(tdaxp’s Note: This post is a first attempt to turn my series Liberal Education (I, II, III, IV) into something I can use for a class. It also uses some of my readings from Moshman’s book. While I am not sure if this will be used for Adolescent Psychology, the adolpsych prof likes the dialectic, so this post uses that perspective as well).
There are two leading paradigms for change: evolution by selection and the dialectic. Evolution by selection is the mechanical process that creates differences between successive generations of entities. Animals, states, and even ideas evolve because unfit ones are selected out of the population, while highly fit ones are selected for by reproducing themselves. On a larger scale, and especially with logical entities, Hegel’s dialectic holds true. Hegel postulated that an original idea, or â€œthesis,â€ is negated by a contradictory idea, or â€œantithesis,â€ until the thesis and the antithesis are combined in an idea composed of both old ideas: the synthesis.
This paper will combine the ideas of evolution and the dialectic to speculate on the future of thought. This essay will examine concrete thought as a thesis, abstract thought as the antithesis, and explore the identity of the probable synthesis. Evolution by selection will be shown to be a mechanism that inexorably draws thought closer to the synthesis. Along the way relevant research will be cited, as well as citation of Dr. .David Elkind’s All Grown Up And No Place To Go.
Originally, all humans were concrete thinkers. Concrete thought involves logical manipulations on the world as it really is. Concrete thought has been known as long as Aristotle (Elkind 27), and kicks in for children at about five years of age. The classic example of concrete thought is Aristotle’s proof that Socrates was mortal, shown in three steps
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Every step of this process is verifiable. The hypothesis â€œall men are mortalâ€ can be logically induced from the observation that all people seem to age and eventually die. Socrates’ manhood is a given, but can be proven by whatever test one wishes. Even the conclusion can be verified in the real world, and indeed was when Socrates committed suicide under order on May 7, 399 BC. The mathematical analog to concrete thought is simple arithmetic.
Even though algebra has been known since its discovery by Al-Khwarizmi in AD 813, it’s logical match of formal operations was unknown until it was elucidated by Jean Piaget in the twentieth century. Formal operations is a style of logical thought that holds true independent of reality. Many adolescents develop the ability to think formally about age 13. From Moshman (9), a classic example of symbolic thought is:
Mice are bigger than dogs.
Dogs are bigger than elephants.
Therefore, mice are bigger than elephants
Interestingly, every step of this formal operation is logically false. A child can see a rat next to a dog, and know that rats are not bigger than dogs. A child can see a dog next to a horse, and know that dogs are not larger than horses. A child past the age of five can use concrete operations, and know the conclusion is true. But within the context of the problem, the conclusion is formally true.
The human mind is not just changeable; it constantly changes through life. Recent research by John Hibbing has examined the role of genetics in beliefs. Using twin studies, Dr. Hibbing has shown that genetic factors in beliefs do not appear until age twenty and increase after that. In other words, after the second decade of life environmental factor of belief recede dramatically and genetic factors take their place. Just as Elkind seens development as naturally leading a child from concrete to formal operations, empirical evidence suggests development leads just as naturally from learned to genetic beliefs.
Despite laying out this thesis and antithesis, Elkind has not given guideposts for the road to a synthesis. But by dropping down a level of analysis and seeing how thoughts thrive, this paper will.
The evolution of ideas was first seriously examined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins proposed the existence of â€œmemes,â€ the ideological reflection of nucleic-acid-based genes. While the habitat of genes is always some physical locale on the planet Earth, memes find their niches in the minds of men. As with genes, memes are selected for by their environment and our ultimate judged on the degree to which they reproduce.
For instance, take the meme of Islamic suicide terrorism. Once it inculcates in a host person, its lifetime is probably short. The suicide terrorism meme has roughly the same lethality as AIDS. Yet the evolutionary success of suicide terrorism should be no more surprising than the evolutionary success of the AIDS virus. In the body, the HIV virus is capped with a head made of sugar that prevents the body’s immune system from quickly destroying it. After all, one can imagine the immune system thinking, sugar is good, so why attack these wonderful visitors? In the same way, the suicide terrorism meme is capped with a head made of the sugar of respect, honor, and dark-eyed virgins. Even though HIV and suicide terrorism both kill their host, they are able to reproduce often enough to make them evolutionarily fit.
