Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.

But back to the discussion… First of all there are theories that say that the right thing for a person to do in any given moment can be derived from certain universal principles. A particularly influential example of this way of thinking says that the right action is the one that maximises pleasure and minimises pain, or one that generates the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

This way of thinking has all sorts of problems, not least that the totality of consequences for a single action are difficult to foresee, that no one has yet come up with a calculator or an algorithm to work out what the net effect for humanity in terms of pain and pleasure will be of an action and its full chain of consequences, or how you deal with a situation where there’s a choice to create massively greater goods for a small number of people, or slightly smaller number of goods.

But a perhaps even bigger problem is the one highlighted most persistently by Bernard Williams, that this kind of thinking doesn’t allow for the idea that people have their own personal projects, commitments and relationships that they may not want to set aside to follow an abstract universal principle.

An example to illustrate this, is the fairly severe case where a man stands at the sea shore and sees two people at risk of drowning: One of them is a stranger (or to make it more extreme a scientist who is likely to go on to find cures to lots of human illnesses). The other one is the bystander’s wife, (who is nice, but there is no particular reason to believe that she will create extraordinary good for mankind).

Clearly, we would rightly be suspicious of an ethical theory that required the bystander to rescue the scientist ahead of his wife. Clearly, the theory could be adjusted to say take account of the fact that good might be maximised by people rescuing their wives in such situations. But Williams takes his criticism one step further: we should even be suspicious of an ethical theory that requires the bystander to think things through and derive permission from a universal principle to save his wife.

Williams says, “it might… [be] hoped . . . that his motivating thought, fully spelled out, would be [just] the thought that it was his wife.” Following this thought, he should jump into the sea and save his wife. If he needs to think things through further and come to the conclusions that in these situations it is ok to save one’s wife, Williams suggests the man is having “one thought too many”.

Harry Frankfurt thinks that this is on the right track for thinking about the problem. But he wants to take it one step further:

“I am very sympathetic to Williams’ line of thought about this example. Nevertheless, I do have problems with a couple of the details. For one thing, I cannot help wondering why the man should have even the one thought that it’s his wife. Are we supposed to imagine that at first he didn’t recognize her? Or are we supposed to imagine that at first he didn’t remember that they were married, and had to remind himself of that?”

And then comes the killer sentence:

It seems to me that the strictly correct number of thoughts for this man is zero. Surely the normal thing is that the man sees what’s happening in the water, and he jumps in to save his wife. Without thinking at all. In the circumstances that the example describes, any thought whatever is one thought too many.

Frankfurt also suggests it would be clearer to replace the notion that the man is married to the woman with the idea that he loves her.

“In that case, it would indeed be incongruous for him to look for a reason to save that person. If he loves her, then he necessarily has the reason he needs: it is simply that she is in trouble, and needs his help.”

“(…) if the man does not recognize the distress of the woman he loves as a particular reason to save her rather than the stranger, he does not truly love her at all. Loving someone or something essentially means, among other things, taking its needs and interests as reasons for acting to serve those interests and needs. Love is itself, in other words, a source of reasons. It creates the reasons by which acts of loving devotion are inspired. As a matter of fact, that’s precisely how it is that love makes the world go around.”

It is an odd thing for a philosopher, a professional thinker to say that zero is the correct number of thoughts. Not only is it alright for the man not to think. According to Frankfurt, there would be something badly wrong with him if he had to think about it. And we are left with the question that the philosophers don’t address: How and when does zero thought actually work?

According to the example, emergencies (I imagine these could also be situations where our own survival is in question) and love can give rise to action with zero thoughts. What else could motivate action without thought? Maybe the ancient Greek triad of the good, the beautiful and the true?

Action without thinking reminds me of the description of the kinds of action that virtuoso performers in sports or the arts take. Hitting a tennis ball that is fired at you faster than you could possibly compute. Fingers moving along the strings of a violin to create perfect sounds in a way the brain could not possibly consciously contribute to.

It is also possibly the state that Mihaly Czikszentmihaly, who spent decades researching what drives high performance and exceptional creativity, describes as an experience of flow. According to him, flow experiences have the following characteristics that suggest they are compatible with zero thought:

  • There are clear goals every step of the way. In contrast to what happens in everyday life, on the job or at home, where often there are contradictory demands and our purpose is unsure, in flow we always know what needs to be done.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure. We are too involved to be concerned with failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted. Hours may pass in what seem like a few minutes.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself.

So zero thought action may not only be ethically right, possible and sensible, but it may actually lead to excellence and contribute to greater happiness. And that leads me to wonder whether thought, rather than being a guarantor of better action, may actually be associated with sub-optimal action? What does it say about our lives that we think we require so much thought? What would a day look like on which we took only zero thought action? And really, should the fact that we need to think a course of action through a lot, make us suspicious of whether we are on the right track with the action at all. Shouldn’t we be able to access the reasons for action in a more immediate way?

Lots to think about… But maybe it would be better just to pay attention to the thoughts that precede our actions, or the times when thoughts don’t enter our consciousness.






1 Comment

I'd love to know what you think about this!