Adaptive Thinking

“(..) insight can come from outside the mind.”
G. Gigerenzer, Adaptive Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. vii (a.o.).

There’s something deeply unnerving about scientists, especially neuroscientists: it is the idea that whatever there is can be located somewhere. Localized so as to make it a candidate for treatment of some sort. In this sense, neuroscience took over the world because the world is filled with people who believe things can be pinpointed and then addressed. Forget about the butterfly effect, the butterfly is in our current world view pinned down where it can be examined.

Nothing can be farther removed from the ecological point of view (this includes most people who see themselves as the ‘advocates of ecological preservation’). It may well be that this world view of pinning down, setting apart and solving is the root cause of us not applying evident solutions to the issues we have, in a broad sense, with our environment.

I just started reading again and stumbled across Gerd Gigerenzer which made me think of the thesis I wrote with the apparently-not-so-catchy title ‘Do Humans Think?“. I find myself in one of those sour-sweet moments where you realize the point you wanted to make has been made before (and made better) but where it’s simultaneously clear that the point somebody better than you wanted to make is the point you wanted to make.

Such an autobiographical fait divers normally does not add a lot except that here it kind of illustrates how in some non-mystical way we are all ‘tuned’ to some sort of knowledge environment where we ‘pick out’ some stuff that resonates with us, and with what surrounds us. Sociologically we have seen a century (and more in particular a half century) which was very productive of insights connected to the application of binary logic to everything (up to and including the societal).

But as every era this particular era comes to an end as well because, for all of the knowledge which was created under the mind/computer/politics triad, there are an increasing number of blind spots which are becoming more prominent as we go on. In my thesis title I tried to put this as a slogan indicating that now thinking as a process has been associated to computer rationality (& economic rationality to computer/market modeling) maybe we humans should just relinquish claims to being intelligent in that normative way.

Maybe we should instead just examine how our specific irrational common sense reasoning worked and how this more adaptive on the spot context-sensitive and other-sensitive apparently succeeds in making us somewhat successful in getting us to make progress in knowledge (&, as far as I am concerned, in society insofar we can overcome the current ecological/financial/political crises without a type of breakdown of humanity which characterized the XXth century more than the advances in science).

The blind spot is that there are things of value which cannot be pinned down into a specific spot of space/time (if you will things which are both wave and particle but never completely a specific mixture of the one and the other). If the context is fluctuating and the content always depending on the context, we cannot dream to solve all issues. Worse, if we dream to solve all issues we create an issue which is insurmountable, namely that we do not need our surroundings and or fellows in any real non-instrumental way.

I think that this issue has been created although it is not insurmountable because a dream can be as convincing as hell but it always remains a dream. Reality, hell or heaven it may be, is always stronger than a dream. And the fact is that reality is not such that it can be ‘solved’. Reality is a butterfly that will always fly.

So the key thought is that insight can’t come from thinking everything through, whether in your head or in a computer model. The key thought is that whatever we may gain as knowledge to some extent will be determined by what (and who!) is around us. This is not about the individual having flashes of insight produced by heavenly inspiration, nude muses or practical problems; it is about examining where are the blind spots, the things we cannot express with current terms, and then proposing new terms with which to express them suggesting new avenues of research, analysis and partial problem-solving.

The one thing I object to in Gigerenzer’s slogan is the polarization between the in and the out of the mind. This is already a surrender to the mind as computer and mind as brain metaphors in their neurotic strictness. Things in the mind or not in the brain. Things in a mind or unable to be located anywhere else than in critical discussion between beings building up a language progressively more capable of expressing what is (and even more important: what should be).

In the end flashes of imagination and capturing of other people’s imaginations are a matter of individuals but a matter of individuals taking inspiration of other individuals and inspiring yet other individuals. The people that have the flashes and are able to express them so as to be nominatively identified with them are in some way special (like a diode is special for allowing current to flow only some of the time) but the really special thing is that they would not have flashes if not for this whole bunch of people (us) in their environment which try to convince them and need to be convinced (like a diode without the rest of the circuit being a neat subject for study but unable to express anything).

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