Learning III

What has been said above about the self-validating character of premises acquired by Learning II indicates that Learning III is likely to be difficult and rare even in human beings. Expectably, it will also be difficult for scientists, who are only human, to imagine or describe this process. But it is claimed that something of the sort does from time to time occur in psychotherapy, religious conversion, and in other sequences in which there is profound reorganization of character.

Zen Buddhists, Occidental mystics, and some psychiatrists assert that these matters are totally beyond the reach of language. But, in spite of this warning, let me begin to speculate about what must (logically) be the case.

First a distinction must be drawn: it was noted above that the experiments in reversal learning demonstrate Learning II whenever there is measurable learning about the fact of reversal. It is possible to learn (Learning I) a given premise at a given time and to learn the converse premise at a later time without acquiring the knack of reversal learning. In such a case, there will be no improvement from one reversal to the next. One item of Learning I has simply re-placed another item of Learning I without any achievement of Learning II. If, on the other hand, improvement occurs with successive reversals, this is evidence for Learning II.

If we apply the same sort of logic to the relation between Learning II and Learning III, we are led to expect that there might be replacement of premises at the level of Learning II without the achievement of any Learning III.

Preliminary to any discussion of Learning III, it is there-fore necessary to discriminate between mere replacement without Learning III and that facilitation of replacement which would be truly Learning III.

That psychotherapists should be able to aid their patients even in a mere replacement of premises acquired by Learning II is already no mean feat when we consider the self-validating character of such premises and their more or less unconscious nature. But that this much can be done there is no doubt.

Within the controlled and protected setting of the therapeutic relationship, the therapist may attempt one or more of the following maneuvers:

to achieve a confrontation between the premises of the patient and those of the therapist—who is carefully trained not to fall into the trap of validating the old premises;

to get the patient to act, either in the therapy room or outside, in ways which will confront his own premises;

to demonstrate contradiction among the premises which currently control the patient's behavior;

to induce in the patient some exaggeration or caricature (e.g., in dream or hypnosis) of experience based on his old premises.

As William Blake noted, long ago, "Without Contraries is no progression." (Elsewhere I have called these contradictions at level II "double binds.")

But there are always loopholes by which the impact of contradiction can be reduced. It is a commonplace of learning psychology that while the subject will learn (Learning I) more rapidly if he is reinforced every time he responds correctly, such learning will disappear rather rapidly if reinforcement ceases. If, on the other hand, reinforcement is only occasional, the subject will learn more slowly but the resulting learning will not easily be extinguished when reinforcement ceases altogether. In other words, the subject may learn (Learning 11) that the context is such that absence of reinforcement does not indicate that his response was wrong or inappropriate. His view of the context was, in fact, correct until the experimenter changed his tactics.

The therapist must certainly so support or hedge the contraries by which the patient is driven that loopholes of this and other kinds are blocked. The Zen candidate who has been assigned a paradox (koan) must labor at his task "like a mosquito biting on an iron bar."

I have argued elsewhere ("Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art," see p. 128) that an essential and necessary function of all habit formation and Learning I1 is an economy of the thought processes (or neural pathways) which are used for problem-solving or Learning I. The premises of what is commonly called "character"—the definitions of the "self" —save the individual from having to examine the abstract, philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical aspects of many sequences of life. "I don't know whether it's good music; I only know whether I like it."

But Learning III will throw these unexamined premises open to question and change.

Let us, as was done above for Learning I and II, list some of the changes which we shall be willing to call Learning III.

The individual might learn to form more readily those habits the forming of which we call Learning II.

He might learn to close for himself the "loopholes" which would allow him to avoid Learning III.

He might learn to change the habits acquired by Learning II.

(d) He might learn that he is a creature which can and does unconsciously achieve Learning II.

(e) He might learn to limit or direct his Learning II.

If Learning II is a learning of the contexts of Learning I, then Learning III should be a learning of the contexts of those contexts.

