Our higher cognitive functions have two modes: a drive to bias nature towards certain outcomes, and an appreciation of structural symmetry in the arrangement of the universe. In standard three-part models of the soul, bias maps well onto the middle part. Symmetry maps well onto the "upper" part in ancient accounts, but not modern ones. This reflects a real change in how people think. It is a sign of damage. Damage wrought on people's souls – especially among elites – by formal schooling and related pervasive dominance relations in employment.
Bias and symmetry
On top of our basic survival drives are two mental forces that we have to balance to get anything done: bias and symmetry.
Bias is an active force, about bending things to our will. It usually comes with some amount of forced seeing, projecting your model of how things ought to be on top of how things are, being pained by the difference, and acting to adjust things to their right state. Too much bias can lead to pathological levels of mental pain which get resolved either by freaking out, or by deluding yourself into thinking the preferred state is already the case. Perceptual control theory basically models people as made of bias.
Symmetry is fundamentally reflective, about altering your model of the world to resonate with its deep structural features. Too much symmetry unchecked by bias can lead to sitting on your lotus throne believing that everything is already okay, because everything is true.
Bias on the social plane can be a good strategy for getting people to act according to your story of how things are. Steve Jobs is an example of someone who used his ability to project his preferences onto reality – the famous “reality distortion field” – to break people’s preconceptions about their own limits. He also famously engaged in splitting behavior typical of Cluster B personality disorders, such as Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder: quickly assigning people to binary good-or-bad categories. They were either geniuses or bozos.
Narcissism and borderline both seem like high levels of bias, largely on the social plane. When reality deviates from your anticipations a little, you can often smoothly force it back on track. But, eventually, you run out of capacity to align things with your expectations, or they deviate so far that you end up disoriented. For narcissists, this registers as a threat to their sense of self, a “narcissistic injury,” and tends to result in a meltdown. Perhaps borderlines are just narcissists in a persistent state of narcissistic injury: narcissism is a high-bias state that "rests" in delusion, borderline is a high-bias state that "rests" in despair.
Too much bias, and you're writing checks your capacity and social capital can't cash. This is true for non-social things as well. Have you ever seen someone bowling, who’s already let go of the ball, but keeps contorting their body in a vain attempt to steer it the right way? A bowler wants to be a control system while they’re aiming, but once they’ve let go of the ball, you just have to accept the outcome – and yet people waste effort trying to stay in control. And not all examples are this harmless.
But without some bias towards favored outcomes, we wouldn’t even be able to stand upright. We’re reliant on our control systems to get anything done, and it seems right and proper to prefer some outcomes to others.
My model here is that everyone’s at least a little narcissistic – by which I simply mean a little biased. Nearly anyone except maybe some advanced meditators & similar can experience a "narcissistic injury" if something sufficiently narrative-threatening happens to them.
On this model, mindfulness meditation works by training lower levels of bias. This might help explain why it’s often said to be a step towards universal compassion, and universalistic morality in general. When you reduce attachment to your particular favored outcomes, you allow yourself to perceive the problems of others, and end up with something like universal benevolence and acceptance.
The order of the soul
Sarah Constantin recently wrote about a common three-part model of the soul, starting with the Bhagavad Gita’s version:
The Gita speaks of three “gunas”, translated variously as “qualities”, “virtues”, “properties”, of which everything and everyone consists, in different proportions. These are sattva (wisdom, harmony, purity), rajas (passion, activity, ambition), and tamas (ignorance, chaos, destruction).
The Gita says (Chapter 18, verses 23-25):
Action that is virtuous, deliberate, free from attachment, and without craving for results, is considered Sattvic. Action that is driven purely by craving for pleasure, selfishness, and with much effort is Rajasic. Action that is undertaken because of delusion, disregarding consequences, without considering loss or injury to others or self, is called Tamasic.
