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Victor Nuovo: Does the Mind always think?

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Posted on August 17, 2017 |
By Victor Nuovo



This is not an essay about politics, but about the mind. But if, as Spinoza and Locke have claimed, the love of truth and a resolute pursuit of it is essential to a healthy and durable civil society, then it is important that we become more familiar with our minds.

Locke’s book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is a wonderful resource for this. He asks all the right questions, even though he does not always give the right answers. The pleasure of reading Locke’s book derives from learning what it is to be a rational being.

One of the many questions Locke explores is posed in the book by the title. Does the mind always think? Locke’s answer is “no.” He was mistaken, I think; nevertheless, his reasons are cogent. I will try to explain.

One of the leading questions debated by European philosophers during the 17th century was whether mind and body were two different things.

One group, followers of the French philosopher René Descartes, contended that mind and body are two different things. They differ according to their essential qualities—an essential quality is the quality or distinguishing character that a thing must have to be the sort of thing that it is. Bodies are all alike and different from everything else by the fact that they occupy space; they are extended. Moreover, no two bodies can occupy the same place. Minds are not bodies; they are thinking things. It was further supposed that bodies decay and come apart, whereas minds are simple, indestructible and immortal. It is wrong, indeed contradictory, to suppose that it could ever happen that a mind wasn’t thinking.

Locke disagreed. He believed that mind and body are two aspects of one thing: a human animal. He also believed that human animals are mortal. When they die, they not only lose the capacity to breathe, but also to think. One other conclusion that Locke embraced was that there is no difference between matter and spirit, and that thinking is a capacity that a body, suitably designed, can possess. Like Hobbes and other contemporaries, he believed that the capacity of thinking resided in the brain.

As evidence against the claim that the mind always thinks, Locke cited the fact that we spend much of our lifetime in deep sleep, unconscious of any thought. Besides, many of our waking moments seem to be unthinking, our minds seem unoccupied and still, without even the trace of a passing fancy. Locke took it as settled that thinking and consciousness are necessarily connected. To suppose that we think without being aware of it is pure nonsense.

Now Locke didn’t suppose that we must be conscious of all our thoughts all the time. That would be madness. Thinking involves a measure of self-control; we attend to those thoughts that are relevant, and we disregard others. Still others are stored in the memory, and some we just forget. But even these, if we are reminded of them, we recognize that they are our own thoughts. And this applies to all our experiences, for thoughts are just aspects of experience.

Locke was a Christian. He believed that when the world ends, the dead shall be raised, and the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed at the last judgment. He also believed that no one can be judged for thoughts and actions that one cannot own, which is to say, cannot remember having done them. Being able to own one’s thoughts and actions is being a responsible person.

One of the most studied sections in Locke’s Essay concerns what it is to be a person. He posed the question: how does anyone know oneself to be the same person? How do I know when I awake in the morning that I am the same person I was that went to bed and fell asleep last night? Or, how do I know, when I recall some childhood event, that it was I who caused it or was the butt of it? We are creatures who know ourselves and own ourselves over time. We extend ourselves over time through consciousness. It is a capacity of owning ourselves over time that makes the same person, the same moral being.

In all of this Locke is right. Yet I think he was mistaken in supposing that the mind does not always think. If he was mistaken, then thinking and the consciousness of thinking are not coextensive. Experience supports this. More often than not, I find that I do my best thinking when asleep. That often I will fall asleep with a thought, or a set of thoughts that I am not sure how to relate, with a problem, and I will be awakened in the middle of the night by a flood of thoughts and words, by a moment of wonderful clarity. As though the mind were at work all the while, sifting through thoughts and experiences.

Here I am reminded once more of Hobbes, when he said that the mind is a physical thing, an organ that works even when we not aware of it working, and that thinking is a sort of counting, or ongoing computational process that takes place in the brain or the nervous system.

To be sure, when I awake into these lucid moments, moments of wonderful enlightenment and discovery, I recognize that these thoughts are mine. But they are also more than mine, for they have the aspect of truth that directs my mind to a place outside itself, to a discovery of how things really are.

Whatever Hobbes and Locke thought about thinking seems deficient without supplementing it with Spinoza. Perhaps, as Spinoza supposed, there is a universal intelligence, not a divine creator, but rather an order of things, like laws of nature, which regulate everything and makes them in a coherent totality, which is nature itself. This is not a personal God, rather it is the nature of things, which we discover through patient enquiry.

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