Epistemic Status: Personal
I’ve been writing a lot lately about the mental habits that make calm and reflection possible. This is because a lot of “rationality” seems to depend on dispositions — things like the propensity to question your first assumptions, seek new information, examine evidence in a fair or dispassionate manner, and so on. It’s very difficult to be motivated towards reflective behavior if you’re so upset that the mental motion of “stop and think” is impossible for you. Knowing about cognitive biases isn’t much use if you don’t want to do anything except your default reactions to stimuli.
Reflectiveness, I think, is simply the capacity to question, “Is this what I want to be doing?” The opposite of reflectiveness is momentum: when you feel like “whatever I happen to be doing, I want to keep doing it, good and hard!” Reflectiveness is “Hmm, could things be otherwise than they are?” Momentum is “Things shall be exactly as they are! Except more so!”
Social media feedback loops are an example of momentum. You happened to start fooling around on social media, so you want to continue. Similarly, you notice that something is beginning to trend, so you want to jump on the trend and ride it higher. This is momentum in the sense of the momentum term in a stochastic process.
I suspect that psychological reactance and momentum are linked. When you think, “whatever I’m doing, I don’t want to change, and if you suggest I change, I’ll only do it more!” there’s something of a momentum flavor.
“Do whatever is being done, but more so” is what Michele Reilly calls “pragmatism”:
Pragmatism creates a call for conformity, implicit pressure for agreement and unquestioning support for whatever is representative of power. Its philosophy is a submission to threats. Intellectualism as I am using the term, points directly away from those things.
Reflectiveness, then, is “consider what is not being done, what is not representative of power, what is not in agreement with the default.” Consider deviations and alternatives and original approaches. Consider whether the current direction of society might not be optimal. Consider whether what you’re doing might not be for the best. Consider whether the last thing you read might not be correct. Consider whether to turn in a different direction.
This is the mental motion of “stop, think, ask a question.”
As I understand it, it is similar to sattva, the peaceful, aware state of mind. Like air, it is mobile; it can change direction. Like air, it is light; it feels mildly pleasant to be intellectually engaged.
But getting to reflectiveness is often scary and threatening. If you really want something at the moment, you have to let go long enough to think about “do I want to want this?” If you are doing something at the moment, you have to stop long enough to think about “do I want to do this?” And if you had to change your behavior, or change an entire chunk of the world, that would be a lot of work. The prospect of extra work, or of stepping back from the object of your present desire, is really stressful.
My current hack towards reflectiveness is to simply start with the stop.
Rest is the first thing. Sleep deprivation makes people more emotionally reactive and less reflective. I found that a day of focused rest — when I deliberately spent all day sleeping whenever I wanted, eating as much as I wanted, quietly daydreaming or meditating without talking to anyone or consuming any media, and focusing on regaining a sense of wellness and satiety, was really helpful.
A related thing is cultivating a sort of contentment. “All is well, literally everything is fine, I don’t have to do anything except be. Everything can be left in peace.”
I know that there are a lot of problems with contentment, if I were to present it as a totalizing philosophy. Lots of people are not fine. Many things are worth doing. Eternal apathy isn’t most people’s idea of a great life plan.
But I’m not thinking of contentment as the whole of one’s life or mind. I’m thinking of it as a base. There is a very low-level sense of “things are all right, I can rest and be nourished, I am welcome in the universe” that I think is probably important for living things. And to cultivate that base, sometimes you have to stop doing things and rest your body and mind. You don’t have to do anything right now. No obligations bind. You can rest in peace and freedom.
And out of that restful state, sometimes reflectiveness becomes more accessible. For instance, if you believe you don’t have an obligation to act on a particular idea you read about, you can begin to merely consider it, abstractly, hypothetically. With a certain airy gentleness.
(In a weird way, I think this may be akin to Kant’s notion of public reason. He says that in a state with a sovereign strong enough that one can be certain that mere intellectual discussion of reforms won’t lead to revolution, it becomes possible to actually achieve “enlightened” reforms, slowly and over time, whereas revolutions tend to merely replace one form of arbitrary power with another. Similarly, if you can merely consider an idea intellectually, while temporarily promising yourself that you don’t have to do anything about it, then in the long run you might become more able to change your behavior on the basis of such reflections.)
Cultivating this sense of restful, contented peace made it more possible for me to engage with ideas without feeling pressured to agree with them. If lots of alternatives are possible, but none are obligatory, then entertaining hypothetical concepts is a rather gossamer-light experience, like looking at a soap bubble or a rainbow.
It’s also easier to behave with gentleness and self-restraint to other people, if you tap into that sense of eternal peace; people can put no duties upon you, they are simply fellow-creatures sharing the world with you, and you can separate from them if you like.
I’ll have to wait and see if this leads to more thorough abilities to consider alternatives and act on the basis of reflection, but it seems promising.
My current motto is “Turn — slowly.” I can only adapt slowly, improve slowly, originate useful ideas slowly. I still need stretches of rest and peace. A slow positive trajectory is still worth it. (And can be more productive in the long run. I get dramatically more work done after rest.) Turning slowly towards truth seems to be the best way available.