The tripartite model has parallels in other traditions, though, which Sarah conveniently compiled into a table:
|Gita||Plato||Freud||Plain English||Element||Body Part||Polyvagal Theory|
|Tamas||Appetite||Id||Being||Earth||Belly, Gonads||Dorsal Vagal|
In Plato’s republic, the soul is divided into reason or speech (logos), passion or spirit (thymos), and appetite (epithymia). In Freudian thinking, we have the superego, ego, and id. (Later Freudian-influenced traditions like transactional analysis called these parent, adult, and child.)
Everyone seems to agree that the middle part is self-assertion and the bottom part is more like sensual appetites and aversions. But for the top part, while Plato and the Bhagavad Gita seem to be talking about the same thing, Freud and his followers are describing something very different.
The superego or parent concept tends to refer to the internalized voices of authority figures. Eric Berne, creator of transactional analysis, frequently described patients saying the sorts of things their parent would have said to them, by saying that they are speaking as the parent part. The function of this part is admonitory, and resembles Julian Jaynes’s model where early, preconscious humans hallucinated the voices of authority figures to remember to stay on task, to force theirselves to do things they would otherwise have abandoned as boring. As he writes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind:
Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir far upstream from a campsite. If he [...] cannot [...] narratize the situation and so hold his analog ‘I’ in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle-Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was then capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. […]
Similarly, in fashioning a tool, the hallucinated verbal command of “sharper” enables nonconscious early man to keep at his task alone. Or an hallucinated term meaning “finer” for an individual grinding seeds on a stone quern into flour.
When morality is seen as rules society imposes on us to keep us in line, the superego or parent part is the internalized voice of moral admonition. Likewise, I suspect that in contemporary societies this often includes the internalized voice of the schoolteacher telling you how to do the assignment. This internalized voice of authority feels like an external force compelling you. People often feel tempted to rebel against their own superego or internalized parent.
By contrast, logos and sattva are not seen as internalized narratives – they are described as perceptive faculties. You see what’s right, by seeing the deep structure of reality. The same thing that lets you see the deep patterns in mathematics, lets you see the deep decision-theoretic symmetries underlying truly moral behavior.
A relevant anecdote from a sattvic friend: He'd been playing this new game called Generals. There's basically one dominant strategy against all humans, so when he's playing against a human, he sticks with the strategy, and focuses on execution - implementing the strategy faster and more reliably. This is rajas or thymos - point at the target, and then go after it fast.
But the leaderboard is dominated by AIs and eventually he got to that level. So the important time started being between games; you can't beat the AI on reaction time. So he thought about how Lee Sedol had beat AlphaGo in one game. Answer: by pushing it into a part of Go-space it hadn't explored. It turned out that if he tried to play the strategy that's second or third best against humans, it was totally out of the AI's experience, so he could wipe the floor with it. This is sattva or logos - think your way around the structure of the problem. Take perspective.
People who are new to online strategy games tend to spend their initial games trying to stay alive instead of trying to accomplish their game goals (destroy the other player). This is tamas. Just keep your head above water. Enough food in your body. Hide from threats. Live to fight another day. Not very adaptive in online games where death isn't very costly, but adaptive when facing real life threats.
There’s no plausible description of ego, id, or superego that can do the thing my friend did. But a sattvic or logistic faculty would explain it quite nicely. Being able to think disjunctively, about multiple possible strategies.
Good at school
When I attended a CFAR workshop in 2013, one thing they taught that I got excited about was goal factoring. Goal factoring is basically taking an action you're ambivalent about, and asking yourself – what would be good about this? Once you've listed all the reasons, such that if you satisfied each of them some other way you'd be happy not taking the action, you've "factored out" your action into component goals. You can do this recursively (it helps to diagram it out as a tree) until you reach fairly basic goals. Then, you see what happens if you try to optimize for each of the component goals separately, so you can get a bunch of actions you're not ambivalent about, and do those instead. There's an analogous thing called "aversion factoring" where you look for the reasons something's bad, and try to fix them separately.
