3 CONCEPTUAL FUNCTIONS OF THE BRAIN: A CRITIQUE OF DANIEL KAHNEMAN’S ‘THINKING, FAST & SLOW.’
Being critical of Daniel Kahneman, “widely regarded as the world’s most influential living psychologist,’ (according to Ted.Com), is like being critical of a favorite uncle. When I was in the incipient stage of adolescence, such an uncle took me to a fair in Montana.
This uncle, whom I idolized, had a few beers in him that day as he always did. Then he picked up a young lady to join us, even though he was married. My memory of her is vivid. She had freckles, large blue eyes, long lashes and a red-lipsticked mouth that seemed to say, ‘kiss me,’ crowned with curly blonde hair.
She was wearing tight western slacks and a revealing blouse. The three of us went on a ride which featured elliptical mesh cages that went up in the air, then rolled in a circle and suspended us upside down. Gravity held you somewhat to the sides as there were no belts inside.
Ostensibly to protect her, my uncle held the blonde while he kissed and groped her. I was left to bounce around in the cage by myself. The memory of this experience with my uncle demonstrates two ideas in lectures given by Daniel Kahneman, the first at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, broadcast on TVO’s ‘Big Ideas.’
It was a discussion of his book, ‘Thinking Fast & Slow.’ The lecture was called: ‘The Machinery of the Mind.’ After watching the program three times, I went on my laptop and watched a second lecture of his on Ted.Com: ‘The Riddle of Experience v.s. Memory,” which he had given earlier.
I had found another favorite ‘uncle’ who fondles the curves of ideas that seduce me. Kahneman is famous for showing that the so-called rational thinkers that guide us are anything but rational. He co-won a Nobel Prize in economics for demonstrating this, as well as founding Behavioral Economics. Here are some notes taken from his speech:
In ‘Machinery of the Mind,’ Kahneman says we have two systems of thinking. System One is intuitive and controls most of the work our brains do as well as most of our skills behavior. System One is a storyteller which gives coherence to most of our experience as well as containing the knowledge we need to prepare for world events. It is a highly symbolic and associative system. System One’s only problem is that the stories it tells are often lies.
System Two thinks slower and tries to reason about what is experienced but according to Kahneman, it is lazy and all too often buys the stories of System One. Kahneman tends to identify System Two with I.Q.
In ‘The Riddle of Experience V.S. Memory,’ he says: “We have two selves: 1) An experiencing self that lives in the present and 2) A memory self that keeps score – a storyteller.” Kahneman says:
“We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories
of experiences. Even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our
future normally as experience. We think of our future as anticipated memories,”
This, of course, a gloss over the wealth in Kahneman’s lectures. Type in his name on Google and watch the videos. I still haven’t read his book but then I also didn’t get to grope the blonde. It’s all second-hand knowledge.
Why does Kahneman’s discussion seduce me? For ten years I have been reading, meditating on and writing about the seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza who is now my favorite ‘uncle.’ I have rejected the academic idea that Spinoza was a rationalist when he was anything but. For Spinoza, reason is just a stepping stone to a higher kind of knowledge: understanding. Consequently, when Kahneman slaps rationalism around, I am delighted.
Delighted, that is, until a thorough-going rationalist shook me up. In ‘The Beginning Of Infinity,’ David Deutsch makes such cogent arguments for a rational view of thinking that I felt like I was back in the cage, watching my uncle groping curves. Is Spinoza just a seducer? Is the vibrant blonde I found in Spinoza’s theories just a memory of early religious belief, reclothed in scientific language to make it acceptable? Isn’t it time to move beyond adolescent fantasy?
I thought when I discovered philosophy that I had left behind such religious beliefs. After several years of tedious classes in experimental psychology, I walked into a required elective of either English or philosophy. I am a poor speller so I chose philosophy even though I did not know what it was.
What it turned out to be was a bolt of lightning that shook the foundations of my thinking. The first book we read was by Martin Heidegger. Even though I no longer remember the title, the memory of what Heidegger said has always been vivid in my conceptual life.
Although criticism is the fashion in academia, Heidegger said that when we read a thinker, we should not begin by being critical but enter into the being of their reason to share it until we are carried out, if we ever are. Scholars call such an exercise, ‘hermeneutics’ and it has been my guide ever since.
My reading of Heidegger carried me beyond him. Eventually I gave my Heidegger library to my wife to sell in her bookshop.
