Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Model of Cognition and the Political Spectrum

Years ago, I foolishly had some ambition to go into teaching. Yes, I know, I know. I got better. In this abortive pursuit, I got involved in tutoring college level organic chemistry, and got exposed to assorted teaching theories variously borrowing from psychology and philosophy. Most had probably been pretty watered down by the time they encountered me, which was probably good for their sake and mine, and since I had little interest in them I didn't much bother to investigate the intricacies. Later on, I figured that if people really want to learn things, there's not much you can do to stop them, and if they really don't, no heroic act of prodding or reformulation is likely to make much difference. And besides, that's their business, not mine.  So, I haven't revisited the subject much, and have left all that in the past.

However, there were one or two ideas I picked up that seem to pop their heads up every so often. One in particular describes a pattern that seems to show up over and over again. For the life of me, I cannot remember its name, supposing it had one, and no amount of googling could turn it up. So for this essay it will just have to remain nameless. But the model was simple enough for me to cough up the gist of it from memory.

Basically, this model of cognitive development divides 'understanding' up into about four stages.
A person progresses through the four stages, but may remain in one or another for prolonged periods of time, perhaps even their whole lives. Moving from one to another typically represents a 'turning point' in a person's life, and is usually the result of the discovery that some fundamental assumption that held the previous scheme together was incorrect. Each stage is therfore a sort of rejection of the stage before, resulting in an odd pattern in that alternating stages wind up having a superficial resemblance to one another even as they are miles apart cognitively.

The first stage is a sort of 'childlike' stage. The mind has a question, and an answer is sought, usually from Mom or Dad. 'Because Mommy said so' is good enough. Consistency, reasoning and the like aren't a big concern. Neither is the derivation of these answers. The mind doesn't really get that far. It is merely a game of question and answer, with legitimacy of answers usually deriving from authority. Knowledge and wisdom are presumably gained by amassing many such answers, and therefore, the authority to answer questions. Pretty simple.

The second stage is usually marked by the realization that many questions can have more than one answer, and some may not have any that everyone can agree about. Indeterminacy, once it is recognized, begins to show up everywhere and to develop philosophical corrolaries. Once started down this path, of course, the mind tends to get carried away, and almost every issue turns into 'a matter of opinion.'  The world is recognized as being a complex place, and the authorities don't really know all the answers. Reason and internal consistency become important, if sometimes abandoned in the breech. Authority is questioned. Relativism and an appreciation for 'sophistication' set in. Insistence on the veracity of hard-and-fast opinions on most topics are taken to be a sign of ignorance. Disdain for serious discussion of such subjects is common at this level, but not necessarily universal. Individual reason and cleverness are esteemed as the marks of intelligence.

The third stage is marked by the realization that, though some questions may have more than one answer, some answers are better than others. For most questions, only one or a few really make sense, despite the fact that many may technically satisfy the question's formal requirements. Overarching patterns and principles are recognized to run through the universe, particularly with respect to human behavior, cutting many seemingly reasonable answers to bits in the process. The fundamental insights of the second level are retained, but many of their corrolaries are rejected or modified. Relativism goes out the window. The usefulness of the rationalist-mechanical view of the universe is questioned as the limits of the power of reason are recognized. Tradition is seen as a powerful tool in a complex universe often beyond limited human understanding. Wisdom is regarded as intense familiarity with these patterns and principles. Intelligence is recognized as a separate phenomenon.

The fourth level is some kind of 'transcendence' of the question-answer paradigm, which I assume reconciles the conflicts among the levels because that's what 'transcend' means, but I do not pretend to understand how any of that works. As I remember, I didn't quite follow that part of the lecture, but considering the psychobabbling source, I tend to suspect that was because it wasn't followable. Having attained third-level cognition, I readily recognize the pattern that sentences with 'transcendence' in them coming from academics are not to be trusted.

I confess that I have probably botched this description and inserted a lot of myself into it. It has been many years and I have no notes. Don't take it for the gospel, but I believe that was the basic outline of the idea, though it was probably explained very differently.

Maybe there's something to the model, or maybe it is bunk. But I find its alternating pattern of human progression recurring in everyday observations all the time. I think it is the model of successive rejections of underlying assumptions that may be the source. The political implications are obvious, probably made more so by my own slanted understanding of the thing. I'll get to that later -- first I'll start with some less obvious instances.

