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Choice, Belief, and Cognitive Dissonance November 9, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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A thought occurred to me today while having a conversation on Facebook.

I know, I know…why am I wading into Facebook conversations? It never solves anything, right? Right. Nonetheless, here we are.

So, the question was whether we choose our beliefs or not, and my position is that we do not choose our beliefs, and gave a brief explanation why. But something that someone said made me wonder whether cognitive dissonance is related to the feeling of having chosen a belief, and then something clicked home for me.

Let’s set the stage….

 

Choosing Beliefs: free will

So, whether we choose what we believe is related to the question of free will. I mean, if free will weren’t real, then of course we don’t choose our beliefs because our beliefs would be a function of our will which is not free, right? This touches on the concept of compatibilism, which essentially states that if the action or cognitive state reached is consistent with the desires and aims of the entity which performs said act or concludes the said idea, then the act is said to be “free” insofar as as it is what the entity wants.

In other words, if you eat ice cream and you wanted to eat ice cream, even if it were the case that you could not have done otherwise, then because the act was what you wanted to do then the act was chosen “freely.” Alternatively, if you were coerced or forced to do so by another person, then it is not a free choice. If someone force-feeds you ice cream, whether or not you wanted to do so the act was not “free.”

Let’s put the larger question of general free will aside. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our will is free in some meaningful sense. So that when I pick up my phone to look at it, I chose to do so (and am not merely addicted to my phone, like some haters might argue). Where does this leave us in terms of beliefs?

 

What is a Belief?

If you believe something, you are accepting it as true that a thing is real or true. One does not need absolute certainty to believe something, although perhaps it’s good to have a good epistemological foundation upon which to support that belief.

Of course, an astute reader might stop me there and say “Hold on! If you’re claim is that we don’t choose our beliefs, wouldn’t saying that we should have good reasons to believe something pull the rug out from under you, from the start? Wouldn’t it imply that you should only choose the well-supported ideas as your beliefs?”

And that astute reader may have started to see where I’m going with this post. We’ll get there.

For now, what I want to define is what I think a belief is, and not how we should get there. If I say that I believe there is a cat in that box, then I’m saying that I accept it as a real state of the universe that this particular box has a cat in it. It does not mean I can prove that there is one, necessarily, or even that the available evidence is sound or even available to be evaluated. It merely means that I have accepted it as a fact, or a true proposition, but it does not necessarily mean that I know it. (Knowledge is another can of worms, completely).

It has no necessary connection to the truth of whether there actually is a cat in the box; I could be wrong, but I currently believe that there is a cat in the box. My reasons are not relevant to the mere question of belief per se.

 

Epistemology

Epistemology is the philosophical study of why I’m right and you’re wrong. OK, it’s not quite that, but it’s the study of how we know, why we know, and ultimately it studies the tools we use to create justifications for the truth of propositions.

So, you believe there is a cat in the box. Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Does it feel true to you? Can you see a cat in the hole in the box? Is there a meowing sound coming from inside the box? Did you open the box and see a cat in there?

There are gradations of evidence for the belief, and some of them will be more rationally justified, and convincing to people, than others. If you merely feel like there is a cat in the box, but when we shake it it feels light and no hissing and cat noises ensue, then maybe your feeling is wrong. Maybe the meowing sound is a recording being played on a speaker in the box? Maybe it’s a fake cat you see through the hole in the box. Maybe you’re hallucinating both a cat and a box, and in reality there is not even a box at all. Maybe you’re in the matrix, and there is also no spoon.

In short, epistemology is the study of whether the belief is justified but it is also the study of how we come to conclusions which are justified to different extents.

So, how did you come to this belief?

Are you even consciously aware of how you came to believe in your theory of cats in boxes? Did you earn a PhD in cat-in-box-ology? Did you try to open the box and pet the cat? Did you take the cat out of the box because you were trying to put something else in it when your cat decided the box belonged to her? What was the method you used to come to this belief?

And that leads into the next question.

 

What would it be like if you were wrong?

If it weren’t the case that a cat was in the box, what would that imply about other things you believe and would it affect you in some significant way? If the cat were an illusion, or otherwise just not there, would it shatter your worldview? Would it be painful or somehow life-altering if it were the case that your belief were not true?

How does it feel, and what thoughts do you have, if someone tells you there is no cat in the box? Does it make you curious? Angry? Do you feel pity for the poor deluded fool who can’t perceive the cat? Also, can you actually perceive the cat yourself, or are you inferring it from something else? Maybe you were raised in a home where everyone believed there was a cat in the box, and so you just sort of accepted it from an early age and so the idea seems natural, automatic, and, well…did you ever really choose to believe that the cat was in the box?

I mean…of course you did. Right? You looked at the box. There was something moving in there. You thought you heard a meow. Besides, the box says “cat inside,” and why would someone write that on a box with no cat in it? You really thought about this, and you decided that a cat was in the box. You’re sure. Mostly.

Ok, let’s forget about the damned cat for a minute, and let’s talk about something else. You decide to pick up a newspaper, and you see that it says that your local baseball team won the game last night. Great! that’s awesome. And you believe it, because the newspaper said so. I mean, newspapers make mistakes, but not often of more trivial and easily provable things like this, so you accept it as true, even if only provisionally, because there is evidence which is generally reliable to support it.

But what if someone said “hey, the newspaper made a mistake about last night’s game, and they actually lost in the bottom of the 9th”? What happens then? Did your belief in the outcome of the game waver or change? Did you choose that wavering or shift in belief? Did you, consciously, say to yourself that the question of the result of the game is in the air, epistemologically, and you now choose to believe that they in fact lost? Or did the belief just sort of shift, without you seeing the process take place, and appear in your consciousness without any actual conscious process driving it?

Or this. You see a man steal a candy bar from a convenience store. Did you consciously choose to accept this as reality, or were you convinced by the direct evidence that you saw with your own eyes. I want to emphasize the word “convince” here, because it indicates something happening to you, not you doing something. You became convinced by an experience.

It’s possible you mis-saw what happened; maybe the man actually paid for it already and is just grabbing it now. Maybe he’s the owner of the store, and it’s really his candy bar. But you believe he just stole it, because you saw the evidence (even if you might be wrong). Could you choose to believe that he didn’t steal it? You could conceive of alternative explanations, but until you actually become convinced, whether through rational analysis* or through new information that he didn’t steal it, you will believe that he stole it.

Did you choose to believe that you cannot fly like superman?

You did? Great. Now choose to believe that you can fly like superman.

You can’t, can you?

What’s the problem? You did choose in the first place, right? You were convinced by the evidence of the possibilities of such things, and then chose to believe it, right? Or was it that the belief appeared in your consciousness because of the evidence in its favor? And the only way you could believe otherwise is to see new evidence of your newfound ability to fly.

You do not choose your beliefs. You become convinced of things due to feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Your inability to simply hop from genuine (as opposed merely asserted) belief to belief at your mere whim demonstrates this.

So how is it the case that people believe things that are wrong? If beliefs are the result of evidence, then shouldn’t we only believe things which are evident? Ideally, yes, but there are all sorts of cognitive biases, errors on thinking and perceptions, and deceptions (both external and internal) at play here.

 

Being Wrong

You believe that someone at work hates you, and is trying to ruin your career. You have seen all the evidence and it worries you. They are always short with you, snippy even. And you had that idea at the meeting which they shot down immediately in front of everyone. She didn’t come to the after work happy hour you organized, even though she came to the other one last month. She never talks to you. She probably plots and schemes at home on how to ruin your life. The evidence is obvious, right?

Well, maybe she doesn’t like you. Maybe she despises you even more than your worst fantasies could ever conjure up. Or, maybe, all of these pieces of evidence have other explanations, and she actually thinks you’re a good employee and thinks highly, or maybe just neutral, about you. It’s very easy to have beliefs that are incorrect for all sorts of reasons.

But you’re convinced anyway. Another co-worker says that you are reading into things too much, and she’s short with most people most of the time. She is always speaking up in meetings with ideas and being critical, even with her best friend who she sees all the time after work for drinks. That’s just who she is.

No, you believe she has it out for you. You’ve become convinced and invested in this belief, and if the belief is challenged then a part of your brain sort of reacts against the other evidence and rejects it, perhaps almost imperceptibly. It’s not quite painful, but it’s uncomfortable. The claim just bumps up against your belief and bounces off. You are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

And the more contradictory information you receive, perhaps the more your belief sticks. And maybe, just maybe, as the evidence starts to mount against your belief the feeling of believing it starts to feel more and more like a choice. The more evidence that she likes you–she invites you to lunch with some people, she compliments your work, she nods her head at the next meeting in reaction to your idea–the more the belief that she actually hates you and wants to destroy you starts to feel like you are choosing to believe it because you are actively maintaining it, even if only unconsciously.

And if I came to you on a day or time while you were thinking about your co-worker and asked you whether we choose our beliefs you say yes; you do choose your beliefs. Perhaps not all of them, but this belief feels like a choice right now, and you are a free, curious, and intelligent person not merely subject to the random whims of random chance in terms of what you believe about the world. Your beliefs are rational, reasonable, and you have given them thought, so of course you choose them.

