If you are like me, you get through a lot of new information every day. And, if you’re lucky, now and then you stumble across something that makes you pause and think: “I haven’t thought that before!” Now your nice circular-thinking worldview gets a dent. Something changes. And after a few moments of pondering, your world is nice and round again — hopefully a little wider than before. I love those moments, because that’s when we grow.
The obvious question is: how wide can the circle grow? Is there a limit to the things we can think about? If we want to answer this question, we have to inspect ourselves deeply to figure out what our thoughts are made of. In what terms do you think? Do you think in English? Or do you think in a visual language? Please pause for a moment and try to figure it out.
For me, it seems that I think in sensations. My thoughts constitute a conversation with myself (auditory). I recall or imagine structured information or images (visual). I process olfactory, tactile or other kinds of experience. It seems I am limited by real or imagined versions of sensations. I cannot think about things that aren’t like a sensation. Or should I?
Of course what we think arises in our brains. The structure of our brains itself does not predispose it to only think about sensations. The network of neurons is in principle able to produce many firing patterns, just like a silicon-based computer can hold any combination of 1 and 0.
Maybe we can only interpret the firing patterns of our brains in terms of sensations — or indeed in any other similarly limited way. Just like the operating system of a computer interprets the contents of its hard disk by the possible interpretations programmed into it. If it encounters a new kind of information, it will interpret it in a familiar way, at best recognizing it doesn’t know it and at worst taking it for something else.
This is where the circle reaches its limits. We may be able to make new dents. But we can never leave the plane and think in a totally different way. Our limited way of interpreting brain activity does not allow it. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein said it: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” We can only think in the language of our brain. Our imagination is limited. We are limited by our imagination.