Let Me Think

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” — Soren Kierkegaard

In our ongoing quest to revisit what we call liberatory practices, we explore here another one of our most wondrous human capabilities, that of thinking. 

We are not speaking about the noisy thoughts clattering our minds which we may wish to quiet down. We want to consider the etymology where thinking shares its origins with words like imagine, conceive in the mind, consider, meditate, remember; or thought, for example, which relates to the process of thinking and compassion. Such thinking, we believe, leads to clarity, openness, creativity and empathy.

The freedom of thought is in fact a human right, most often expressed alongside the freedom of conscience and religion. But we haven’t paid much attention to thinking as a freedom or a right, possibly because the idea that our thinking in and of itself might be under threat is an idea that might seem unlikely. 

However, with the rise of digital technologies interfering with our privacy, this is beginning to change. And what if, instead of authorities suppressing this freedom outright, we are giving it up, willfully? Is thinking something we should nurture and care for?

“Thinking is work,” according to Byung-Chul Han. Unfortunately, Margaret Wheatley suggests, we have lost the ability to think long and hard about anything. We have abandoned the skills developed over many centuries of evolution like abstract thinking, nuanced language, envisioning, moral reasoning, and scientific method.  

This distance, she warns, is dangerous. If we don’t take the time to think, what we have is groupthink, where we are “just one step to becoming more righteous about our position, more aggressive in our stance, more fearful of those who are different. This is the road to fundamentalism–rigid views that will not be changed, only defended. And most of us are on it.” Our lack of thinking could be driving us apart.

Many of us have probably become too tired to think deeply and are too easily distracted. And the ever-present and growing number of interruption technologies are giving us the illusion that they can help us think – or even think for us – and quickly. We all want to think fast and we expect others to do the same. Taking the time to think, in fact, is a sign of weakness in our leaders.

So while these technologies may have made aspects of our lives easier, are they perhaps also contributing to the demise of our thinking abilities? We already know that social networks and their algorithms are closing us into categories based on who we are, who our friends are, and what we’re interested in. With the recent  attention to artificial intelligence (AI) tools, like ChatGPT, is there a risk that we are slowly nearing the end of thinking? And does it even matter?

Thinking is analogue, Han explains, “before capturing the world in concepts, thinking is emotionally gripped, even affected  by the world.” This means our thinking is affected by moods, feelings and attitudes. AI correlates and recognises patterns, from pre-existing information that has been fed into it (by us). 

This, for Han, is a rather primitive form of knowledge because none of it reveals why, nothing is understood. Nothing new emerges, it is not creative. Artificial intelligence, he says, is incapable of thinking, whereas genuine thinking changes the world.

“Human thinking is more than computing and problem solving. It brightens and clears the world. It brings forth an altogether other world,” Han says, “[t]he main danger that arises from machine intelligence is that human thinking will adapt to it and itself become mechanical.”

When asked by a New Yorker journalist what might happen if we increase the use of AI-powered technologies, ChatGPT responded: “we may have fewer opportunities for face-to-face interactions with other people. This could lead to a decrease in the frequency and quality of human interactions, leading to a loss of social skills, emotional intelligence, and empathy.”

If our thinking erodes or becomes mechanical and we lose some of our most basic social skills, we are in danger of not only harming ourselves, each other, and the planet, but we become vulnerable to demagogues taking over. As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Banality of Evil, evil comes from our failure to think, from an absence of thought, or thoughtlessness. What we need, she said, is active thinking. This is the work we all need to do.

In The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s final and unfinished work, she cautioned: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions [would be to] lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

Words, Veronica Yates
llustration, Miriam Sugranyes

Meet the Artists

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) was a profound and prolific writer in the Danish “golden age” of intellectual and artistic activity. His work crosses the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, devotional literature and fiction. Kierkegaard brought this potent mixture of discourses to bear as social critique and for the purpose of renewing Christian faith within Christendom. 

Byung-Chul Han (born 1959) is a South Korean-born philosopher and cultural theorist living in Germany. He was a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts and still occasionally gives courses there. Han studied metallurgy at Korea University in Seoul before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to study philosophy, German literature and Catholic theology in Freiburg im Breisgau and Munich. In 1994 he received his doctoral degree at Freiburg with a dissertation on Stimmung, or mood, in Martin Heidegger. 

Margaret Wheatley (born 1944) has worked globally in many different roles: a speaker, teacher, community worker, consultant, advisor, formal leader. From these deep and varied experiences, she has developed the unshakable conviction that leaders must learn how to evoke people’s inherent generosity, creativity, and need for community. She is a best-selling author of nine books, from the classic Leadership and the New Science and Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) was one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into a German-Jewish family, she was forced to leave Germany in 1933 and lived in Paris for the next eight years. In 1941 she immigrated to the United States and soon became part of a lively intellectual circle in New York. She is best known for two works that had a major impact both within and outside the academic community: The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, and The Human Condition, published in 1958. 

[sources: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Wikipedia and authors’ own websites]

References


“Freedom of thought increasingly violated worldwide, UN expert warns,” Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 20 October 2021, UN OHCHR.

The Palliative Society
, Byung-Chul Han.

So Far From Home
, Margaret Wheatley.


Non-Things
, Byung-Chul Han.

“It’s Not Possible for Me to Feel or Be Creepy”: An Interview with ChatGPT,”  Andrew Marantz, The New Yorker, 13 February 2023. Read here.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt.

The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt.

Further reading

“Think Yourself Better in Ten Rules of Philosophy,” Juilan Baggini, The Guardian online.

“Will Artificial Intelligence Rival Human Thinking,” Fred Schwaller, Deutsche Welle, 10 October 2022. Read online.

“ChatGPT raised awareness of AI’s abilities. Experts see an opportunity,” Rachel Leven, 31 January, 2023, Berkeley, Computing, Data Science and Society.

“ChatGPT Stole Your Work. So What Are You Going to Do?” Nick Vincent and Hanli Li, Wired, 28 January 2023, Read here.

“The Dangers of a Single Story – Part IV, Belonging and Generative AI in an Age of Separation,” Sahana Chattopadhyay, 9 February 2023. Read here.

Oct 21, 2022

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