from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007


Cognitive Factors In Reasoning

The preceding section about rights involved application of the Law of Non-Contradiction. This law will enable us to tackle other sizable topics, such as the determination of the ideal, enlightened society. In the next couple sections, we will explore further how we can understand and utilize our mind so that our conclusions will be correct.

Mental processes, be they problem-solving, reflecting on thoughts, or understanding emotions, require observations. From these observations we make inferences, form connections and integrations, draw conclusions. At any moment, however, we can drift away from full mental clarity; we can lose focus on the nature of specific mental events.

Sometimes we may find it difficult to fully concentrate on a particular issue. Or we may have conflicting signals regarding how to approach it. Moreover, we may have emotions tied to certain conclusions that affect how we examine it. Particular experiences can also play a role in our conclusions and assumptions.

Aspects of consciousness speak to us in many different ways, after all. As mentioned, the subconscious is an important part of our psychology. Much of who one is and has been is contained in the subconscious. The mind consists of all assimilated experiences and the interpretations, evaluations, and extrapolations made from them (including countless imaginary creations). To grasp much of this at any given moment is simply impossible. So, the conscious mind acts as a selective filter. It utilizes and relates aspects of the rest of the mind that are relevant at any specific time.

To be precise, we do not always consciously filter and utilize parts of the subconscious. The process may happen mostly automatically, without our direction. In fact, often we may lose track of where our conscious thoughts end and our subconscious input starts. This is most noticeable when performing tasks that do not involve step by step, explicit deliberation—such as driving a car, an athletic performance, playing a musical instrument, or even casual conversation. The skills we have automatized, or infused subconsciously, are allowed to operate.

Yet, subconscious input may be tied to specific emotions. This can further influence how we analyze particular situations or ideas. As we direct our conscious thought processes, then, we need to recognize the factors that can affect our thoughts and decisions. By choosing to do so, we can develop a greater awareness of our emotions. And, we are more likely to notice when we are using feelings to distort our thought processes. We are also more likely to notice when we are repressing certain feelings.

Interestingly, the cognitive mechanism that we use to repress feelings is also the one we use to keep out presently useless information. Information such as facts, figures, names, and memories of skills and procedures that could detract from the performance of particular mental and physical tasks is kept out of awareness. But, since we can repress material that is actually very important—such as significant experiences, feelings, and evaluations—the subconscious can be used also in maladaptive ways.

When failure and inefficacy are deemed unacceptable, we can also repress various thoughts and feelings that reflect badly on our abilities. Additionally, we may channel behavior away from activities that were initially thwarted, punished, or at which we simply faltered. A person might declare things such as “I don’t have the talent,” or “I’m not good at doing that.” As a consequence, one may avoid mind/life-expanding activities that seemingly pose large risks of failing. One may restrict behavior to only those activities at which one is proficient, and rely on this circumscribed ability for feelings of self-worth and self-esteem in general.

The many types of cognitive difficulties we can have are not simply innate mental deficiencies (contrary to what standardized intelligence tests would have people believe). Volitional organisms need to focus on the proper conceptual relationships required to gain knowledge and acquire skills. This must be done among a plethora of other, improper conceptual routes. At any time a person may get sidetracked on the wrong cognitive path. This says little about a person’s innate intelligence. It just points to where he or she (hopefully beginning in childhood) needs the proper information, practice, or encouragement. A more global type of self-confidence and self-esteem can be fostered as a result. (We will deal with these issues more in the next chapter.)

From birth onward, our mind collects data and turns it into information to store subconsciously. Early on as young children, awareness of the environment is our number-one priority. Far before we were conscious of it, our mind performed adaptive actions of integration by way of our sensory and perceptual faculties. Information was transformed into knowledge and arranged according to its apparent importance and relevance. With the indispensable help of language, we were able to name and hold concepts in memory as well as evaluate every event in our life by means of these concepts. Of course, much of this arranging and evaluating occurred subconsciously.

As our brains matured in the many months after we were born (forming more neural networks), our consciousness matured to a point at which we could keenly differentiate ourselves from everything else; we developed a refined sense of self-awareness. We then had the task of determining what our thoughts and feelings were (versus others), and what was part of the outside world—thereby developing a sense of objective reality. We also had the task of understanding ourselves and discovering our capabilities and limitations. As a result, we had the task of sorting out what we were responsible for, and what was not in our powers and outside of us. The people we encountered early in our life up to present day could either help or hinder these tasks. More importantly, they could show us how to best (or worst) approach the job of making sense of things.

Naturally, self-awareness poses a whole new set of challenges. It involves more than just observing the outside world and acting accordingly. Humans are literally self-generators and self-regulators. We are also self-evaluators, which presents a new array of psychological tasks.

We are not born with any ideas about these challenges. We have to acquire knowledge about how our mind functions and, hence, who we truly are as human beings. Sometimes, we can become frustrated, confused, or even bewildered by certain mental processes (as well as by the behavior or ideas of others). It can be easy to get lost in a daydream, distracted by a wandering imagination, upset by a feeling, and so on. Moreover, to explain one’s mental contents at any given moment can sometimes be complicated. We normally grasp whatever is in our conscious focus, while the rest remains in the periphery of awareness, subtly fading in and out, affecting our conscious focus in different ways and to varying degrees.

But ultimately we need to proceed with what we know. Logic helps us to know that we are correct. After all, the belief that we cannot discern the correct from the incorrect cannot be a correct belief (the fallacy of self-exclusion). Without understanding of the concept correct, we of course could not grasp the meaning of incorrect.

By realizing the process of noncontradictory identification, we can discover truth and determine what is valid and what is invalid. Logic is the great cleanser of all the possible confusion about our ideas, our assessments, and our feelings. In the following section, this most valuable asset will be explored further.

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