Opposition to Avi Loeb’s unbiased, empirical inquiry

Detail from the cover of Avi Loeb's new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

                      

Critical and logical thinking is not genuine Smart Thinking, it is merely a form of computation

By Bryan Greetham

In the film Free Guy a bank teller discovers he is actually just a character in a video game. This forms the basis of a question that many have asked. From Descartes ‘evil demon’, to Hilary Putnam’s ‘Brain in a Vat’ and the film The Matrix, all of them pose the same question: are you a real person living in a concrete reality or do you just inhabit an elaborate computer simulation, the product of programmers, who are able to control your every thought and sense experience?

However, despite the sinister implications of this, many of us are all too willing to hand over our minds in the same way to malicious programmers whose only aim is to control our thoughts for their own advantage. We live in an attention economy, where the most coveted product on any website is ‘click bait’ that draws and captures inattentive minds long enough to sell advertising space. People spend hours every day, whether they are standing at bus stops, walking in the streets or having lunch in cafes, just staring into screens. Aldous Huxley said, ‘Most of one’s life…is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking.’1

In one study, subjects were asked to sit in a chair and do nothing but think. So difficult did some people find it to be alone with their own thoughts that, just to break the tedium, they took the opportunity to give themselves mild electric shocks, which they had earlier said they would pay to avoid. Of the men two-thirds gave themselves painful jolts during a 15 minute spell of solitude. One gave himself 190 shocks. Of the women a quarter gave themselves shocks. In 11 separate studies researchers found that people hated being left to think, regardless of age, education, income or the amount they use smartphones or social media.

acquiring knowledge or thinking logically can be done passively, almost as if the thinking part of you is not there

But what actually amounts to genuine thinking? Jacob Bronowski, who worked with John von Neumann, the creator of game theory, once suggested to von Neumann, during a taxi ride in London, that chess is a good example of a game. Von Neumann responded, ‘No, no … chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation.’2 And this is exactly what is so much that passes as thinking in our use of the term. Critical and logical thinking, for example, is not so much thinking, but a form of computation. If you work according to the rules and follow the right procedure, you will arrive at the right answer.

Compare that with genuine, smart thinking. In this there is a dynamic component. To say that you are thinking means that you are actively processing ideas, whereas acquiring knowledge or thinking logically can be done passively, almost as if the thinking part of you is not there. Otto Frisch, who worked with the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, explained that Bohr never trusted a purely logical argument: ‘“No, no,” he would say, “You are not thinking; you are just being logical.”’3 Thinking means going beyond what you know, or what you can show logically, to discover something new.

Genuine thinking starts with the epistemological assumption that right answers are designed, not found by just following the rules.

Genuine thinking starts with the epistemological assumption that right answers are designed, not found by just following the rules. It is all about generating new ideas, creating new concepts, designing novel solutions to problems and producing new insights. What we know is shaped by the act of knowing. It is not out there just waiting to be discovered. This has surprising implications. Much of science involves what Kuhn describes as ‘normal science’, where a paradigm is accepted and scientists are merely working out the details. It is a form of computation: nothing new is being discovered that isn’t already predicted by the paradigm.

In 2017, there appeared in the sky ‘Oumuamua’, what Avi Loeb describes as an interstellar object that was briefly visiting our solar system. In July 2021 the Galileo Project was publicly announced declaring that humans can no longer ignore the possible existence of Extraterrestrial Technological Civilizations, and that science should not dogmatically reject potential extraterrestrial explanations because of social stigma or cultural preferences, factors which are not conducive to the scientific method of unbiased, empirical inquiry. For good reason this project was named after Galileo: its aim is to think as genuine thinkers and go beyond what we know.

What we know is shaped by the act of knowing. It is not out there just waiting to be discovered.

Beyond scientific theory this has implications for all those whose thinking has been systematically taken over by what they read on social media. Locked within their own universe of facts and self-reinforcing arguments, they are intellectually insulated from any evidence that might threaten what they believe. It even applies, perhaps more widely, to all those who are committed to political ideologies.

These, too, are engaged in mere computation, applying what they consider to be self-evident rules and principles that determine what they consider to be relevant and true. In such a world communication is no longer possible, because there is no shared reality; each person has retreated into their own safe world of predictable computation. They lack the abiding qualities of all genuine thinkers: pragmatism, an open mind, the ability to set aside what they would like to believe, play devil’s advocate, ask naïve questions, generate new ideas, create new concepts, and design solutions to the most perplexing problems.

As with the resistance to Avi Loeb’s hypothesis of an interstellar visitor, there is no room for the unexpected, the radical hypothesis or the hitherto inconceivable connections between ideas, like those Einstein made between mass and energy. After all, you aren’t thinking, you’re just engaged in a form of computation. Perhaps the ability to think freely, pragmatically, free from the structured certainties of a political ideology, cultural influences or a ruling scientific paradigm, is the ultimate freedom we have. As Immanuel Kant said ‘Dare to know’4, dare to have the courage to think for yourself. 


1 Huxley, Aldous, ‘Green Tunnels’ in Mortal Coils (1922) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), p. 114.

2 Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 6.   

3 Frisch, O.R., What Little I Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 92.

4 Kant, Immanuel, ‘Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?’, Berlinische Monatsschrift, December 1784, pp. 481-94.


Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.

Bryan is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.