The Genius of Thought Itself

Appreciating how extraordinary every human mind is can reinforce our commitment to egalitarian politics.

Every time I play Scrabble, I think about how what seems like a word game is in many ways a numbers game. By that I mean that an alien could play Scrabble without ever knowing the meaning of any words, or anything about grammar. Basically, to win at Scrabble all you need to know is that certain strings of symbols are acceptable (dictionary words) and certain strings are not (anything not in the dictionary). You don’t need to know what the words denote out in the world, only that certain symbols (the letters) are worth certain numbers of points, and your job is to put acceptable sequences on the board and maximize the points. In fact, if you’re a “word lover” as I am, you might find that Scrabble kind of cheapens words. In Scrabble, the only reason to care about a word is that its sequence of symbols happens to be optimal for scoring points. (Sometimes you might put down a Scrabble word because it’s funny, but people who do this do not become Scrabble champions.) Nothing else about them matters. 

When I’m playing Scrabble, I sometimes think about what it would be like if it really were just a numbers game. Imagine that instead of the letters A-Z, we used corresponding numbers, 1-26. So A=1, B=2, etc., until Z=26. Each word, then, would be a number. TUXEDO, for example, would be: 20 21 24 5 4 15. A few others:

WINGSPAN: 23 9 14 7 19 16 1 14

PESTS: 16 5 19 20 19

ROW: 18 15 23

CABLE: 3 1 2 12 5

Now let us imagine the game of Scrabble consists not of placing strings of letters, but the corresponding strings of numbers. There are 100,000 “acceptable” strings of numbers (about the number of words in the Scrabble dictionary), and every other possible string of numbers is “unacceptable.” Furthermore, each number 1-26 is assigned a corresponding point number, which are just the same as the equivalent letter values in Scrabble, and we’re just using numbers instead of letters. (1 is worth 1, since A is worth 1 in Scrabble. 11 is worth 5, since K is worth 5 in Scrabble. 26 is worth 10, as Z is worth 10 in Scrabble.) Your job is to place maximally point-scoring strings of numbers on the board.

To win, you need to remember that the sequence 23 9 14 7 19 16 1 14 is acceptable, but the sequence 23 9 14 7 16 19 1 14 is not (the former being the equivalent of WINGSPAN, the latter being WINGPSAN). The acceptable sequence would also get you 14 points because of the numbers of points that each number is worth (again, we’re assuming a comparison with the point-values of Scrabble letters).

I go through this elaborate imaginative exercise only to make the point that this would be a fiendishly difficult and deeply unappealing game to play. You might think that only a genius could keep track of 100,000 different strings of acceptable numbers and know the exact tiny differences between an unacceptable string and an acceptable one. How could the human mind contain so much information?

And yet: anyone who can play Scrabble (the normal version, with words) does something quite similar. The symbols are letters, not numbers, but both letters and numbers are arbitrary little squiggles. And somehow you manage to keep track of tens of thousands of sequences of little squiggles, and you remember exactly which string of the 26 different squiggles is acceptable and which is not. Now, maybe you’re not great at spelling, but if you can tell the difference between “difference” and “dafference,” and know that the latter is not a word (or an “acceptable” string of symbols), you’re doing something astonishingly similar to the horrible numbers game I dreamed up. You have a mental repository of words (probably about 40,000 of them), and you know which things are words and which things aren’t, and the entire game of Scrabble is built around the fact that some strings of symbols are acceptable but most aren’t, and you’re expected to be able to mentally look up the acceptable strings. 

What I am trying to do here is encourage you to be impressed by thought processes that we take for granted. The mere ability to use language is miraculous and brilliant, when we think about what we are actually doing when we speak. When we “de-familiarize” ourselves with everyday activities and look at them afresh, they appear remarkable.

Language itself is, looked at one way, a kind of telepathy. I can take a concept in my head (say, the idea of a bashful mouse), turn it into a series of symbols (or, if I am speaking, a series of sounds I make in my throat), and transmit it into your head, where, without any actual mouse-like thing passing between us, the picture of a mouse can assemble. Personally, I have a childlike wonder at acts as basic as saying or writing words.

My appreciation for trivial, everyday acts of cognition actually reinforces my commitment to an egalitarian politics. There are political ideologies out there that believe in natural hierarchies of human excellence, that see great importance in human differences. Appreciating the basic workings of the human mind collapses these differences. The brain is a miracle no matter whose brain it is, and it is just as impressive that it can do things like “see a chair and know what it is” as it is that it can think thoughts that win Nobel Prizes. Simple tasks, such as identifying objects, require fantastically complicated mental processes, which become even more remarkable when we understand that they evolved over time rather than being consciously “designed.” 

Another way of putting this is: you might be impressed at someone who is brilliant at Scrabble. But I invite you to be more impressed by the fact that Scrabble can be played at all by anyone, meaning that you’re just as amazed by a terrible player as a great one. No other animal on Earth can do this (though sometimes I suspect manatees could if they wanted to and simply aren’t trying). 

Motor skills! Imagination! Self-reflection! Problem solving! Learning! I’m fascinated by how all of it happens, and studying and contemplating the human organism in all its complexity makes it hard to care very much about such trivial differences as IQ scores. We are, each and every one of us, a brilliant creation, and appreciating that brilliance should make life seem more precious and render absurd the ideologies that try to distinguish between classes of übermenschen and untermenschen. Notions of stupidity and genius seem to disappear; the football player who is perhaps known more for brawn than brains, in fact, a genius themself when we realize the complex cognitive tasks involved in playing any kind of game. (Just think about what the brain has to do in order to know where the ball is, and how much it’s able to do with information that comes in the form of light, which is the basis of all visual perception.)

Through appreciating the genius of thought itself, we arrive at a deep egalitarianism, a biological egalitarianism—perhaps ironic, given how often “biology” has been invoked to justify inequalities. Every human being is the same kind of dizzyingly complex system, and I for one find it hard to think of reasons why anyone should matter more than anyone else. Even those of us who suck at Scrabble are still extraordinary creatures who deserve appreciation.

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