I am, Therefore I Think

By Balaji Prasad

“If you do not conquer self,
you will be conquered by self."
- Napoleon Hill

“I think therefore I am", said Rene Descartes, in a moment of triumph, almost four hundred years ago, as he sought to prove, using the power of logical reasoning that he, Mr. Descartes, did indeed exist.

Logic is a strange beast. We can, and have, proven all kinds of strange things, and we see feats of logic every day. Our TV networks and newspapers are full of people who play in the twilight zone that lies between fact and fiction, where things have the feel of both, but are neither. All it needs is some skill with words, and a desire to have the words go where the speaker desires it to go. And, of course, since intelligent falsehoods are often based on seeds of facts, those seeds of truth can be invoked when there is a challenge to the veracity of things that pass under the broad umbrella of “news".

If Descartes had lived in today's world of Facebook, Twitter and cable news, he may have had a different kind of insight. We might be able to imagine him saying, instead of what he said earlier, “I am, therefore I think".

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “thinking".

Thinking makes you Thing King

Thinking is revered. Hugely. One who thinks is in a more evolved state than one who does not, is it not? Everything around us seems to proclaim this. If you can think about alphabets and numbers in exotic combinations, and make them do some gymnastics, you are the zebra with the kick that's algebra, and so the other animals in the jungle give you a little space. Unless you are the lion, of course. The lions lie, they lie in wait, and approach with stealth. Lions have a deep understanding of the mathematics of motion, allowing them to compute complex vector equations that help them figure out how to align a zebra's jugular and their canines in time, and do all this in real time!

But surely, we are better thinkers than the animals? The results of our competition with them would seem to indicate that. Even lions are no match for the objects of our thinking, which allow us to decimate them, if we are inclined to do that. We are the kings of all things. But, maybe that's where our thinking becomes our own undoing. Since we can think, we think. More than is wise to think. Sometimes, the results of our thinking are not pretty at all!

When thinking leads to sinking

Capabilities are generally good. When you have the ability to fabricate and use a knife, you are able to hunt, and to protect yourself better than when you have no such tool. However, when you start using the tools that come from thinking to destroy people around you, and to cut yourself, then the results from thinking are a bit more dubious. If I end up destroying myself and the things and people that I value, did my thinking really help? Am I a more evolved being, because I have the power of thinking, or have I somehow sunk to a lower state of evolution than the animals that I usually compare myself so favorably against, and over whom I rule as unquestioned lord and master.

Maybe being blessed with capabilities is not always good? If I don't have the meta-capability to manage and use my capabilities in a manner that improves life, then maybe having those capabilities is a disadvantage rather than an advantage. Power is powerful, but maybe power that can be controlled and channelized appropriately is even more powerful.

Man and Meta-man

Thinking about simple things, and thinking about complex things are very different things, and may need very different kinds of thinking. The two kinds of thinking may be so different, that it may be misleading to conflate them under the same label, “thinking". Maybe we need a different word so that we can keep our apples and oranges separate, so that we don't end up with an orange pie rather than the delectable apple pie that we keep expecting the oven to produce.

Words are a dime a dozen. Lexicographers have painted different hues of words for different kinds and levels of thinking. For our purposes here, we will call out the word “meta-thinking" as something that is a kind of thinking, but is qualitatively different from thinking in general. Meta-thinking signifies both a higher level of thinking, as well as the idea of thinking about thinking itself. And, a man who meta-thinks can be said to be a meta-man, just as a woman can be said to be a meta-woman.

Simple Simon meta Why-man

There are some kinds of thinking where it makes sense to apply tried and true techniques that have stood the test of time. If I need to cook a pot of rice, and I find that a 1:2 ratio of rice to water worked the first hundred times, then I simply carve this into the face of a rock that stands for all eternity. “It's Simple!" Simon says. The rice is rice, and the water is water, and the two become one when 2:1. And that's that!

But not everything is as nice as water and rice. Many things get complex. Too often. “Why?" asks meta-man as he always does. “Why do things get so complex and tangled all the time? Why?" And. as he stares with a glazed eye at the rice that is almost ripe for the eating, the answer descends upon him. “It's not you, it's me!" he exclaims excitedly, to the rice, and to the rest of the world. “When I think, I cannot think without myself being part of everything I think about. I taint everything, though I ain't everything. Maybe I should let the world be at peace. Then maybe … the world might return the favor".

The funny thing is that the more we observe ourselves as being inextricably entangled with everything else, the more we are able to leave ourselves out of it all. Maybe?

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com