The Scout Mindset

Julia Galef is the host of the podcast Rationally Speaking (which I’ve listened to for years and recommend). She’s a rationalist concerned with improving the way she and others think. As a result, she often puts out material critiquing typical reasoning mistakes. As Sean Carroll pointed out recently when interviewing her, this tends to put a target on her back, since she’s frequently criticized by others when they perceive she fails to live up to the standards she espouses. However, Galef herself admits many of these failings and doesn’t hold herself out as perfect, just as someone who studies reasoning and strives to be better at it.

This is pretty much the purpose of her book, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t. Galef begins by describing two mindsets in which to approach a proposition: the soldier mindset and the scout mindset.

The more natural mindset, and the one we most commonly fall into, is the soldier one. In this mindset, if we’re presented with a proposition we dislike, one that we’d prefer not to be true, we ask, “Must I believe it?”

On the other hand, if presented with a proposition we do like and want to be true, we’re more likely to ask, “Can I believe it?”

This is in contrast with the scout mindset, which asks, “Is it true?”

Galef admits up front that the soldier mindset isn’t always bad, and that it can have some benefits, including emotional ones such as comfort, self esteem, and morale, as well as social ones including persuasion, reputation, and camaraderie. Conversely, a scout mindset allows us to make better judgment calls. Although a good portion of the book makes the case we can actually get many of the soldier benefits from the scout stance because of the better judgment calls.

Obviously if we’re interested in truth, being a scout is the way to go. The problem is most of us take ourselves to be a scout, even when we’re not. It’s trivially easy to see the soldier impulse in others, particularly when we disagree with them, but very hard to detect it in ourselves. Galef provides a number of criteria to assess how close you might be to a scout. No one is perfect at all of these all the time. The idea is to assess how often you meet them.

  1. Do you tell people when you realize they were right?
  2. How do you react to personal criticism? This is more about track record than what attitude we think we hold. We’re all familiar with the boss that insists they want honesty from their subordinates, only to lash out when they actually get it.
  3. Do you ever prove yourself wrong, particularly after taking a public stand on something?
  4. Do you take precautions to avoid fooling yourself?
  5. Do you have any good critics, that is, critics you consider thoughtful, that make valid points, even if you ultimately disagree with them?

Galef offers a number of thought experiments to use to help us notice bias in ourselves. It’s worth noting these only have power if we truly imagine the alternate scenario. The kid who is asked if he would be okay with being hit the way he just hit another kid, and who claims he’d be fine with it, likely isn’t really imagining the alternate scenario.

The Double Standard Test: Are we holding one group to a different standard than another? For example, if a politician in the opposite political party is doing something we’re inclined to judge harshly, would we judge them the same way if they were in our own party (or another party closer to our own preferences)?

The Outsider Test: Would we come to different conclusions or make different decisions if we didn’t have our current background in relation to the matter?

The Conformity Test: Would our opinion be the same if others around us didn’t share it? Or if someone we admire didn’t hold it?

The Selective Skeptic Test: (This strikes me as a variation of the Double Standard one.) If the evidence supported the other side, how credible would we find it?

The Status Quo Test: If the current situation wasn’t the status quo, would we select it over possible alternatives we’re considering?

These lists are a good sample of the way the book flows. Galef organizes her content in lists like these throughout, generally devoting a few pages to each item.

There were a number of other points in the book I found interesting.

One is that people judge us on our social confidence more than our epistemic confidence. In other words, it’s not only okay to admit when we don’t know something, doing so can actually raise people’s assessment of us. Related to that is that leaders don’t need to make unrealistic promises of success to be inspiring. Galef notes the case of Jeff Bezos, who throughout the history of Amazon.com was completely honest with potential investors on how slim his chances of success were, an honesty that came from such an apparent place of competence that it actually attracted venture capitalists.

Another is a better way of thinking about how we change our minds. Rather than “admitting” we were wrong, Galef suggests thinking about it as simply “updating” our beliefs. She notes that it doesn’t take the sting away completely, but it does lessen it. It also helps if we had already admitted any uncertainties that might have existed with our previous position. She also notes that if we’re not at least occasionally changing our mind, we’re doing something wrong.

Related to this is having more realistic expectations about how others change their mind. Almost no one changes their mind quickly. Beliefs on any contentious topic are typically part of a constellation of interrelated beliefs, all of which may need to be changed, or at least adjusted, for the person’s mind to change on the belief in question. In other words, often a personal paradigm shift is necessary. So expecting a conversation partner to change their mind during the conversation is unrealistic. And we should be open to the possibility that we may be the one whose mind is eventually changed..

Toward the end of the book, Galef gets into the factor of identity, and how it often clouds our judgment, putting us into a tribal (soldier) mindset. Apparently identities can form around just about any subject matter. I was surprised to learn about the long standing conflict between mothers who breastfeed their babies and formula users. The animosity between these two groups seems like it’s more than a simple disagreement about infant nutrition.

