Mental Action

Chapter 2

Our culture is guarding a secret. It is an open secret, a secret everybody knows and nobody acknowledges. It is a fact about human beings that is given different names in different places, which refer to different aspects of the same reality—the reality of mental action.

All of this vital knowledge is based on the observation that human consciousness is different from other animal consciousness. Animals react; humans act. The open secret of our time is that this difference is fundamental and all-encompassing. The importance of this difference cannot possibly be over-emphasized. Instead, we pretend that it is trivial.

F There's the college textbook which says that the difference between humans and other animals is that humans have an "opposable thumb." Must be one hell of a thumb, to launch us to the moon.

F There's the scientific effort to talk to dolphins, and see if they aren't smarter than humans. We can grant that they are smarter than some researchers.

F There's the theory of "subliminal" advertising which claims you can be influenced to do something without deciding to do it. Perhaps the proponents of the theory did not decide on it at all, but were influenced by cosmic meta-suggestion.

F There's the "brain-washing" doctrine, which asserts that not just your actions but your mind can be controlled against your will. Soviet Communists were sure of it, until they discovered that after seventy years, nobody believed a word they said.

F There's the "herd mentality" cliché, which doesn't assert anything, but just assumes the identity of people and cattle. It is used to insult disapproved choices.

F Most of all, there's the pervasive contempt for human thought which we have all heard so often for so long that we no longer really notice. There are no aspirations but feeble aspirations; no notions but puny notions, no ideas but crazy ideas. It's not a thought, it's only a thought. I don't conclude it's so, I guess it's so. I don't know so, I suppose so.

Note that little flick of the voice which adds a diminutive inflection to things concerning the—well, the mindette. "LOGic you say? Is that what it is? Must be time for some deeeeep thought."

The trouble is that people in the know say, "Well, I might be wrong, but..."

Great humanitarians assure us on their authority that human beings in general cannot produce what they consume, and so must be cared for by the "more fortunate." In this they find themselves in embarrassing agreement with bigots who want to prevent immigration for exactly the same reason. Nobody argues with either side, because after all, our means of producing more than we consume is that feeble thing, the mind.

Here is a Newsweek correspondent writing in The New Republic (Jan.27,'92) under the title, The Tyranny of Choice. The writer reminds us of the frightening fact that the more choices we make, the more bad choices we make. "Choice can be profoundly debilitating." This is because, he explains, it takes too much time, it reminds you of your fallibility, and it alienates you from your community. Eating, one might also point out, can be profoundly debilitating. This is because it takes too much time, it reminds you of your ulcer, and it makes you fat.

The difference is an assumption that people like to eat, but dislike to choose. The writer laments that "so much of our free time is absorbed by the process of deciding what to do with it." In the end, he tells us to "acknowledge our powerlessness."

But one famous way of filling our free time is called "shopping". It consists entirely of making choices. It assumes that making choices is not a way of "absorbing" free time, but a way of filling it with joy. People who are not jaded journalists actually have fun going through the complicated process of examining, comparing, and judging. It makes them feel powerful. Some have claimed that the process of deciding where to go on vacation was more fun than the vacation. The mental action was more fun than the physical action.

If every time you eat, you end up with indigestion, you might learn to hate eating. You might talk about the "Tyranny of Eating". You might note that the more eating there is, the more bad eating there is. But life would still require that you eat.

Our society is filled with people who don't like our choices, and don't like their own choices, and don't know what to do about it, and so hate choice. They demand that we "acknowledge our powerlessness". They try to forget that life requires choice.

They don't know what to do about bad choices because they don't know what to do about bad mental processes in general. They regard thought as something that just happens. They ignore free will, and so regard mental action as a metaphor.

You, however, can decide differently. You can convince yourself that mental action is real, ordinary, and natural. Then you can learn to improve it. You can awaken yourself to the power of mental action.

Imagine what it would mean if your attitude toward mental action were as straightforward and matter-of-fact as your attitude toward physical action. Terms like "inferring" and "induction" would be no more intimidating than "driving" or "slam-dunk". Logic would seem no more mysterious than sewing. Straightening out ambiguities would seem no more impossible than straightening out the hall closet.

Most of all, you would regard decision making not as an onerous duty, but as the unique power which comes with being human. You would think of choice not the way timorous college philosophers do, but the way enthusiastic shopping mall patrons do—not as a chance to err, but as a chance to gain.

How would you go about proving to yourself that mental action is not a metaphor but a fact of reality? You would begin at the only place anyone can ever begin—with observation. What this book can do is assist your observation by analysis and description. It can help you decide between the two alternatives:

  1. Is your mind more like your digestion, which happens unbidden and largely unnoticed?
  2. Or is your mind more like your voice, which is produced by a complex series of actions to which you don't consciously attend, but of which you are in conscious control?

Digestion begins with chewing. Voice production begins with pumping air. Mental action begins with—what? If sensations from the sense organs are the irreducible units of consciousness, then perception can be called, as does Ayn Rand, the automatic integration of sensations into the awareness of objects. Mental action would begin with the next step up. Let's examine that next step.

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