On the Emptiness of Thinking and the Richness of Experience

Reposted from the Cognitive Edge Guest Blog I am writing this week:

I’d like to comment on Keith’s comment about my notion in my first guest post that ideas in themselves are empty. I agree that many ideas lack substance not because they are empty in themselves, but because they have not been fully thought through. Even when they have, however, they remain just ideas. There was a nice report on research into the evolutionary function of reasoning a few months ago, which posited that thinking had developed to win arguments about decisions post factum. My sense that this is true is reinforced whenever I listen to people’s opinions (something I try to avoid as much as possible), and get caught up in the infinite progresses and regresses of reason Kant warned us about which they engender (the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, of Shakespeare and Faulkner).

What interests me is the process that takes place prior to thinking. Or, put differently, how thinking might be understood as but the superficial manifestation of physical processes on a higher level of abstraction. When I do change processes in companies, breaking down strategy into practical initiatives is infinitely more difficult (it is logically simple, but never really works) than picking up on the tacit knowledge of the people doing the work, i.e. on their lived experience, and to refine that knowledge into policy and strategy (a lot of hard work, but very fruitful). In this second approach, the priority of experience is respected, and thinking adds refinement and consciousness to what people already know (something which works well as long as it has management buy-in and support).

Thinking that sees its function as making conscious lived experience adds genuine value. It does so by introducing useful distinctions into the undifferentiated mass of experience, thereby giving us influence over what we do. On a second level, thinking allows us to test our distinctions against reality with experiments, which produce second order experience and provide additional food for further refinement through reflection in a trial and error process of conscious evolution.

A colleague of mine likes to make a distinction between “decision” and “decisiveness.” Decisions are intellectual. They are usually model-based, and are ultimately inconsequential (or, they often produce catastrophic consequences, but these are usually framed as having been unintentional, showing how irrelevant the thinking which led to them was). Decisiveness is not something we can do, but is much more something that happens to us. I experience it as coming from our tacit knowledge, and it is less something we think about than something which we know. We experience decisive action as deeply embedded in reality, such that reality moves with it of its own accord because, I suspect, our decisiveness is part of that reality. (What exposes pseudo-decisiveness is the way it seems to skip off reality and reveal itself as posturing without connection to any deeper sense of what is needed).

The first ten years of my adult life I spent at York University in Toronto, which at that time had a strong focus on the humanities. The program I was in was called Social and Political Thought, and was a collecting basin for Marxism, Feminism and Post Modernism. I was one of the few people studying classical philosophy, politics and religion, and my take on the intellectual processes around me happened from a certain distance provided by my old fashioned interests.

It was a time in which I believed in the ability of thinking to know truth (a fundamentalist arrogance I put down today to youthful folly and learning). What I took away from the decade was a deep sense of the futility of ideological battle, as it is not amenable to scientific testing and so to resolution beyond agreement on the level of opinion.

What I have come to appreciate and respect deeply is less a thinking about things than the ability to influence them. For example, many managers have theories about leadership, but only few go beyond administration and actually lead organizations to sustainable success. Many therapists talk about neuroses, but only few are genuine healers who enable their clients to change their state. Whether we look at consultants, politicians, military leaders or teachers, there are few whose thinking is so deeply rooted in ability that what they think has any positive transformational effect on what they do.

These are the kinds of people I seek out and, to the extent that I can, strive to be as well. Anyone who has had the good fortune to have a good teacher (I am lucky to have had several) knows the difference. A good teacher’s thinking changes you as you follow it.

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