Monday, January 28, 2008


This morning, for the first time, I walked to work in the snow. I think I missed out, growing up, on how much joy can come from the presence of snow. Yes, I know, after a few days the fun wears off, and the travel hazard it poses can rack up injuries and even deaths, but this morning was fantastic. Not only is a snow-covered landscape just a peaceful place, but I was treated to the sight of snowpeople, snow-sculptures (including one impressive arch) and this quiet crunch crunch under my feet. It was great. The only scary part was crossing streets; whenever I had to walk through ruts left by tires, I hit a ton of slick spots and ran the risk of getting dumped on my tuchus.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was an adventure. My church has a main parking lot, and then a small overflow lot that amounts to an open field with a bit of crumbly asphalt laid down. It's separated from the street by a big, and fairly deep, ditch, and the driveway across that ditch is just wide enough for one vehicle. When I went to leave, I didn't see the ditch at all because it was filled with snow, so my car lurched down into it and got stuck. The wonderful thing is, since a steady stream of people was flowing out of the church, a bunch of men saw it happen, and three or four of them ran up and pushed my tiny little Hot Wheels car out of the ditch. I yelled my thanks and kept going. The plastic cover popped off my turn-signal, but otherwise my car came away unscathed.

And that got me thinking this morning, and I spotted another neat connection. Last November, when I was at the NCA Convention, I watched part of a panel that consisted of argument people examining how argumentation works for characteristics that were spatial in nature. One talked about the battlefield and giving ground. Another talked about premises examined and unexamined. It was pretty interesting stuff. I'd aimlessly ruminated for years over the spatial qualities of knowledge, so I enjoyed the panel. But this morning I got to thinking about how I navigate, and how it relates to people's reasoning processes.

In the study of human reasoning and heuristics, there is a theory called dual processing. My rough summary of it is that people engage in systematic thinking, but also in associative thinking. People will go step by step and reason their way through a tough dilemma, but they'll also come up with a rough answer by comparing it to other situations they've encountered. The thing is, they tend to use both reasoning modes, and proceed with more or less confidence depending on how well they agree. If your reasoning confirms your gut, or your past experience, or your intuition, then you're likely to feel quite confident. But if they give different answers, then the matter might require further contemplation.

For years I've distinguished between directed navigating, which I do every time someone tells me step by step how to travel to someplace unfamiliar, and visual navigating, which I'm quite good at and greatly prefer. If you're headed for a spot you've never visited before, and you've got directions that take you street by street, turn by turn, landmark by landmark, then you're navigating according to directions. It's pretty reliable, depending on the quality of the directions in the first place, but it's also hard work. It requires concentration. Visual navigating, on the other hand, involves deciding which way to go based on what looks familiar. Most people navigate visually when they follow their routine ways to and from work, the grocery store, etc. I often navigate visually even when I probably should consult directions, just because I've got a pretty happy history of doing it. I very rarely get lost.

The idea that tickled me this morning was a realization that the split between systematic and associative reasoning matched almost perfectly the split between directed and visual navigating, which probably says something important about formal and informal logic. Directed navigation is more communicative, because typically the directions come from one person to another, whereas visual navigating can be the work of a single traveler. Directed navigation is more structured, and therefore if the directions are good, the navigator is almost guaranteed to arrive at the destination. Directed navigation is also more efficient and speedy, simply because visual navigation can require a good deal of hit and miss, trial and error. But visual navigation is far more flexible, and a better option when unexpected things happen. If a road is closed, then the person following directions may have no idea how to try a different route, while a visual navigator is already in the middle of an experiment, and can simply absorb the roadblock into the experiment's parameters.

I have no idea where that idea winds up. But I enjoyed chewing it over.

No comments: