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Theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow offers three strategies for relaxing your cognitive filters to give your brilliant ideas time to shine in the spotlight of the conscious mind.
This article was originally published at Big Think Edge.
Your brain is bursting with ideas, and most of them are … weird. You only have to recall the wonderfully bonkers notions of your childhood. Like the time you wanted to teach octopuses to count past eight. Or when you drew a missing poster for your mother's lost voice. Or when you "invented" a cardboard machine to turn clouds into cotton candy.
As you grew older, your cognitive filters—the security guards of the mind—probably began to police your thoughts more tightly. They began locking away the stranger ideas in your subconscious and only let the more conventional ones pass into the forefront of your mind. Sometimes this is a good thing. Even conventional thoughts can be overwhelming at times. But when your cognitive filters become too restrictive, they can disconnect you from the less-than-ordinary ideas that may solve otherwise intractable problems.
In this masterclass preview, theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow offers three strategies for relaxing your cognitive filters to give your brilliant ideas time to shine in the spotlight of the conscious mind.
- New ideas emerge when we have an open mind.
- Avoid anything that might focus your mind on its analytical, or "rule-following," framework. Turn off your phone or remove it from the room. Don't multitask. Do one thing at a time.
The reason your brain can't multitask is the same reason your lungs can't breathe underwater. It simply wasn't built for the job. Its design allows it to maintain a conscious focus on a single problem or point of interest.
What people mistake for multitasking is what psychologists call task switching. This is when people shift their attention from one task to another. The transition is rapid—so rapid that people mistakenly believe it to be instantaneous—but such juggling takes its toll on your cognitive abilities, especially when you're managing multiple high-stress situations.
That's because every task switch requires mental effort. You have to disengage from the current task, move your attention to the new one, boot up the appropriate mode of thought, process the relevant information, and then act on it. It's a whole neurological ordeal.
And while one switch may seem inconsequential, perform enough of them and your brain can tire to the point that you can't engage with your creative side.
As Mlodinow advises, that means you need to manage your distractions. But that also entails managing expectations. You can't be free of distractions if, for instance, your friends and colleagues expect immediate replies to their texts and messages. Under such circumstances, the expectation becomes a distraction.
You must set clear boundaries. In the example above, you can do this by communicating when you are available, closing notifications when you aren't, and scheduling specific times for replying to the day's missives.
Give yourself time
- Dedicate full days—or more—to open-ended play. For many of us to be imaginative, we need to relax our minds. We need space to explore our ideas.
A tight time limit poisons elastic thinking. The pressure to get things done (and quickly!) pushes you to get it right the first time. This stress cramps the mind's ability to play, make connections, or try inventive solutions. When there's no room for error, there's no room for experimentation—only the ever-looming deadline.
By giving yourself space, you remove those stressors and relax your mind. And like a muscle, an uncramped mind is not only more pliable but far less painful to use. It can bend in the directions you need, stretch to make surprising connections, and work longer without giving way to exhaustion.
Move past your fear of failure
- Get used to failing. Get used to being wrong. Worrying about looking stupid inhibits your thinking. It can kill unusual ideas—many of which will be bad, some of which might be great.
- Being wrong actually makes you look smart and self-assured. Only a confident person can be wrong and not care about it.
If a time limit poisons creativity and elastic thinking, then fear of failure will kill them outright. Unusual ideas can sometimes leave a mess, especially when they're the bad ones. But if you fear the untidy, unseemly results of failure, you won't be willing to try ideas, including the great ones.
How do you move beyond the fear of failure? Mlodinow's first two strategies—eliminate distractions and give yourself time—are a good place to start.
Another is simply to fail. Try a survivable, low-stakes activity you know you'll likely fail at because you've never done it before: ax throwing, an improv class, baking a souffle, and so on. And when the ax bounces off the target, your zinger goes un-zung, and the souffle slumps from the oven, you should recognize that it's not the end of the world. You can try again to improve. Or you can try something else. Your call.
