How does context-holding work?

Context-dropping is a major fallacy, perhaps the number one fallacy. Context-dropping is the attempt to have cognition without looking at all the relevant data you have. To know, rather than to merely believe, is to integrate into the full context. (See OPAR, Chapter 4 for why and how knowledge is contextual.)

How does one “hold context”? What are the specific mental procedures for integrative thinking?

I know of at least three things to do: concretize, clarify, and challenge.

  1. Concretization as context-activation.

To “hold context,” one has to activate the context. To “activate” is to potentiate it—i.e., to increase its likelihood of coming into conscious awareness.

To know an item entails connecting it into the network that is one’s knowledge. There’s no revelation simply seeing how one thing relates to others. The storage of your knowledge is neural. In response to something being (forcefully enough) in conscious awareness, the brain and nervous system change in some physical way that encodes the consciously grasped relationship. Subsequently, given sufficient activation and given an appropriate trigger, the brain can do what we call “recalling” or “bringing to mind.”

(60 years ago, we had basically zero knowledge about how memories are laid down in the nervous system and how things are caused to appear again in conscious awareness. I am no longer well informed about what neuroscientists have learned about storage and recall. A lot of claims of advance have been made, and I can’t assess them.

Fortunately, I don’t have to. I’m talking here on the level of facilitating something to enter your mind—i.e., an idea occurring to you—and that can be discussed solely from your standpoint as the operator of your brain.)

Introspectively, it is clear that you can activate a context by bringing things connected to it into conscious awareness.

If I am to think about cars I might buy, or about how to better organize my computer files, or why capitalism is the only proper social system, I can “activate the context” by consciously ranging over examples.

For cars, I ask myself: “What are some brands?” and into my mind pop: Toyota, Ford, Porsche, Tesla. As these show, I try to get a wide range of examples because I want to activate the whole context. Toyota is Asian, the others aren’t. Ford is a long-standing, center-of-the-page, standard American automaker. Porsche is both foreign and exotic (vs. Toyota). Tesla is an obviously quite different case.

Each name I think of activates car brands closely associated with them. Toyota activates (makes it easy to think of) Lexus, Nissan, Hyundai, and other Asian brands. Ford very strongly activates GM, its biggest domestic rival. Porsche activates Mercedes Benz, Miata, and Corvette (as sports cars), and Tesla, for me, is apt to bring up Prius.

Similarly, for computer files, I think of some files. But because I’m thinking about organizing them, what comes to mind are not individual files but types of files: text files, jpgs, apps, mp3s, Excel files, Powerpoint files, old .BAK files (the preceding version of a saved text file). Your example of types will be somewhat different.

But for each of the types on my list, particular files are activated. I just downloaded a jpg file that is a photo of me from about 1972. It’s in my “downloads” folder. I made a text (.txt) file of a brief essay on math that I’m composing. “Mp3” activates the song titles on my iPhone, for instance “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” which I just listened to. “Powerpoint” activates my files from all the OCON conferences that used them, and .BAK activates the vast knowledge I accumulated for my favorite old word processor (XyWrite), including its user-function file (ending in .u2).

For why capitalism is the only moral system, I think of Ayn Rand’s essays on this such as “Man’s Rights” (which then highly activates “The Nature of Government”). I activate many of the points made within those, such as that rights are rights to action—specifically to freedom of action—not to objects as such (no right to “a decent wage,” a doctor’s services, etc.). But I also need to think of real concretes: capitalist systems: notably 19th Century America, which increases the potentiation of many things, some relevant like Antitrust law, which was an abrogation of capitalism, some not particularly relevant such as billboards and Dagny’s comment on the people who dislike them.

I also need to think of negative instances: Soviet Russia, contemporary Iran, North Korea. And they activate a lot of other things, such as Gulags, Mullahs, no electric lights (darkness over North Korea when seen from space).

In all three cases (cars, files, social systems), I bring particulars to mind posing a question to myself: What are examples? Each example that comes to mind raises the potentiation of the things they are each connected to and to a lesser degree the things connected to them, and so on.

Here’s a common sense example of the whole thing. Imagine that you are a contestant on a TV Quiz Show like Jeopardy. A category is named. Let’s say it’s World Cuisines. How would you “warm up?”

That means: how would you activate the context, so that answers to specific questions are ready to pop into mind? Obviously you would quickly review them in your mind: “World cuisines? Well, there’s French, Chinese, Thai, Middle Eastern . . .”

“Warming up” means activating a context—using your conscious awareness to bring into mind things that are relevant. And each of those things is connected, neurally, to many other things—each of which gets a vicarious jolt of energy, as it were.

Everything you know is connected by some pathway or another to everything else you know. But the activation energy decreases with every node in the network that is crossed. (This fact is what I call “the raven,” keeping to black birds because we already have “the crow.”)

That’s enough for now. In a future post(s), I’ll deal with the other two procedures: clarification and challenge.