Mental Skill

Chapter 13

Ever see a winged horse? Nobody has, because there aren't any. But there are plenty of pictures of winged horses, because artists picture wings and add them to pictures of horses. That faculty of selecting elements from observation and mentally combining them in new ways is called imagination. It is sometimes thought to be an enemy of mental skill, because it blurs those careful distinctions that mental skill finds so useful.

Some thinkers, in trying to sharpen their ability to make fine distinctions, form a habit of being so literal-minded that the idea of putting wings on a horse seems like a childish error. They attach no value to imagination. They call it fuzzy thinking. It is subjectivists grouping things by nonessentials who make fuzzy concepts and do fuzzy thinking, so imagination is called subjective.

When fuzzy thinking is done right, however, it is not called subjectivity. It is called creativity. There are two mistakes to make about fuzziness. First is to use it subjectively. Second is to avoid using it at all.

To be literal-minded is to forget how things are conceptualized. In a measurable continuum, ranges are selected, and regarded as units. One range of life-enhancing actions is called honesty, another range is called justice, and so on. You use concepts as units, but you don't forget that they cover a range of omitted measurements. When looking at a friend, you don't forget that other people exist, who are bigger and smaller and slower and faster and smarter and dumber—within a range.

If your friend says, "I'll be there at two o'clock," you use your experience to decide what range of time is meant. You would not call anyone late for arriving one second after two, and you probably would not call a friend late who arrived ten minutes after two. Your idea of two o'clock is made fuzzy on purpose. You know that a range of precise times can be included as exactly two o'clock. For a casual meeting, the range is wide; for a business meeting, the range is narrow; for a trip to the moon, the range is miniscule.

A heroic quest to banish mental fog can do wonders—unless it loses the ability to be fuzzy on purpose. No purposeful mental action is forbidden to mental skill—not even blurring the distinction between horses and birds. The mistake is to confuse ignoring the distinction with ignorance of the distinction.

If you know someone who tends to take figures of speech literally, you see the problem—as in this exchange:

"There's an evil smell on the waterfront today."

"It's not harmful though; you shouldn't call it evil if it's not harmful."

Or this:

"Here's my phone number, but I don't want it broadcast all over town."

"Why would I give out your phone number on the radio?"

The mistake is to assume that mental focus is either sharp or fuzzy, but not both. Focus is taken as the will to zero in with laser-like precision on one thing at a time. Human epistemology is confused with snail epistemology. Snails handle reality in very small bites, with no particular connection between bites. The result is mostly slime. What humans have over snails is the capacity to regard pluralities as units, so everything can be taken into account when thinking about anything.

Mental skill gets its power from the ability to be sharp and fuzzy both at once. The mental laser sees a precise point clearly while remaining aware of the range around it, and its relationship to everything else. If a smell is called evil, mental skill can recognize a momentary blurring of the distinction between evil and unpleasant, as a means of intensifying the expression. Just as individuals are not dropped from consciousness when saying man, so precise distinctions are not dropped from consciousness when measurements are omitted, or when borders are blurred for expressive purposes.

A subjectivist would be delighted at this, as he takes it, defense of blurry concepts. He fails to notice that definition by essentials is the very thing that makes it possible to be precise and fuzzy at the same time. Essentials as differentia keep the precision. Essentials as genus enable you to vary the range of fuzz from wide for figures of speech to narrow for scientific observation. The skill of zooming in and out both at once depends on the habit of defining by essentials.

People say to a genius, "How did you ever think of that?" The answer often is that from a certain angle, putting aside fine distinctions for the moment, two things considered all different could be seen in one respect to be the same. Perhaps on closer inspection, they were all different after all, but that glimpse of unexpected similarity provided a clue that led to further glimpses and finally to a discovery.

Such a genius could be named, say, Charles Darwin. If one looks at minute differences between species, in the context of the range of variations, with due notice of unexpected similarities between disparate species, one can see how the idea of natural selection could arise.

Mental skill regards subjective thinking with justified horror. In our century alone, it has resulted in so many million shortened lives that a precise count would take another century. An entire theory of governance rose, and then fell, on the idea that the essence of good living was not freedom but equality. This led to the absurdity of nations in which everyone was equally poor being thought superior to nations in which everyone was unequally rich. Does this cause subjectivists to correct their conception of good living? Not at all: equality should make us all happy.

People trying to improve their thinking are right to suspect anything subjectivists do. But remember that subjectivists blur the borders between concepts without meaning to, and without knowing what they do. In a sense, all their thinking is done in metaphors. Essentials are picked from the wish list, or chosen for poetic effect. The essence of happiness is not taken as success in living, but success in wishing, so keeping things straight in the mind is not a priority. When a subjectivist misuses a method, that method is not discredited; only the subjectivist is discredited.

The literal-minded approach to life, in which everything must be spelled out at all times, can be the result of a failed effort to get rid of subjective habits. You can see that in an exchange like this:

"Your mind is the best computer, because it can be analog and digital both at the same time."

"That's not objective. Spell that out for me in an objective way."

Translation: "I want understanding, so provide it."

