What is Thinking?

March 30, 2010

A room with six people in it suddenly comes into focus. Music rises and falls in the background and a man dressed in a gray suit and a matching tie starts speaking.

Host: Welcome everyone to this exciting evening of discussion when we will try to answer an age-old conundrum which is as much a mystery as it is basic nature and which is one of the most important qualities that separates human beings from animals. I'm talking about the process of thinking: analyzing, examining, sorting information, forming ideas or opinions, reasoning things out, bringing to mind or recollecting, and several other similar processes that we associate with it. We have with us today Mr. Neuroscientist, Mr. Computers, Mr. Psychologist, Mr. Literature, and Rene Descartes to discuss and explore what little we can about the mystery of thinking.

Rene Descartes (interrupts): Cognito ergo sum.

Host: What?

Mr. Literature: He means, I think therefore I am.

Host: What is he?

Mr. Literature (Mr. Computers looks up from his computer, a little disgusted. Mr. Psychologist can be heard snoring. Mr. Neuroscientist appears uninterested): It means, he exists.

Host: Don't we already know that he exists? I can see him with my eyes.

Rene Descartes (interrupts): Cognito ergo sum.

Host: Mr. Descartes, we'll get to you later. Let's start with science first; I mean Mr. Neuroscientist. I'm interested in the science of thinking, so are our audience, I'm sure.

Rene Descartes (interrupts): Cognito ergo sum.

Host looks at his director.

Mr. Literature: I want to start first.

Host: What?

Mr. Literature: I've thought and suffered too much to have thought and suffered in vain.

Host: What do you mean by that?

Mr. Literature clears his throat and as he is about to expound on what he has just said, Mr. Descartes gets up and throws his arms in the air, and then follows it with wringing of his hands.

Host: Sit down, Mr. Descartes.

Mr. Descartes: I want to prove that I exist. I exist because even if I were to prove that I don't exist, then surely there would be an 'I' that had to be convinced. I must finally conclude that the proposition, 'I am,' 'I exist,' is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. This just means that the mere fact that I am thinking, regardless of whether or not what I am thinking is true or false, implies that there must be something engaged in that activity, namely an "I."

Host: Are you saying if we stop thinking we will be dead?

Mr. Descartes: Cognito ergo sum.

Host turns to Mr. Literature, who is seen scribbling something on a piece of paper.

Host: Will you care to explain what you said before Mr. Descartes went off his rockers?

Mr. Literature: Everything that cannot be understood does nevertheless not cease to exist.

Host stares at Mr. Literature.

Mr. Literature: I want to quote Emily Dickinson at this crucial juncture in our discussion.

Host: Please don't. Let's start with Mr. Neuroscientist and understand what it is to think? The anatomy of thinking.

Mr. Literature: To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee. One clover and a bee, and reverie. The reverie alone will do, if bees are few.

Host starts hand-signaling to the cameraman. The show goes to a break.

The show returns. In one corner is seen Mr. Literature, his legs and hands tied to the chair, a piece of scotch tape stuck over his mouth.

Host: Welcome back everyone. Starting afresh and hoping that we can have some meaningful discourse this time, I'd like invite Mr. Neuroscientist to put forth the scientific understanding of the brain and thinking.

Mr. Neuroscientist: Well first, I want to tell everyone, yes, that brain is not a single entity, that there are several parts to it, yes, such as the cerebellum that lies at the rear of the brain and is responsible for posture, movement, and physical skills. Yes, Then there is the limbic system, which controls body temperature, blood pressure, etc., and governs emotions. But the part of the brain that we want to talk about today is called Cerebrum, which has a thin covering, the cortex.

Host (making a curious face): Interesting, please tell us more.

Mr. Descartes (grimacing): Can I give my ontological argument for the existence of God?

Host: No, no, Mr. Descartes, please wait for your turn, and what is an ontological argument anyway? Mr. Neuroscientist, go ahead.

Mr. Neuroscientist: Yes, so through extensive research of which I have been an active participant it has been established, yes, that the executive processes, which you guys call thinking, has their origin in the frontal lobes, which is the area just behind the eyes. And, yes, it's responsible for not just focused thinking but dreaming and daydreaming.

Mr. Computers (seriously disturbed): I'm not daydreaming, please.

Host: Mr. Computers, please go back to whatever you were doing. How intriguing, Mr. Neuroscientist, can we now know about cells that constitute the brain and how these cells carry out the process of thinking?

Mr. Neuroscientist: Yes, I mean no. We know how neurons, which you guys call brain cells work, or fire, and talk to each other to carry out lots of basic things we do in our lives, which include muscle movement and obtaining sensory information from the external world, but we don't know how these neurons give rise to what we call focused thought.

By a stroke of luck, in his back pocket Mr. Literature has found a knife, which he's now moving up and down the rope around his hands.

Mr. Computers: Can I add something here?

Host: Please, one at a time.

Mr. Computers: It's my understanding, and I am saying this from the point of view of a highly reputed researcher at the computational and advanced artificial intelligence lab at MIT, that thought and computation are synonymous. Thought is the execution of a computer program encoded in our DNA, and understanding is a consequence of the compact structure of this program.

Mr. Desecrates: Can I explain why I exist?

Host: Didn't you, a few minutes back?

Mr. Desecrates: Did I?

Mr. Neuroscientist: Mr. Desecrates, yes, Mr. Computers is implying that thought is not a product of consciousness, but rather a product of our genes?

Mr. Computers: Consciousness is nothing but an illusion. Plato claimed that knowledge is recollected not acquired, which means we already posses the answers to our questions. Knowledge is coded in our genes and we just have to look for it. And by the way, I'm a researcher at MIT. No requests for autographs, please.

Mr. Desecrates: When will supper be served?

Host: Who can tell me what's going on here?

Mr. Psychologist (rubbing his eyes with the palm of his hands): Why is everyone so loud in here? Where are we, at a goddamn psychology conference? What are we discussing here?

Mr. Descartes: Cognito ergo sum.

Mr. Psychologist: Oh, thinking. Okay. I know what thinking is.

Host: Do you?

As Mr. Psychologist is gearing up to speak, Mr. Neuroscientist interjects.

Mr. Neuroscientist: Mr. Computers thinks conscience is an illusion.

Mr. Psychologist looks around and finds a man in a gray suit and a matching tie, a man tied to his chair in one corner, an old man with long flowing hair, muttering, Cognito ergo sum, to himself, and the person who interjected him.

Mr. Psychologist: Which one is Mr. Computers?

Host: Who's the host of this show, guys, please?

Mr. Psychologist: Let's forget about Mr. Computers for a minute. Let me tell you what I believe thinking is. Mind is an information processor. Information is input into our minds through perception, what we see or hear. It's stored in our memories and processed in the form of thought. Our thoughts then serve as the basis of outputs, such as language or physical behavior.

Mr. Literature takes the loose pieces of ropes off his wrists, extends up, like a spring from which a weight has been lifted.

Mr. Literature: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. William Shakespeare.

Mr. Neuroscientist: We don't know what thinking is on a cellular level.

Mr. Psychologist: You guys are so fucking loud.

Mr. Descartes: Can I explain the mind-body duality?

Host looks straight into the camera. The camera cuts away and credits start rolling onto the screen.

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What is Thinking?


Author: DM


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