Freedom in Mind

Chapter 4
The Dangers of Self-Regulation

"I did wrong."

What does that mean? Does it mean I made a mistake? Or does it mean I willfully did something I knew to be wrong? Did I get my swing wrong, and hit a golf ball into the rough? Or did I secretly cheat on my spouse?

It's a crucial difference. If I did something wrong while trying to do it right, then I was working to improve my life as a rational being. The mistake was part of a process of self-regulation. By the standard of rational living, it was moral.

On the other hand, if I did something wrong on purpose, because I preferred doing it wrong, then I was working against my own life as a rational being. It was not a mistake, but a refusal to regulate my actions in accordance with facts—an evasion. By the standard of rational living, it was immoral.

I can confess to the golf pro that I made a mistake with my swing. I can also confess to my spouse that I "made a mistake." If I try to ignore the difference between a mistake and a "mistake," then self-regulation collapses.

To lose the distinction between mistake and evasion is to lose the ability to watch what you do. Either a malicious act will seem as trivial as a grammar slip, or a grammar slip will seem as self-destructive as a malicious act.

The trouble with not wanting to know what you're doing is that you don't know what you're doing.

A powerful advantage of learning to think is forming the habit of distinguishing mistake from evasion. That is also, for some, a terrifying disadvantage.

"I did wrong," is an evaluation resulting from a process of thought. The process could be a comparison of where the golf ball went to where I wanted it to go. Or it could be a comparison of the actual results of a national policy to the desired results. Or it could be identification of my real motives for breaking a promise. If I identify malice, then further thought is needed to decide whether or not malice improves my rational life. If I decide that malicious acts make me feel good at the moment, but damage my life in the long run, then by the standard of rational living, they are immoral.

In other words, I am at fault. I did wrong on purpose.

One way to deal with that is self-regulation: I keep thinking about it until short range impulses give way to long range convictions. Another way is to give up on regulating my own actions, and stop thinking.

That's how evasion, the refusal to regulate myself according to reality, can ruin a life. If I lose my nerve, or slip a mental cog, and do a bad thing, then thinking is needed to correct the wrong. If I refuse to admit fault, I am refusing to do the thinking. Then I must avoid thinking about the damage to my life that is done by refusing to think. So a minor evasion quickly becomes a major evasion. Thinking becomes a threat. Instead of trying to live a rational, self-regulated life, I am trying to live an irrational life.

I have set out on a great quest: the quest to live without thinking. I tell myself that all I'm doing is avoiding one little area of thought—one tiny occasional moment of willful malice, say. I just need that one miniscule exception, and otherwise I can be rational and moral and thoughtful. The trouble is, I am ignoring the nature of thought.

The essentials of thought are differentiation and integration. Differentiation takes into account all differences perceived or inferred. Integration takes into account all relationships that bind things together. When you say, "Those things are similar," you are referring to separate, different things, which are united by the relationship of similarity.

Similarity is objective. You could use scientific methods to measure every difference between two objects. Then you could measure the differences between these two objects and some other object. If the differences between these two objects are clearly less than the differences from that other object, then that's why these two look similar.

Once you have established similarity, you can omit the measurements and unite similars into a concept. You can think of all the green things on a tree as one thing: leaves, and all the red things as one thing: apples. By making a mental unit out of apples, you can as easily think about a million of them as about one of them.

You don't have to stop there. You can mentally integrate apples and oranges and peaches and pears as "fruit", and deal with more millions of things as a unit.

However, if you try to make integrations without a basis in objective similarity, it will trip you up. Try uniting fruit, smiles and airplanes as "goodies". Now try uniting artichokes, sardines, and your mother-in-law as "baddies". In place of objective similarity, you are using personal preference. Notice that these phony concepts do not let you think of a million things as easily as one thing. By putting an attitude between you and reality, they make it harder to think even of one thing.

Could you unite goodies and baddies objectively? Well, they are real things. Compared to imaginary things, they are similar. You can conceptualize real things, and imaginary things. This integration focuses on the differences between real and imaginary. It is an example of how mental processes intertwine. Identifying differences lets you make various combinations, which lets you identify other differences and make other combinations.

You do it with such rapid ease that you hardly notice how you are taking things apart and putting them together in your mind this way and that way. Original thinkers are more aware of what they are doing, because they want to put things together in new ways. Others tend to think of it as automatic—until it gets stuck.

