Do some philosophers regard thinking as a symbolic process only because they don't actually think for themselves -- rather, like most of us, they are "having thoughts", their subconsciousness (which itself is, technically, a neural network AI, a chatbot) literally speaking "their" thoughts to them?

Is it possible to argue that the basis of thinking is never symbolic -- it is always visual? We ourselves — as in "our rational mind", our rational Self — understand something by visualizing it, by creating a three-dimensional c̸o̸m̸p̸u̸t̸e̸r mental model of it, so, in effect, we could run a simulation of that portion of reality in our head. <== And that is how we know things, by acquiring a mental model for it.

"To know your Self, think for yourself."
  -- Socrates

Only thereafter we turn to symbolic language in order to to describe what we saw to others, to share our understanding (just as we use symbolic language to describe -- and, yes, share! -- our actual experiences). The reverse must be true as well -- we can really understand what we have been described with words when we visualize and re-enact that story in our imagination, re-living, to some extent, the storyteller's own experience.

Just to clarify -- as I understand it, this question is about understanding/knowing something, which is not the same as having an idea of it. Some things can never be known -- for example, no one can know what is a chair — one can only have an idea of what a chair is. "Simple ideas" like that (using John Locke's term) are always a product of the neural net in our sub-consciousness. And while the latter can have a very good idea of many things, ultimately it knows nothing and understands nothing -- because, relying on experiences alone, it has no concept of the "outside". And with no concept of the objective reality, there can be no concept of truth either!

In a way, our subconsciousness never knows, it merely pretends that it does -- "... for there is no truth in it. When it lies, it speaks its native language." (John 8:44)

That's why ultimately -- and it was true for Jesus, as it was for Socrates -- "I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only [try and] make them think."

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    Nov 30, 2020 at 22:37
  • @JD -- it's not a personal attack, it is the most successful model by far, starting with an explanation of people being on-off(!!!) irrational, and whose numerous testable predictions had all been checked out with flying colors. Dec 2, 2020 at 9:06
  • ... and sure, the whole thing is an abomination -- it wasn't exactly an intelligent design to begin with, but yes, the ball has been dropped at some point (the Book of Job offers the general idea), the fix turned out to be far from trivial, and the whole story is really unfortunate... have questions -- drop a line! Dec 2, 2020 at 11:10

5 Answers 5


"no one can know what is a chair — one can only have an idea of what a chair is"

You seem to take an unexamined idealist stance. Isn't chair defined by use, and you ignore the fuzzy boundaries of how we define to say there is a 'secret essence'.

I would argue that communication is fundamentally founded in intersubjectivity, which results from mirror neurons, as I discussed here According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? Looking at connectomes of the neurons of simple organisms, it seems there is a kind of progressive 'hijacking' of say a neuron specialised to detect self/not-self, into touch, and proprioception.

It's fair to say symbolic linguistic thinking that crucially complexifies our thoughts, emerges from or is founded in a deep way in our primary sense, vision, linked to our bodily awareness & proprioception. But people born blind attach other senses, as do deep-sea creatures. And dogs have smell as a primary sense. Solitary octopuses, & nearly solitary birds like ravens, show complex problem solving can occur separately to complex communication.

Vision is not a single mental process, it has all kinds of subroutines for identifying eyes & their movement, predicting moving objects, deducing solid bodies - optical illusions help us see this. "neurons devoted to visual processing number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing"1. So, vision is by far our richest sense, and most memory champion tactics are about shifting more of what we do to vision. Savant mathematics abilities have been linked to using the way we have evolved to know the faces & characters of a certain size human troupe (see Dunbar Number), and 'hijacking' that evolved capacity, to learn sets of mathematical relationships.

"true thinking is never symbolic -- it is always visual?"

No, definitely can't agree. There is huge variety. Aldous Huxley described coming to understand he'd been a primarily verbal-conceptual thinker, who had never paid much attention to sight (in Doors Of Perception). Highly visual thinkers have been surprised to learn most people have a constant internal narrative stream, and vice-versa, some don't.

Look at the origins of mathematical ability in subitism, the numbers we can visualise. Clearly it doesn't end there, or we wouldn't have imaginary numbers. I would describe us as having a kind of mental sandbox, and as much as that is shaped by vision, just like we integrate our sensory streams, so we integrate layers of information in that mental workspace - and that can be primarily relational, like situating ourselves in our social world, another key driver of how our brains evolved.

Your whole argument smacks of hubris. Vision is important, sure. Is it the only important contributor to how we think? No. Our brains are plastic. Our knowing seeks integration. And people all the time push what brains can do, and how. Other minds are probably far more different to yours, than you have so far been willing to consider.