For example, my son is now ten months old, and his progress learning to talk follows the alternating pattern to a T. First, beginning with when he was born, he made complex sounds of great variety, but rarely the same sound twice and more or less for no reason whatsoever. Then, he began saying very simple, coherent things, but only a few isolated syllables. He was limitted to 'da,' 'ma,' and 'ba.' He said them the same way, over and over repetitively with no variety at all and no apparent attachment to any meaning.

Now, he makes complex sounds again. They are mostly loud blubbering noises that have earned him the nickname 'Little Schwarzenegger.' He has given up coherency in favor of variety, but now he seems to want to attach meaning to the noise. Of course, there is none because he is just making semi-random sounds and gesturing. But I suspect that the next step is 'coherent complexity attached to meaning,' or 'transcendence' -- real speech.

The next example is in relationships. Actually, there are two examples. The first is one that everyone recognizes -- the kinds of couples one observes and the things they talk about.

Everyone has seen the young, and sometimes not so young, vapid couple that talk and argue about, well, crap. Nothing of substance. They value eachothers' trivialities -- taste in music, hobbies, interests -- as the source of their compatability. They don't think much about the kinds of things one sees on websites such as this one -- politics, religion, other 'issues of substance' and controversy. They don't really think about things like their kids' education, if they have any, or finances or church affiliation, after all, 'they' take care of 'that stuff.' But they do sometimes argue intensely for fun about pop-culture garbage, or not so much fun about their feelings. I would identify these as 'stage two couples.' Stage one couples don't usually exist, because they would have to be small children.

Next you have the 'intermediate couples,' who have either 'moved beyond' the triviality stage or never went through it, and mostly discuss all those issues that stage two couples don't care about. They grew out of the stage two couples' moon-eyed and irresponsible mindset long ago and have their priorities in order. They worry about money, education, careers, their kids' upbringing and their futures. They care intensely about these things and want to ensure they turn out right, so sometimes the arguments get heated. More heated than arguments over which movie to go see or which is faster -- the Millenium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise.

Lastly, you have the usually aged 'advanced couples' who quit worrying about all that stuff a long time ago. They respect the intermediates, and probably were intermediates way back when, but finally realized that all that stuff turned out not to have mattered as much as they had thought that it would. Chance had had about as much effect on their lives as any wise or foolish decision they had made. They each know where the other stands on issues of importance and respect one another even where they disagree, which is perfectly good enough this side of eternity. So, they don't take it all that seriously anymore, and now find fun quibbling playfully with one another over trivialities in a way reminiscent of the second-stagers.

The other example I saw recently was a study on sex among high-schoolers and effects on their achievement. The study found that students who had sex within a commited relationship had grade averages indistinguishable from those who completely abstained from sex, but both groups outperformed students who had casual sex.

The study seems to imply that 'sex is okay, as long as it is committed,' but probably the effect has little to do with sex at all. To me, it likely reflects is a clear division between two stages of personal development. One set seems to have gotten the message, by hook or by crook, that whatever you may have heard, 'anything goes' isn't a good idea -- some things are to be taken seriously, while the other has failed to mature. However the first set may have come to reject previous generations' sexual mores (chew on that one a moment), it does seem to understand that relationships, like grades, are not to be treated flippantly. It would have been interesting to divide the abstaining group between those who actually abstained and those who merely couldn't get laid, but of course that would have been a difficult test.

At any rate, it says to me that the standard 'just don't get pregnant, stay off drugs and finish school' approaches to this 'problem' are both ineffectual and idiotic in an environment that is ambivalent at best on the importance of individual maturity, as most 'educational' settings are. Young people may lack the wisdom of experience, but that is not the same thing as being stupid. They notice things like inconsistency and insincerity. Being satisfied with finishing what is already a joke of an education and staying out of jail does not exactly scream high standards. Sternly lecturing them on their prorities when the lecturers have already betrayed the emptiness of their own is not very convincing. On the other hand, broadly pushing a child to mature and grow as a person will probably make discussions of sex issues simpler and more approachable, and simultaneously less critical.