But that doesn’t address how you came to believe it in the first place. Because the initial question is not “are you choosing to believe this now,” it’s “how did you come to this belief?” It’s well-known that many of our reasons for our beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations, and not the reason we originally came to the belief itself (as I have written about before) ; not how to hold onto, rationalize, or explain your beliefs, but how you came to accept it as true. In other words, we need to be able to distinguish between the origin of a belief and our mind’s ability to maintain, defend, or rationalize a belief after it has made a home in our brain.

And in most cases, I don’t think we know how we started to believe something, especially when it comes to things like religious, political, or larger worldview beliefs. If you really think about where your beliefs come from, you may often be left without a clue. All the justifications that start to perculate up are an after-the-fact rationalization of the thing that’s already there, even if your belief is actually true, rational, and strongly evidenced. You didn’t choose it, you became convinced for good, bad, or mixed good/bad causes and reasons.

 

Beliefs: Rationalizations versus origins

As I reflect on some of my more certain, core beliefs, I don’t feel a sense of defending or actively maintaining the belief. I feel no cognitive dissonance when I think “this computer is in front of me” or “the world seems like a collection of material things interacting in complicated ways.” But I do feel some cognitive dissonance if I think “Nas’ Illmatic is the best rap album of all time”.

See, I love that album, and I have a fair amount of emotional investment in thinking it’s the best rap album because of my love for it. But I’m also aware that there is evidence out there that it’s not the best rap album. There are some pretty damned good Wu-Tang albums, for example. Also, there are a lot of good albums I probably don’t know about which may be better. I feel, while thinking those words, that I’m actively rationalizing the answer in real time, mostly unconsciously, and it feels more like I’m choosing that belief. I feel the power of having made that choice, but the feeling of having made the choice is not the origin of the belief, it is the experience of rationalizing the belief.

I’ve been fooled to think I chose the belief because of the process of rationalizing the belief, which probably isn’t the reason I came to that belief, is associated with the origin of the belief in my mind. Now, it might be the case that Nas’ Illmatic is in fact the best rap album of all time, but that’s not really relevant here. What’s relevant is that this belief came about through processes I’m not conscious of at all and perhaps could never understand, so it couldn’t possibly be a choice. The rationalizations I come up with later, consciously, may have nothing whatsoever to do with the initial reason. But even if it did, there is no way for me to know this, at least not completely.

And while it’s important to be able to justify our beliefs and be open to allowing those beliefs to change (notice that this is, again, something that happens to us and not something we do) based upon further information and experience, we should be aware that this process is separate from how the belief came to exist in the first place. So, if we have free will and can choose the rational processes by which we justify our beliefs, because we don’t have access to the processes by which the belief formed, we can’t have chosen the belief.

 

OK dude, what’s your point?

Perhaps it is the case (and I’m not convinced of this yet, and therefore do not believe it, but it’s a compelling thought) that there is a correlation, and mayhap even a causal relationship, between the sensation of choosing a belief and the presence of cognitive dissonance. Therefore, the strength of the feeling of choosing a belief is a sign of the belief itself being in jeopardy.

If I hold a belief, but the evidence seems to contradict or at least challenge it, then as I think about the challenge I have to actively justify the belief. This may cause the sensation of choosing it because I’m being forced to justify my belief fresh, which feels like a choice. But, maybe, if the challenges to my belief result in no sensation of choosing the belief, this might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is not present, and maybe I’m not seeing any conflict with my belief at all.

It could also mean I’m dense, stubborn, or simply not understanding the counter-evidence, but I’m finding it compelling that there might be a relationship here, which I will have to give more thought to.

When a challenge comes to a core belief, such as the earth being relatively spherical, from (let’s say) a flat-Earth proponent, I certainly do have to bring to mind the justifications for my belief, but he feeling of choosing this belief is weak if not nonexistent in this case. The attempts at counter-arguments simply don’t have enough power to bring about the sensation of choosing to believe the earth is round, it’s just there, unperturbed.

But how about whether psychic ability is real? I’m convinced it’s not, and I belief it’s a fraud or a delusion when people claim it’s real, but there is a sensation of the belief being chosen as I really think about it. It’s not inherently impossible, after all. I could imagine ways it might happen, given the right kinds of biological hardware and processes. There is enough room for doubt, that as I think about it the sensation of choosing this belief is more present. But, again, this is the sensation of the justification process, not the origin of the belief. To touch the core belief, the evidence would have to be overwhelming and that, if it ever happened, would be the cause of a new belief (a belief in psychic abilities) which would be new and never completely understood, but only later justified.

So maybe we should keep in mind that the belief that belief is a choice is a sign of cognitive dissonance? Or at least a sign that the belief is being justifiably challenged?Maybe I should try to believe that, and see how well it pans out.

I don’t know, I’m not quite convinced, but it’s an interesting idea to keep in mind and pay attention to, going forward. If it were true that the feeling of choosing a belief were related to a belief being exposed, threatened, and potentially subject to replacement, then it might be worth paying more attention to when people claim they choose their beliefs as possibly more open to having their minds changed.

Then again, someone who says they choose their beliefs and who are also convinced that they cannot be wrong are probably not worth talking to. In other words, I should stay off of Facebook.

 

 


*One might be tempted to point out that this internal rational analysis is the point where one chooses to believe. But even if we accept that the rational analysis itself was chosen, the belief comes as a result of the analysis, automatically, based on the soundness of the analysis and your ability to understand it. If you think 1+1=2, and you understand what all those symbols/words mean, then you have no choice but to accept it as true. You don’t choose to believe 1+1=2, you become convinced by the meanings of the symbols and their relation to each other, regardless of whether you chose to think that specific analytical thought.

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Tribes and Worldviews: why I’m largely an outsider in today’s Progressive world September 11, 2018

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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Step right up! That’s right folks, step right up!

Have we got a deal for you! Today only, come get yourself some worldview! And if you get one today, we’ll throw in some values, causes, and issues free! No need to wonder why these free extras come along with your worldview today, just know that you aren’t being charged extra for them, and that if you don’t take them, the people around you will question whether you really are one of them!

OK…that’s a little too overt and heavy upon your head, I think. No subtlety or nuance here, so far. Let’s take a different approach….

 

Progressivism

I grew up in a progressive world, at least in terms of education. I went to, for 13 years, a Quaker school full of LGBT-friendly activists concerned with social justice and peace, where values such as compassion, tolerance, and diversity were held in great esteem. It was a good education, compared with many other schools, and it gave me values that are overall good, and I liked the Quakers. Mostly.

Part of my family is rather conservative, traditionalist, and even reactionary. My father would throw around the ‘N’ word as casually as I would throw around “fuck” or “the,” and I once made a joke at dinner (when I was an adult, mind you) that I couldn’t eat the ham because I had become a Muslim. My father’s reaction was quite serious and memorable; “No son of mine is becoming a Muzzie.”

This was a few years after 9/11 (fuck…that was 17 years ago, today), and he definitely identified with the pro-Bush (“Dubya”) camp, politically, and wanted to kill all of the Muslims and turn the deserts of the Middle East to glass, as I remember. At the time, all I could think was “Jesus, dad, you really don’t know me; I’m an atheist. I find Islam as silly as your Christianity, and would be very unlikely to become one”. In my world, being a Muslim wasn’t a bad, evil, scary thing, it was just another thing to be. For him, Islam was the enemy.

Neither my father nor I were going to become Muslims, but for quite different reasons; he was afraid of, and therefore hated, Muslims because they were a threat to his idea of a Christian America, and he saw this enmity as defending his traditional view of what that America was and is supposed to be. I, on the other hand, was a member of the early atheist community,* and my opposition to Islam was a mostly rational and educated opposition, rather than an emotional and jingoistic reaction to the presence of an alien religion attacking my tribe.

As the culture wars started to become further defined in the years that followed 9/11, how people saw Muslims became attached to a political identity. People on the political Right, the conservative and traditionalist people who are overwhelmingly Christian and often evangelical (think of the Battle Cry events, and similar proto-nationalist, Christian, and politically conservative events like it, that dominated the Bush years), started to oppose Islam, Mosques, and Muslims encroaching upon American culture and space. The rhetoric was of an invading culture, and the Right was opposed to it vehemently

On the other end of the spectrum, the Left started to take the opposite strategy, and started to defend Islam, and welcome the cultural change that involved more Muslims being welcomed into communities. The values here are the same as those I was raised with in my Quaker school upbringing; compassion, tolerance, and diversity. And, in at least one respect, these values are ones I share; I support the rights of Muslims to live in our culture just as much as I support Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Pagans. That is, I recognize all of their rights to exist, legally, while I would very much prefer that they all become rationalists and atheists, because ultimately I think religion is not worth our time, as humans, and we should just leave all that behind as the toys of our species’ childhood.

Welcome

These signs are very common in progressive neighborhoods, in many parts of the United States

And this is where the problem begins, for me. The world I live within, specifically West Philadelphia, is one dominated by political Leftism, tolerance, compassion, and diversity. There is a strong sense of wanting to welcome people to their communities, whether they share their religious or ethnic backgrounds, where more conservative areas would be more likely to feel uncomfortable with people of color or minority religious traditions moving down the street.

