Alien Rhetoric

I have not happened upon a formula that can be employed in argumentation (where persuasion is a primal motive) to influence my fellow arguer’s position or thinking process to a degree that has apparent instant and lasting effects. This is not really as important to me as being able to detect that I have reached my fellow in a meaningful and positive way. I’ve been pondering this more or less since forever, but not syllogistically or systematically. Not that this note will be syllogistic or systematic, but I hope the stream of thought will be refinable and productive toward uncovering the imagined formula. Imagined because I can conjure scenarios in my head about wonderful, edifying, fallacy-free exchanges of ideas (that don’t attack the other’s character); but these scenarios always rely on an assumed level of relatively balanced competence in some form of linear reasoning! Maybe my musing should not attempt to be linear, but rather lateral in order to break out of this particular imaginary box? Hmmm…Not just yet.

When I’m talking to people, it is obvious to me that there is cognitive machinery involved. From my perspective, machinery has parts that can be employed in varieties of ways to produce a similar effect: thinking. (The ‘machinery’ metaphor could be a faulty premise.)

I say “similar effect” because some of what people refer to as “thinking” really is more like groping within the obscurity of emotion to chain approximated concepts together. Then there are most political and religious affectations of “thinking” that are a parody of reasoning and which are more about what one does with the machinery relative to an agenda. But emoting chains of concepts is at the extreme end of a continuum that has a lot of shades between it and Mister Spock’s logic.

However, at this point, I’m thinking more about the machinery and what goes into the machinery, both in what it’s made of and the material it processes than how what it produces appears.

Let the musings begin! Need to dissect the issue, bring to the forefront whatever it is I’m facing. So I guess the place to start is at the start. My intent is to chain ideas, starting with molecules of concepts and graduating to noumena, or the mental creatures they form.

NOTE: the following is under edit and revision (as I continue to re-read it and find errors, weaknesses, fallacies, etc.). This is version 1.1.

Oh, and I apologize in advance for the dense academic prose…It’s how my brain works, requiring olympian effort make it more accessible. I’ll chip away at it as time goes by.

Round Up vs. Roll Up

I know from study and experience that we all round up sets of related thoughts to the nearest, most salient (to each personally) representation. This is different from roll up in that roll up is a form of categorization, where round up is more a form of approximation & estimation. The discussion on rolling up and rounding up is fundamental to understanding the material of and fodder for the machinery.

We must roll up because we can’t keep every detail of every concept in our minds at all times, especially since short-term memory can contain only 7 ± 3 things at one time, and then only for (something like) 600 seconds if the concepts we’re trying to retain aren’t somehow repeated, overtly or in your head, often enough to transfer it to longer-term memory. This is important because it partially establishes physiological reasons for needing to roll up, define, and categorize stuff.

Exmaple of Roll Up

Here’s a fun and long-winded example: what is rolled up into the term winter. Depending on the region, deciduous trees lose their leaves because of the cold; in other regions, they lose their leaves for lack of water. Some places have snow while others have drought. Some places become overcast, while others become cloudless. In all cases, winter is called such because of a cooling of the temperature and is associated with a block of months on the calendar. Even about the southern hemisphere, we say the “seasons are switched” because the “cooling” and other “winter” traits for a region are associated with the set of months “opposite” from us in the northern. We do not say that “their winter is like our summer.” The point here is that Winter as a season contains a bunch of ingredients (or nodes) that, when we refer to Winter, we mean all the things associated with it (within a shared understanding or experience). These nodes compose the definition for, or what we mean by, Winter when we use the word. So we don’t have to say something like the following sentence:

“It brings me pleasure to, on my feet, affix long, flat sticks with slightly upturned forward tip, whose top portion contains a contraption into which we fasten a specially fabricated foot covering, and the bottom portion is waxed in a way to reduce friction in order to allow one to travel on top of crystallized water that has amassed due to prolonged precipitation and given an adequate incline where momentum is occasioned by gravity; and do this during the associated periods into which the time it takes the earth to travel around the sun once is divided, historically, based on the visual phases of the natural satellite of our planetary body, when the ambient temperatures drop low enough to maintain a depth of the same water crystals adequate to cover ground and not be uncovered by a small disturbance and when all the types of trees that produce leaves that fall off in the coldness are bare and when typically the sky is constantly full of a visible mass of water or ice particles suspended at a considerable altitude with the visual effect of making the environment around one seem colored in a color spectrum whose only range of tones is within black and white; doing all of this for the purpose of providing myself entertainment of a physical nature, which also serves to invigorate my body but that, unfortunately, requires an outlay of value instruments with which the society I live in uses to exchange goods & services.”