Goal factoring was pretty exciting to me at the time – it taught me how to combine introspection and logical thinking. You're not just listing reasons the action might be good – you're trying to list your actual motivations. So, if you imagine optimizing your goals separately, and you would still regret not taking the original action, then you know that you have missed something. The arrows representing motivation in a goal factoring diagram, flowing from basic to compound goals, also represent a causal structure in your model of the world – you implicitly think that the action will cause these outcomes. The net effect of practicing goal factoring for me was to practice the skill of connecting my explicit, disjunctive models of the world with my intuitions and felt values. Practicing this kind of introspection was necessary to become the sort of person who could write things like The top six reasons why I am procrastinating (in which I implicitly factored out my preferences and aversions) or Model-building about desire - a worked example (in which I did explicit belief-mapping to explain something about my motivational structure).
Naturally, I wanted to share this with others. When I got back home to DC, I tried to teach goal factoring to the Less Wrong meetup there. One participant told me that they'd had a hard time engaging, because their experience with any exercise around explicitly describing goals pattern-matched to things they'd been forced to do in school. For instance, they described an exercise they'd been forced to do at the beginning of the school year. The first step was to list a goal for the year (usually for that particular class), and the next steps were about figuring out how they'd accomplish that goal. They didn't really have specific goals in mind, so they had to make something up. Usually something that they imagined the teacher might approve of.
They had effectively been trained to think of reasoning explicitly about goals as something where you have to follow someone else's rules, and has little to do with getting what you actually want. It should be easy to see how this might poison the whole thing. If someone's had enough experiences like that, where something that sort of looks like explicitly reasoning about goals is forced on them in nonsense ways, they might be ruined for goal factoring – and for many other things.
"Mathematics" comes from the Greek word "manthanein," learn. It is, literally, "the learnable things." The Greeks tried to figure out what to call the science of shapes, magnitudes, and numbers, and the term that seemed most natural was "learnables." They thought it was the easiest thing to learn. And this seems borne out by the facts: it's in some sense objectively the easiest subject there is, since it's accessible to anyone at any time. It would be very surprising, for instance, if around the year 1900, someone from a non-Western culture with no formal training in a field like physics, chemistry, biology, political philosophy, theology, or law started producing novel work that attracted the interest of British experts at the top of the relevant field. But that's exactly what happened in mathematics, with Srinivasa Ramanujan. Because math is intrinsically easy. It's the underlying simple structure of the universe, and the sort of thing you should expect to have in common with any rational being.
And yet, I think that pretty much everyone knows someone who "hates math," thinks it's hard, associates it with tedious memorization and passing tests, blanks out when someone tries to use numbers in an argument, or just feels inferior and defensive when it comes up. At St. John's College, it's a pretty normal thing for Freshmen to come in thinking they hate math, and change their mind when they take the compulsory course on Euclid's Elements, since for the first time they've seen it presented as something other than a bunch of rules they have to learn.
This is because, just like my friend in DC had "thinking about goals" poisoned by school, the schools – not all, but most – have poisoned people's experience of math. They think of it as a thing where you have to memorize and follow a bunch of unconnected rules. I'm going to indulge myself and quote at length from Paul Lockhart's A Mathematician's Lament:
A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” […]
Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.
As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language— to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”
In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”
In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable— every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”
Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.
Lockhart goes on to describe the proper way to teach mathematics – to let kids play with shapes, to introduce problems and let them find the solutions. It's a form of play:
If there is anything like a unifying aesthetic principle in mathematics, it is this: simple is beautiful. Mathematicians enjoy thinking about the simplest possible things, and the simplest possible things are imaginary.
For example, if I’m in the mood to think about shapes— and I often am— I might imagine a triangle inside a rectangular box:
I wonder how much of the box the triangle takes up? Two-thirds maybe? The important thing to understand is that I’m not talking about this drawing of a triangle in a box. Nor am I talking about some metal triangle forming part of a girder system for a bridge. There’s no ulterior practical purpose here. I’m just playing. That’s what math is— wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination. For one thing, the question of how much of the box the triangle takes up doesn’t even make any sense for real, physical objects. Even the most carefully made physical triangle is still a hopelessly complicated collection of jiggling atoms; it changes its size from one minute to the next. That is, unless you want to talk about some sort of approximate measurements. Well, that’s where the aesthetic comes in. That’s just not simple, and consequently it is an ugly question which depends on all sorts of real-world details. Let’s leave that to the scientists. The mathematical question is about an imaginary triangle inside an imaginary box. The edges are perfect because I want them to be— that is the sort of object I prefer to think about. This is a major theme in mathematics: things are what you want them to be. You have endless choices; there is no reality to get in your way.
On the other hand, once you have made your choices (for example I might choose to make my triangle symmetrical, or not) then your new creations do what they do, whether you like it or not. This is the amazing thing about making imaginary patterns: they talk back! The triangle takes up a certain amount of its box, and I don’t have any control over what that amount is. There is a number out there, maybe it’s two-thirds, maybe it isn’t, but I don’t get to say what it is. I have to find out what it is.
So we get to play and imagine whatever we want and make patterns and ask questions about them. But how do we answer these questions? It’s not at all like science. There’s no experiment I can do with test tubes and equipment and whatnot that will tell me the truth about a figment of my imagination. The only way to get at the truth about our imaginations is to use our imaginations, and that is hard work.
In the case of the triangle in its box, I do see something simple and pretty:
If I chop the rectangle into two pieces like this, I can see that each piece is cut diagonally in half by the sides of the triangle. So there is just as much space inside the triangle as outside. That means that the triangle must take up exactly half the box!
This is what a piece of mathematics looks and feels like. That little narrative is an example of the mathematician’s art: asking simple and elegant questions about our imaginary creations, and crafting satisfying and beautiful explanations. There is really nothing else quite like this realm of pure idea; it’s fascinating, it’s fun, and it’s free!
Proper mathematics is free. Not just free as in free beer, but free as in freestyle. It is not something done by means of obedience to an arbitrary set of rules dictated by authorities, but something done through the free exercise of a faculty of discernment.
But the schools have taught people the exact opposite:
This is why it is so heartbreaking to see what is being done to mathematics in school. This rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of “facts” to be memorized and procedures to be followed. In place of a simple and natural question about shapes, and a creative and rewarding process of invention and discovery, students are treated to this:
Students are asked to memorize this formula and then “apply” it over and over in the “exercises.” Gone is the thrill, the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore.
What happens to most people, in school, if they want to explore intellectually in a direction that's off the curriculum? Let's say they're halfway through a history course, and they get fascinated with the Mongols, and decide to learn more about them instead of whatever the teacher wants to cover next? Or suppose something else in their environment interests them, like the plants outside, or some of the other humans around them? They don't always get punished harshly, and a few excellent teachers manage to work with students' interests, rather than trying to drum up interest in whatever's already on the program, but, the students usually get put back on track. At least, the ones who want to pass tests. The ones like me.
This brings us to that great test of tests: the marshmallow test. The story is that a bunch of kids were presented with a marshmallow, and told that if they waited five minutes to eat it, they would get a second one. The ones who waited ended up with better measurable life outcomes. This is usually interpreted as evidence of the benefits of a generalized delayed gratification skill - patience, or low time preference.
But Hotel Concierge makes the case that the famous marshmallow test is not testing generalized delayed gratification or self-control, but the generalized desire to pass tests:
I’m not convinced that the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment tests for anything even remotely resembling “innate willpower,” because waiting fifteen minutes for a single marshmallow is a stupid thing to do. The opportunity cost of wasting fifteen minutes is way greater than the utility of one marshmallow. My mom has a sweet tooth—it’s not like the marshmallow was a rare treat in my otherwise Dickensian life—and I’m more of a Reese’s peanut butter cup guy anyway. From The Atlantic:
Mischel: …in the studies we did, the marshmallows are not the ones presented in the media and on YouTube or on the cover of my book. They were these teeny, weeny pathetic miniature marshmallows or the difference between one tiny, little pretzel stick and two little pretzel sticks, less than an inch tall. It’s really not about candy. Many of the kids would bag their little treats to say, “Look what I did and how proud mom is going to be.”
