Mental Action

Chapter 6
The Difference it Makes

By now, everybody is aware that human growth involves spectacular change as a matter of normal development. After the trauma of birth, there's the sedentary life of the suckling infant, followed by the active life of the toddler. There's the play-filled life of the child, followed by the hormonal chaos of puberty. What from a distance can seem a calm continuum, from close up shows wrenching change as a constant feature. To see the most spectacular change of all, we need to get even closer; we need to get inside the mind.

While you were changing from an infant into a toddler, you were also transforming the way you mentally handled reality. The way you started handling reality—perceptually—works for many animals. It is automatic—set by nature. It is severely limited in its ability to relate the animal to the rest of reality. In fact, it is unable even to recognize that there is such a thing as the rest of reality.

The animal relates to its immediate surroundings. That's it. Nothing in a perceptual awareness extends to a greater reality beyond the immediate surroundings. The animal relates to these things in this area. If it is taken elsewhere, then it relates to those things in that area. It has no way to relate things here to things there. It relates in linear fashion: this, and then that, and then that, and then that....

You related to things that way, also—for a time. But when you decided to put similarity to use, your mental relation to reality changed forever. When you mentally sorted reality into "known" and "unknown," or "safe" and "scary," you were mentally encompassing all of reality. Whether you fully realized it or not, you were recognizing a reality beyond your immediate surroundings. You had already sorted out all of reality. The first thing a conceptual consciousness does is the last thing a perceptual consciousness could do.

Never again, after this change, will you relate to reality in a linear fashion. You may explore details that way, one at a time, but they will now be details of a reality the whole of which your mind encompasses. To understand the power of mental action, it is vital to grasp that from the very beginning, you held the entire universe in your mind. This was implicit even before it was explicit: to recognize similarity is implicitly to sort all reality into groups: like, and unlike.

This understanding can be put another way: perceptual consciousness operates without context; conceptual consciousness is always contextual. When a human mind explores the nature of an existent, it is always an existent in relation to other existents. It is always one of a class. "What is the meaning of this?" always is, "What is the meaning of this in this context?" To see similarity in the first place is to see things in relation to other things.

It is not accurate to say that we learn concepts and then use them to sort things out. The activity of making concepts—of putting things into mental piles—is the activity of sorting things out. Nor is it true to say that we learn concepts and then use them to relate things to all other things. The activity of making concepts is the activity of relating things to all other things.

Therefore, it is not correct to talk about "the mental chaos of a child." As soon as you learned to use words, you were well and justly proud of yourself for putting your mind in order. Suppose the only word you know is "momma." Suppose further that you've got that wrong: you think "momma" also includes the cleaning lady. No matter, all of your world is arranged in an orderly fashion: momma and non-momma. The method you are using is an orderly one. Mistakes can be corrected, holes can be filled in, facts can be added, relationships can be discovered, all in an orderly way which is also your way.

All that's needed for the child to keep an orderly mind is to do what comes naturally: to observe the rules of similarity. To put two things in the same mental pile, you must be able to find similarity in them, and you must be aware of the potential comparison which gives the similarity—the commensurable characteristic. There's a school-math term which is useful here: common denominator. "Apples" and "green" cannot be lumped together and called by the same word, because they have no conceptual common denominator. Apples and oranges, however, can be put together as "fruit," because they do have a CCD, as Ayn Rand abbreviates her term. They are both edible plant products. That becomes a definition, which tells you what else can be included in the concept.

If all this sounds complicated for a child, remember that we are adding hindsight to the mix. Can a child learn to sort things into piles? Of course. Can the child learn to do the same thing mentally? That's the whole trick.

In fact, we slipped in an extra layer of complexity: we sorted out the mental piles into which we had sorted reality. We combined the concept "apples" with the concept "oranges" into a new concept called "fruit." We could then combine fruit with vegetables into an even higher-order concept: crops. No matter how many layers of complication we add, our arrangement is always orderly. We can find our way back to the real things we started with. As adults, we can instantly sort out reality one way, then resort it a different way, then relate the first sorting-out to the last sorting-out, then project that relationship to further sortings. That happens in the following quote: "Actions differ from reactions by being conscious and deliberate. Humans act; animals react. One who tries to substitute reaction for action is refusing to be human."

To be human is to be conceptual, which means always having a conscious relationship to all of reality. Notice that this means it is impossible to classify some part of reality as unknowable. A classification of "unknown" is normal—but the unknowable would be un-classifiable. It would be like "supernatural," "beyond existence," "more than everything." It would be meaningless. A thing cannot be sorted into two different piles at once; it has to be shifted from just one pile to just one other pile at a time. The same is true of mental piles. If I say, "Those things are unknowable," all I can mean is: "I'll put those things in unknown —and I'll never look at them again."