The point is to grow acclimated to failure so you can better process it in the present (by laughing it off and admitting your mistake) and develop a healthier, life-long relationship with learning (by developing a growth mindset). As Mlodinow said, this won't make you look stupid or incompetent. Quite the opposite. It's often the people who try to hide their failures and unusual ideas that seem to lack self-assurance.
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- Adapt to Change with Elastic Thinking: An Introduction
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Brain-based technologies of spiritual enhancement can induce mystical experiences in many people on demand. What does this mean for spirituality today?
- Spiritual or mystical experiences have particular "neural signatures."
- Technology like transcranial stimulation can lead people toward these experiences.
- The technology appears safe and offers "authentic" experiences, but there are clear dangers.
What do you get when you mix transcendental meditation with EEG-guided neurofeedback? What does ultrasound brain stimulation have to teach us about equanimity? Can a virtual reality technodelic hold therapeutic potential on par with psychedelic medicines?
These are the types of questions emerging within a new field of technological research that is creating brain-based technologies for spiritual enhancement. An eclectic group of innovative designers and scientists are using their education and skills to serve the good of humanity rather than the profit margin. These are the consciousness hackers, technodelic psychonauts, and enlightenment engineers who are exploring the possibility of "technoboosts" that can contribute to holistic human wellness and spiritual flourishing. They recognize that the path toward spiritual insight can be incredibly difficult, with one obstacle after another, and always uphill. Who has time for a fifty-day meditation retreat, let alone a two-year isolated meditation experience?!
Spirituality meets technology
Several commercial products already claim to help spiritual seekers achieve spiritually meaningful experiences with a lot less frustration, including the Muse brain-sensing headband, which uses neurofeedback to guide your brain into meditative states, and the Zendo e-meditation headset, which enhances meditation with electrical brain stimulation. In our new book, Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, we cover these and many other exciting innovations.
"Fool's gold!" some say. But experiences enhanced by spirit tech appear to be every bit as authentic and transformative as spontaneously occurring intense spiritual experiences or hard-won mystical meditation states.
The key insight behind spirit tech is the way the human brain works. There isn't a single "god spot" in the brain, and there isn't even circuitry dedicated to spirituality or mysticism. No surprise there; after all, spiritual experiences, including intense mystical experiences, are incredibly diverse in the way they feel to people, and it is unlikely a single region or circuit within the brain could generate such diversity.
But there are patterns in the variation, recurring types of mystical experience. For instance, there's the "unitive" experience where you feel like your body boundaries dissolve and you merge into the surrounding environment. There's the "insight" experience where you become vividly aware of the pulsing ultimate reality just beneath the surface of everyday convention and appearance. There's the "compassion" experience where you feel bonded to every living being, especially those closest to you and partners in a ritual process. There's the "demonic" experience in which you encounter unspeakable evil and desperately call on whatever powers you can to overcome it with beauty, truth, and goodness.
Those types of mystical experience, and others, have neural signatures. Today's technology can read those signatures using brain imaging techniques. Then we can lead people toward such states, either with transcranial stimulation technologies or with neural feedback that encourages a desired mystical state without any external stimulation.
Yep. Consider neural feedback-guided meditation training. A meditation guide feeds the brain signature of your desired mystical state into a machine and uses a few EEG sensors on your scalp to feed your current brain state into the same machine. The machine compares the two states and supplies feedback to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe you stare at a screen and aim to align two circles, for instance. You are still meditating, but you're no longer lost in the forest of the mind.
Expert meditators, who have special brains with built-in auto-feedback capabilities, have an advantage over the rest of us. Spirit tech democratizes meditation. It speeds up the learning process, decreases frustration, and brings us more quickly to prized states of mind and associated behavioral changes.
Spirituality in the brain
Scientists found out about neural signatures for mystical experiences partly by imaging the brains of expert meditators in mystical states and partly by observing the effects of selective brain damage. For example, Parkinson's disease, though mostly known as a neurodegenerative process affecting motor skills, also makes connecting to spirituality more difficult, especially when the Parkinsonian shakes start on the left side of the body. That means that the damage due to the disease process — in this case, the dopamine circuitry in the right medial-frontal cortex — is implicated in producing some kinds of spiritual experiences. That's a giant hint about how to produce such experiences. Scientists have tried to affect those parts of the brain with specially aligned and pulsed magnetic fields — a weak version of the repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation used in hospitals to treat intractable depression — and seem to have produced powerful spiritual experiences in healthy people.
