A Mini-Course in Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.9: Moving From Innocence To Experience

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concepts 1.1 – 1.8, click here.

Concept 1.9. Moving from innocence to experience via shifting models. If science (empiricism) is about comparing theories, models, and maps to reality through prediction and experiment, and learning from the result, then experience is about comparing earlier, perhaps quite innocent, assumptions about the world to what has actually been discovered over time, and learning from that. Experience is thus deeply akin to experiment in science. It’s what the Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) rhapsodized as the movement from innocence to experience. It entails innocent models recalibrated or overturned by experience. As a process, therefore, innocence to experience is the movement from what you thought you knew then to what you think you know now—and it can be a communal revelation, not just an individual one, as in what Jews learned collectively, as a people, from the Holocaust. It is whatever we think biography or history teaches; the stories we tell ourselves. Innocence to experience is a form of bearing witness, as when Blake depicts, in the “The Garden of Love,” a man revisiting a carefree field of grasses and wildflowers from childhood, and discovering that a church has been built on it.

I went to the Garden of Love, 

And saw what I never had seen: 

A Chapel was built in the midst, 

Where I used to play on the green. 


And the gates of this Chapel were shut, 

And Thou shalt not writ over the door; 

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love, 

That so many sweet flowers bore. 


And I saw it was filled with graves, 

And tomb-stones where flowers should be: 

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds, 

And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

Here the character in Blake’s poem moves from recollection of spring life in fenceless nature to a jarring encounter with private property (the door to the chapel is locked), prohibition (“Thou shalt not”), and death (“tomb-stones where flowers should be”). Bearing a similar tone of movement from innocence to experience is Joni Mitchell’s (b. 1943) song, “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), the first lines of which are the following:

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot

At some point we reality test, are tested by reality, or discover that reality is not what we thought. In the first, we’re doing science; in the second and third, we’re living our lives, moving from innocence to experience, our models coming up against the full complexity of reality and time.

Heuristics. Heuristics are rules of thumb; the simplest sort of models or maps for navigating reality. As pattern-seeking animals looking to save time and energy, we are happy to repeat the coping strategies that worked from our past. No one wants to reinvent the wheel. So, when we encounter a new thing, we might be in the quick habit of dealing with it via shortcuts or cues, asking pragmatic questions such as these:

Does this idea or thing already fit somewhere in my system of ideas and values, and do I know what to do with it?

Is this a readily recognizable friend or foe to me, or something to be neutral or indifferent about?

Sometimes we’ll have both the time and energy to raise our heuristics from rules-of-thumb to full-blown, carefully thought-out schemas (more detailed maps), theses, theories, or paradigms (overarching theories that guide our questions and priorities). But given the limitations on our knowledge, and the shortness of each individual life in relation to the cosmos, it’s difficult to know, exactly, what to say and do, what’s important, and at what level we should respond to things. Sometimes our quick heuristics are good enough, and sometimes not.

Should we, for instance, think fast or think slow on a matter? Each human being, if she is to go on navigating the cosmos at all, has to lay down bets on what she thinks is most likely going on around her and within her, both on the large scale and the small scale, and what response is appropriate. Whether we’re thinking loosely or precisely, fast or slow, we’re bringing models to bear on those things we encounter (a stranger, a rustling bush, a stray dog). We never encounter reality unmediated. It’s simply too complex. We would experience sensory overload if we took in all data equally. Things are far too complicated to know everything about them all at once, and we are often rushed for time, and so we typically isolate a few aspects or attributes from things, size them up, and make a quick determination on the whole.

The signal in the noise. Parts stand in for wholes. As with synecdoche (parts standing in for wholes) in literary studies, heuristics are those simpifying parts we focus on as important for getting our heads around a matter at hand. They are the models or procedures we deploy for dealing with something—and we hope that we are doing so accurately, quickly, and efficiently. If you’re using heuristics well and rationally, as opposed to with prejudice and passion, you’re trying to boil things down to their essentials and increase the probability you’ve judged them rightly. When you deploy a heuristic, you’re basically laying down a bet that you’ve accurately detected a reliable signal in the noise, and interpreted that signal correctly. You’re hoping the future will not leave you with regret at your snap judgment.

Hasty generalization and prejudice. You might use just one heuristic or criterion for evaluating a thing (you never eat a sandwich with meat on it because you deem sandwiches with meat “unhealthy”), or you may have a small cluster of briefly sketched criteria, as when you decide a sandwich is unappetizing (it has white bread and baloney), is “un-American” (Russian dressing), and lacks zest (it has no pickle). You might presume that you know what to do with a sandwich like that. Pick a different sandwich. Our heuristics simplify the world for us, saving energy and work. They’re time savers for thinking fast. But they’re grounded in probability, not certainty. We’re always trying to navigate our way from what is logically possible to what is plausible and actual, and wherever we can, we do so, not just via logic and reasoning, but via experience and investigation. Maybe we take a bite of the sandwich and find that, well, after all, it works for us. It’s a pretty good sandwich. Our heuristics can lead us astray if we never reality test them, and they should be simple, but not too simple, distinguishing what’s more important from what’s less important. They shouldn’t lead to hasty generalizations and prejudice.