This is just one of the many particular examples of how the differences in political worldview has real world consequences on how we feel about other people and their ideas, and usually you can tell someone’s political identity by how they would think about Muslims; either they are not comfortable or tolerant of them being neighbors, or they are welcoming. Because conclusions, opinions, and support for issues is largely an indicator of one’s identity or inclusion in a worldview, or the tribes which hold such worldviews.

But what happens when you disagree? What happens when you, for example, are uncomfortable with Muslims? Not because their religion is different from yours, but because they are part of a religion that has many problematic beliefs and traditions which are at odds with your values? What if you are uncomfortable with Muslims in the same way you are uncomfortable with people who still practice Catholicism, despite the fact that it has been shown, again and again, that the Catholic church is a criminal organization?

Well, that’s intolerance, right? It’s at odds with one of the fundamental progressive values, and it is too much like the intolerance, fear, and hate coming from the Right of the political spectrum. In other words, it doesn’t fit in with the worldview of most progressive people, so holding such opinions places you in a precarious position, politically and culturally.

Where does that leave you?

 

The Center

The problem with the tribalistic nature of worldviews and the cultures they create is that if you don’t belong in one place, you must belong somewhere else. For many skeptics, atheists, and other people who attempt to use rationality as the framework for making decisions, this leaves them in some middle ground, the political “center,” and you are stuck next to Sam Harris.

Now, don’t get me wrong; Sam Harris has some really interesting things to say about metaethics, and I am on board with how he talks about morality with his analogy of landscapes. When I first read The Moral Landscape, I found a strong argument that was very similar to how I viewed the problem of morality in a world arguing over whether morality was absolute, relative, or objective (no, objective and absolute are NOT the same thing, here). I recommend the book for anyone interested in the subject of ethics.

In fact, the distinctions between those who accept some authoritative moral framework (the Christian Right, for example), those who accept a relative framework wherein we need to tolerate different views are valid (the Progressive Left, for example) is a fair analogy for the Left/Right worldview split I was talking about above in some ways. And if one does not find either satisfactory or convincing, one is left with having to find an alternative. In the case of Sam Harris and myself, that takes the form of objective morality. In fact, watch Matt Dillahunty’s video (below) where he argues for the superiority of a secular (and in his case, objective) morality. Like Sam Harris, Matt and I are mostly eye-to-eye here, and it is a nuanced, middle, position between two views on morality I find equally problematic.

 

 

Just like how we view Muslims in America, how we view morality is largely attached to the political and cultural worldview we identify with. All too often I run into Leftists (which I largely am) who become infuriated or offended if I suggest that, for example, some cultures, religious views, or moral values are better than others. To ask a progressive-minded person if they thought that (for example) Islam might be a more problematic religious worldview than Buddhism, to answer yes would be tantamount to seem to agree with the “racist” and “intolerant” Right, and to be seen as having something in common with a political/cultural worldview they are opposed to. They might ultimately agree, but the suggestion is one met with resistance, in most cases.

This is why people like Sam Harris are seen as racist and conservative to people on the Left, and it is why Sam Harris will never think of himself as a Leftist, but rather a “classical liberal” (a term that means, for the Left, he’s actually just another racist and intolerant right winger). There is a disconnect on values, here, which makes Sam Harris not seem doctrinally pure enough to be part of the Leftist tribe, even where Sam Harris largely is a progressive (to be fair, he is resistant to what he calls “identity politics, which would place him more in the center, but he’s much closer to a progressive than a Republican and definitely not a Trump supporter). All it takes is to be critical in a way that alienates him from progressives for them to dismiss him as a racist and conservative, and thus ignored and ostracized by most people on the Left. Tribalism at work.

But these issues are not digital; One is not either completely accepting of Islam, Muslims, and all the cultural, historical, and ideological baggage that can be attached to those sets of worldviews or intolerant and hateful of them. There are nuances here, and in an age of Twitter, soundbites, and knee-jerk reactions to not being confused for the other side of whatever political spectrum you identify with, you are wise to be careful about expressing an opinion that doesn’t fit in with the worldview of those in your tribe. Better to stick to the party line, and keep up appearances.

It would not go over well, in a conversation in the back courtyard of Dahlak where everyone is an anarchist, progressive democrat, or radical waiting for the revolution to finally come, if you were to suggest that 9/11 happened (even if only in part) due to genuinely held religious beliefs consistent with a fair reading of the Koran and the Hadith. No, it was definitely American foreign policy, military action, and colonialism.  And this isn’t to say that people all over the world don’t have legitimate political grievances against the United States for decades of bad behavior which might cause people to want to retaliate militarily and with terrorism. But it is simultaneously true that Islam is a great ideological tool to implement such actions, and one could get from Koran to terrorism without any need for political grievances as an intermediary.

Yes, that last paragraph was inspired by a real conversation I had in exactly that space.  And yes, my interlocutor insisted that religion could have had nothing to do with 9/11, because Islam is a religion of peace, and it would be intolerant and racist to imply that Islam might be violent and dangerous as an ideology. He stuck to his guns, ran the party line, and maintained consistency with his worldview which values of compassion, tolerance, and diversity. Just not truth. It’s not like the guy ever read the Koran or studied the history of Islam, or anything, but he knew that conservative jingoists hate Islam and he’s not like them, so he has to accept Muslims as a non-problematic addition to the culture in which he lives, without sufficient criticism.

The Left is too afraid to be critical of religious and spiritual beliefs, where criticism is not only valid, but perhaps necessary.

 

Where do I belong?

My issue, here, is that I’m largely a progressive. If you sat me down with a bunch of Social Justice advocates who wanted a tolerant and diverse political and cultural society, I would get along with them and agree on many things, but I’d be at odds with them on some others. And I get myself in trouble when I disagree with some issue or position. Many rationalist and secular people find themselves in this position. I see people around me, politically, defending religious nonsense and even genuinely believing in paganism, tarot, or psychics. More and more, recently, I hear people talking about magic, reiki, and nature spirits in my progressive circles, and it’s becoming worrying to my skeptical heart and mind.

In some sense, I get it; it’s a reaction to the authoritarian and patriarchal religious identities of conservatives. Rather than a vengeful and authoritarian Jesus, we have the nature loving and progressive gods and goddesses of pagan lore (let’s ignore the fact that Islam’s Allah is a lot more like Yahweh/Jesus than those pagan artsy spirits). It fits with the political and cultural worldview better, but it does not fit my worldview at all. I’m left with the choice of a tribe who accepts that God is judging you or one that believes crystals or healing hands on your body might be able to heal cancer.

They are both laughably absurd, and I will not accept them as legitimate. I do recognize that they are equally protected under the law (at least in theory), so I definitely am closer to the Left than the Right here in terms of tolerating religious beliefs, where the right tends to defend the privileged status of Christianity, but it’s hardly an association I’m happy about.

Again, it all boils down to skepticism for me. We need to be able to not only challenge particular issues, beliefs, and people within our tribes and worldviews, but we need to be able to question the height of the pedestal we place our values upon. Values are good to have, but they are not absolute.

The Left has values, the right has values, everyone has values. And whether they are authority, purity, compassion, tolerance, diversity, etc, we all have these values to greater and lesser extents. In short, we value them to differing degrees. They are not worthy of worship or unquestionable, they are guidelines at best. Tolerance is a good value, but what are you tolerating, and why? How much do you know about the thing you are tolerating, and would there be a point where you would stop tolerating it?

Muslims are people. As such, they deserve legal protection, a willingness to hear their concerns and experiences, and the freedom to live their lives as they want to so long as they are not harming others. But we also need to be aware that there are many terrifying and dangerous ideas that are contained within the many ideologies called “Islam,” and insofar as people have those beliefs, their actions will be compelled accordingly. And similar to how many Christians oppose women’s right to choose how to live their lives and make decisions, gay rights, and many other progressive issues, Islam is no friend to many of those things in similar ways. We need to be as wary, as Progressives, of Islam as we are of Christianity.

The fact that Islam does not currently have political power here is a fair point, but if we actually seek to give Islam a seat at the cultural table, we need to be aware that if Muslims were to earn their legal right to that political power, the ideas they bring with them would be as problematic as those of Christianity or any other religion.

And if the Left, with it’s tolerance and practices of paganism, new age religion, Buddhism and all the other ideas that contain problematic views about reality, continues to not be skeptical about these things, then we will continue to live in a world where we’re forced to choose between anti-gay Jesus and vaccine-avoiding Progressive morons who will endanger us all by rejection of medicine, science, and reason.

I’ll end with an old favorite video, because it’s still relevant today.

 

More skeptical, rational, progressives please.

___

 

*this may have been before the various books were written and the community started to gain some traction, but my memory is not clear enough to remember precisely when this was. My guess is around 2005

The Con of Trumpism: Fake News and Skepticism February 2, 2017

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, I feel silly even writing this. Honestly, I don’t think any of my readers are likely to be people susceptible to the fake news phenomenon anyway, but sometimes when you have a thing to say, as a writer, it just feels better to articulate the thought.

