Thursday, April 22, 2004

Thoughts on Our Thinking Tendencies, Redux [-]

A few days ago, I talked about how it seems we have a tendency to see situations in terms of certain types of things ("subjects", such as the game of football) rather than in a "contextualised fashion" (such as the importance put on the game of football, rather than the game of football itself). Writing that has helped me clarify my thoughts, and here I present my current views.

I would describe those ideas in terms of the following. There is in inherent degree of difficulty associated with perceiving a particular type of thing (a physical object, relationship between things, etc etc). The degree of difficulty of perceiving a type of thing can stop us from doing so. We seem to have an inherent capability for perceiving particular types of things (physical objects are of course one example), and I believe we have to learn (though it may not be though explicit learning, perhaps just experience) how to explicitly perceive the more difficult types of things.

What we explicitly perceive in a given situation is, in addition to what we can explicitly perceive 'innately', those types of things we have 'learned' to see, modulo what we can't see because of our present cognitive load - after all, we only have so much mental capacity (I'll have to try coming back to this issue in the future and be more precise).

There are some questions that need to be answered about this. What governs the degree of difficulty? I'm not sure, but I would think the two major factors would be: temporal resources required for the processing required to perceive that type of thing, and secondly, our evolutionary history (where the temporal factors are really a subset of the evolutionary factors). I give that as a second factor because of the role evolution played in shaping our mental capabilities. Also, what are the different types of things that are there to be perceived? Both these things also deserve a fuller treatment in the future.

These difficulties in perceiving certain types of things can be seen as 'constraints on perfection', to use Richard Dawkin's term (or at least seems to be his). That term is the title of a chapter in his book "The Extended Phenotype" in which he gives the various reasons why an evolutionary adaptation may not be able to come up with an ideal 'solution'. An example of such a constraint is the need for the adaption to modify the current design of the organism rather than being able to go 'back to the drawing board'. In this context, a 'constraint on perfection' is a constraint on thinking that draws it away from the ideal.