Thursday, August 25, 2005

Positive and Negative Processes, Outcomes as Substances, And Function/Purpose

More as notes for myself than anything else, and probably not that comprehensible to anyone else, coz a lot of the stuff left unexplained... an example that brings together some different threads I've picked up on.

Degree of intelligence and depth/accuracy of understanding about how things are and work is commonly seen as the result of a positive, or constructive, process. That is, you gain intelligence and understanding by thinking about things, by reading, solving problems etc. The level of the results is seen as proportional to the amount of time you invest in these activities.

I suspect that this is incorrect. I suspect that 'negative' processes are very important as well, perhaps more so. The 'negative' processes work to avoid certain beliefs and ways of thinking, rather than to explicitly add new ones. They are filters, that (hopefully) weed out poor ideas and poor ways of reasoning.

This seems to be the case because of the following reasons. It takes a lot of time to develop ideas. Anyone who's done any research -- spent time working on a PhD, for example -- ought to know this. We might imagine that we get our views about things by sitting down and thinking them through, but who actually does this except on rare occasions?

I think that we tend to either get our knowledge from others, or by seeing what our intuitions tell us (as opposed to explicit reasoning). If this is the case, being able to fiter out bad reasoning is important. This includes spotting assumptions and avoiding them. I think there's more than enough correct ideas out there - if only you can avoid the bad ones and spot the good ones.

There is an asymmetry between developing ideas and filtering them out -- which is esentially the assymetry that Karl Popper noted between verifying statements and falsifying them. Without going into details, it's much easier to falsify things. You can shoot down an argument by spotting a single flaw in it.

Another reason why a negative, filtering process is important is that -- I strongly suspect -- bad ideas and bad forms of reasoning do a lot more damage than good ones do good, and that there are more ways of having bad ideas than good ones (more bad ideas out there). For example, I think that bad ideas that you may hold may be better at stopping you from picking up correct ideas, than is the case vice-versa.

(you might find it of interest that I think this stuff applies to the problem of understanding what information is, which is what I'm doing my PhD on. I think the main difficult does not concern any positive process of gaining some major new insight, but in a negative process of filtering out all of the presuppositions and red-herrings)

Now, actually the main thing I want to point out is how this is an example of where when people imagine something they, unless they know better and are aware of avoiding it, tend to only consider the positive, constructive, factors influencing an outcome. Thinking about intelligence/knowledge is an example of this.

And I think this 'habit' comes from seeing such outcomes as 'things' or 'substances'. If intelligence is a substance, then it comes about from positive processes that create it, and this view is less condusive to seeing it as being influenced by negative processes. Whereas it can be a property of some process, a differential relative to some typical value in a population, a perceptual thing etc.

And I think that relates to what seems to be the very common 'habit' of seeing the world solely in terms of the functions and purposes of things. The functions/purposes are seen as like essences. That is, their are functions for bringing about that outcome (spending time thinking of things has the function of incresing knowledge/intelligence) - that is the positive, constructive processes have the function of the outcome. Whereas under this sort of view, it is hard to see conceptualise such negative, filtering process, in terms of that function.

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