Monday, May 2, 2011

The Epistemological Cause of Mental Lethargy?

Last week I asked a question about how evasion causes pain. Working through a similar vein, a new question comes: What are the causes that give rise to the desire to maintain mental lethargy; i.e., to not think? In other words, what is it that makes people continue to want to keep from thinking and instead mentally coast? And this is excluding the obvious where someone may be trying to maintain an evasion through such means.

This, I think, is an important emotional aspect that needs to be addressed for anyone trying to develop good mental habits, especially a rational psycho-epistemology. My hypothesis is that by accepting a bad epistemology (e.g. faith) people sets themselves up so that there's actual pleasure in being mentally lazy, so by stopping their internal processes they feel a pleasant sensation that encourages them to keep doing it. As to how many varieties of epistemological causes there are is what I'm wondering.

This question came to me when I was introspecting on the nature of my thought processes right as I was starting my personal studies, as I noticed something extremely interesting and disturbing. By that time I had already accepted how important knowledge is to my life and was actively undertaking to exert myself to pursue it, and yet I noticed that when watching one of my favorite science television shows that if I "shut off" my mind and relaxed my attention that I'd experience a cooling gush of endorphins that made me want to keep my mind inactive. This was not a first-time incident, for I recognized I used to do this frequently in the past, and doing so turned me into a near vegetable where my television activities were reduced to watching colors dance on the screen. Despite "enjoying" the television show, it always unnerved me that I couldn't remember the characters' names or what the show was about, and that was because my mind never comprehended it to begin with, being in the computer's equivalent of sleep mode.

Could this be why some people find it so easy to drift mentally through life? Because doing so may give them the same kind of high it once did for me? This pleasure, I think, is rooted in one's ideas and epistemological methods and is not inherent as default in the nature of human beings. I know because after being disturbed by the endorphin release I got from mentally lazing I from then on strove to fight against it and push myself to think, and in doing so I changed myself so that thinking itself became physically pleasurable and shutting my mind off switched to making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and depressed. By restructuring my mind I was able to change how I responded. The next question is: Why did such pleasure arise in those lazy moments to begin with?

My hypothesis is that by accepting bad epistemological methods people can make it so that thinking becomes uncomfortable, even literally painful (in a psychological sense). A rational epistemology helps you identify facts of reality correctly, helps you use them to improve your life, and gives you the ability to sustain mental growth continually. At the opposite, a bad epistemology will either make it harder to identify facts of reality or even impossible; make it much harder, if not impossible, to remember those identifications, prevent you from using your knowledge to improve your life, and stunt your ability to grow from then on. In my bad formal schooling, I remember, it was a strain to try and understand some things, nearly impossible to employ the curriculum outside of the classroom, and almost impossible to remember the lessons just weeks after they were taught. This last is particularly demotivating, as I remembered the distress I felt in knowing I kept forgetting the same math concepts despite the fact I kept re"learning" them four years in a row. Those concepts just refused to stay in my mind, so each new school year I was exposed to them as if they were entirely new.

Given how crippling bad epistemology can be, I think people derive pleasure from mental lethargy because their thinking tools are damaged or entirely useless. "Thinking" takes a lot more effort than is necessary and almost never amounts to anything useful cognitively, so people take pleasure in not-thinking because trying to do so is such an uncomfortable and stressful process. Imagine adopting a bad exercise regiment that's popularly touted as good and practical, and yet in reality is very damaging and consistently leads to pain and injury. It'd probably feel pretty good to stop doing it, wouldn't it? You'd be very motivated to avoid such a process.

This could explain why so many people give up self-directed learning after they leave learning institutions, particularly public schools. Those schools teach bad methods that lead to uncomfortable mental processes and useless cognitive content, and the student body at large unfortunately forms the view that this is what proper thinking and learning is all about, thereby minimalizing their priority in their life and never being able to imagine actually enjoying the pursuit of knowledge. I myself didn't enjoy learning until I discovered Objectivism and changed my epistemology.

If one does feel pleasure in not thinking and desires to change to enjoy being mentally active, then for a brief time the pleasure will have to be struggled with. In changing myself, I always forced myself to become mentally aware whenever I noticed endorphins being released at my inactiveness, and it certainly wasn't pleasurable to fight against such pleasure, but I quickly changed so I couldn't tolerate that laziness and would actually feel endorphins come when I set my mind on something.

I'm not sure, but I think this is at least one epistemological explanation as to why some people can remain mentally lethargic all their life. Sure, many, if not most, may do so instead in order to maintain some evasions, thereby striving to avoid pain rather than receive pleasure, but I think it can also happen that some people experience some kind of good sensation from shutting off their faculties. People better make themselves alert at some point sooner or later, however, for the destruction that awaits them at the end of that road sure won't feel good.

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