Mental Action

Chapter 15

Job è ME è Boss
Policeman è ME è Crook
Justice è ME è Jury
Home è ME è TV
Airplane è ME è Passenger

What's wrong with this diagram? Closely related things are listed, with arrows to show relationship. But why do they all have me in the middle?

The diagram tries to represent a subjective mental arrangement, in which most things are related only by their relationship to me at the center. The problem is not that I am at the center of things, but that I don't see relationships except through me. That is a quasi-perceptual arrangement, in which I consider things one at a time, this and then that. What integration there is goes through me. Instead of simplifying things, it complicates things.

No mental arrangement could be as static as the diagram. Sorting things out is a dynamic process, which rearranges things according to the needs of the moment. But we do form habits. If I form the mental habit of fitting things together simply by relating them to myself, then until I change that habit, I will suffer the ills of subjectivism.

Usually, a mental arrangement like the diagram will include some idea of relationships not involving me. There will be, as it were, dotted lines around me. But these will be hard to remember, because they are disorderly. They are not sorted out. The fact that everything is centered on me gets some things right, and—unless I really inhabit the center of the universe—gets most things wrong. It magnifies relationships of things to me, and obscures relationships of things to others. It makes my priorities depend on whims of the moment.

The essence of the subjective process is that it pretends to sort things out while ignoring the rules for sorting things out—the rules of similarity. A child playing with blocks would do this by putting the blocks into piles, not by similarity, but by how nice the piles could be made to look. The subjectivist tries to replace the objective rules of similarity with other rules based on evaluations—not the way things are, but the way they ought to be. The way things are is relegated to the dotted lines; it's the way things SHOULD be that gets first consideration.

Mental integration does not work as fiction. If you keep things straight by just inventing a way for things to be arranged, then you should also invent a new language. That would prevent you from assuming that other people can understand what you say. If you use a common language, but then sort things out in a purely personal way, every sentence you speak will mean one thing to you, and something else to others.

What results is unending frustration. Nobody ever does understand you. Nothing ever does conform to your intensely personal mental arrangement. Nothing ever is as it SHOULD be. As the dotted lines fade from memory, the subjectivist loses contact with reality, and lives in a world of personal fantasy. The soap opera fan slugs an actor who plays a villain. The celebrity becomes a recluse. The sweet child becomes neurotic. The good kid turns into a killer.

Staying in touch with reality has two aspects:

  1. Knowing how things relate to you.
  2. Knowing how things relate to all other things.

Subjectivism emphasizes the first, and evades the second, so it loses touch.

To avoid subjectivism, stick to the rules derived from your own first and basic observation—difference. You look for difference—you compare. You detect degrees of difference—you measure. Seeing degrees of difference lets you grasp the relationship called similarity. These things which differ less than those are alike, and can be grouped together in mental classifications called concepts. But things cannot arbitrarily be called alike. There must be a basis in reality for comparison. They must be commensurable—measurable in the same units, to be compared on equal terms.

In the same way, when you start making a mental arrangement in which you sort out concepts, the objective rules are the rules of similarity. Not "What do I feel?" but: "Is there a basis in reality for comparing these things?" Things are related to you, but not through you.

This diagram shows a more objective mental arrangement.

Job è Boss è ME
Policeman è Crook è ME
Justice è Jury è ME
Home è TV è ME
Airplane è Passenger è ME

The things are now related to me, but not through me. Unlike the subjective arrangement, it is the result of deliberately thinking about things. It is not arrived at by default. It replaces the previously implied idea that reality flows into and out of me, with the idea that reality exists on its own, and is related to me. It puts me in a position to deal with other people who have relationship to reality. For example, this arrangement would get rid of complaints like:

"Wait!" says the subjectivist. "What about things that are subjective? What about values?"

My attitude toward different things is different: I value some more than others. I could, in fact, arrange things on a scale of value. As my own highest value, I would be at the top; then my loved ones, then my favorite activities, then my favorite things, and so on. This scale of value could be extended indefinitely, or it could be just held in mind as a possibility. By recognizing the possibility, I form a basis for my hierarchy of values.

On one condition: that my scale of values is not subjective, but objective. Otherwise, I'm trying to use a rubber ruler.

Imagine a man who loves his wife deeply, but gets mad one day and throws her off a cliff. At one instant, she was a profound value to him; at another instant, no value at all. His elastic scale of values did more harm than good. He meaured value subjectively, according to the whim of the moment. When he later reflects on the relationship of his wife to his life, rather than to his whim, he will wish he had thrown himself off the cliff instead. He will recognize that values are not subjective whims, but objective improvements to an actual life. To measure them with a rubber ruler is to open the possibility of throwing them away for nothing.

People think that values are related to them subjectively, by whim. In fact, the relationship is an objective one of cause and effect.

One of the first discoveries you made at the beginning of sorting things out was that once things were arranged according to similarity, then you could see another way to relate things, known to adults as causality. That led to the best of all childhood games: the game of "Why?"

It was a game you couldn't lose. If the victims could not answer, you got the better of them. If they could answer, you got invaluable help in the job of sorting things out.

There is an all purpose answer: "Why? Because that is the nature of things." The why question is a request to explain the nature of things. It is a request to help sort things out according to how they interact.

One reason the subjectivist never really gets things sorted out is that sorting everything out is too big a job for one person alone. Language makes it possible for everyone to cooperate and get things sorted out together, taking into account the unique experiences of self-regulating individuals. But if I relate things only through myself, then I don't know what to do with relationships provided by others. I try to copy, and keep things in mind, but I fail; I have no method. Only if I use the conceptual method of classifying things according to similarity, can I ask why, and put the answers to use.

The most debilitating effect of the subjective mental arrangement is self-doubt. Is my truth just my truth, or is it truth? If we live in an age of uncertainty, this is the reason: most people hold at least some of their mental contents in a subjective, quasi-perceptual arrangement. Huge areas of reality are not sorted out—not classified and integrated, but just associated with a feeling, and dealt with on impulse.

Only the objective arrangement takes individual uniqueness into account while staying connected to word meanings that others can understand. Only if I'm arranging things in an objective way does it make any sense for me to ask why and expect to make use of the answer.

What I'll find especially valuable is the experience of asking several people the same question, and getting back several different answers. That way, I can't just imitate; I have to investigate. I can see if some of the answers have parts in common. I can find clues for making observations that will show which answer is best. In other words, I can look for truth.

When the conceptual method is viewed from the standpoint of a search for truth, then it is called induction. We should take a look at things from that angle.

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