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...and then some self-reflection

Some days ago I visited my friends. In addition to talking with the adults I was also reading books and playing with their little daughter. At one point she wanted to throw a ball with me - she was rather good at throwing the ball accurately towards me. I caught the ball and threw it back to her. She tried to catch the ball, but she didn't yet know how to do it - she started the right move with her hands, but all too late. After that we also experimented with throwing a piece of cloth, which didn't fly like the ball does. Well, I believe anyone can see that this is the way to learn throwing and catching - you need a lot of practice, it helps to see others doing it, and it is far more easier to learn in a positive atmosphere in good interaction with others. Well, yes, theoretically speaking, you could learn catching a ball all alone - first tossing the ball at the wall and then catching it when it bounces back. Actually, we played this at school breaks, at the age of seven and eight. But all of us already knew how to catch a ball, and had learned it playing with the others. Building on that foundation we could hone our skills by practicing alone. At some point throwing and catching becomes so automated that we don't have to think about it - we just throw and catch.

In an experiment to study human memory scientist briefly showed a picture of a chess board to test persons and asked them to memorize the locations of chess pieces. After seeing the picture they were asked to place chess pieces to those same locations on chess board in front of them. As you might expect, they found out that experienced chess players were able to memorize all the pieces accurately - while novice players made much more errors. In further studies the scientist found out that this happens only when the test pictures were taken from real game situations - if the pieces were placed randomly on the board, the experienced players didn't do any better than the novices trying to remember those locations. So, a good chess player is not just mechanically memorizing locations of the pieces - with her experience she sees the tactical meaning of the represented situation, is able to remember that, already anticipating the future moves of each player. All this happens nearly automatically, faster than cognitive reasoning. Just like an experienced goal keeper is able to stop the ball coming from any angle, so an experienced chess player is able to recognize a lot of different strategical and tactical patterns, reacting and replying with her own meaningful strategical pattern. Unlike in soccer, in chess it is much more possible to pause to think and to calculate with ones conscious rational mind - but it still seems that a lot of this reasoning is built on foundation provided by pre-cognitive processing; ie. the ability to recognize the strategical meaning in the placement of chess pieces on board.

Well, when reading a book of philosophy or politics (or a blog post or a forum comment), there often is time to pause and to reflect on what one has just read. Actually, when I was in the university, I often felt that to properly study philosophy one needs three times more time than it takes to read. As, reading a book for half an hour usually takes a full hour of thinking and reflecting and re-reading, trying to really understand what it says on the paper. This is slow and laborious - and I believe that in real life we don't always have time to analyze everything with our rational mind. We rely on our pre-cognitive processing which is fast because it is based on recognizing patterns already learnt. And daily life is often like a soccer game - there is no time for a cognitive analysis of the situation, as immediate action is needed. So, just like a little kids ability to catch a ball depends a lot on her experience, practice, and interactive playing with the others, so does our mature adult ability to discuss and to interact in this daily life of ours.

But what is this "pre-cognitive processing", other than recognizing meaningful patterns on a chess board? Oh well. When I was kid, to me it seemed that my parents are systematically using a pattern of "if person X says or does a thing I don't like, then I start nagging, shouting, tossing things and threatening in all the ways until X does what I want." This was their primary way of raising us kids - every time we did something bad, they started shouting and screaming and threatening with different kinds of punishments. And often they got mad at my older brother because he was bullying us smaller kids. Already as a kid it was pretty obvious to me that our older brother is actually just using the same pattern - he wanted us smaller kids to do something, and if we didn't, he got pissed off and went bullying us. And then my parents punished him for doing exactly what they had showed him to do. We also saw our parents doing the same when they disagreed on something. Then I went to school and saw a single adult telling us kids things we should remember - once again supposing we behave ourselves or otherwise we get punished. And I saw that the whole generation of adults had built a global situation where two superpowers threatened to destroy everything in a nuclear war. To me it seemed that all this is built on that same simple way of reacting: "if person X says or does a thing I don't like, then I start nagging, shouting, tossing things and threatening in all the ways until X does what I want." This was the principle in action almost everywhere - so no wonder if this is what kids learn to do?

I also think that this pre-cognitive processing does most of the work even when we are having an intellectual discussion. For example, people have already learned to associate certain meanings to words like "national identity". On the far right side people have the idea that a certain piece of land belongs to a certain group of people, and each group of people have some essential "national characteristics", and that there is constant conflict going on - if foreigners come to our piece of land, it means that they are invading and trying to conquer our culture. Then, the much more moderate way of thinking is to be proud of ones own national heritage, to have some sort of positive bond to the country where one lives, without hating other groups nor wanting to get rid of immigrants. And finally, there is also a strong liberal view, which tends to think that all sentiments of national identity are dangerous war-mongering and there should be no borders as we are all part of the same global family. (Yes, all of the views pictured here are somewhat like strawmen; I know that in real life there are much more detailed and elaborate views on this issue). Well, it should not be a surprise that there are different views on this issue. But I think that what often goes somewhat unnoticed is that even when having an intellectual discussion people are pretty much relying on their own learned meanings of these words, without actually hearing what the other tries to say.

