Alan Turing, the gay, Oxford, marathon-running genius mathematician who practically invented the computer and committed suicide at 42 was interested for a time in how to stop thinking. He imagined giving a complex series of numbers to a computer programmed to find patterns, and noticed that unless and until the computer found a pattern it wouldn’t be able to tell when to stop looking for one. Give it even numbers, the computer says, ‘these are even numbers,’ and shuts itself off. Give it a seemingly random series and it just whirs and whirs not knowing when to quit.

Turing’s ‘halting problem’ applies to all areas of life. If you’re wondering whether you’ll ever get it (whatever it is—the ideal job, partner, home, car, chemical formula; the meaning or life, or your groove back) unless and until you have gotten it you won’t be able to tell whether it’s unattainable or you just haven’t attained it yet; whether the answer is ‘no,’ or ‘yes, it’s just around the corner.’ ‘Never’ and ‘soon’ are blurred. Call it ‘Turing’s Blurring Anxiety (TBA).’ It can keep you up at night.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Fortunately most of us rarely get stuck in endless whirring like Turing’s computer. We have many techniques for ending thought before an answer is attained. They’re called halting moves. They’re mostly rhetorical devices we use to say to ourselves and others, ‘uncle,’ ‘enough,’ ‘Please, I’m tired. Can we stop now?’

These mind-closing tools are an absolute necessity. Even without TBA problems, we’re presented with too many things to think about. Our minds are pinholes in a flood. Like over-enthusiastic puppies we need ‘halting moves’ to rein us in, to get ourselves to ‘heel,’ so we can deal with the day’s practicalities.

Halting moves have an undeservedly bad reputation. We assume closed-mindedness is bad and open- mindedness is good. More than half of us think we’re above average in our openness, receptivity, and willingness to think new thoughts. We wouldn’t be caught dead using halting moves.

And so we don’t catch ourselves nearly often enough. Not knowing when we have chosen to stop thinking can be dangerous. It’s better to put our halting moves on the table where we can keep an eye on them.

Halting moves take many forms, with new ones being invented every day (I suspect the information glut is getting to us, but ‘let’s not go there.’) Some are simply clever ways of saying stop. Some involve what philosopher Richard Rorty calls final vocabulary- power-words that define the outer boundary of our inquiry.

Ask someone, ‘why do you like that?’ and you may get an answer or two. Persist long enough and you’ll probably get an ‘I don’t know, it’s just good.’ ‘Good’ is final vocabulary. It’s like answering ‘Why?’ with ‘Because.’ ‘Because,’ means, ‘halt here.’

‘I don’t know’ can be a halting move too, especially but not exclusively out of the mouths of babes. When kids mumble ‘I don’t know,’ they also mean, ‘. . . and I’m not about to try to find out either.’ When asked what gravity is, Newton said ‘hypotheses non fingo,’—I do not feign a hypothesis. Even with his vast capacity to think, Newton had his halting moves.

In philosophy, the people who subscribe to an ‘I don’t know’ answer on a big question are called Mysterians. Mysterians will often make a virtue out of not knowing, reveling in ‘the mystery of it all.’ They’re saying, ‘Stop here. It’s nice. You can get a buzz with us if you stop asking so many questions.’

Other thinkers revel in their conclusions. Pat answers are very alluring and so halting moves are a phenomenal way to gain supporters. Many people use religious words like ‘God,’ or ‘spirit’ as halting moves. Ask them what they mean persistently enough and they might say ‘it’s just spirit,’ which can mean among other things, ‘we’re done thinking now, just kick back and enjoy it.’ Like banks giving you toasters when you open an account, cults, both mainstream and fringe give their members new and magical halting move terms they can use to stop conversations. In some circles, ‘for God and country,’ can be a halting term. Watching someone respond to their cult’s exalted halting term is like watching a dog go limp on its back stretched out in ecstasy when its thigh is scratched.

And then notice your own halting moves, and appreciate why you have them. Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.’ At least in translation it’s ambiguous whether he’s promoting the once-and-for-all examined or the constantly- examined life. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the constantly-examined life is unlivable. Thank God for halting moves.

My favorite new halting move is ‘That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.’ I like it because it admits it’s a halting move. It’s on-the-table-honest.