Mental Action

Chapter 14
The Chant

There has probably never been a child who, after sorting things into neat piles on a table, looked at the piles and said: "If only it could be that simple!" Adults, however, observing an equivalent mental operation, often do say: "If only it could be that simple!"

To the epistemologist, it sounds like a chant.

Similarity gives the rules for sorting things out.

"If only it could be that simple!"

Abstraction is the as if method.

"If only it could be that simple!"

Conceptualizing packs a universe into a thought.

"If only it could be that simple!"

Inference finds new points on a mental scale.

"If only it could be that simple!"

Reason turns observation into knowledge.

"If only it could be that simple!"

Watch out if you express a conclusion with confidence. "If only it could be that simple!" Watch out if you name the essence of a subject. "If only it could be that simple!" Watch out if you sum up a judgment in a few words. "If only it could be that simple!"

The point, precisely, is that it can be that simple. The reason a two-year old can learn at what is sometimes called a "genius level," is that the child has learned a method of simplifying by using language to sort things out into classifications.

Since the purpose of the conceptual method is to simplify by classification, this chant must be just a different form of the uncertainty claim—the claim that sorting things out doesn't really do you any good. It is also a lament. It expresses the complicated and unpleasant results of failing to use the conceptual method.

The power of the conceptual method comes from its ability to simplify as much or as little as necessary. The sum, the essence, the overall view, the local view, and all the details are held in mind all at once. You can invoke the universe, the solar system, the earth, a continent, a country, a city, a house, a person, or an atom—whatever level of abstraction is useful instant by instant. You never get lost in details, because you know where they fit in. You never get lost in a fog of generalities, because the details are there to ground you.

Except, people say, it doesn't work. They do get lost in details; they do wander in a fog of generalities. The reason is that they have tried to sort things out without sorting them out, and they have tried to fit things in without fitting them in.

Lets diagram an integrated view.

Universe è Solar System è Earth è Continent è Country è House è Chair è You

Note that each succeeding thing can be contained within the previous thing. It is not a random list of things; it is you in your chair, in your home, in your city, in your country, on this Earth in our solar system. It is a conceptualized list: it has already been sorted out. Because it is an orderly list, each word connects to and calls to mind all the other words. If I say "universe," that implies solar systems including ours, including our Earth and this city, with houses including yours, with you in it. If I say "you," that implies a place where you are, all the way out to the universe. It's all there, all at once.

What glues the list together is, of course, similarity. I made a sorting according to the idea of where things are. The first thing I thought of was where everything is. Then I divided that pile in two: our solar system, and everywhere else. Then I divided that pile in two: the Earth, and elsewhere. After narrowing down the pile a few more times, I arrived at your chair, and put you in it. There was nothing rigid or dogmatic about this; the criteria is not how neat it is, but how useful it is. A paragraph earlier, I sorted the same things according to size, from the universe to an atom. Since I know the relationship between place and size, there's nothing to confuse me.

What about this diagram?

Universe è Stars è Space è Room è Closet è Secret è Mystery è Conspiracy è Politician è Vote

Each succeeding term in the list has some connection to the previous term, but there is no overall similarity. It is an arbitrary list. It has not been sorted out. The arrows in the diagram have no useful meaning, and there is no integration. Since the rules of similarity have been ignored, the list is not orderly, but confusing.

The diagram is an illustration of a way of thinking which leads to the lament: "If only it could be that simple!" It is what Ayn Rand calls "anti-conceptual" thinking.

The list uses words, so it uses concepts—but it does so in a poor imitation of perceptual functioning. The first word, universe, is simply taken from the previous list; there is no design, no overall idea like size or place. It's there, so it begins a list. It suggests stars, and also suggests space, which brings up room, then closet—and so on. It is this, and then that, and then that....

Taken together, the two diagrams sum up the difference between mental action and mental drift. The first list is done on purpose; the second is not really done at all. The first list could be extended indefinitely without getting complicated, because the added terms would be part of a known progression. They would fit in. The second list is already complicated. The first list stays in your mind without memorizing, because it is generated by a principle you know and can use again. The second list is arbitrary, so it would be hard to remember. It is nothing but a useless imitation.

To follow the method of the first diagram requires that you pay attention and know what you're doing. When you form those habits, things can be that simple. When you lack those habits, you seem to sort things out without getting them sorted out. You seem to fit things in without getting them fitted in. If only, you think, things weren't so damned complicated!

It must be admitted that some people say "If only it could be that simple!" with such an insistent air as to arouse the suspicion that they would not want things to be that simple. We've already seen why this could happen. To make things simple, they must sort things out. To sort things out, they must experience feelings associated with things being sorted out. To some, those feelings are unbearable.