Here's how thinking gets stuck. I am identifying differences between real and imaginary. I think of some particular real thing, and some particular imaginary thing, and I say, "Well the real thing can be touched, but not the imaginary thing. Well, no not always. An insult can't be touched, but it is real. Or is it? When I insulted my wife, it was really just a lie because I felt like—stop!"

I don't want my marital troubles to be my fault, so I change the subject. But no matter what I think about, there will be a connection. To avoid making connections is to avoid thinking. I'll just think football. No, that makes me think of fighting with my wife about the TV. I'll just think cars. No, that's where I always fight with my wife. I'll confine my thought to.... Aha! Thirteenth century plaster figurines. That's good, because it cannot possibly have any connection with my marriage. Besides, my wife hates them. Now this figurine is a couple. Are they married? Do they—stop!

Sustaining an evasion is polishing brass on the Titanic. One by one the bulkheads are closed. Don't go there. One by one, the hatches are sealed. Don't look there. One by one the rescue hopes are dashed. Don't dream. In the end there is only the inner dialogue of doom: "I think—don't think! Just feel."

When thinking gets stuck, what happens to self-regulation? It is thrown into reverse. Instead of making your actions fit reality, it is trying to make reality fit your actions. Instead of controlling yourself, you are trying to control reality.

If a dictator threatens to kill you for having wrong thoughts, you tend to avoid thinking. Self-regulation becomes regulation by the dictator. If your field of thought is strewn with land mines of evasion, you tend to avoid thinking. Self-regulation breaks down, and your life is threatened because there is nothing left to make your actions fit reality. What you feel, as a matter of life and death, is that you need a dictator.

If you wonder why people praise freedom, claim freedom for themselves, and then demand more controls, that is the explanation. They know the importance of regulating their actions to fit reality, but they cannot do it for themselves. Because they cannot think, self-regulation is not an option; it must come from outside.

If we involuntarily work for the government half the time, we do not call it slavery. We call it taxation. If we can't find work, and we force others to take care of us, we do not call it slavery. We call it social justice. If an official tells us what kind of toilet we can install, what kind of medicine we can use, and what kind of fuel we can put in the car, we do not call it slavery. We call it federal oversight.

For those who despair of self-regulation, it seems a good solution. We are not slaves, but victims. We are free to think when we think it's safe—as long as it does not get out of control. We are free to avoid thinking, and be protected from the resulting failure of self-regulation.

Others stand up straight, and say, "I am in charge of my actions. If I did wrong, it is my fault. I will correct it." It is not that they are willing to take responsibility; it is that they eagerly seek responsibility. To put it another way, they insist on owning their own lives and regulating their own actions.

If I own my life, and take full responsibility for my thought, then when things go right, the glory is mine. When things go wrong, the fault is mine. I am hungry to identify the faults so I can correct them, and increase the glory.

If I want to regulate my own actions, using my own thoughts and my own convictions, then I never fear saying, "I did wrong." If I make an honest mistake in the process of getting things right, I say, "I did it wrong. I can learn from that, and correct it." If I have a lapse of self-control, and make a dishonest mistake, I say, "I did wrong. I see why it was wrong, I see why I did it. I see how to avoid doing it any more."

Saying, "It is my fault," improves my life by improving my ability to act in accordance with reality. To say it, I must compare the result with the intention, identify the choices involved, compare them to the standard of man's life as a rational being, analyze why things went wrong, and plan corrective action. The more I form the habit of doing all this, the more skillful my self-regulation will become. And the more trust I will earn.

Thinking about it that way, you wonder why so many live in terror of those three words, "I did wrong." Why did they fail to learn self-regulation by thinking?

A child insists stubbornly, "It's not my fault! It's not my fault!" Parents make it clear: "You don't decide that. We decide that." If the parents do it right, the child learns to be objective, and take responsibility, and regulate his actions according to reality.

When an adult insists, "It's not my fault," there are no parents to decide the objective truth. It's up to you. If you want to decide honestly, then freedom will have a very personal meaning: the absence of obstacles to self-regulation. If you want at all costs to avoid saying, "I did wrong," then in your mind freedom will have a vague, ritualistic meaning: permission to get away with things.

That's the life of evasion. It's goal is not to accomplish things, but to get away with things. It does not regard freedom as the absence of coercion, but as the presence of loopholes. It is a life of scurrying from loophole to loophole, in flight from the rat-catcher: reason.

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