Galef noted she once resolved to avoid identity labels such as “vegan”. Using such a label quickly conveys a lot of information that is awkward and tedious to convey otherwise. But it also tends to associate us with all the baggage tangled up in that identity, including the tribal conflicts with other identities. This reminded me of my own reluctance to accept labels, even when they mostly describe my outlook. Often it does come down to not wanting to be embroiled in that identity’s tribal conflicts.

Galef’s eventual solution was to accept (some) identities, but to wear them lightly, as things contingent and provisional, something that we hold to only as long as it describes our position or goals. Doing so allows for more flexible thinking. It allows us to say something like, “Yes I’m an X, but I don’t agree with those particular Xers”, and not feel obligated to defend people just because they’re on our team, or oppose others just because they’re on the other team.

An amusing aspect of the book is Galef’s annoyance with how rationalists are portrayed in fiction, notably Spock in Star Trek. She notes how often he fills the role of the “straw Vulcan”, the coldly logical character that ends up being wrong due to his lack of passion. She describes how Spock is often illogical, typically because he fails to take into account the illogical nature of those around him, or learn from his prediction misses. She has an entire appendix cataloging the times Spock is wrong in the original Star Trek series.

As someone always interested in improving my own reasoning, I found a lot of useful information in this book. It resonated with other techniques I’ve collected over the years on having productive internet conversations, fostering an open mind, or communicating across different levels of understanding. Something that might have strengthened it would have been a discussion about the role of emotions and how much they can cloud our reasoning. But all in all, if you’re interested in finding ways to think more clearly, this book is worth checking out.

What do you think? From the snippets provided here, are Galef and the rationalists on the right track? Hopelessly misguided? Are there other techniques that can help put us in the scout mindset?

42 thoughts on “The Scout Mindset

  1. I am a big fan of training. Of course, this is training entered in freely often enough and not “reprogramming” by social superiors. When children are involved there is a trust placed in the adult that should not be violated as the consequences tend to be dire. (Look at how many “criminals” were abused as children.)

    So, why not “train” children how to deal with being right and being wrong. Why not train them toward the valuable aspects of both mindsets? How about being honest with them and explain to them what their training has been, say when they turn 16, 17, 18. . . , and then explain how they are now in charge of their own training and in who they get to help them with that?

    Why do we send youths off from their childhoods with no training in how to take whatever control over their lives they wish to have?

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    1. I agree on training. Of course, in order to have training, we need knowledgeable trainers, which in this case are often in short supply. And there are lots of headwinds. Many of our social narratives are simply incompatible with always being willing to change your mind. Children are lucky if they get the basics at all. And there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to navigate through all the social obstacles and actually be a critical thinker.

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  2. Looks interesting.
    Two notes.
    1) >This is in contrast with the scout mindset, which asks, “Is it true?”
    I do not understand the question, “Is it true?” Truth is a subjective term. Who is the ultimate verifier of what is the truth? Verification against what? It looks like the term “truth” should be removed from this theory. If it is removed, then how the whole proposition will change?
    2) If we are talking about “thinking,” then we should invoke the question about the existence of free will. If we do not have free will, we probably could not get sizable results when trying to improve our “rational thinking.”

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    1. On truth, I think we have to substitute our favorite theory of truth, which of course we should be a scout on and be willing to consider alternatives. My current preferred theory is epistemic pragmatism. Something is true if believing it enhances the accuracy of our predictions. So for me, the question, “Is it true?” reduces to “Does it enhance the accuracy of our predictions?”, which is far less snappy.

      The question of free will also gets into what definition of “free will” we’re considering. Would you say that the only alternative to contra-causal free will is fatalism? Or is there room for a fully deterministic system, working with limited information, to enhance its bets about reality?

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      1. I’m not ready to discuss free will as I need to read more about it. It has too many far-reaching practical implications. For now, I’m just happy that the discussion about free will is limited to some small intellectual circles and not entertained by the general public.

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  3. Sounds like she has a few useful techniques to toss into my critical thinking tool kit. I’ll put it on my “maybe” booklist. Her techniques seem more psychological than philosophical. That is, it struck me that if the “Scout” mindset asks, “Is it true?” still requires a working theory of truth—there are more than one of those as we all know. But that, of course, doesn’t diminish the usefulness of her advice.

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    1. She’s definitely looking at this from a pragmatic perspective, rather than an academic one. She doesn’t get into philosophical matters like a theory of truth, the problem of induction, or Gettier problems. Although the advice she provides can help in evaluating reasoning about philosophy.

      She used to co-host her podcast with Massimo Pigliucci, who provided a philosophical bent to the discussion. But he left some years ago and she’s been solo ever since. The topics have definitely been less philosophical, at least in a traditional sense. She spends a lot more time looking at public policy questions, for instance, then the podcast used to. Arguably it’s all still philosophy, but much more applied than fundamental.

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    2. More psychological than philosophical is a good thing in this context. (And I say this as someone with a philosophy degree and no psychology degrees.) Psychological techniques will get you far more increased accuracy per unit effort, if you are like most people.

