Mental Action

Chapter 9
Out of Sorts

What child sorting playthings into piles would dream that this very activity could be considered by adults not only a bother but a positive threat? What child would dream that the very parents saying, "Straighten up your room!" might be carefully avoiding the same process inside their heads? How could such a weird thing come about?

Children want urgently to learn how to sort out reality, so it will be orderly and manageable and non-threatening. It would be difficult indeed to convince a child that sorting those blocks was a dangerous activity to be avoided, or that learning to do the same thing mentally would bring misery rather than mastery.

It is true, though, that reality is not changed by classification. If a child gets the idea that sorting out reality will, without further effort, change reality, then there looms the big let-down. The conceptual method is so powerful that, as parents notice, two-year-olds can feel all-powerful. They could think of it not as method but as magic. They could get the idea that thinking makes it so.

Children who are too much comforted for getting bloody knees have been known to get bloody knees on purpose. Cognitive slips also cause pain. Too much comforting could say to a child, "You're better off not trying." Too much scolding could say, "You'll never get it."

In the normal course of events, reality asserts its immutable rules. A crying child is sometimes a child who has just learned an important lesson. It is possible to comfort the child while reinforcing the lesson—but it's not much done. More often, we comfort the child and deny the lesson: "Don't worry, it will work out, it's okay, it doesn't mean anything." So the normal course of events is negated, and the child becomes an adult sure that thinking should make it so, even when it doesn't. Conceptual thinking becomes a threat to me if I believe it can work magic for others, but not for me.

What the conceptual method does that seems magical to those who avoid it is: it focuses effort. When everything is sorted out and fitted together in good order, then it becomes possible to find the point where directing your energy will do the most good. To someone whose mind is not in order, the result can seem magical. Things seem too easy. Resentment kindles.

Imagine a he and she who want to give up smoking. He asserts his will power, discards the pack, and orders himself never to smoke again. He braces himself against the onslaught sure to come: the nerves, the cravings, the hunger, the irritability, the thousand distractions soothed only by smoking. Will he be firm enough? Will he withstand temptation? He must use all his energy to be strong!

She, on the other hand, makes a single conceptual decision: she is not a smoker. The rest of the pack is still in her purse, but it is no longer hers, because she is not a smoker. Her nerves are raw, but there is no thought of smoking to calm them, because she is not a smoker. She asks herself, how does a non-smoker handle nerves? How does a non-smoker handle that need for a lift? Her energy is focused on handling all the same problems as before, but handling them as a non-smoker.

After a week, he is proud of himself. His nerves are frazzled, his friends disgusted, his life a shambles—but he has not succumbed. He is a smoker with the iron will not to smoke. She is busy with other things. Damn her! It cannot have been that easy. She is just lucky. She's always so blasted lucky!

By deciding that she is a non-smoker, she integrates non-smoking into the rest of her self-image. The course of her life is not changed, just adjusted. His life is disrupted, because he tries to handle things one by one, out of context. He is caught in the same vicious cycle of envy and evasion that has destroyed lives and societies all through history.

Starting the conceptual method is easy and natural. The universe can be sorted out with two concepts: this and that. As a tiny tot sorting blocks, you never dreamed of future complications, but only of future abilities. You did not suppose that someday your entire career could depend on recognizing subtle differences and sorting things exactly right—that someday your boss would say, "Oh sure, it's technically not strictly legal I guess, but everybody does it and of course I expect you not to rock the boat."

It is no surprise that children, as they learn to expand and refine the conceptual method, have troubles and triumphs, ups and downs. It is normal that they sometimes get discouraged. What is sad is that adults are no help, because adults often have forgotten their own mental struggles. They regard mental action as a metaphor. They think concepts just happen. So they have no idea why the child is discouraged, and no way to help. When a kid says, "You just don't understand ANYTHING!" the translation often is: "You don't understand that I'm losing control of my mental actions!"

When a boy can't make the team, his father assures him that he'll get bigger and stronger. When a girl flunks an exam, her mother assures her that more study will improve the next one. But nobody assures either that they will get things sorted out if they just keep trying. So sometimes, they quit trying. Instead of identifying, they evade.

Cognitive self-regulation cuts both ways. Free will means the ability to take mental action, or to avoid mental action. A consciousness able to regulate its response to difference can make use of similarity to sort things out. Or, it can refuse to sort things out. It can learn to function conceptually, or it can let itself function perceptually. Perception is built into animals, so in order to see how the "perceptual method" does in human society, we need to look at the role of animals in society, other than as food.

