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Waits, measures, and standards April 22, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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ProtagorasWho are we to judge? Well, without us (or some other sentient species) the concept would be meaningless, right? Humanity is the source of all meaning (being that there are no gods and the universe is not conscious), and thus the only source for any judgment, criticism, or any analysis at all about anything, right?

So what of Protagoras’ statement on the right? Are we, as people, the measure of all things? Perhaps. But allow me to draw out two possible interpretive directions which we could go with this to tease out a potential problem here.

On one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that human individuals are the arbiter of measurement. On the other hand, we could take this to mean that the collective set of humanity is the scale of this measurement. This, of course, brings about all sorts of potential problems, because the first leads to a kind of solipsism or egoism in terms of our making sense of things, and the other opens up the many problems involved in communication, understanding, and all the related sociological and cultural issues related to agreement and disagreement.

And from either, chaos only can ensue.

Individual power and Groupthink

In some sense, I create my own meaning and value.* But I only can do so for my own life. If I were to try and spread this meaning any further, at best I could only make connections with people of similar perspectives (whether due to physiological similarity, common experiences, or some combination of both) or manipulate or control people (who have less strong senses of self worth, perhaps) towards opinions and behaviors which are in my own interest. The first is simply accident, the second is potentially abusive and toxic.

Strong, intelligent, and/or charismatic personalities have been finding those connections and leading people towards their values for as long as humans have been able to communicate concepts, very likely. The results of this type of human interaction over the millennia are every aspect of culture which we see; concepts, languages, religions, tribes, families, cults, etc. But there are many such people, with varying degrees of ability, intellect, and desire to control. Most of them will have little to no actual control.

And do not get me wrong, I’m not describing evil, sociopathic, power-hungry people solely. In fact, there are many people who have done many helpful and non-harmful things with their ability to control. This ability, itself, is neutral. It is merely a power set which has one type of effect on groups. We must distinguish between the ability to control and inspire people and the message being disseminated. Of course, certain types of messages will spread easier than others, and whether all of those viral ideas are bad or good are well beyond my ability to judge with any authority; I simply don’t have the data to support any hypothesis on the matter.

The bottom line here is that if I were to attempt to impose my own values onto the greater world, at best I could lead or join a group of people with similar ideas. At worst I could find people who would be willing to obediently submit to my ideas for reasons related to lack of self-worth, co-dependency, or simple apathy. In most cases, people end up in some space between those two, and the larger sociological and cultural effect is groups of people who stick with their own. In-group and out-group effects take shape, and the next thing you know is you have would-be autocrats and groups thinking similarly.

And not all of them will get along. It’s pretty universal, sociologically speaking.

Standards

So, what are the standards? Are they those of my heroes? My tribe? Are they mine? Are they the standards of my group? Probably one of those. But are they my standards because they are right, or are they right because they are my standards? And how much does the tribalistic and Groupthinky tendencies of all of us affect what standards I’ll think of as right? After all, I likely either chose my group because of our similar values, had my values shaped by someone else who was able to influence me, or influenced others towards my values to create a group of like-minded individuals.

At some point in the past, I would have written some nice-sounding composition about how the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking would step in here to be the arbiter.  And, to some extent I believe this still; whatever method eliminates, best, personal bias and errors is extremely useful in determining what the truth is. But this is a naive and, I believe, short-sighted solution to the problem. It sounds nice, it’s technically true, but the simple fact is that it does not actually cut through all the noise.

It’s impotent against our tendencies to get stuck within our webs, whether those webs are of our own making, our hero’s making, or if we worked together on it as relative equals.

Patience

So, perhaps I should not be talking about patience. I, as those close to me know, struggle with patience. It is, in many ways, the point at which I am weakest. But, perhaps because of this, I have a somewhat privileged perspective over how powerful patience is. I see people who are, by nature, patient and I see how powerful it is. I also see how it’s lack (usually upon later reflection) can be a detriment.

OK, so what does that have to do with finding meaning, measuring the truth, or how to behave?

To be honest, I am not exactly sure yet. But that has been a thing I think about, recently.   And I am not sure if I’ll ever figure it out, precisely. I have some thoughts which are partially formed, immature, and growing, but I do not want to spell that out yet. To do so would be to impatient. I need to allow myself to settle back, let the thoughts mature, and keep watching, listening, and when I better understand maybe I’ll come back to this.

For now, I don’t have a lot of answers. I have a lot of questions, uncertainties, and (certainly) insecurities. I have a lot og unknowns. They are becoming less terrifying to me, recently. They are still scary (and perhaps they always will be), but perhaps they will no longer compel impatient fearful reactions.

