People are basically just collections of a lot of atoms, so how is someone able to think? Thinking is how we understand things, but I don't understand how thought is even possible? Is thinking the result of a chemical reaction? How am I able to hear my own thoughts?

  • I hate this question because it is such a damn good question, and yet it is so terribly hard to develop an answer. So hard, in fact, that many thousands of years of philosophers have sought to grapple with the question! (+1)
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 11 '15 at 1:57
  • 2
    While interesting, as asked it seems to be calling for a biological answer, not a philosophical one. Dec 11 '15 at 15:52
  • Correct answer must be "We simply do not know and there are good reasons that we will never be able to." Thoughts are not the same as neural signals. Which word is what potential? Answering this question is simply wrong. There is a gap of "representation" or whatever we can try to interpret, describe, correlate etc., but not understand or explain. That is one of the deepest insights Kant had in my understanding.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 14 '15 at 12:01

The ability to 'hear' ones own thought and emotions is possible in Douglas Hofstadter's strange loops and self representational theories of consciousness.

The idea is that living beings first developed the ability to sense and to represent outside objects. At one point, their sensing abilities got advanced enough that they could sense and represent themselves as well. That is when they developed consciousness.

  • Nice answer, but what physically allows us to think thoughts, rather than just being able to perceive them?
    – mdlp0716
    Dec 11 '15 at 1:41
  • In the computational theory of mind, thoughts are just neural patterns, and our brains are the processors. Dec 11 '15 at 1:44
  • @mdlp0716 The trick to answering your question is to ponder what is so special about "thinking thoughts" in the first place. What about that concept makes the phrase meaningful? If you have an answer to that, you can start to boot strap your way into the philosophy of that question. (Personally, I find many of the good answers appear in the form of recurisve loops and strange loops (as Alexander mentions), such as "I can perceive the fact that I am perceiving the fact." However, those answers may be frustrating unless you choose to dig at them and explore ...
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 11 '15 at 1:59
  • ...why the strange loop behavior seems to be a good model of what is going on)
    – Cort Ammon
    Dec 11 '15 at 2:00

I disagree with the answer given by @AlexanderSKing.

I have never understood the attractiveness of explaining consciousness with loops.

Suppose you go to your village Shaman and tell him "oh master, I have seen a person sitting in the air as it were, levitating. how is this possible?"

and the Shaman says "my son, the secret is in loops, for loops are so mysterious." he then calls a few of your friends and sits you all in a lap circle like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDTpRUNIswQ

and then you tell him "oh master, this loop is really philosophically mind blowing — we are all sitting on each other's laps without any chairs, in the air as it were. but we are not levitating."

and the Shaman then tells you "son, there is no further trick to explain — what you saw was surely some kind of illusion."

Indeed, some people insist that true "levitation" is possible, and others insist it is nothing but an illusion — a bag of tricks — I belong to the former camp, and believe that explaining the mystery of consciousness with loops is silly.

Anyway, the entire philosophy of mind grows from your question as it were, and there is no answer, only a mountain of fascinating books and ideas to read through — and you can start by googling around — the wikipedia and the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are good sources.

I recommend two books that forcefully present two sides of this debate:

One is Conscisouness Explained by Daniel Dennett, who explains consciousness as a bag of tricks, and who subscribes to the computational theory of mind.

The other is The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers, who explains forcefully the problem and argues for dualism — though I think he goes wrong in his arguments as he presents his own view, non-reductive functionalism.

While I disagree with both - I think they present the problem with clarity, and they are both very communicative, and the books are very interesting to read, as entry points into the topic.

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