But sorting things out is not an optional added attraction in human life. It is a life-and-death necessity. The farmer who fails to sort out his priorities eats his seed corn, and starves. The anti-conceptual city dweller squanders his pay, and starves. The nation whose citizens refuse to sort out what's possible from what's desirable goes bankrupt, and starves. Complications are a comfort to the evader, but the refusal to simplify is the refusal to survive.

The need for simplification is so manifest that even those people see it who feel unable to sort things out. So they try a shortcut. They copy. They find out what smart people, or spiritual people, or powerful people have to say, and copy it. Why is it, they demand, that the very people who insist on the need to simplify tend to disdain the obvious solution of simply believing what they are told? Politicians, for example, are eager to simplify finances for you. Gurus of every description offer pat answers to everything. Why is it right to ignore those people, but wrong to ignore the epistemologist?

The answer is in the difference between method and conclusion. Gurus assure you that they have examined the evidence, so you don't have to. That is, they tell you that you can use the wrong method because they used the right method. They offer to do your thinking for you. Epistemology points to the nature of things and declares the Guru out of order. Unless you yourself have examined the evidence, you yourself have reached no conclusion. The guru wants to substitute evidence about himself for evidence about his conclusion. If you go along with it, you have reached a conclusion: you have decided to pretend to agree with the guru. If you ignore how a conclusion was reached, but just pretend to include it in your arrangement of reality, then things become not more simple, but more complicated. You are piling it on top rather than fitting it in. Your mental organization resembles the second diagram more than the first.

Children start by sorting things out, and learn new things by fitting them in. Then they are told not to do that—not to be critical and questioning and difficult. Some keep on doing it anyway. Others just try to memorize all the arbitrary conclusions fired at them, one after another, this and then that, and then that—and then: "If only things could be more simple!"

There's only one way to get things sorted out: you have to sort them out. It can't be done for you, because it has to include your personal observations, and your unique experiences. You can borrow methods, but never conclusions. By continually fitting in new observations with the old, you keep things sorted out. You keep things simple. The principle of simplification is integration—combining and fitting things together by the rules of similarity.

The boss is not a crook. He never pays a bill until the collection agency has called, but he's not a crook. He did ship that returned stuff out as new, but he's not a crook. He did cheat his partner; he did snooker his backers; he did steal from customers—but he's not a crook, because bosses are not crooks.

That's an example of sorting things around without sorting them out. A child sorting shapes would do that by putting a round shape on the square pile because the round pile was getting too big, and the square pile was too small.

In the same way, your spouse who beats you is not a thug, your child who beats kids is not a bully, and the teacher who humiliates you is not a jerk. In the same way, stealing is okay when the government does it, lying is okay when you do it, and brutality is okay in an initiation ceremony. Things are kept pretty much sorted out, except for this little exception, and that one, and those, and—why is everything so complicated?

Sorting things out is not an end in itself. If it did not make things simpler, nobody would bother. To accuse it of making things too simple is to complain that it works. Since reality stubbornly refuses to simplify itself, sorting things out is the first requisite for figuring things out. Sorting things around without sorting them out, however, is worse than a waste of time: it gets things wrong while pretending to get them right. It puts things in the wrong piles and gets you to leave them there. It is the smash and grab approach to identification.

The genius of the conceptual method is that it is exactly as simple, and exactly as complicated, as the need of the moment dictates. You can simplify by inclusion, as the word "universe" includes all there is. Or you can simplify by exclusion, as you would by focusing on your own chair to typify all chairs. As in the first diagram your chair is connected to the universe through a conceptual chain, so it is connected to everything in the universe at all times, in any number of ways. It can be simply a chair, or it can be part of as complex an arrangement as you want. It can be an isolated chair, or a chair in relation to anything and everything else.

By comparing the two diagrams, you can see how the conceptual method keeps things simple without leaving anything out. The first diagram is like a telescoping rod: it could be shortened or lengthened at will without changing its nature. Pulling the rod longer would simply reveal more links in the conceptual chain; telescoping it together would hide links in the conceptual chain, but would not remove them. It's all there, all the time, as simple or complex as you want.

This is true as long as—and only as long as—the chain of concepts is sorted out. The second diagram shows what happens when the sorting process fails. It is a useless string of words. All it can symbolize is a mind in which things are sorted around but not sorted out. Such a mind finds simplification impossible. Such a mind loses track of things, forgets where it is, overlooks the obvious. It is a mind stuck dumb.

It got that way by...

Trying to sort things out by means of emotions can never work, because emotions are produced by the way things get sorted out. For the unknown to evoke fear, it would first have to be classified as unknown. Sensations like pain or hunger can exist before identification, but not emotions like fear or jealousy.

Some people do try to rely on emotions to make things simple. They are the ones who sound most emotional when they say, "Oh, if only things could be that simple!"

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