Mental Action

Chapter 10
The Uncertainty Con

Power corrupts, we believe. When the power of the conceptual method is extolled or demonstrated, people automatically look for corruption. Something must be wrong with it. Isn't it simply cruel to chop up reality into rigid classifications? Isn't it simply arbitrary to fix limits when reality is everywhere a continuum? Isn't it simply unfair to talk about black and white when real things are all gray?

In the same way, the power of a great pianist must corrupt him. Surely it's not natural to play so many notes so fast. Isn't it simply cruel to play the Minute Waltz in fifty seconds? Isn't it simply arbitrary to take the first repeat but not the second? Isn't it simply unfair to keep all the notes so distinct and separated?

Well, no. It is perfectly possible to hate the way a virtuoso plays the Minute Waltz, while appreciating his ability to play the piano. We have no difficulty seeing the difference between his method and his skill. We do not think we would be more pleased if he played the Minute Waltz with his nose. To criticize his use of a method is not to demand some other, inappropriate method.

However, when we hate the way things got sorted out, we often do ask the pianist to use his nose. It's the method, we say. The conceptual method is not good enough. It fails to provide certainty. It's just not fair.

This is evasion, the refusal to sort things out. It is equivocation, pushing two concepts together and pretending they are the same. The concepts are "method" and "skill."

To be unsure of the results of a method is to lack confidence either in the method, or in your skill of applying the method. If the conceptual method is flawed, then man lives less well than animals. If things don't get sorted out to suit you, what is needed is not a better method, but better skill in applying the method. The answer to mental uncertainty is mental practice. Nothing is gained by trying to play the piano with your nose.

The alternative to a mental method based on similarity is not a mental method based on something else; it is no mental method. It is reaction to perceptual concretes as they happen to impinge. That is the only automatic mental process there is. Sorting things out is something you decide to do, requiring a method. The question is: can that method provide you with what you want, including the feeling of certainty so necessary for carrying out decisions?

Observation of children indicates that it can. The biggest complaint against kids is not under-confidence but overconfidence. Timid kids tend to stay out of trouble, and not get complained about. Overconfident kids seem to spend their time trying to scare the hell out of us. They declare themselves the equal of movie stunt doubles, of television daredevils, of skilled experimenters. They act as if they can't get hurt, until they do.

Surely, the timid kids are the smart ones, and the overconfident kids are dullards. Well, not exactly. The overconfident ones tend to get better grades, more popularity, greater success. They do some things wrong, but lots of things right. They have reasons for feeling confident.

"Well, of course they feel confident," says the battle-scarred adult. "They haven't lived long enough to make the big mistakes."

Aha! Here is a possible flaw in the conceptual method—it works so well that it makes us overconfident. This is exactly the opposite of the incertitude it is commonly accused of. We can confirm this flaw by asking if conceptual humans are more or less confident than perceptual animals. Plainly, they are more confident. Sorting things out has that effect.

The real problem of letting children learn the conceptual method is that it provides them not with too little certainty but with too much. Not too much for life, of course: that would be impossible. Too much for the ease of adults. Politicians tend to feel the same about the certainty of voters; too much of it is no help to them. Teachers easily confused by questions sometimes hate certainty. Moochers can get positively venomous about it. People who live like Dracula—by blood sucking—react to certainty like Dracula to sunlight.

All in all, many find a reason to join the big game of pretending that the conceptual method does not provide certainty. What could such a claim actually mean?

Does the idea of uncertainty apply to a child sorting out blocks? If so, there is not much chance to express it. You put the square one here, and the round one there. If you do it hesitantly, then that does not mean you can't see similarity and difference. It has to mean that you are not sure whether or not you want to sort the blocks out. Perhaps it would be a better idea to sort all the blocks into a pile, and then other toys into another pile. Or perhaps just throwing them on the floor would be more fun.

That's free will. You can sort things out, or do something else. What you cannot do is avoid sorting things out while you are sorting them out. No matter how hesitantly you proceed, you end up with classifications. Things are sorted out. If you now look at the classifications and declare, "But I'm not sure!" then what you are saying is that you are not sure you really wanted to classify things. It's not the result you are unsure of. It's not even the method itself you are unsure of. What you are unsure about is whether or not you really wanted to think, or evade.

