On Thinking Without Language

Responding to Dave Pollard:

I have long written on the topic of subsymbolic communication and reasoning. So I think you strike a note here. But it could be more sharply hit:

You write, "What is important is that they are effective, workable, successful. Not necessarily the best decisions, but good decisions. These decisions are the result of intellectual, emotional, sensory/somatic (body) and intuitive knowledge (to use the Jungian model) and integrate the conscious and unconscious."

I think that decisions based on subsymbolic reasoning are the best, and not decisions that are merely good enough.

There is a mechanism that describes subsymbolic reasoning. You suggest that the mechanism is "the result of intellectual, emotional, sensory/somatic (body) and intuitive knowledge (to use the Jungian model)." I think you're flailing here.

Subsymbolic decisions (and subsymbolic reasoning generally) is the result of the experience of perceptual processes (which is where we get emotionl, sensory and somatic influences).

In a nutshell, it is the association of these experiences with previous experiences. Any experience, any perception, is the activation of millions of neural cells. These activations may, depending on the experience, include characteristic patterns of activation. It is the matching of these patterns that constitutes the basis for reasoning.

These patterns may reflect any sort of perception - sights and sounds, music, animals, forms and faces. We may associate characteristic sounds with them - these characteristic sounds - words - are also patterns. But for many of our habitual experiences, there are no words. They are ineffable.

Patterns are created from perception through a process of abstraction - we filter our perception, taking in some aspects, discarding the rest. Formal reasoning is this process taken to a great degree - it is abstraction of abstraction of abstraction. Eventually we arrive at 'pure' concepts - things like conjunction, entailment, existence, being - which form the basis for formal reasoning.

These concepts are extremely powerful, but their power is gained at the price if the abstraction. They express broad sweeping truths, but very little about the here and now.

The reasoning of the master is a subtle dance between these two extremes, between the concrete and the universal, a waltz through the layers of abstraction, drawing subtly on each as it applies to the situation at hand.


  1. Have you read Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking? It's an easy read, and the chapter I'm currently on would add to your thoughts. It's about facial expressions and the interactions between facial expressions, mood, emotions, and our perception of others. Interesting.


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