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Society of Mind

22.3 de-specializing

Soon after learning how to put an apple into a pail, a child will discover that it now can put the apple into a box or put an onion into the pail. What magic tricks allow us to de-specialize whatever skills we learn? We've already seen one way to do this simply by replacing certain polynemes with less specific isonomes. For example, our first apple-into-pail procedure was so specialized that it could be used only to put apples into pails — because it is based on using specific polynemes for those objects. However, the second script just as easily puts onions into pails or umbrellas into suitcases, because it engages no polynemes at all, but only the Origin and Destination pronomes. This script is more versatile because those pronomes can be assigned to anything! Learning to think in terms of isonomes must be a crucial step in many types of mental growth.

None of our many chaining tricks would have much use if each were permanently tied to one specific polyneme like owl or car or cup or gear. However, once we learn to build our process scripts with isonomes, each can be applied to many kinds of reasoning — to logic, cause, dependency, and all the rest. But changing polynemes to isonomes will not always work. What could keep a child from trying to apply the script that works on put the apple in the block to put the ocean in the cup? To prevent such absurdities, our script must also place appropriate constraints on the Origin and Destination — for example, to ensure that the Destination must represent a container large enough to hold the Origin thing, and that the container be open toward the top. If all this seems too obvious to say, just watch a baby's first attempts to put an object in a pail or pick up food with a spoon or a fork. It takes many weeks or months of work to bring such skills to the point of usefulness. If we generalize too recklessly by changing all our polynemes to isonomes, few of our generalizations will actually work.

What we call generalizing is not any single process or concept, but a functional term for the huge societies of different methods we use to extend the powers of our skills. No single policy will work for all domains of thought, and each refinement of technique will affect the quality of the generalizations we make. Converting polynemes to isonomes may be a potentially powerful skill, but it must be adapted to different realms. Once we accumulate enough examples of how a new script fails and succeeds in several situations, we can try to build a uniframe to embody good constraints. But no matter which policy we adopt, we must always expect some exceptions. You cannot carry birds in pails, no matter how well they fit inside. Premature generalizations could lead to such large accumulations of constraints, censors, and exceptions that it would be better to retain the original polynemes.