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Identity and Sloppy Thought Processes

When we say things like, "John is a happy man who likes to play chess," it is often a matter of sloppy thinking. The problem here is the word "is." It implies a well-defined identity, but in reality identity is specific to total context, which includes time and place.

It is convenient to say John is this or that, and perhaps even necessary to talk in this way, but we refer really only to the John we knew (or thought we knew) at some place in some past time. To say "is" assumes no change has happened, and people do change, as does everything. Now, if the time and place we last knew John are close it makes some sense to use such language. We probably don't have a choice. But we should keep in mind the provisional nature of such statements if we want to be clearer in our understanding of the world.

Using too many statements that imply a fixed identity to a changing subject encourages sloppy thinking as a habit. For example, we may ascribe identity to our country - and country is a nebulous enough concept in any case - based on how it used to be, and so overlook the real changes that have happened over the years. As an aside, if we think this is the "land of the free" just imagine describing a small fraction of the laws and regulations we have to a citizen in 1850, and asking him if that sounds like freedom to him. We keep using the same words even as that which the words are supposed to represent is constantly changing.

This doesn't mean we would be better off changing our language every year or day - that would be too much to keep track of. On the other hand, by remembering that the words label changing referents, we remind ourselves to look again at what we see and to think again about what things mean. Things are as they are, but they are almost never as close to our fixed ideas about them as we think.

Another important point here is that many words have no physical referents in reality. Some who study language suggest that to even use the verb "to be" with words that do not have physical referents is an error in thinking. It's an extreme position, but there is a point to it. We say "justice is..." and then list attributes as though there is something out there that we can point to that is justice. The concept is actually one of relationships between individuals, and it very well may change as we learn more.

Notice the difference here. We can more easily agree on what a tree is than we can on what justice is. What a tree is isn't always clear around the edges (when is it a bush versus a tree?), but there is at least a physical referent to point to. Unlike with trees, flowers, cars, rocks and things, we can argue endlessly about what are happiness, right and wrong and love.

The degree of the acrimony in such arguments is often a function of the ascribing of identity to these concepts. There is a tendency to think that we know exactly what freedom is, for example, and to think that it's as clear as pointing to a tree and saying "tree." Therefore for anyone to disagree with us must be a matter of conscious deception on their part, the same as if they denied the tree in front of us.

This unwillingness to accept that people can disagree on what they see and believe without one side being irrational or immoral is huge problem. Generally, discussion - and beneficial resolutions that could come from it - is stopped by such an attitude. The underlying thought process of ascribing a fixed identity to concepts is sometimes referred to as reification. The dictionary definition: "To regard or treat an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence."

Try to talk for a while or write a whole page without using the verb "to be," and you'll see how often we ascribe identity to ideas in this way. In fact, I rewrote that sentence twice just to remove any "is" or "are" from it. One blatant example of reification can be seen in the idea of "the truth." We say "the truth is..." and ramble on as though we just captured everything true about whatever we are discussing. Many true or false statements can be made about a given subject, with no real end to the list, and so there is no total "truth" that can be seen as concrete or final - as the words "the truth is" imply.

This is where we can see one of the most fundamental problems associated with the sloppy thinking that results from reification and ascribing a fixed identity to a changing referent. When we say "this is...," we stop thinking to some degree. It is more conducive to deeper or continued thought to say "these are some of the things I know about this..."

Knowing "the truth" is certainly a mind-closer. Why would you look for that which you already have, right? Instead of saying "the truth is..." it is more precise to say - and think - "these are some of the things I know about this."

We want things to "be" something, to have an unchanging identity. It makes it easier to apply our logic and to "know" "the truth." I'm not suggesting that there is no truth, no justice, no freedom, no right or wrong. What I'm saying is that we want our fixed ideas about these to correlate perfectly with an ever-changing reality about which we will never know everything - and this tendency of ours gets in the way of an evolving understanding which leads toward what is true.

Words are needed to talk about the problems of words, making it a difficult and sometimes confusing subject. But it is an essential one if we want to avoid sloppy thinking habits. I will be writing about this again, and will announce those new pages in the Brainpower Newsletter (if you are not subscribed, there should be a form in the side bar to the left).

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