What is obvious in sorting blocks into piles is still true, though far from obvious, while using complex high-order abstractions to make identifications. Here you have mental piles within piles within larger piles in still larger piles. Here are politicians asking for my vote. I want to form a mental pile called "vote for". What characteristics would make a candidate fit in the vote-for pile? Justice, perhaps. Do I know what that means? That is, do I trace my idea of justice down to direct observations? If so, I know exactly what I mean by it. Or maybe I just say, "Well, you know, he's for the little guy." Perhaps I choose a feeling over the conceptual method of sorting things out. Then I'm not sure what I mean by justice, because I decided not to use the conceptual method. My uncertainty comes not from the method, but from reluctance to use the method.

Thinking in words is based on the conceptual method, but that's not all there is to the method. Anyone can learn any number of words, but each individual must actually form the concepts meant by the words. You don't learn mental piles. You learn words, you learn definitions, but you make the piles. That is, you investigate reality and sort it out. A definition tells you which of your mental piles is which. It leaves the sorting work to you. If you decide not to do the work, but just mouth the word, then others may think you are using the conceptual method. But in place of the benefits, you will experience uncertainty and self-doubt. Uncertainty comes not from the method, but from the sham.

Uncertainty is not, of course, the same thing as error. You can decide fully to apply the conceptual method; you can do your best to sort things out, and still get it wrong. You can be perfectly certain that you made the correct identification, even when it is wrong. Is this a flaw in the method?

Can we imagine a method without such a flaw? Is there an errorless method for doing anything? If not, what would be the next best thing?

One possibility of the next best thing would be a method which makes errors recognizable. If errors can be detected and corrected before they do major damage, then we have as good a method as we can reasonably hope for. It is the certainty of the conceptual method that gives it this facility.

Think again of those rampaging children charging about with supreme confidence as they do foolish things. Thank goodness they are making all those mistakes as children, in a protective and instructive environment. Students who avoid asking dumb questions show the other side; they sound smarter, but they don't grow smarter.

If I do everything in life hesitantly, hedging on all sides, then my errors might take a while to become obvious. I might avoid embarrassment, at the cost of injury. I am like a corporate bookeeper afraid of displeasing the boss—while the company goes broke. If I charge ahead, with confidence in my identifications, then errors will glare forth. I am like the whistle-blower, who gets in trouble but saves the company. I am embarrassed before I can be injured. I am better off, in other words, keeping errors out in the open where they can be fixed.

The conceptual method keeps things in context. Details are handled as part of an integrated whole. By definition, an error does not fit in: that is why it is an error. If everything else does fit in, then there is no place for errors to hide. If they don't fit, they stand out as wrong. It is only the refusal to fit everything in—to use the method—which allows errors to hide. The supreme confidence of the conceptual method is justified because it allows errors no cover. They stand out immediately, and can be corrected.

Life can be hectic, though. If I make a number of errors, I might have to defer correcting some. Errors could get buried in the complexities of experience. They could impair my ability to use the conceptual method. I could find myself lacking skill. If I decide then to evade, I blame it on the method. I look for a way of handling reality without sorting it out. I look for someone to consult. I look for some cult to join. I become a sheep trying to get fleeced.

If I decide to correct past errors by myself, I begin asking an obvious question. As I consider all the ways I've sorted things out, I ask, "How did I come to that conclusion?" In other words, I learn to introspect, so I can find the errors. I examine my conceptual skills. Then I can learn to improve them. I may have to spend lots of time improving them. What I don't have to do is waste time blaming myself. Past errors, whether due to oversight or evasion, are past. Evasion always happens now, in the present. If I'm not doing it now, I'm not doing it. If I know I did it then, that means I'm not doing it now. The remedy for past refusal to sort things out is not lamentation, but sorting things out.

We all began at the same place—making use of similarity to form units. Then we made use of language to form concepts. In doing that, we made a mental arrangement of the entire universe. The idea was to be able to handle things. Most adults complain of feeling severely limited in their ability to handle things. In other words, something went wrong.

This raises two questions:

1. Is it possible to find out what went wrong?

2. Is it possible to correct what went wrong?

To those who believe that thinking is an automatic bodily function like digestion, the answer is no on both counts; there is nothing for the mind corresponding to an antacid. To those who realize that the mind has a collection of habitual skills like the faculty of walking, the answer is yes.

Nobody would accept this lame excuse: "I know I walk funny; that's the way I learned; there's nothing I can do about it." Nor should anybody accept this one: "That's just the way my mind works; I'm stuck with it; certainty is beyond me."

Certainty is the natural result of using the conceptual method. Chronic uncertainty shows that something has gone wrong. We need to look for a method to find out what.

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