For all practical purposes, there is a profound logic error at the base of our thinking. It’s called by several different names, but what’s more important is the description of how it can corrupt our thinking.
An acquaintance of mine explains it most succinctly:
It’s the illusion that something can exist without context.
For example, I can say “picture a house”, and most people are of the illusion that they can picture a house and nothing else. In reality, however, a house never exists without a field, a lot, or a garden, or a street, or all sorts of other physical context – not to mention all the emotional, socio-economic, psychological, and other contexts that can exist for a specific house.
It’s that act of eliminating context that creates the logical inversion – in the terms we put it, it’s erasing everything else and leaving only the thing to be considered when in reality the thing has to be considered in terms of everything else. It’s the old “joke” about software development, where the first question you ask in response to “Can you make a system that does ‘x’?” is “What is it, explicitly, that you want to do?” Function ‘x’ without context – without knowing how it fits into a larger process – is mostly meaningless.
One can probably get more esoteric with the idea, delving off into more abstract meanings, but that’s the base of it.
It’s not so much that this null-context thinking space is ‘bad’ or non-useful, but for people who are stuck in reciprocal feedback loops of dopamine addiction – due to their own boring, ritualistic, robotic behaviors or from the effects of drugs taken in from the outside, this is about the only awareness they have. And their thinking mostly involves pushing symbols around on their whiteboards to “work something out” because that’s what it’s for – it’s the “deductive” mind.
Here is my explanation of this base:
The Conventional Perception
Teachers and infant/toddler television programs can be observed teaching very young children how to mentally “pack boxes” instead of doing true mentation. In my opinion, when this process is completed, children and young adults have been disconnected from reality as a whole and are only capable of linear, story-telling thinking.
Rather than having developed their natural ability and tendency to perceive relationships, spot patterns, think holistically and contextually – to experience whole ‘chunks’ of reality in one go – and achieve understanding, they develop a mentality to match the physical behavior of packing items in a box, closing its lid and sending it on down the assembly line.
Children Start Life Plugged Into Reality
Most young children can be observed starting life with the cognitive capabilities possible for “systems thinkers”. They are experiencing their surrounding environmental context as a whole and if there are patterns in the motions, spatial distributions, superficialities or other goings on, they are easily spotted. Their minds are ‘hooked on reality’.
But children are unwittingly taught to disconnect from that state and to do thinking a different way – a way more analogous to box packing.
Pulling The Plug
To fully understand how this works, it might be important to mention that, although this explanation presents a linear argument, the ‘doing’ that is being discussed is not a linear action. What we are really describing is one simple habit that is instilled into children which has a number of equivalent expressions of consequences. The habit can be called “narratization” and there are two simultaneous components to this action, which can be called “categorization” and “abstraction”.
Teacher holds up a picture, and says, “What’s this?”. The children must categorize the depicted item. It stops being an object in its own right, and becomes an instance of a class of objects. Any particular feature of the particular object is instantly lost, and any property of the class that the child has not rote memorized is similarly lost. The children are taught that as soon as categorization has been accomplished, any associated action should immediately fire – like yelling out “it’s a house!”.
Abstraction then involves taking the object out of its context. Looking at the picture and noticing the building structure, bushes, plants and trees and anything else in the surrounding field, the child ‘gets’ that all detail and uniqueness must ‘go’ because it’s not relevant to the ‘correct’ answer that is wanted.
If the child says “It is a field”, or “It is a field with a house in it”, that will be called “wrong”. Only if the child takes the object (house) that is in a context (field), and denies (mentally edits out) the existence of the context – “It is a house”, will the child be “correct”, the teacher won’t make disapproving noises and the child’s peers will not be manipulated by teacher using social pressure and social approval techniques to perform contempt/threat displays.
Creating Reality vs Understanding Reality
To respond to the pressure to perceive in a way that gives the correct answer, the child must turn some attention inward to create a space where this, or any other object, can be ‘seen’ with his ‘mind’s eye’. Since Nature provides no such space, the child has to create it himself. This is the “covert mind space” that Russell Barkley describes as one of the executive functions of the frontal lobes. The child must create some kind of null-context space by ‘clearing’ an area inside his mind where he can ‘put things’ and to pull whatever he wants to think about into this space with him. Let’s call it a “whiteboard”.
Some object is then moved into this “internal whiteboard” before any other mentation (however limited) proceeds. The object has itself been stripped of its richness, and with the movement onto the internal whiteboard, all of the relationships that the object has with other objects are also lost. Only those relationships belonging to the ‘class’ or which are explicitly rote memorized and themselves represented on the internal whiteboard exist. All other possible relationships do not exist.
In other words, to give the correct answer “house”, the entire picture must be stripped of all context (including the rust on the gutters due to rain overflow dripping from a poorly designed bend in the metal, and the rabbit hiding in the big bush next to the structure), leaving only that which is common to all examples of this ‘class’ of items.
When the child categorizes and abstracts the object (as a generic ‘house’), he fires off “it’s a house!” (silently or out loud) and then files it away somewhere. He has packed the related perceptual phenomena into a box and sent it on down the line.
Should he want to recall the memory of this particular experience, it is extremely unlikely that he will remember any details of the context, because for purposes of giving the right answer and avoiding trouble, there wasn’t supposed to be any.
As an aside, one consequence of this is the development of poorly designed multiple choice exams, which sane children must always score badly on because all the choices are most likely valid but only one is “correct”.
The Internal Dialog or… Unnatural Symmetry?
What is important about this internal ‘whiteboard’ is that we are conditioned to fixate some of our attention here. To narrate our reality. This becomes where we continually narrate our conventional understanding of the way things are, as taught to us by others. It is also important to know that even if our transcription of all our perceptions into this space is faithful to the actual reality, we still experience the worse effect of it. That is, since we have fixed the focal point of our awareness here, we perceive ourselves and everything else from the point of view of this mind’s eye – our analog version of self within this null-context space. Functioning from this place, we become capable of little more than narrow-focused understandings of knowledge packets based on a fundamental illusion: there is me and there is the universe and that makes two things.
One subconscious consequence of this is to be isolated from an actual experience of ourselves, others and everything else as an integral part of the world and universe around us. To perceive ourselves as separate from, and in opposition to, everything and everyone.
I believe “Freudian alienation” was an attempt to describe this phenomenon, but I reckon Freudian alienation comes from the real isolation – the disconnect from reality, others and our feeling center, or inductive awareness.
As previously mentioned, this ‘dyadic flip’ is a deep logical error at the base of thinking. As a base, the narcissistic traits we are all so familiar with, especially in the corporate world, seem to find it quite sufficient as a foundation to build on. That might be a subject for a separate post. 🙂