Mental Action

Chapter 21
Ending the Circle

Here's a suggestion: don't read this final chapter. Instead, go back and reread the first chapter; it says the same thing. It says that you handle living your life by means of self-regulation through mental actions devised by you. That is what every chapter in this book says. The difference is that each chapter looks at mental action from a different angle.

A proper conclusion might be to look at mental action from the standpoint of self help. What are the requisites for improving your own mental skills, and what help is available?

The most significant thing to remember about improving your mental skills is that there is no possible way to fail. Improving mental skills consists of thinking, which is volitional. The more you sort things out, the better you get at sorting things out. The more you fit things together, the better you get at fitting things together. The requisite for refining mental action is taking mental action.

When there is a problem, it comes from not taking mental action seriously. If you think of mental action the same way you think of digestion—well, you can improve digestion, but not by practice. One who thinks of mental action as a metaphor is drawn instead to some mystic method of "consciousness raising" or "mind expanding." One thinks not of skill but of magic. It's always frustrating to rely on magic, because it is arbitrary. It never works, but it can never be disproved to the magician's satisfaction.

Here is our imaginary child sorting various shapes from a pile. The child holds up empty hands and says, "This is an invisible square. It belongs in this pile of squares."

You decide to argue. "But wait, it would have to go into a separate pile of invisible things."

"No! It's square. It belongs in the square pile."

"But I don't know it's square; I can't see it."

"Of course you know it's square. I just told you."

"But I want to see for myself where it goes."

"You can't. It's invisible. It goes in the square pile."

"Well, I don't believe you. Prove to me that it is square."

"I don't have to prove it! You prove that it is not square!"

"I can't do that. It's invisible."

"Right!. You can't prove I'm wrong."

What a childish game! Why recount it? Because it is the one and only argument ever advanced in favor of the arbitrary. It is, in fact, a commonplace cliché:

"Well, you know, a stopped clock is right twice a day. You can't prove it isn't."

The least important thing to note about this remark is that it is utter nonsense. It's epistemological status is exactly that of the invisible block. At what precise fraction of a fleeting nanosecond does the stopped clock display the actual time? None, of course, because it does not display any time at all; it is not keeping time; it is stopped. One could just as well point at a tree and declare, "At midnight and noon, that tree displays the correct time—unless you prefer a digital clock, in which case the tree displays the correct time at one."

All I need is for you to accept the stopped clock as meaningful. Then I can draw a clock face anywhere and declare that it tells the truth twice a day. Then I can chalk a number on anything and declare that it tells the digital truth twice a day. Then I can say anything at all and declare that under some conditions, sometime, it could be true. My clincher will always be the same: "You can't prove I'm wrong."

The thing for the self-help student to note is: you don't have to. You do not sort out reality as a test to see if you've got it right; you sort out reality in order to handle it. To test your mental classifications, you trace them back to perceptions and the rules of similarity. What stops you from believing in invisible blocks is not that you can manage to disprove them, but that you cannot sense them or infer them. Whenever someone claims to sense or infer something, ask to be shown how. He who refuses is playing with invisible blocks.

For a more insidious form of the arbitrary, consider this sorting scenario:

The conceptual equivalent of this scenario might be called "as if addiction." The power of abstraction has become intoxicating. As if comes to seem as good as, or even better than, it is. Tracing an idea back to another idea seems neater and nicer than tracing it back to messy observations. Perceptions come to seem less reliable than "known truths." The imagined perfection of pure, abstract, unfettered logic takes precedence over sense data. Instead of sorting out reality, one sorts out things people say about reality.

That is, one tries to handle life by arranging invisible blocks.

To avoid getting sidetracked on this supposed short cut, form the habit of asking, "How could I see or infer that for myself?"

One who ducks the issue of how you can see it for yourself is saying, "Trust me. I know the proof. It's just as if you could see it for yourself." That is an attempt to substitute as if for it is. If you form a habit of doing that yourself, you become an as if addict, or in Dr. Peikoff's more formal term, a rationalist.