Thesis: The acceptance of fake news, and alt-facts in general, is the result of poor understanding of epistemology, good journalism, and of skeptical methods of determining truth. The larger philosophical goals of people who identify as skeptics, that of caring for and trying to find truth via rational and empirical means, is the cure for the cancer that is fake news and alternative facts in our current socio-political malaise.

Those behind the rise of fake news, such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, and many others (a couple of examples; here and here) are running a classic con game. Just like the many cult leaders and charlatans who created things such as Scientology and the Mormons (a B-list sci-fi writer and a known con-man), they attracted people using people’s fears, resentments, and making them feel like they are in on the “real” truth, while everyone else is brainwashed or otherwise deceived. Trumpism is akin to a cult, and it currently controls the levers of power in the United States.

A Bait/Switch: Bias in the media

In the many discussions I’ve had with Trumpists/Trumpkins/AltRight folks in recent weeks and months, I have seen the claim that the media lies, is biased, and that Trump is merely articulating (insofar as Trump is capable of such a task) a feeling of being misled and bamboozled by an elitist and mainstream perspective for far too long. Many people. largely but not exclusively conservative, have felt that their fears about and views of the world have not been taken seriously by many politicians, many people on influence, and the media in general. They really believe that Trump can make America Great Again. Not because they are stupid or evil (though some undoubtedly are), but because they are human.

That is, while there are some truly malignant people, such as White Nationalists, Neo-NAZIs, Klan members who feel an affinity with the Trumpist message, they are not the whole or even the center of the phenomenon. At bottom these associations, while concerning and legitimate to some degree, are missing the bigger picture. We cannot keep getting distracted by historical parallels and comparisons of the Trump phenomenon to things like NAZIs; one thing about history is that every time something like this happens, it’s a little bit different and we have to become inoculated to a new strain of awful, like an immune system exposed to a new pathogen. When we yell “No Trump, no KKK, no NAZI USA!”, we lose the attention of people following Trump because they don’t see themselves as NAZIs or Klan members. Something more subtle and terrible is happening here, than that.

Now, let me start out by saying that there is definitely some legitimacy to what Trump followers are responding to; politics, media and American culture have all sort sof problems that we need to repair, and those in power have no interest in doing so. The problem, however, is that there is a bait and switch occurring. The bait is bias, and the switch is media dishonesty. Because the fact that the media is biased, while undoubtedly true, is not relevant at all to the question of whether the media is lying.

Some thoughts about bias and media deception.

  1. Bias is unavoidable and irrelevant. Good journalists know that they are biased, that their editors are biased, and that their paper/TV show/etc probably leans one way or another on a number of issues, even if they attempt to remain editorially neutral. A good journalist attempts to edit out the bias, make it explicit, and/or attempt to steelman  the arguments of their opponents in an attempt to argue with the best version/interpretation of their points, rather than dismiss or straw-man them. Bias, itself is not a problem if ones arguments are logical, there is sufficient evidence for points raised, and everyone attempts to engage fairly with people who disagree. Claiming that a media source is biased is trivially true, and unless their bias is not counterbalanced with evidence-based claims and logic, pointing out the existence of bias is irrelevant.
  2. Bias is not the same thing as an agenda. And while even those with an agenda can also have good arguments, facts, and good motivations, that agenda needs to be transparent. Outlets which are clearly partisan, whether it’s (for example) RedState, OccupyDemocrats, etc will be advocating for a specific cause, argument, or political group. And while this agenda does not imply that what they say is wrong or right, the agenda will bend and refract the facts it enumerates and reports. We as readers need to be able to recognize the slant, look at other sources, and use critical thinking to pry under the surface of the agendas. Unless their claims are substantiated by other outlets which are not affiliated with the same agendas we should be highly skeptical of the claims from sources with an agenda.
  3. Some media outlets do out-right lie, others make mistakes and either clarify them or ignore such mistakes. Reporting the news is difficult, especially when you are reporting on breaking news, leaks, or complicated issues. If you catch a media source in provable (or at least reasonable) error, and they do not retract, apologize, and or at least clarify, then you may be dealing with a dishonest or unscrupulous source.
  4. But a lie is not the same thing as a competing narrative. And this is where the real problem in the current climate exists. There are a lot of worldviews and political leanings which exist with their own values, stories, and communities. What I’m seeing a lot of, right now, especially from the alt-right and from President Trump himself, are a conflation between an alternative narrative and a claim of truth/falsity. A factual error is not merely an alternative perspective; if your beliefs are not substantiated by logic and evidence, then it’s probably not true.

This is similar to the problem I’ve had with post-modern and woo-woo beliefs over the years from the left, where people have their own truths and there is a de-valuing of critical thinking and objective truth. My instinct, gut feeling, or intuition are not sufficient for me to label something as true; I need an argument with reasoning and evidence, or I’m just making shit up. At best, I’ll be accidentally correct.

But what’s happening with the alt-right, in the last few years up through the recent elections, is more pernicious than that sort of vague subjectivism of truth. No, what Steve Bannon and his allies have done is made black into white, up into down, and gossip/conspiracy/fears into (alternative) truth. Where media with journalistic standards which rely on a network of fact-checking and cut-throat competition which weeds out poor arguments and unproven claims, the alt right gives us conspiracy theories based in fears and an agenda. Then, after weaving a narrative which resonates with people, they claim they are the source of truth, and that the fact-based media is lying.

And you know why it works? Well, as anyone who has ever started a religion (cult leaders), sold a miracle cure (snake oil), or ran a pyramid scheme knows, you can convince many people of most things. Because ‘con’ is short for confidence. It’s among the oldest tricks in the book (including most holy books). Fake news is not new; it’s been a central part of every con ever done, and America has been politically hijacked by people running a massive con game in search for power and money.

It’s not different from things like this: Big pharma is trying to sell you expensive drugs to control you and get rich, but we at (let’s make up a name) Herbaltech have this wonderful herbal tea which will cure your illnesses, and it’s only $25! But act now, before big pharma catches onto us and they sue us with their elitist lawyers. In other words, it’s charlatans fooling people who are not thinking critically about the claims they are hearing. Fake news, alt-truth, and billionaire “outsiders” who care about the people are selling people snake oil, and now run the country. too hypothetical? Fine, take a look at this.

There is no significant difference between the alt-right and any other con that skepticism has been unconvinced by for centuries. Cons feed on fear, disillusionment, and tribalism to create a rift between you and your money, votes, and allegiance (in order to get more of the previous two). For those who claimed that the major parties were corrupt and sought an outsider, they sure picked one who was much worse than the system they lost confidence in.

It’s not all that different from someone who is distrustful of organized religion finding a spiritual leader who end up being a cult leader. In fact, it’s very much like that. If you voted for Trump because he was an outsider not beholden to the political structures you don’t trust, you were conned by someone equally, if not more, corrupt than the DNC or the RNC/GOP.

Mainstream media and skepticism

I subscribe to the New York Times, and read it regularly, as well as some other sources (such as the Washington post, Rachel Maddow, the WSJ, and a number of blogs and podcasts) . I’ve been told that the NYT is biased, and that they lie all the time, by supporters of Trump. Hell, Trump himself has said it more than once. Now, I have no doubt that many of the writers for the NYT are biased; against Trump? definitely. Do they lean, in general, towards the Democrats over Republicans? Yeah, that seems largely true. But so what?

Are their claims true? Is their reporting accurate? Also, is it true that the DNC has become more mainstream and conservative, hence losing their left-wing/Progressive base which once stood up for the working class? That would explain why the mainstream media seems closer to the DNC, rather than the media becoming more liberal.

news-infographic

People on the right think that this graphic is biased. I think it’s generally accurate in terms of editorial leanings.

Now, part of the problem is that so many people supporting Trump are so far to the right that, from their point of view, the NYT looks like a commie hippie rag. But from where I stand, they seem centrist. That is, where the center seems to be depends on where you are on the spectrum. And it seems to me that much of the alt-right has lost site of where the extremes of the political spectrum actually exist. I don’t think the alt-right understands the far left very well, or how much farther left they are than the NYT (or the DNC, for that matter).

Now, the question of where the center actually is, and whether it exists anymore, is a separate and interesting question unto itself, but the issue here is how a media outlet handles the political spectrum in terms of its editorial decisions. That is, how they frame issues, how often they include stories from various political perspectives, and what they report, (not merely where the journalists themselves sit on the bias spectrum).

Whatever bias the editorial staff, reporters, or owners of the NYT has, so long as their standards of journalism are good, they retract mistakes, and they keep their biases transparent, then they cannot be called liars. That’s simply not based in reality. Whatever media we are talking about, their bias should be kept in mind, but the important part not to ignore is whether their claims are supported by *gasp* facts.

Atheists, especially if they used to be religious, are commonly personally opposed to religion. Are they biased against religion? Perhaps, but there is a difference between opposition to something for good reasons and mere bias. They are not incompatible, and one can be both opposed and biased, but sometimes opposition is earned. The New York Times, I believe (but I am probably biased) has good reason to be opposed to Donald Trump and his administrations actions so far in office. To merely call that ‘bias’ and dismiss it (or call it dishonesty) ignores the evidence, logic, and emotional import of their arguments and reporting.

