I am 80% determinist.

Some time back I had a question – how does thinking begin? We cannot create something out of nothing, so generating thought is an energy-requiring process. We eat, and that chemical energy is converted to electrochemical impulses that run along our neurons in the mind, and therefore we think. While many neuro-scientists are scrambling to map the brain genome, my question lies beyond what is purely mechanistic. Someday these hard-working scientists will find that answer for me, how neurons work as a whole brain. I am more intrigued by the cause (pardon me for the crude use of word) of thought. In other words, what directs that energy from food into one thought and not another. With the law of inertia in mind, this question extends to the impetus for an alteration in the direction of a particular train of thought.

To start a train, or change its direction, you will need energy. To invest that energy, you will need energy too. To decide to invest energy… and it goes on. Tracing to the root of this series of causes and effects, I have found myself lacking a tenable explanation. What is the ultimate cause of thought, or is it a mere illusion?

A name comes to mind – B. F. Skinner. By training a psychologist, he is commonly known, at least to biologists, for his pioneering work on operant conditioning. I mentioned him because of his deterministic beliefs that led to his conclusion that behaviour comprises sets of stimulus-response pairs. As with the other behavorists of the late-19th and early-20th century, theories of the mind based on introspective methods are unfounded. With his perspective, the cause of thought can stem from either past experiences, or present external forces, both caused by other forces, leading all the way back to when energy was first created. Free will?

This is somewhat too metaphysical for me. Besides, knowing, or not knowing, is only part of living. There are irrational emotions and thoughts that affect the decision-making process. Certainly, emotions are not excused from Man’s desire to understand the world, but by their very definition they are spontaneous. Emotions can be suppressed, but never willed. One cannot will to be happy, or sad.

I shall abandon superfluous philosophy now for some more down-to-earth reflections on being back home. It feels surreal being in an environment once more after experiencing life somewhere else. Expectations changed, perspectives altered. In some ways, I have tried to infuse the Parisien spirit in my surroundings, but I have long conceded that it will not be the same. I am in no despair because I didn’t expect it to be the same. On the contrary, the differences brought some appreciation of what I have here in Singapore.

Nonetheless, I have met some frustration whilst attempting to recreate what I’ve learnt in Paris. I failed to make a proper tarte au citron. I can handle failures in my baking endeavors, in fact they are part of the reason why I continue to bake. After a few desperate tries, I have understood what terrible difficulties the Singaporean climate brings to baking. In Paris, we had a hard time trying to soften butter for some recipes. In Singapore, butter is by default softened, and it melts so quickly. Some of my corrective measures include cooling the work surface with ice, and using an ice-cold rolling pin. Additionally, I had to use too much flour while rolling out a dough, thus changing the dough’s consistency. Despite all that, it was impossible to work in the afternoon heat, and I waited till the rain poured down for my fourth attempt. Preparing a tart shell took me 15 minutes back in winter. A day of work, extra measures, and failures, in Singapore.

Discouraged, but unfazed. I will try again, but not before some family time in Korea.

  1. You are on the right track in an explanation of thinking by referring to B. F. Skinner. As thinking is closely associated with consciousness, you may already know that Skinner said that “consciousness is a social product” and he could not imagine consciousness in a lone individual (c.f. studies on feral children). Also, you might be interested in an article Skinner wrote in 1986 entitled, The Evolution of Verbal Behavior, Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Vol 45, pp. 115-122. You likely can find and download this article for free.

    • Roo said:

      I have not really read in depth about Skinner, but I am deeply interested in both psychology and evolution. Hence the paper you have suggested truly appeals to me. I found the paper, but unfortunately it isn’t free for access. Nonetheless, thank you very much for your educated comment!

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