Live animals have two and only two functions in society: they are slaves or pets. Their perceptual consciousness makes this inevitable, by making them react at all times to the immediate items of the instantaneous present. To be integrated into an ordered society, animals must have order imposed from without, since they have no method of imposing order from within. They are used for work, or they give pleasure in exchange for food. Those that do neither can live where a society exists, but not as part of it.

It's the same for us. To the extent that a man refuses to sort things out—rejects the conceptual method—he is, in society, either a drone or an object of charity. If he refuses to be either, then he can live where a society exists, but not as part of it. Criminals and rats are joined at a deeper level than slang.

A teacher who says, "Don't conceptualize," is saying, "Don't live well." A professor who says "Be perceptual," is saying, "Be a bum." If I set out on a policy of evasion, the first thing I must evade is the actual results of evasion. I must avoid above all the identification of evasion as suicide of the mind. I must pretend that a cube is not a cube if I refuse to put it in the pile of cubes.

Yes, it would be nicer if I had not broken that vase. It would be better if my friend were not dishonest. Everything would be okay if we'd just avoid making these identifications. Or would it?

An evasion is not a clever ploy; it's a failure of nerve. A policy of evading is not making the best of things, it's letting things get the best of you. Telling lies to yourself is living at random, and hoping for the best. It's tossing out the method and faking the results.

Usually, evasion is part of underestimating the importance of the conceptual method. But sometimes it is part of expecting too much. If I think that the conceptual method precludes all possibility of error, then I might think that I must refuse to identify errors.

Consciousness is real. It has identity. It has limits. There is only one way to find out where those limits are: try to stretch them. Researchers say that few people can hold as many as seven items in mind at once. Are you one of those few? To find out, you have to try. In other words, mental mistakes are not just inevitable, they are indispensable. They are also dangerous, embarrassing, and sometimes difficult to correct. It is important that a child grow up in an atmosphere which encourages mental effort, lest correcting mental mistakes begin to seem just too damn much trouble.

Making a mistake is not evasion, any more than fumbling a block into the wrong pile would be. But once the mistake is seen, then not correcting it is evasion, just as leaving the block in the wrong pile would be. The process of sorting things out does not start with getting things right; it aims at getting things right. Mistakes are not a departure from the process; they are part of the process—as long as they get corrected.

The tragedy of most lives is not the mistakes of thinking, but the neglect of thinking. Evading the task of sorting things out leads to evasion of the need to correct mistakes, which so magnifies mistakes that the very method seems wrong. Parents project the attitude that thinking gets kids in trouble. Teachers project the attitude that the conceptual method is riskier than the "perceptual method." Scientists project the attitude that the conceptual method leads to wonderful ideas, which must be checked out using the "perceptual method."

The basic evasion here is embodied in the idea of a "perceptual method." The term is a figure of speech, useful as contrast to the idea of the conceptual method. But only conceptualizing is a method. Perception is what happens by default, in the absence of method.

Some people use elaborate methods to file personal papers, so that wills and insurance policies are instantly at hand. The rest of us use the "random method"—throwing everything into a box. In other words, no method.

Put a child and a chimp in front of a pile of variegated blocks, and watch. The child eventually decides to sort out those blocks. The chimp imitates, but makes no such decision. As time goes by, the child figures out a method to sort things out mentally, by mental actions instead of physical actions. A child might call it the as if method. Adults call it the conceptual method.

The alternative is not this or some other method. There is no method of sorting things out other than sorting things out. The alternative is using a method or not using a method. Failing to learn how to sort things out means never developing beyond the capacities of a pet—never even learning to talk.

So the practical question is never whether or not to learn the conceptual method, but always whether or not to apply it here and now. Evasion is the decision not to apply it—the refusal to sort things out. It can be a momentary failure of nerve, or part of a lifelong policy. Either way, it is a failure to act when action is needed. Either way, it is life-threatening.

A cat stands in the middle of the road while a truck bears down on it. The cat is out of its natural element. It has no mechanism which enables it to identify the truck as a threat. So it gets squashed. In the same situation, a human easily identifies the danger, using a method to sort things out. No sane person would refuse to identify the truck as a threat. In other words, to refuse to sort things out at that juncture would be called not evasion but insanity.

In fact, everybody's best defense for the crime of evasion is to plead temporary insanity. Classifying a block as square is a lot less stressful than classifying your boss as a crook. And after all, how do you know for sure?

One way to evade the all too obvious results of evasion is the retreat into uncertainty. Okay, says this idea, we have to use the conceptual method, since its the only method we have. But we don't have to use it with confidence. We can use it tentatively, so it doesn't do as much harm.

That idea deserves very close and critical scrutiny.

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