Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thinking the Unthinkable (by anon)

“We think we can think of anything.”  That’s not true.

While sitting around in pj’s on Christmas, sometimes conversations turn to pyramids, crop circles, virtual simulations, and aliens.  Ok, not everywhere and not often, but in my house, it’s not improbable.  A bunch of us pondered different arguments and explanations for seemingly unexplained phenomena, and then a person uttered this sentence, “It’s possible that there is something out there that is incomprehensible.”  Being the person that I am, I responded, “You mean, not fundamentally incomprehensible such that it is literally the ‘unthinkable,’ right?”  The reply from the other person was, “Yes, that is exactly what I mean.”  And the person was ardent that that was what he meant.

But, no, that is not what he could have meant.  From my thinking (as well as should be from everyone’s thinking), no one can meaningfully say, “It’s possible that there is something out there [in the universe] that is fundamentally unthinkable.”  It is literally nonsense.  Of course someone can actually utter the sentence.  I just did.  But it is another matter whether the sentence is meaningful or not.  Not everything we utter has to be meaningful, contrary to popular opinion.  I say this purely on the grounds of the limits of language.  I don’t care at all about what is actually in existence or not.  This is a matter of linguistics.

Here is my argument.  We can only meaningfully talk about that which we can possibly think.  The limits of what we can say (meaningfully) are the limits of our thought.  Thus, if there is something we cannot possibly think about, then we cannot talk about it.  To say that there is something fundamentally unthinkable means that it is not possible that we can ever meaningfully talk about it.  In fact, the previous sentence I just wrote would be rendered nonsensical since I’m trying to talk about “something” that I cannot possibly talk about since I cannot talk about it.  We, as humans, are always already mired within the confines of our languages, concepts, categories, and rationalities.  That which we can think must be a function of our rationality.  Thus, EVERYTHING we can possibly think of MUST be clothed with our concepts.  Therefore, to postulate that there could be something fundamentally outside our rationality such that we would never be able to understand it, comprehend it, imagine it, attach any concept to it, differentiate it from anything else, or even call it an “it” (since that entails the concept of differentiation) is a direct contradiction.  It would be saying, “I can think about something unthinkable.”  But if something is fundamentally unthinkable, then one cannot think of it. Period.  We cannot overcome the bubble of our human rationality.  To think so would be like thinking that once can think of a square circle coherently – but no matter how hard one tries, it is always a contradiction.

Do I think there are things in the universe that are fairly incomprehensible?  Sure.  But if those things can be identified as “things” in some sense, then they are at least minimally comprehensible (as things).  Are there things beyond my own awareness?  Yes, but such a question misses my point (even though it was the question that kept being asked of me).  My point is that there are limits to what we can say meaningfully.  Just as the existential question, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all?” is literally meaningless as stated because we can never comprehend absolute nothingness, so too can we not think that which is postulated to be absolutely unthinkable.

There are certainly many things in the universe we do not understand, and the seeming intent of the initial statement was to relate that.  But when pushed for preciseness, please refrain from saying something nonsensical.  After all, we want to remain intelligent creatures :)


  1. you totally just played semantics for five paragraphs.

  2. Yes! Yes I did. But good semantics. We should remain silent on those things we cannot think. A pretty simple point so easily violated.

  3. and what we cannot think/say must be consigned to silence


  4. BORING! Does any of this really matter? At all?? Like, as in, does it really have anything to do at all with our lives and how we carry them out day to day? No. Not at all. Thinking about these things is a waste of time. Semantics is a waste of time. I mean, who really gives a shit whether or not I can say "meaningfully" this or that, if it has no bearing on what I do that day, or the next, or the next? So space cadets, let's stay on earth here, and really come up with something meaningful.