A counter-quote to yours:

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I understand." - attributed to Confucius, but paraphrased

  • "Isn't chair defined by use, and you ignore the fuzzy boundaries of how we define to say there is a 'secret essence'." -- no, nothing is defined by use. The question a valid definition must answer is Socrates' "ti esti?", or "what is it?". Which is not applicable to Loke's "simple ideas" or Kant's intuitions -- again, you cannot know them, you can only have some idea of what they are. There is, however, nothing "secret" about their essence. Nov 27, 2020 at 2:50
  • ... Getting ideas of something is the most basic function of any neural network. At its core, a neural net is always an image recognition system. You train it to recognise an image of a chair by showing it a picture and asking it to guess -- is it a chair or not? Then, depending on reply, you either confirm it as a valid guess, or correct it. That's how it learns, it's that simple. What happens under the hood, however, is much more enlightening. Nov 27, 2020 at 3:06
  • ... It starts a clean slate, having no idea of how a chair looks. So at first, it guesses at random (for simplicity, we disallow "I don't know" as an answer). With every iteration, it learns another example, either of "a chair" or "not a char". Learning, however, doesn't mean it is simply memorising every picture -- that would be terribly inefficient. Not only it would consume tons of memory, but can you imagine sifting through millions of pictures every time you asked to make the next guess?! Fortunately, a neural net is a far more sophisticated design... Nov 27, 2020 at 3:29
  • Rather than storing the original pictures, it collects patters. The originals are scanned for common (seen before) and unique patterns, indicating that the image is likely of a chair, as well as the anti-patters, suggesting it is likely not it. All patterns collected that way then get integrated into the master collection -- the concept of a chair, a neural net's idea of what a chair is. The original image is then simply discarded. Note that the resulting concept is 100% subjective. Even two identical neural nets shown the same consequences of images would end up with slightly different.... Nov 27, 2020 at 4:03
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    @YuriAlexandrovich: I find it difficult to summarise how much I disageee with your whole approach.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 29, 2020 at 6:42

Thinking is a process related to this nature( in Hindu philosophy, it is related to "Maya".). Nature is perceived by sensory organs. Sensory organs are many. Each sense have different virtue and effect on our mind. So thinking is versatile in nature. Not just symbolic or visual. Thinking is travelling through neurons cluster in our mind. These neurons contain different memories related to different senses.

  • In other words, you don't know. And please feel free to correct me, your answer is exactly what we would expect from who does not "actually think for themselves -- rather, like most of us, they are "having thoughts", their subconsciousness (which itself is, technically, a neural network AI, a chatbot) literally speaking "their" thoughts to them" <== quoting from my question above. Dec 2, 2020 at 23:23
  • The more u r focused, the more u know about ur thinking, and also see different levels and dimensions of ur thinking. Dec 4, 2020 at 18:08
  • I have a question for you: Can you describe how you walk? Dec 4, 2020 at 22:52

Short Answer

The short answer is that vast majority of contemporary philosophers of mind already reject that thought is a symbolic language and that the Leibniz's calculus ratiocinator is misguided, but have moved beyond the idea that thought is merely visual or use sense-data and now accept that thought is rooted in psychologism entailing various modalities dependent on the neuroanatomy. Part of the challenge in the philosophy of mind is trying to demarcate the difference between consciousness and unconciousness. (Some schools of philosophies don't accept any of these analytically philosophical presumptions. I'll leave it to adherents of other schools to offer their perspectives.)

Long Answer

You've tapped into a central question in the philosophy of mind. This thing called 'mind' seems to be composed of something called 'thoughts'. To answer briefly, among various philosophers and for a long time, there has been a recognition that language is not thought. An extremely famous analytic philosopher building on the work often traced back to Gottlob Frege is Ludwig Wittgenstein who went through a profound philosophical transformation when he moved from his early to late phases of thinking and advocated his famous metaphor, the language-game. Thought is more than symbols, although the notion was again defended by AI researchers in the early days of AI until it ran up against the symbol grounding problem which broadly explores the relationship between natural language and intentionality. There are still to several schools of philosophical thinking on thought and meaning, such as the most orthodox school like that of truth-conditional semantics and more recent innovations that such as cognitive semantics.