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  4. Sean Carroll is very intelligent and also saccharine (on face value), but he becomes highly unpleasant on the ear after a little while when he ventures outside of his scope of learning expertise. I think you would find Bret Weinstein’s recent podcast with Jamie Wheal about ‘Meaning 3.0’ much more insightful since rationalism is Meaning 2.0 and we’ve been there and done it. And to be frank with you Rationalism especially when amalgamated with scientism and other do-gooder ideologies just creates an US (good team) versus them (those that don’t do as we prescribe) mentality. Meaning 3.0 has to be more Ultra-Humanistic.

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      1. I just finished writing a blog programmed for Monday about his approach and reasoning. Just watch the podcast and get a good insight.I respect your articles as highly as Harris on consciousness. You are a very bright spark, but material rationalism as an ideological mode of being doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid it will cause more harm than good.

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        1. Thanks. Appreciate your kind words. I’ll keep an eye out for your post.

          I think “rationalism” that ideologically limits itself to any view, actually isn’t rational. On the other hand, neither is rationalism that accepts propositions without evidence or logical extrapolation.

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          1. I understand what you mean. I’ll give you my takeaway from it:
            They discuss what our universal Meaning 3.0 might look like.
            Let me explain. If by historical analogy Meaning 1.0 is church and religious faith and Meaning 2.0 is The Enlightenment (separation of church and state) and God is Dead (rational materialism), then what will Meaning 3.0 entail?

            The Western World is suffering a crisis of meaning or a meaning recession (a hollowed vacuum of the meaning). As a result, we are seeing extreme fundamentalism, which could be religious fundamentalism or more scientific fundamentalism or it could be made up of radical ideologies and extreme certainties of world-views. If you are not part of this, then that could lead one to Nihilism, where none of this matters. Burn it all down.

            As Wheal describes it, (words to the effect) ‘How do we park the long pole back in the tent which can allow the community to weather the storm of Meaning 3.0? Can we create inclusive salvation? A form of Super Altruistic-Humanism to combat extreme tribalism and polarisation between world views’.

            He references Gandhi’s ‘Satyagraha (Satya – Truth, Graha – Insistence) and the Stockdale Paradox of maintaining unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties and at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever they might be. Admiral Stockdale was in a Vietcong prisoner of war camp for 9 years

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          2. Thanks for the additional information! Strangely enough, although she espouses what is likely a different path to get there, Galef advocates for similar goals. For instance, she discusses the effective altruism movement at length in the book.

            And from the conclusion of her book:

            Keep an eye out for examples of motivated reasoning in yourself—and when you spot one, be proud of yourself for noticing. Remember, motivated reasoning is universal; if you never notice it, that’s probably not because you’re immune. Becoming more aware of motivated reasoning is an essential step on the way to reducing it, and you should feel good about taking that step.

            I also think the case for justified optimism extends to humanity as a whole. Knowing how deeply soldier mindset is etched into the human brain—and how difficult it is to notice in ourselves, let alone overcome, even if we’re smart and well-intentioned—becoming aware of these facts has made me much more forgiving of other people’s unreasonableness. (Plus, having noticed countless examples of my own motivated reasoning by now, I don’t feel like I’m in any position to judge!)

            At the end of the day, we’re a bunch of apes whose brains were optimized for defending ourselves and our tribes, not for doing unbiased evaluations of scientific evidence. So why get angry at humanity for not being uniformly great at something we didn’t evolve to be great at? Wouldn’t it make more sense to appreciate the ways in which we do transcend our genetic legacy?

            And there are many. Jerry Taylor could easily have continued defending climate skepticism, but he cared enough about the truth to investigate the evidence against his side and change his mind. Josh Harris could have easily kept promoting I Kissed Dating Goodbye, but he chose to listen to his critics, reflect on their stories, and pull the book. Bethany Brookshire didn’t have to fact-check her own claim about gender bias and correct the record, but she did anyway.

            You can focus on humanity’s capacity for self-serving distortions of reality and feel bitter. Or you can focus on the flip side of the coin, the Picquarts of the world who are willing to spend years of their life making sure the truth wins out, and feel inspired to live up to their example.

            We’re not a perfect species. But we should be proud of how far we’ve come, not frustrated that we fall short of some ideal standard. And by choosing to become a little less like soldiers and a little more like scouts, we can be even better still.

            Galef, Julia. The Scout Mindset (pp. 231-232). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

            I’m sure the “we’re a bunch of apes” remark probably strengthens the impression of nihilism, but the thing to notice is she isn’t advocating that we let that define us, our actions, or our values.

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      1. I think one could haul out the rationalism toolbox to support or reject anything.

        I would rather see specific arguments not arguments about the method used to arrive at them.

        “Your idea is wrong because your method of arriving at it was wrong.”

        “My idea is right because I followed a rational method to reach it.”

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        1. I think if you’re hauling out the toolbox to support or reject a conclusion you want, you’re operating under the soldier mindset. Galef’s goal is for us to recognize when we’re doing that and try to move beyond it. In particular, improving how we assess those specific arguments.

