A paradox of reason – Part I

It doesn’t take long to encounter an old-timer who says that an alcoholic’s “best thinking got you into this room” or that the alcoholic’s “thinker is broke.” Often following that observation is the advice to “take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth,” or as a colorful local articulates it, “sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up!” I’m going to leave aside the question of whether the observation or the advice are appropriate, especially for newcomers. Instead, I want to deal with something that these remarks allude to—uncontrolled thoughts that can lead us to unfortunate, unhealthy acts.

At a meeting recently, a couple shares included stories of members watching other alcoholics die “in their disease,” as we say—still drinking or drugging. The point of the stories was about the awful circumstances that might await us if we don’t stay the course. But my brain also generated the unwished-for thought that “I deserve to die like that.” I’ll use this as an example of the issue of uncontrolled thoughts.

I did not want to think this thought. I did not will it to happen. I suppose it was produced by a synaptic channel that has been habituated by many years of self-hatred and shame while drinking. My brain functioned in the way it was trained, to associate the ideas of drinking, self-harm, and shame, add those ideas up, and conclude that I am worthless and deserve painful, lonely, ignominious death.

Yet I am a philosopher in the “Western” philosophical tradition, the tradition premised on the supremacy of rational thought. To many in this tradition, the words thinking and reason are nearly synonymous: thought just is reason. The whole point of philosophy is, in some manner of speaking, to encourage us to think through ideas and draw conclusions rationally.

By now, it’s uncontroversial to assert that our brains are the organs of thought. We also know that brains are not logic machines. Brains are not computers. The hormones that change the way synapses function makes thinking much more complex than binary computer code. Despite all we know about brain function, we do not know much about what goes on when we think—there is no map of thinking. We do know that alcohol and other drugs affect brain function, and that the brains of addicts function differently before, during, and after substances are ingested. These are the same brains that we rely on to think. Hence the observation that an alcoholic has a “broke thinker.”

These changes in brain function are not exclusive to addicts, of course, and absolutely anyone is subject to thoughts that are unbidden. These same brains are the only things we have to rely on to think rationally. It’s tempting to conclude from this, that whatever “rational thought” is supposed to be, we can’t trust it to be inerrantly logical. In fact, it might seem doubtful that something like philosophy could be a meaningful pursuit, if brains are such unreliable organs of thought. But especially for a sober person who happens also to be a philosopher, that my brain can generate thoughts that I apparently do not control is a serious challenge to a basic way that Western philosophy has gone about its business. It makes me wonder if I can continue to be a philosopher without hypocrisy. (Although I’ve heard that really, hypocrisy is fine, as long as you’re sincere about it.)

Descartes famously posited (or, to be more accurate, repeated the posit of) a metaphysical dualism that neatly avoids this problem, by assigning the activity of thought to a non-physical substance called res cogitans, while the brain that sometimes hurts from too much thinking belongs in the realm of the physical res extensa. In this dualist scheme, thinking can still be perfectly rational and logical, provided that it is conducted without interference from the loud clanging din of physical nature, including our sense perceptions and those pesky, irritable, inconveniently needy and breakable bodies.

It’s also tempting to conclude that “rational thought” is, for human beings, an unimpressive capacity for making associations of ideas. This is the position taken by the major British Empiricists—Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. While Locke, at least, seemed to maintain Cartesian dualism, they more or less rejected Descartes’ posit that the mind, left to its own devices, could perfectly perceive anything. Later claimants to their legacy, physical reductivists of the 20th Century asserted that “mind” was just a clumsy, archaic way of referring to “brain,” and that the only thing that we should be interested in are “brain states” without the addition of pointless notions of “subjective experience” or “consciousness.” In that case, brains, being causally connected up to everything else, would be made to undergo certain states because of determinate causes like electrical and chemical inputs. Presumably, a completed brain science would lead to the concept of “rational thinking” dropping out of respectably educated vocabulary.

Neither the dualist posit of pure mind, nor the reductivist rejection of anything like “thinking,” is satisfying to me as a response to this issue. I’ll get to that.

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