The philosopher who taught that Introduction to Philosophy class will always be a favorite uncle. He also taught Existentialism and Phenomenology. In addition he had a special love for American Philosophers, especially Charles Sanders Peirce who coined the word, ‘pragmatism,’ but later changed it to ‘pragmaticism,’ because others were using his original word pejoratively. Peirce thought ‘pragmaticism,’ would be too ugly a word to copy.
My teacher had a full black beard, smoked big cigars and drove a Saab. The college was in central Washington state and when he went to Walla Walla for a trip, people threw rocks at his car and called him a communist, due to his appearance. When I graduated, I received a fellowship to graduate school in Ontario, majoring in philosophy. I was his disciple.
However, Phenomenology was not in vogue in the new school where the focus was Logical Analysis. I took courses on Hume, Philosophy of Mind, Utilitarian Ethics, Polish Logic and with great expectations, one on Charles Sanders Peirce. During the year I got pneumonia, fell behind in the logic course and finally had to drop it. Kahneman would say this was because my system was ‘lazy.’ The Logic teacher also taught the Peirce course.
When my wife became pregnant with our second child, she had to stop working. I had to go to work nights at a gas station, attending classes during the day. I managed to get A’s and B’s except in the Peirce course where I got a ‘C.’ My logic teacher was not impressed with my attempts to make Peirce a phenomenologist.
Looking back now I realize this teacher was justified in giving me a ‘C’ and in fact, gracious in being that kind. Because I got a ‘C’ however, I lost the fellowship and became a social worker in Port Hope, Ontario. Even though he had indirectly cost me my fellowship, Peirce came with me and was my favorite uncle until I met Baruch Spinoza. Ultimately Peirce would lead me to my love of mathematics and science.
But that wasn’t right away. After four years of social work, I managed to get back into graduate school and took a Master’s in Sociology. My love of hermeneutics led to a philosophical school of Sociology that looked on Statistical Sociology with disgust. “Probably lazy,” Kahneman would say.
Although now, looking back on that degree, the course that affected me the most was ‘Advanced Research & Design,’ which focused on variable analysis. I was lost in the math but loved the idea of variable analysis. We were teamed up with a partner for our term paper. Mine did the math part and I did the philosophy and we got an ‘A.’
Another significant event happened during my M.A. The graduate scholarships were all taken in Sociology so I was assigned to an anthropologist who specialized in studying southwest American Aboriginals. He asked me for a content analysis of The Toronto Native Times, a paper which had just recently shifted from an assimilationist perspective to exploring their aboriginal roots.
I had never done content analysis but I learned the method and delighted in the writings of men like Black Elk and Red Cloud. I found many uncles in that study. Content analysis, where you trace the progression of a thinker’s ideas through his writing, joined hermeneutics in my mind and became a method I began using to understand how a writer gropes the curves of ideas. I suspect I owe that anthropologist a vote of thanks but unlike my uncle, he left me to pick up the blonde on my own. I’m not certain he understood what content analysis was.
In my Sociology class, we wrote papers on a philosophical subject. In those days before computers or copy machines, I was trying to mimeograph a paper on Scepticism but the paper wouldn’t fit onto the cylinder. The only computer at the university filled a huge room where you had to use stacks of cards with holes punched in them to do your research.
The anthropologist happened by and ran off the paper for me. Then he took it back to his office, read and edited it. I waited, frustrated. “You were raised in a blue collar family?” he asked me as he finished.
I nodded. “It’s obvious,” he said. “The left side of your brain never developed.” He then handed me my paper and dismissed me. Once outside I looked at my paper for comments but there were none. All he’d done was insert a ‘k’ in the word, ‘Skepticism’ every time I had used the British spelling, with a ‘c.’
I never saw the anthropologist again and I never gave him my work on the ‘Toronto Native Times’. While it was written sans the left side of my brain, I thought it was excellent. I lost it on one of my 35 moves, prior to finally buying a house.
My M.A. Dissertation in Sociology was a Kantian analysis of social work called: ‘The Tears Social Work Sheds Over Its Necessity.’ Years later, I presented this paper at the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto. After I finished the Dean looked at me and said; “You made them cry.” I never got the job. This paper was lost too.
My adventures groping the curves of academia continued. I was accepted into the PhD program in Social and Political Thought at the University where I had done my M.A. Coming from the hermeneutic side of Sociology, I already knew who to choose as my advisor. He was a historian and chairman of the department, who had brought his hermeneutic friends in to fight the Marxists and Social Scientists. There was constant tension in the department.