The modern analytical notion of thought is heavily centered around neural correlates of consciousness which is the perceived correlation between specific brain structures and function and qualia of consciousness. Neuroscientists in the last 50 years have made tremendous strides in mapping out brain function using tools like fMRI, PET, and others. Recently, for instance, scientists have been able to turn on consciousness in monkeys with electrodes. Thought is usually understood as a process that involves neural processing in the various cortices, NOT just the visual cortex. The thalamocortical system is essentially the thalamus where nervous integration occurs between ALL of the relevant cortices and centers (visual, auditory, syntactic, semantic, etc...). Philosophers have likely been consumed with visual thinking because it is generally accepted vision is our dominant sense.

While the nature of thought isn't very controversial to analytical philosophers, there are still problems, since correlation does not imply causation. Just because a neural circuit and a quale are correlated, doesn't explain the nature of the relationship which is recognized as dualism which simply put is the fact that brains are not minds and vice versa. There is no generally accepted philosophical theory that describes their relationship, and positions range from those of the eliminative materialist (mind is an illusion) to the subjective idealist (material is illusion). Probably the most famous contemporaneous statement of this problem is Chalmers's Hard Problem of Consciousness which is related to the question 'What is consciousness?', of which there are many theories. Some commonly invoked ideas among materialists today are emergence, supervenience, and epiphenomenalism, but the debate rages on. An eliminative materialist such as Dennett rejects from whole cloth the notion there is any problem at all to solve.

If you really want to understand the relationships among 'thought', 'concepts', and 'language', I'd highly recommend Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language which is highly technical, but offers an extremely solid characterization of how the evolution of the brain gives rise to meaning and grammar. It subsumes traditional philosophical notions put forth by Tarski and Kripke, and exposes philosophical theories for the linguistic structures they are.

  • > "This thing called 'mind' seems to be composed of something called 'thoughts'." -- that's not how I experience it. I do understand why the mind would appear that way to the vast majority of people. I described the difference in my question. I don't have thoughts, like most people. Rather, I think by piecing together and running a 3-D simulation of reality, courtesy of my prefrontal cortex (I think that's where the hardware located). Only then I use symbolic language to describe my virtual experience to others (again, note no mention of "thoughts" in there)... Nov 30, 2020 at 2:24
  • Sadly, most people's minds are organized in a very different way. The prefrontal cortex hardware I mentioned seems to be sitting idle. If there is a simulation, its coverage is very limited (tho sometimes it would cover a certain aspect of reality in minute details, like when a person has a PhD). The gaps are covrerd by a neural net AI in person subconsness, acting as a chatbot, and speaking to the person "their" thoughts <== that part can can appear as it was acutially composed of thoughts. Needless to say, this mode of operation can be very problematic. Nov 30, 2020 at 3:31
  • @YuriAlexandrovich Whether one views thought is a thing or a process is largely a philosophical distinction, and if you are more likely to see thought as a process and not a thing, then it's because you are farther away from what some call folk psychology. In fact, in the modern analytical tradition, someone like Giulio Tononi defines thought as a process by relying on his biological thesis about where consciousness resides...
    – J D
    Nov 30, 2020 at 13:53
  • If you don't understand why it appears that way, I would suggest that you think about how chess might be viewed by a child, that is, as a set of pieces which move. A chess master on the other hand will see chess as a period of time about making decisions related to a point system with the goal of winning. In psychology, these can be understood as developmental stages of thinking and have been modeled by Piaget...
    – J D
    Nov 30, 2020 at 13:57
  • If you are gifted visually and rely on that method, it may be that you suffer from the curse of knowledge in someway others don't. But properly speaking, Q&A about how your psychology differs is far better suited for Psychology SE.
    – J D
    Nov 30, 2020 at 13:58

Rationalism is a branch of philosophy that sustains the idea that all knowledge can be obtained just by thinking, without any experience.

Empiricism was the response to rationalism. It sustains the opposite: that knowledge can only be be obtained by experience (mainly by means of the five senses). A remarkable empiricist is David Hume.

He suggests that all concepts of our mind are the result of sensory experiences. Moreover, he thinks that getting memories is recalling our past experiences and "visualizing" them. That's the term you've used in your question.

But empiricism and rationalism have been merged in a single body and ideas, by Kant. A large part of the concepts in our mind is the result of experiences (yes, they can be "visualized", because they were obtained visually or auditively, etc. ). But the rest is the result of an internal production (what he calls synthetic a priori). It is essentially a set of basic concepts that allow the interpretation of the world.

Considering that this view is normally accepted in most modern philosophy schools, probably, this last group cannot be "visualized", simply because its components are not obtained via the senses.

