The First-Order Reasoning Syndrome

basket womanIf you’ve ever played chess, you would probably agree with me on this: the people who become very good at it are those who can think at least 2 moves ahead. Kasparov once said that he would normally think ahead three to five moves deep. That’s the kind of thinking that creates good games.

A poor chess player, on the other hand, would only think one move ahead and employ an in-your-face style of play — no gambits, no awareness of fundamental principles like controlling the center, and no long-term planning. This kind of player cannot reason on more levels than one, so expect the quality of his games to be crappy.

If you are this bad chess player and the way you ‘play’ life is the same way you play chess, I would expect the quality of your life to be crappy as well. And if you live in a society where most people play life the same way you do, I would expect the quality of that society to be awful too.

In the mind of a bad ‘life player’, what happens is he is reasoning almost exclusively on a lower order of implication and causation, especially on the first order. He does not have the habit of reasoning on further levels. Typically this is because he doesn’t have enough reasoning power to do so.

Let me illustrate to you what I mean. Suppose you are walking on a sidewalk and you have a candy wrapper in your hand, what would you do with it?

Someone who has a low reasoning power would act based solely on primary-level implications, like:

  1. ‘I am going to drop this on the sidewalk because by doing so, I get rid of it’
  2. ‘I am going to drop this on the sidewalk because no one’s looking’
  3. ‘I am NOT going to drop this on the sidewalk because someone’s looking’
  4. ‘I am NOT going to drop this on the sidewalk because I wasn’t trained to throw garbage in places other than trash cans’

If you notice, each one of these thoughts come from a simple cause-and-effect line. The action may turn out to be bad (like #1) or good (like #4) but the level of reasoning that leads to the action tells us that a person whose actions and words are limited to such depth of reasoning is not going to do well in life. On top of that, his behavior may affect society in unpleasant ways.

On the other hand, reasoning beyond the first-order of implication goes something like this:

‘If I drop this candy wrapper on the sidewalk, I’ll be able to get rid of it BUT it’s not going to be pleasing to the eye. FURTHERMORE, when it rains it’s going to go to the drainage along with other trash and it may block the flow of water, CAUSING possible flooding. When it floods, it may AFFECT me, my family and the community in general, and obviously this is not a good thing. ANYWAY, it’s easy to keep the wrapper in my pocket and just toss it in the trash can when I see one. THEREFORE, I’m not going to drop this candy wrapper on the sidewalk.’

Now this is just a simple example I made up for illustration purposes. It should not be used as a benchmark, as some may say, ‘Oh, I think about the drainage problem too whenever I have a candy wrapper in my hand; therefore I’m not one of those people who mostly reason from first-order implications’. If they use this example as a criterion, then they don’t get it, which proves that they’re part of the crowd that reason on first-order causation most of the time.

Furthermore, the candy wrapper example, especially looking at #1, describes the shallowest of the shallow primary-level reasoning. Sometimes life requires a further five, six or seven levels of complication so even if you can reason three levels deep, you still fall short.

Let me give you another example. Let’s say you have this habit of looking up the meaning of a word you don’t know right after the moment you encounter it on the internet. You share this with your girlfriend as a self-improvement method but she can’t see the point of doing it. All she wants is to watch videos or whatever. You realize that there is no chance of her someday being able to learn it or that she’d come up with similar ideas on her own and apply them in her life. 

Here’s what’s going on: you are reasoning on more levels than your girlfriend operates on. (So don’t expect her to see the value of the said habit of looking up the meaning of a word right after encountering it.) You’re probably aware of the advantages of having a broad vocabulary, such as being able to say what you mean faster, more efficiently and more accurately, being able to understand other people and the things you read and watch better, being able to improve your persuasion skills and make a good impression on others, being able to use it in business or in your career, etc. In short, it gives you an advantage in life. It enables you to break through a number of limitations and gain access to various opportunities.

Having realized its value, you then thought about how you can improve your vocabulary and saw that the only way to do it is to add to it one word at a time. Then you realized that without retention, learning a word’s meaning doesn’t add anything to your vocabulary. You then reason that the best way to remember the meaning of a new word is to look it up right after you encounter the word because then you’re able to associate it with a particular context, imagery and experience. Then you reason that the present encounter is the best opportunity to learn the meaning of the word; if you don’t look it up now (or jot it down on your to-do list) the chances of you being able to do it some other time without any reminder is very low. Hence you developed this habit and it worked.

Now what happens to people who cannot employ this kind of multi-tiered reasoning? The odds are they’re not going to have a good English vocabulary and the advantages and opportunities that come with it.

This is, again, just another example. There are so many other examples that if you can combine all of them, you’ll see that it affects a lot more aspects of life than what I can show you using the candy wrapper and vocabulary scenarios. The man who doesn’t care dropping plastic wrappers on the sidewalk and the girlfriend who can’t appreciate the value of a self-improvement suggestion represent just two of the myriads of Filipinos who play life based on reasoning on the first or first few orders of implication or causation. They’re like a military commander who only knows one method of engaging the enemy: frontal assault.

Look at this phenomenon as a whole and it becomes easier to understand life in the Philippines. At the root of what makes the Philippines the way it is is the fact that the vast majority of the people are limited to fewer levels of reasoning than what is required to create a prosperous and pleasant society as well as a favorable personal situation. The poorest of the poor cannot advance their life situation because of it. Meaningful conversations can’t be had because of it. The leaders cannot make good decisions because they can only reason on fewer levels than what a complex system (a society made up of millions of people and thousands of institutions) demands. Likewise, filogic happens because the person cannot reason on the number of levels that a situation requires to create positive outcomes.


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