This uncle introduced me to Baruch Spinoza and I am eternally grateful to him. I had met the blonde but I did not yet have her in my grasp. I loved Spinoza’s ‘Emendation of the Intellect’ but found ‘Part One’ of the ‘Ethics’, boring, boring, boring. I was repulsed by his ‘God’ talk. We didn’t read the rest of the ‘Ethics’ which was a shame. I was still a Kantian.
Years later after my chairman published two books on Spinoza, I realized why he focused on Part One. He is still seeking the curves of the blonde he found in the religion of his youth and gropes the mounds of ontological arguments for God he imagines exist in ‘Part One’ of the ‘Ethics’. I don’t believe it is there.
Now I believe Spinoza’s use of the word, ‘God,’ was his attempt to understand what science calls ‘energy.’ Spinoza hated anthropomorphic descriptions of the deity.
I have always been naïve in choosing sides in politics. I ignored the battle lines drawn in the department. Although my chairman advised me to chose my PhD committee from his hermeneutic friends, I went instead with two social scientists and a philosopher, all on the scientific side of things. My fascination with academic hermeneutics was wearing thin. I was drawn to science.
Then my wife was injured and had to quit work again. I took a job as liaison for an organization started by prisoners who bused inmate’s families from Toronto down to visit the federal penitentiaries in Kingston. Every week I would visit all 9 prisons in the Kingston area and talk to inmates who needed help.
Finally I moved my family to Kingston where my wife opened an out of print bookshop in the downstairs of the house we bought after our 34th move. We lived upstairs.
Almost immediately after that move, the organization lost its funding and I was once again looking for work. I got on doiing abuse investigations for a child protection agency. I also served as part-time Anglican chaplain at Queen’s university and taught nights at the local community college.
My students turned out to be prison guards from a provincial institution. I told them I knew about Sociology and they knew about prisons. “Let’s take your knowledge
And do a formal organization paper about prisons,” I suggested, using a Sociology method then in vogue called Ethnomethodology, where I would tape each class and then painstakingly transcribe the tape to text.
We finished the paper. I sent it with my name and the names of the guard’s as co-authors, to the provincial prison research department. They sent it right back, expressing their disinterest as they had their own researchers. I gave ‘A’s to all the guards.
After this project I switched my PhD dissertation from an esoteric study on Melancholy to a Kantian paper about the practical knowledge of prisoners and guards. My hypothesis was that their practical knowledge was true knowledge about prisons rather than the mere academic studies of sociologists and political scientists.
After I finished this dissertation, I sent it to my chairman and to my committee. The sociologist didn’t like my Kantian hypothesis. I was told to drop Kant and do a formal organization dissertation instead. “After all, you’ve done the research,” he said. I was also told to dump my chairman.
While I was away from the university, out of touch in Kingston, the ongoing power struggle in the department had been resolved. The chairman of my dissertation committee was ousted and his hermeneutic friends exited back to the history department.
I went home and just sat, staring at the walls for a full day. Then I put my Kantian dissertation in a shoebox and applied for a job with the prison system in Corrections. They asked why I wasn’t applying to be a parole officer, with my education. “I want to be a prison guard,” I insisted. Because I had been well-trained by my prison guard students, I was able to answer all their test questions successfully:
“If you have to shoot a prisoner on the wall, how do you shoot him?
“You fire a warning shot. If he doesn’t stop, you shoot him so he falls outside the wall,” I answered.
“What if prisoners take your fellow guard hostage? Do you give in to their demands if they say they’ll kill him if you don’t?”
“No.” I said.
I got the guard job. I felt privileged. Like the underdog sociologists whom I admired, I would go and live among the subjects whom I would study: prisoners and prison guards. I would write a book about prisons but I had no idea what the environment would do to me nor how it would change me.
I love the job the first five years. Then prison management decided to make social workers out of the guards. I fought the move as the editor of the union newsletter. One of the issues we put out infuriated management so much that they refused to acknowledge the union for several months.
We shamelessly plagiarized old E.C. comic illustrations from their horror line to depict the folly of management. One of our best covers showed the Commissioner falling from heaven head first while his disciples gathered around to marvel at his insights.
Right from the start I traded all my outside posts away to work among prisoners in the blocks, which were relabeled, ‘living units’ before I left and have likely been renamed since. One week each month I worked midnights. On my hourly walks through the blocks, I flashed a light in the upper corner of each cell to make sure the prisoners hadn’t escaped and remained alive. That took fifteen to twenty minutes.