When the teacher says to the child, "No, no, no, you can't learn sentences before you learn words," that's wrong. A conceptual method can easily learn wholes first and then sort out the parts. When the teacher says, "No, no, no, you can't learn parts of words before you learn the words," that's equally wrong. A conceptual method can easily learn parts and then put them together into wholes. The unappreciated power of the conceptual method of handling reality is essentially this: concepts handle all things as interrelated. Wholes up to the largest, and parts down to the smallest, are handled at the same time. When the primary focus is on a detail, wider areas are connected up and readily available. When the primary focus is on a wide area, all known details are connected up and readily available. Human consciousness holds Reality up to the light, and angles it at will, equally conscious of the whole and of each detail.

This orderly condition of the mind is called mental integration. It is a condition which is inherent in the conceptual method. To form a concept is to sort things out and relate them to other things. Here is Ayn Rand's definition of a concept: "a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." In this formulation, as in human minds, difference and similarity go hand in hand, as totality and detail go hand in hand, as separation and combination go hand in hand.

Unhappily, as children grow older, they find themselves in the position of the left-handed child trying to be right-handed. They are taught to treat their conceptual consciousness as if it were a perceptual consciousness. They are fed facts out of context, given parts in no relation to wholes, told that learning is a linear process—this and then that, and then that, and then that....

It is said that two-year-olds learn at the genius level. Now we know why. They have a method. It is not a method they were born with. It is a method they learned by trial and error, and by observation of adults. They can take in and retain facts in amazing numbers, because they keep those facts in motion—being sorted, resorted, connected together, taken apart, combined, and recombined. The facts end up so thoroughly interconnected that recalling any one makes all available. That is the secret of learning: weave the new into the matrix of the old. Combine; then recombine from another angle. Form mental integrations in which recalling the old brings up the new.

To learn a scale on the piano, one does not memorize the notes, or consider the notes, or stare at the keyboard. One plays the scale, and plays with the scale. To learn a fact, one does not memorize it, or stare at it. One plays with it: one fits it in here, tries it in there, sorts it into this pile, then that pile. One connects it up by cause, by effect, by significance. One measures its dimensions, characteristics, and degree of certainty. One takes possession of the fact.

Perceptual consciousness gives a snail's-eye view of the world. Conceptual consciousness gives an astronaut's view. The two-year-old has just discovered this. The twenty-year-old has often forgotten, and tries to understand things by studying details out of context—this, and then that, and then that, and then frustration. Snails cannot retain details. Humans can if the details are fitted into a context. Conceptual consciousness retains the new by fitting it in, not by shoveling it on top.

Thought is not a process of sniffing things out and encompassing more territory; it is a process of sorting out observations and fitting things in. Thinking does not start at the bottom, but at the top—not with what's in front of your nose, but with the sum of what's in your mind. When a dog observes something new, the issue is: is it food or threat? For a human, the issue is: where does it fit in the sum of my experience?

A broad guess is not the end of an incorrect mental method; it is the beginning of the correct method. On noticing the cause of a certain result, the first thing a conceptual method does is try to apply the cause to all similar results. I dropped this and it broke—when you drop things, they break. The right place to start is at the most economical place; the place which encompasses as much of reality as possible. But everything doesn't break. Experience quickly teaches a child to narrow things down. It is not true that because it was okay to break that glass by accident, it is also okay to break this vase on purpose. The child learns not to be satisfied with a guess, because the results of acting on guesses are unpleasant.

Or in other words: "No, you generalized too broadly; you must narrow it down."

Or in other words: "You must narrow it down, and also subdivide it."

Because conceptualizing always includes the big picture, a conceptual consciousness naturally thinks big. A mind able to encompass the universe wants to think in universals. What Ayn Rand calls "thinking in principles" comes naturally. If I discover a truth about one thing, I want to apply it to other things.

Timorous teachers may warn against the "tendency to generalize," but that tendency is not a threat; it is the glory of the human mind. It begins with "safe" and "scary," then develops to handle any degree of complexity. It allows everything in the universe to be meaningfully related to everything else. It has the potential to give you the mental power of an Isaac Newton or an Albert Einstein—of an Aristotle or an Ayn Rand.

One reason we admire the bold and venturesome approach to life is that it is inherent in our mental method of dealing with reality. Great innovators can make daring new generalizations—and have the courage to advance them—because they learned how to progress from wild guess to educated guess to shrewd guess to scientific induction. No mind starts small. It gets small by refusing to learn the skills involved in keeping reality sorted out. It shrinks by trying to substitute perception for conception. Perception inches forward in timid steps. Concepts embrace the whole and all its parts in one fearless leap.

A tinkerer working on a lawnmower is attending simultaneously to tiny details and big principles. So is an inventor making a machine. So is an Einstein measuring the universe. In each case, the basis of doing so is the child's first realization that it is possible to view a pile of objects as one pile containing many objects.

Generalization comes naturally. It need not be avoided. The trick is to perfect it.

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