Changing causal thinking into contextual thinking


In my Blue Elephant book I tried to change causal thinking into contextual thinking.  It is difficult.

So much of our thinking assumes that things and events of interest (usually only the ones we can name) are in the foreground and the rest is an inert background.  We then focus on explaining only those things and events in focus (or can name), using whatever we see or can measure from those alone.

  • Planets attract through ‘gravity’ from their masses and the rest is inert background
  • The cognitive information processing machinery is background and unchanging (like a conveyor belt) and only the salient ‘information’ changes need explaining
  • Two people fall in love and the rest is inert social background
  • Two billiard balls collide and the rest is inert background
  • The election is about the personality of candidates
  • Food is a ‘reinforcer’ and the rest is inert background
  • Two people fight and the rest is inert background

But we can rethink these:

  • Einstein showed that for any gravity such as two planets attracting each other, this was better thought of as their (inert?) space-time environment folding or curving
  • People have always pointed out that if the billiard table was not made flat in the first place, the balls would not collide in the same way
  • Bentley, Skinner and others showed that if we were not immersed in an environment or context then there would be no behaviour at all

You can then use discourse analysis to find out the strategies which are being used in such analyses to circumvent the conceptual problems of ignoring context:

  • A metaphorical trick in psychology has been to say that any background is ‘carried’ or ‘stored’ inside the people as their memories or perceptions
  • A trick in old physics was to say that only what is seen to change needs to be included in any explanation (Newton used this way of thinking).
  • Those analysing behaviour usually foreground ‘obvious’ events that have the appearance of classic ‘reinforcers’ and ignore the rest
  • Another trick in psychology has been to invent words for hypotheticals inside a person

So remember that even if contexts look static and inert, you cannot exclude them in thinking about why mass, planets or people do what they do.

The topic of my next book (in production) therefore is a practical one, not more philosophy (phew, ufa!):

  • How can we (re)learn the skills of being able to observe a situation involving people and being able to observe or see (in a real sense) all the possible relevant contexts in which those events are immersed?
  • How can we learn the skill of observing the hidden social and cultural contexts which fold  or encircle every human behaviour, thought and feeling?
  • How can we regain the skills to observe, measure and analyse context?




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