I spent another hour searching for weapons and brew after the prisoners had gone to sleep. The rest of the time was mine, to read philosophy, mathematics and science. After about a year, my dissertation chairman came down to visit for several days. When he saw I was reading math and science he looked horrified: “You have gone over to the ENEMY!” he said.
That was my last attempt to resurrect the dissertation. I didn’t connect with him again for ten years. When I wrote papers, I sent them to Mario Bunge, a philosopher of science at McGill and John Dilulio, a sociologist at the University of Texas. Both responded favorably and sent me suggestions for further work.
Then the anger that crawls like fungus on prison walls began to overtake me to such an extent that for the first time in my life I stopped reading and writing. But then a miracle occurred. A prisoner tired to stick a shiv in my gut. Because I was in a defensive
Posture, the shiv struck only my left hand. Then the prisoner and I were both maced by a fellow guard.
I took the prisoner to the hole and decontaminated him. I forgot to do myself. Next morning my face had swelled up like a soccer ball and my tongue had gone down my throat. The head of my union phoned and yelled at me, saying I’d been trying to social work the prisoner. His anger was due to him having seen a fellow guard murdered by a prisoner. He relived that trauma when he saw the prisoner attack me.
I got antibiotics from my doctor for the mace reaction, not asking him about the broken record that had begun running over and over in my mind as I relived the stabbing and then the condemnation by my fellow guard.
I had the weekend off. Then I planned to go back to work on Monday. Another guard phoned and told me to go back to my doctor and take time off for stress leave. I was booked off for two months and began seeing a psychologist who diagnosed me with Post Trauma Stress Disorder.
Free from prison I began reading again; science, math and especially Charles Sanders Peirce. This was the miracle that came as a result of the con’s actions. I wrote and published a number of articles on prisons which appeared in all the major Canadian papers and the American Journal of Corrections. Later I found that the last piece had been reprinted in a Russian journal of science. Two of the earlier articles were included in introductory textbooks on sociology and criminology.
When I returned to work my mind felt refreshed but something had happened to my body. I began having adrenaline-fueled blowups at work which caused my already stress-damaged spine to go into trauma. I was diagnosed this time with Spinal Stenosis. My legs began to go numb. One night after shift, I stepped on my left leg and it wasn’t there at all. I fell like I’d been shot. Fellow guards rushed to me thinking I’d had a heart attack.
After a few minutes on the ground, some feeling came back and I was able to walk. My doctor booked me off for another month and sent me to a physical therapist where I learned exercises for my spine, the ones I continue to this day. I also saw a specialist after the usual waiting period. A tall Asian man who surely practiced Zen, he steepled his fingers and said all I could do was continue exercising. “My wish for you is that you do not end up in a wheelchair too soon,” he concluded.
Ten years later I am exercising and still active though using a walker. I couldn’t risk the leg going numb again while working with prisoners. I decided to go down in rank and work the blocks only on midnights. The guards call this becoming a ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ I started writing my book; “How To Play Life: Reason Inside a Prison.”
I was inspired by Ben Hogan’s book on the foundations of playing golf. That book is in the process of being downloaded to my blog. Reason, however, failed me and I became so depressed I left myself open to situations where prisoners could kill me. Unfortunately they liked me though they would have done it for drugs. Ethically I couldn’t do anything like that.
Then one Mother’s Day at 5AM I found a young prisoner who had hung himself. A suicide note, left for his mother said: “I can’t be a good Christian.” After cutting him down, I laid him out on the cement floor of the block and attempted the kiss of life though he had been dead a long time. The cons watched silently from their cells. When his body was taken away, I completed the paperwork and went home exhausted, falling right into bed.
Several hours later I woke up and went into my bathroom. When I happened to glance in the bathtub I started screaming. My wife had chosen that day to clean my white nylon golf bag by soaking it in the tub. All I could see was the dead prisoner, floating there in the water, staring up at me. It took awhile before I stopped seeing the hallucination.
My terrified wife began to discuss where I might get real help and why it would be a good idea to leave the prison behind. One day at a restaurant, I blew up when she mentioned the matter again. Creating a scene, I stomped off to the washroom, threw cold water on my face and considered what had just happened. My wife was right.
Another psychologist recommended I see a placement officer in corrections. My wife went with me. I began to tell the officer what had happened and I broke down in tears, recounting the events. ‘The hair just went up on the back of my neck,” the officer said. “I’m putting you on disability as of now. You’re not going back inside again.”
