Monday, July 20, 2015

The Thinkable and the Unthinkable

The term “unthinkable” may be used in a variety of ways. It may, for example, be used to refer to that which is unimaginable, inconceivable, unquantifiable, unidentifiable, or indefinable. It may also be used to refer to that which is virtually impossible or almost completely out of the question (presupposing that there is indeed a corresponding question that may be formulated by thought).
      When we say that something is “unthinkable,” we may in some cases mean merely that we consider it to be very improbable or highly unlikely. For that thing to become actual reality may therefore be for it to be taken as an example of the "unthinkable" becoming thinkable.
      The “unthinkable” may also in some cases be merely that which is considered to be socially inappropriate for, or forbidden within, a given setting or context. The "unthinkable" within a given setting or context may be that which is barred or prohibited for a given person, group, network, or community. The occurrence of that which has previously been considered "unthinkable" may thus in some cases be perceived as disruptive, disturbing, unseemly, appalling, or shocking.
      The “unthinkable” may also sometimes be a specific thought content, idea, or concept that is forbidden and that we are told, taught, or ordered not to think about. It may also be that which it is illicit or impermissible to think about. To “think the unthinkable” may therefore be to disobey moral, religious, social, legal, or governmental dictates and to violate conventional norms. The “thinker of the unthinkable” may in some cases be a kind of ground breaker, innovator, or visionary, and in other cases a kind of law breaker, apostate, heretic, or revolutionary.
      A given mode of speech, thought, or conduct may be made "unthinkable" by a given moral, religious, social, or professional code or by a given religious, social class, political, or cultural ideology. For a given code or ideology to gain power or become predominant within a society may be for the thinkable to become "unthinkable" or for the "unthinkable" to become thinkable. The thinkable within a given code or ideology may be "unthinkable" within a different code or ideology.
      Under an authoritarian system of government, the “unthinkable” may also be that which has been declared by the state to be beyond the limits of the thinkable or sayable. To “think the unthinkable” or “say the unsayable” may therefore be to risk censure or incur punishment for having transgressed the limits of the sayable or thinkable. The thinkable may be a realm that is governed by the state and that is enforced by means of thought control.1
      The “unthinkable” may also in some cases be merely that which we have been too shortsighted or careless to think about. We may in some cases describe a situation or event as “unthinkable” merely because we have been too thoughtless to conceive of its possibility.
      Some examples of events that are often described as “unthinkable” include natural disasters, environmental catastrophes, devastating industrial accidents, worldwide disease epidemics, stock market crashes, sudden collapses of government, mass shootings,2 terrorist attacks,3 war crimes, and other acts of violence and destruction.
      The “ungraspability” or “unthinkability” of some facts, events, or situations may also be expressed by colloquial expressions such as “I don’t get that” or “I can’t quite get my head around that.”
      Thus, it may be important to distinguish between the literally unthinkable and the figuratively unthinkable, as well as between the unthinkable in theory and the unthinkable in practice. It may also be important to recognize and delineate those situations and contexts in which the unthinkable can become thinkable and the thinkable can become unthinkable.
      To say that something is literally unthinkable is to say that there are boundaries or limits to what we can think, and that there are boundaries or limits beyond which we cannot think of, or think about, something. What then are those boundaries or limits? How may we delimit or demarcate the domains of the thinkable and the unthinkable? Can such domains overlap?
      If there are limits beyond which we cannot think, can we ever know or recognize those limits? If we were able to know or recognize those limits, then would we perhaps also have to be able to know or recognize not only the thinkable, but also the unthinkable? Thus, Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, says that in order to draw a limit to thinking, we would have to think what cannot be thought.4
      To say that there are limits to what we can think may also be to say that there are limits to what we can conceive of, imagine, hope for, desire, trust in, be disappointed by, be angered by, agree with, disagree with, believe, disbelieve, remember, forget, know, talk about, dream about, and understand.
      The literally unthinkable may be that which transcends words or concepts, and that which exceeds or surpasses the limits of thought. But if there are limits to the thinkable, are there also limits to the unthinkable?
      The thinkable is all that can be thought, including all that has been thought, all that is being thought, and all that has not been but will be thought. On the other hand, the unthinkable is all that cannot be thought, including all that is not being thought (because it is incapable of being thought), and all that has not been and never will be thought (because it is incapable of being thought).
      To think about something may be to make it an object of thought. The unthinkable may therefore be that which cannot be made an object of thought. To be able to distinguish between the thinkable and the unthinkable we may also need to be able to distinguish between what can and cannot be made an object of thought.
      Some important questions to be answered include: Are the limits of language the same as the limits of thought? Can language express everything that can be thought? Are there limits to the expressive capacity of language? Can pure intuition transcend the limits of deliberative thought? Are there things that can be recognized or known purely intuitively and that transcend our ability to think deliberatively about them?


1Noam Chomsky, “The Bounds of Thinkable Thought,” in The Progressive, Vol. 49, Issue10 (Oct. 1985), pp. 28-31.