But the above list proposes a paradox. Learning III (i.e., learning about Learning II) may lead either to an increase in Learning II or to a limitation and perhaps a reduction of that phenomenon. Certainly it must lead to a greater flexibility in the premises acquired by the process of Learning II —afreedom from their bondage.

I once heard a Zen master state categorically: "To become accustomed to anything is a terrible thing."

But any freedom from the bondage of habit must also denote a profound redefinition of the self. If I stop at the level of Learning II, "I" am the aggregate of those characteristics which I call my "character." "I" am my habits of acting in context and shaping and perceiving the contexts in which I act. Selfhood is a product or aggregate of Learning II. To the degree that a man achieves Learning III, and learns to perceive and act in terms of the contexts of contexts, his "self" will take on a sort of irrelevance. The concept of "self" will no longer function as a nodal argument in the punctuation of experience.

This matter needs to be examined. In the discussion of Learning II, it was asserted that all words like "dependency," "pride," "fatalism," refer to characteristics of the self which are learned (Learning II) in sequences of relationship. These words are, in fact, terms for "roles" in relationships and refer to something artificially chopped out of interactive sequences. It was also suggested that the correct way to assign rigorous meaning to any such words is to spell out the formal structure of the sequence in which the named characteristic might have been learned. Thus the interactive sequence of Pavlovian learning was proposed as a paradigm for a certain sort of "fatalism," etc.

But now we are asking about the contexts of these con-texts of learning, i.e., about the larger sequences within which such paradigms are embedded.

Consider the small item of Learning II which was mentioned above as providing a "loophole" for escape from Learning III. A certain characteristic of the self—call it "persistence"— is generated by experience in multiple sequences among which reinforcement is sporadic. We must now ask about the larger context of such sequences. How are such sequences generated?

The question is explosive. The simple stylized experimental sequence of interaction in the laboratory is generated by and partly determines a network of contingencies which goes out in a hundred directions leading out of the laboratory into the processes by which psychological research is designed, the interactions between psychologists, the economics of re-search money, etc., etc.

Or consider the same formal sequence in a more "natural" setting. An organism is searching for a needed or missing object. A pig is rooting for acorns, a gambler is feeding a slot machine hoping for a jackpot, or a man must find the key to his car. There are thousands of situations where living things must persist in certain sorts of behavior precisely because reinforcement is sporadic or improbable. Learning II will simplify the universe by handling these instances as a single category. But if Learning III be concerned with the contexts of these instances, then the categories of Learning II will be burst open.

Or consider what the word "reinforcement" means at the various levels. A porpoise gets a fish from the trainer when he does what the trainer wants. At level I, the fact of the fish is linked with the "rightness" of the particular action. At level II, the fact of the fish confirms the porpoise's under-standing of his (possibly instrumental or dependent) relationship with the trainer. And note that at this level, if the porpoise hates or fears the trainer, pain received from the latter may be a positive reinforcement confirming that hate. ("If it's not the way I want it, I'll prove it.")

But what of "reinforcement" at level III (for porpoise or for man)?

If, as I have suggested above, the creature is driven to level III by "contraries" generated at level II, then we may expect that it is the resolving of these contraries that will constitute positive reinforcement at level III. Such resolution can take many forms.

Even the attempt at level III can be dangerous, and some fall by the wayside. These are often labeled by psychiatry as psychotic, and many of them find themselves inhibited from using the first person pronoun.

For others, more successful, the resolution of the contraries may be a collapsing of much that was learned at level II, revealing a simplicity in which hunger leads directly to eating, and the identified self is no longer in charge of organizing the behavior. These are the incorruptible innocents of the world.

For others, more creative, the resolution of contraries reveals a world in which personal identity merges into all the processes of relationship in some vast ecology or aesthetics of cosmic interaction. That any of these can survive seems almost miraculous, but some are perhaps saved from being swept away on oceanic feeling by their ability to focus in on the minutiae of life. Every detail of the universe is seen as proposing a view of the whole. These are the people for whom Blake wrote the famous advice in the "Auguries of Innocence":

To see the World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.

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