After sixteen and a half years in prison, I left on what all the guard’s derisively call, ‘Loony Leave.’ But I brought prison home with me. My adrenaline outburst were frequent as I continued to seek a cure in reason. One day, reading a book on quantum theory, I was led to the blog of five Russian Topas theorists in Siberia. They had put a European philosopher’s paper on their blog. He had written on Quantum Gravity, Knots, Topas Theory and Spinoza.
I got out my old Spinoza selections from grad school and reread the ‘Emendation of the Intellect’. Spinoza talked about seeking: ”…for a remedy…as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him unless a remedy be found…”
Spinoza goes on to say this remedy is in; “…knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.” Much later I found out that Spinoza was also struggling with what we today would call Post Trauma Stress Disorder. His writings were his way out.
Years later I can say Spinoza has helped me cope with my adrenaline outbursts caused by PTSD. You can ask my wife about the difference. Cope, not cured. While meditating daily on Spinoza’s writing has helped cure my intellect to a great degree, my body still reacts with anger at the slightest provocation. PTSD is a body, not a mental problem. Fight or flight emotions operate out of the primal brain, not the conceptual and feeling parts of the evolved brain.
I still wake up with anger most days. While my wife swims, I meditate on quotes by Spinoza and other thinkers. I have them on cards carried in my back pocket. I tune up my brain to be in harmony with the laws of nature which Spinoza says is our ‘divine duty.’ Consequently, I let reason and reflection take me away from the bewitchment of my intellect, the storytelling part of the brain which Kahneman calls System One and I call the React function of the brain. My anger is replaced by joy until the next react situation.
How Spinoza helped me is demonstrated in writings on my blog: ‘Spinoza on Science & Stress.’ I may eventually rename my blog: ‘Shanks, Spinoza, Shanks: A Prison Guard’s Odyssey Through Reason to Understanding.’ A shank is a homemade prison knife. Spinoza’s enemies stabbed him with a shank but his thick coat protected him from being wounded. He kept this coat for the rest of his life.
Kaneman’s emphasis on the storytelling of what he calls System One thinking, created a surge of energy through my brain. The surge we can call understanding, or, as Wittgenstein says: “…now I know how to go on.” Memories, our experiences, are our stories.
I have just told you the story of the ups and downs in the cage of my life and how I groped the curves of the blonde of understanding to make sense of my life. I call our life, ‘cages’ because Spinoza says our storytelling is always guided by self-interest. Objectivity is found in mathematics but not in the stories humans use to explain their lives. Not even in the stories of mathematics.
Now I have paid homage to Kahneman. It is time to take him to task. Peirce said the best form of thinking is in a diagram so I will begin with a diagram that has been the result of a month of meditation. Following is the explanation:
3 Conceptual Functions of the Brain
(See Spinoza’s 3 kinds of knowledge in the ‘Ethics,’ pt II, Prop. 40, Sch, 2
& Pt II of ‘God, Man & His Well-Being’, especially Chp I & II.
1) React: Storytelling as fantasy, stimulus response, body and emotions, skilled behaviour, language as association = bewitchment of intellect. This function takes place in the survivor instincts of the primitive brain and the amygldala.
2) Reason: Express relations with things, intellect (total rational thoughts up to the present, stored in the memory), analytical, mathematics (including probability and statistics) and critical.
Note: Reason is not lazy but intentional, i.e. selective to what interest an individual doing the work energy has given the individual to do. Located in the cerebral cortex.
3) Reflect: empathetic feelings, musing on the whole, what the ancient Greeks called, ‘demonstration’ i.e. truth inside us, storytelling as art and wisdom. Located in the frontal lobes of the brain.
1. Functions: One to one or one to many relations to things
2. Empathy: “…the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending), the object of contemplation. (Oxford Dictionary)
3. Feelings: “superposition of body and cognition (mind). “ See Antonio Damasio’s books: Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza and Self Comes To Mind.
4. Understanding: “Now I know how to go on,” in each function. In the react function, this is skilled behaviour and storytelling as fantasy. In the reason function, this is analytical, critical and logical thinking influenced by the stories either of the react or reflect functions.
Understanding is fulfilled in the reflect function as a feeling of what we experience as true, real and eternal.
Reason is a parasite on our experiences and the emotions or feelings that accompany them, i.e. reason is intentional. In the reflect function, we muse on the whole and tell stories in art that display wisdom.
Note – Location of the functions in the brain is somewhat misleading. What we are outlining is areas of the brain where the function would stop if injured. However, the brain is an organ of homeostasis, i.e. it is plastic.
