved to take the wisdom of others on trust. The battle between church and science in the southern states of the USA has now become one of trying to control the education system and the accepted wisdom which it imparts.
Being a curious sort of a person, I like to see things for myself. I have seen the twisted layers of rock exposed on the cliff face, seen the fossils in the museum, even found a fossil or two myself. In Darwin's time, geology and fossil hunting were quite fashionable among the gentry, but the data needed to go on and form the theory of evolution was incomplete. Not all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were available to put it together. It was only when he came across evidence of evolution at work in the Galapagos Islands that Darwin had enough data to realise that the fossil record was evidence of evolution. Even then, some of the most vital pieces were missing.
Having grown up and lived in the television age, my main source of received wisdom comes from television documentaries and so, even if I have not been to the Galapagos, I have seen many films of the evidence. It seems to me that anyone who would refute this evidence and adhere to the doctrine of Creation Theology must be stupid. But how can 70,000,000 people in the USA all be stupid. Well, they have been born into a culture in which the accepted wisdom preached in every church on every Sunday is that the Bible is "The Word of God". That and the fact that the Bible says that God created the world in six days is the limited information that they have to go on and it seems quite reasonable on that basis to assume that all this science is just an attack on their religion. Nothing stupid in that.
Religion provided a means of controlling and exploiting people and so societies all over the world and throughout history have fallen prey to people who set themselves up as priests and get other people to provide for them. As cultures evolved, others caught on to this ides and invented their own bodies of knowledge and set themselves up as pseudo priesthoods. Doctors, lawyers, philosophers, court advisers, teachers and university lecturers all caught on to the principle that if they could convince others their knowledge based skills were of use, they could sit back and let others do the work. These pseudo priesthoods have greatly influenced the way we think, each creating its own body of accepted wisdom.
There was a time when an educated person could have a reasonable grasp of most fields of knowledge, but as printing technology developed, we reached the point where new books were being published faster than anyone could read them. This explosion in publishing has continued and with the growth of information technology, we are all totally swamped with new ideas. New ideas threaten the livelihood of those who pedal the accepted wisdom and so they fight back. Just as Jesus was crucified for suggesting that God was a loving father who forgave sin, Professor Eric Laithwaite inventor of the linear induction motor found his academic career suddenly ended when he demonstrated in the televised Royal Institute Christmas Lectures how gyroscopes did not behave according of the laws of physics. Such was the pressure from academia that the BBC were even persuaded to destroy the tapes.
It is important that we realize how the current accepted wisdom is controlled by the organisation of academic closed shops. Once an error has been incorporated into the accepted wisdom, it becomes almost impossible to correct.
Those of us outside of a particular closed shop have few opportunities for making a value judgement on the integrity of the accepted wisdom they rejoice in. It is only when things go drastically wrong that we realise their theories were in error. The collapse of the financial systems in 2008 revealed that for all the high salaries they had been drawing, the wizards of this new wealth creation had simply been drawing castles in the air. We are currently agonising over why the recapitalised banks are failing to lend. Anyone who has read an A level Economics textbook should understand the concept of the "multiplication of money". If banks are required to hold 20% of their funds in reserve, they can lend the other 80%. But once lent, it has to end up in a bank account and that bank can lend 80% of it. The result is that all the loans add up to 5 times the amount of actual money. Government now requires 40% to be held in reserve and so the total loans can only add up to 2½ times the amount of actual money. I am not trying to give the reader a lesson in economics. The point I want to make is that in all the news coverage and all the statements of politicians, not once have I heard the phrase "multiplication of money".
"Like all clear thinking people, he made the mistake of thinking that other people think." The example I have given above shows that those whose job it is to understand economic affairs and report them in the media do not think!
When I think about it, I wonder into charity shops and look at the bookshelves in search of text books, so when I wanted to understand about the financial crisis, I had an economics textbook to hand and half an hour latter came across the explanation. Those readers without an economics textbook to hand can find out all they need to know by Googling "multiplication of money" and reading the Wilipedia article at the top of the list.
I may be able to think, but my ability to think clearly about an issue depends on my having the necessary information which in turn depends on having the vocabulary to describe the data and express the ideas. Realizing that I often lack these, I realise my thoughts on many issues are far from clear.
If I can be wrong, Einstein can be wrong.