The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with Dr. Andrew Newberg | Big Think www.youtube.com
Other sources of insight into brain function come from stroke or accident, both of which can selectively damage parts of the brain. Lost function tells us something about the roles brain regions play in producing thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Strokes and diseases affecting motivation often involve damage to the basal ganglia, producing a situation in which the patient has a feeling of no self, with no pleasure and no drive to do anything. Well, some meditation traditions aim for no-self equanimity that seems a bit like that, without the deadly side effects, of course. Could there be a safe way to inhibit or disrupt normal activity in the basal ganglia and see what happens? That's a deep structure, too deep for electric or magnetic fields to penetrate selectively. But ultrasound can reach deep into the brain. Anyone want to try a greatly weakened version of a technology similar to the one used to blast kidney stones?!
Famous meditation teacher Shinzen Young volunteered. He was patient #1 for neuroscientist Jay Sanguinetti. In what was an amazingly trusting relationship, they tried transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS), targeting the parts of the brain they thought were critical to the production of a sense of self. Shinzen reported some of the most powerful mystical states in his entire meditation career. And so did a whole bunch of veteran meditators who subsequently tried the tech.
Spiritual experiences on demand
There are lots more of these spiritually potent technologies, including high-tech ways to enhance spiritual togetherness and virtual-reality experiences that create something like a psychedelic experience without any drugs. They are arriving thick and fast, and the landscape can feel confusing. So, let's close by considering two common concerns.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences authentic? Judging from the reports of people who have experienced both tech-assisted and no-tech spiritual experiences, we think the answer is usually yes. They are the real deal, potentially. But they create opportunities for exploitation by unscrupulous companies who would take advantage of spiritual questers for a quick buck. Our advice: make sure you know who is making these products and why.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences safe? So far, the answer seems to be yes, but there are dangers. Just as intense tech-free meditation experiences can skittle the psychic stability of some people and bring on psychosis, so tech-assisted spiritual experiences might be unhealthy for some people. Similarly, any technology can be abused and used to harm people. So, if you want to go this way, be a smart consumer, just as you study the safety features of a car before committing to buy.
Mystical experiences on demand? Apparently, yes. But while you're worrying about authenticity and safety, don't forget to pause and ponder the possibilities of setting loose in the world the kinds of experience that routinely change priorities and values in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Wesley J. Wildman is a professor in the School of Theology and the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences at Boston University. Kate J. Stockly is a lecturer at Boston University and a researcher at the Center for Mind and Culture. They are the authors of Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2021).
The wise, the old, and the experienced matter to a full and happy life.
- Life is full of complicated and difficult moments, but we can become better at dealing with them. This practical wisdom is a cornerstone of Aristotle's ethics.
- When we practice this skill, we become more adept at seeing situations and people differently — not unlike an artist viewing a painting.
- The elderly and experienced of this world have such wisdom in spades. But those of us in the West rarely tap into this precious resource.
Who do you turn to for advice? When things are hard, and you don't know what to do, who are those people you ask for help? It might be your mom or that one person at work who knows all the answers. Perhaps it's an internet stranger on some comment board or a professional you pay. But the question is: why do you choose them?
These experts and advice givers are an essential part of our human experience. From consulting the wise old lady in the primeval village to texting your doctor-friend, humans have always needed people to rely on for advice. As social beings, we want to help each other. But what role do experts play in our moral development? This is a key part of Aristotle's moral theory.
Phronimos: a sage of ancient Greece
According to Aristotle, a full and flourishing life (or what the Greeks like to label "eudaimonia") is characterised by virtue guided by something called phronesis or "practical wisdom". Phronesis is the ability to find the middle ground in any given situation — to know what is courageous, or kind, or fair, when it's not immediately obvious. But, like any skill, this does not come naturally. It requires experience and conscious effort.
