Thinks… is a novel by David Lodge which explores the tangled lives of Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive sciences at the fictitious University of Gloucester, and Hellen Reed, a widow from London who is teaching creative writing at the University for a semester while the usual professor is on sabbatical. Ralph is a philanderer who makes repeated advances at Helen. Helen refuses his advances partly out of respect for Ralph’s wife Carrie, but mostly out of residual Catholic guilt that Helen still clings to from her childhood and youth. Ralph is undeterred and continues to make very intimate advances while Helen struggles with her own growing desire for Ralph. Compounding the already tense situation is the fact that Helen grows close to the Messenger family, befriending Carrie.
As the story progresses, a perfect storm of revelations and advantageous circumstances leads Helen inexorably to finally capitulating to Ralph’s advances and indulging in this adulterous relationship. The fling is short-lived when Ralph has a health scare, betrays Helen’s trust, and uncovers certain secrets concerning his wife. The novel ends rather quickly and anticlimactically with a brief account of life after that semester for the major characters.
Can we ever really know what another person is thinking? This is the central theme of the novel. Lodge subtly crafts the story around this question by developing scenes where either only dialogue and action are recorded without the usual thoughts of those involved in the scenes or he allows us insight into the minds of Ralph and Helen through journal entries. At one point, Ralph even says to Helen, “We never know for sure what another person is really thinking” (41). This is a recurring idea throughout the book and it is only augmented by the way Lodge writes the story. One could say the whole book is a thought experiment designed to explore that single question centered on the problem of consciousness. This, I felt, was both clever and intriguing. Lodge dabbles in cognitive science and toys with the philosophy of the mind through prose.
This question has application to the artificial intelligence question: can we ever really know what a machine is thinking? How could we ever really know that the computer mind is not just being deceptive about being self-aware? Several times throughout the book Ralph mentions his interest in AI. Further, he is head of the cognitive science department at the University and even has at least one student who is building a robot.
One key scene in the novel which I appreciated was when Ralph gives Helen a tour of the Cognitive Sciences building where he works. As the two walk through the second floor together, they are walking past a mural painted on the wall which is a history of philosophical questions. Nagle’s “What is it Like to Be a Bat?,” Searle’s Chinese Room, Frank Jackson’s “Mary,” and others are represented through the various paintings on the wall. Through this scene Lodge gives the reader a tour de force of the various philosophical discussions, albeit rather briefly.
A theological question stimulated by this book: Can we ever really know what God is thinking? Most of the Bible is composed of dialogue and action with only a few brief glimpses into what people thought (e.g. Matthew 9.21; Hebrews 11.19). When it comes to God’s thoughts He Himself tells us “My thoughts are not your thoughts” and “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (Isaiah 55.8;1 Corinthians 2.11). We can only know the mind of someone by what they tell us or if we read their personal journal and, in the same way, we can only know the mind of God by what “God has revealed to us through the Spirit… [things] taught by the Spirit” and imparted in words (1 Corinthians 2.10, 13). And these things are freely given us by God.