Your Soul, and How to Swing It: The Moral Distinction Between Kinds of Knowing.

In a previous piece, I discussed the difference between explicit and implicit knowledge. The conversation was situated in a wider context: the context of advertising and behavioural manipulation. In another piece, I mused about the importance of reciprocal-adversarial loops in generating all sorts of interesting systems. I’ve also written about how to avoid letting your verbal/propositional knowledge take over and drown out your experiential/participatory knowledge.

It’s worth noting that I see this piece as fitting in quite neatly with those, and if you like it, I bet you’ll get more out of it from reading the rest.


Today, what I want to talk about is how to balance knowing that something is the case and knowing how it is to be something, in important practical ways. I also want to talk about the danger of not minding your knowing how it is. That way lives evil and madness, I suspect.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the idea that experts in a certain skill are some of the least likely people to be able to explain how to do it well. I’m sure you’ve seen a friend do something amazing, and then when you ask her how, she’s unable to tell you. This means that it’s possible to be able to do something without being able to describe what you did to get the result.

For me, that raises a very interesting question: what’s the point of the verbal aspect? There are a number of studies performed on split-brain patients wherein it was discovered that patients often could not account for the behaviour their now autonomous left hands. But that doesn’t mean that the autonomous left hands were useless. While split-brain patients have been noted that the ‘lost’ side of their bodies can be uncooperative, in other cases, the autonomous side can be cooperative.

Or consider this: why is it that some of your best idea come in the shower?

If you’re a writer, you might know about the importance of keeping your participatory (how it is) and propositional (that it is) knowledge about how to write clearly delineated. This is somewhat the wisdom animating the advice ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ If you try to think about what you’re writing too much, you’ll leave yourself in a state of complete paralysis.

How is it that our automatic behaviours are often more adaptive? I guess on the one hand, you could say that those automatic behaviours that are adaptive are only those which are practised. This would be the intuition guiding you if you were wanting to resist the idea that unconsidered action could be more adaptive than considered action. In the case of a practised skill, you just front-loaded all the consideration.

Well, if that’s true, then how could someone develop the confidence in their own skills necessary to let ‘Jesus take the wheel’ in the case of their own particular skills? I’m not sure about that, though it’s definitely a fascinating direction for further study and research.

Perhaps the cannier reader will be losing patience with the apparent lack of research. Certainly I could look up whether or not there is a body of research there? Certainly I could, but that would also defeat the purpose and spirit of this piece to some extent. For me, personally, this essay is less about providing perfect information as it is to model a mode of thinking and being that I find interesting with the information and cognitive tools I have available.

Presumptuous? Possibly.

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers were an interesting bunch. I came across an interesting idea attributed to one of them, though I can’t quite recall which. I think it was Heraclitus. Thales, maybe?

In any case: the idea is that it is no good to absorb ideas only with your brain, you have to also use your gut! The ancient Greeks had the belief in some circles that you could think with different organs. When you consider the recent emphasis in Cognitive Science on the concept of ‘embodied cognition’, you get a little hope for the future of the human race — or at least for Western society. Maybe it isn’t the case that we’re headed for a future where propositional being is the only kind of being: a world where we all might as well be books, or piano keys.

But what could it mean, to think with your gut? To think with your liver? Here’s one quote that illustrates the need to mind how we think with our gut:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” — Upton Sinclair

Where you get your bread is literally a life-line. And don’t forget, you are what you eat. Cognitive bias can creep in everywhere. Even hostages sometimes fall in love with their captors — surely you’ve heard of the Stockholm effect? We should certainly watch out, or the avenue through which we get fed might just adapt us for its own purposes.

In some cases, it’s impossible to get a man to believe propositionally the contrary of a claim necessary to secure his livelihood. What’s worse is when in the course of maintaining his livelihood, he accidentally internalizes bad participatory knowledge. I’m pretty sure Stalin once said:

‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’

A bit of background research has demonstrated nobody is exactly sure who said it. These sorts of things happen with famous quotes. Though I hope you get what I’m trying to convey.

You can take my word for it: if internalizing a broken and pathological company culture on a sub-verbal level is the difference between getting a pay-check and not, it’s incredibly difficult to resist the urge. If you want a concrete example, take me. I have difficulty with it on a daily basis, and I don’t always win the battle.

This sort of thing can happen even in situations where the propositional content of the official position is an apparently positive one. If you doubt this, George Orwell’s 1984 is an excellent introduction to the concept of double-think. Can you imagine being fooled by that? It makes my spine tingle.

I’d rather be stoned to death for the truth than live in a lie. If only I could teach my mouth to agree!

For me, this is one of the most insidious aspects of Capitalism: from a Heideggerian perspective, we can only pretend to be okay with commodifying ourselves for so long before we start doing it as a matter of habit. Don’t you just hate applying for jobs? I do. I’m not trying to say Capitalism is as bad as the dystopian regime from 1984. I am trying to say that I’m sick of commodifying myself to eat, because I’m worried about what it will shape me into without my conscious awareness. Don’t you just hate writing job applications?

I think the purpose of the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood might be to defend us from these sorts of situations. Or at least to give us a shining star to aim for if we happen to be stuck in a mire, like I am right now. I aspire to it. I aspire to eating only food that I acquired by doing The Good. Otherwise, behaviouristically speaking, I incite myself to grow into a poor or malformed sort of being. Or maybe a harmful being.

Here are some questions to reckon with, regarding disease between your propositions and your participation: How often do you say one thing one way and do another thing some other way? How often do you do that without even realizing?

Here are some questions to analyse the pathology of your participation: Who is feeding you? On behalf of whose values are you eating today?

Nature works along simple lines: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! So be careful not to make something pragmatically un-broke out of something profoundly broke in a moral sense. You might not like what kind of being you turn into otherwise. Though, all this being admitted, I’m not exactly sure what a good sort of being to be would look like. I guess we’ll have to figure that out too somewhere along the way.

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