Stephen Hawking’s model-dependent realism. As with simpler heuristics, science too is value-laden and model dependent, not giving us an unmediated encounter with facts, reality, and the good. Thus physicist Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) argues that, as human beings embedded within the system we’re trying to navigate and explain, we should be very careful about speaking with absolute certainty, as if our models can never be overturned. Even our very best models of reality can be overthrown by better theories or new data. We don’t know, for instance, whether the Standard Model in particle physics, though spectacularly successful, will ever be replaced by a still better model, but for now, it certainly is superior to all others on offer. We don’t need the truth unmediated (which is probably an impossible ambition, in any case), we just need, pragmatically, the best model among those on offer now. We have models (theories about the world and how it works) that achieve our purposes (predicting and explaining things), and we have good reasons for thinking that some of our models are far better than others on offer, but we nonetheless stay open to new data and surprise. Hawking has an alternative to naive notions of truth; he calls it “model-dependent realism,” and when he was alive, he called himself a “model-dependent realist.” No final truths. No final-says. No epistemic closure (knowledge closure). Just the best models for now.

No Country for Old Men and Michel de Montaigne. In the film, No Country for Old Men, the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, comes across the location of a drug deal in the desert that had gone bad, finding abandoned trucks and bodies splayed over the scene. His partner exclaims, “Ain’t this the mess!”—and Jones replies, “If it ain’t the mess, it will do till the mess gets here.” We might say something similar of our best models for navigating reality. If they’re not the truth, they’ll do till the truth gets here.

This open-minded attitude to new data is captured admirably by the French essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who famously asked of himself, again and again along the path of his life—“Que sais-je?”—What do I know? The implication here is a questioning of one’s level of confidence about things, the reasons for one’s confidence, and maintaining oneself, as it were, out of doors, susceptible to the weather of alternative explanations: What do I really know? Montaigne, in other words, held himself into the wind of experience. He was in the habit of revisiting premises. Alberto Manguel (b. 1948), in his book Curiosity (Yale 2015), sums up Montaigne’s open-ended and inquisitive attitude to life as “a continuous state of questioning of the territory through which the mind is advancing…” (2).

Metaphor, models, Shelley. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) famously described poets as “the unacknowledged Legislators of the world.” One way to interpret this is that Shelley was suffering from ego-inflation; poets actually have little impact on how the world goes. But if you define a poet as one with a gift for metaphorical framing; that is, if you think of a metaphor–this is that: my love is a rose–as in some sense a heuristic or model for seeing a thing, then Shelley’s claim is more than plausible, for metaphor is indeed dramatically intrusive on all areas of human life—including our attempts to think critically.

Take Iran, for example. During the presidency of Barack Obama (b. 1961), the implicit historical analogies swirling around Iran were multiple. Was Iran Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union? Or was it something else? It’s hard to think of a contemporary foreign policy topic more important to reason clearly about than Iran. But, when we attempt to do so, we’re plunged immediately into a realm associated with poetry, i.e., associative thinking. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, for example, once framed Iran as Nazi Germany with nuclear ambitions. Here’s the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from 2008:

Netanyahu said Iran differed from the Nazis in one vital respect, explaining that ‘where that [Nazi] regime embarked on a global conflict before it developed nuclear weapons,’ he said, ‘this regime [Iran] is developing nuclear weapons before it embarks on a global conflict.’

And below is Eric Edelman, writing at the Foreign Affairs website, thinking about Iran in a Cold War frame. He compared Iran to the Soviet Union, but with ambitions that were not containable (Nov. 9, 2011, Eric Edelman et al.):

During the Cold War, of course, the United States managed to prevent nuclear use and discourage proliferation by containing the Soviet Union and providing security commitments to U.S. allies. According to the conventional wisdom, a similar approach would work in the Middle East today. Yet there are a number of important differences between the two cases, the biggest being that the United States had formal security commitments with partners across Europe and Asia and deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to their territories.

We might also think of the American standoff with Iran from the vantage of a different Cold War frame: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Is Iran Cuba? Yet another way to metaphorically frame Iran is to think of it as the United States in the 18th century seeking to secure and protect its revolution and sovereignty against an imperial power (that would be us).

So how might we decide which extended metaphor is best? Like Alice in Wonderland, we’re all groping for some familiar ground on which to reason about Iran. And depending on our framing metaphor concerning it, other metaphors, like rabbits, multiply. For instance, if you take Iran to be Nazi Germany, for example, then suddenly Bibi Netanyahu would expect to be cast in the role of Winston Churchill. But if you take Iran to be Cuba in 1962, Bibi Netanyahu might be analogized to the President John Kennedy’s hothead General, Curtis LeMay, who infamously advised Kennedy to bomb Cuba with nuclear weapons if necessary. And if you take Iran to be America in the 18th century, then you might liken the President of Iran to Thomas Jefferson.

Change your metaphor, change your mind. This is the power of framing metaphors. Maybe Shelley is right. If you’ve got the poet’s gift for synthetic associations, you’re valuable or dangerous to the State, mapping out the grooves by which thoughts can travel, thereby “legislating” them. Metaphors, therefore, are ‘groovy.’ Or, to switch the metaphor, you can’t think what you don’t frame.

Writing 1.9.1. Observe something in the news. What heuristics, models, or metaphors are being overlaid on it—and by whom?

Writing 1.9.2. Describe a movement from innocence to experience. Describe in your journal a movement from then to now, and what was thought then compared to what is thought now. What metaphors overlaid the innocent world then? What metaphors overlay the world of experience now?

Writing 1.9.3. Describe a movement from experience to a recollection of innocence. Describe in your journal a movement from now to then, and what is thought now compared to what was thought then.

Writing 1.9.4. Think of a problem. In your journal, reflect on how much time and energy you think it deserves, and what models might best be overlaid on it. Is this an issue for thinking fast or slow? Are there external time constraints forcing a decision by a date certain? What are the consequences of getting one’s model about this wrong?


Image result for innocence to experience


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, atomism, beauty, david hume, education, edward feser, Lucretius, philosophy, poetry, reason, rhetoric, science, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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