Now for the explanation. Kahneman admits that ‘system’ is an inadequate word to describe what he calls, ‘Systems One and Two.’ Function is a much better word. However, his main error, one he shares with most psychologists and scientists, is seeing the brain as having only two functions. As well, he confuses emotions with feelings. David Deutsch also labours under this error. We have seen a resurgence of rationalism in scientists.
So far I have found only three thinkers: William James, Spinoza and Damasio that recognize the third function, which I call reflect, and who separate emotions from feelings. The reality of this third function is demonstrated when the frontal lobes of the brain are injured. While this injured person can seem almost normal, in their react and reason functions, they have lost that most important function which makes us human: empathetic feelings. (See Damasio’s Descartes’ Error).
I believe the evolutionary apex of human brains is the feeling of being one with nature, (universe, reality, truth, etc). This is the fullness of understanding and is why Spinoza says reason is just a stepping stone to understanding.
The second place I disagree with Kahneman is in describing what he calls the ‘Second System,’ and when he describes what I call reason, as ‘lazy.’ As seen in the diagram, reason is not lazy but intentional. Reason is selective to what interests us and to the work energy has given us to do.
A mechanic may not be interested in S=K logW but he will find out why the mathematicians car exhaust system is not working. The mathematician probably just wants his exhaust fixed and doesn’t care why it isn’t working. Both are interested in entropy but for different reasons and for different work.
So we come to the 3 functions of the brain. React is the foundation of our skilled behaviour and most of the work our brain does. We practice a skill set like eating with utensils or driving a car, until they become automatic. We respond to every stimulus we experience, mostly automatically. These responses usually come from our body and emotions and do not need feedback from reason.
This is why I suspect the medical profession misdiagnoses PTSD which is a body problem. Mental solutions aren’t much help. As William James said, a doctor understands alcoholism differently than an alcoholic does. Reason doesn’t help alcoholics or PTSD sufferers with their problems.
Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, saw the inefficiency of reason. This is why he wrote: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” (Step 2 in his 12 Steps.) Wilson, tutored by William James, realized that we need the third function of our brain’s; reflection. This understanding is the genius of AA and why it has been so effective. Part of empathetic feeling is associating with like-minded individuals to find an answer in a higher power or truth.
This is why humans band together in religion or in like-minded ideologies such as communism. We need a higher truth to guide our reactive brain. Reason does not provide it. Rationalism and atheism are higher powers for individuals who do not believe in higher powers.
This is, of course, part of the storytelling of the react function of our brains. Kahneman deserved a Nobel prize for his discovery of storytelling. He just doesn’t seem to realize that storytelling can continue in the reflect function of the brain. This is a function he does not acknowledge.
I have described the react function as fantasy storytelling. This is because everystory we tell centers around our own self-interest and desires. Our language becomes associative and as Wittgenstein said; “bewitches our intellect.” Generalities and universals are euphemisms which display the ‘webs of belief.’ (W.V. Quine) that enable us to ignore the real things in our experience. For instance, we use words like ‘democracy’ to cover up the fact that our country is invading a country with different belief systems, such as the U.S. did in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan.
This is a large example but we can look at how associative language bewitches our intellect in everyday thinking and actions. All prejudice is derived from this bewitchment. The react function is prejudiced towards our self-interest and desires, applying some type of negative generalities or universals to things (including other people) and to actions we do not like.
The reason function is an accountant in our brains that expresses our relations with things. This accountant adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides the thing we experience, separating them into parts or combining them into a whole. Reason is analytical, logical, critical and like all of true accountancy, simply summing up on a ledger sheet, whatever it finds. Reason uses language and mathematics (including probability and statistics), to explore things in our experience.
Unfortunately, reason is an accountant controlled by the storytelling CEO’s in our brain who own our belief systems. If our belief system is controlled by the react function, the numbers won’t add up properly.
This is why Euclid said the common notions (or axioms) of equality and the whole is greater than the part, must be foundation of all true thinking. Spinoza built his foundations of knowledge upon this edifice of Euclid’s in the ‘Emendation of the Intellect,’ and the ‘Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being,’ and then expressed these truths in ethics, religion and politics. Spinoza discovered that we must cure our intellect from bewitchment, which is why he wrote the ‘Emendation.’
The intellect, as Spinoza understood, is the totality of our rational thinking up to the present, but if it is taken over by the react function, what we will express is entropy rather than energy. Then the intellect needs to be cured so we can carry out our ‘divine service which is to obey the laws of nature.’
