Gnomicon 106

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Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  106
Thursday 23 August 2012

Read gnomica 1-100 here!

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“My thinker’s all broke!”
Anonymous at an AA Meeting

When things go wrong and we realize that we have to do something about it, the inevitable tendency is to try to think our way out of the problem.  If we only apply the kind of mental problem-solving skills that we are (at least supposed to have been) taught in school, then we will find a solution.

Now, I am as ready as the next person to give high marks to the kind of reasoning and solving that we can do with our mental equipment:  it works just fine, for a lot of situations, and achieves the marvelous, almost magical results we see all around us: cars, planes, cell phones, investment successes, televisions, moon shots and Mars landings, medical miracles.  Few – if any — things in this arena are more potent than the human mind and its ability to accomplish spectacularly.

That indeed is what our ‘thinker’ is all about.

But, we must perforce at times admit that brain power in certain arenas breaks down so to speak and leaves us with that broken thinker of the epigraph.  In other words, there are venues where it somehow does not apply, where it cannot accomplish and achieve in the wonted ways.


Well, most people would probably agree that when it comes to brain power, the woman with an M.D. behind her name generally fits the profile.  For example, she knows, and understands (better than most of us, for that matter) that being very fat is — in the currently correct medical thinking – definitely not a good thing.  So how does one explain the (at times even more than) substantially overweight doctors that you do see when you walk through a hospital or, perhaps, visit your local clinic?  They know what they should be doing, and certainly urge their patients to do so … yet they themselves don’t do it.  I might say the point here is that their “thinkers” are broke!

But working at it in your head gets you nowhere.

Now, we can surely make a similar observation about someone trailering “Ph.D.” behind his name.  There is just no way that he does not know how deleterious, actually and potentially, his excessive drinking is to himself, his family, his career, his society at large.  Yet, think and analyze and study as he might, he just can no more seem to stop drinking too much than that lady M.D. can stop eating too much.  So, like hers, is his “thinker” broke too?

I think not.

May I analogize.

In this hypothetical you are a skilled carpenter.  You have some tools to help you achieve your carpentry goals.  Now, could you imagine that even a slow-witted carpenter would use his screw driver to saw a board in half?  or his saw to hammer in nails?  or his hammer to sand a dowel?  I think not.  Why?  Is that screw driver ‘broke’? the saw? the hammer?  Of course not.  It’s just that in each of those absurd examples it’s the wrong tool for the given need – but there is of course nothing wrong with the tool itself.

Similarly, then, I’d argue that while your head is beyond question really great at doing integral calculus and learning Latin verb paradigms, when it comes to changing your behaviors, that same “thinker” just won’t hack it.  And it’s not because that “thinker is broke” – it’s just the wrong tool for the task at hand.

The very unpleasant snarl in which our Ph.D. and M.D. are snagged is perfectly described – in a different context, to be sure! — by Medea (Ovid [43 BCE – 17/18 CE] Metamorphoses 7.19-21) as she contemplates the murder of her children:

sed trahit invitam nova vis, aliudque cupido,
mens aliud suadet: video meliora proboque,
deteriora sequor.
“Yet a strange force pulls at me: desire urges one course,
reason, another: I do see, and recommend,
the better way but it is the worse one that I pursue.”

So anciently articulated, yet so modernly applicable – to a wide variety of very disagreeable situations (like having to lose weight, stop smoking, give up alcohol, etc., etc.)!

In the end, that actually not impossible but quite doable task you want to perform will in fact require very different tools from within your armamentarium, and (as Medea so lucidly appreciated [a few lines earlier (10-11) she has already admitted that she ratione furorem | vincere non poterat “could not overcome her madness through intellect”]) you won’t find them in your head – the learned M.D. and the Ph.D. lush have already been there, tried that, remember?

Sooo, you’ll just have to look elsewhere for the right tool for the task at hand …

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