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The arrogance of thinking that what goes on inside my head matters

by Greg Krehbiel on 29 September 2017

I realize this is an entirely self-contradictory — or maybe self-condemning — post.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on how odd it is to think that what’s going on inside my head matters in any way at all.

What I do matters. If a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane (not sure I believe that, but … it’s what people say), then every breath I take has some influence on the world, and other things I do (or can do) are definitely consequential. It follows that what I think at least matters to the extent that it affects what I do.

Okay, but often people go beyond that and imagine that what they think is important in some larger context — like in making them a good person.

To such a person, it matters that you have the right kinds of thoughts towards poor people, not whether you do anything to help them. It matters that you care about the environment, not whether you dispose of your batteries and used oil properly. It matters that you think the right kinds of thoughts about God, not whether you do anything useful.

We may fall into this kind of self-referential trap because what we think is more uniquely us than anything else in the world.

My thoughts are my own. Somebody else might look like me, or do things that I do, but only I can think my thoughts. The one thing that I know with absolute certainty is that I’m thinking. That’s the very essence of my self-identity.

Therefore, my own measure of whether “I” am a good person is that I think like a good person. And — so far as I know —
only I know that.

It all makes sense, but it’s also extremely arrogant to think that it matters. Except to me, of course. But, depending on your personality, a lot of life can be spent in this internal playground, imagining that this little drama going on in my head matters in any way.

But we’re social animals, so we have to relate our internal drama to other people. That results in things like “virtue signaling,” where we tell other people that what’s going on in our little drama is consistent with what’s going on in their little drama. It can also result in nit-picking over theological points — to make sure that my thoughts about God are the same as yours.

There’s a scene in Star Trek DS9 where Worf thinks he’s under attack and responds with deadly force before giving the other ship the benefit of the doubt. Later, some other Klingon is talking to him about it, and Worf seems all hung up on what his motivations were. The other Klingon says something like, “Motivations? That might matter to a human. What matters to a Klingon is what you did.”

This all makes me wonder what life would be like if you made a conscious decision to focus your mental efforts as much as possible on the external world and strive to set aside anything that seems merely internal.

Going too far in that direction might lead to some sort of madness, or psychosis. But I think it’s an exercise worth trying.

2017-09-29  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 20

  1. Robin R.
    29 September 2017 @ 11:46 am

    I would say that doing something cannot be understood strictly in terms of physical movements, but necessarily involves motivation. To the Klingon who reproached Worf I would respond by saying that without any motivation nothing at all nobody does anything.

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    29 September 2017 @ 11:53 am

    I think the point was not that Worf should not have had any motivation, but that Klingon’s shouldn’t care what it was.

  3. pentamom
    29 September 2017 @ 12:08 pm

    I think that the people who worry a lot about what other people think, are assuming that your ideas and beliefs will motivate you.

    Which is absolutely correct. You may not do all the stuff you should do to help poor people, but you’re far less likely to knowingly do stuff that hurts them.

  4. William
    29 September 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    Not that we “do” all we “think”, but what we do can be strongly influenced by what we think. This dynamic matters because it can have significant consequences on ourselves and/or others. This reference somewhat touches on the matter…Luke 6:45

  5. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    29 September 2017 @ 3:16 pm

    To me, the book of Proverbs seems to draw distinctions between the desires of our heart, the thoughts of our mind (spirit?), And the things we actually do in the form of words and deeds.

    I read the book of Proverbs to say that the desires of our heart have much greater influence on our words and actions than our minds and deeds. (The heart as described in Proverbs is not the same as the heart as described in anatomy and medicine.)

    I picture the “heart” as described in the book of Proverbs as a sort of a gyroscope, which cannot see or perceive the outside world, and operates below the level of words, but nevertheless sets our direction and guides our actions.

    In order to have a successful life, good thoughts are important. But I believe the more important to properly align your heart.

  6. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    29 September 2017 @ 3:18 pm

    Sorry, in the second paragraph, I meant to say, the desires of our heart Much greater influence on our words and deeds then our minds and thoughts.

  7. Scott Wicker
    29 September 2017 @ 3:40 pm

    In general, I would say that Catholics overemphasize the importance of actions, while Protestants overemphasize the importance of thoughts. Thoughts are important, but from a practical standpoint, actions are something we can observe and rigorously evaluate. I tend to agree more with the Catholic position on this one.

