Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book Review: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind

In the last ten years or so, a number of books have come out examining the role of intuition (i.e., unconscious thinking) in human cognition. These include Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, Intuition: It's Powers and Perils, by David Myers, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconsious, by Timothy Wilson. Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind may very well be the best of the lot, mixing, as it does, shrewd analysis with detailed evidence.

The general picture of unconscious thinking that emerges from Claxton's book is devastating to some of Rand's most critical epistemological and psychological pretensions. Orthodox Objectivism insists that the unconscious (or "subconscious") cannot originate any thoughts or motives on its own. "There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means." This view, in light of evidence provided by Claxton, is wildly implausible.

In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Claxton distinguishes between two main modes of thought: what he calls "d-mode" (i.e., deliberation mode) and "unconscious intelligence." Claxton's d-mode is conscious, deliberate, purposeful thinking—in other words, the sort of rational thinking favored by Rand. Unconscious intelligence, on the other hand, goes very much against the grain of Rand's cognitive ideals. It lacks many, if not all, the characteristics of d-mode. It is much closer to Michael Oakeshott's practical knowledge, discussed in an earlier post.
The greater part of the useful understanding we acquire throughout life is not explicit knowledge, but implicit know-how [writes Claxton]. Our fundamental priority is not to be able to talk about what we are doing, but to do it—competently, effortlessly, and largely unconsciously and unreflectingly. And the corresponding need for the kind of learning that delivers know-how—which I shall call learning by osmosis—is not one that we outgrow. The brain-mind's ability to detect subtle regularities in experience, and to use them as a guide to the development and deployment of effective action, is our biological birthright.... Yet we ignore or disparage ... [unconscious intelligence] at our peril, for it turns out that there are things we can learn through this gradual, tacit process which d-mode cannot master; and also that d-mode, if used over-enthusiastically, can actively interfere with this way of knowing.

Rand, in her philosophy, over-emphasized the importance of d-mode and badly misrepresented unconscious thinking. She insisted that man "must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it?" [IOTE, 78-79] All of this makes sense, if it makes sense at all, under d-mode. But it would not work with unconscious modes of thinking. Such modes of thinking are, as Claxton puts it, "those that lack any or all of the characteristics of d-mode... They do not rush into conceptualization, but are content to explore more fully the situation before deciding what to make of it. They like to stay close to the particular. They are tolerant of information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous... They see ignorance and confusion as the ground from which understanding may spring.... They are happy to relinquish the sense of control over directions that the mind spontaneously takes." Compare this with what Rand says about the "methods" of knowledge: "The methods which [man] has to employ require the most rigorous mathematical precision, the most rigorous compliance with objective rules and facts—if the end product is to be knowledge." Rand also emphasized the importance of being in a state of constant focus. "Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness," she insisted. "When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions. But in the sense of the word applicable to man—in the sense of a consciousness which is aware of reality and able to deal with it, a consciousness able to direct the actions and provide for the survival of a human being—an unfocused mind is not conscious." [VOS, 20]

Rand detested intuitive ways of knowing, equating them with "mysticism," which she defined as "the claim to some non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'" [PWNI, 75] Now while intuition (unconscious thinking) is not non-sensory, (nor is it a form of revelation), it is non-rational and non-definable and, in the anti-foundationalist sense of the term, non-identifiable as well (because it is non-verbal). Rand's dislike of any cognitive conclusions that did not pass through the conscious mind is further emphasized in Peikoff's insistence that the unconscious "is simply a repository for past information or conclusions that you were once conscious of in some form, but that are now stored beneath the threshold of consciousness." Peikoff's statement, made in Rand's presence during his lectures on Objectivism, is tantamount to a denial of unconscious intelligence.

"If we see d-mode as the only form of intelligence," warns Claxton, "we must suppose, when it fails, that we are not 'bright' enough, or did not think 'hard' enough, [or 'focus' hard enough, as Objectivist might declare,] or have not got enough 'data.' The lesson we learn from such failures is that we must develop better models, collect more data, and ponder more carefully. What we do not learn is that we may have been thinking in the wrong way. "

Drawing on extensive experiments in human cognition, Claxton suggests that we should take steps to rehabilitate unconscious intelligence, which involves, not denigrating d-mode intelligence, but supplementing it with "sources of knowledge that are less articulate, less conscious and less predictable... The crucial step in this recovery is not the acquisition of a new psychological technology, but a revised understanding of the human mind, and a willingness to move into, and to enjoy, the life of the mind as it is lived in the shadowlands rather than under the bright lights of consciousness.... The key to [unconscious intelligence] is not an overlay of technique but radical reconceptualization. When the mind slows and relaxes, other ways of knowing automatically appear."