The person who has mastered phronesis is known as the "phronimos." These are the sages who have experienced enough of the world to know how to act and give great advice as a result. As the cliché goes, they have "been there, done that." Just as we seek a doctor about disease or an engineer about building a house, we turn to the phronimos to learn from their wisdom.
This wisdom manifests as a kind of perception. In the same way that an artist might see a painting differently than the untrained eye or how a wine connoisseur will taste flavors the average person will miss, the phronimos sees people differently. This ability is called "nous."
For instance, a naïve but well-intentioned boy might think honesty is always best. Honesty is, after all, a virtue Aristotle would be proud of. So, this boy tells his friend that he finds her ridiculously ugly. The phronimos, though, has the nous to see that his friend is desperately shy and incredibly self-conscious and instead decides to hold his tongue — or perhaps even lie.
Or, a new teacher might decide to punish a student for not doing their homework without noticing how fragile that student is. The phronimos teacher is one who sees the situation properly — perhaps the child has a difficult home life — and offers a kind word or some other assistance.
Phronesis comes with the hard graft of experience and conscious self-improvement. It's seeing enough of the world to know what to do — or not to do. It's to identify someone correctly as embarrassed, scared, or angry when others might miss it.
It's hard to describe, but we all know the phronimos person in our life. Aristotle's advice is to call on them as much as we can.
Text your grandparents every day
In many ways, life is just like an apprenticeship. When we're born, we have only a few basic, natural instincts to get us through the day alive. The rest we need to be shown or taught. That is why it is so important to make sure that we have the right mentors in our life.
A lot of people are lucky to have great parents who teach them most of what they need to live in modern society, but sometimes even this isn't enough. Parents, especially during a child's formative years, are often only middle-aged and have much to learn themselves.
While being elderly is not a requirement for Aristotle's phronimos, it is often the case that with age comes wisdom. Yet, as society becomes more and more isolated (even before COVID-19), and with household sizes shrinking, we rarely think to use the phronimos people in our lives.
In the English-speaking West, especially, old people are shuffled off to retirement villages or care homes, only to be brought out for Thanksgiving or little Ava's birthday party. If Aristotle had his way, you would text them every single day. After all, they have experienced it all before — and made it out alive!
Perhaps Aristotle's philosophy also reveals a deeper truth: how incredibly valuable the elderly of our society are. Besides the intrinsic cruelty of a society that isolates and forgets its old people, Aristotle asks us to ponder what we're really missing in the process. These people — these phronimos — have so much to offer. They've made the mistakes, so we don't have to. We really ought to call on their wisdom much more.
Our program lowers reincarceration rates by 44 percent.
- The average incarcerated person will return to prison seven times. A child with an incarcerated parent is six times likelier to become incarcerated.
- To break the recidivism cycle, our program provides resources that address mental health and addiction issues and teach life skills.
- Participants in our program have a 44 percent lower reincarceration rate.
On Father's Day, when you heard the ancient proverb, "Like father, like son," you likely assumed it was a compliment that the son has taken after his father. It's spoken to show reverence for being the same, from generation to generation.
The prison cycle
Unfortunately, in our society, experiencing incarceration is what remains the same for many fathers and sons, generation after generation. In fact, a child who has experienced parental incarceration is, on average, six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Approximately 10 million children in the United States already face these odds, having had one or both parents in prison at some point in childhood.
Helping parents successfully re-enter society can improve their children's outcomes in life. Research shows that the strength of the parent-child bond and quality of the family's social support system are big factors in a successful re-entry experience. Yet, when the opportunity to reunite presents itself, odds are the reunion will not last. Typically, four out of five people released from prison are rearrested within five years. Thus, a parent cycling in and out of being physically present can be a recurring experience for millions of children. In fact, the average recidivist will return to prison not once, but seven times.
Typically, four out of five people released from prison are rearrested within five years.
As America engages in tough conversations and collaborates on solutions, we want the issue of recidivism and the far-reaching consequences of the perpetual cycle of reincarceration to be addressed. Recidivism is among our most complex and urgent societal issues. In fact, we challenge anyone to find another issue that has so many ripple effects across our communities.