Not easy to derive, “I like to ski in the Winter, finances allowing”, now is it? (Gawd, I love this shit!) The effect on short-term memory is that, if we were to try to keep in mind all the components that compose Winter, we’d be using up many of the 7± 3 memory slots needed for use in immediate (working) discourse. Basically, we’d have flooded the engine. By the time we reach the middle or end phrases, we have forgotten the earlier because what we had to maintain in working (short-term) memory for the earlier comprehension had to be cycled out for the later! (A problem many students have with long German sentences.) We must categorize and create blocks upon which we both build our understanding and further our discourse.


Progressing from rolling up to the next link in the chain is metonymy, kin to definitions. An example is using the word “Washington” when we want to refer to the Capitol of the US; or as in “Give us our daily bread,” (a synecdoche) where bread stands for that which we need for subsistence, whatever it may be. The concept “Capitol” comprises the ideas, events, activities, processes, purposes, institutions, and its location — the details — that are inherent to the reference to “Washington.” So, one bit of data composing the node “location” is being used to refer to the whole.


Building on metonymy and synecdoche, we arrive at stereotype: a type of a grouping, where something or someone is lumped into group thought of in terms of some characteristic that is assumed to accompany certain other features, character traits, actions, even values. So, some associated trait is thought of when referring to the thing or person that possesses, say, a certain skin color or demonstrates a certain sexual preference. It’s a standardized mental picture or impression that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced habit of thinking or uncritical judgment.

A stereotype is like an ad-hoc definition that includes judgment as a node. With metonymy and synecdoche, humans are picking a trait to stand for the concept (or the whole), while with stereotyping, we are rounding up to a characterization, most often the judgment node. All of these are gradations of encapsulating information into discrete chunks in order that discourse might build upon the subtotals of comprehension.

Going back to Winter, let’s say our immediate association with Winter is “brrrrr” and “depressing.” This association to the nearest personally salient impressions is the rounding-up. A sort of personal haphazard “stereotype”. It’s not a definition; it’s an impression. It’s emotive and reactionary, more evaluation than observation. Nuttin’ wrong with that … unless most of the concepts you rely on are this way. But for the argument I’m trying to make, concept nodes depend on the person’s experience & perspective as much as any dictionary definition, where the former could be just about anything (as long as it includes “cooling temperature”).

The Mash of Approximation & Prejudice

Approximation — which we do … a lot — is having the thinnest idea of what a concept or its word(s) contains. It would take us a great deal of stellar time-management or just plain time to learn every node of every word within every concept we encounter or want to use; so we fudge. One snags onto the closest word (often times by sound alone) to further an argument, a word containing at least one of the nodes relevant to a point — the other nodes notwithstanding — instead of choosing the best word. If the word goes unchallenged, its acceptance into the dialog introduces fog into the attempt to navigate the details of the concept-under-discussion’s terrain. As Ayn Rand would say, in discourse, they are “condensing fog into fog.” Imagine, now, if the majority of terms one uses to form thoughts and judgments with are of this foggy nature. It takes research and effort to get beyond “impressions” of concept and into their details (at least more detail than the superficial, which one can grok to a greater or lesser degree from casual conversation).

The worst and most insidious example of approximation is prejudice. While the word prejudice has many connotations that one can easily confuse or between which one can easily drift, the root of pre-judice is pre-judgment (or a-priori beliefs) that lack knowledge or facts and that are “resistant to rational influence.” We accept pre-judgments primarily from those who we consider authorities. They aren’t even approximations in the sense that we‘re doing anything to generate them, but they are approximations in that they stand for things for which we have little or no clear understanding. Prejudice is insidious because we base conclusions on them anyway. They are the weakest link in any cognitive machine.