If subjective thinking decides that objective thinking works better, then objectivity goes to the top of the wish list. It becomes a demand. It provides a lifetime of frustration.

To convert the wish for objectivity into a plan, you make honest comparisons and look for essentials. You do not give up the knowledge that concepts cover a range of measurements; you add knowledge that the range has specified limits, which can be varied. As you increase ability to make fine distinctions, you keep checking out the whole range. You do not substitute precision for fuzziness; you add precision to the arsenal of methods.

One who declares, "I'll never do anything a subjectivist does," probably still intends to eat food and drink water. If pressed, he can probably list a number of hopes and desires. Calling this a wish list is a metaphor for the wrong method: the irrational method of issuing demands instead of making plans. Since the wish list is a product of consciousness, putting it first puts consciousness above existence. If knowledge is not derived from existence, it is fantasy. If one tries to live according to fantasy, then there is nothing left to do but wish.


One reason to study subjectivists is learning to protect yourself from irrational demands. Another is to see what mental methods they misuse, that you could find useful. To practice being creative without being subjective, for example, you can practice connecting mental methods to mental purposes. If you ignored distinctions, was that trying to fit things together in a new way, or was it just being careless? If you had a daydream, was that just walking the wish list, or did it have a purpose and a result?

The purpose of daydreaming might be to relax your mind for a few minutes, or to encourage yourself to recombine elements in new ways. If the result is refreshment, you did it right. If the result is torpor, you did it wrong. Refreshment results from being in charge, having the time, knowing when to stop. Torpor results from drifting in and out at random.

To see another method subjectivists misuse, have a good laugh.

Laughter is experienced as a release of tension. Researchers agree with common sense that it is good for you. If you lack a "sense of humor," you are rejecting genuine value. To see what the sense of humor senses, analyze a joke:

Have you heard about the ancient Oriental art of shin?
It is the mystical ability to find furniture in the dark.

Here, the first line is the set-up, which tries to build up tension by arousing curiosity. The second line is the punch line, which tries to release the tension in an unexpected way. The operating theory is that the listener is trying not to laugh, because that is a momentary loss of composure. The unexpected nature of the punch line gets around that inertia, and the tension is released in a laugh. Unexpected can mean clever, or dirty, or ludicrous, or just silly.

For confirmation, ask a comedian about drunks. "You can't tell jokes to drunks! Not that they don't laugh! They laugh as hard at your straight lines as your punch lines. If a drunk gets laughing, you can lose your voice completely, and he'll go right on laughing." That is, the audience has no composure to lose, so there is no difference between jokes and non-jokes.

For "composure" read "objective thinking," and you see why people trying to increase mental skill sometimes get wary of humor. In fact, it's worse: tension is released by negation. Whatever is built up in the body of the joke is demolished in the punch line. The essence of humor—the thing that the sense of humor senses—is negation. According to the moral standard, it is wrong to negate life-enhancing values.

Subjective thinkers do that all the time. They laugh at hard work, and success, and all virtue, because they want to think that making demands is just as good. The body of their jokes invokes respect for something good, and the punch line demolishes it. They use humor as a tool of destruction.

But any tool can be destructive when used wrong. Humor is unique only because laughing is special fun. The real joke is on the tricksters. A reflex of laughter does not obligate anyone to anything. You are free to disregard the negation no matter how hard you laughed at the joke.

The most common kind of laughter is nervous laughter, releasing the tension of anxiety. Energy is built up by the fear of making a mistake, and calm can be restored with an excuse to release it in laughter. An obvious way to improve on this is to laugh at, and so negate, the mistake itself. Subjectivists sometimes do this instead of correcting the mistake. That way mistakes accumulate, and things get worse.

Noticing this, some objective thinkers develop a morbid fear of mistakes. They lose perspective, and imagine big horrors from trivial errors. The mundane fact of human fallibility becomes charged with nervous energy. What is sorely needed is a good long laugh.

Because humor is negation, it can restore perspective. There is a need to find and correct mistakes, but no need to fret about them. When a comedian points out foibles in a funny way, those gales of laughter release tension not needed to correct the foibles, but available otherwise to produce headaches, heart palpitations, and indigestion. Jokes against vice are just as funny as any other kind.

If you find that you have been suckered into having a big laugh at the expense of one of your values, don't lose the context. You were suckered into releasing tension, increasing circulation, improving the oxygen content of your blood, and alerting your mind. Since the punch line was purposefully unexpected, you could not expect yourself to judge it beforehand. No matter how long the laugh, there is still time after it to judge the joke and make your judgment known. Communication is a process that includes errors and error correction. There is no reason to be afraid of jokes.

There is no reason to fear any of the tricks subjectivists use to make arbitrary demands sound reasonable. When you learn to identify essentials, you learn to recognize arbitrary assertions. You can observe the subjectivist, discard the demands, and analyze the tricks. Analyzing mistakes of others is good practice for analyzing your own.

Irrationality scares people. They don't know how to deal with it. They think the essence of irrationality is wildness. In fact, the essence is helplessness. Mental skill is never afraid of the irrational. It is always the other way around.

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