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Thinking Thinking
by Jan Sand
2021-02-20 09:29:06
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Let’s say a guy gives you three boxes. In one box, there are about a thousand small balls - some are about a millimeter larger than one centimeter in diameter and some are about a millimeter or two smaller in diameter. This guy wants all the larger balls, so he gives you a vernier caliper to measure the balls and asks you to put all the larger balls in one empty box and the rest in the other empty box. Is that a job requiring at least a minimum of intelligence?

thnk00001_400It requires you to measure each ball with the caliper and drop it into the appropriate box. A robot designed to select a ball, measure it and place it into the appropriate box would be a somewhat complicated machine, far below moron status, but still having a squidging of intellect.

If you had an electric drill and a drill bit one centimeter in size, you could drill a few holes in the bottom of one of the empty boxes, place that box over the other empty box, dump in all the balls and with a bit of shaking all the balls would be quickly separated for their appropriate sizes. This elementary device falls into the classification of a filter, an extremely useful and basic mechanism.

So that box with the holes would very quickly do what you, with your intellect and caliper, working much less efficiently, could accomplish. Does that mean that the box with the holes could be considered as having some sort of intelligence?

It sounds like a dumb question but it gets to the crux of what thinking may be all about. There is no question that the human brain is an extraordinarily flexible mechanism that can accomplish extremely complex tasks, but it is something of a mystery as to how the little pieces get the job done.

It’s something like that joke package where the huge box contains a smaller box and that a smaller box and when you open up the final box you find something like a paper clip or a thumb tack and you wonder where the hell is that glowing soul we claim is deep down inside.

The brain has structures devoted to generating energy and removing wastes and signal processing. It has two types of cells, namely the nerve cells or neurons and the glial cells. It is the glial cells that do the dog work of support, insulation, energy supply and waste removal for the neurons that are involved in signal processing. A neuron consists of a central body with the nucleus and DNA and a complex of branching strands called dendrites and one large dominant strand called an axon.

The dendrites receive signals from other cells, which can be other neurons or another cell from somewhere in the body, and the axon fires off a signal when the cumulative energy from the dendrite inputs trigger a reaction. It is a kind of democratic voting system. Axons can be as long as a meter and so reach not only other nerve cells but to all the cells of the body that require a signal to react to a body necessity.

In essence, thought is a process of linkages and some of these linkages are predetermined by the genetically dictated architecture, but human thinking is noteworthy by its remarkable diversity and flexibility. This illusion of freedom is more or less the result of the tremendous quantity of all those dendrites feeling for stimulation and all those axons popping off in their informational orgasms.

Some thinkers prefer to glory in the thought that humans are free of the law of cause and effect, which has its dictatorial finger in all physical reaction once quantum considerations are accepted. But to embrace randomness in human mental capability is not only to assume that all humans are insane (which, in these parlous times is a tempting assumption) but would be counter to the most basic regulations of evolutionary survival and could only be nonsense.

So, I am driven to accept that there is no little monkey swinging through all those neuron vines giving us godlike release from universal laws and our thinking processes are the result of a massively complex version of that box with the holes in the bottom. We filter all input dependent upon the many, many connections given and developed in that grey mush behind our nose and under our scalp and, like an electric toaster popping up a warm well-done piece of toast done to our taste, we pop up thoughts baked to the proper recipe evolved out of the micro-adjustments of our beeping-booping neural connections.

Shake hands with your electric toaster, a fellow thinker.


     
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