Swedish author, dramatist, director, comedian etc. Hans Alfredson once said that the brain is an organ with which we think (tänker) that we think. The Swedish word used here does not mean “believe”: it means “cogitate”. So, since my teens I’ve read this as a lovely materialist aphorism about how everything that goes on in our heads is actually just simulated in wetware. Our brains help us compute the illusion of cogitation.

Now I find that Alfredson was actually translating something that Ambrose Bierce said in his Devil’s Dictionary (1911): “Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.” Bierce’s wording reveals a much simpler meaning: he’s just commenting cynically on people’s ability to think. Everybody believes that they think, says Bierce, when many don’t do so very much. And now I wonder if I may have read too much into the Alfredson version of Bierce’s quip.


  1. #1 Janne
    August 2, 2010

    An old quote, I forgot from where:

    “When we think a thing, the thing we think is not the thing we think we think, but just a thing that makes us think we think the thing we think we think.”

  2. #2 codero
    August 2, 2010

    Cogitating on “the illusion of cogitation” gives me a headache. Why not go for full-blown solipsism: absolutely everything outside my mind is an illusion, and no one can prove me otherwise. So there!

  3. #3 Martin R
    August 2, 2010

    Trouble is, if you start treating the simulated people around you as if they weren’t quite real, then the simulation makes them act really unpleasantly towards you in a manner that is hard to brush off. I mean, ostracism, violence, prison sentences… It’s a remarkably consistent virtual world.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    August 2, 2010

    Thus proving that solipsists are mad. Who else would imagine that sort of world?

  5. #5 Thinker
    August 2, 2010

    Janne @1: with my ‘nym, that is a quote I shall steal with pride!

    (FYI: I started using my current online name years ago in a discussion with an extremely obnoxious commenter calling him/herself “Believer”, just to emphasize the difference in our worldviews, and it sort of stuck…)

  6. #6 Bob Carlson
    August 2, 2010

    To Sue Blackmore, the brain is a meme machine.

  7. #7 bo moore
    August 3, 2010

    Think? Cogitate? These are words: the fact that we can’t really describe, define, understand, what goes on in our brains shows what sloppy modelers we are of the environment. Species evolve to function in specific environments: the universe is not a specific environment, a corporate office is. The brain will adapt to that environment, which hardly demands any significant thinking.

    Belief is simply the default mode of the brain: brain encounters something new – immediate answer wanted and needed, answer found in stock explanations. The human library of explanations is mostly limited to highly incorrect guesses that rely on magical connections pre-existing in the brain.

    We don’t “cogitate” that often. The body sends messages to the brain and it reacts. That’s about it. Big time voluntary brain work takes time and effort,a huge percentage of body energy, and time. We simply can’t “do it” very often or for long periods.

    The other day, while taking a tight turn too fast in my pick up truck, my body automatically resisting the forces on it, I thought: Why didn’t anyone before Isaac Newton realize that there are universal forces of interaction between bodies in space and that these can be quantified?

    The truth is, humans have always relied on a few superbrains among us (and others who can understand and apply new knowledge) to unravel the facts of existence for the rest of us.

  8. #8 phil
    August 5, 2010

    to think the thinker gives power to the unthinkable would be unthinkable. that is our quandary. to give away power for the sake of …………..

  9. #9 RBH
    August 7, 2010

    I think folks are over-thinking this.

  10. #10 Sten
    August 17, 2010

    Did Alfredson used it in some book, film or sketch? Would be fun to get to see it if still available.

  11. #11 Martin R
    August 18, 2010

    I’m sorry, it’s been over 20 years, I don’t remember the context.

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