Thursday, July 21, 2005

New Lakoff Post

I think 52 comments is enough for one post!

Anyway, Paul, let's start with where we were: your restatement of my issue with the tenet, "Thought is mostly unconscious;" the confusions we need to remove from overlapping concepts of "unconscious," "irrational," and "emotional;" and your statement that the unconscious thought is more rational than the conscious variety.

I suggest you "drive" -- bring me along Socratically, and I'll follow your argument and point out where I have issues, if I do. Then we'll see where we come out.

No time limit here, of course; post when you can.


5 Thoughts:

Blogger Doug said...

Re: Palmer's comment (#53) on the last string -- anyone who'd like to join in, please do.

Also, yes, Mike, I do value the rational above the irrational. I think that the unconscious is the seat of irrationality, which bubbles up in various ways into the conscious mind and into behavior if not understood by being "dredged up," so to speak. Obviously, it's not an all-or-nothing situation (few are): any amount of irrational, unconscious behavior you can expose to the light of day, so to speak, will do you righteous in your seeking after happiness in love and work, i.e., in getting out of your own way.

That's why I'm intrigued by Paul's statement that there can be unconscious rational thoughts -- and by thoughts, I mean something like "2 + 2 = 4" or something like that. I'm not sure that an instinct like, "If I don't look where I'm going, gravity will hurt me" is a thought, by my definition -- one needn't know what gravity is at all to have this instinct -- one needn't have language.

It seems to me that thought (maybe, Thought, to distinguish) is not disconnected from our evolutionary past (of course) but is something different, an emergent property, almost surely initially not particularly selectively positive but later coopted (or exapted, whatever term you like) for selectively positive purposes.

I still see a difference between "keep away from heat," which even my fish "get," and something like a play or an extended argument -- or even a metaphor!

So, noble seat of reason -- sure, why not. I'll say again that I'm not sure that rationality will actually win out -- this is where the discussion gets normative, and we should try to keep the descriptive and normative separate, too -- none of us may live out our fourscore because of some nuclear holocaust or whatnot -- but I don't see how we get out of our predicaments without rational thought (Thought).

A good counterargument, it occurs to me, is Brave New World, in which society is basically peaceful, happiness is solved, in a sense, because castes have been bred to enjoy their lot, free will has been limited tremendously, and if all else fails, soma will trip you out. No guns, no concentration camps...and if you don't like it, you can go into the Reservation and live with (and like) the "savages."

Much more challenging in its way than 1984, which is an obviously horrific existence....

Thursday, July 21, 2005 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger Palmer said...

I just don't by that "reason" alone can get us anywhere. We need some passion, some cajones, something more to move folks to action.

Appeals to reason also have a strange Cartesian dualism to them that I recoil from. A mind that Lords over a body all manner of unruly impulses seems destined for upheaval. Compromises can be reached between reason and impulse. It does not have to be (nor should it be) either one or the other.

Also, much of spontaneous action can be arational. Reason's well and good, but it can put a damper on a night out.

Also, there's another notion of rationality used more in economics that is entirely self-interested. Reason can lead to cynicism, agression, and domination at times. You could argue that it's rational to do any number of atrocities. To see the "rational" as equivalent to the "good" is a bit simplistic. Same holds for the irrational.

Unconscious rational thoughts could include all the rational arguments and thoughts you are not thinking about (or attending to) at any given time. These thoughts are accessible to the conscious mind; they simply are not conscious at present.

Even if you want to define the unconscious as that which cannot be accessed by the consious mind, there are many repressed rational thoughts. For example someone who consciously thinks that they are a suprelative Scrabble player might be repressing or denying the rational unconscious thought that they're not so hot.

Anyhoo, I think it comes down to decisive action, and that requires gut instinct at time. Waiting for all the facts and rational analysis can be unduly paralyzing. Stronger voices and passionate action can emerge but we have to embrace the power of irrational and/or unconscious thoughts. If you believe in your cause, you can't recede to the higher ground of mind and reason alone when the stakes are as high as they are.

