Friday, 30 December 2011

Thoughts on Thought, or The Audacity of Blog Tangents

This post is going to be a bit unusual for me of late, so much so that I've created a whole new blog for it. It will be nearly entirely unrelated to politics. That is not to say that its contents, in so far as they may be held to be a useful guide to action or analysis, have nothing to say about policy, but policy is not the topic. Further, and this is extremely important if I am to write anything at all, while you may assume this of blogs generally, I must be explicit in saying I am not writing in my sphere of expertise on this topic. Grains of salt may spare hearts here.

Paradigms of Learning

This post is about the mind. In simple terms it may be said that there are three broad stages to learning. Passive, positive and negative. Passive learning is on the whole little more than ideative osmosis, the acquiring of knowledge through coming into contact with it, while growing up, through your immediate cultural and social surroundings, and yes even in the occasional lesson. This kind of learning is effectively universal, and while it is not really entirely passive it is often comparatively unreflective.

The second, being positive, is more inquisitive and analytical in character. We seek out new information (though artifacts of mental fallacy such as the confirmation bias incline us in the *type* of information we seek, and how we use it), consider it, use it as a foundation for further thoughts, ideas and knowledge. We might almost call this constructive knowledge, but for sound linguistic reasons we should shy away from the word ‘construe’. Most everyone engages in it, but to different degrees. It may imply an element of learned and internalised analytical skill.

Finally there is negative learning. This is deconstructive learning, socratic analysis. Here we examine all the facts we never questioned, all the axioms which lay at the root of our analysis, but whose provenance may have been questionable. This is also where we develop far more metacognitive activity, internalising processes and tendencies which lead us to instinctively question our own assumptions and thoughts. It would be faulty to call this purely socratic, however, as we must rely in some part on the empirical and scientific evidence acquired by others, such as that relating to human irrationality, in engineering our awareness of our own motives and actions.

We could, again simplifying, further divide into ‘scientific’ and ‘artistic’ methods. These are borrowed terms, and in this context by scientific I mean analytical, logical, a process which produces a single logical outcome and is repeatable. By artistic I mean a mental configuration which, being unique to that person, produces through the same essential process an endless variety of different outcomes. In this sense, there are ways of thinking intended to anchor ideation to concrete and axiomatic logic, and although the two frameworks cannot be separated meaningfully, it is here that we most associate negative learning with constructive progress.

Development and Paths Not Taken

We must consider that our minds contain positive and negative feedbacks, much like most emergent systems. An example I have already given above, that of the confirmation bias. Humans have a desire to affirm our existing beliefs, and this extends to justifying our own previous actions and behaviour. This is a negative feedback, it opposes the direction of change. It causes us to be more likely to seek out, remember and employ arguments and information which support our existing beliefs and ideas. Other such examples can be found readily in the human tendency towards tribalism and in our egocentric capacity to falsely generalise our experience to the world at large.

As a result of these feedbacks, by and large, without a lot of effort we tend to calcify over time as we develop identity, positions and ideas and to take sides. We also tend to stick by old defence mechanisms, and to rely on emotional tactics and impulses learned throughout childhood and adolescence.

For me, entirely as a side-note, this is much of why I believe that the only true ‘freedom’ in a deterministic world is our capacity to attempt to understand and shape our development, much as we have sought to understand and reshape nature. Hume said freedom and determinism are not incompatible, determinism  exists in the operation of freedom precisely because in order for us to make choices that are truly ours, we must have a character from which such choices spring. It is in the shaping of our character we liberate ourselves--not from determinism, but from passivity--, and by taking pride in the work of change, and in facing our own inner demons come to find greater solace in ourselves.

During our childhood, however, the nature of the brain ensures that use promotes development. In adulthood we tend to only use those skills which are germane to our way of life, to our work and our habits. In childhood however we are forever pushed from one thing to another, and encouraged to believe in what may well be, and likely are false dichotomies of developmental understanding. Certainly when I grew up there was a sense that you were either ‘artsy’ or more logical. Such a distinction might have seemed strange to those erudite figures of the Age of Enlightenment, but the mere possibility of a child feeling it is true could very well lead them to avoid something that is initially difficult, to perhaps avoid art or maths, believing it simply isn’t their thing, and in the process by avoidance and discomfort, failing to develop it as sublimely as others.

This can in turn lead to path dependence in learning, where a child loathes a particular topic, avoiding it at all costs, daydreaming in that class, and inflating artificially in their mind the horrors of studying it. They might have been quite good at it, and have simply lacked confidence-- they might not have been. The result is the same: we may never know.


The paths which the development of an individual intellect must take are bound to be complex. Even in my ignorance I will not dare to generalise from the specifics I have outlined. Still, it is worth bearing in mind that it can be overly dangerous to categorise people by intellectual and academic outcomes when we cannot know what other developmental paths they could have taken-- might yet take. The process of learning as an adult is very much about unlearning false axioms, foolish ideas and in some part correcting the mistakes adults mapped onto us when we were still passive victims of their instruction. Our attempts to instruct children in turn must bear in mind the reality that the individual human mind is a complex system, just as are the societies which spring from them.

The Shape of Things to Come

It may seem absurd that I outlined so-called scientific and artistic frames of mind earlier, only to rebuke the division later. It strikes me however that our capacity to shape our own development is the source of much individual artistic greatness. Art is not some pure, feral instinct given to us from birth, nor is it delivered in discrete packages by a Muse when it serves its caprice to do so. An author, an actor or a painter trains rigorously and develops not only their art in abstract, but their mind and their self as a path to producing many different beautiful and diverse outcomes from a single mind. Creativity is not identical to the rigour of science, but creativity has been critical to the ideas which allowed science to flourish. The grand theories and leaps of imagination which led to experimental designs and affirmation or contradiction. Likewise an actor today might be trained on the basis of the science of Stanislavski or Brecht, incorporating processes of understanding and operating from the (relative) ancients without compromising their own unique character.

Life is a constant peril of limitations to us, and a constant bounty of beautiful new ideas and wondrous new experiences. Unlearning is as liberating as learning is empowering, and these things I commit to cyber-paper as the basis for a belief that we all have untapped potential, and our great promise, our great joy and hope lies in not consigning our children to the lens through which we understood our own learning as babes.

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