Mental Action

Chapter 13
Where the Mystery Ends

In order to watch what you do mentally, the question to ask is: "How did I come to that conclusion?"

Knowing what you're doing means knowing at all times what method you used to come to that conclusion. One difficulty is that you can't remember learning any methods in the first place. Did you really make a method choice you can't remember?

Ayn Rand's identification of free will as the choice to think or not implies that you and I did, at some time, actually choose to learn reason as a method. We chose to develop our faculty for identifying and integrating. We chose to deal with reality in this way instead of in some other way.

Let's go back to the child playing with a pile of objects on a table. Imagine yourself as that child. How many ways are there for dealing with the objects?

One way is this: smash your fist down on the pile so it scatters all over the room. Then, see if you like that arrangement better than the pile. That's the way criminals deal with reality: they smash and scatter it first, then see if that's an improvement. They feel unable to arrange things in an orderly way, so they act in a random way. When they find that things are now worse instead of better, they try again.

Are there other ways to deal with the objects but not sort them out? There is only one other way: pick something off the pile, and play with it. Then pick something else off the pile, and play with that. This is the animal way. Things are reacted to one at a time, as they present themselves.

Those are the three ways of dealing with things: sort them out, deal with them in random groups, or deal with them one at a time. There is no way to combine these methods, and there is no way to avoid choosing among them. Dealing with semi-random groups is just sorting things out poorly. Picking something off the pile and calling that an arrangement is, again, just sorting things out poorly.

That's the trouble with arguing against reason: the alternatives have already been rejected. Children grow dissatisfied playing with things at random, and begin to sort them out. The only effective way to argue against reason would be to advance a new system for sorting things out—a system not based on similarity, but on something else.

What else? Our senses react to difference. There are degrees of difference, so the possibility of measurement, so similarity. To sort things without similarity would be to differentiate things without difference—that is, at random. The choice is: order or disorder. To argue against reason is to argue for disorder.

Arguments against reason are always, therefore, based on the idea that a little disorder is a good thing. They are permissions to evade. That's why they are so popular.

Flip this coin over, and it begins to glitter.

Adults often ask themselves what went wrong. They wonder how they came to the conclusions that bother them, but seem impossible to change. They blame the child they once were. "Why was I so unreasonable? How did I get things so wrong? Why do I love things I should hate, and hate things I should love? Why am I so slow on the uptake? Have I got everything completely wrong?"

Since reason has no alternative, nobody can miss out on it except by choice. Nobody with normal brain function has things completely wrong. If you can use language to communicate, then you can make concepts and link them to the concepts of others. It's not a matter of learning cognition from scratch, but of improving cognitive skills. The mental methods you learned are tools that can work, when used right.

Here's an analogy. You get tired of that picture falling down, so you decide to put a screw in place of the loose nail it hangs on. You fish an old screw out of the junk box, and find a screwdriver in the tool box. You begin screwing in the screw. It falls at your feet. You crawl around on the floor until you find it, and try again. It falls at your feet again. You instruct it, forcefully, to obey itself, and try again. It falls at your feet.

What's wrong here? Is the screwdriver useless? Does the screw hate you? Are you incapable of handling reality?

Take a closer look at the screw. Aha! It is threaded backwards. When you turn it clockwise, it pops back out. When you turn it the other way, it goes in easily.

Whenever you accept that mental actions are real, that everyone is ever engaged in sorting things out one way or another, then you no longer see mental tools kept on the shelf. You see screwdrivers turned backwards, hammers missing the nail, and sandpaper used on chewing gum. You find it quite easy to see what went wrong. The tools are there, but the skills are missing.

That is where the mystery ends. Bad cognition is no more a puzzle than bad carpentry. Tools may be rusty, but know-how makes the big difference. It's not intentions that govern, but skill. Resolve is fine, but practice gets results.

It's not that there are no depths of cognition left to be plumbed, or no discoveries left to be made. It is that there is nothing of Halloween in mental action—there are no goblins; there are no demons. It doesn't work to say, "I don't know what possessed me! I can think better than that!" What possessed me was the same thing that possessed the carpenter with the sore thumb: incompetence. To go on being a carpenter, he must improve his use of the hammer. To go on being human, I must improve my use of reason.

After the mystery ends, good thinking is a process of sorting things out and fitting them together—with skill, with artistry, with finesse. Its greatest strength as a means of survival is that it is not automatic. It can be tailored to fit any circumstance. It can be perfected even when poorly learned. It can perfect your life, and also perfect itself. It need never stop improving.

When the mystery ends, so do the excuses. Cognitive difficulties consist of bad habits. To fix the difficulty, you identify the bad habits, decide what good habits to substitute, and then pay attention. Since all factors are controlled by you, there's no such thing as failure. People say that changing mental habits is difficult, but this means only that it is not instantaneous. It takes exactly as much time and effort as it takes, and no more. In this context...

True cruelty, it is said, consists of abolishing excuses. In this sense, the new Epistemology is a cruel science. By solving the riddles of cognition, it challenges you to actually be as smart, as certain, and as happy as you know you could be, if only....

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