Friday, July 22, 2005 12:32:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Doug, just a quick clarification about the rational unconscious thoughts I was talking about. Of course we only recognize them as rational after the fact.. but we make all kinds of snap decisions without even realizing it that are actually rational in that they make sense for use as biological entities.

To take an obvious example - I'm crossing the street and I hear gunshots. Do I consciously say, "Well I guess I'll move along now.." or do I simply dive for cover immediately? Supremely rational - totally unconscious. Note that my recognition of gunshots are in the category of learned behavior, either from movies or due to experience in war zones. We're not talking about fish acting on instinct.

Have you read that Gladwell book Blink - I know its rather "popular science" stuff but it details several such examples of rational, unconscious decision making. I think that's why I find the basis for Lakoff's arguments so plausible (either rightly or wrongly) - essentially it would be hard for me NOT to accept (from a descriptive piont of view) that most thoughts are unconscious because those unconscious thoughts are the ones most basic to our survival - and the idea of language operating on an unconscious level and informing my rationality via mental constructs really doesn't scare me or strike me as solipsism. Consciousness, self-awareness, etc - is just the stuff just floats on top - however much it is constantly informed and conversing with the unconscious. It may be a pretty sloppy foundation, I admit, but this metaphor of the self just jibes with what I recognize as the stuff of daily life; for no other good reason than it explains it better than anything else I've heard.

Think about what its like to do a crossword puzzle. I work on the Times ones every morning on my train and when I come home. Mon-Tues I always finish - Wed-Thurs sometimes - Fri never without sweating with it before sleep.

Most of the answers in any given puzzle literally "come to me" - I don't figure it out in any rational sense - although there are some simple rational inferences about certain letters, for more than half of the answers, its almost as if the blanks on the page light up for no other good reason than I just happen to "see it", and have spent enough time looking and mulling it over for it to appear. Do I call that kind of thought "unconscious"? Absolutely. In fact, success at a crossword puzzle is usually dependent on how hard I try NOT to solve it.

Now from a normative point of view - I agree with your general project of maximizing the conscious - but the notion that complete rationality is accessible for human beings I find totally far-fetched, outside of a monastery. In fact, the more rational I've become over the years, the more I realize the effect of my unconscious on the hundreds of points of view and ideas that appear in my head each day.

Friday, July 22, 2005 1:00:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...


First, some disclaimers:

1. I am up working and checking back here periodically because I spent so much time blogging today. LOL.

2. I don't think that rationality is all we need in life; not at all. Especially on a night out!

3. I'm not Cartesian dualist: Mind emanates from Brain. It might have some special or emergent properties, but it is wholly natural and material.

4. I don't see how it can ever be truly rational to commit an atrocity; I think one can cloak "bad behavior" in the term "rationality," and surely people do that. But one of the most rational guides to action is "do unto others, etc." -- a Confucian notion, originally. I think one can have a rational morality, although I do agree that if one defines rational in a blinkered traditional economic sense, then it can lead to nasty places. I think that there's a difference between short-term profit maximization and long-term mutual coexistence. I happen to think it's high time for more of the latter -- and I like to think that I have arrived at that conclusion rationally. One could tot up quite a list of nasty events and behaviors that emanate from irrational belief, for sure.

OK, Palmer's example of rational thoughts not currently in the conscious mind makes perfect sense to me. I'd say those are living in the subconscious, but the label doesn't matter much to me, especially since I never really got the difference between the sub- and unconscious beyond what I just suggested. Point proven.

Also, rationality-as-contemplation versus action is another well-taken caveat. Hamlet, Faust, etc. -- one must act in a situation of imperfect knowledge all the time or one will never act at all.

That's fine; but what will be the guide to action, then? Or, rather, what should be the guide? I still think maximized rational thought will be a better guide than "gut," as gut is often just the accretion of cultural detritus, like prejudices, and so forth. Some might be OK, some might not be OK, to use loose moral terms. But the point about lowering one's standards when stakes are high is well-taken.

