Rene Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am.”
With respect to Rene, I would like to suggest a revision. Well, it’s not a revision, it’s a complete rewrite. I don’t think he’ll mind. He’s been dead for 363 years. If there are any die-hard Descartians out there, please read the entire essay before burning me in effigy.
I propose the following statement as even more accurate: I am. Therefore, I think.
Both expressions are designed to produce a measure of proof for existence. To explain, in part, what it means to be a human being.
In 1996, the rock band cum philosophers Van Halen recorded the song Humans Being, which included these words, “Some low life flat head scum infects / The sickness in his eyes reflects / You wonder why your life is screaming / Wonder why we’re Humans Being / Shine on, shine on / Shine on, shine on”
(Here’s the whole song, if you’re interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyb8pMsyPFw&noredirect=1)
The lyrics are not particularly riveting, are they? Not exactly Grammy level work by the VH boys. Of course, at this point in their careers, it’s unlikely they felt the same passion and hunger that drove them to create the moving ballads and driving riffs that defined my favorite Van Halen album, 5150.
However, the lyrics from that aging group of musicians hinted at something visceral when they asked, “You wonder why your life is screaming”?
Whether Van Halen knew it then or now, those words are connecting to the deepest element of our uniqueness – the need to express thoughts. Which brings us to the primary distinguishing characteristic of the human being: Conscious Thought.
This singular distinction separates us from the animals and defining/proving/explaining it has been a puzzle to biologists, psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists, and the intellectually curious for ages.
Our ability to process information, to explore and study and to ultimately derive a conclusion through nothing more than pondering is a profound and powerful gift. In fact, I believe (which I arrived at by thinking) this ability is the underpinning of human civilization and advancement. An educated imagination is the primary force behind all human innovation.
Another important reason for extra thinking is improved communication. In one regard, if there was no one to communicate with (other than yourself), what purpose would thought serve? Indeed, it’s reminiscent of the old adage about the tree falling in the woods and making a sound.
The need to be heard, seen, to be understood is transcendent, particularly in the crowded digital space that we all occupy. Some may laugh at my hypocrisy as I engage in writing this post in the hope that someone will read my words and nod in silent agreement. Or, even better, they will post their agreement at the bottom of the screen, or “retweet” my post.
There is more to my writing than a desire for recognition, however. Yes, I’m not completely narcissistic. Ok, maybe I am 99% self-aggrandizing, but here’s to nurturing that 1% (Which by the way, we are all a part of…more on that later).
This post is prompted by a book I recently read, “Mind & Cosmos”, by Thomas Nagel, a brilliant philosophy professor.
Nagel (a self-proclaimed atheist) has clearly spent a great deal of time in thought. After doing so, he had the boldness to proclaim the academic heresy that the explanation of the existence of man could not simply be left to an evolutionary mechanism. On the other hand, he refuses to acknowledge that it’s possible for the theory of Intelligent Design to enter into the equation.
His basis for this analysis is that he is able to perform analysis. The ability to think, the existence of human consciousness; in Nagel’s mind, is simply not explainable simply through mutation and natural selection. I agree with him. I believe in Intelligent Design. I believe the intricacies of the human species (heck, the detail and diversity found in domesticated animals is more than enough evidence for me to believe it can’t possibly have happened through an accident – no matter how much time was allowed).
I digress. Which I do a lot. It’s the wonderful side effect of all this thinking. Each thought triggers a dozen other thoughts, all of which are connected to and rooted in the experiences, memories and studies of my existence. Like Nagel, I believe the human consciousness is so extraordinary, it can’t be explained by random collision of particles. Yet, it can fully understand how sub-atomic particles function. Mind-boggling.
Time was; thinking before speaking, tweeting, posting, etc. was a virtue. In fact, a famous sculpture immortalized the power of spending some quality time in quiet reflection.
Thinking leads to improvement. Thinking leads to growth. Thinking is living. I would go so far to affirm that thinking is doing.
As I heard many times in advertisements for the United Negro College Fund as I was growing up, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”
Think about it.