You could have all the willpower in the world and still decide that you don’t want to wait around for a pretzel stick. Conversely, the experiment could have lacked any tangible reward and some kids still would have waited.
That said, if the experiment predicts SAT scores then it’s clearly testing for something. It’s hard to tease out what that something is. Perhaps the delayed-gratifiers want to impress authority figures, perhaps they recognize the challenge and have some internal desire for achievement, perhaps they are simply used to doing as they are told. I’m going to sum all these motivations into The Desire To Pass Tests. And it makes intuitive sense that TDTPT would predict SAT scores and number of degrees, because these are cultural tests of intelligence. It makes sense that TDTPT would predict BMI, because this is a cultural test of appearance. It makes sense that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent,“ because parental approval is the oldest and most universal test there is.
All of these seem like good things.
But I think there’s something ominous about a kid so eager-to-please that he sits perfectly still for fifteen minutes waiting for a marshmallow.
To learn, in this system, is to learn obedience. There's some amount of conceptual thinking that has to happen in school, but if it doesn't end up predicting the teacher's password, then it's not rewarded. Under this hypothesis, for people who are sufficiently motivated and capable to pull it off, they end up learning to think conceptually with some sort of blinders on. To think in the framework the teacher wants, to use desire for approval of their answers and methods as the criterion for whether they've learned a thing right, rather than being curious about how the thing actually is. To internalize the voices of authority figures instead of developing their own sense of discrimination.
It's instructive that nowadays people don't generally think of "grammar" as the art of tracing the deep structure of thought underneath language, but as a bunch of nitpicks about spelling and punctuation. We've replaced the idea of orderly, recursion-compatible thinking and expression, with the idea of following the rules.
People who can't pull it off still pick up the message that conceptual thinking is for pleasing the teacher, but give up on pleasing the teacher - or get tracked down to a level where all that's expected is rote and busywork. For a particularly extreme case of this, we can look at Richard Feynman's critique of physics education in Brazil:
I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.
They hadn’t any idea.
I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”
Nobody said anything.
Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”
“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”
“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”
“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!
I said, “Well?”
Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.
I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”
“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens – they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!
Feynman goes on to describe how the system tests obedience to verbal norms about physics, but not understanding of it.
Robin Hanson argues that this is the point of school – not just a side effect:
How did the industrial era get at least some workers to accept more domination, inequality, and ambiguity, and why hasn’t that worked equally well everywhere? A simple answer I want to explore in this post is: prestigious schools.
Forager children aren’t told what to do; they just wander around and do what they like. But they get bored and want to be respected like adults, so eventually they follow some adults around and ask to be shown how to do things. In this process they sometimes have to take orders, but only until they are no longer novices. They don’t have a single random boss they don’t respect, but can instead be trained by many adults, can select them to be the most prestigious adults around, and can stop training with each when they like.
Schools work best when they set up an apparently similar process wherein students practice modern workplaces habits. Start with prestigious teachers, like the researchers who also teach at leading universities. Have students take several classes at at a time, so they have no single “boss” who personally benefits from their following his or her orders. Make class attendance optional, and let students pick their classes. Have teachers continually give students complex assignments with new ambiguous instructions, using the excuse of helping students to learn new things. Have lots of students per teacher, to lower costs, to create excuses for having students arrive and turn in assignments on time, and to create social proof that other students accept all of this. Frequently and publicly rank student performance, using the excuse of helping students to learn and decide which classes and jobs to take later. And continue the whole process well into adulthood, so that these habits become deeply ingrained.
When students finally switch from school to work, most will find work to be similar enough to transition smoothly. This is especially true for desk professional jobs, and when bosses avoid giving direct explicit orders. Yes, workers now have one main boss, and can’t as often pick new classes/jobs. But they won’t be publicly ranked and corrected nearly as often as in school, even though such things will happen far more often than their ancestors would have tolerated. And if their job ends up giving them prestige, their prior “submission” to prestigious teachers will seem more appropriate.
The best schools, on Hanson's model, are the ones that do the best job habituating students into this sort of submission to authority.
Percepts and concepts
When I think about a "car", the word points to a high-level perception of the world, a pattern of sense-data. But the same word, at the same time, points to a node in a structured model of reality. If you persuade me of a thing about "cars" using arguments, it can affect my anticipations when I perceive a car. This wasn't happening for Feynman's Brazilian physics students.
I think the most natural description of the problem Feynman's students had is that they were not thinking conceptually. They learned words, and how those words fit together, but when they learned a new sequence of words, this didn't correspond to a change in the structure of their anticipations about the world. Sometimes these words were homonyms of words that described high-level perceptions about the world – but the "abstract" manipulations they were performing in "physics" were just language games. They were not descriptions of real things.
This bears a striking resemblance to Hannah Arendt's description of Adolf Eichmann:
The first thing that happened was that his new boss, a certain von Mildenstein, who shortly thereafter got himself transferred to Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt, where he was in charge of highway construction (he was what Eichmann pretended to be—an engineer by profession), required him to read Theodor Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” the famous Zionist classic, which converted Eichmann immediately and forever to Zionism. From then on, as he repeated over and over, he thought of hardly anything but a “political solution” (as opposed to the later “physical solution,” the first meaning expulsion and the second extermination) and how to “get some firm ground under the feet of the Jews.” To this end, he began spreading the gospel among his S.S. comrades—giving lectures and writing pamphlets. […]
A more specific, and also a more decisive, flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view. Nowhere was this flaw more conspicuous than in his account of his good year in Vienna. He and his men and the Jews were all “pulling together,” and whenever there were any difficulties, the Jewish functionaries would come running to him “to unburden their hearts,” to tell him “all their grief and sorrow,” and to ask his help. The Jews “desired” to emigrate, and he, Eichmann, was there to help them, because it happened that at that time the Nazi authorities had expressed a desire to see their Reich judenrein. The two desires coincided, and he, Eichmann, could “do justice to both parties.” At the trial, he never gave an inch when it came to this part of the story, though he agreed that today, when “times have changed so much,” the Jews might not be too happy to recall this “pulling together,” and he said he did not want “to hurt their feelings.”
The German text of the taped police examination, which was conducted by Captain Less between May 29, 1960, and January 17, 1961, and each page of which was corrected and approved by Eichmann, demonstrates that the horrible can sometimes be not only ludicrous but downright funny. Some of the comedy cannot be conveyed in English, because it lies inEichmann’s heroic fight with the German language, which invariably defeats him. It is funny when he speaks, passim, of “winged words” (“geflügelte Worte,” a German colloquialism for famous quotes from the classics), because he means “stock phrases” (“Redensarten”) or “slogans” (“Schlagworte”). It was both funny and confusing when, during the cross-examination conducted by Judge Landau on the Sassen documents, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (“to give tit for tat”), which is a term used in a card game called skat, to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. He himself seemed dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school—it amounted to a mild case of aphasia—for he apologized by saying, “Officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language.” The real point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”? Are these the “positive ideas” a clergyman hopes for in those to whose souls he ministers? Eichmann’s best opportunity to show this positive side of his character in Jerusalem came when the young police officer, in charge of his mental and psychological well-being, handed him “Lolita” for relaxation. After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant; “That is quite an unwholesome book [Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch],” he told his guard.) The judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk”—except that they thought the emptiness feigned, and believed that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts, which were not empty but hideous. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, constantly repeated, word for word, the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he thereupon repeated it until it became a cliché) in referring to every event or incident that was of some importance to him. Whether he wrote his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether he talked to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication with him was possible, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. Thus, confronted for eight months with the reality of being examined by a Jewish policeman, Eichmann did not have the slightest hesitation in explaining to him at considerable length, and repeatedly, how he had been unable to attain a higher grade in the S.S., and why this was not his fault. He had done everything; he had even asked to be sent to active military duty. (“Now, off to the front, I said to myself, then the Standartenführer [colonelcy] will come quicker.”) In court, on the contrary, he pretended that he had asked to be transferred because he wanted to escape his murderous duties. He did not insist much on this, though, and, strangely, he was not confronted with his statements to the police examiner, to whom he had said that he had hoped to be nominated for the Einsatzgruppen, the S.S. mobile killing units in the East, because by the time they were officially organized, in March, 1941, his office was “dead;” that is, there was no longer any emigration, and deportations had not yet been started. There was, finally, his greatest ambition—to be promoted to the job of police chief in some German town. Again, nothing doing. What makes these pages of the police examinations so funny is that Eichmann related all this in the tone of someone who was sure to find, as he put it, “normal, human” sympathy for a hard-luck story. “Whatever I prepared and planned, everything went wrong,” he said. “My personal affairs as well as my years-long efforts to obtain land and soil for the Jews came to naught. I don’t know—everything in my life was as if under an evil spell; whatever I planned and whatever I wanted and desired to do, fate prevented it somehow. I was frustrated in everything, no matter what.” When Captain Less asked his opinion on some damning and possibly lying evidence furnished by a former colonel of the S.S., he exclaimed, suddenly stuttering with rage, “I am very much surprised that this man could ever have been S.S. Standartenführer! That surprises me very much indeed. It is altogether, altogether unthinkable. I don’t know what to say.” He never said these things in a spirit of defiance, as though he wanted, even now, to defend the standards by which he had lived in the past. The very word “S.S.” or “career” or “Himmler” (whom he always spoke of by his long official title, Reichsführer S.S. and Chief of the German Police, although he by no means admired him) triggered in him a mechanism that had become completely unalterable. The presence of Captain Less, a Jew from Germany, who was unlikely to think that members of the S.S. advanced in their careers through the exercise of high moral qualities, did not for a moment throw this mechanism out of gear.
Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed. What could you do with a man who first declared, with great emphasis, that the one thing he had learned in an ill-spent life was that one should never take an oath (“Today no man, no judge could ever persuade me to make a sworn statement. I refuse it; I refuse it for moral reasons. Since my experience tells me that if one is loyal to his oath, one day he has to take the consequences, I have made up my mind once and for all that no judge in the world or other authority will ever be capable of making me swear an oath, to give sworn testimony. I won’t do it voluntarily and no one will be able to force me”), and then, after being told explicitly that if he wished to testify in his own defense he might “do so under oath or without an oath,” declared without further ado that he would prefer to testify under oath? Or who, repeatedly and with a great show of feeling, assured the court, as he had assured the police examiner, that the worst thing he could do would be to try to escape his true responsibilities, to fight for his neck, to plead for mercy—and then, upon instruction of his counsel, submitted a handwritten document that contained a plea for mercy? As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, not of inconsistencies, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content.
On Arendt's account, the man could not think conceptually. He could not think structurally. He could only move words around, and separately, move things around. Is it any wonder that he saw no conflict between his Zionism and his Naziism? Is it surprising that the abstract logistical task of getting people on trains did not offend his sense of decency? That he seemed entirely unaware of the possibility that other people might have different perspectives?
This is less surprising if he wasn't thinking conceptually at all, but was a mere mimic. Mimesis can get you ahead sometimes – but it can't reliably get you the right answer. Obedience can help you guess the teacher's password – but it doesn't show you how to think logically. But we're teaching people the forms, while pretending that the substance never existed. We're asking them to redirect their ability to perceive and model the world, and use it to perceive and submit to the official narrative.
That strategy is an effective way to pass a test.
But this is not a test.
This is your life.