Two “Systems of Cognitive Processing”?

One claim of common knowledge is that there are two ‘systems’ of cognitive processing.  The most popular current forms of these are those of System 1 and System 2 by Kahneman (2011) and the automatic and reflective systems by Thaler and Sunstein (2008).  There are many variations of these given in the Table below that expands the table of Thaler and Johnson (2008), drawing on Guerin (1994), Freud (1915/1984), Ryle (1949) and others.

Without language use                     Language use

Knowing how                                 Knowing that

System 1                                          System 2

Unconscious cognition               Conscious cognition

Mindlessness                                  Mindfulness

Wu wei / Nothingness                  Yu wei

Automatic                                        Reflective

Implicit cognition                         Explicit cognition

Direct contingency controlled   Verbal contingency controlled

Non-verbal behavior                     Verbal behavior (including gestures)

Unconscious                                     Conscious

Ucs.                                                      Cs./ Pcs.

Uncontrolled                                     Controlled

Associative                                         Deductive

Effortless                                            Effortful

Fast                                                       Slow

Skilled                                                  Rule-following

We learn a huge repertoire of responding to things and events with language rather than any other type of actions, and sometimes I think we do more of this in fact.  Often our first and foremost responses to any events are to talk or think, and we have been trained for this over our whole lives.  I have never interacted with Afghanistan but I can talk about it a lot.  I cannot fix motorbikes but I can tell you that I can.

As I have written elsewhere, the social relationships involved in using words are our already existing Matrix of virtual reality.  We live in a Matrix of words which we treat as our (virtual) reality. Except for Zen Masters.

So while not denying these two columns are different, there are two points I always remember before going berserk on extrapolating, as the popular books do.

  1. The controlled/ language responding (column 2) does not control my other responding (column 1). There is no causal chain that I think “I will stop eating chocolate” and this thinking event controls or causes ‘my’ not eating. (I have another blog on this)

There are so many conditions for this thinking to arise in the first place that it cannot possibly control anything.  In fact…

  1. The controlled/ language responding (column 2) arises only in social contexts, that is, words can only do thing to other people. Ever. If there is talk or thinking then other people are involved.  Talking and thinking are only about doing things to other people even if no one is present at the time.  Saying out loud or thinking “I will stop eating chocolate” is about other people, not some mythical ‘me’ who is being controlled by these thoughts (but who somehow decided to think them in the first place?).

So the differences in the two columns of responding to the world are about how they are trained to work: Column 1 through consequences of interacting with the world; Column 2 through learning a language through other people’s consequences.  But in both cases they arise from external events (social or not) rather than from ‘inside’ us somewhere.

And yes, this means that all your rational and maths thinking, your logic, your effortful thinking, and your decision making, they all work through consequences from other people not from the world itself.  Numbers and equations and logic cannot affect the world and have consequences; they can only affect other people who give consequences. (try saying  ’42’ to your cat!)

When you understand this, how dependent these ways of thinking are upon other people’s consequences, you will truly be a Zen Master and begin to see how things really work.  Or a Neo….

It makes a great story-line for common knowledge, however, that ‘we’ think of our thoughts consciously or make decisions somewhere inside us, and then these thoughts direct ‘us’ or cause ‘us’ to do those things.  It is taken for granted everywhere that this pathway is correct.  And for everyday life this is okay, I do it too.  But my goal (and others’) has been to show that it is false and to find ways to rethink all this.

My Mantra is that whenever words are involved, whether out loud or thinking, always find out and describe the social contexts for these to arise—that is what they are purely about.



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