While there is more to be said about reason we must first move on to the reflect function. When we discuss David Deutsch’s ‘The Beginning of Infinity,’ we will return to reason, discussing why this book shook up my personal belief system.
When examining the reflect function, we must remember that the brain is plastic and operates by homeostasis and that the word, ‘function’ is a metaphor to describe parts or relations that play their role in the whole. This is never more true than when we discuss the reflect function.
I have described the reflect function as empathetic feelings, musings on the whole, what the ancient Greeks meant by ‘demonstration,’ and storytelling as art and wisdom. The Oxford Dictionary has a profound meaning for empathy: …”the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending), the object of contemplation.” Following Antonio Damasio, I have defined feelings as: “superposition of body and cognition, (mind).
No word can cover the spectrum of experience more than the word, ‘feeling,’ covering the distance from profane to sacred. Probably no experience has been more misunderstood than that we label, ‘feelings.’ When I wake up with spinal stenosis pain from a restless night and my functional bowel syndrome is crying out in revolt, I feel like what it is I need to do on the toilet.
My brain is unhappy and usually angry (my PTSD) so I have learned to tune up my brain in harmony with being, as Spinoza says, part of the whole of nature whose order I follow. While my wife swims, I sit in my car, meditating with cards on the thoughts of Spinoza and other thinkers. At the same time I observe nature in the park as it unfolds in front of me.
Maybe it will be baby squirrels scampering around, trying to get their mother to play. She wants no part of it so they give up and chase each other in circles around the tree. I read through my cards and on this day, Spinoza’s words in Letter 40, stand out: “The power of thought to think or to comprehend things is no greater than the power of Nature to be and to act.”
I watch the squirrels and meditate on this passage. Anger turns to joy. This is empathetic feeling. My wife was probably the early depository of my angry feelings (‘you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at allllll”). When she returns to the car, she is received by the man with whom she fell in love. You can ask her!
I have been counseled by psychologists and read what academics say is the cure for PTSD but empathetic feeling is the only cure I have found that works for me and it is as AA says, ‘a minute by minute, day by day process. The ‘whole of nature is my higher power but you can call it anything you like. Even God.
The ancient Greeks discovered this higher power in themselves and they called it, ‘demonstration.’ As Aristotle said:
“Now that which is per se necessarily true, and must necessarily be
thought so, is not a hypothesis nor yet a postulate. For demonstration has
not to do with reasoning from outside by with the reason dwelling in the soul,
just as the case with the syllogism. It is always possible to raise objection to
reasoning from outside but to contradict the reason within us is not always possible.”
However, an important caution is needed here. I believe the ‘how’ of empathetic feeling works for everybody but not my ‘what.’ Meditating on nature is probably okay for everybody in varying degrees but Spinoza? I have spent ten years reading and meditating on Spinoza’s writings and only in the last few years has this meditation come together in empathetic feeling.
Up till then my understanding of Spinoza had been more prescriptive than empathetic feeling. Spinoza couched the gem of empathetic feeling in metaphysics which reaches its crescendo in Part 5 of the Ethics. You have to pick out his theory of knowledge as you would nuggets in a gold mine, one by one, embedded as they are in a lot of metaphysical slag. This is why most academics call Spinoza a ‘rationalist.’ They have not dug deep enough.
Why did I need Spinoza? As Igor says in Young Frankenstein; my brain could be classified as ‘abby normal.’ My react function does not work right as it questions when it should just respond to a stimulus. I work backwards to a skill set from theory to practice. Moreover my brain is very careless in its treatment of the facts it has learned. It retains the ideas but not the precise nomenclature.
Let me illustrate how this works. When I was in my deepest throes of PTSD reactions, my wife used to quote Alcoholic Anonymous’ Twelve Steps, the Prayer of Serenity and A.A. slogans like” “Let Go and Let God,’ ‘Easy Does It,’ ‘One Day at A Time,’ Keep It Simple,’ ‘Think, Listen and Learn.’
My response was annoyance and anger.
After reading Spinoza about five years, I decided to examine why my wife, who is not an alcoholic, (doesn’t even drink), found such consolation in AA. So I read a biography of Bill Wilson and the history of AA. I discovered that, when Bill was in a hospital for his
Alcoholism, a friend brought him William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.’
I had read James’ book forty years ago and I still had a copy. So I read it again and discovered why AA has been so effective. Bill read James’ book as an alcoholic, not as an academic or a doctor, and turned James’ ideas into empathetic feelings that alcoholics could understand and follow. I didn’t use the words, ‘empathetic feelings’ then, but I got the idea.