Sometimes what we call bias just happens to look like a skewed perspective from the point of view of the one in error. Kierkegaard once said the following:

“One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’  One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth.  Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e., by deceiving them, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion”

Now, I imagine that a Leninist like Steve Bannon could have a field day with that quote, but what it means to me is that when one is in error, the truth looks like a lie; it looks like a deceived, biased, silly way to see the world. We atheists look silly to those believers, and we readers of the media seem brainwashed by people who are actually brainwashed by fake news sources such as Alex Jones and Breitbart.com. The relativism is one of perception of truth, not truth itself. And the tribalism which grows around those who distrust the media helps support and bolster that feeling of distrust. Religion has been using that trick for millennia.

It is possible to absolutely despise Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama and accurately report on facts concerning each. It’s possible to not care for any of them in particular, and lie you ass off in every sentence about any of them. Biased does not imply incorrect or untrustworthy. There is a difference between what you think of a person, their policies, and what happened. What actually happened–the facts–don’t care about your biases. Truth is that which remains when you stop thinking or caring about an issue.

But what I’m seeing in our culture recently is not that the media is making up events, but that they are reporting facts with an attempt to communicate a narrative, based in facts, about the world that the complaining source does not like. Was the crowd at Trump’s inauguration the largest ever? Was it bigger than Obama’s? Was it larger than the Women’s march the following day? It seems like the answers are all no (if you look at the evidence), but don’t tell Trump or his followers that. His voters think that his inauguration was the biggest of all time, say this poll. Alternative facts, folks.

That is where skepticism comes in.

That’s why we need a media driven by facts, and not propaganda, conspiracy-theorists, and people who identify with Sith (I’m referring to Steve Bannon, here) who have been known to manipulate the truth in order to gain power.

Journalism’s standards are similar to those of skepticsm; it relies on fact-checking, the competitiveness of the media market, etc. Yes, there is room for clickbait, media with agendas, and fake news in that market, but that is no different than saying that there is room for Scientology, cult leaders, and (yes) Christianity in a world that depends on science to give us better medicine, technology, and a far greater understanding of reality. The fact that alternative facts, fake news, and lies can exist in media is akin to how religion survives despite it’s complete lack of evidence or logical consistency with the world; it creates a narrative which appeals to people, creates confidence, and then becomes the center of a tribe who support each other’s narratives about how they have the truth.

At bottom, religion, political movements, and pretty much everything that humans argue about is tribalistic. The alt-right is a set of tribes who accept an alternative set of facts and narratives about the world which feeds off of fear, ignorance, and a lack of critical thinking. And the places where that critical thinking exists, which is much of the mainstream media (despite its flaws), is the only source of challenge to that tribal power. That’s why the alt-right, specifically Steve Bannon, sees it as the opposition.

They will frame it otherwise, of course, but to con-artists all skepticism is seen as the enemy.

Skepticism v. Instincts, round 12 August 4, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal, Polyamory, relationships, Skepticism and atheism.
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So, this blog is about skepticism, primarily. I have said, many times, that skepticism is my primary philosophical orientation, and that many of my beliefs and lifestyle choices emanate, ultimately, from a natural sense of skepticism–of seeking the truth over comfort, with the help of logic, empiricism, etc.

But what about instinct? What about deep feeling and the uncertain world of emotion which drives us? What do we do with that? What do we do when, not having all the evidence available, we have a deeply emotional feeling about something? How much should we listen to this?

Here’s a puzzle. Let’s say that my instincts have made me feel very strongly, about certain situations and/or people, which I have ignored because I thought it fair to not merely allow my emotions to sway me when more objective means of judgment could give me a better conclusion. It sounds rational, right? My mere feelings are not sufficient, and I should, as a good skeptic, demand some more evidence before allowing myself to make a decision or form a conclusion. So, I table the feeling and try to wait for more evidence.

This tendency has ended up scarring me, more than a couple of times.

Upon first meeting a former metamour, whom I have written about before, all my alarms rang in my head that this person was problematic. But I ignored these alarms, these instinctual judgments made at a level not quite conscious, and tried to be open-minded and skeptical. I saw that people around him liked him, he seemed popular and well-liked. So I ignored those instincts and allowed myself to be swayed by the patience required to get all the data. That didn’t end well.

Before I moved to Atlanta with an ex (who ended up abandoning me there) my instincts told me that making the move would be a positive experience, and that those warning me against it were just being overly skeptical. I was feeling optimistic and adventurous with someone I loved, respected, and trusted. That didn’t end well, either.

In other words, my instincts have been wrong and right, and so I have “learned,” repeatedly, to ignore them because they are unreliable as a means towards truth.

Like a good skeptic.

And yet….

And yet there are times when those instincts are really strong, and I have to wonder whether this is one of the times I need to listen to them or, you know, not this time. Because our brains, while prone to error, also have tools which can alert us to subtle signals which give us information about the world. Sometimes, our instincts are right, and when we have been hurt, we tend to be sensitive to the signals that we have run into before. So, sometimes a gut feelings is worth paying significant attention to.

But where we draw the line between following our gut and holding out for more information is related to how much we trust ourselves. And if one is insecure and has self-trust issues (hey there, nice to meet you!), one might end up erring on the side of ignoring those instincts where we should have given them more consideration.

I think that I can say, with a high degree of certainty, that most of the times I have a really strong feeling about something, I’m at least partially right. And, yet, I more often than not ignore my gut feelings to my detriment, because I feel like giving a person or situation a chance, even though it does not feel right.

In short, I do not trust my own feelings and judgment because I want to be appropriately skeptical. That is, I recognize that my instincts and feelings can be wrong. So, the question is whether this is a form of self gaslighting, or is this healthy behavior?

To what degree is questioning how I feel, at a gut-level, a healthy method of self-reflection and introspection? There are many who would probably argue that doing it for other people is inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly abusive, insofar as doing so is probably gaslighting; questioning someone else’s feelings and perceptions about something is a form of questioning their ability to perceive the world correctly, after all. But I’m not sure where the line is, especially if we are doing it introspectively.

I believe that it is not only possible, but common, for people to have incorrect perceptions, feelings, and perspectives about the world around them. I believe that some level of wondering “how much are my fears, biases, or lack of understanding making me not see this situation correctly?”is not only appropriate, but necessary in order to be a rational human being.

But at the same time, there is a point where we need to accept that our feelings are sometimes, even when we cannot skeptically check them out, valuable and often spot on. There are times when we need to get the fuck out if something feels creepy or unsafe. There are times when we need to force ourselves to look deeper at a situation, person, or idea when our initial reaction is defensiveness, fear, or anger. Because we are too prone to selection bias and reacting negatively to ideas which do not fit well within our current boundaries and bubbles. And sometimes the bubble we exist within is a lens through which reality is skewed and warped.

Sometimes, what we think of as strength and standing up for ourselves is, in fact, bias skewing our perception. Sometimes, questioning our perception of reality is the appropriate method. That is, if we care about the truth.I’m just not sure how to tell the difference between when my instincts are right, and when they are a warped perspective, filtered through fear, bias, pain, etc.

Our instincts, or deep feelings, and our personal perspectives are not truths, necessarily, but they can often be good signposts. The concept of something being “true for me” is deeply problematic and philosophically sophomoric. As we build an instinctual defense mechanism within us, we need to make sure that the springs, levers, etc of that mechanism are not made out of bias, fear, and pain. Because those building tools will not build a skeptical shield.

As I watch my defensive mechanism work inside me, I am forced to admit that more parts than I’d like are made out of fear, trauma, and pain. I will not ignore the alarms that this mechanism set off, but I damned well will not let a non-skeptical and automatic mechanism make conclusions nor decisions for me. So when the red flag is thrown up from that lever, I’ll stop and take a look at it, but I will not be reactionary insofar as I allow my past pain and fear to determine my future path.

I'm not 42 yet, but I'm starting to feel this meme coming on...

I’m not 42 yet, but I’m starting to feel this meme coming on…

I have learned many signs of problematic behavior in the last few years, from many people. But I will not allow the people that compelled me to build my defenses define those in front of me, on this path. But at the same time, those in front of me on my path will have to contend with someone who has seen some shit, and sure as hell will not allow you to get away with any of it.

Because I’m sick of people’s shit.

More importantly, I’m sick of my own shit.

Meow!

Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:

Why People Think Total Nonsense is Really Deep

Money shot from the study:

Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).

onbullshitWhat is “bullshit”? The article starts by referencing a small book(which i own), called On Bullshit, written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.

My mind is strange.

In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.

The article elaborates:

Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”

So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.

And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.

That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…

And yet there is this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”
This is the first two stanzas of the famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” It exists within a similar universe as bullshit, except is swaps actual words in syntactic formation without any coherent meaning for (to some extent) coherent meaning with words which almost seem real, but are not.
That is, where bullshit seeks to pull us towards the realm of meaninglessness and obscurantism while using real words, Jabberwocky somehow pulls us towards a semblance of meaning while not even using real words. This, more than anything else, unearths the true absurdity of bullshit; it’s deception lies in its ability to use the parts of the real world to try to construct impossible shapes.
And yet…
escher-relativity

 

This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.

But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.

Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.

herebedragonsIt says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.

In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.

It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.

