Cognition – Reason – Reason

by pre., Friday, November 6th, 2009.

This month’s topic is “Reason”, perhaps the congnitive power that most differentiates the human animal from the rest of the species on the globe. If there’s one thing that people do which other animals fail to do, one thing that differentiates and transcends us most from the animal horde, it’s the human being’s power of reason.

Oh, sure, other animals do some amount of reasoning. A crow may figure out that it can bend a wire into a hook to retrieve something from deep within a glass, a chimp may use the powers of reason to tempt termites from their home to use them as a tasty snack, but these things are remarkable precisely because they are so rare. No animal seems to have such a good understanding of it’s environment, the way the world works, that they can as a matter of course plan and plot and build tools and devices to further their goals in quite the same way that human beings across the spectrum of intelligence do as part of their normal regular every-day existence.

The seat of reason in human beings is, it’s thought, in the prefrontal cortex. It’s this area that allows you to pause and think before you act, to plan complex cognitive behaviours, aid in decision making and orchestrate your thoughts and actions. It’s where problem solving happens, and no other species alive on the planet has one even half as big as yours. The transcendental evolutionary path human beings have taken over the few million years since we split from the rest of the primates has, in a very real sense, been one focused on extending that prefrontal cortex, enlarging it and thus giving you massively increased powers of reason. It allows you to learn from experience, and to reason about what you have learned.

Eliezer Yudkowsky descirbes reason as the utimate super power, saying that “The user of this ability contains a smaller, imperfect echo of the entire universe, enabling them to search out paths through probability to any desired future.

When you use your powers of reason, you are experimenting in your model of the universe, this allows you to try many different approaches to solving a problem without lifting a finger, you can know without even trying which solutions may work, which certainly won’t. You can formulate a plan, devise a strategy, generally figure out how to proceed without having to rely on pre-built instincts and impulses.

Reason is truly a super-power which most of the animal kingdom lacks entirely, and only homo sapiens has really mastered.

Learning to use this super power more effectively should, we can reason, help even more.

Symbolic Nature

The “echo of the entire universe” which Eliezer mentions is, of course, not a physical universe somehow mirrored in your brain. Your mind does not manipulate real things to plot and scheme a solution to some problem. When you pull up a chair to stand on in order to reach a high shelf you haven’t manipulated an actual chair in order to devise your strategy. The echo of the universe which is held within your skull is a virtual universe, a symbolic universe. Your plan was hatched not by experimenting with a chair, but by understanding what a chair is, and how it behaves. The chair in your mind is not physical but symbolic. It’s a model of a chair.

Which brings us to the first requirement for useful reasoning: your model must be accurate. If your model of a chair indicates that stepping on it will cause it to collapse, you will not see that you are able to use it to gain the height needed to reach that shelf. If your model of a wire indicates it can’t be bent then it will not occur to you to try and fashion a hook with it. In order for reason to be at it’s most reasonable, you need to understand how things work, to have a good representation of the universe in your head, for your echo of reality to be founded in truth.

How can your mind best do this? It requires several mental skills, many of which we have already been improving:

The basic reasoning skills


In order to build a good model of a wire, or a chair, or a friend, or a political system, you must be able to remember your encounters with them. In order to hold a representation of the universe in your mind you must be able to remember it. All reasoning is based on symbols, and those symbols have to be remembered, their existence, their meaning, their functions and properties all have to be stored in the synapses of your mind somehow.


It’s not enough just to remember though, you must also be able to classify objects. There’s no point remembering that a chair you encountered as a child was able to support your weight and so increase your reach if that chair is back at your childhood home. You need to be able to tell that all chairs have this ability, these functions. You need to be able to assign those properties not to one specific wire or chair but to all objects in that class. Only then will your model of the universe be general enough to reason with.


You need to not only be able to classify objects, but also to know which properties of those objects are common to all instances and which are specific to an individual object. You need to be able to extrapolate those properties from one instance of a class to the other examples of that class which share those properties. You need to be able to figure out which chairs are tall enough to reach that shelf, which wires are both bendy enough and solid enough to build a hook.


When an instance of a class of things is not available, it’s useful to be able to spot things which are analogous to that class. If there are no chairs, perhaps a box will do? Or a table? The power of analogy is an incredibly important part of the reasoning process. When is one thing enough like another thing to be used for the same functions?

Some would argue that since no two events in spacetime are the same as each other, all reasoning must be by analogy. This collision of two billiard balls isn’t quite the same as that one, they’re in different places with different velocities at different times, but they’re analogous to each other. All thinking is analogy, comparing like with like, capturing what they have in common.


The language, the symbols, the model of the world in which you operate contains a thing called “Boolean logic”. You understand what is meant by the words “And”, “Or” and “Not”. These things, these logical operations, these symbolic connectors, are abstractions. They are not items, physical objects which are present in the universe for you to observe. Yet the rules of logic are undeniably a part of the world that your internal echo reflects. It really is true that if there are two people in a field, there must be at least one person in that field. It sounds trivial, it is trivial, but it’s worth noting that the world really does work that way. And so should your model of it. If your proposed solution to a problem defies logic, it will never work. You can use logic to rule out whole areas of solutions which can not possibly work. Improving your logic improves your model because the world really does operate that way.


