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Archive for November 25th, 2009

Just a Thought

        During a few sleepless moments last night a nebulous concept began to condense into a question within my mind.  What is the basic unit of a thought?   Or to put it another way, of what is a thought composed?

          In order to communicate the complexity of the question as I am considering it fully awake let me begin by relating an analogy.  As a Biology teacher at present, I teach students many parts or units of structure and function.  One example is the protein.  The protein is the basic unit of function for accomplishing tasks within a cell.  A protein is twisted into a specific shape that enables it to function properly because of an exact sequence of sub-units called amino acids.  Imagine a necklace of differing color and shape of stones all tangled up as it sits in a jewelry box.  But the amino acids have parts called atoms and atoms are made of smaller parts yet (Being an analogy I will leave it to the nuclear physicists to parse quarks and strings, and energy, what ever that is.).  Which part or piece is the basic unit?  Is it the smallest part or is it the association of parts that function as a unit?  Is it the atom that makes up the protein or the protein that functions as a whole, or is it the amino acid of which the protein is composed?

          An example of a ……. an idea might help.  Several days ago my wife and I were taking a pleasant and brisk walk on a cool evening in our small town.  As we approached an intersection near the town square someone passed us.  As I squinted in the evening sun I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke.  Now I have smelled cigarette smoke in many contexts over my nearly 50 years but at this moment I was immediately translated in mind to the pavement, crowds, rides, sounds, and sights of the Tennessee Valley A & I Fair in Knoxville, walking beside my father as a child.  I have heard that odors constitute the most thorough associations and memories and, by the way, I would not have thought any good association would be in my mind from tobacco smoke.  Was the TV A&I Fair-cigarette smoke complex a thought or was the cigarette smoke the thought that drew along in its vapors many rapid fire associations?

          If thought is as simple as a transistor switch on a microchip where one state results in an “on” switch and the other state results in an “off” switch, then the basic unit of thought is the most simple differentiation of this but not that, black not white.  But perhaps thoughts must need to be a functioning unit to exist or be remembered or be used.

          At some point in time a young child discovers the concept of two.  Perhaps his mother was carrying him to the bathtub for his Saturday evening bath.  The procedure included her handing him his yellow rubber ducky.  He gets so excited about the bath that she can hardly hold onto him.  Because this procedure is a time honored tradition in the family, the pair pass his older brother coming out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, carrying his yellow rubber ducky.  He squeals and raises his ducky toward his brother’s who reciprocates with a tap of the two toys together.  Having made this discovery, is the thought of “two” (of course devoid of word or Arabic numeral or math at this point) a complex association of bath, brother, mom, ducky, and so forth, or is it a mere recognition of two duckies?  It seems as though “two” generalized to number of siblings or number of dissimilar toys is a future and further association which may amend or truncate or revise “two”.  But is the thought of two from that point in the subconscious mind of this man a reflection on the set of associations surrounding rubber duckies or is it a continually revised concept that is both increasing in complexity by associations and simplified in the basic idea of what “two” is?

          Is the basic unit of thought static or dynamic, a complex association or a singular point?  And despite the consternation of the materialist is the complexity of thinking a suggestion that the whole is more than the sum of its parts?  Is there any suggestion from these musings or deeper study that thought has a deeper Source than chemical reactions, associations, and natural selection?  Just a thought.

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