Mental Action

Chapter 12

Which is faster, thinking or feeling? Most people say feelings are faster. Emotions are immediate, they say, while thinking takes time. In fact, they say, survival can depend on the speed of emotions. They relate things like this:

"I started to cross the street. Then I saw this truck headed at me. That thing was not going to stop! It scared me so much I jumped out of the way before I had time to think at all. It wasn't reason that saved me. It was instinct!"

But wait! How did instinct reveal that the truck was "not going to stop?"

Let's list some of the things that had to be sorted out in order to judge the truck as a danger:

In other words, you had to identify it as a truck, as a moving truck, as a truck moving in your direction, as a truck not likely to stop. Until you had completed all that thinking, there was nothing to be scared of. That's why a cat in that situation would be squashed rather than scared; it has no way to identify the truck as a danger.

Make the effort to watch what you do, and you'll notice that most adult thinking is done so rapidly it seems instantaneous. You've been sorting things out every day for many years; it's not surprising that you can do it fast. It is another difficulty in the way of introspection. Your thinking is over and done with before you notice—so you conclude that it happened automatically and is not under your control.

"What do you think?" That's a common sentence. How fast can you say it? Probably in a fraction of a second. Does that mean it's not under your control? Try saying it slowly, and notice the complex series of muscular actions it takes in your throat, your tongue, your mouth, and your lips. That's how you'd change the way you say it: by slowing it down and paying attention and practicing a different way. That's also the way you'd learn to play a scale on a piano, or get rid of a mistake adding up numbers. You'd slow it down, pay attention, and form new habits.

That's also the way you fix problems in using the conceptual method of handling reality. You slow down, pay attention, and form new habits. The difference in changing mental habits is just this: there's no way to fail. Your mind is entirely yours. You control all the parameters. If you fail to change a mental habit, it's because you stopped paying attention—because you decided not to change it.

The worst habit, of course, is evasion, the refusal to sort things out. It is very widespread, because it is urgently recommended by a great many people who should know better. The usual method of recommending evasion is simply to attack reason.

Reason, says Ayn Rand, is the identifying and integrating faculty. In other words, it is the faculty by which you sort things out and fit them in. When you reason things out, you arrange them mentally according to similarity and difference. You make a disorderly welter into an orderly arrangement, in which the overall picture and the details are equally available to your mind. Then you can see how to handle things.

To give a reason for something is to locate that thing within your understanding of reality—to show how it fits in with your use of the conceptual method. To "prove by logic" means the same thing, but stresses the process of tracing what you believe all the way back down the conceptual chain to direct observations.

A claim that you can handle things better without reason is like a claim that you can walk better without feet. It is a recommendation that you refuse to sort things out. If bad habits have already made you wary of trying to sort things out, you might listen. You might hope to find a better method than reason to deal with reality. You also might hope to fly by wiggling your ears. While hoping, don't get rid of your feet.

To attack reason, one can say either that it is not the right way to knowledge, or that it is not the only way to knowledge. The first method must be carefully disguised, because it is blatantly absurd. It attacks sorting things out by sorting things out. It tells you to classify classification into the discard pile. It wants you to identify identifying as useless.

The standard disguise is the second method: "Reason is a fine method for gaining knowledge, but it is not the only method for gaining knowledge." Then comes the pitch for faith, blood, passion, instinct, or astrology. Here is a translation: "Sorting things out and fitting them in is fine, but things will work out just as well if you don't." This needs a raised eyebrow to convey what it really means: "I can help you get away with evading."

Let's concretize in real life exactly what it means to say that reason is not the only means to knowledge. Imagine that you are single, living alone in your own house. Next door lives a charming young couple with two children and a problem. They go to meetings in the evening—quite a lot of meetings. So they are always desperate for baby-sitters.

"What," you ask, "are these meetings about?"

"They are about spiritual revelation. We get so much knowledge from them!"

"You mean that you don't believe in reason?"

"Oh no! We believe that reason is a wonderful means to knowledge. But it is not the only means to knowledge."

This makes you hesitate. But they are nice kids. So you agree to baby-sit. And there you are, all alone in their house with the two children and the television, which is displaying the latest hysteria about wanton child molestation charged against a hapless single—

Fear is suddenly clutching your gut. Could you be accused of such a thing?

Then you shake your head and relax. Well, of course not! How silly! There is not the slightest danger that you would ever give these nice people the faintest reason to suspect you of anything bad.

The trouble is, they don't need a reason.

Now the fear is back in earnest. For them, reason is not the only means to knowledge. What if one of them hugs a child, and gets this feeling that the child has been abused? You can give them reasons to the contrary, but you have no way of judging which is more important: your reasons or their feelings.

Better back off and give up the baby-sitting.

The example is real, and so is the dilemma. There is no middle ground between sorting things out and not sorting things out. If you confront a pile of things to sort, you can take one thing out of the pile and lay it on the table. If you stop at this point, it is not the case that things are not sorted out. They are sorted into two piles, neither of which is useful to you. That's why evasion is so suicidal. Wherever you stop sorting, that's your arrangement of reality, and you're stuck with it—stuck dumb.

Reason is not a name for a method we should use. It is the name for the method we do use—the one and only method we have for handling reality as an integrated whole. When you don't use reason, you're doing things the way your dog does—perceptually reacting to random events, with no method for understanding. The only knowledge you get from that is that it doesn't work. Go down to the railroad yard where people abandon pets to fend for themselves, and you'll see that it doesn't even work for dogs.

If the neighbors tell you that they believe in reason, but don't use it all the time, how will you know when they use it and when they don't? Will you trust them any of the time? If you tell yourself to use reason some of the time, but not all of the time, then how will you know which time is which? Will you trust yourself any of the time?

Reason, the means of survival, seems instantaneous and automatic when it is employed expertly. It looks like there's nothing to it. So some people decide that it is nothing—a reflex, an automatic response. They find themselves stuck dumb. To get unstuck, use your faculty of identification and integration—of sorting things out and fitting them together. Use your reason.

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