The latest book by Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese, is an insult to mankind`s conceptual faculty and reasoning capability. What at first sight seems to be a simple fable, emphasizing the need to be receptive to change, ends up as a collection of half-truths, floating concepts, and improper metaphors. Let`s visit what I consider to be the two most dangerous misconceptions hidden behind the metaphors in Johnson`s fable.
First, he presents rats as better equipped to deal with change, than humans. The argument is that, because they do not "think", they do not "fill their minds" with false ideas and, hence, just move along using their trial and error method until they succeed. Second, the two fictional characters Johnson creates to represent the human race are not only the personification of irrational unawareness, but they are pathetic representations of what being human is about. It shouldn`t surprise us that, with this loaded deck of cards, Johnson succeeds in presenting a winning hand.
To argue that most humans tend to resist change, especially when they grow accustomed to their "comfort zone", is one thing. To suggest that our cognitive equipment, our rational mind, is, by design, ineffective in dealing with change, is another. Finally, to suggest that lower animals such as rats, have a lead over humans in managing the complexity of the world is not only false, it`s disgraceful! It only adds insult to injury.
Cognition in animals is a perceptual phenomenon. Their brain automatically integrates sensory data (neuro-electrical and neuro-chemical signals from the senses) into perceptual units, or percepts. When an animal opens its eyes and sees a table, it does not have to consciously integrate the various signals being sent from its eyes to the brain. The integration of these signals into a percept — the image of the table — is done automatically. It sees the table as one unit, rather than as a flurry of sensations.
Man, having a conceptual consciousness, works at a higher level. As with animals, it too perceives entities as units. However, it is capable of integrating these perceptual units, or percepts, into concepts. The concept "Table", for example, is a symbol that subsumes all instances of tables; those he has seen, as well as those he hasn`t. Human knowledge is conceptual. It is man`s conceptual faculty what allows his cognition to extend beyond the perceptual world and discover laws and principles of the universe he lives in.
Man`s brain, however, does not conceptualize automatically. Man has to perform conscious work to formulate a concept. Not only does he have to think; he has to think correctly. A conceptual consciousness needs a proper method, a proper epistemology.
By depicting rats as more successful than humans, Johnson seems to suggest that the automatic perceptual consciousness of lower animals is superior to the fallible conceptual consciousness of humans. This is either faulty thinking or dangerous propaganda. In either case, it merits debunking! A conceptual consciousness is not condemned to err. Humans can achieve knowledge through a proper epistemology. What kind of epistemology? One that recognizes reason as man`s means of survival, and logic as his method of cognition, plus the capacity to manage ourselves and a system of inter-relationships.
It looks as if Johnson searched the lowest rung of the evolutionary scale to create the two characters that represent the human race in his story. As I read through the fable, I couldn`t avoid thinking of Ts`ai Lun, who fabricated paper for the first time in the year 100 A.D.; or in Nicolaus Copernicus, who made us rethink our place in the solar system in 1543; or in Christopher Columbus, who had the courage to prove the earth wasn`t flat; or in Ludwig van Beethoven, by 1817 totally deaf, but considered one of the world`s greatest composers; or in Samuel Adams, one of the most fiery leaders of the resistance movement that led to the American Revolution; or in Frederick Douglass, a Maryland slave who in 1838, borrowed papers from a free black seaman and escaped to New York to become one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement in United States.
Other names kept creeping up: Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, Jean Piaget, Alexander Fleming, Winston Churchill, Edwin Hubble, John Maynard Keynes, Enrico Fermi, William Shockley, Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, and Martin Luther King, to name a few.
For centuries, storytelling has been the means of communicating values from generation to generation. Every story embodies a philosophy, proper or improper, correct or incorrect. Every fictional plot is built upon a perspective of the universe (metaphysics) and a perspective of how we gain knowledge of that universe (epistemology). That is why the stories we tell our children are so important. It`s also why we must be as careful with the stories we tell ourselves! Equally important, are the stories we tell our employees!
Who Moved My Cheese might be a curious fable, but it has more holes than a ton of… precisely… Swiss Cheese!
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