          It’s easy (and somewhat common) to be fatalistic about this and assume the soldier mindset is inevitable and inescapable. It definitely can’t be eliminated. But my experience is just having the scout mindset as a goal helps. It’s no panacea, just something to move the needle.

          But again, you have to have the desire.

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          1. Is it the soldier mindset that would lead you to suggest it is just a matter of having the desire?

            Even Galef’s proposed benefits for the soldier mindset (emotional ones such as comfort, self esteem, and morale, as well as social ones including persuasion, reputation, and camaraderie) are dripping with condescension. In effect, she is saying she is taking the hard road. She is one examining her thought processes. Others are just clinging to their ideas for comfort or self-esteem. It seems more like the ultimate soldier mindset defense. I must be right because my thought processes are superior.

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          2. I didn’t say it was just a matter of having the desire, but it is a prerequisite.

            It’s worth noting that Galef doesn’t argue for any specific propositions in the book, although she does assume a few, like evolution or human caused climate change, are correct for purposes of discussion. It’s a book about improving the way we assess evidence, arguments, and propositions, not an argument for any conclusions in particular.

            She’s also completely clear that she’s not perfect, and has to watch for motivated reasoning in herself, and doesn’t always succeed, just like the rest of us.

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  5. Hi Mike,

    I think there is benefit to all of us assessing our positions just as Julia would suggest with regards to things like evaluating scientific theories and data or the effects of public policies, but I think rationalism–at least as I understand it–is not a comprehensive thought system on its own. Meaning, I see it as a useful tool but not as a comprehensive toolkit. She may agree with this. Not having read the book I don’t know.

    Michael

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    1. Hi Michael,
      Not sure if I’m following what you mean by a comprehensive thought system, but I think Galef would agree that it’s basically just a tool, or perhaps more accurately, a toolbox. In and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily imply any particular ideology or worldview, although it’s often taken to. Galef’s points here about identity seem important to remember. I don’t think there’s any team rationalism the way there’s a team atheism or team Catholicism, etc. (Although identities can form around almost anything, so who knows.)

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      1. Hi Mike,

        What I’m trying to say is that I think rational thought is good–perhaps best–for making some types of choices or drawing some types of conclusions. It’s not best for everything, though. There are times, for instance, when I’ve made important decisions based on how I feel, on an intuition or instinct. Whatever you wish to call it. But certainly not the result of a rationally constructed argument. And I wouldn’t change that really.

        Reason can always be deployed after the fact to justify any decision that we make, and beforehand we can never have perfect information about our future so it’s a way of helping ourselves “feel good” about a particular decision.

        But if we’re talking about whether or not climate change of the present era should be attributed to manmade causes, then having the ability to use rational techniques to fairly weigh the evidence is really important. I just don’t think it’s for everything all the time, and to the extent that starts to be the position then I think it would be tending towards an ideology.

        I’ve been reading A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, which is a book about seven Russian short stories and his review of them. It’s a class he teaches at Syracuse. Here’s a quote I loved that relates to what I’m trying to say, We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t–in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the ‘knowing’ at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.

        I agree with Saunders to a large degree about this: there is much we grasp and to which we respond in the movement of forces, potentialities, and particulars in the space of our world(s) that arise with immediacy. In a direct and essentially instantaneous way. What’s interesting to me is that what Saunders is quite good at in this book is unpacking those spaces and bringing to light what they contain, and for this a certain abstract logic, like language, is required. Without the rational and the abstract manipulation of symbols and logic that language offers us, we’re sunk. But it’s not a vehicle for decision-making in this case, it’s one for distilling understanding. For explicating what we’ve already understood at light speed, but don’t have the wherewithal to express without a great deal of careful work.

        When this mode of understanding, and related modes of comprehension, are consistently placed “second” behind a rational-conceptual approach, then I think we’ve gone too far. It’s not that what Saunders is explaining should apply to everything, like I’ve said. But there’s a harmony of these faculties I think is essential in our development as beings.

        Michael

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        1. Hi Michael,
          I certainly wouldn’t advocate that rationalism be used in all situations. Obviously there are plenty of cases where it makes sense to just feel our way through. Deciding what to have for dinner, which movie to see, which puppy or kitten to adopt, who we like (or dislike), are decisions where our feelings are more important than any calculus.

          Art definitely needs to invoke an emotional response in us, and often the only way an artist knows whether or not they are succeeding is whether they feel that response themselves. But getting there can often be a pretty technical process, one quite amenable to rational thought. And many artists test their methods in a manner that is essentially scientific. In a recent podcast interview by Michael Shermer, Angus Fletcher talked about how one talk show host (I think it was Jay Leno) did stand up comedy, kept track of which jokes worked best with audiences, and used those for the TV show, a pretty rational process.

          Which is to say, I don’t agree with Saunders in that quote. Often before we try to articulate something, we might think we know it, but putting it in actual language, notation, or even in a drawing, reveals the truth, with all ambiguities and contradictions we simply couldn’t see in our imagination. It’s why many authors get annoyed with the question: where do you get your ideas? Ideas are cheap. Execution is what’s hard, and the difference between most professionals and the rest of us is a reliable competence in that execution, a process that can be improved through rational thought.

