Mental Action

Chapter 3
Telling the Difference

Here's some research you can do. First, look at this color:


Then, click here to see another color. Are they exactly the same, or different shades?

How did you make the decision?

Probably you had to guess—unless you arranged the windows to bring the colors side by side. That would make it easy. Here are the colors side by side:

l l

You can do the same experiment with peas in a pod. When you look at them separately, they seem to match. When you compare them side by side, you can detect many differences. You have a method—comparison—to look for differences.

Now observe the animals in the zoo. How many of them make comparisons? Yes, there's one making comparisons—the zoo keeper.

For an animal, change or difference is always unexpected. It is reacted to only when it is detected. Animals can never look for difference. We can. We are alone in the ability to make comparisons.

This difference between the way an animal reacts to change and the way a human reacts to change demonstrates volition. If an animal fails to react to a difference, it is because the difference was not detected. If a human fails to react, it may be choice. If you come into the house, and my dog does not react, it hasn't detected you. I might just be ignoring you.

In other words, while my dog's consciousness regulates behavior, it does not regulate itself. Mine does, and this is where the regulation kicks in. I cannot alter the evidence of my senses so as to make you invisible, but I can decide that this evidence makes no difference. I can regulate the amount of difference to which I react.

Here is a shorter way to put that: My dog reacts to change and difference; I confront change and difference. Here is as even shorter way: My dog has reactions; I make comparisons.

Digestion begins with chewing. Voice production begins with pumping air. Mental action begins with comparing. To compare is to regulate attention in regard to differences.

Here's another bit of research you can do:

Hold out your hands and examine them as objects—but without comparing them. Do not attend to any differences between them. Think of them as identical objects, each composed of identical parts. Try to form a thought about the hands without including any comparisons.

When you try such an exercise, you notice that to avoid comparisons is simply to avoid thinking. If you say, "The differences are not important," you began by confronting differences. If you say, "They are the same," then you began with a comparison. If you say, "They look soft," that is another comparison. If you say, "They are attached to my wrists," you attended to the difference between hand and wrist. If you say, "They are open," that started with the difference between open and closed. To ignore differences entirely, you must say nothing and think nothing.

Now try it the other way. Hold out your hands and notice all the differences between them—but without forming any thoughts. Just contemplate the differences without thinking about them.

If you try that, what you notice is that contemplating differences consists of forming thoughts. Trying to do one without the other is like shouting silently. Taking any kind of mental action begins with confronting a difference.

Is this an obvious and trivial point? Not if you believe that there can be no simple exercises to improve thinking ability. In that case, it is a bombshell. It means that you—right now this very moment—can begin doing basic exercises which will tend to improve your thinking ability. Just as the doctor will tell you to practice chewing for better digestion, and the voice coach will tell you to practice breathing, so the epistemologist can tell you to practice telling the difference.

One place to start would be looking for the differences between mentally sharp people and mentally dull people. Sharp people tend to look for differences; others seem dull because they are not looking for differences. They tend to be surprised by every change.

Mental action begins with comparing. To practice mental action at the basic level, make comparisons. The child who annoys you by demanding that everything be compared to everything else is learning to think. The acquaintance who brings up comparisons is using a clever method to start conversation by sparking thoughts. It's the pianist's scale, the singer's vowel, the dancer's stretch—basic exercise.

The musician's golden ear is the result of long practice in telling tiny differences of pitch and timbre. The painter's practiced eye tells tiny differences of color and shape. The bricklayer learns to tell precise differences of position and slant. It's nothing new to practice telling the difference. There's no reason to suppose it wouldn't work to improve thinking skills as well.

Voice production starts with pumping air, but it can end by overpowering an orchestra of a hundred and an audience of thousands. Mental action starts with a comparison, and is still just getting started when it gets to Relativity Theory. In both cases, the requisite skills are acquired not by mysterious leaps of ability, but by gradual development over time. In the case of mental action, this development is especially fascinating, because a clear picture of it is finally emerging, thanks to the work of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, and Harry Binswanger.

When you were born, you not only knew nothing, you knew of no way to learn anything. You were aware of some differences, in a vague way. Within three years, you learned to think in concepts, speak in meaningful sentences, and attend to differences of the most subtle kind in face and tone of voice. You accomplished this on your own. After such an achievement, nothing in life should daunt you—least of all understanding how you did it.

Because you remember in words, you cannot remember the time before you had words. You can understand how you did it only in adult, conceptual terms. This is not a disadvantage, because you want to use the knowledge now to improve methods you learned then. But a mind determined to cling to the myth of automatic consciousness might use it to muddy the waters. There are those who insist that consciousness has no identity, so that they can claim to have gained knowledge by magic.

Learning to think was the most stupendous achievement of your life. Ayn Rand's theory of concept formation, as elaborated by Dr. Peikoff and Dr. Binswanger, shows how you did it, and how you can do it better. It shows how it is possible to progress from telling the difference between wet and dry to telling the difference between tables and chairs to telling the difference between orbits of an electron. It demonstrates that mental action is as definable and perfectible as physical action. It demystifies cognition.

It begins with transforming difference into similarity.

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