I was thinking today about how much more we readily accept the reality of optical illusions over ‘rational’ illusions. Certainly, the optical illusions are easier to spot. I imagine rational illusions are not easy to notice because we have such a deep-seated faith in what we think.
Thinking is a kind of a sixth sense, but why do we trust this thinking sense so deeply? From a symptoms point of view, I assume we trust it as deeply as we do simply because we need to. That is obvious I suppose, although it is curious how the obvious can be easily overlooked.
Ironically, the thinking sense is likely our most unreliable sense. For one thing, the five primary senses receive their input directly. For thought, the input is derivative. In other words, thought relies on preconceptions — names, words, and a native language — to shape its interpretation of direct sensory input. These, woven into thought by our native language, are the biases, myths, fears, and aesthetics (1) that our native culture inculcates in us from infancy.
Our framework of thought relies on the secondary knowledge of names and words. For example, the word “tree” and the object it symbolizes are light-years apart to anyone who deeply feels an actual tree à la Tat Tvam Asi and compares that to an imaginary symbolic “tree”. Yet, we often trust the word more than the experience.
Despite the second-hand reality of thought, this sixth sense is the greatest survival tool we have. I think our profound ability to interact cognitively via groupthink is at least in part responsible for our exceptional ability to invent tools, which in turn, have thrust us to the top of the food chain.
The problem is that this strength easily turns out to be too much of a good thing. As chapter 32 cautions us, Only when it is cut are there names. As soon as there are names, one ought to know that it is time to stop. Knowing when to stop one can be free from danger. If not for this groupthink, chapter 71 wouldn’t warns, Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.
Finally, in fitting irony, I see our unwarranted trust in thinking is caused by the emptiness into which thought delves. It is like a Pandora’s box, revealing an infinity of boxes beyond. We desperately feel a need to trust what we think in order to block out the empty uncertainty we sense lurking outside the box. Belief in what we think aims to keep us securely inside the box, so to speak. Nope, it is too late — the cat’s out of the bag.
(1) Our biases and aesthetics give another angle on chapter 2’s, The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.