          Put another way, using rationalism doesn’t mean we forsake feeling. We don’t all have to become Mr. Spock or Mr. Data. As David Hume pointed out, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Without feelings, reason is an empty unmotivated tool. (Which is why those Star Trek characters are actually incoherent.) But if we want to reach or achieve certain feelings, reason is what can help get us there.

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          1. Hi Mike,

            A couple of things I guess. I think we agree on some things here and disagree on some others.

            First, I think we agree it’s not really about reason in perfect isolation or feeling in perfect isolation. And I think we’ve both managed to say that in ways that maybe didn’t fully sit well with the other at every level, but I think there’s overlap there for sure.

            Second, it’s interesting to me that both you and Julia mentioned “science” or “scientific” in ways interchangeable with rationalism. In the quote you gave above (in one of your comment replies) from her book, Julia says, “At the end of the day, we’re a bunch of apes whose brains were optimized for defending ourselves and our tribes, not for doing unbiased evaluations of scientific evidence.” And in your reply to me you wrote, “And many artists test their methods in a manner that is essentially scientific.”

            I’ll say that at a high level I sympathize and agree with these notions. Considering the evidence for climate change, for instance, (I’m repeating myself, I know), is a great example of the importance of developing this skillset. But the close-coupling of rationalism with science, in the context of yours and Julia’s writing, is something I perceive as the claiming of a sort of high ground—e.g. in your case, the intimation that analytical thinking is actually the predominant factor in creating or appreciating art—that I don’t agree with.

            So, I’m curious what it is you disagree with in Saunders’ quote, and maybe I can respond to that. I don’t think that either Saunders or I implied that a process of experiential learning and analytical thinking is absent from either the creation or appreciation of art, but I think what Saunders is saying is that we possess very acute pre-rational faculties that detect complex constellations of meaning and respond to them directly prior to the rational processes that may follow—if we’re good readers and writers—when we pause to unpack what just happened. In this case, the rational process of unpacking the moment that transpired is unrelated to the sensed configuration of meaning that first emerges in the moment itself. We didn’t have to “think” about it for one second to have that experience—whether as readers or as writers.

            While a rational process of refining technique can obviously enhance one’s skill, either as creator or receiver of a given work, the moments and choices that enrich those processes are to a great degree impulsive—in the sense that they are not generally choices that follow from a stepwise rational analysis. Do you disagree? Do we laugh at jokes because we think about them for a moment and agree there is a rational basis for laughter? Or do we just laugh at what strikes us as funny? We can certainly attempt explain to someone later why a joke struck as funny, but would the explanation itself make someone laugh? Or does only the joke itself really do that? And what is the difference?

            Michael

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          2. Hi Michael,
            I wouldn’t say that analytical thinking is necessarily the predominant factor in art, certainly not in appreciating it, as one of the audience. But I think it’s always a part of the process for the creator of that art, and in some cases, it is the dominant part. It depends a lot on the artist. I think I’ve mentioned before how renaissance developments in art owed a lot to the study of light, shadow, and perspective, a pretty analytical endeavor. Among novelists, there are pantsers, who follow their gut, but there are also a lot of outliners, who follow a more structured paradigm. Again, depends on the writer.

            My disagreement with the Saunders quote pertains to the notion that there’s something special about the intuitive realization we reach prior to analysis and discussion. The issue I think is that realization is often just as likely to be wrong as it is insightful. When people talk the way Saunders is, they’re remembering the hits, particularly the wholesome ones. But it’s worth remembering the misses as well.

            In other words, that pre-analystical realization, that intuition, is just a first pass draft conclusion. Privileging it is, I think, a mistake, one I think can actually be dangerous. Think about all the tragedies and atrocities in history that happen because people trust in their gut reactions and are impatient or dismissive of additional analysis. Typically the people committing those acts are adamantly convinced in the moment that they’re doing the right thing. Even in art, I know the writing advice I see from the pros is never fall too much in love with any particular idea, no matter how inspired it intially seemed. It might not be the one for the project you’re currently working on.

            Certainly if I laugh at a joke it isn’t an analytical event, at least not a conscious one. Finding something funny is a pre-conscious conclusion. (Although it’s worth noting just how culturally specific humor is. What we find funny and what an east Asian finds funny may diverge in surprising ways.) However, the creation of such a joke could very well be analytical. Or, as I mentioned above, the comedian might come up with a whole bunch of candidate jokes, test each of them on audiences, and keep the ones that generate the best reactions. In that case, it’s worth noting that even an experienced comedian will have lots of misses. We don’t see many of them because they drop the misses, no matter how funny they might have initially seemed to them personally.

            All of which is to say, I think feeling and reason are both required, and feed back on each other. The idea that we can have one without the other is, I think, a major mistake. (A reasoning mistake 🙂 ).