There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

 

Happy Darwin Day! February 12, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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birthdaydarwinBy pure accident, I published my first blog post on Darwin day back in 2009; 6 years ago today. So, for readers who may not know much about Charles Darwin or Darwin Day, Let me point you to some resources.

First, let’s start with the website dedicated to Darwin Day itself, DarwinDay.org. Here, you can find all sorts of things, such as local events, including this, happening in Philadelphia tonight at National Mechanics–which I may decide to pop into (if I have time after the laundry that really needs to get done). There are also educationalactivism, and news resources there, so take a look.

There’s also a Facebook page for Darwin Day.

darwinQBut there’s also a plethora of excellent resources all over the internet about Charles Darwin.  I will not even try to summarize them all, because they are too extensive. There are, of course, organizations and site dedicated to misinformation, misunderstanding, or outright opposition to Darwin and to the theory of evolution itself (it does pain me to post those links…).

Among my favorite evolution/Darwin specific websites is the Understanding Evolution website hosted at Berkeley. There’s a series of articles about the history of evolution, which includes some details about Darwin which start here. among my least favorites would be places such at Answers in Genesis, whgich is a group dedicated to the Biblical “truth” of creation. Hacks, and idiots, really.

Darwin_Small_mediumLet’s not forget that you can get all sorts of bumper stickers, decals, and other DarwinFish to put on your car, forehead, or computer screens. They are a good way to show the person driving behind you in traffic that you are educated in the scientific method, understand at least some of the complexities of the concepts within evolutionary theory (such as natural selection), and that you will not submit to bronze-age pseudoscience or creations myths.

That, or you really love your fish named “Darwin.”

I will not even begin to try to summarize the influence of Charles Darwin myself, mostly because I’m not an expert but also because there are already so many good resources on this subject. I’ll simply say that reading the Origin of Species was a positive experience, and what I do understand about biology is both fascinating and often beautiful.

darwin-change-201x300If you don’t know much about Charles Darwin or if you just want to know more, take a look at some of the links here. Or, if you just want to celebrate his birthday with some like-minded people over beers, food, or just conversation, check out the events page and find some local people.

Happy birthday Darwin!

I hope you don’t rise from the grave as a zombie to eat all of our brains, because that wouldn’t be very nice. So, let’s not do that.

Objective Judgment? February 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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Wait, which way is north on this thing?

Wait, which way is north on this thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”

(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)

Oh, shaddap, you!

Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.

There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not.  I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.

Ker-plunk!

I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.

So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?

There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.

And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?

Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?

Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.

Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.

Is my worldview actually based in reality?

If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I'm Jesus in all universes except this one.

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I’m Jesus in all universes except this one.

I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.

I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!

Ghastly.

When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign.  Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?

Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.

Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.

Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.

That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.

What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.

We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.

It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.

But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.

Comeuppance?

I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.

More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.

I’m working on it.

And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.

Ethics is Futile

Ethics is Futile

We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths.  It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.

What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into  Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.

And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.

Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.

OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.

Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.

It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us.  When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.

And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.

The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.

Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.

And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.

I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.

Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing September 17, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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[TW: rape, sexual assault]

I still follow a number of atheist blogs, which I sometimes read and sometimes skip past depending on the topics they explore. In recent months, one of the raging conversations has been the ongoing issues related to skepticism, rape culture, and “radical feminism.” I’ve written about these subjects previously, and don’t want to deal with those issue directly (there’s already a lot of that being discussed, and I don’t feel like I have anything significant to add), but something about these conversation has felt very familiar to me recently.

No, I am not trying to snidely imply that this is an old conversation that we’ve all heard before and should be tired of. It has been one which has been happening for a while, but it is one that needs to happen because some people are still not getting it.

No, In this case, the familiarity has more to do with seeing parallels of much of this “drama” in my own life. The familiarity is one of “oh, that thing they’re arguing about concerning skeptic/atheist leaders being sexual predators, possible rapists, and general dingbats whose supporters attempt to smear you for pointing out their dingbattery…that looks really familiar!”

All too familiar…

So how about the polyamorous community?

Hiding in plain sight

Thinking about all of this got me wondering about how many people fly under the radar, not only in the mega-communities of all kinds, but all of the local communities. How many people who consistently lie, manipulate, and take advantage of people for their own benefit (among other terrible behavior) are there all around us? I mean, it’s a behavior set which operates best in the shadows, and the very success of such behavior necessitates hiding, creating a false facade, and having sympathetic advocates. The perpetrators of such things are usually not simply loners waiting in alleys, they are people within your own community, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be something they are not.

ColbertfriendThere are strategies which some people use to hide their awfulness. If you are racist, it helps to have non-white “friends” or co-workers to keep around to make any accusation of racism seem absurd, except for those who know better. If you are a misogynist, keep your female friends and partners close, so that if someone says you treat women badly you can have them speak up for you. Similarly, if you have problems with sexual consent, make sure you have your feminist friends and partners willing to speak up for you, so that when you do decide to just do what you want with a woman who you think you can get away with it with, the accusation will look ridiculous (especially to your partners who you emphasize consent with!).

How many people are there like this around us all the time? Well, the terrifying answer is that we don’t know. That’s why it’s so scary. Often, they are around us all the time and we have no idea who they really are, because they hide it so well. This is compounded by the fact that many people who have had bad experiences with someone may choose to be quiet about it, and only close trusted friends will know. A desire to not stir up drama, unwanted attention, or possible backlashes are among the many reasons that people who behave poorly don’t get outed more.

Yes, backlashes. Because sometimes victims get blamed, by both bystanders and those guilty of the infringement.  If someone knows they are guilty or wants to hide a mistake, sometimes the best way to hide is to redirect attention or to just ignore it and hope it goes away. Some people faced with accusations will not only refuse to accept any responsibility (or really acknowledge the accusation at all), but will go further and re-direct the accusations elsewhere. A good defense is a good offense, I suppose.

Other people will just depend on the background noise of normal every-day life to drown it out, knowing that some people who get hurt will just slide into the crowd and not pursue more conversation or desire for some recompense. Others may simply believe they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place, and will view accusations as absurd, annoying, or an attempt to sully their reputation (you know, rather than a description of the violation of another person).

Advocate Camouflauge

But there’s a deeper, and more disturbing, set of strategies I have seen employed as well.

Some people are especially skilled at pretending, hiding, and creating support networks to vouch for them. It’s much better to have advocates than to appear defensive by responding oneself, after all.  As a close friend said, in reference to someone neither of us trusts, “if you rape 1-in-5, you will still have 4 to vouch for you.” That is, if someone talks about consent often and practice it with most people, the exceptions will be easier to hide in the shadows of consent’s facade. If a person gets off on being in control, having influence, and doing what they want to other people while ignoring consent now and then, such a person is much more likely to keep getting away with it by talking a good consent game.

Sometimes the best way to appear innocent is to clothe yourself in the garb of, and to mimic, those who would be the first to convict you if they knew who you really were. The terrifying idea I’m describing here is to hide among those that would be your greatest critics (if they were to see the other kind of behavior) while saving that other behavior for people who seem unlikely to fight back or actually matter to you. It’s essentially being careful who you victimize, while making sure that you surround yourself with advocates of (for example) social justice who you stay within bounds around, so they can be your character’s alibi and voucher.

Here’s one example I’ve seen. If you are a guy who wants girls to like you, then start by calling yourself a feminist, talk and write about consent and befriend and partner up with feminists who you treat mostly well, then occasionally feed that deep desire to take control and power over people with some other people who you perceive as being “safe” to ignore those feminist consent lines. If anyone calls you on it, all you need to do is turn it around on the accuser and then sit back and watch your feminist partners defend you while you can sit back, feeling…well, I have no idea how that would feel. I have no inclination to find out, either.

itsatrapOn top of that, you get to be around attractive feminist women who you might get to sleep with and whom will act as ways to attract other women to you, since those women will vouch for you. You get to treat most of the women in your life relatively well while creating a situation where you can occasionally get away with some power trip (or perhaps it’s just a deep desire which cannot be denied all the time. Either way, it’s manipulative and deeply troubling). You get to occasionally treat people like crap all the while maintaining a flock of feminist women who will pronounce you safe to other approaching women.

Except you aren’t safe. You are a predator, camouflaged among feminists so you can get away with your crossing consent lines when it suits you. And it does happen, doesn’t it? Perhaps not very often, but when it does happen you don’t have to atone, apologize, or even acknowledge it because you’ve created a believable facade of a person you are not. You have created a facade of a decent human being.

And what’s worse is when such people do a little of both with other partners, all based upon what blind-spots each partner has. Such a person will know that some can be manipulated and influenced and still be an advocate, at least for a while. After the influence starts to wear off and it becomes clear that they see you more as a means towards their own needs and desires than someone interested–or capable–of a genuinely mutually beneficial relationship, all such a mind needs to do is move onto another person.  In extreme cases, such a person might (for example) assassinate the character of the disillusioned person and gaslight them, attack them, and write them off because they aren’t useful to you anymore.

The above description* is a recipe for coldly calculated patterns of using other people for one’s own purposes rather than creating genuinely mutually beneficial relationships in which the needs and desires of others are considered. Creating healthy relationships is not a game about what you can get away with while trying to appear acceptable by the community in which you participate while doing so. But this is only one of many descriptions of problematic behavior. It just happens to be one I’m more familiar with because I saw it up close.