The ripple effects of incarceration
Economics, wellness, mental health, housing, employment — all of these are intimately interconnected. Formerly incarcerated individuals are far more likely to suffer from extreme poverty, homelessness, lower educational achievement, substance use, mental health disorders, and reincarceration.
Even during periods of economic growth, low success rates after prison are a major driver of poverty in the U.S. When fathers are incarcerated, the average family income decreases by 22 percent. Finding and keeping stable housing is also an issue. The formerly incarcerated are five times more likely than the general population to be homeless.
Health and wellness are paramount. Our research indicates that most incarcerated individuals have experienced horrific trauma at a young age, having been shot, stabbed, raped, severely beaten, or seen a loved one die in front of them. It's no surprise then to learn that upon release, the vast majority (about 80 percent) of formerly incarcerated individuals exhibit signs of behavioral health and substance use disorders. This group is also the largest segment to die from drug overdose.
These and other issues correlate with low educational achievement. On average, justice-involved individuals reach only the 9th grade. Almost two thirds (72 percent) of formerly incarcerated individuals do not obtain full-time jobs after release from prison. For those that do, their wages are as much as 40 percent lower than their never-incarcerated counterparts.
Our holistic solution breaks the cycle of recidivism
The cycle of recidivism has a holistic effect on individuals, families, children, and society. These facts and root causes led us to recognize that a holistic problem needs a holistic solution. To give formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to succeed for themselves and those who depend upon them, we realized that we needed holistic programming to support that outcome.
This realization inspired us to form Concordance, a non-profit re-entry program in 2015. We began providing re-entry services to justice-involved individuals a year later — exactly five years ago this month. Headquartered in St. Louis, our holistic, integrated, and evidence-informed program starts with helping participants heal from trauma, mental health disorders, and substance use disorders. From there, we help our participants learn the skills they need to earn a sustainable living and put strategies into daily practice that reduce their likelihood of reincarceration.
Five years later, Concordance can report having lowered reincarceration rates among our participants by 44 percent, exceeding our original goal. Concordance graduates are heads of households, leading families, and engaging in their children's lives. They have secured living-wage jobs and achieved food and housing security, as well as improved their physical and mental health. Many volunteer in their neighborhoods, becoming role models for their children and communities.
Before founding Concordance, we researched the cycle of reincarceration alongside the best minds in the country. Dr. John Roman is among them. He is a senior fellow of NORC, one of the largest independent social research organizations in the country, and based at the University of Chicago.
Our method works
A national expert on evaluating re-entry programs, Dr. Roman attests that he has never seen a comprehensive, scalable program that is as promising at reducing reincarceration and helping people re-enter into society as Concordance. Our collaborative research and analysis of the results of the Concordance program indicate that participants do substantially better than people who are returned to society without getting the intensive wraparound support that Concordance offers.
Of course, we are thrilled with the results from the past five years of helping transform lives and creating real change, but we know greater gains are possible. A growing contingent of diverse and influential change makers agree, which is helping accelerate our plans to scale the Concordance model nationally by expanding to eleven additional U.S. cities by 2025.
The expectation is that as we take a proven solution with demonstrated results in one region and expand it to other cities, we can bring about real societal change to thousands of communities across our country. We can even help some men and boys recast what it means to be the same, generation after generation. Like father, like son.
Danny Ludeman is president and CEO of Concordance. He previously served as CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors. John K. Roman, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Department at NORC at the University of Chicago.
Apart from divine authority, is there an ethical basis for right and wrong?
- The divine command theory is an ethical position that argues that we should do only what God or the gods say. It was popular in ancient Greece and is still important in modern monotheism.
- Plato's Euthyphro dilemma is a challenge to this view, asking if the "good" is only that way because God says so, or does God only command what is good?
- If we do not believe in God, then it's hard to find a source for absolute morality. If not God, then what guarantees that something is good?
You're sitting at home one day, and you're about to dive into a homemade lasagna that you're rather proud of. Just as you lift the fork to your mouth, a voice booms from above.
