Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thought and Categories

Alleged Wisdom is back, for the first time in months. I find that I miss writing, and my family misses reading my writing. For various reasons I hardly ever log onto Facebook anymore, so this is once again the ideal communication mechanism. I'll try to post at least once a week, but don't bother checking more often than that.
Today's thoughts are a tangent from an article I happened across. I want to give my thoughts first and the link at the end, so you can read the article with a persepctive that most people do not have.
Uneducated minds always try to fit things into well-defined categories. The human mind has a very strong desire to categorize everything. This is a natural result of human history; the ability to instantly and correctly categorize an unknown object as 'snake' or 'root' is very important. People whose brains had a strong tendency to decisively categorize things were more likely to survive and reproduce.
This habit often causes problems in the modern world. Proper scientific thought usually involves unknowns, probabilities, and lots of interesting things that do not fit neatly into pre-defined categories. It is very difficult to be a good scientist if your brain insists on making categorical judgments. A reliable way of telling the difference between good research and pseudoscientific nonsense is to look for clues that the author has already put things into categories and is looking for reasons to justify that choice.
The attitude causes even more problems when we insist on putting people into categories. One of the fundamental tensions in the modern world is the fact that we simply do not have the mental ability to treat everyone we meet as the unique individuals that they are. We have to make assumptions about how to properly interact with them. One way of defining 'culture' is the default assumprions you use to interact with people.
As civilizations become more enlightened and less barbaric, they use fewer categories to define people. The social ideal is to treat everyone the same, rather than fitting people into byzantine category systems of race, caste, family, and/or social status. There are massive benefits to this from increased human freedom, but there are also costs. Interaction can become more difficult if you do not know exactly who you are dealing with.
It may be the case that forcing people to confront the complexity of other people as individuals makes them better scientists. If you live in a society where everyone is categorized, then you are trained from birth to think that everything in the universe fits into neat categories. If you live in a more modern and free society, your thinking will be less lazy.
This understanding of the benefits of non-categorical thinking influenced my thoughts as I read this article about tolerating differences in children. As I read this article, I felt very optimistic about the future of our society. Mainly this optimism was because the article hints at a future where freedom of human thought and action will be respected and cherished, but I also feel that we will all be better thinkers as a result. Consider the following talk with an 8-year-old:
"No, I don't want to be a girl," he said, as he checked himself out in his bedroom mirror and posed, Cosmo-style. "I just want to wear girl stuff."
"Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?" I asked.
He looked at me as if I were daft. "Because I want to be who I am!"
By way of explanation, he told me about a boy in his third-grade class who is a soccer fanatic. "He comes to school every day in a soccer jersey and sweat pants," P. J. said, "but that doesn't make him a professional soccer player."
If he came up with that explanation himself, he has a more coherent and creative thought process than most people in our society.

1 comment:

1400 characters said...

Glad you're back blogging!
--Uncle Charley