Harm de Blij has shown the dramatic ways the global climate has changed since the emergence of man. Humanity’s inner world has changed at least as much. Given that Elkind says on page 36 that â€œFormal operations aid and abet [strong] attachments by enabling young people to idealize the person to whom they are attracted,â€ (36) and â€œYoung people become very idealistic once they have attained the level of formal operational thought,â€(50), one should be able to discover the emergence of formal thought by looking at the first documented evidence of idealism.
By this standard, formal thought appeared around 420 BC and spread like wildfire. The first formal thinker appears to have been Socrates, whose questioning about abstract questions such as goodness and godliness (for example, ) lead to his death. Shortly afterwards, the first idealized description of the afterlife appears in the Bible (2 Maccabees 7). Within a few centuries memes had evolved to display heartbreakingly beautiful pictures of the afterlife (â€œIn my Father’s house are many mansionsâ€, â€œThere is a tree in the shadow of which a horseman can ride along for one hundred years without ever reaching the outer range of the shadowâ€) and the foundations of the modern world had been laid.
In a world where most of the population is starving and uneducated, though, formal operations remains the antithesis to the thesis of concrete thought. Nearly all formal or abstract memes competed for a small number of followers, with a concrete mutation spreading among the mass of people. Islam, which has far more concrete descriptions of paradise than Christianity, shows this memetic evolutionary trend.
From the emergence of formal operations to the mid nineteenth century, there was a relatively small population whose minds provided niches to abstract memes. The breakout occurred with the introduction of compulsory mass education. Public education was an extremely well fit meme, because it was the first abstract meme which was able able to develop new lands for abstract memes in general. Compulsory education was a pioneer for all the abstract memes that would follow after it.
However, with a wide segment of the public now able to think formally â€“ even pessimists typically put the proportion at no less than half â€“ growth opportunities for formal memes are once again limited. If half of the adult population can now think formally, this means that no more than a doubling of habitat could be achieved by converting all adults into formal thinkers. What’s more, while a formal thinker (and his memes) might have a huge advantage over others in a world mostly comprised of concrete thinkers, if half the population is thinking formally this advantage is greatly reduced.
The solution lies in biology. By synthesizing what is known about cognitive development with new insights supplied by genetic studies, it is possible to determine what evolutionarily fit memes of the future will look like. This will also describe the synthesis between concrete and formal thinking.
The first stage of logical thinking occurs from about five years to about eleven years, where a child thinks concrete based on environmental influences. The second stage, which Piaget called the â€œfinal stageâ€ (Moshman 7),, is formal thinking based on environmental influences. The switch from concrete to formal thinking is a â€œnegationâ€ of the thesis into the synthesis. The â€œdouble negationâ€ into synthesis takes the novel elements of both (concrete and formal thinking), reverses the rest (environmental influences), and shows that the third stage of cognitive development would be a mix of concrete and formal thinking based on genetic factors.
Gene-directed thinking would be qualitatively different than all that came before. Every system of thinking, from syllogism to predicate calculus, assumes the existence of a neutral objective reality. Never has thinking been optimized for the limitations and specializations of one’s genetics. Yet the literature supports such an evolution. â€œRationality,â€ Moshman notes on page 16, â€œin its oldest, broadest, and deepest sense, is a matter of having good reasons for one’s beliefs and actions.â€ What could be a better reason than that some belief or bias is empirically more natural than some other?
Objectively one can see how gene-directed thinking is more fit than mere formal thinking among grown adults. As one ages genes play a larger and larger role in cognition, meaning that otherwise adapted formal memes that are unable to handle the transition will die as their niche changes. Meanwhile, memes evolved for such an environment will multiple and thrive.
The next stage of thinking, the next level of rationality, the third order of logic, the synthesis of concrete and abstract thought, is genetic thought. From an evolutionary perspective, there is no other way.