"Do not eat your lasagna!" the voice says. You frown and are a little irritated by the interruption. This was a favorite recipe, after all.
"Who said that?" you respond. "And what's it to you?"
"I am your GOD!" the voice says. "And I forbid you from eating that lasagna."
There's not much more to say against an omnipotent deity, so you put down your fork and order a pizza instead.
The philosophical question is this: does God forbidding a thing make it bad, or does God command against something because it's bad? It was first posed by Plato in his dialogue between a fictionalized Socrates and Euthyphro.
Divine command theory
Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons
In Plato's Greece, it would have been common belief that right and wrong and good and bad were simply what was declared by the gods. Or, in practice, what their priests and priestesses said. So, when you went to an oracle or consulted your local temple, what they proclaimed was then considered right and wrong. The greatest of ancient Greek sins, what was called hubris, meant being arrogant and proud enough to ignore or challenge the gods in some way.
When King Creon, in the play Antigone, refuses to accept the prophecy of Tiresias, the prophet of Apollo, it is considered a sacrilege and disaster lies not far behind. When King Oedipus denies the Oracle at Delphi, he ends up mad and clawing out his own eyes. And, famously, when Icarus flies too close to the sun, his waxen wings melt, and he comes crashing to the ground. The lesson is clear: annoy the gods, and you'll be punished. To be good is to do what the gods want you to do.
Today, many world religions are not dissimilar. The Qur'an, Torah, and Bible all contain moral and legal codes given purely by the edict of God. Sharia in Islam, the Torah in Judaism, and the Gospels or Paul's letters in Christianity (as well as papal edicts for Catholics) define what is right and wrong. Murder is wrong because it's a commandment. Donating a portion of your wealth (Zakat) is right because it's in the Qur'an. Love your neighbor as you love yourself is right because Jesus said so. This view of ethics is what's called the "divine command theory".
Chicken or egg?
Plato's dialogue, Euthyphro, raises a series of challenges to this view, commonly labelled under the umbrella term "the Euthyphro dilemma."
First, in polytheistic Athens, it's obvious that the gods disagree, bicker, and flip-flop in what they declare to be right or wrong. Ask any two priests, in any two temples, and they will give different answers. Euthyphro, who acts as the butt of Socrates' attack, replies that we can redefine "good" as what all the gods agree on. Yet, even on this, Socrates says that there is no uniformity. In the same way that humans can never agree on anything, the gods will never be of the same mind.
If God only commands what is good, then it poses a wider question in the philosophy of religion: is God subject to and bound by a "higher power" of right and wrong?
Today, we might say this reply is preempted by monotheism, in which disagreements obviously are absent. When there is only one God, how can there be any disagreement? Of course, the issue now is how we understand the "divine command." Not only are there various inconsistencies in holy texts, but there are often as many ways to interpret them as there are believers.
Second, and most devastatingly, Socrates asks, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"
The Euthyphro dilemma binds the divine command theorist in a Catch-22. If what is good is only good because God commands it, then it allows the possibility of jihadism, infanticide, and murder to be right if only God were to command it.
If, however, God only commands what is good, then it poses a wider question in the philosophy of religion: is God subject to and bound by a "higher power" of right and wrong? Thomas Hobbes, for instance, argued that "God declareth his laws… by the dictates of natural reason." God, too, must follow the dictates of reason and morality.
Can we answer the Euthyphro dilemma?
There's no easy answer to the Euthyphro dilemma. In the history of philosophy and theology, various scholars have come down on either side. St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth would argue that it is God who defines what is good, while St. Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, and Averroës believed that God commands only that which is good.
Of course, those who aren't theists at all might find this all rather perplexing. But even for atheists and agnostics, the debate raises a question: if morality does not come from somewhere, then what guarantees it? If we want to argue that right and wrong are absolute, objective, or fixed, then what is it that makes it that way? If morality is simply a human thing, then why not just change it tomorrow?
Life is governed by unspoken rules. How do you know you're following them correctly?
- Most parts of everyday life involve accepting and applying various rules, from the words we speak to the cultural norms we insist on.
- These rules are learned largely by observation of others and are very rarely taught explicitly.