If you observe that there is a chair available, you can infer several things about that chair by knowing what properties other things in the same class have. A chair will have a part which is higher off the ground than other parts. It will be solid enough to support your weight. Being able to infer the physical properties of an object just by knowing it’s symbol is invalueable

Stepping out of the system

These mental skills, and likely others like them, combine to allow you to represent the entire universe symbolically in the firing patterns and connections of neural cells in your brain. It is a fantastic feat. It is worth noting that the powers of reason allow us to do things that a being which only reacts reflexively, which doesn’t have such a model, cannot. To model impossible worlds.

Douglas Hofstadter, in Gödel, Escher, Bach, shows us how reasoning is about more than any of these things, it’s the combination of all of them. He says “Logic is done inside a system while reason is done outside the system by such methods as skipping steps, working backward, drawing diagrams, looking at examples, or seeing what happens if you change the rules of the system.“.

He suggests that reason is about understanding and modelling not just a world governed by logic, but logic itself. To go further even than that, and model the system which can model logic. The further up this tree of understanding and re-representing the universe you climb, the better your reason will be.

Many of the best lines of reasoning have this property, they take a step back and analyse not just the problem at hand, but the reason the problem exists, the world in which it’s formed. If you can find some way to solve whole classes of problems then this cached result can be used over and over again when other examples of the same difficulty arise. You only had to figure out how to stand on a chair once, and that result gives you a new tool for all future similar problems

The Meditation

Over the next few weeks we’ll look more deeply into some ways to practice and improve your reasoning ability. We’ll finish with a lucid dream which will encourage you to examine your reasoning abilities, to improve each of the skills mentioned above, and more, by introspection on your internal representation of the universe, the echo of the world which you experience as you dream.

Cognition – Reason – Brain Training

by pre., Friday, November 13th, 2009.

Last week we briefly listed some of the basic mental skills on which reason is based. Improving any one of those skills will likely lead to better reasoning abilities. The obvious question is then, how do you improve those skills?


If you’ve been reading the entire course, you won’t be surprised to find that our answer is practice. In order to improve your memory, you need to practice memorising. In order to become better at categorisation, you need to categorise things. In order to extrapolate more efficiently, you need to extrapolate more often. In order to become better at analogous thinking, you need to do it more. In order to improve your logic, you need to practise your logic skills. In order to get better at inference, you need to infer more often.

To really radically improve your reasoning skills, you need to practice all these sub-skills, and you need to practice reasoning itself.


Perhaps the best way to do this is to study. You know, like you did in school. Read and think and learn as much as you can. Go audit some classes at your local university. Turn on the Open University TV shows. Find out what’s on special offer at the Teaching Company and download some lectures. Maybe even go back to school!

Read a book!

If the Open University isn’t showing anything right now, turn off the TV and read a book.

The more you learn, the more you investigate and study the world around you, the better your reasoning skills will become. The Buddhist monks may think they can achieve enlightenment and transcendence by meditating in a cave, no doubt some amount of meditation is useful, but to really practice your reasoning you’ll need to get out of your cave and explore the world, though experience of course and also through learning about other’s experiences and thoughts.

The species has come as far as it has, has become as enlightened as it has, through the transfer of knowledge from one being to the next, the cumulative gathering of the salient experience of millions of people is gathered at your local library. Use it! To not do so is to be wilfully ignorant. Hardly a transcended trait.

Brain Training

Many of the subskills listed last week can be practised with the help of modern machinery, it’s even fun and entertaining to play the various brain training games now on offer.

There have even been some preliminary scientific results suggest that they work, both for school kids and the more elderly.

These studies are just preliminary though. While there’s every reason to believe practising these skills will improve your ability at the skills practised, it may be that these skills are less transferable to life outside the game than we imagine. More work is needed.

We hope that our guided meditation, our lucid dream, this month will help to improve your motivation to do these things, to seek out new experiences and learn as much as you can. For the dream word can only teach you about your dream world. You can practice logic and memory while you sleep, but true grounded reason is only found in waking reality.

Cognition – Reason – Tools

by pre., Friday, November 20th, 2009.

In the the first part of this lap we listed some basic reasoning skills which are used in various combinations to give human beings the underused power of reason.

Developing these is certainly a useful thing to do and it will help you to reason more quickly, better, faster, and more accurately. However these skills are just the beginning of reason. Their powers have enabled us, as a species, to invent yet more systems to help push reason further.

Mental Tools

For example, you have already been using the loki system and the peg system to help improve your memory. That, in turn, will help you to reason as you juggle more symbols around in your mind at once.

