Can You Choose Your Next Thought?
Can You Choose Your Next Thought?
July 26, 2020
If you could choose your next thought, you’d choose the best, most useful thought you could, right? By definition, this thought would feel right to you, that’s why it was chosen. The problem is, the very notion of what is ‘best’, is a product of our incomplete, probably wrong, knowledge of the world. Exactly where every thought we’re capable of generating falls on a spectrum of good to bad, also depends on this incomplete internal world.
Changes in Childhood
Now, recede in time to a period of your youth. A time when you were different, when you didn’t know something you believe is important now. What would that less developed version of yourself have chosen as their most important action? Why is their choice different from yours today? For extra creeps, consider how your youthful beliefs created who you are today, and who you’re creating tomorrow.
Reviewing how your beliefs in matters of importance have changed, the actions those beliefs caused and how the experience changed your internal world state, is a worthwhile exercise according to Nietzsche:
“Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self. Compare these objects one with another, see how one completes, expands, surpasses, transfigures another, how they constitute a stepladder upon which you have clambered up to yourself as you are now” -Friedrich Nietzsche (1)
Your Personal Law
This fundamental, personal law is the constant attraction that leads you through periods of change.
"I think therefore I am” -Rene Descartes (2)
If Renee Descartes was right in his famous sentiment, your world is shaped by this sequence of thoughts. So, with your personal law in mind, could you choose your next thought? How would you do it? Is it better to optimize mood improvement or learning? Whatever you choose, the same problem exists, in that every possible idea is appraised and selected by your probabilistic preferences. Preferences that emerge from such chaotic, primordial depths that it’s commonly believed that they are fixed and innate, beyond our control, that they are just ‘who we are’.
Paradoxically we invest a huge amount into stimulating and changing young minds. We buy assortments of products and books in the hopes of generating real passion, especially for the rarer sorts like math. In Schopenhaur’s words, parents use the actions we can dictate, like reading and playing, to raise the odds of kindling real curiosity.
"Now it is true that we can arbitrarily apply ourselves to reading and learning, but not really to thinking. Thus just as a fire is kindled and sustained by a draught of air, so too must thinking be through some interest in its theme" -Arthur Schopenhauer (3)
However the magic of these idiosyncratic interests in themes come about, we each build a unique collection of things that give us pleasure or displeasure act as draughts of air to our thoughts. If you look back on your life and your most frequent activities, do you like them more than others you avoided? Did your love of them come from experience, or did the experience come from your initial attraction? Interest and habit might be a chicken egg scenario.
Love as a Loaded Coin
If simple exposure increased the odds of love, then mandatory math should be the bell of the ball. She’s not. Math is one of the least popular subjects. If love is random, then math has a loaded coin. This lopsided coin gets tossed every time a kid is introduced to a new math concept. The dismal results don’t just have unfortunate effects on adult problem solving literacy, in that ‘the numeracy proficiency of 58.6% of U.S. adults was below level 3, the minimum level needed for managing today’s working and living requirements’ (4). More importantly, it resigns billions of people to many hours of boredom, and nearly guarantee’s they’ll never find the joy in a subject few minds learn how to harvest.
Perhaps it isn’t possible to choose your next thought, as it’s a product of fixed preferences. If not, is it then possible to change the odds of those preference formations instead? That loaded coin that was flipped at every introduction has had an impact on how we all spend our evenings relaxing, or on how we spend our time on the commute. I know I wish I could find MIT lectures as easy and rewarding as Batman related content, but sometimes they just doesn’t satisfy the way the vigilante does. As a result, I have more knowledge of Batman than I’d care to admit.
Preferences the Cause, We the Effect
So our preferences may be difficult or impossible to change. We should want to change them because they are the cause, while our thoughts and identity are the effect. Does that make the rails on our life ladder’s fixed? Not entirely, because the random element posed by the environment can always potentially change our priorities, if we let them. Parents narrate stories to children in the hope it will stimulate their desire to read. Do we have to wait for some external intervention to spark our interests where the flame has long since been snuffed out? Or can we grab some flint and re-ignite our own curiosities ourselves? What would people choose to be interested in, if they could learn to love medieval plumbing systems as intensely as they do reality tv?
"Man's worst sin is unconsciousness" -Carl Jung (5).
Unconsciousness isn’t being wrong, it’s being unaware there is a question to begin with. Many people blame bad teachers or bad parenting for choking their curiosity in different domains. If we lament our outcome of some loaded coin toss, then by refusing the rekindle that lost love, we are remaining unconscious and uncaring of the person we are creating tomorrow. We are leaving ourselves to chance, not choice, by refusing to continue flipping that loaded coin until we get the preferences, and consequently the thoughts, that we want.
(1)Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1876. 'Untimely Meditations'. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy 1997
(2) Descartes, Rene. 1644. 'The Principles of Philosophy'
(3) Schopenhaur, Arthur. 1851. Parega and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays: 'On Thinking for Oneself'.
(4) Brook, Ellen. May, 2014. 'INVESTIGATING THE ADULT LEARNERS’ EXPRERIENCE WHEN SOLVING MATHEMATICAL WORD PROBLEMS'. Kent State University College of Education, Health, and Human Services.
(5) Jung, Carl. 1934-55. 'The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious' p253.