Claxton's view is nearly the opposite of Rand's. Where Rand emphasizes focus and precision, Claxton argues (and supports with scientific evidence) the need for mental relaxation and tolerance for " information that is faint, fleeting, ephemeral, marginal or ambiguous." And unlike Rand, who denigrates unconscious forms of knowing, Claxton does not denigrate d-mode. He only points out that it has both strengths and weaknesses, and that if the individual wants to make full use of his intellectual capacities, he must draw on intuitive forms of knowing as well. "D-mode works well when tackling problems which can be treated as an assemblage of nameable parts," points out Claxton. "But when the mind turns its attention to situations that are ... too intricate to be decomposed in this way without serious misrepresentation, the limitations of d-mode's linguistic, analytical approach are quickly reached."

There is no book that does a more convincing job of going to the very heart of what's wrong with Rand's view of cognition. Rand's contention that "Reason is man's only means of grasping reality and acquiring knowledge" is a libel against the mind. Claxton, making use of some of the most fascinating experiments in cognitive sciences, shows us why intuition is necessary compliment to d-mode reasoning.

16 comments:

Jay said...

She insisted that man "must discover how to use his rational faculty, how to validate his conclusions, how to distinguish truth from falsehood, how to set the criteria of what he may accept as knowledge. Two questions are involved in his every conclusion, conviction, decision, choice or claim: What do I know?—and: How do I know it?" [IOTE, 78-79] All of this makes sense, if it makes sense at all, under d-mode. But it would not work with unconscious modes of thinking.

Now, I've admitted that Rand was ignorant of cognitive science. But it seems (and I certainly could be wrong) that Rand meant you need to validate knowledge that shapes serious life choices like the person you marry, the career you pursue, your standards for dealing with others and the principles you use to guide your thinking.

Clearly other important skills come about differently, like athletic prowess or driving a car. But like I said, most of Rand's work focuses on the active-minded decisions and convictions I mentioned above. She actually had very little to say about skills and aptitudes with intuitive roots.

This looks like a very eye-opening book. However, I have to disagree with his thesis that we need to rehabilitate unconscious thinking. In fact, my best friend's psychology textbook (need to get the name) actually says that it's much harder, at first, to think abstractly about things and as a result many people DO simply fall back on their intuition.

Instead, it seems many of today's problems come from leaving our minds "in the shadows." As an example, look at the news coverage of the coming election. Instead of dispassionately evaluating the various candidates for their beliefs, we hear about "the women vote" or "the black vote" or "Chuck Norris says John McCain is too old" or "are we ready for a black President." It might seem like I'm just being cynical, but this is something that costs us our freedoms and trillions of dollars that fall into the hands of people we never even seriously evaluate.

I see no way to eradicate that problem and the countless others like without turning on "the bright lights of consciousness."

We have taken the path of least resistance for far too long.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "But it seems (and I certainly could be wrong) that Rand meant you need to validate knowledge that shapes serious life choices like the person you marry, the career you pursue, your standards for dealing with others and the principles you use to guide your thinking. "

This is certainly the main thrust of what Rand meant, and she is not entirely right. There are a number of problems with Rand's approach. In the first place, the Rand tacitly assumes that d-mode thinking on these issues will lead to clear, certain conclusions, while, as a matter of fact, this isn't always true. Most serious life choices involve estimations (i.e. guesses) as to (1) what will make the individual happy, and (2) the degree to which future contingencies will align with one's long-term goals. One simply cannot be certain about such things. D-mode struggles with uncertainty. D-mode also struggles with dealing with those aspects of reality that are not easily articulated—the subtleties and nuances that tend to be "abstracted" away in conscious thinking. As Claxton puts it: "Some of what we know is readily rendered into words and propositions; some of it is not. Some of our mental operations are available to consciousness; and some of them are not. When we think, consciously and articulately, we are not capturing accurately all that is going on in the mind. Rather we are selecting only that part of what we know which is capable of being verbalized; only those aspects of our cognition to which conscious awareness has access. We think what is thinkable, not what is 'true.' And the disposition to treat all problems as if they were d-mode problems thus skews our thoughts and our mental operations towards those that can be made explicit."

Claxton's take on d-mode is bourne out in the research. Psychologists have found that, generally speaking, people tend to be more satisfied, in the long run, with personal decisions made on the basis of intuition than on decisions made on the basis of d-mode.

Jay: "Instead, it seems many of today's problems come from leaving our minds 'in the shadows.' As an example, look at the news coverage of the coming election. Instead of dispassionately evaluating the various candidates for their beliefs, we hear about 'the women vote' or 'the black vote' or 'Chuck Norris says John McCain is too old' or 'are we ready for a black President.'"

