How can one thought be "harder" than another?

this may be in the wrong place, if so please move it.

i was just wondering how one thought can be harder than another? i know this is true, but why and how? (by this i mean like advanced philosophy is harder to grasp than how to make a ham sandwich, and im not talking about memory)

Some things are fully known.
HOw to make a ham sandwhich is an example of this, no new real thought is required beyond the processing of memory. And even the first time you did it, you had an external example of someone else who did.

Some things truly require your mind to make new connections between neurons before you can begin to think that way and begin to understand them. There are questions in philosopy that no one knows the answer to for sure. So you can’t rely on circuits that are already there, you have to make your own as you go, a slow process.

Some descisions cause a tension between two differnt brain regions. Some dilemmas might make the emotional circuitry think one thing, and the logical circuitry another. These decisions can be tough to make as your brain fights with itself.

Well about some related things…

about hard decisions -
I think whenever you make a choice (even trivial ones), then you are weighing up many factors subconsciously. (the expected emotional outcomes of each course of action) I think that in order to weigh up alternatives, you need to recall some information from your brain. In the case of obvious or trivial choices, you’d recognize that one choice is far better than another after recalling a few things (perhaps only subconsciously). But in the case of tough decisions, the information you’re recalling about the choices ends up with a near tie, which would leave people who want a definite answer insecure, so they’d keep on thinking about the pro’s and con’s (possibly suboconsciously) until they are satisfied that they’ve thought through it well enough.

about things the are hard to understand -
I think we understand things by associating things with other things that we are already familiar with. So in order to understand words we associate them with familiar objects or concepts, etc. If things are hard to understand we don’t have clear associations between the things we understand and the components of what you want to understand. It would also take a certain amount of time to learn new things or remember how you did things that you aren’t very familiar with (i.e. you don’t have a complete understanding of).

about thought processes that are hard -
I think that when we think about things, we are triggering associated memories, and those are put into our limited short-term memory and they are used to try and solve the problems we are trying to solve. Memories with the strongest associations would be triggered first, and memories that have weak associations (not a very familiar connection) would be triggered later on. If it takes a long time to find the memories you’re looking for (and those memories could include problem solving strategies) then you’d realise that it is a hard problem. Another related thing is that our brain uses a huge amount of energy compared to the rest of the body. When it is highly active (trying to solve an extremely complicated problem) then I suspect it would use more energy. I think things like frustration are used by the brain to get you to give up trying to find solutions after a while and do something more useful. (e.g. eat, sleep, etc) Frustration would be a negative emotion that we’d want to avoid… either by solving the problem with a minimal amount of effort, or giving up. If the emotional reward for solving the problem is great (e.g. lots of potential pleasure) then we’d endure a lot of frustration.

Well that is based a lot on my ideas about consciousness. I think consciousness (and our feeling of the “hardness” of thought) involves systematic physical processes. On the other hand, many people believe that our soul is what does the thinking and so it would be quite hard to explain why certain kinds of thinking are “hard”.

I’m not sure I’m with the majority on this one as I think that the main reason philosophy (or any field for that matter) contains more difficult material than everyday thinking is because the explanatory structure (the language, and key concepts) is not familiar.

If someone was to explain how to make a ham sandwich to me in Urdu, I would have no idea what they meant. The same is true of explaining the Ontological argument in formal logic, however change the language to English and define the terms when needed, and I don’t think any one is more difficult than the other.

Once you have the language you have the means of understanding the key concepts and then everything else can follow. So some thoughts are more difficult than others in that they have more pre-requisite concepts, but none of these are “difficult” in their own right. You could describe the problem quite well as one of complexity rather than difficulty.

We’re hardwired to do some things, like predict a thrown rock’s trajectory.
Other things, like figuring out the best way to grease a cat, we have to do with software emulation. That’s harder.

Actually I think our prediction of a thrown rock’s trajectory is learnt - in a similar way to how kids learn to predict the motion of cars. (It takes kids a while to learn to cross the street safely since they initially can’t judge the movement of cars properly)
I think we only have a few hardwired instincts… those would mostly be things that a newborn baby has. Perhaps grammar and the ability to learn language is also a hardwired instinct, like Chomsky believes.

“I’ll be harder than your husband to get along with,
Harder than your husband every night,
Our affair, it was quite heated, you thought I was what you needed,
And I don’t want our love affair to end in a fight…” --Frank Zappa, perhaps misquoted

vinniepaz, excellent question. I’ll leave it here.

Welcome to the boards.

General Questions Moderator

Some things are harder to grasp because they are more complicated: the volume of information you would have to put in your head is greater. For example, to fully understand the structure of an automobile is harder than to fully understand the structure of a ham sandwich. More parts, more information.

However, I think the juicier implication of your question is why some concepts are harder to grasp than other concepts–assuming that actual volume of information to be learned is the same.

There can be several reasons for this. Let me try to think of some:

  1. A different cultural or intellectual background is required to grasp the concept. This is related to the example given above. For example, the concept of a cell phone is easy to grasp because we know about telephony and modern life. Trying to explain this to someone in the year 1800 would be difficult.

  2. The understanding requires a particular mental talent. The concept of castling in chess is going to be more easily understood by someone with a talent for games and puzzles.

  3. Concepts pertaining to entities not directly observable are, in general, harder to grasp than those pertaining to observable objects. You can understand what an ocean is by experiencing one yourself. You cannot understand what a neutrino is by seeing it.

  4. Likewise for abstract objects. A parabola must be understood in light of an abstract mathematical formula (although pictures can help).

  5. Similar to the volume aspect, a concept that requires a long chain of reasoning can be difficult to grasp, since every link of the chain must be understood individually.

  6. A concept or system of concepts that requires practice or the will to understand it is more difficult than one that the human mind grasps in an automatic fashion (that is, which can be grasped merely by hearing it described). For example, in order to understand Chinese characters, much memorization and hard study is required. This is related to the “talent” factor as well.

The above is a sloppy outline of the factors as I see them.

All ideas are not created equal. You can have straightforward thoughts (I will make a ham sandwich) or thoughts about thoughts (your own example here). Abstract ideas are harder because you have to find a way to map them onto the world. Easy ideas you can plonk into your existing picture of the world. The concept “Ham sandwich” maps straight to real world ham sandwiches. The thinking behind Russell’s paradox does not map to anything you can simply point to, you need to already have a grasp of logic and group theory and keep all those plates spinning at the same time.

if you think of an idea as a logical connection between a set of theses and a set of conclusions then the complexity of those connections will differ from one problem to another.

if you know A implies B and A is true, its not very hard to grasp that B is true. the path from thesis to conclusion is a single line segment.

in a larger problem it may look more like the road map of united states than a straight line, and you have to provide for 20 different people to meet in the same place. moreover none of these people have a map and neither do you. understanding the idea is basically memorizing the entire path, every single turn each one of them made, if you forget even one detail they do not meet and the solution does not make sense.

your only consolation is that to originally come up with the idea was much harder still and you didnt need to do it :slight_smile:

you can grab a book on Artifical Intelligence and those guys actually like to quantify the complexity of problems.