4: Thinking - The Universal Superpower

The prime requirement for progress is creativity, which is available to everyone.

Ironically, I discovered the power and joy of thinking while on a meditation retreat, where one’s usually meant to think less, not more. But, since meditation only took up half the day, and the rules said not to read, write, talk, or use electronics, the only available entertainments were those provided by grey matter alone - cogitation, contemplation, reflection, speculation, and even cerebration. So, over the course of ten days, and in chunks of one to three hours, I must’ve racked up nearly a hundred hours of focused thinking.

If that seems odd to you, then you’re in good company! It seemed odd to me too. While I’d often focused on particular tasks for extended periods, I’d never just lied in bed and thought for hours at a time. Now, I was doing it constantly, and in isolation. While I’m told some people are distressed or even destabilized when alone with their own thoughts like this, I found it delightful and exciting.

Wait. It was exciting? Shouldn’t it have been supremely boring?

Just the opposite. By setting aside all my normal responsibilities, pursuits, and entertainments, I’d created the space for an entirely different activity: open-ended exploration. That’s right - despite my sedentary state and the scarcity of Arctic sled dogs, I was exploring. Not physical environments of course, but mental, virtual ones. After all, as the physicist David Deutsch points out in The Fabric of Reality, “All reasoning, all thinking and all external experience are forms of virtual reality.”

At the close of each hour-long meditation, I’d return with eagerness to my room and those bustling, dynamic, abstract worlds. When I left them, called by the next meditation bell, it was always with some reluctance. Thinking was addictive. Compelling. Engaging. Unpredictable. The sudden appearance of an unforeseen thought might set me on a new and intriguing path to who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. Confronted by some obstacle, I might patiently try every available tool, technique, and route until I’d overcome it. I had time.

I also had opportunity. Novel ideas are not accessible only to some privileged class of intellectuals who’ve mastered all prior thought on some subject. Every mind has the capacity to create knowledge - new knowledge. We could not learn to read, speak, or walk otherwise. Despite appearances, there is no fundamental difference between learning to say “mama” and “papa” and discovering fire, photons, and fusion. All such discoveries, however trivial or significant, are made by trial and error.

And they are ready for the taking. Our infinite ignorance dwarfs our knowledge, and one can come face to face with the unknown by simply asking “why” or “how” a few times (and rejecting the many inadequate answers on offer). Isaac Newton was acutely aware of our ignorance. Perhaps this contributed to his great scientific success, for if one feels that vast riches of understanding are available, one seeks them. He said,

I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

In a way, none of this is surprising. It’s obvious there are things we don’t know, and that we can try to figure them out by thinking. Though simple and true, such a statement fails to capture the full scope of our situation. We know almost nothing. Ignorance, and therefore opportunities for every sort of improvement, are everywhere. The content of future discoveries, and how they will be made, are known to no one. The prime requirement for progress is creativity, which is available to everyone.

We are just beginning.