Decisions about electing Presidents aren't likely to be very good whether one follows d-mode or intuition for the simply reason that most people have neither the analytical or intuitive knowledge necessary to make an informed decision. So they must rely on ideologies, bromides, and ill-nourished gut feelings. Ideally, one would wish to make use of both d-mode and intuition in making a decision: relying on d-mode for judging the platform of the candidate, and intuition on the "quality of character" of the candidate, but this would require greater conceptual knowledge of politics and greater personal knowledge of the candidate.

Remember, the whole point of Claxton's book is not to denigrate d-mode, but to demonstrate that there is an additional capacity of the mind that can help us achieve a greater degree of well-being. The trick is to appreciate which domain of experience is best understood through d-mode and which is best understood through intuition.

Jay said...

Greg,

The main problem I see here is simply trusting your subconscious to get it right. I don't deny that in many cases it will, but there is something that makes me feel uneasy about switching off my decision making mind and just hoping, somehow, that my intuition will make the right call.

Also - I read the first few pages of the book on Amazon. (Standard practice before buying.) The author seems to believe most people do try to consciously decide things. I don't believe this, and I don't think you do either. In your book, for example, you repeatedly make the case that humans will try to muddle through something before applying conscious, rule-based thinking to it. You even concede later that most people simply do not have the mental fortitude and capacity to decide what's best for them. That being the case, doesn't it run counter to Claxton's thesis that we do, for the most part, think consciously?

Anon57 said...

Nyquist, supposedly quoting Ayn Rand (Peikoff? Branden?): "There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means."

I note that he provides no source, and suspect this is yet another instance of Nyquist's fertile imagination severed from reality. I have the Objectivism Research CR-ROM and the alleged quote is not on it. The quality of his scholarship is as poor as his spelling. Note the title: "Hair Brain."

gregnyquist said...

Anon57: "I note that he provides no source, and suspect this is yet another instance of Nyquist's fertile imagination severed from reality."

I've sourced this quote in other posts. It's from the very same lecture on Objectivism from which I drew the later quotes in this book review post—namely, from lecture 12, the question and answer period. It was included in the Ayn Rand Lexicon, under the heading subconscious. This statement was made in Ayn Rand's presence in a lecture series commended by Rand herself.

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

I can understand not wanting to trust intuition over d-mode. The most reliable knowledge we have, scientific knowledge, is heavily d-mode. But what makes science so reliable? It's not entirely because it is d-mode cognition, but it's also the fact that one can check one's conclusions experimentally. But what happens when one is in a domain where experimentation is not possible? In personal life, experimentation is not always possible. You may get only one chance and you have to get it right that one chance. A person who has developed very shrewd intuitive insight into human nature and into the nuances of social relations is going to have an advantage over someone who relies only on d-mode in the personal domain.

Now as far as Claxton and his belief that Western society over-emphasizes d-mode, Claxton is talking about educated people—scientists, intellectuals, pundits, etc. These people do rely too much on d-mode. If that doesn't seem to be the case because they have irrational political or economic beliefs, that is because reliance on d-mode in no way guarantees good results, any more than reliance on intuition would. D-mode and intuition both have their strengths and weaknesses. But where most people go astray, cognitively, is when they try to figure out domains of which they have little or no experience. Most "irrationality" comes, not from blindly following intuition, but from trying to use d-mode to figure out something which they have little first-hand knowledge (and therefore no reliable intuition) about. Keep in mind that d-mode and intuition are not mutually exclusive. Intuitive modes of thought are involved in d-mode cognition. Reliance on d-mode alone leads to rationalism—i.e., the attempt to understand a subject by merely grasping the concepts of the subject, rather than through extensive first-hand experience of it. We don't allow people to become doctors just by mastering the concepts of medicine: they also have to do extensive internship work, which forces them to gain experience in the field of medicine, thus building up their intuitive judgment. Unfortunately, we don't (perhaps because we can't) do that in politics and economics.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon57:
>Note the title: "Hair Brain."

Hey thanks Anon57, I've corrected this accordingly. This is your most useful criticism yet...;-)

Jay said...

Yeah seriously, when your biggest gripe is a spelling error you know you're reaching.

Jay said...

Greg,

That makes a lot of sense. Thanks for clarifying.

Anon57 said...

No, my biggest gripe was not a spelling error. It was that Nyquist gave a quote designed to appear from Ayn Rand. It wasn't at all. It was Peikoff in a live Q&A in the context of criticizing Freudian doctrine. Replying, Nyquist attempts to justify it by saying Ayn Rand was present. Think how ridiculous this is -- Rand endorses anything Piekoff said in her presence on the spur of the moment. It's as sound as saying that Nyquist endorses every idiocy that pops out of Barnes' mouth since they are partners on this website.