Now let’s start crunching this stuff together.

To retain concepts longer, we work them into structures in our heads where they become part of the machinery that accepts new information based on how well it fits. Think ‘assimilation’. We pattern our minds to process information based on the types of information we incorporated before. This, in some ways, establishes our bias or filter or whatever other word there is out there to characterize how we arrive at perceiving the world and its events, and their components’ relationships.


Bias is a pattern we consciously or unconsciously use to steer our thinking or filter the content our minds accept, both of which we inaccurately refer to as “prejudice.” It is a mechanism we use to give ourselves integrity: an undivided or unbroken completeness or totality of being, judged positively or negatively by its consistency. It’s what we use to create and maintain an image of the “self.”  As a trajectory, it maintains the course; as a filter, it assures that nothing corrupts the course.

Bias as a trajectory is a course, an inclination (think incline, or lean), a tendency (think extend toward or stretch).  Trajectories are created by maintaining a direction; and one maintains a direction by keeping things (speed, effort, input) within certain bounds.  Bounds are structures that contain or constrain other things — in this discussion, thoughts and concepts.  With all the forgoing concepts (of metonymy, etc.), the walls or constraints are built by having amassed the same type of building materials (input) into the structure of the walls, which is reinforced (strengthened) by incorporating more of the same compatible structural materials. The sameness of the materials is accomplished by the bias-filter.  You can also think of these bounds as being merely accumulations of the same type of materials until it forms boundaries high enough to enclose your mind.  The filter merely assures that you sift out incompatible materials.

With bias, we ignore or marginalize information that conflicts with the beliefs contained in this structure and instead seek or accept information that confirms, strengthens, and reinforces what we put so much time and effort (investment) into (known for a long time as “confirmation bias,” a type of epistemic closure). One continues to act (think) within a certain pattern. That’s what we call habit. Habits of thinking (attitude). Patterns of behavior. It’s a type of memorization, an incorporation into the schema with ongoing and repetitive application – aka, practice.

Related to bias is a condition known as cognitive dissonance — a condition that invokes a device (can we call it cognitive harmonization?) designed to protect one’s concept of self. With this device, a person can rationalize away evidence or behaviors that contradict or threaten the ‘integrity’ of his belief system. So, where bias is more of a passive filter, cognitive harmonization is active, an action whose purpose is to force ideas and information into consonance with the belief system and, therefore, back in line with the trajectory.

A new term has recently been coined to capture the notion that people can willfully generate and propagate ignorance: agnotology. In agnotología, there is a willful, uncritical resistance to conflicting information or knowledge, and a willful, uncritical acceptance of anything that supports one’s belief system. (Agnotology was first recognized by companies’ manufacturing ignorance [“information” designed to deflect the truth] and has since been extended to recognize the affect belief systems can have in sustaining the ignorance.)  It is characterized by professing as fact something that is (and has been easily shown as being) false but propagating it anyway as part of an integral part of one’s belief system about some topic, like “31000 scientists reject global warming” in the Oregon petition against climat-change-related regulations, P&G’s being in league with the devil, death panels, and on.  It is “the manufacture and maintenance of ignorance.”

In case I muddled the point in the last paragraph: I mean ignorance as, not just “not knowing [i-gnorare]”, but putting up false information to KEEP yourself not knowing the whole picture in order to maintain a bias.  (Thanks to CrookedTimber for teaching me about this.)

Machinery in Action

We know by now that we can build our structures and fill them with damn near anything. Both structures and conclusions can come from any source, with zero or a ton of information to substantiate them. It is possible to have a cognitive-processing structure evolved from complete fantasy. Where prejudice and approximations become part of the machinery such that the person housing such machinery cannot distinguish between fact and opinion is when the person incorporates other, unsubstantiated judgments into his machinery and builds on it. Distinguishing fact from opinion and the truth value of propositions is a matter of method, particularly reasoning. By reasoning, I refer to methods of inference and deduction that have rules by which one can validate (as in support and justify) conclusions — critical thinking that concerns itself with the truth of statements and conclusions. Reasoning is an amazingly important process of a cognitive machine, which process requires concerted, deliberate effort. It doesn’t seem to be “natural” any more than altruism or selflessness. One only strives to be logical who is truly concerned with the quality of data going in and out of the machine.

