I’m embarrassingly behind on reading my New Yorker magazines. They’ve been gathering in a heap that I move from bookshelf to bookshelf until I find time to read them. This week, I picked up one issue (December 6, 2021) that I’d paged through and marked the promising articles in but hadn’t gotten around to reading and instantly remembered why I’d flagged this particular piece: “Researchers are Pursuing an Age-Old Question: What is a Thought?” 

I’d brushed against—and swiftly shied away from—the near edges of this question in a philosophy paper I wrestled with for the majority of last semester, but it seems I’ve now recovered enough to give it another look (not my paper—that may take years—but the question). 

The story begins with the tale of a nightmarishly bleak condition: locked-in syndrome. What would it be like to have nothing but your thoughts? A great deal of my life and work revolve around thinking, but that activity would be severely hampered without the corollaries of writing things down, pacing the yard or park, preparing a meal, picking up a book or article or computer, and engaging in conversations while thinking. Our thoughts need company as desperately as we do. 

Mind-reading is unequivocally science fiction, but there are researchers out there keen to tack on a qualifying “for now.” Some think reading one’s very thoughts is on the cusp (a generation or so from now) of leaving the realm of science fiction and entering straight-up science. That is mind-boggling, at least to me. 

Dr. Ken Norman is quoted as saying, “The space of possible thoughts that people can think is big—but it’s not infinitely big.” I’m inclined to respectfully disagree. Surely there is an infinity of phenomena to study—and surely anything to be studied will generate thought, and surely the thought generated will vary from one individual to the next? 

Sure, if you stuck me in an fMRI machine while I read the article, you could tell I was skeptical—but you couldn’t tell why. You couldn’t see my thoughts flickering over to my research on awe and science communication and then to the two delightful quotes about complexity and unknowability that I want to incorporate into everything I write (see below), and then to the fact that other neuroscientists are also skeptical about these capabilities. An fMRI may be able to sift the skeptics from the devotees, but not one thought from the next…right? 

I’m much more comfortable with a view of the world in which it is impossible to ever completely know anything. In the words of Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “​​We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?” (p. 369). In the even sager ones of C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock

What sort of universe do we demand? If it were small enough to be cozy, it would not be big enough to be sublime. If it is large enough for us to spread our spiritual limbs in, it must be large enough to baffle us. Cramped or terrified we must, in any conceivable world, be one or the other. I prefer terror. I should be suffocated in a universe I could see to the end of. Have you never, when walking in a wood, turned back deliberately for fear you should come out at the other side and thus make it ever after in your imagination a mere beggarly strip of trees? (p. 42)


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