I realize the stakes are high right now; perhaps I should lower my standards viz-a-viz "framing." I guess my problem might be short- vs. long-term. In the long-term (which might not be so very long, actually) I just don't think we, the species, can solve our myriad and quite daunting problems through the encouragement (normatively speaking now) of non- or a- or irrationality. We might gain something in the short run, like the White House, but I don't think that reinforcing trends in American thought best symbolized by "PR/marketing/advertising" will help us out of our pickle(s) in the long run. I think that very style of thought and communication itself has to be changed. I know I don't think that way (or, more accurately, I struggle not to think that way all the time); I don't think you guys think that way. Why can't others not think that way, too? I see no reason that that shouldn't be possible.

Which brings me to educational and news-media reform...

But the high-stakes threshold is admittedly a truism. Where the threshold lies will vary from person to person.

Incidentally, I'd never be one to devalue feeling or feelings. I just maintain that feelings, which may or may not be irrational (definitional issue; no big deal) can be dealt with rationally. The irrational is rationally explicable, if not ever exhausted by one's ration of rationality. (Gimme a break, it's late!)

Paul's rational-after-the-fact makes sense, too -- but I think is less purely "rational thought" by my terms than Mike's example. But I see the point, and don't have any major qualms about it. A minor quibble: rational applies to human thought only, at least in my understanding, not to the actions that are likely to give you a good evolutionary outcome. The gunshot example is only partly learned -- the basic instantaneous action is still instinctual ("save self now!"). Noting after the fact that this was a good move is an example of rational thought, though.

Also, I don't deny or have any problem with mental constructs shaping thought and separating, sometimes incorrectly, noise from data. There is no other way to get through the day -- filters help, but one must be conscious of what's filtered. That was my point about "theories" in the philosophical sense. They are different from "frames," as far as I can tell, as they are conscious, learned (often with much effort), and social in the sense that no one person ever really creates a theory in science -- they are tested against nature by a variety of people in a variety of places. That's different from an overarching narrative/frame, which may or may not have any connection to reality.

I think I should mention that maximizing rationality purposely implies an asymptotic relation to rationality -- you never fully get there, but there is a normative ethical value to struggling toward it. That value-judgment, I'd like to think, is itself rational.

I agree that consciousness floats on top -- that is, I find the metaphor agreeable. LOL. However, I actually think it stands for a reality, that language...and I guess I'm old-fashiioned in thinking language referential. I think that kind of notion falls out of an evolutionary viewpoint: "Tiger" better damn well correspond to that thing with teeth, or none of us will survive and reproduce!

Clearly, though, as language ramified and grew, abstraction increased. Metaphors became shorthand ways to use imperfect language to represent complex reality, whether objective or subjective. The greater the abstraction, the greater the room for misunderstanding, the more distance between words and things, and so forth. Which is why one must be careful with metaphors -- in my history training, my grad profs always said, be careful of your metaphors -- you'll live and die by them. Which meant: remember that metaphors are metaphors and not reality. They are inevitably incomplete; be a bit skeptical. A little personal history that may explain my allergy to deploying frames/metaphors in what still strikes me as at least slightly dishonest and insufficiently respectful of others' ability to reason (to the extent that frames appeal to the irrational or transrational or whatnot).

Finally, complete rationality is impossible, I agree. Never said it was. I am for maximizing rationality.

And I agree with your last point, Paul, that the more rational you become, the more aware of your irrational impulses you become. One might even define rationality as the ability to recognize irrationality. That, actually, is the goal of depth psychology -- gaining some more control over the emotions that buffet all of us nonstop every day (and night, although you don't gain control over dreams, you just use them as clues to or maps of your unconscious).

Anyway, back to work here at 2:18 AM. :)

Friday, July 22, 2005 2:18:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Food for thought on a science of "feeling" here.

Sunday, July 24, 2005 12:21:00 PM  

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