As for the quote itself, it's very ambiguous, since "subconscious" is very ambiguous without significant elaboration. Of course, Nyquist uses the quote to try to attribute to Rand the position that any motive, e.g. the desire for food or water or warmth, is first and foremost a product of conscious thought.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon57:
>Think how ridiculous this is -- Rand endorses anything Piekoff said in her presence on the spur of the moment. It's as sound as saying that Nyquist endorses every idiocy that pops out of Barnes' mouth since they are partners on this website.

Anon57, you really are rather hopeless.

For your point might have some merit if, like Greg and myself, Rand and Peikoff had never met in person, and had casually run an internet site for 18months through a mutual interest.

However, if I had studied with Nyquist ever since a young man, if I had dedicated my entire life to the study and promotion of Nyquist's work, if Nyquist had appointed me as his sole heir and endorsed me as the only person who understood Nyquistism almost as well as he did, if the few major products of my life's work had been thoroughly vetted by and/or derived from Nyquist, in my own admission adding absolutely nothing original of importance, if I was founder and principal of The Greg Nyquist Institute, if Nyquist was there when I said it and subsequently if my quote was included both the hard copy and online version of "The Greg Nyquist Lexicon", these both being produced, revised, and fully endorsed by the scholars at The Greg Nyquist Institute, then you might suppose that my quote was fairly likely to be, within the reasonable parameters of the English language, what Nyquist thought too.

There's the correct comparison for you, Anon57. Take my advice and stick to spelling.

merjet said...

Barnes, you really are hopeless.

If you known Isaac Newton, you would have undoubtedly told him: Consider all the concrete differences between an apple and a planet. Your gravitational theory is completely hopeless.

gregnyquist said...

Anon57: "Think how ridiculous this is -- Rand endorses anything Piekoff said in her presence on the spur of the moment."

I don't understand this objection. Do you really believe that Rand doesn't support that position? It's fully consistent with what she said elsewhere about the subconscoius. Remember the computer metaphor? The subconscious is a computer, which the conscious mind programs! And if Rand didn't agree with the statement, don't you think she would've said something? Have you heard the Peikoff lectures? Rand participated in the Q&As of those lectures. It's highly unlikely she would've allowed the statement to pass if she did not agree with it. Rand was very touchy about such things, as the lecture Q&As that she participated in demonstrate.

But let's not lose sight of what's really at stake here. Rand misrepresented unconsious intelligence: there's no way to wiggle out of that one. The evidence that cognitive science is accumulating on intuition demonstrates that Rand got it wrong on this issue, and that Oakeshott, Polanyi, Hayek and others were right on the issue of tacit knowledge.

Daniel Barnes said...

Merlin:
>Barnes, you really are hopeless.

Hi Merlin,

I suppose I could just look it up in the site user logs, but presumably Anon57 is you? I've been meaning to get back to you on OL re: your Popper reply, but life has intervened somewhat. Thanks for reminding me, I will respond soon.

I admit I don't understand how you came to your conclusion re:Newton. I understand the idea of universal laws as much as the next man, I would suppose, but to compare Anon57's comment to one seems to be reaching, to say the least.

Anon57 said...

This comment is about "There is nothing in the subconscious besides what you acquired by conscious means."

Nyquist: Do you really believe that Rand doesn't support that position? It's fully consistent with what she said elsewhere about the subconscoius. Remember the computer metaphor? The subconscious is a computer, which the conscious mind programs!

'No' to your first question, because what you say is incomplete. It is NOT "fully consistent with what she said elsewhere", to wit:

"Your subconscious is like a computer — more complex a computer than men can build — and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don't reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance — and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions — which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values. If you programmed your computer by conscious thinking, you know the nature of your values and emotions. If you didn't, you don't" (Philosophy: Who Needs It).

I don't know why Rand let Peikoff's statement pass, but it's clearly inconsistent with the above.

gregnyquist said...

Anon57: "I don't know why Rand let Peikoff's statement pass, but it's clearly inconsistent with the above."

Where's the inconsistency? Are you suggesting that Rand believed in unconscious perception? Because that's what she would have had believe in to create an inconsistency between the computer metaphor and Peikoff's statement. And there is no way Rand believed in unconscious perception. If she had, her project for the fully integrated ideal man would have been, on her own premises, an entirely hopeless one. (Incidentally, that's the whole point of Peikoff's statement, and why Rand most emphatically agreed with it. If there is such a thing as unconscious perception, this would mean that ideas, premises, conclusions, etc. could get into your unconscious without your conscious mind being able to do anything about it. And that is something Rand could never had allowed.)