In Defense of “Mental Gas”

I started with an article tracing out some of the consequences of defining belief as a disposition to act in a way consistent with that belief being true. I then followed up with an article that implied many of our assertions were not real beliefs, and wrapped up with a contemptuous dismissal of school education.

One can be forgiven for thinking me anti-thought and anti-learning, yet nothing could be further from the truth.  I have great love for learning and ideas — probably more so than the average person. Additionally, my contempt of school derives from my love of ideas and learning. The remainder of this article will clarify these points.

Thoughts can be about (among other things) ideas, assertions, mental structures (e.g.: math and logic) and even ways of viewing the world. Some of these are useful and should be retained. Some are useless. Among the useless, some are fulfilling and some painful. The painful should be dropped and the fulfilling should be retained.

This may seem odd. Fulfilling but useless? Why pursue the useless? Let’s start with the following true story.

I had long lacked appreciation for abstract art, preferring the representational. But one day I went to a museum to view some abstract art with an open mind. I viewed quite a few pieces, and some of them moved me. Yet no sooner was I moved than I started wondering. What was the message? What was the subject? What was the point?

Why did this matter? Why was I second-guessing? I was still moved. Yet my constant wondering and second-guessing got in the way of an intrinsically valuable experience.

There are two attitudes to take towards a thing: instrumental or intrinsic. The instrumental attitude takes things as a means to an end. It asks what it is good for, what it means, how it fits in. On the other hand, the intrinsic attitude looks at the thing for its own sake. The problem with the instrumental attitude is that it can block intrinsic appreciation. Look at how my instrumental attitude towards art kept standing in the way. This same attitude applies to the objects of thoughts.

In many ways, thought is a victim of its own success. It has solved many problems and invented many great things. In fact, thought is the reason for humanity’s success. Yet because of its value, one can forget that some mental objects can be intrinsically pleasurable, that there is an aesthetic to ideas and mental structures.

Of the few people who seem capable of appreciating such beautiful things, all too many seem only able to do this if the ideas are true or useful. Yet false and useless ideas can also be beautiful.  A beautiful painting or poem need not be true. We do not only eat for sustenance. Why should we only think or pursue thoughts only if they are true or productive?

Which brings me to school. My experience with school has been that it squelches the pleasure of thought. Books are not read for pleasure, but to repeat a pre-determined “interpretation”. Math is done not to explore the structure of objects and inferences, but to parrot a series of fixed steps. In fact, students are forced to show work to prove they did not think. Even music “appreciation” is about only listening to a piece long enough to repeat the term for the movement it represents.

Worse, school drives home an instrumental attitude even when none exists. When students ask about the point of a subject, teachers claim this stuff will have a practical application one day. Never mind that this is false most of the time. Even if it were remotely true, this toxic attitude makes subjects like literature, art and math as a means to an end.

So yes, much of thought is mental gas, but so what? If it fulfills, then that is enough. Why must everything be useful? A thought need not be true to be enjoyed. A beautiful chain of logical inference need not connect with anything “real” to be appreciated for its own sake. A pointless mental exercise can be pursued for the pleasure it gives. The history of ideas can be studied to appreciate the problems that inspired them.

Further Reading

A long time ago, I wrote this article about recreational math; it covers some of the same ground, but specifically on math.

Bertrand Russell’s article on why study philosophy gives one taste of what engagement with ideas can be.

Finally, this essay on the appreciation of abstract art is superb.


8 thoughts on “In Defense of “Mental Gas”

  1. Interesting. I remember how you mentioned earlier that thoughts could be untrue and useful. I like your observation about looking at abstract art. I have heard other people react to it with something near paranoia: “What if I appreciate this and it turns out it’s a joke? How can I be sure this is real, serious art when I don’t understand it?”
    But when it comes to the thoughts, I am still not quite sure. I can for instance admire an interesting scientific theory that turned out to be false. And a story is, in my perception, true without any need for it to be factual. (I wrote about this today, in my own blogpost).
    Maybe there’s just so many different subjects in this article that would be interesting enough to merit their own, dedicated articles.
    When it comes to the experience at school, this is one of my personal pet hates. Music that has to be ‘appreciated’ along prescribed lines, poems that have to be interpreted by the book. Teachers that demand their personal views to be regurgitated to them. The good news is that you haven’t stopped thinking and learning despite such experiences. 🙂

    1. Yes, I touched on the subject of useless but beautiful thoughts in a comment to one of your posts. It’s actually been something I’ve been coming to grips with for a while.

      The funny thing is that some of my questions when viewing the art were similar; I wondered if I would also be moved by random arrangements of things. How was watching some surreal piece and seeing something in it any different than seeing faces in clouds? How did I know the artist didn’t just splash some paint on canvas? How did I know that part of the viewing was not structured by an expectation that this was important enough to view, by virtue of it being in a museum?

      You are right, there are a few subjects here that merit their own posts, and in fact, I had a few staked out for their own posts for a while, but felt that collectively, they served as a response to very valid misunderstandings of my views on “mental gas”.

      Out of interest, what topics do you think merit their own articles?

      Regarding your take on story truths, I’d love some more details. You mentioned the mythic in your article…

      1. I think the subject of art appreciation would merit its own article. Especially when you write about it from a personal perspective and look at different types of art.
        The value of thought is an interesting one. I think there are some philosophers who have looked into that theme, either from the point of view that thoughts are everything or from the idea that thought and reality are removed from each other.
        Still, I have already seen that your latest article goes into a whole new and interesting realm. You really don’t need me to make any suggestions for blogposts, do you?
        On the subject of story truths: I might blog on that in future, when I have found out more. 🙂

      2. Good point; I actually had planned an article dedicated to the art question and maybe I’ll delve into it in more detail. It just so happened that all these things nicely tied in with the “mental gas” line..

        As for suggestions for blog posts, feel free to make any, heh :).

        Although I’ve read quite a bit on philosophy of mind and thoughts, I’m always open to any new works, so feel free to send me some pointers!

        And I hear you about “finding out more”. In many of these blogs, I’m struggling with questions, and at times may sound more “decided” than I mean. In fact, that’s what these belief posts are about, my struggle with what this word means.

  2. I have some difficulty with “useless thoughts”. Useless for what? It seems to say that the physical world is where thoughts may be useful but not the interior world. Is it useless to think about pyramids and fantasize about the pyramids I would like to build but which I cannot because I don’t have thousands of slaves to do it for me? It is tricky to predict the future utility of thoughts. Meanwhile, if the thoughts bring me pleasure they are useful for that purpose.

    1. “Useless thoughts” was vague, and I was using it with a slight sense of irony. You are correct: useless for what? Is a thought that gives me comfort but leads to no physical changes useless? Is a thought that enables me to get something (physically) done (where that something is not worth doing in my eyes) useful?

      The interior/exterior dichotomy is a good starting point for drawing that line.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I actually make it a point to tell my students knowledge is valuable for its own sake: it’s just awesome to get to learn stuff about the universe you live in. Anyone with an ounce of curiosity should understand this. You may have liked the Montessori method (I work in a Montessori school): students choose what they learn and there are no tests. Each student learns at her own pace, following her interests. There are also a lot of research projects.
    You would be surprised to see how curious these children are. That said, at some ages curiosity has drained up and they only care about computer games.

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