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          3. Hi Mike,

            We are going round and round in pretty close agreement, I’d say. To start with that, I can completely agree feeling and reason are both required. That’s, I think, been a common thread in this train of comments. In truth, what I haven’t said yet but ultimately mean, is that I think what is ultimately the best is a healthy marriage of the two into what I often call wholeness. It’s easy in writing and conversation to put feeling on the left, and thinking on the right, and treat them as if they’re separable things. But when both are functioning together, in unified fashion, they are profoundly integrated. And in that sense, which is truly what I think is the best case scenario, they are both present, working hand-in-hand, and inseparable.

            This conversation has been helpful for me to get to this eventually. It’s what I wish I’d understood enough to say at the beginning. Focusing on rationalism is great. It’s just one part of a whole, though. That’s my only issue with it. And I haven’t read Julia’s book, but I don’t know if she suggests that the moments of insight, feeling, spontaneous knowing, etc., can temper reason as much as reason is espoused to temper feeling, but if she does, great. If not, then I think she’s missing an important element of the whole.

            To turn again to Saunders, I don’t believe he would deny the role of reason in the arts. His point is that the analysis and explication follow from the alarm bells that go off if we learn to pay attention to our other faculties. And I think he’s absolutely correct in identifying ways of knowing, particularly in the arts, that are unique in their own right as compared to analytical thought. As noted above, it’s when they’re integrated and unified that the real magic happens. But for me that doesn’t change the fact that there are elements to this functioning whole that are not consciously logical or rational in the conventional sense.

            In your elaboration on your concerns with his emphasis on the real value of “knowing without language,” you jump to the “tragedies and atrocities of history,” when Saunders is talking about the alacrity with which this faculty responds to complex situations and constellations of meaning in short stories. You had the quote out of context, but it’s quite a leap to impute. I do take your point generally; I just don’t think it’s a valid criticism of Saunders. It’s, I think, your response to the notion that feeling and moments of “knowing without language” are dangerous or something. It can be great or dangerous, depending on various factors. But so can reason. As I believe you’ve noted. The feeling side shouldn’t been seen as “less than” because of what you’ve noted are the dangers, because the dangers of reason are equally powerful.

            So I would actually expand your critique to a more general one: feeling without reason and reason without feeling are each profoundly dangerous, and no tragedy or atrocity has been committed without both a feeling and a rational argument behind it. To your point, people think they’re doing something “right” and they have a rational argument for it, at least in their minds. They also have very strong emotions. It’s great to respond to this with the suggestion we should get better at using rational thinking. I’d just say it’s not enough without understanding how the other dimensions of the whole work, too. It’s like being a body-builder that only exercise the right side of their body.

            So I sense we agree that these two “sides” to ourselves, for lack of a better term, both matter. My feeling is that focusing on improving reason alone is not going to take us where we wish to go, and I don’t know if you agree or not. I think people are often just as under-developed on the other side of the coin as Julia may perceive people to be on the rational side. If we don’t work on them both it’s going to lead to more difficulties of the sort we’d rather avoid I think.

            Michael

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          4. Hi Michael,
            We do agree that both feeling and reason are required. In truth, I don’t think there can be one without the other. Feeling without reason is just mindless reflex, and reason without feeling is an empty logic engine with no motivation. As I mentioned to Lee, they’re yin and yang to each other.

            I’ll note that I don’t recall Galef addressing feelings directly in her book. It’s just not her subject. Although you could see the distinction she makes between the soldier and scout mindset as a discussion of which values, which feelings, to inhibit and which to indulge, which I think ultimately is the role of reason. And a lot of her techniques involve compensating for feelings that can lead us astray. So it sort of is about feelings, but I doubt Galef would describe it that way.

            But I suspect that isn’t what you mean by working on the other side of the coin. I have to admit, and maybe this is showing how much of a philistine I am, that I don’t know how we improve on feelings except through reasoning. For example, if I need to remember to feel grateful for people, that might entail periodically rehearsing reasons for that gratitude, which seems like an inherent act of reasoning to manage feelings. But I might well be missing the point you’re trying to make.

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          5. Hi Mike,

            I think the use of reason to improve on feelings is a very good thing. While it may not be precisely what I was getting at, it’s definitely related. Learning to use “other sides of ourselves” is important in my opinion. Having the yin and the yang, the balance, the dynamic wholeness of two co-equals informing one another is profoundly valuable.

            The question is: given that feeling (whatever that means) and rational thought (whatever that means) may be grossly considered as two interrelated phenomena, like masculine and feminine, or yin and yang, that meet in endless gradations—what does it mean to enhance the feeling aspects of ourselves?

            In answering this question, I find quickly we’ll get nowhere at all without reason. And the reason, no pun intended, is that I think we need reason if we wish to “unpack” the information we receive in pure bursts from this feeling part of ourselves. I should say that for me, feeling isn’t just happy, sad, angry, etc. It’s attentiveness to the sensed presence of contradiction, to the sensed presence of agreement, to the sensed presence of a question or unknown, and to the sensed presence of unity and authenticity, or alternately, withdrawal and dissembling. These are all differing versions of the same essential qualities: attraction or withdrawal.

