November 24, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 44: Analogical thinking, creating a value system, and purposeful anger

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.​

Food for Thought

I. Analogical thinking

"One of the most striking capacities of the human mind is our ability to get clearer about ideas that might otherwise be vague or hard to grasp via a process of drawing analogies. Analogy works by picking out a feature that is clear and obvious in one area and importing it into another field that is more confusing and intangible. Take the analogical phrase ‘papering over the cracks’, commonly used to suggest a shoddy, incomplete, lazy or dishonest manoeuvre. It is easy to develop a picture in our minds drawn from shoddy DIY of how putting up wallpaper can hide multiple defects in plasterwork. While it might be hard to see that, in a relationship, going on an expensive holiday won’t do anything to address the daily conflicts of life together, or that, at work, moving to fancy offices won’t alter the deep problems with the quality of the management team, bringing a vivid image from home decoration into the discussion can help to focus an issue in a relationship or in the workplace.

"Analogies shed light not only on visual or psychological phenomena; they illuminate whole areas of intellectual concern. For example, in order better to understand what art is for, we might draw an analogy between art and advertising. We might say that a painting by Botticelli is a kind of advert for tenderness. Thinking about art in terms of advertising helps us to see something that we might have missed if we had stuck more narrowly to an aesthetic lexicon: many works of art are trying to persuade us of something rather than just pleasing us; they are trying to seduce us to appreciate a particular point of view and want us to take their implicit philosophy deep into our souls. By drawing an analogy with adverts, which we know to be in the selling game, we can become newly conscious of the more didactic sides to certain paintings. We’re not being sold products as such, but we are nonetheless being induced to ‘buy into’ attitudes and frames of mind. Some of the best analogies function by illuminating an elusive area in one field with reference to a tangible and everyday one in another." — From How to Think More Effectively by The School of Life.

Those who possess knowledge in multiple fields can benefit from analogical thinking when learning. They can take concepts from one domain and ask, what's the equivalent of this in the new field? Principles can be quickly internalized by hanging them on their existing knowledge tree.

Similarly, we can use analogies to provide frameworks for simplifying processes. People with a computing background often use an analogy of the mind being a computer to re-frame their learning experience, like Tim Urban:

"Your entire life runs on the software in your head—why wouldn’t you obsess over optimizing it? …And yet, not only do most of us not obsess over our own software—most of us don’t even understand our own software, how it works, or why it works that way."

With some inspiration from the Matrix, it's common for people to describe studying a non-fiction book as installing new software into their brain. For the younger generation, reading a book may be compared to installing a new app on their phone. The analogy emphasizes what we gain from the activity rather than the activity itself. Non-readers may find reading dull, but when thought of as adding additional features to their minds, it becomes more appealing.

Another popular form of analogical thinking is the 'life is a journey' metaphor, as Jonathan Haidt explores in The Happiness Hypothesis:

"Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know. For example, it’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road."

II. Creating a value system

"After enough life experience, you accumulate enough value intuitions to be able to find patterns within them. It is the ongoing task of each person to observe her value intuitions and synthesize her own values into a coherent system. In order to create a refined value system, you will need to sit down and map out your intuitions. Create a document, ideally a highly editable one so you can easily rearrange what you write down. Create a list of people you deeply admire. These can be people in your life, ancient historical figures, or even strangers you have only briefly observed. You do not have to admire everything about these people. Don't do any labeling yet; simply write down the particular tendencies or example situations with as much precision as possible. You might write down that you admire one person's tendency to manage difficult situations with levity, or another person's ability to captivate the attention of everyone in a room.

"Your list can be stream-of-consciousness at first, but eventually you will want to place similar examples into organized clusters. Don't stop until you find that you have covered the full territory of what is important to you. Create your own titles for each category, trying to avoid vague virtues like 'kindness' or 'honor.' Ultimately, you will end up with an organized list of your highest individual values. Single words often fail to fully capture your values. It can be beneficial to express them in mission statement form, through key phrases such as 'always act as if the whole world were watching, but tell the story as if I were the only one listening' or 'accept, embrace, and adapt to all of life's challenges, and convert them into opportunities.'

"When done in parallel with philosophical investigation, you can sort out which of these values represent cultural dogmas and which ones are based on your genuine value intuitions. I find that a map of your value system needs to be updated about every three years. Over time, your experiences pile up and shed more light on your intuitions, enabling greater nuance and refinement in your categories. You should never have total confidence in the value system you have constructed. This map represents an ever-evolving and improving draft. You always have to keep inquiring and synthesizing in order to get closer to your genuine value intuitions. You observe things you admire or disapprove of, try to extract the precise aspects you admire, and synthesize these observations into integrated principles." — From Designing The Mind by Ryan A Bush.

In Mind Macros 35, we explored the Greek philosopher Socrates' habit of wandering the Athenian markets and questioning those who were willing to listen. Socrates' method of inquiry has since been called Socratic Questioning and is designed to clarify our vague beliefs, assertions, and values to discover what's at their core.

Such an exercise is easy to dismiss as superficial since we know our values. However, if someone exclaimed that our values were stupid, could we provide a coherent defense of why they are meaningful to us?

We might add a practical addition to Bush's exercise by providing an example of how we use our values in daily life. If we can't think of a particular instance, perhaps we can offer an example of how we could display our virtues in the coming month. Thinking in this way concretizes vague assertions by drawing a connection between our values and actions.

Quotes to Ponder

I. Aristotle on purposeful anger.

"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."

II. Alain de Botton on learning how to live.

"We start trying to be wise when we realize that we are not born knowing how to live, but that life is a skill that has to be acquired."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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