Thinking about Thinking: Mind and Meaning in the Era of Techno-Nihilism
James D. Madden.
Cascade Books, 2023.
Paperback, 220 pages, $29.

Reviewed by David Weinberger.

Ever wonder what it means to have a mind? Is thinking, for example, unique to the human species? Or might we one day create Artificial Intelligence (AI) that “thinks” the way we do? Moreover, how is the pursuit of AI shaping the way we understand ourselves as human beings? If you have ever asked yourself these questions, pick up the gripping new book by philosopher Dr. James D. Madden, Thinking about Thinking: Mind and Meaning in the Era of Techno-Nihilism, which offers fresh insight into these issues and more.

Philosophy of mind today is generally split between two camps, materialists who believe that the mind is ultimately reducible to physical bits of matter, and dualists who believe that the mind is more than physical matter alone. In this book, however, rather than engage directly in this debate, Madden primarily considers a separate (though related) question: What are the necessary conditions for having a mind in the first place? That is, what does it mean to be a thinker and what might that tell us about who we are as human beings?

Drawing on insights from philosophers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and others, Madden explores what thinking is by first examining what it is not. Specifically, he argues that whatever else may be said about it, thinking cannot be a thing—whether material (like a neurological event in the brain) or immaterial (like a ghost). For being a “thing” entails being the kind of entity that is limited by the boundaries of its dimensions (e.g. a basketball is limited by its shape and size). But thinking, Madden suggests, has no boundaries because it has no dimensions. Consider, for instance, that thinking is always about something, about an object of thought, meaning that thinking goes beyond the boundaries of the thinker and “out to” the object of thought. “A thought is then not a process strictly internal to the thinker, whether we conceive of thinkers as material or immaterial substances, but always something that extends beyond boundaries of any discrete individual,” writes Madden. “Anything that can be discreetly located, e.g. a neurophysiological event or mental episode, does not by itself reach out to an object of thought.”

Furthermore, two points closely follow from this observation. First, thinking is not something we do in isolation. Rather, thinking entails being involved in the world. For example, to think about a summer cabin requires actual acquaintance with such a cabin, either directly (by, say, having gone to one in the past) or indirectly (by, say, a friend who has a cabin and who has shared her experience of it). Second, all thought is inextricably bound up in a web of other concepts unique to one’s personal history. For example, one’s thought of a summer cabin may entail concepts not only of “summer” and “cabin,” but also of boating, family adventures, board games, swimming, lying on the dock, bonfires, gazing at stars, laughing with friends, and myriad other concepts tied to one’s own experiential history of summer cabins. In other words, as Madden explains, “Having a mind is not to possess something, but to be involved with or a participant in, as it has been famously put, a ‘form of life.’”

What this ultimately means is that a “form of life” is not only something we participate in, but something for which we must finally take responsibility, if we wish to be authentically human. For example, we are all born into structures, traditions, and worldviews that we receive from our parents, peers, community, and culture. Yet, while we grow up as mere practitioners of the form of life we inherit, at some point responsibility demands that we subject that life to critical scrutiny to see whether it is in fact the good, right, and true form of life, or whether it ought to be abandoned for a superior one. In other words, having a mind enters us into the “space of reasons,” where we face the essential human task of critically assessing the life we lead and seeing whether it withstands rational analysis. “Thus,” Madden observes, “one must ask stark questions and face possibly dark answers about her form of life, if she really cares about it. This is what it means to refuse to live in a sham world.” As Socrates recognized long ago, the unexamined life is not worth living, so putting one’s life under scrutiny and being open to “dark answers” is essential to human authenticity. Anxiety, in other words, is the price paid for living a fully human life.

After reflecting on the nature of human thinking, Madden considers AI and whether it might one day “think” in this authentically human sense. Interestingly, he does not take up some standard objections against AI, such as whether machines are in principle even capable of understanding anything in the first place (though he has treated that question in a previous book). He instead develops three broad considerations to show why, even granting that computers might in principle one day truly understand things, it nevertheless remains unlikely that AI will ever “think” the way we do. While space constraints limit exploring those reasons here, one consideration is worth mentioning—our cognitive ability to sort the environment in terms of what is relevant to us, or what Madden calls “pragmatic relevance.”