For example, personally I am pretty much leaning towards the liberal view - I think that our life on this globe would be easier the more we all would feel like being "us" on the planet. But I don't think that every version of "national identity" is necessarily a far-right phenomenon. Personally, Finnish flag or national anthem don't mean much to me - but I have nothing against it if some people find such symbols more important for them. As long as they don't use them as a reason to attack or to oppress others - and I believe it is possible to respect both ones own culture and the culture of others, regardless of skin color, religion, language etc. But sometimes, when talking with some liberals, if I say anything like this, I get quickly attacked - as if I said that I believe that a strong national identity is necessary for everybody and that political systems should be built on national groups. I think this is because some liberals only have this one meaning for words "national identity" - it is this pattern they recognize when ever they read words "national identity", and they attack that pattern without recognizing that I am actually talking about something else. Needless to say, same goes for the right wing and conservatives, too. A striking example is how they tend to attack "feminism" because they think it means "women should be given some sort of compensation for suffering so many years of male oppression, men are bad, men should be given less rights and women should be given more privileges". When they attack that kind of view, they completely miss the fact that very often it is so that the person they are talking with has quite a different meaning for "feminism". And so an intellectual discussion gets ruined.

This kind of communication problems are sometimes viewed as failures to think rationally - that instead of a quick and emotional reaction we should think clearly and do mental work trying to understand what the others really mean with their sentences. And there is nothing wrong with that. I only think that this becomes so much easier if we have already developed pre-cognitive skills of recognizing multiple patterns and meanings. And every time we discuss with others, it is also a possibility to learn and to develop more understanding of how others see the world - if we are willing to do so. But then there are patterns working against that - models like "If somebody disagrees with me it is a sign that he thinks he is a better person than I am, and he is trying to attack and to insult me by questioning my views - therefore I have to defend myself by questioning his competence" or "If a person X has a view Y and provides arguments a, b and c to support that view, but arguments a, b and c are clearly wrong and I show that to him and offer him a different view instead, but he refuses to abandon view Y but sticks to it even without any sound arguments, then it is sign that person X is a stupid idiot and I get frustrated and call him bad names because that is what he deserves for failing to think rationally based on evidence and arguments."

Ummm... I mean, to me it seems that this "rationality" is only a thin layer of cognitive processing, built on a thick foundation of emotional, social and semi-cognitive skills and patterns. But in our tradition there has been a strong dualistic pattern of ignoring or disliking everything which is not cognitive, rational and conscious. I think this was built on a dualistic view of "nonmaterial soul as pure and rational, material world as filthy and animalish; truth lies in eternal world of pure ideas but material world is fussy and imprecise." Abandoning this dualism makes it easier to see that human mind might have multiple layers with different ways of processing information, each contributing to the totality of our existence, experience and behavior. And my intuition says that it is not very healthy to build a strong internal contradiction or tension in between different layers of mind - things work more smoothly if we have healthy appreciation of all of our mind, and if we practice and seek for such a patterns which enable us to co-operate with the rest of the world.

Also, there are things like "what is the meaning of life?" or "why should do good things and avoid doing bad things even when doing the bad thing would yield me much more of personal profit?" - this kind of questions can be expressed with words as I did, but I believe that they can't be properly answered with any amount of rational verbal analysis. In a strong dualistic view this would then mean that there is nothing to say about meaning of life or motivation of morals. It would be all left for personal emotions, which are outside of rational discussion - either written in genes, or given by culture, or what ever we may think of nature of emotions... Again, I think this dualism is harmful here. We can still use metaphors and poetry, combined with philosophy and empirical science, to talk about such issues - this talking might not provide and exact answer like logic or mathematics do, but it can still help to better understand what is going on.

For example, think of the difference between randomly placed chess pieces, and a picture taken of actual game situation. The first is hard to remember, because it makes no sense in the strategy of the game. But a meaningful pattern is easier to remember, especially for an experienced player, just because she is able to recognize that pattern and see the snapshot as a part of bigger flow of a strategy. I wouldn't be surprised if something like this goes also for our personal sense of meaning of life. We are looking for "a story to belong to", instead of just a heap of disconnected random interactions we look for "a meaning" in a sense of connecting things with a bigger flow of the story. And, apparently, for some people things like religion or national identity are supporting structures to find that kind of connection to "a bigger story". Which, sometimes, also means that if others say anything negative about ones religion or nation, people might over-react; because they feel that the basis of their morals and the foundation of their meaningful personal existence is attacked. One more pattern of how we develop groups of like-minded people thinking that the other are idiots... Again, it is of little help if we say that religion or ideology or national identities should not be criticized, as we should respect the different world views of people; this easily leads to awkward situations where we have all too different standards for different groups.

Huh. I'd like to end this lengthy post with one final notion. If there is one single skill which would make life easier for us all, I think it is self-reflection; will and ability to reflect on ones own beliefs, behavior, attitudes and values. Without feeling humiliated or shamed or guilty being ready to admit that there is something to improve, something to correct - and seeing that in many cases there can be multiple good ways of doing things. This way it won't be so easy to get pissed off or feel oneself threatened or insulted when facing others with different opinions. But, yeah, I see this is somewhat a liberal way of thinking - as traditionally this kind of self-reflection is seen as a sign of internal weakness; a strong person or a strong culture is self-assured and determined and proud of being better than the others. But, heck, I think all of my writing comes with a view that our tradition carries some stuff which makes life harder for us, and some problems could be solved by finding new ways. (This is (again) the moment where I ask myself: "well, Erkka, how is this different from thinking that one group is better than the others - didn't you just say that conservative way of thinking is generating a lot of problems, which could be solved by developing a more liberal mindset? Well, maybe I do say that, but it comes with a pragmatist approach. A hammer and a screw-driver are equally good. But using a screwdriver to hammer nails is not a good idea - life is easier if we choose right tools for doing the work. Same goes with mental patterns and ways of thinking - instead of trying to solve everything with a good old hammer, we might get better results by developing and adopting some new tools also.)

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