  8. Dave Krehbiel Dave Krehbiel
    29 September 2017 @ 7:56 pm

    @Scott Wicker: I agree.

  9. Robin R.
    29 September 2017 @ 10:36 pm

    I don’t think that we can observe actions any better than we can observe thoughts. You can see my arm move. But can you see me move my arm?

  10. Nat Whilk
    30 September 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    You’re right that it’s arrogant to think that what goes on inside your head matters. What matters is what goes on inside *my* head.

  11. Scott Wicker
    30 September 2017 @ 1:12 pm

    Quote: “I don’t think that we can observe actions any better than we can observe thoughts. You can see my arm move. But can you see me move my arm?”

    ???!!! Then who, pray tell, is moving your arm? A poltergeist?

  12. Nat Whilk
    30 September 2017 @ 2:25 pm

    Scott, I don’t think Robin is denying that he is moving his arm, but only that the rest of us can’t see the intentionality behind it that makes it an act of his, as opposed for example, to it being an involuntary nervous movement, or the movement of a robot that only looks like Robin. (Poor robot!) If I’m wrong about what Robin is saying, he can correct me, and will greatly enjoy doing so, I might add. Actually, I think Robin grants too much when he says we can see his arm move. All we can really see is *an* arm move. Just as we can see the conscious intention that makes it *his* movement, neither can we see the consciousness that makes it *his* arm.

  13. Nat Whilk
    30 September 2017 @ 2:27 pm

    I wish to edit the above to read, “Just as we can’t see the conscious intention that makes it *his* movement…”

  14. Robin R.
    30 September 2017 @ 2:54 pm

    I am saddened by the fact that I’m denied the pleasure of correcting Nat. 🙁

    Just a few days ago I was at a conference in Hamburg where I saw a guy with Parkison’s disease. I saw “his” right arm move quite rapidly at certain times. (I use the possessive only to fix the reference of which arm it was.) I think it would be wrong to say that he (or a poltergeist) was moving his arm or that I saw him moving his arm.

  15. Robin R.
    30 September 2017 @ 3:19 pm

    So the question is: Why should be skeptical about what (or that) people are thinking, but not about what they are doing (or even about whether they are doing anything at all), given that doing involves intention which is no less subjective than thinking?

    Got that?

  16. Scott Wicker
    30 September 2017 @ 3:35 pm

    Nat, Robin:
    Thanks for the clarification.

    Getting back to Catholic vs. Protestant, and philosophy consider this:

    Unlike the ‘arm moving’ example, most actions PROVE some kind of inner motive, whether good or evil. In fact, the kind of action allows us to pass judgement upon the thought. For example, if I were to commit a murder using a knife, no one would believe me if I said it was a “reflex action” or that “I thought I was carving up a watermelon”. Any observer would be justified in condemning my inner thought process based upon my execrable behavior. (Let’s set aside the controversial and rare case of ‘insanity’).

    Conversely, if I merely schemed of committing a knife murder, yet never had an opportunity to carry it out, no one would be the wiser, though my thoughts were just as criminal. No one but God himself would have any justification for condemning me.

    So actions tell us a great deal about inner motives, but not visa versa.

  17. Robin R.
    30 September 2017 @ 3:54 pm

    People express their thoughts in speech. To assume that they are never or rarely doing this seems as silly as assuming that the stabbing motion with a knife in hand is a reflex action.

  18. Scott Wicker
    30 September 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    Sure, speech is as important as action, and, aside from intentional lying which is a separate issue, usually provides clear insight into inner motives. Otherwise, what would be the point of testimony in court? I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  19. Robin R.
    30 September 2017 @ 4:17 pm

    Moreover, if actions were so clear-cut, applying the law to them wouldn’t be so difficult. Was it first or second degree murder? Was it manslaughter? Or just reckless endangerment? Answering such question often involves considering what the perpetrator was thinking through speech or other means of communication.

  20. Robin R.
    30 September 2017 @ 4:24 pm

    In conclusion, we shouldn’t say that actions can be observed whereas thoughts cannot. They’re pretty much in the same boat.

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