The meditation, hypnosis and auto-suggestion which you have been using to concentrate your mind’s own learning power on it’s own function are also useful tools to help you to think more clearly, to help you to bend your mind towards reason.

Reason draws on any metaphor and system it can to try and grasp the reality which your brain models. The more abstract reasoning systems you can study the better your reasoning ability will become.

Some of the best tools which can be learned include Boolean Logic, graphing and algebra. Mathematics in general has a whole host of techniques and statistical methods which will help you to understand an issue. All these things can help you to think more clearly.

As well giving your mind an understanding of plenty of different reasoning systems, it has to be worth spending some time studying common reasoning errors. A catalogue of logical fallacies exists, and reading it, understanding it, will certainly improve your reasoning.

The tools of science need not be confined to professional scientists. The reasoning power leveraged by the scientific method has produced stunning results for culture as a whole. It can provide similar benefits outside the lab. Empiricism, Scepticism, and Occam’s Razor are just three of the priceless mental tools which the Scientific Understanding can give and of course a grasp of the subject of science, the best scientific models of the world itself, will help keep your reason grounded in reality.

External Tools

Not all tools to help your reason are abstract thinking systems you need to practice enough to load into your brain. Some are literal, physical, items. The simplest perhaps being simply counting on your fingers.

Just above that, one of the first and still best developed is the good old fashioned pencil and notepad. Ah, how much easier a crossword is when you can write the answers down, now much easier an engineering design is with a few ideas literally sketched out.

Just the simple ability to write opens up more tools for improving reason. Lists alone will help you in many ways: checkists, todolists, pro-and-con lists. All good tools for thinking.

A pencil and paper also enable you to visualise data, draw graphs and charts and mind-maps to help to grasp a subject.

From this tool also grew books, libraries, the sharing of knowledge. If you want to better understand a topic there are likely a dozen different books you can read on that topic. Why waste that opportunity? Read, read, and read. The more you read, the better your reasoning will become.

As technology improves it brings with it yet more tools which can help the way we think. The common desktop calculator can do in mere seconds the kinds of calculations which took hours with a pen and paper or abacus and would have been literally impossible to manage in just a single brain without even literacy.

The calculator in turn is just a tiny hint of the power you can get by using computers to properly aid your thoughts, you reasoning. A spreadsheet program is like having a dozen calculators, most of them automatic. A database can help you store and retrieve millions of records at the push of a button. The internet puts essentially the entire world’s best (and worst) knowledge at your fingertips.

Surely yet more tools for enabling new ways of thinking will be produced as the march of technology continues apace, but the main thing is to not see “thinking” as something that just happens in your head. You can think on your fingers, in your notebook, on your computer screen. Expanding your mind skills is certainly a part of becoming more transcended, but teaching your brain how best to use all the tools available will make you better faster.

Two heads are better than one

More powerful even than the fastest computer, the other people in your life are one of the best tools for reasoning you will ever have. Just talking an issue over with a friend can help you both to understand it. Debate, dialogue and argument are some of the best tools humans have ever found for achieving consensus and striving to understand. Make good friends, canvas opinions when you’re unsure.

All these tools are helpful, do not try and restrict your thinking to just using a single brain, use all the tools you have available. Metal tools, yes, maths and science of course, but also physical tools, computing devices, friends and language and family. All these tools together will bring your clearest reason to the fore.

Cognition – Reason – Dream Reason

by pre., Friday, November 27th, 2009.

It’s the end of the month so, as usual, we have a new guided meditation for you. We continue the theme, this lap, of designing our meditation to be performed from within a lucid dream. You should set it as an alarm-clock to start ten minutes or so before you have to get up, and with luck it’ll wake you just enough to realize what’s happening without breaking the dream state.

In this lucid dream you will visualize how information flow around the world has helped to build the “echo of the universe” inside your brain and how that same information flowing around in your mind is producing the dream experience.

You’ll ponder, in your dream, how the information from your experience circulates around your mind, through your memory, through learning to categorise etc. to create the echo of the universe that you live in, especially when dreaming. You’ll see how those systems feed-back into each other to produce your ability to reason, to build this dream world.

You’ll also see how the sapient mental skills of language, logic, maths, learning and empiricism effect your dream as you experience it.

Then you’ll see how your interaction with the world effects the flow of information in your mind through that very interaction. You’ll dream you’re using some common physical aids to reason: Pen and paper, computers, calculators. You’ll see how the data you provide to the universe through your interaction through it can help to build and refine your reasoning powers.

One of the most common physical aids to reason is of course other people, you’ll dream that you can see how the information flow between two people, even whole groups. You’ll see how their interactions with each other, the language they use, can boots reason even further.

Finally, you’ll be encouraged to be excited by the discoveries you are making, to want to refine your model further, to want to get out there into the real world and improve your reason.

Then, of course, you’ll wake up and do just that.

Guided Meditation File 22 – Cognition – Reason
Backing Music “June Seven” By Bert Jerred
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