At any moment, for example, we are aware of an extraordinarily large number of goings-on in our environment. For instance, as I type this I am aware of the microwave running in the background, the various birds outside my window, the chair I am sitting in, the low hum of the furnace, the cats sleeping in the room next to me, the fact that my wife is at the store, and a potentially infinite number of other facts which I may not be explicitly aware of but which are nevertheless in the background of my awareness. Furthermore, any “background fact” could suddenly lurch into the foreground of my awareness, but only if it is a concern for me and my form of life. For example, a ring of the doorbell immediately shifts my attention from my writing and to the front door, whereas a gust of wind that happens to blow outside remains only in my background awareness. In other words, I effortlessly trade one relevance frame—my writing—for another—the front door—only because the latter is a going concern for me and my form of life: I live in a culture where the sound of a doorbell signals that someone is present. The wind, on the other hand, has no significance to me and therefore does not enter my explicit awareness. Finally, note here that what concerns me revolves around the fact of my embodiment. That is, my typing and my response to the doorbell entail certain bodily behaviors—they are relevant to me, in other words, in terms of my bodily activity.

What all this means is that the world we are involved in is cognitively sorted by us according to the purposes and concerns of our form of life, which is in turn (as we noted above) shaped by the structures, traditions and worldviews in which we bodily participate. This poses a major challenge for AI, as Madden explains:

Our thinking is presented with indefinitely, even infinitely, many possible semantic engagements with the world, but we winnow those dizzying possibilities down based on pragmatic sorting. Moreover, we move among these various pragmatic sortings with utter facility in a way it seems highly unlikely that any algorithm can capture, because they are always based on our particular bodily and culturally conditioned prior attempts to deal with the world.”

In short, our mindedness presupposes a form of life, and our form of life assumes bodily participation in the structures, traditions, and worldviews that we share with our family, friends, community, and culture. Thinking that is authentically human, therefore, cannot occur without a rich history of embodied participation in the world. Building an AI to “think” like we do thus requires more than the immensely complex algorithms that can be programmed into computers, and it is difficult to imagine how it might be otherwise.

Finally, in the last chapter of the book Madden asks what our pursuit of technology means for our self-understanding. While there are many fascinating insights here, one theme he stresses is that technology is merely a way of being in the world. By that he means that technology is the inevitable outcome of the fact that we offload our mindedness onto our environment. One simple example of this is writing, which is the technological byproduct of our mind’s extension into the world. Moreover, while technology is an inevitable expression of who we are, Madden warns that it is not without its downsides. Machine technology, he suggests, can and indeed often does undermine our nature as human beings.

For example, if the essence of human mindedness is to participate in the world and take responsibility for one’s “way of life,” machines increasingly dull both our participation in and responsibility for the life we lead, thereby weakening our capacity to be critically self-reflective and to choose what our reason reveals as the good and true form of life. “A complete dependence on machine technology absolves us of the responsibility for our reasons,” he writes, “and it grants us the illusion of a complete independence from other humans.” Ergo, too much blind technological ambition could in fact be our undoing as human beings. Throwing out our smartphones, however, is not the solution. Rather, we must accept the fact that the discomfort and anxiety that we want our machines to alleviate are ineliminable facts of authentic human life and are thus a mark of our nobility: “Rather than allowing our technologies to give us the illusion that we can conquer our wantonness, we need to affirm desire, discomfort, and anxiety as the necessary by-products of the distinctive human dignity.” This is no easy task, to be sure, but refusing to live a sham existence means that we must nevertheless try.

Of course, there is much more about this topic and the nature of mindedness in the book, including an important chapter on free will and what it means for us as thinking beings. But for that, readers will simply have to pick up the book and reflect on these matters for themselves. Being a thinker, after all, is the essence of what it means to be a human being.

David Weinberger formerly worked at a public policy institution. He can be found on X @DWeinberger03.

Support the University Bookman

The Bookman is provided free of charge and without ads to all readers. Would you please consider supporting the work of the Bookman with a gift of $5? Contributions of any amount are needed and appreciated