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I’ve been thinking …

My daughter knows me well. She has learned that a failproof way to thrill me – and keep me quiet – at any celebration is through the gift of a book – a real, physical book. Christmas 2023 was no exception. Among other books, I was fortunate to be given by her Daniel Dennett’s latest – almost autobiographical – book, I’ve been thinking. That was me tied up happily in the corner for hours on end.

It’s a highly recommended read. Dennett is one of our foremost philosophers who has carried out some seminal work in the concept of mind. His work, although rigorous in its philosophical foundations, is unusual in being both accessible because of his superb writing style, and also of huge contemporary relevance given its resonance with current thinking around artificial intelligence and human consciousness.

Both topics are of huge societal importance as we embark upon what might well turn out to be the next Kuhnian paradigm shift of AI. Given my professional interests in this arena, not least through the development of trusted AI for education and healthcare applications, I am tempted to write at length about both. No doubt, I shall return to these topics. But, for now, I simply want to reflect upon the phrase “I’ve been thinking” on which my mind has simply centred since receiving the book.

It is a deceptive phrase. A term in common parlance, often used without the underpinning substance that the word ‘thinking’ truly implies. Often it refers to an idle musing, or a gentle meander through disconnected items of memories, or even daydreaming.

Although the reassembling of Dennett’s life story in the book does encompass this more generic sense, it points primarily to a much deeper activity – thinking as a wholehearted, all absorbing, laborious, engagement with the world in all its messiness. Such ‘thinking’ brings enormous frustration – ask anyone who has laboured through a PhD – and exhaustion, and confusion. These are a necessary ‘pain’. Without them, the engagement is not deep; we would not be wrestling with fundamental issues. The temptation is to avoid such thinking – to minimise the effort. Understandable but misplaced.

The frustrations of ‘thinking’ can be high but the fruits are potentially huge. The insights generated – often unexpected – are hugely rewarding intellectually, leading to significant personal growth. But they can also be hugely rewarding professionally, leading to innovation and new business opportunities.

This matters not from an intellectual purist perspective but because the contemporary environment for organisations and businesses of all types and scales is hugely complex. The realities of VUCA introduce uncertainties and ambiguities into our problem definitions, and the system in which we operate is almost certainly complex (in the true mathematical sense) as opposed to linear. Simplistic and shallow thinking is not an adequate tool to navigate the volatilities. It might be quicker and less painful but invariably riskier and ultimately unproductive.

Deep thinking is something we should cherish in both our personal and professional domains. It doesn’t come easily: like the function of bodily muscles that have not worked out for some time, it requires repeated endeavour. Frustrations and exhaustion will result – if they don’t, it’s probably indicative of the challenge not being intense enough. But the fruitfulness of deep thought will, in time, reap rewards.

Dennett’s recollections have inspired me afresh to commit time and effort to ‘real’ thinking. I’m determined that my calendar and reflective journal will contain much more evidence that “I’ve been thinking”, together with the fruits of that endeavour.

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