  • > "Considering that this view is normally accepted in most modern philosophy schools, probably, this last group cannot be "visualized", simply because its components are not obtained via the senses." -- your are right, it is not about vision. The visual thinking is as a form of daydreaming. Nov 27, 2020 at 5:41

It is a great temptation to say that something very complex "is only" something simpler. And humans also engage in analogy thinking very easily, so the "its only" is generally an analogy to something we are already familiar with. Relative to human consciousness, the NEW "its only" speculations have generally followed new technologies, as the speculators find some useful correlates between the other system and the mind.

This approach is clearly illustrated in Descartes mechanical actuator model, in which he showed a mechanical systems of cables, pulley, actuators, etc coupling our brains to our sensory apparatus, and to hour hands/feet to act in response. Descartes was extrapolating off the recent human advances in mechanical engineering that enabled the upcoming industrial age.

There have been many similar efforts since: we are only a behavioral logic response (behaviorism), we are only a linear computational process (early AI), we are only a linguistic system (early linguistic analysis), we are only a neural net computational process (middle AI), we are only an integrative function or a self referential function (Global Workspace Theory and Higher Order Processing, respectively), we are only a predictive model of reality (Popper in The Self and Its Brain). These "we are only" speculations have all failed to fully describe consciousness, which has multiple aspect, functions and facets. Another of Popper's approaches have been applied to them -- identifying test cases that stress the hypothesis, and show it to be falsified.

I apply this testing process to one of the "Its all neural nets" thinkers in this review: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R5048CH7VMV78?ref=pf_ov_at_pdctrvw_srp The neural net model does not explain the majority of the features of consciousness, although it DOES explain a few of them well. The Churchlands' were stuck in confirmation bias mode, where they only looked for confirming data for their model, not for the refuting data.

Many thinkers HAVE realized their model is insufficient to deal with consciousness fully, and PATCH their model, with a second model, to address its limitations. Descartes did this with his mechanical model, adding a soul that is aware, and embodies intentionality and decision making, to supplement his wires and pulleys. Daniel Dennett admits the need for two systems as well in Consciousness Explained, where he notes that a neuro-reducitonist approach is insufficient to explain consciousness, because much of what we do "consciously" is to run a Von Neumann machine, AND WE HAVE NO VON NEUMANN MACHINE IN OUR NEURO STRUCTURE. He therefore postulates a virtual Von Neumann machine being run as a software overlay on our neural net hardware. This idea of our needing at least two independent modules interacting was made explicit as well in the decision logic studies that informed Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow.

YOUR hypothesis -- that we are a neural net based chat-bot, implicitly includes this dual-mode patch. Chat-bots were not successful, until they fused an algorithmic steering system onto a Deep Learning neural net processor. Your effort to limit the system to visual processing only is -- wrongheaded, and seems to be based on your own personal limited self-introspection. Your efforts to couple in both language, and predictive modeling to a base hypothesis that really does not involve either -- constitutes inappropriate kluges to your inadequate model, as I think you have realized that "we are only" [insert your model] will very obviously fail otherwise.

The failures of centuries of two-system models of consciousness are hardly unexpected. Consciousness is an evolved capability, and evolutionary systems tend to develop multiple interacting modules. Evolutionary psychology predicts that we should have MANY MANY interacting systems, not just two, or 3 or even a dozen. https://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html This is consistent with the recent consensus about science as a whole -- reductionism to one (or two, or three) key sciences has failed. Science, and our universe is PLURALISTIC (see chapter 5 https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/). So are our minds.

  • Aside from history or whatever lesson, "limiting system (?) to visual processing is wrong" was all you had to say? Can I ask what do you mean by "visual processing"? Dec 2, 2020 at 19:10
  • Humans do processing of all sorts of different sensory data, and think n all modes of sensory form, linguistically, and abstractly. Your assumptions that we think only visually and linguistically are clearly false, as has been pointed out in multiple comments from other posters. I did not need to make that part of the rebuttal explicit in my reply, as you have more than sufficient other responses that make this abundantly clear. However, if you think I should take the best of those and summarize in my answer to provide the best all-round response, I will consider doing so.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 2, 2020 at 19:29
  • Same question: What do you refer to as "visual processing"? Dec 2, 2020 at 21:32
  • OK, let me expand on that. You said that something "should NOT be limited to visual processing only". Shouldn't that imply that you should at least be able to explain what IS "visual processing"? Dec 2, 2020 at 23:44
  • @YuriAlexandrovich -- You asked: "Is it possible to argue that the basis of thinking is never symbolic -- it is always visual?" The answer is "neither -- thinking is both more complex and more plastic than you propose" No, I do not need to articulate what "visual processing" is to answer the question, just as you did not to ask it.
    – Dcleve
    Dec 4, 2020 at 6:39

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