Today I have the Twelve Steps in front of me on my desk and the Prayer of Serenity on the wall next to my TV. In the last few years I have thought I should write an AA like manual for PTSD sufferers. It would begin with a slight paraphrase of the first two of the Twelve Steps: 1) We admitted we were powerless over PTSD – that our lives had become unmanageable. 2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could return us to sanity.”
The rest of the Twelve Steps are directed to the vagaries of alcoholics and not as much to PTSD sufferers and I have some problem with the God talk, which I describe scientifically as ‘energy.’ Step 3 might be paraphrased as: Came to realize that PTSD is a body problem that causes fight or flight instead of turning to a higher power.
PTSD is not a problem of will like alcoholism. It is a problem of runaway chemicals in the body that thinking has no control over. The solution to PTSD, I believe, is the empathetic feeling I have demonstrated but my very use of those words show how ineffective my Abby Normal brain would be in helping other PTSD sufferers find this solution.
Hopefully, some PTSD sufferers with normal brains will frame Twelve Steps that will work. I would love to play a William James’ role.
What has preceded is my storytelling of empathetic feeling, hopefully it caught the spirit of it. Some people think theory is not storytelling but of course it is. All language is a metaphor that is caught in the gap between what we know and what we believe. We can never cross that gap with knowledge but empathetic feeling is a leap of understanding with the whole of nature whose order we follow if we have tuned up our brains to receive what is true and real.
Understanding is one of those words we often misunderstand. Wittgenstein said understanding is not a mental product but rather the insight of; ‘Now I know how to go on.” It occurs at all levels of the three functions of the brain. A mechanic has to understand what is wrong with a car to fix it. (react function). A mathematician has to understand how an equation works to describe things we experience, (reason function).
When we reflect, we understand how our story is part of the whole and what we believe (empathetic feeling function). Just last week I saw Iain McGilchrist on TVO’s Big Ideas. He discussed the difference between the left and right hemispheres of our brains. Or simply put, McGilchrist says the left side of our brain, knows and the right side of our brain, believes.
He says the left side of the brain’s knowledge has come to predominate in our technological society and we are in danger of losing our insight of the whole. I immediately went out and bought McGilchrist’s book; The Master and His Emissary.’
Having just begun to read it, I cannot yet comment but he has helped me understand why David Deutsch’s book: ‘The Beginning of Infinity’, challenged my beliefs which are predominantly Spinozian. Deutsch’s book is a tour de force of left side brain thinking or rationalism. He is a master at exposing inconsistent and illogical leaps of faith in belief systems.
McGilchrist says we reason in both hemispheres of our brain but reason has a different role in the right hemisphere. He is correct but I prefer to call the right side reasoning, ‘understanding as Spinoza does. Reason in the left hemisphere, Spinoza would say if he used such terminology, is a stepping stone to the right side, or understanding. Because I have been so busy making this distinction, I have downgraded reason.
Spinoza certainly did not downgrade reason but demonstrated its true function which is why he has been mistakenly classified as a rationalist. Empathetic feeling has to be built upon reason or it becomes an airy fairy belief system like so much new age thought of our day.
In my opinion, Deutch has done magnificent work demonstrating what Spinoza calls; beings of reason. As Spinoza says, “ Some things are in our intellect and not in nature, “ so these are only our own work, and they help us to understand things distinctly. Among these we include all relations which have reference to different things. These we call beings of reason.” (Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being in Edwin Curley’s; The Collected Work of Spinoza, p. 92)
Deutsch does good work on reason but he appears to have lost the empathetic function of our brain except for a stunted belief in the efficacy of our reasoning abilities.
So thanks to my ‘Uncle’ Kahneman’s discussion of the react function of our brain and its storytelling, I have been able to rattle around in the cage of my up and down experience. Sometimes I might be critical of my ‘uncle’ but I am always thankful for the insights he has given me.
I have been able to see beyond the makeup and tight clothes of the blonde, to the humanity that she and every individual shares. As Spinoza says: “As for marriage… the love of both men and women has for its cause not merely physical beauty but especially freedom of the spirit.” (Ethics, Part 1, Appendix 20) I didn’t marry a blonde but a brunette and this experience has certainly been a demonstration of ‘freedom of the spirit.”
My life with her has been a journey through react, reason and empathetic feelings and is a good metaphor for the truths I have been trying to share in this discussion of my ‘uncle’ Kahenman.