            If you don’t mind I’ll take up with Saunders again, only let’s place this discussion in the context of discovering relationships that, without the alert of our feelings, we may not otherwise have noticed. What Saunders is pointing to is the fact that when we read a short story by a master like Chekhov, we may rationally go, “Huh? Interesting… but frankly I have no idea… seemed kind of boring actually…” but that as we develop attentiveness we will begin to sense the presence of opportunities for understanding, and these twinges will come well before we are able to articulate their contents rationally.

            The Saunders’ book I mentioned is great because you read the story, and he asks what you thought of it, and my personal answer usually is, after just one reading… “No idea.” And then he dives into it. And it’s, for me, amazing! Because as he dives into it these feelings start going off, these connections and relationships, and I discover that I knew this, too! Only I didn’t. But when they’re revealed, I realize I had an inkling of it, but I ran right over it. And I recognize that I could have known it if I’d been more attentive to how the story made me feel. So at some level, this sensitivity to the feelings that emerge from direct encounters with life, or with fiction, is a skill or faculty that I think can be developed. Spending time with the arts, and particularly listening to masters of the field, not unlike science, can be profound for this side of ourselves. Many other things can help, too. Our relationships. Meditation. The act of creating something. You name it.

            But you have to find some joy in it, I think. And we’re not all going to be a George Saunders any more than we’re all going to be a Sean Carroll. I read Saunders and go, “Wow!” the same way I read Richard Feynman and go “Wow!” The value of the feeling side, I think, is that it can sharpen and guide our reason. And it does this by enhancing our sensitivity to the subtle cues we’re receiving all the time about whether or not our actions, intentions, and words are aligned, about whether we’ve taken an argument too far or not, about whether we’ve put another down inadvertently or not, about whether we’re being consistent and honest in our analysis or not. The “feeling” aspect of ourselves knows all of this without question, instantly. If we just want to have an agenda, fine… but the most authentic feelings within us, that we can only discover through practice, don’t lie.

            There is a really interesting part here, too, which is that a great many of our feelings and rationalizations are slaves to the aims we give them. Intention is at the heart of all this. True intention. The kind that cannot be faked. If we have a clear intention then I think the dynamic gestalt of our feeling and our thinking work together in a responsive way to this. If our intention is to understand what we’re feeling and why, then in time we will. Every atrocity ever committed has included denial of either genuine feeling or genuine rational thought. The denial is established by intention, or perhaps by the driving engine within us of anger in response to grievances, or perhaps by the fear of being exposed.

            And here is where both feeling and thought are so essential. We can pay attention to how we feel and rationally comprehend that a feeling rooted in grievance, or anger, or revenge, or some such emotion, is probably not telling the entire story. Logic can certainly help here. We remember that feelings rooted in retaliation are probably misleading. Once reason suggests this, we listen more closely, and the feelings peel open. We get to a more subtle layer. What’s really happening is we’re hurting, or threatened, or afraid. Why? Reason again. The parsing of our feelings. If they figure out I made this mistake, I may lose my status, or identity, or livelihood. And if the intention is to get to the core, we will. But in the process we’ll discover we’ve imposed on the authentic feelings within ourselves with layers of assumption, woundedness, denial, doubt, judgment, etc. When the impositions are too many, our feelings are distorted.

            The arts can do a couple of things: they can provide, as Saunders noted, a training ground for developing sensitivity to the subtle shifts of feeling that occur within us all the time, and second, they can provide us with vantages we would otherwise not have had.

            Michael

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          6. “But if we want to reach or achieve certain feelings, reason is what can help get us there.”

            Looks like you’ve got the cart in front of the horse on this one Mike. Feelings are valences, and valences are “non-conceptual” representations of value. Non-conceptual representations of value always come first in hierarchy, a hierarchy which is then followed by a rationally structured articulation of those valences. It is at this intersection of internalization that those feeling then become “conceptual” representations of the same value. One is conceptual and the other is not therefore, for the most part Sanders does have the hierarchy correct.

            Rationality is only a tool and as a tool, the hammer doesn’t build the house the carpenter does.

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          7. Lee,
            I agree with you in terms of hierarchy, but in terms of causality, it isn’t a linear thing from valence to reasoning. It’s more valences that lead to reasoning about possible actions, each of which trigger their own valances, which might lead to more reasoning, or one of the scenarios “winning” and resulting in action, which leads to more valances and more reasoning, in a never ending loop.

            So definitely, rationality is a tool of valence, or more accurately of adaptive impulses. Remove the impulses and you have an empty unmotivated reasoning engine. But remove reason and you have a reflexive system with no volition. They are yin and yang to each other.

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          8. “rationality is a tool of valence, or more accurately of adaptive impulses.”

            In your world, rationality is a tool of adaptive impulses. In my world, I don’t know what an adaptive impulse actually is. To me, that adaptive impulse would have to be grounded in a feeling or sensation of some kind that is “non-conceptual” right? And if it’s a non-conceptual feeling or sensation that I immanently respond to without first employing the tool of rationality, then that impulse would have to be a valence yes?

