Saturday, May 24, 2008

Being able to explicitly reason about a concept is a skill

This is just an initial, hasty attempt to write about this stuff. I'll try and revise it a bit tomorrow.

Often, we’ll have a view about a topic without having actually given it explicit consideration. We obtained the view pretty unconsciously. Without explicit consideration, we’ll just feel there’s something shifty about Terry, or that technology is a bad thing.

Our brains were designed so that we don’t need explicit deliberation to form judgements about other people’s character, so our intuitions on that score tend to be fairly reasonable. But our brains weren’t designed with the capabilities required to automatically draw sound judgements on concepts such as technology; though our brains still try to automatically develop views on them.

‘Technology’ is a very abstract concept. It covers so many things that, in concrete terms, differ in so many ways. Technologies span the four corners of the globe, many thousands of years of history, and all aspects of our lives and societies. They can be used with all sorts of intent, and have sorts of consequences (and the intents and results don’t necessarily match – good intent can lead to bad results, and vice versa). Technologies include writing, asprin, glass, bridge construction, computer games, and guns.

If we want to draw reasonable conclusions when thinking about topics like ‘is technology a good or a bad thing?’, we need to have to override our natural intuitons about it, and start thinking explicitly about the question.

Our natural intuions have a powerful grip on us. We might have a negative impression of technology because of various things we’ve heard where bad things happened because of it. If connotations start to accrue around a concept, it tends to snowball. Thereafter, the things we’ll take note of as ‘technologies’ are more likely be things that fit our existing preconception of it – as ‘high-tech’ things that have negative concequences. It’s more likely that each example that fits that view will end up reinforcing it, while, when we come across cases that don’t fit it, we probably won’t think to reevaluate our notion of technology.

The ability to think explicitly about a concept is a skill, and has to be developed like any other skill. When your brain is unconsciously building up a picture of something, it can build a picture of depth and subtlty. But as I’ve said, it can only do this in certain sorts of cases that suit the in-built mechanisms for doing this. When you’re explicitly reasoning about a topic, you have to build that depth and subtlty manually.

Initially, we can only explicitly think of the concept in simplistic, somewhat stereotyped ways. And it simply takes a lot of work in order to draw out and refine that skill – the ability to think explicitly about technology and its nature. Reading things about that concept helps, but I think that can only get you so far. To really develop the skill requires linguistic work. You could try thinking about it in your head, but that’s very difficult to do. What’s more suitable is to talk about or discuss it, or trying to write about it.

In the end, what you want to do is train unconscious aspects of your mind to have a deep and subtle ability to handle that concept. To have a fluency with it. That’s just like the endgoal of developing any other skill – whether driving a car, using a chef’s knife or playing a rugby.

Why is this important when it comes to thinking about concepts? Because to develop a solid position on a particular topic, you need to be able to evaluate your own position well. You have to be able to spot simplifications or omissions within the statements you’re making. You have to have a good nose for these things. And you just can’t do this well enough until you’ve really absorbed the knowledge well.

And I think that it’s likely to be the case that, once you have developed your skill a fair bit, you’re going to reach different sorts of conclusions than you would have initially. You need to develop the skills in order to draw reasonable conclusions.

And all this has a bearing on not just developing, but presenting arguments to others. That is, it has a bearing on things like how non-fiction books ought to be written, when there’s an need to develop a skill in reasoning about a concept, such as there is when you’re trying to answer the question of ‘is technology a good or bad thing?’. So of course, first you would try and make sure you’ve tried to develop your skill in reasoning about that concept, so that you have an accurate conception of it. As far as I can see, this is very rarely done. Usually people don’t really consider their notion of their conception of the relevant concepts. They usually just take for granted the notion of it they’ve pretty unconsciously developed, and go from there. They might, for the purposes of exposition define their notion of that concept. But that’s usually not much more than putting their existing view of it into words. Usually, what they’re more about is justifying the view they’ve already reached.

If a lot of the work in developing reasonable conclusions is developing skills in thinking about the concepts involved, then if you want the reader to appreciate your viewpoint, part of what you need to do is use your writing to help them develop skills in reasoning about the concepts. I did say earlier that reading things involving the concepts helps a bit in developing skills but was secondary to talking/writing about it. What I’m talking about here is a different type of writing about it, where the focus is specifically on trying to understand the nature of the concepts themselves, rather than just saying things concerning the concepts.

This fits in with the notion of laddered skills, particularly mental laddered skills

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