Words Are Thinking Tools

New word tools can sometimes avoid old confusions. Let’s use “praxotype,” “cognotype,” and “technomorphic” to see human nature more accurately. Especially to see that we’re the least genetically constrained species ever.


Words are thinking tools (e.g., Dennett). New word tools can sometimes avoid old confusions. Let’s use “praxotype,” “cognotype,” and “technomorphic” to see human nature better.

1) Biologists describe organisms in terms of genotypes (gene sets) and phenotypes (developed traits — genes aren’t all used). But those types don’t distinguish physiological from behavioral or cognitive traits. Usually all three trait types are subsets of genotypes. But not for us.

2) Much human behavior, including what you’re doing right now, isn’t in your genes. Our physical traits are subsets of our genotype, but our praxotypes (sets of behaviors, prax = action) and cognotypes (cognitive traits) aren’t. That’s one reason why “gene for X” is less useful in humans, if X is a behavioral or cognitive trait.

3) We don’t only inherit genes. We inherit modified environments, physical tools, thinking-tools, second-nature skills, social rules, etc. And such “cultural” elements have long shaped our genes.

4) Emily Dickinson declared, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky.” Similarly, our praxotypes are wider than our biology. And our sky-containing skulls contain opinions that exert forces on our physiology.

5) Praxotypes = Lamarckian. Improved habits can be “inherited,” by social transmission. Other species learn socially, but we do it way more. Evident praxotype diversity suggests we shouldn’t model motivations monolithically (single-minded “utility” seeking risks becoming circular, and unfalsifiable).

6) It’s worth recalling how psychology was seen before today’s seeming certainties arose. Hamlet’s “There’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” stretches a key truth. Shakespeare likely knew Montaigne’s essay, which quotes Cicero’s “grief lies not in nature, but [in] opinion,” and says opinions, “error and dreams,” each “gains reality” by serving as cause for our actions. Darwin similarly noted how “Hindoo” beliefs about food, not the food itself, had “soul-shaking” effects.

7) Montaigne’s we’re all “furnished … with similar tools and instruments for thought,” is right about our hardware. But our cognotypes are computer-like. They include updatable software.

8) Pinker arguing against “The Blank Slate” mental model said we have a common “battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning,” that can work like “setting a dial [or] flipping a switch.” But those “technomorphic” elements should also include computer-like logic scripts (if X, then do Y etc., which can be System 1 triggered, and can encode our cultures’ habits, and emotion-configuring stories, and maxims). Parts of our minds are blank slates awaiting social scripts.  

Our software-configurable cognotypes (opinions, and beliefs, often unchosen and tacit) drive our praxotypes (especially our habits) and influence how our physiology reacts. Though we evolved like other species, much about us is unique or uniquely developed. We’re the least genetically constrained species ever.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Why the south of Westeros is the north of Ireland

As Game of Thrones ends, a revealing resolution to its perplexing geography.

Image: YouTube / Doosh
Strange Maps
  • The fantasy world of Game of Thrones was inspired by real places and events.
  • But the map of Westeros is a good example of the perplexing relation between fantasy and reality.
  • Like Britain, it has a Wall in the North, but the map only really clicks into place if you add Ireland.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.