Thought and reality

The image of the world that we have in our mind is not the world. Nor are the words we use to talk about the world.

At any moment, there are infinite details and patterns in going on in reality that we could focus on. We can learn a lot about the world simply by paying attention to what is happening.

Instead of doing that, we think. We are taught to talk of the finger and not the moon it is pointing at. Almost all of our socialization and education, depends on language. It involves joining a common picture of reality that describes features that we are taught are relevant, and excludes others.

We think of education as a good thing. It isn’t only that. As a society, education allows us to produce what we need, and as individuals, to support ourselves by becoming useful in this process. However, it also comes at a cost to our minds.

Once we have learned to think instead of experiencing, we envelop reality in concepts, and are expected to sign up on a life-long route of societal roles and activities. These keep us putting the world into more and more mental categories or boxes that are required in order for us to participate.

No activity is really over when we think it is over. Whatever we do leaves its mark on our minds, by forming neural connections that form the long-term memory associations that our thinking is based on. When we learn a useful skill or a new concept, we tend to filter our experience according to it. We experience reality as if through these mental categories, treating unique individual events as members of their categories.

There are no sheep

Consider the existence of sheep, for example. Every individual sheep is genetically unique and has had its own experiences during its life that have shaped what it is in the material level. In that sense there are no ‘sheep’, what exists in the world are historically and physically distinct and unique animals. The category of ‘sheep’ exists in our minds and patterns of social interactions.

If that seems absurd, consider that the same situation takes place in scientific research. Every study that makes statistical generalizations over large groups of people, for example, only reports its findings at the level of averages. If a study finds an association between a certain kind of diet and, say, heart disease, the finding represents an overall risk in large groups of people. Thes study sample will certainly include people who had no adverse health effect from the diet.

However, we are expected to act according to the overall findings from large groups of people, not from our actual situation. Playing our societal roles demands that we replace uniqueness with generalizations. To be more accurate, as we use language-based representations in our thinking, we replace our direct participation in the reality that the language refers to with generalizations.

This is not only the case within the participants in an individual study. By and large, we talk about research results as gross generalizations, such as “physical exercise helps prevent depression“. While this conclusion overall represents the line of research well, it discounts the fact that it is based on a number of individual studies. Every single study that this generalization is based on has its limitations, as scientific studies are never perfect, and there may even be some contradicting studies within a scientifically legitimate generalization.

Researchers will understand this, but as scientific knowledge is disseminated in the public in the form of sweeping generalizations by non-experts, the reality and details of the actual studies behind the conclusions are not part of the discussion. Even more, since more studies testing an elaborating on previous ones are published all the time, in extreme cases what we are today citing as scientific truth changes into untruth as the line of research progresses.

This is not to say that this is an issue specifically with scientific knowledge. All generalizations are just that: generalizations, no matter their source, and when we think in concepts we generalize.

What is the real event?

Reality happens at a given moment. What is real is there at the historical, unique moment you experience it. This can be sensory experience of things outside your body, which always takes its form within your body in the form of sensory organ and nerve activity. When you are recalling a moment in the past, you are still recalling it now.

Being aware of and representing in our minds something that we think about as a separate event in our minds, for example ‘my best friend’s wedding’, is an inseparable part of the event. Because we think in language or other symbols that exists in our minds, our intuition is that things and events outside our body go on even if no-one is there to witness them.

This is not entirely true. They cease to be things and events if no-one is thinking about them as such. They appear in our minds, then they disappear, but apart from that there is nothing in between that we can be aware of. Even when we try to grasp what the outside world is like when we aren’t thinking about it, the outside world appears in our mind. We imagine what takes place in between the periods when we are thinking of something, but even then it is just that – something we imagine in our minds.

It is easy to neglect that thought is also an event that happens in a specific place and at a specific time. Like sensory experience, mental experience takes place within our bodies in the form of brain activity. The content of our experience that we experience is correlated with brain activity. It is not that sensory or mental experience causes brain activity: artificially induced brain electric activity also causes us to have mental experiences. Stimulating someone’s brain with an electrode causes the person to experience urges to move or sensory percepts, depending on what part of the brain is being stimulated.

No matter if it is an external or internal event, we experience it in transient form. When we recall a past event to memory or think about the future, we are doing it now, and our act of doing it only lasts as long as it does.

When we think in symbolic terms, the formal content of thought, such as the word ‘sheep’, is unchanging. However, the meanings that we give it are different at different times. We may be sitting in our car, annoyed at a herd of animals slowly crossing the road before us, or we may be reading about how the species evolved. Formally the concept ‘sheep’ appears to be temporally stable and to correspond to a definition that could be given in a dictionary, but it is used in unique situations.

In our thinking, language is stored in our brain structure and thus our long-term memory. It is a means to relate the present to the past either in the form of abstract learning or memories of past events. Thus the past only ever appears in the ‘now’, because the act of thinking is an event, which exists in physical form in our brain structure and activity.

Further, our thoughts about the world do not really simply refer to the world outside our bodies. They refer to the activity of our nervous system either as it receives stimulation from outside events, or as we recall them in our memories. In turn, our nervous system, specifically the nerve connections in our brains, is continuously reshaping itself in response to our experience and learning.

The truth created by language

The way we are first taught language is by giving objects common names, which place them in categories. The sheep is not a member of the category ‘sheep’ before it has such a name, as before then the entire category does not exist. This is no different with other kinds of words we use. They are symbols for something non-linguistic. We learn no only the symbol, but also how to use them in conjunction with other symbols, and we do this as we participate in social interactions.

Even the best scientific knowledge we can produce is like that. Societal knowledge is still a symbolic representation of the world, coded on our brains and repeated and modified by the social patterns in which we use them. It is not the world. Sticking to scientific facts does not change that our thoughts refer to our the state or shape and activity of our nervous system. We had to learn those facts the same way we learn anything else, and we will have to use language (or other symbols such as number) as symbols or category labels that we use to refer to parts of historically unique events in the now.

Even as I sit here writing this on my computer, I may talk about science and socialization, but neither is anywhere to be seen. They were present while I thought and wrote about them, but they will disappear when I cease to do so. They may return later. That is the nature of mental pictures, or the act of thinking or saying “something is (like) something”. Their essence is in the act of saying or thinking.

No matter what we think the ‘real’ state of affairs in the world is, it isn’t. It is always a mixture of ‘it’ and ‘us’.

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