Victims of such behavior will look at the advocates of these manipulative people and can only shrug their shoulders and crawl back into their hole of self-doubt, fear, and trauma which will never be dealt with on the advocates’ end because he would never do that. Except, he did and many will believe.

Celebrities as proxies

I’ve met Michael Shermer. It was years ago, and I remember that everyone in the room wanted to talk with him. He’s smart, engaging, and tells fairly good stories.  He’s also done really excellent work in the skeptic community, written some good books, and has some really important things to say. He’s also a douchebag. He may, in fact, be a rapist and a sexual predator. There have been a number of accusations, arguments about responsibility, and many have come out in support of him in light of these accusations.

There is no contradiction between a person having very good qualities, friends, and advocates and someone who is just terrible. People like Michael Shermer are popular examples, and in a sense stand as a lightning rod for conversations about things like sexual predation, rape, and rape culture. But these celebrity examples of these conversations are community proxies for conversations about the kinds of people and issues we are surrounded with in our own lives, perhaps every day.

Our local communities have people who are known to be problematic in specific ways.  That group of people is known for being really tribalistic, dismissive, and gossipy unless you agree with them about whatever they care about. This guy over here is known to get into heated arguments, and sometimes fights, especially if he’s drunk. That girl is known to make racist comments and jokes, but mostly she’s pretty cool (I guess). Oh, and that guy? Oh, he’s a known to take advantage of women when they’re drunk or just to do what he wants to them unless they specifically ask him to stop. You know, maybe he’ll stop if you ask, so just don’t get paralyzed by fear because silence is totally the same thing as consent (pro-tip; no it’s not). You know….he’s probably a sexual predator. But you know, whatever. He’s smart and fun to be around and he throws good parties, so as long as he cuts that out, you know most of the time, we’ll look past it and pretend it’s not happening.

Also, there are askholes (which is among my favorite new words).

There is an idea that one reason celebrities are a thing many people talk about with each other is that since communities have become so large, most people (especially if they live in other parts of the world) don’t have a common set of concerns and people to gossip about. Celebrities, whether they beat their fiance, did something really awesome and generous for someone, or got married, are a proxy for the old village gossip about the locals. Michael Shermer, being well-known in the skeptic community, is the person we talk about when we talk about things like rape and rape culture, but in smaller communities perhaps have their own Michael Shermers.

We have our local examples of such people, and a lot of the same infighting, smear campaigns, and tribalism which takes place on the blogoshere and at conferences is also happening on the local level, on smaller scales.

And it’s hard! It’s hard because unless you see certain behavior you can’t be sure about the veracity of an accusation, especially if the accused behaves normally or acceptably most of the time. It’s hard if the person in question is someone you work with, hang out with, and maybe even generally like. It’s hard because sometimes you aren’t sure if you should believe it, and if you want to be a good skeptic you need more evidence than an accusation.

And shadowy people are really good at covering their tracks with the aforementioned facades, advocates, and mostly good behavior (especially with certain people) which is what most people will see.The distinction is not what they do, it’s about how they proceed after the deed is done. A decent person will take responsibility and try and use it as a lesson for growth and potential change.

We all make mistakes. I have certainly made many myself and I have worked to not hide them, but instead to make them part of my motivation to grow and change. I have hurt people in the past, I have been a poor partner, and I will probably make more mistakes in the future. The issue is how we move on from mistakes and misdeeds, and it is quite tempting to try and shift the narrative to shift the focus on our mistakes onto something else, or to avoid the responsibility which is ours.

Accusations can have repercussions for our standing in a community, but it is ultimately our actions which matter. Michael Shermer, might never recover (professionally and within the skeptic community) if he were to admit to any sexual assault, but it would be the right thing to do (assuming the accusations are true). But such a guilty person would recover far better if they didn’t shirk their moral responsibility from the beginning, and rather just admitted their misdeeds.

If such a person, celebrity or not, is guilty, then worrying about reputations and community standing rather than the affect upon victims is behavior which demonstrates a lack of perspective on what is important and moral in scope. The people around us who behave poorly need to be given room to atone for mistakes, but in some cases the mistakes were more like decisions. Sober, calculated, and intentional decisions are harder to forgive.

The sad truth is that maybe some people cannot be redeemed. One has to be able to recognize error in order to be redeemable.

See also rabbitdarling’s contribution

*Yes, it is based on real experiences. I will not name him [yes I will. His name is Wes Fenza], but many of you know exactly who I’m talking about.

Lane reading Screwtape August 23, 2014

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
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I feel like I’ve linked to this before, but my brother is still going on his terrific series of rereading The Screwtape Letters as an atheist. Lane and I grew up with the works of C. S. Lewis pretty much right next to the Bible in prominence and influence, and I love his project of looking back on them to extract the good and criticize the bad.

Some choice quotes from recent entries in the series:

Part Nine:

Self-hatred is not humble. Objectivity is humble. Telling somebody their hair looks nice is humble. Humility is reminding yourself that life is not a competition and you don’t need other people to suck for you to be awesome.

Part Ten:

I do often hear “live in the present” stated in a way that encourages complacency. It is often paired with ideas about leaving the future to itself, which is advice that is hard to take seriously when our action and inaction really does affect the future. Furthermore, it often comes paired with images of smiling people in pretty dresses looking out at the beach or some such thing, communicating the idea that living in the present always means being happy in the present. Sometimes the present is troubled and unhappy. Sometimes the person who is experiencing the present has depression or anxiety disorders. Being told to be happy now is not helpful when you are sad now. It’s not happiness or sadness in the present that Screwtape cares about, but use or neglect of what the Patient has in the moment. Fear and complacency are both potential allies, but if neither anxiety nor comfort are obstacles to the Patient doing today’s work or enjoying today’s pleasures, they are losing the battle.

Part Eleven:

Here’s where I agree, though; I think he’s trying to make the point that when you set yourself up as a judge, you take from yourself the ability to be a scholar. A judge is stuck between good and bad, guilty and innocent, winner and various degrees of loser, but a scholar gets to investigate and pick the good out from a message, no matter the flaws of the messenger, and use the good for their own edification. That, I think, is a point worth remembering.

He’s a smart dude and I’m proud to be related to him, is what I’m saying.

Misanthropy no more! (part 2) August 22, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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In Part 1 of this long essay I talked about how I have, previously, considered myself a misanthrope.  I used the mythology of Star Wars, specifically the Jedi/Sith division, to illustrate two types of approaches to making judgments about ourselves and others, based upon the differences in approaches which such divisions display. I called them the “good” and “bad,” with the scare quotes because neither is strictly good nor bad in themselves, because that is how we, culturally, tend to identify them, based upon our cultural traditions based in part upon Christian ideas. The distinction, between humility and confidence, is one of a healthy continuum but which has the capability to be expanded into self-deprecation and arrogance, which are not healthy.

From there, I want to deal with what I will call the ugly and the beautiful, which I will hope to illustrate below.

 

The ugly

The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.

-Hamlet

The gravity of both humility and confidence, if tempered, are not dangerous nor unhealthy by themselves. But if not tempered either can be used by other attributes within us, and they can either cultivate a manipulating or a manipulated set of behaviors.  If intentionally cultivated towards the excesses of self-deprecation (especially if hidden within false empowerment) or arrogance (especially if hidden from any self-doubt), it can lead to disconnection from people, dislike (of others and/or ourselves), and possibly delusions of superiority or lack of self-worth.

The ugly does not seek to empower others, nor even ourselves, necessarily. At best, the ugly is merely a kind of blindness, both of others but more importantly of ourselves. But at its worst the ugly is intentional and uncaring; a targeted, intelligent, manipulation of not only facts, but a cold indifference to the actual nature of people and who they are, in the name of making them useful to one’s selfish desires. At worst, the ugly is nihilism incarnate, sucking on the apathy, fear, and hatred in the world like a predatory vampire.

At best the ugly is a mistake of perception and self-delusion, and at worst it derives from the uncaring sociopathic or psychopathic potential within many of us to not even care what people actually are, so long as they are means towards some selfish end. And, what’s worse, is that sometimes this ugliness can hide in plain sight; the devil often assumes a pleasing shape, so says Shakespeare, influenced by Christian mythology..

The ugly is not stupidity, ignorance, nor lack of power. The ugly is also not intelligence, understanding, nor power itself. The ugly is (in part, at least) apathy, nihilism, and isolation which has the capability of pulling us towards the ascetic self-deprecation of unworthiness or the greedy self-indulgence of feelings of superiority over others. Sometimes, it manages to do both in the same person, perhaps played out in the confused sense of unworthiness covered by delusions of superiority, as a sort of defense against the unpleasant uncertainty and nuance of one’s self-image.

Our various abilities to empathize, sympathize, and to maintain compassion differs based upon physiological factors we did not choose. We are, in a sense, thrown into the world, stuck within the wetware of our brains and forced to make sense of it all, unable to escape the perspective which such physicality insists upon us. And it is through this physiological computer that we comprehend and structure our worldview.  Our lens to the world is this physiology which we did not choose, and so it is no surprise that when we have different wetware we develop different software–by that I mean our ideas, perceptions, and character.

