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Society of Mind

6.8 thinking without thinking

Just as we walk without thinking, we think without thinking! We don't know how our muscles make us walk — nor do we know much more about the agencies that do our mental work. When you have a hard problem to solve, you think about it for a time. Then, perhaps, the answer seems to come all at once, and you say, Aha, I've got it. I'll do such and such. But if someone were to ask how you found the solution, you could rarely say more than things like the following:

If we could really sense the workings of our minds, we wouldn't act so often in accord with motives we don't suspect. We wouldn't have such varied and conflicting theories for psychology. And when we're asked how people get their good ideas, we wouldn't be reduced to metaphors about ruminating, and digesting, conceiving and giving birth to concepts — as though our thoughts were anywhere but in the head. If we could see inside our minds, we'd surely have more useful things to say.

Many people seem absolutely certain that no computer could ever be sentient, conscious, self-willed, or in any other way aware of itself. But what makes everyone so sure that they themselves possess those admirable qualities? It's true that if we're sure of anything at all, it is that I'm aware — hence I'm aware. Yet what do such convictions really mean? If self-awareness means to know what's happening inside one's mind, no realist could maintain for long that people have much insight, in the literal sense of seeing-in. Indeed, the evidence that we are self-aware — that is, that we have any special aptitude for finding out what's happening inside ourselves — is very weak indeed. It is true that certain people have a special excellence at assessing the attitudes and motivations of other persons (and, more rarely, of themselves). But this does not justify the belief that how we learn things about people, including ourselves, is fundamentally different from how we learn about other things. Most of the understandings we call insights are merely variants of our other ways to figure out what's happening.