With that, it is time to enter the political sphere. No doubt the reader will have identified stage two with the so-called liberal mindset (which isn't really liberal at all but I'll let that pass for now), with its relativism and suspicion of authority, and stage three with conservatism and its recognition of human limitations and the value inherent in tradition. One can really go to town with this analysis, especially what premises and assumptions get exaggerated and hold each scheme together, and then get uprooted in the transitions, but I'll leave all that to the reader.

One interesting thing to me is how the groups tend to view each other. The liberal second-stager looks at the conservative third-stager as having 'reverted' down to a childlike first-stager, which looks superficially similar. He has experienced this stage himself and feels that he understands the mindset, but couldn't be more wrong. The conservative understands this and recognizes that truly childlike people are apolitical, and understands fully the assumptions of the liberal second-stager as ideas he has progressed past. Of course, the liberal haughtily rejects such arguments as arrogant.

What about the 'transcendent' stage? Well, being a libertarian, naturally I think that the next stage up is libertarian, which is a rejection of some of the premises of conservatism and looks superficially like liberalism two stages back. Thus, like most libertarians, I would follow up Churchill's 'if you aren't a conservative at thirty, you have no brain' with 'and if you use it long enough, you'll become a libertarian.' The conservatives see us, with our crazy advocacy for legalization of drugs and prostitution and the like, as having reverted back down to idiotic stage-two liberals for reasons that evade them, much the same way the liberals couldn't understand the conservative 'devolution' back to stage-one infantilism. But in concilation, they take great joy in the fact that the bulk of our political wrath is reserved for the liberals, who are completely flabbergasted by a group they alternately feel that they sympathize closely with and then schizophrenically eschew as fascists. For all their supposed 'sophistication,' they have no idea what to make of libertarians, as with so many other issues. Poor things.

I find that this model resembles very closely my personal experience. I was utterly disinterested in politics right up until I realized that there really were right and wrong answers on the subject, at which point I became obsessed, and conservative. Like the 'intermediate couple,' I was perpetually concerned with the 'direction' of things and cheering for 'my side.' Nowadays, whenever I encounter 'Obama' and 'Congress' or other such in reading or conversation, I usually move on to other things. It's not that I don't care, as was the case back when, it's that I view the situation as hopeless and discussion at this level a distraction from understanding the real driving forces. It is as if the mere mention of politicians is to grant them more than they deserve. For me, they have become the trivial.

Like the 'advanced couple,' I no longer feel in the thick of it and recognize my limitations, and theirs, in impacting events. Now I spend my time on things like understanding the mechanics of the FED and the economy, and, of all things, fiction, which I had considered a complete waste of time before. Plus some other puttering interests. I find these 'trivialities' to be far more revealing and insightful for understanding 'the way of things,' than, oh, let's say, watching FoxNews and fuming. I also find regular old life far more rewarding, and that I am in good company in this 'progression of attitudes.'

On the other hand, libertarianism hardly seems 'transcendent,' and I'm highly skeptical of the thought that I've achieved it or that a cheesy four-point model is capable of encompassing the entirety of the intellectual path to transcendent thought, interesting as the alternating progression aspect may be. All of which is a long way around of saying I don't think the road ends here. I sense that there is yet at least one more reversion further ahead back to something that looks like conservatism, but is somehow completely different.

As evidence, I point to the existence of certain rare, wild geniuses of 'conservatism,' like G.K. Chesterton, Fred Reed, and even our own Curmudgeon, who count themselves part of that camp but seem not of it. Probably the most obvious sign is their uncanny habit of defending what seem to us wild and wooly ideas with even wilder and woolier arguments that are so far outside conventional thinking that their allies and foes alike are at a loss as to how to respond to them. And yet, in due time we find ourselves persuaded. We 'greater conservatives' count ouselves lucky that they are on our side, but find them rather alien at the same time, like something out of the wild blue yonder. A brighter, wilder, bluer yonder, that we would probably like to experience someday for ourselves, if we had some assurance that the experience might not rob us of our sanity.

I certainly hope that this is the case. Happy as I presently am with libertarianism, it would be nice to think I might only be passing through to something more. As I remember, being a conservative was fun.

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