            “It’s more valences that lead to reasoning about possible actions, each of which trigger their own valances, which might lead to more reasoning, or one of the scenarios “winning” and resulting in action, which leads to more valances and more and more reasoning, in a never ending loop.”

            This is not correct. The logic that you employed with this brief assessment is an expression of this tool we call rationality. There are valences, which are “non-conceptual” representations of value and then there is the intellect, which internalizes those valences into structure and/or “conceptual” representations of the same value.

            As a tool, rationality is perfectly suited and finely tuned for our primary; but the fundamental problem is not the tool, it is the carpenter who uses that tool. Most carpenters are not very good at using this tool. I think it is pretty clear that you do not really understand what a valence actually is or you flat reject the notion entirely??!!

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          9. We might be using “valence” in a different manner. My take on it, in terms of psychology, is an assessed desirability or undesirability of some perceived state of affairs. In my mind, that’s essentially an initial assessment made by the nervous system. And it generally comes with a motivational aspect, to approach, flee, etc. Add in arousal and we have the basic survival mechanisms, reflexes. Have a reasoning system that can be aware of and override the reflex, and we have an affect, a conscious feeling of the reflex.

            You’re putting a lot of emphasis on “non-conceptual” representation. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

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          10. The short answer is valences are not emotional “feelings” because emotions are conceptual. Non-conceptual would be similar with how you would choose to use reflexes. Non-conceptual representations of value could also be used to replace the so-called four forces of nature.

            “Have a reasoning system that can be aware of and override the reflex, and we have an affect, a conscious feeling of the reflex.”

            This doesn’t make any sense to me. You are implying that rationality can override the automatic reflex which fundamentally is an immanent valence response. For example: the reaction to immediately get off of a hot stop is definitely an affect, but rationality will not override that instantaneous reaction to a low value experience. It is only after the remediation of that low value experience is mitigated that the experience is later conceptualized and becomes a conscious feeling of pain. Valences always come first in hierarchy, even at the atomic level.

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          11. That’s a pretty fundamental sense of “valence”, even more fundamental than the normal physics use of that word. I can see that for your pansentience outlook.

            There’s a difference between spinal cord reflexes and ones that arise in the midbrain-forebrain circuitry. A spinal cord reflex is pretty much a self contained unit of action. It can’t be overridden, at least not without forewarning so the relevant signals can be pre-sent to block it. Touching a hot stove triggers the withdrawal reflex. It’s worth noting that reflex can happen even in cases of a decapitated animal.

            But a brain reflex, which LeDoux calls a survival circuit, or Damasio an action program, begins to fire, and as it is firing, a signal is sent to the executive systems, which have inhibitory connections back to it, which if triggered, can inhibit the motor output of the reflex. But it can’t inhibit the earlier parts of it, the parts that lead to arousal and the interoceptive loop that adds the visceral feel to the feeling.

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          12. “…a signal is sent to the executive systems, which have inhibitory connections back to it, which if triggered, can inhibit the motor output of the reflex.”

            Correct. The inhibitor for all practical purposes is an executor, and that executor would be the Cartesian Me, a separate and distinct system that deals solely and exclusively with conceptual value responses. This neuroscience ad hoc approach makes it sound as if the Cartesian me is just a subsection of the physical brain and not an emergent property of that brain. The physical brain deals exclusively with valences whereas the Cartesian me deals exclusively with conceptual representations of that same value, so I just don’t see how this ad hoc approach is coherent.

            “But it can’t inhibit the earlier parts of it, the parts that lead to arousal and the interoceptive loop that adds the visceral feel to the feeling.”

            Correct again. The visceral feel to the feeling as you articulated it would be the valence response which is non-conceptual or as others would say, an unconscious response. The unconscious response comes first in any hierarchy, it is a valence response which is then internalized and then later constructed into a conceptual representation of that initial non-conceptual value response.

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          13. From cognitive neuroscience data, the executive systems are generally found to be in the prefrontal cortex, with the more habitual control in the basal ganglia, which are underneath the frontal lobes. Either of those regions can selectively inhibit motor output, with the prefrontal regions also able to inhibit the basal ganglia.

            How that relates to consciousness, of course, depends on which definition and theory you prefer.

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          14. “…the executive systems are generally found to be in the prefrontal cortex, with the more habitual control in the basal ganglia, which are underneath the frontal lobes. Either of those regions can selectively inhibit motor output, with the prefrontal regions also able to inhibit the basal ganglia.”

            I don’t doubt that those regions selectively inhibit motor output as you suggest, but I would not call them executive systems. The executive system is the Cartesian me, a system that executes causal power over those ancillary regions of the classical brain which in turn carries out the rational decisions made by that executive.

            For what it’s worth, the definition I prefer is the following: “Consciousness is a localized field of experience that is multi-faceted.” From this once again very “fundamental” definition, one can list or seek to identify what those particular features and aspects include.

            Rock on……

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