Thinking about Thinking

Can you really think about thinking -or would that amount to just an endless stream of ‘think-abouts’: thinking about thinking about thinking about… like what I’m doing now? It seems too Ouroborossy -too much like lifting yourself up with your shoelaces, or something. But metacognition is like that, apparently; metacognitioners do it all the time.

Still, I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me: all complex things require the ability to peer into their innards to recalibrate or to oil the rusty parts. It’s just a question of how often it should be done so it doesn’t interfere with the efficiency. And anyway, isn’t even thinking about thinking simply an autology because it explains itself in terms of itself… a backronym as they would say on social media? Can the mind really control itself, or does it just think it can?

I’m not suggesting that it can’t divert itself -as in, say, Mindfulness, or various forms of meditation- but is that really thinking about thinking? And is it task oriented -i.e. regulation– or simply allowing time for the dust to settle?

Perhaps I have too much time on my hands; perhaps I should never have retired; or perhaps I should never have brought up the subject with the guys at one of our Wednesday coffee meetings at the Food Court. But, the subject was bothering me, eh?

There was often a motley selection of attendees there. It depended on the domestic chores they had been assigned that day, I assume -some of their spouses were less tolerant of excuses maybe. At any rate, Lewis was there holding court with two others, as I arrived on the scene, and it was so intense, they didn’t even acknowledge my presence until one of them had to move his chair to accommodate me. Lewis was once a judge, and although he is now an octogenarian, he still demands we respect his opinions, and remain silent while he is speaking. I suppose I’d be the same, but when you live alone, it’s kind of the same thing as being ignored, so I was used to it.

Anyway, Lewis was chiding George for under-thinking something; he was a retired accountant, and used to checking and rechecking his figures, so I listened with interest.

“You’re making it sound too simple as usual, George,” Lewis said, looking through his eyebrows at him like a wolf staring down his prey from behind a bush. “Just believing that something is correct, and then using a lot of mayonnaise words to disguise the taste does not add any suasion to the argument.” I could tell both George and Helmut were impressed by the word ‘suasion’ although neither of them would have ever thought of using it. In fact, Helmut, whose first language was not English, actually looked a little puzzled that ‘persuasion’ wouldn’t have been the correct word to use. “It may distract me,” Lewis continued, in his annoyingly  learned manner. “But without proof, you will not change my mind…”

I caught Lewis’ eye just as he was thinking of the next profound thing to say. He acknowledged my presence with a wave of his eyebrows, and then, in a kind of judicial summary, explained that George had read something interesting about teaching criminals to change their ways by making them ‘think’ they could. He, Lewis, did not think that was possible.

I saw my chance. “Are you referring to a Circus in demonstrando?” I said, trying to show off my own readings on circular reasoning.

He looked at me, again through -not over– his eyebrows, and a wry smile briefly made an appearance on his face. “The expression is CirCULus in demonstrando, G,” he explained emphasizing with a flourish of his hand where I had screwed up the pronunciation. “How is George’s point an example of circular reasoning?”

“Because I think metacognition is a way of trying to make an argument by beginning with an assumption that what you are trying to prove is already true. Using thinking about thinking to prove that thinking can change thinking…” I realized suddenly that I was getting lost in the words, like George had probably done; I hoped that Lewis, too, had lost his way. But I suppose his many years on the bench had hardened him to equivocation -especially when I hadn’t really given my argument much thought.

He suddenly smiled and both eyebrows inched their way clear of his eyes so their twinkles could shine through. “While I admire your willingness to offer your assistance to me, G, I rather think your reasoning gets in the way of your intellect.” He picked up his coffee, but couldn’t erase the smile on his face to drink any of it. “Are you a Shakespeare fan, G?” he asked, as a sudden thought came to him.

I nodded; I shouldn’t have.

“Antony and Cleopatra…?”

In for a penny, in for a pound, I guess, so I nodded again.

“You remember Enobarbus, then?” he added with an impish grin.

Now that I had jumped into the waters, I figured I’d better nod and accept my punishment.

“Enobarbus said, ‘When valor preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with’…” Then he smiled, as if to put me out of my misery. “He’s talking about Antony, his commander. In other words, when courage and pride overrule reason, it destroys its only weapon…”

My god, no wonder he was a judge! “So…” I tried to think how that quote destroyed my argument. But I struggled too long, I guess, and Lewis jumped in with the answer.

He shrugged before saying anything -maybe to diffuse the sting of his reason. “We think about thinking all the time, G. It’s how you calm yourself down before you do something regrettable when you’re angry, or how you think of tricks to help you remember what you were supposed to buy at the store…” He stopped for a moment to help me to process my thoughts.

My turn to jump in. “So, then perhaps George was on the right track…” Lewis buried his eyes under his eyebrows again. “Maybe it is possible to make criminals believe they can change their ways…”

It didn’t take long before the wry smile reappeared on his lips. “The issue boils down further, though, G: it’s called the Fallacy of Composition which is when we assume something is true of the whole just because it is true of some part of the whole. In other words, just because thinking about thinking is helpful in some particular domains, that does not mean it is therefore necessarily applicable to other areas of thought…”

“But, isn’t that what you’re doing, Lewis…?” Hah! I figured I had him.

He laughed and shrugged all in one fluid movement. He clearly liked the argumentative thrust-and-parry. “I knew it was time for me to retire from the bench,” he said and winked at the other two. “Can I interest anybody in another plate of doughnuts…?”

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