2Todd Zwillich, “Stop Saying Mass Shootings Are ‘Unthinkable,’” June 24, 2015, at

3Phil Rosenthal, “9/11 attacks unthinkable, not unimaginable, as events prior show,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 11, 2011, at

4Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [1922] (Mineola, Dover Publications, 1999), p. 27.      

Listen to radio news correspondent Todd Zwillich explain why we should "Stop Saying Mass Shootings are 'Unthinkable'"

Saturday, July 4, 2015

When Should We Trust Our Intuitions?

What is the most accurate and reliable way for us to recognize those situations in which our intuitions are correct, well founded, and trustworthy? When should we rely on more preconscious and automatic, as opposed to more conscious and deliberative, modes of thinking? What kinds of situations are best approached intuitively rather than analytically?
      Intuitions may sometimes be referred to as “instincts,” but they should be distinguished from the latter, insofar as intuitions may be defined as “immediate apprehensions” or “direct perceptions, independent of any reasoning process,” while instincts may be defined as “natural or innate impulses or inclinations” or “inborn tendencies to action common to a given biological species.”1
      Intuitions should also be distinguished from “hunches,” “suspicions,” or “gut feelings.” A hunch or suspicion may, in contrast to an intuition, involve deductive reasoning, while a gut feeling may be more generalized and nonspecific and more like an inclination or disposition than an intuition.
      Even the most committed intuitionism may recognize that in some cases deliberative decision-making may provide some advantages over intuitive decision-making. Intuition may not be the best means of making all judgments. Some cases of decision-making may require thorough consideration and thoughtful deliberation.
      In what kinds of situations then should we rely on our intuitions? Perhaps we can examine the suitability or unsuitability of proposals such as the following for assessing the reliability of cognitive, sensory, and mixed intuitions.
      (1) We should trust our intuitions when the rightness or wrongness of actions is self-evident.
      However, it may be argued that whatever appears to be self-evident to one person may not be self-evident to another person. People may have varying opinions about the nature of self-evidence. There may be controversy about whether any actions are self-evidently right or wrong, that is to say, right or wrong without any demonstration of their rightness or wrongness, just as there may be controversy about whether any actions are intuitively right or wrong, that is to say, right or wrong without any regard for, or consideration of, their motives or consequences.
      (2) We should trust our intuitions when we recognize that we may be receiving misinformation about a situation and that such misinformation may not serve as an adequate and proper foundation for making appropriate deliberative judgments about that situation.
      However, the possible unreliability of deliberative decision-making in such a situation does not guarantee the reliability of intuitive decision-making in that situation.
      (3) We should trust our intuitions when we are compelled to do so by time constraints that hinder our being able to make decisions more deliberatively.
      However, even this modest proposal for assessing the reliability of intuitions does not indicate that we should not subsequently reexamine and review our intuitions or that we should not subject them to further scrutiny when time permits.
      (4) We should rely on our intuitions when we are confronted by situations that demand immediate action as opposed to deliberative thought. The readiness and spontaneity provided by intuitive decision-making may be more appropriate to situations demanding immediate action than the reserve and formality provided by careful analysis and painstaking deliberation.
      However, this proposal is subject to the same limitations as (3).
      (5) We should trust our intuitions when we are presented with the alternative of trusting the intuitions of someone else whom we regard as less informed or less capable of making rational, fair, unbiased, and impartial judgments about the situation at hand. 
      However, it may be argued that both our intuitions and the intuitions of whomever we regard as untrustworthy may be mistaken. Both of us may be acting intuitively under a veil of ignorance of which we are unaware.
      However, a counter-argument to this might be that even if our intuitions are mistaken, if we rely on own intuitions rather than those of someone else whom we regard as untrustworthy, we may at least be able to take comfort in the fact that we made our own mistakes of judgment, rather than having repeated someone else's mistakes of judgment.
      (6) We should trust our intuitions when we know by previous experience (and therefore have sufficient evidence) that our intuitions are reliable and trustworthy in situations similar to the present one.
      However, the general or overall reliability of our intuitions in situations similar to the present one does not guarantee their reliability in every such situation. Each situation may present unforeseen challenges to our ability to make correct, appropriate, and reliable intuitive judgments.
      In some cases, we may find that our intuitions are dead wrong. Further examination may reveal that what we intuitively thought was true is unquestionably false. We may find that in acting intuitively we were simply being naïve, overconfident, rash, or imprudent.
      Although intuitive judgments may often be profitably reexamined, to insist that every intuitive judgment undergo rigorous scrutiny and deliberative reevaluation may in some cases amount to a kind of moral, aesthetic, or epistemic obtuseness. To deny that any propositions are obvious or self-evident may in some cases be merely to be obstinate, devious, or willfully blind.
      Since intuitive judgments may require less effort on the part of the evaluator than deliberative judgments, it may perhaps be easier to make correct or incorrect intuitive judgments than to make correct or incorrect deliberative judgments.
      To trust our intuitions in some cases is not to deny that they may be aided by deliberative thinking. Intuitive thinking and deliberative thinking are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may be combined to produce morally, aesthetically, and epistemically reliable judgments. They may also augment and supplement each other.


1The Random House College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1980).