Differences in perspective and worldview are not just about ideas. In many ways, it’s about how, and by what physical processes, those ideas formed. Understanding of others, especially empathy, is the only means we have to close this gap in difference and to create concepts of morality, interpersonal understanding, or even love. Without empathy, we can only maintain shadows of these feelings; rules/obligation, judgment, and requited, often co-dependent, desires.

When we meet others with a different kind of brain it can look confusing and overwhelming to us, and we may not understand the nature of the difference. If person A was born with a natural ability to empathize, such a person will be less likely to manipulate and more likely to be manipulated. If person B has little ability to empathize, they are more likely to not even notice, or care, that they manipulate, and are probably harder to manipulate. And, of course, their ability to manipulate is tied to how much attention they pay to understanding other people, and I wonder if it might be the case that when they learn how to manipulate, they think they are doing what naturally empathetic people do.

This is a disquieting thought, for me.

And, of course, most people are in the gray areas between the super-empathetic and those who struggle to even comprehend the concept of empathy. For most people there is a continuum. For most people, the ability to manipulate, understand, judge, and feel compassion for others depends more on mood, experience, and the specific people we associate with as much as physiology. For most of us, there is a real struggle for the ugly (or the beautiful) within ourselves and from external sources.

Therefore, for most people the ugly is one string tugging their behavior in one direction or another, including how they feel about other people. It is a temporary influence which, in more healthy times, may fade into the background and become largely impotent while it gives way to other attributes. But for others, I think, this ugly is the primary, and perhaps in some cases the only, string which pulls them.

Such people simply may not understand the concepts or experience of empathetic and compassionate concern for other people. And if they do, they might not care or see them as weaknesses or hooks to pull people around by.

And then such people become the source of the strings of others, pulling them towards this ugliness. They become one source of misanthropy, collecting people mired in anger, hatred, and judgment temporarily.  Often, they collect as many people as they can, so long as they are useful, especially if such people are willing to exist around this misanthropy due to cowardice, apathy, or through being led to believe that they might be an exception to such misanthropy–a nice thought, to be an exception! The longer such people remain in such quarters, the longer it feels natural, normal, and even superior.

Such un-empathetic people, largely functional because they grew up adjusting to the world in the way their brain works, may eventually become aware of the difference between them and others and intentionally use their practiced skill of emulating empathy, love, and understanding to get what they want. In some sense, they may even believe that are being empathetic, that they understand, and that they actually are superior.

Telling the difference between such a person and someone who is clueless, insecure, or narcissistic is often difficult. Being clueless, insecure, or narcissistic are forgivable, but being intentionally manipulative, dishonest (especially while claiming honesty as a value), and using people insofar as they are useful is not.

Such people are largely incapable of actually caring for anyone except for how those people add or take away from their own selfish desires. Such people will collect misanthropes, the insecure, and even social justice warriors. Such people know how to blend in, learn the ropes, and fall within the scope of acceptability for such people with misanthropic tendencies. They can blend in, like a chameleon, so long as they are getting what they want from the people around them, all the while stroking the parts of them which brings out the judgment, criticism, and anger.

Such things, useful tools they are, can be manipulated by our own minds or by others who reinforce them.

Such people perpetuate the judgmental, critical, and angry sources of distrust, dislike, and disregard of other people. Such people are the nexus of misanthropy. I am as susceptible as anyone to its pull, know the landscape well, and no longer wish to participate in this worldview. I will resist this ugliness within me and around me.

I prefer something else.

 

The Beautiful

The idyllic tools we focus on, whether the “good” or the “bad” are just that; tools. The ugly can use the tools to encourage and cultivate feelings which separate us from each other, or they could, perhaps choose another path. Beautiful (or as Brene Brown calls them, “Wholehearted”) people (and here I mean beauty in the sense of internal beauty) will not feel compelled to cultivate the separating sense of being superior or entitled. Beautiful people will choose to cultivate compassion, empathy, and will judge with the attempt to understand rather than create distance.

I wish to be a source of encouraging the beautiful in people. I wish to bring out the feelings of care, compassion, and the best within them. I want actual emotional and mental health, not the false-empowering sense of growing towards “superiority,” “power,” or even “righteousness.” We are not necessarily healthy because we feel superior and powerful. Those feelings are a false sense of maturity and growth which accompany a toxic and often abusive dynamic, one which I have seen up-close all too well.

I’d prefer to note but not focus on the flaws I notice in people and look for the strength, maturity, and potential growth behind it.  Rather than focus on feeling superior, perfect, or even more capable, I’d rather behave with patience, attention, and empathy so that I could be satisfied with being enough, at least for right now,and help others feel the same way. I wish to keep growing; to learn more, understand more, and to be a better friend, lover, and partner to people around me. But the desire to be, or at least to be seen as, superior is a distraction from simply being well, healthy, and open to the beauty in other people.

Actually being healthy now is never about being superior, more healthy than other people, and especially not about “winning” in some imagined competition. Being healthy, day-to-day, is more subtle. Being too focused on being better than other people will surely make it hard to see, let alone achieve.

Am I healthy now? I don’t know, and that may not even be the primary concern for actually being healthy. Have I done enough, today, to love myself and others? Am I honest with myself and others? Am I allowing my true feelings and self to emerge from the mire of fear, distrust, and dislike I may feel? Am I allowing myself to care about, more than feel superior to, other people? Is my focus on how we’re alike, or how I might be superior?

At bottom, I don’t know what the beautiful is. It’s harder than the ugly, it seems to me. It takes more courage, vulnerability, and actual strength than simply dismissing other people are not worth my time. Because whether we actually are better than other people doesn’t matter. Arguments about degrees of intelligence, mistakes, blame, maturity levels, and such are missing the point. The point is if that’s the conversation or thoughts you are having, you are perpetuating whatever inequality there might be rather than creating a safe space to cultivate its change.

Because even if someone were superior (whatever that means), the feeling of superiority only widens the separation rather than encourage the closing of that gap. I’ve been on both ends of this perception, and I don’t like the feeling I have had on either side of it. The allure and addiction of the feeling of power which comes along with illusions of superiority are difficult to see past, but I am not superior to those who can’t see past it. The difference really is that I realize that neither of us is inherently superior, which is itself humbling.

I also don’t like the feeling of someone claiming superiority over me. Because even if it isn’t true, it creates a lack of motivation within me (that’s one kind of manipulation this perception causes). It does not make me want to try harder or to even believe in what strengths I have. And even if it were to motivate me, the tone of this motivation often becomes toxic.

At it’s worst, it can compel a desire to reply with my own feelings of superiority. The feelings of pride, power, and the false narrative of superiority then echoes within me, and I find myself becoming competitive, leading to me to want to prove that I’m the superior one. And thus the cycle can begin, unless I am able to activate my ability to be empathetic, patient, and understand what s happening in order to stop it from starting.

Then, the beautiful within me is able to not need to reply. I am enough, I know. I don’t need to be better than this person, nor does this person have any actual power over me just because they feel powerful and superior to me. When I can struggle past their ability to manipulate me, then I feel healthy, happier, and can go on with my day without feeling affected by other people’s misanthropy.

I won’t play that game. I don’t need to, because it’s not a fun game to play and I don’t grow or find health, playing it.

 

No more misanthropy, for me

Love-and-Hate-love-26960142-332-280Insofar as I don’t like someone, that person has earned it. That should be the standard, I believe. If I don’t like you it’s not that I’m superior, that the world is stupid, or that they have not proven their worthiness to me. If I don’t like someone, they have earned that dislike through their actions towards me or other people. And my like for them will evolve and grow based on how they may change themselves, and so dislike is not universal nor permanent.  I do not desire the toxicity of misanthropy in my life from here on out.

And if you think I’m stupid or clueless for this approach, I guess I’d be interested in why you think that but I would ask you why you insist upon thinking me stupid? Why must your idea be superior to mine? Why must you be right? What’s so wrong about being incorrect? We all do it, and while the truth matters being wrong is not a moral failing and should not be the standard by which we judge a person’s character.

Dislike of people has to be based on specific actions and attributes of those people.  No person knows enough about most people to be able to justifiably, fairly, or wisely judge the characters of so many people, so easily. To be a misanthrope is to judge from the gate, on first impressions, and to assume the worst in people with little to no knowledge or understanding. We should not universalize specific interactions to people in general, and we should err to the side of allowing people to surprise us, just in case our impressions of them are completely wrong.

So, I choose to not allow the feelings of being better, more knowledgeable, more mature, etc to dominate my character because such things are goals (at best) and not the road beneath me. I am not superior to you, but neither are you superior to me.  I do not hate you (the generic you), either.

To all you misanthropes out there, I urge you to try and find the connection you have with other people, rather than what separates you. I have found that even within people whom have hurt me and people I do not like, I find spaces of similarity, commonality, and potential connection. Because of those similarities, I cannot hate them any more than I can hate myself.

Sartre was wrong about at least one thing: Hell isn’t other people.

Other people are reflections of our own selves, and ultimately misanthropy amounts to simple self-hatred hidden behind an attempt to create separation where uncomfortable similarity persists.