The Sloth Epistemology

    How do our minds "move"? Today I will look at the idea of cognitive context.

    "What exactly is a 'cognitive context'?" I imagine you asking, since you are inquisitive enough to spend your time reading a philosophy page. Your cognitive context is the particular state of your mind at a given time, with regards to which actions you are able to perform, and how much effort each possible action would take.

    Think of how many specific features from your childhood bedroom you can recall at this exact moment. Now imagine you spend the next 10 minutes thinking about your childhood, and visualizing your bedroom - and think of how many features you can recall then. The act of thinking about your childhood has changed your cognitive context, i.e. it has changed the information immediately available to you, and the mental cost of every specific mental action you can possibly take.

    This is because the conscious/preconscious/unconscious distinction I discussed yesterday is not static and discrete, but dynamic and continuous. Every time we shift our focus from one object - physical or mental - to another, we are not merely changing the object of our focus. What we are doing can better be described as changing the structure of our minds as a whole - pulling things towards our conscious awareness, and pushing other things towards our unconscious.

    A good concrete example of this can be found in those situations in which we are looking for a specific piece of information that we can't find. The act of looking for information is not the act of focusing on something - if you do not have the information you are looking for, you cannot be focusing on it. The act is that of repeatedly changing your cognitive context, perhaps by thinking about things associated with your target, in an attempt to arrive at a context in which that information is immediately accessible.

    Ayn Rand talks about the "crow epistemology" - the idea that there are only so many mental units we can hold in our minds at a particular point in time. The goal of today's post is to identify a similar cognitive limitation, which I call the "sloth epistemology" - we can only change our cognitive context so much in a particular span of time. The image of a sloth taking a significant amount of time to change its cognitive context due to a sudden change in its environment is as accurate as it is amusing.

    Why is the "sloth epistemology" important? Because to understand it is to understand the importance of rituals - of setting the proper context before you take specific actions. It's a common mistake to confuse being volitional with being omnipotent inside one's mind. Volition merely means we can shift our cognitive context towards a target of our choice - it does not mean we can ignore the identity of consciousness, and instantly hit that target.

    A doctor cannot focus on a patient in between checking memes. A fighter cannot get in the ring right after watching a comedy movie. An artist cannot paint a masterpiece between washing the dishes and sweeping the floor. A person cannot have get sleep five minutes after turning off Youtube. Just like our muscles need to warm up before exercises, our minds need to be set into the proper context before specific activities, and that takes time and conscious effort.

  -  April 23rd, 2020