The “process” of the cognitive machine is based on its owner’s objectives. It’s a type of configuration, a set of settings and enabling of functions (like the settings in a computer program) to suit not only how the user operates & wants to operate, but also what the user desires to end up with.

Critical thinking, memory limitations, the human characteristic of categorizing, approximation, bias, prejudice, and practice — these are some of the gears that go into the cognitive machinery. What might happen if all this approximation, rounding up, and stereotyping form the deep and major components of one’s cognitive system? What if that which has been being patterned into the machinery has been nothing but approximations and round-ups (impressions), with filters (biases) that summarily abort thoughts & ideas that threaten one’s belief system upon which his identity depends? How might one have a discussion with someone whose structures are both radically different from yours and whose structures are composed mostly of unsubstantiated “information”?

I ask these questions because I have had conversations with people who will say, “Yes, I understand” and then demonstrate a complete lack of that supposed understanding with the very next utterance. Testing for a shift in their processing structures, you insert a bit of tenderized concept and watch what happens to it. It is so easy to detect to what degree a structure has shifted or a concept has been processed. Granted there is (or should naturally be) a period where the structural shift has time to propagate to other gears, affecting their functioning even slightly. But my expectation is that “practice” would be evident in the current discourse. Without practice, the effort does not take hold, as with any other memory-based feature.

One of the things I, in my more naïve days, used to try to accomplish in a conversation was complete conversion of my fellow interlocutor or utter illumination of whatever it was I was arguing for. After much frustration for lack of these objectives ever being realized, it dawned on me that the best I could hope for was to be able to slip something small into someone’s mental machine that might germinate a more “rational” approach or a questioning-of-basis in favor of having reasons for one’s beliefs. (Of course, I would have to proceed from an arrogated position of having sounder or more righteous thinking.) Something of a computer virus for brains.

But I realized that such a virus requires the appropriate medium in which to thrive: “reasoning” itself is a challenge for many, and such a virus might need reasoning in order to take root. Incorporating approximation and prejudice with means that are significantly devoid of methods of inference and evaluation, combined with mechanisms employed to protect personal belief systems is why conversations with humans sporting such cognitive structures are “resistant to rational influence.” Because such influences are not part of what composes their processing — It literally “does not compute”!


I may have just exposed a way to overcome (only a little) that which is resistant to reason. Once you introduce a method of processing information (including the information of the topic under discussion), you spend the rest of the conversation “practicing” it (or provoking its practice) until there is enough of a pattern that can be carried away and survive on its own — with continuing care, which will depend entirely on the specimen’s motivation.

Now I need to devise and adopt a rhetorical device to test my hypothesis. Ideas?

7 Responses

  1. Updated the first few paragraphs of Bias.

  2. […] not nearly on the heels of someone who can think at Kant’s level, I posited the following about Bias: To retain concepts longer, we work them into structures in our heads where they become […]

  3. Updated the paragraph on agnotology to explain it better and provide examples.

  4. Buchanan defends anti-Islam prejudice:
    “Prejudice is prejudgment. And if prejudgment is rooted in the history and traditions of a people, and what life has taught us, it is a shield that protects.”

    But if the judgment to begin with is grounded in fallacy & hysteria before it becomes rooted, it is not a shield but a shell of ignorance.

  5. Today, I ran across this method of breaking through some level of epistemic closure:

  6. In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

  7. Stereotyping is a bad word in our culture, but in my usage it is neutral. One of the basic characteristics of System 1 is that it represents categories as norms and prototypical exemplars. This is how we think of horses, refrigerators, and New York police officers; we hold in memory a representation of one or more “normal” members of each of these categories. When the categories are social, these representations are called stereotypes. Some stereotypes are perniciously wrong, and hostile stereotyping can have dreadful consequences, but the psychological facts cannot be avoided: stereotypes, both correct and false, are how we think of categories.

    Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 168-169). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

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