Not that it's a bad idea to seek or give help in the job of identifying and integrating data. It's a big job; we'd be fools not to cooperate in getting it done. Since we all live in the same universe, it's easy to share facts and methods. What cannot be shared is judgment. It will not help you to know my judgment, unless you know the method by which I reached my judgment. My certainty cannot make you certain, because certainty is confidence in the method of judging. Talking is societal, but thinking is always individual.

To understand the right way of giving and getting help in sorting things out, consider the field of Art. Ayn Rand defines art as a selective re-creation of reality according to the artist's metaphysical value judgments. The artist does not describe, but creates. The idea is not to tell you, but to show you. An artist does not publish demands about how things ought to be, but creates them that way. As an artist, the reason you create is to bring something into existence your way. By studying your artwork, I can do something only possible through art: I can combine your way of thinking with my way of thinking.

Art turns as if into it is. It shows me your abstractions in the form of concretes. I'm not asked to trust you; I see for myself. If I value your artwork, it is because of the joy of contemplating it. If I study your artwork, it is to form an integration; I want to fit your way of thinking in with my way of thinking. I can do this because the artwork shows me your way of thinking in the same way I know my way of thinking—as an integrated experience.

To think is not to practice Epistemology. It is to sort things out and fit them together; it is identification and integration. I cannot convey my unique style of thinking by relating it to a Theory of Knowledge, or a Theory of Concepts. These are useful things to do, but they would not let you into my personal inner life. Art does so as a matter of course.

The advantage I gain from integrating your way of thinking into my way of thinking is range. To think in principles, I need to check the widest range possible of similarities and differences, to see when what applies here also applies there. Art is indispensable for the joy it gives, and also for its tremendous integrating power. While art is giving you pleasure, it is also broadening your mind, giving the mental zoom lever greater range, helping to keep abstractions integrated.

"Abstract art" is exactly what it says it is—as if art; asking to be treated as if it were art. To concretize abstractions into confusion might be amusing, but it has no conceptual usefulness.

Popular entertainment pays homage to true art by imitating it. So might we all. Art does not argue or harangue; it displays a result. Art does not nag, it charms. Art does not dictate, it thrills. The reason it can do so is that it is completely conceptual. It does not present pieces to be fit together; it presents the result of fitting things together.

To profit from the lessons of art, use the methods. To say that you have things sorted out; show it by success in living. To see why something is true; ask to be shown the cause. To tell people that you know how to do a thing; let them see you doing it. Instead of dogmas, collect methods. Instead of "Trust me," say, "Watch me."

When people see success, they wonder how it happened. They wonder if your method would work for them. "Could I do it?" they ask. The best answer is: "Only if you want to."

Do people lose interest in success because they cannot figure out a method to get it? Or do they reject the method because they aren't that interested? The standard answer is the first, but the real answer has to be the second. Succesful people first figured out the method when they were about two years old. So did unsuccesful people.

That's the message of this book—that you already know the method for success in life. You see similarity, and you know how to put it to use. If you ignore that, and relate things by subjective preferences instead, you are rejecting the method you learned first in favor of gimmicks you learned later. If they don't work, the thing to do is relearn the original method.

Mental action is real, ordinary, and natural. It rests on volition, and provides the means for incorporating the whole of reality into your thought. Because of the conceptual method, no human being need feel mentally limited. Any mind can, at some speed, see relationships among all things. Any mind can, at some speed, learn to handle reality.

A honeybee inspects a flower, looking for pollen. Miles above, an airline pilot inspects the entire county, enjoying the view. The bee lacks any way to take into account the pilot, or anything he represents. The pilot, however, while never losing sight of the entire county, can easily consider the bee, the flower, the honey to result, the bread to eat with the honey, and the grain fields that will make the bread. That's the power of mental action: all of reality at once, with every particular snugly in place.

That amazing power is your birthright. You have only to take it seriously.

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