- Saul Kripke asks us how it is that we can ever be sure that we're following the rules correctly? And does it matter?
Imagine you're out with some friends and you have to, for whatever reason, add up two numbers: 432 and 222. It's easy, you think! You were great at calculus in school, and you won't even need to get out your phone. In a confident voice, you say, "Oh, that's 654."
There's a pause as everyone looks at you oddly. "You serious?" someone says. Of course you are. That's how addition works, right?
Or is it? According to Saul Kripke, how do you know that you're doing addition correctly?
The games people play
In everyday life, we all follow a series of rules, whether we know it or not. These can be the rules of etiquette, like "don't burp in public" or "don't cook fish in the office microwave," but there are also unspoken rules that apply to our use of words and concepts. For instance, consider the words "anxious" and "scared." The two are similar but there are also very specific rules for when we cannot use them interchangeably.
Sociologists, anthropologists, and linguists have varying names for these rules, but Austro-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, called them our "form of life." Although the term is a bit ambiguous, it's taken to mean those rules that we accept to go about our public interactions. They're a bit like the rules of a game before everyone plays — "don't pick up the ball" or "start running when you hear the gun."
We all belong to various forms of life, which give us the values we have and the language we use (which in turn influences how we think). It might be, for instance, that your family has a very particular word for the remote control that other families find odd. Or a certain country might have cultural norms that others do not. It's curious how Scandinavians tend to eat their evening meal around 4 or 5pm, while Spaniards eat nearer 9 pm.
Let's return to the opening example. Mathematics is no different. There are certain rules we have to learn and understand, and then we apply them to new situations. We have axioms, parameters, operators, coefficients, and so on, all of which constitute the "form of life" of mathematics.
Do any of us know what we're doing?
Kripke was a card-carrying Wittgensteinian. He argued that while we go about applying these rules all the time, he raised the question of whether we can ever be entirely sure that we're applying them correctly.
For example, if a child or a non-native speaker is learning a language, they will often be corrected by competent speakers. In fact, it's important that they are corrected so that they can, themselves, become the ones who will enforce those rules later. As a speaker learns the proper rules of a language, they will recalibrate what Kripke calls their "rule following consideration." And yet, it's quite conceivable that someone could misunderstand a word, but use it correctly all the time, by luck, perhaps.
In my own case, I remember using the word "reprehensible" quite correctly for a long time, thinking it meant one (slightly off) thing. I was simply lucky enough to use the word only in the contexts that fit my understanding. I was never "caught out." Most adults have a vocabulary of around 30,000 words, and most haven't taken the time to look up even a fraction of those. And, even if you did, what would that prove? Lexicographers are always playing catch up — words morph and evolve as well as die, and new ones are born every day.
But, this skepticism is not limited to words. It applies, too, to things like mathematics. No one is ever shown "addition." What happens is that we're given a list of discrete examples of addition at work and are expected to just understand. We say, "2+2=4, 4+3=7, 9+7=16. You got it yet? Good, now go and do that on your own."
A teacher or a group of people competent at math might correct us as we're finding our feet, but it's a wonder how we latch on to the principle of addition. And then we assume that we're doing it right all along.
But what if addition isn't what you think it is? In the opening example, what if addition works differently if the second addend is three repeated numbers? What if addition works differently after you reach a certain number? It might be that you've just never encountered this before.
I don't care — it just works
There are some Wittgensteinians who think Kripke misses the point. They argue that when you are part of a form of life, or when you wholesale accept a system of rules, part of doing that means that you don't question it. When you play chess you don't spend all your time asking, "But why do the knights move this way? It makes no sense!" You just play the game.
Likewise, when we speak to each other, we're not crippled by doubt that we might be choosing the wrong word. We just assume that we're right and get on with it. So, too, with Kripke's "rule following considerations." To understand a rule is to accept it, not to doubt it. Addition is no different.
But, that being true, it's still an interesting thought: How do you know that you're doing anything properly? We all think that we're competent and intelligent, but what if we're just monumentally lucky? What if one day, we're exposed as poseurs?Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas