“Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
— Joni Mitchell
Dogs and cats can teach us something about how humans think.
And about how to prevent them from thinking.
Consider the statement that “Dogs bark and cats meow.”
How many ways are there to say it?
Apart from stylistic variations, there’s only one way to say it. It’s easy. It’s efficient. It takes five seconds and not much brainpower.
Using a single word to denote a large number of similar things makes it easy to talk about them. Using a single idea corresponding to the word makes it easy to think about them. That’s a big part of why we have words and ideas.
But suppose for a moment that a few Chihuahuas find that statement insulting. They don’t like being lumped together with German Shepherds, Bulldogs, and Collies.
A few Siamese cats are also in high dudgeon about it. They don’t like being lumped together with British Shorthairs, Persians, and American Bobtails.
Therefore, to avoid offending Chihuahua dogs and Siamese cats, we will henceforth identify the dog and cat breeds any time we talk about dogs and cats.
There are 340 breeds of dog and 73 breeds of cat. Suppose that you now want to say (or think) “Dogs bark and cats meow.”
You can’t say that anymore. It’s hurtful and politically incorrect. It means you hate Chihuahuas and Siamese cats.
Instead, you must enumerate all the combinations of breeds:
- “Labrador Retrievers bark and British Shorthairs meow.”
- “Siberian Huskies bark and Bengal cats meow.”
- “Beagles bark and Turkish Angora cats meow.”
- … and so on.
By the fundamental counting principle, that’s 340 x 73 = 24,820 statements you’ll have to make in order to say “Dogs bark and cats meow.” Any shortcuts will invite the full wrath of the Unholy Inquisition.
In order to make Chihuahuas and Siamese cats feel better about themselves, we have made it almost impossible to speak or think effectively about dogs and cats.
Humanity has the concepts it does because they have proven practical for millennia in all kinds of societies. The concepts that weren’t practical have disappeared because nobody wanted to use them, or because societies that used them died out.
What does this teach us about human thought? Let me give you another example. Here’s a list of numbers:
Did you read it? Now cover the list and write it on a piece of paper. Very few people can do it. But let me give you the same numbers again:
You can do it this time. Why? Two reasons.
First, you were able to group the numbers, which reduced from 20 to 10 the number of items you had to remember. Concepts are a way you can group related cases, just as you did with the list of numbers. It makes your thinking easier and more efficient.
Second, you saw the pattern (0 to 9, with each number repeated). It further reduced the number of items you had to remember from 10 to three: the starting number, the ending number, and the pattern.
You could do that because you’re intelligent. Together with opposable thumbs and pornography, it’s what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
The bottom line is this:
- There is a presumption in favor of using concepts that have proven themselves over millennia in all kinds of societies. The reason they’re still around is that they work well.
- Long-established concepts typically simplify our thinking and make it more efficient.
- If you want to prevent people from thinking clearly about a subject, then require them to use concepts that are unintuitive, numerous, and vastly more complicated.
Copyright 2016 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.