But, in the end, these are my values, my meanings, and my struggles. I can only hope that some of you recognize what I;m talking about and maybe you can identify with me in that sense. And if this leaves you cold or confused, then this is not for you.

So, what about Protagoras’ saying? Are we humans the measure of all things? Well, trivially yes. But right now I doubt that it’s any one of us, any group of us, or even any one philosophical system which is the scale upon which to make such measurements. That measurement, I think, comes more from those small, subtle moments of uncertainty and questions which are the connective tissue of growth and maturity.

My recommendation is to be wary of not only absolutes and certainties, but also over-confidence. Those who appear certain may not, in fact, have anything to offer you except their own certainty.

*That is, the extent to which we actually can choose our meaning and value is somewhat dependent upon whether our will is in any meaningful way free. In either case, the creation of this meaning happens within me, so free or not is is of my creation.

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Skepticism and insecurity January 13, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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The title of the blog is Atheist, Polyamorous Skeptics.  That is, we are atheists and we are polyamorous, but those are qualifying terms of our (at least my) primary identification; skeptic.

I identified as an atheist before either of the others, temporally.  It was somewhere in the late 1990’s that I started thinking of myself that way, and the winter of 2002, upon meeting Margaret Downey and joining the Freethought Society, that I came out of the closet, as it was.  I never believed in any gods (I toyed with pantheism for a little while, but pantheism is ontologically indistinct from atheism), but I didn’t always see the point in talking about this much or thinking of it in larger cultural and historical terms.

Over the next few years, I was introduced to people such as Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, James Randi, and others who usually identify as skeptics.  I had already taken critical thinking, logic, and philosophy courses (By 2003, I had a MA in philosophy), but the term skepticism was pretty much academic to me until a couple of years later, even though I was actively writing about and advocating for atheism as a cultural force during both college and graduate school.

I had discovered polyamory as an idea, and practiced it to some degree, in the late 1990’s as well.  But it was not until around 2006 or so that I started to re-think about the idea beyond the fact that I liked the idea of being able to pursue other girls while I was with my girlfriend at the time.  And I believe that the way I started taking polyamory more serious was related to my growing interest in skepticism as a means to living, rather than merely an intellectual exercise.

I had not come to articulate it thus yet, but I was beginning to apply skepticism to all of my life; my beliefs, suspicions, and to other people’s idea which I heard.  It did not always make me popular at parties, and it certainly did not make my native insecurity any better (as I wrote about last night, I still have anxieties about talking to people from this point of view).  But while it didn’t make me popular, it made me feel better about myself and gave me epistemic foundations for my worldview, even while that worldview was shifting.

Most importantly, it gave me a process by which I could counter-act my natural human tendency to allow my biases and fears to skew my worldview, and thus I grew the strengthened ability to challenge myself and learn about other people and ideas better.

Skepticism became, for me, a way of living, thinking, and perceiving.  But I had to train myself to be this way, which my philosophical training helped with.  And it often fails me anyway because skepticism is not easy and it is not natural to our brains.  I’m still prone to things such as selection bias, rejection of ideas which don’t mesh with my worldview, etc.  It takes a constant vigilance to notice and attempt to counter-act such tendencies, and it creates a cognitive uncertainty around my thoughts, quite often.

So, not only do I have to deal with a quite visceral and powerful insecurity at an emotional level, the nature of intellectual processes require me to be unsure about myself and my ideas.  A double dose of uncertainty, which I would rather do without, envelopes me.   And thus I understand people being turned off by skepticism; it feels better to be sure.  Questioning our values and beliefs is difficult, and people really don’t like their values and beliefs to be questioned, even liberal and “open-minded” people.

And yes, I am intellectually very certain about many things, but nuances and stupid semantic distinctions mean I cannot merely insist upon my superiority (although that is something I am prone to, as well).  I resist the urge to be arrogant, insistent, and authoritative because these desires are a defense mechanism against feeling insecure, and not necessarily the result of feeling overwhelmingly right or warranted in my opinion.  That is, there is an air of confidence which is only air.*

This is not to say I’m not occasionally arrogant, insistent, or think I’m intellectually superior.  I have weak moments, after all, and ironically my weakest moments often look, to others, as my strongest moments.  This is why I have trouble trusting people who appear boastful or arrogant; I suspect that underneath this appearance lies insecurity, like it does in me.  And sometimes I genuinely feel confident; the distinction is that when I’m actually confident, I’m calmer, less insistent, and I will probably be governing a wry smile.

And then, of course, I think that maybe some people don’t ever have that feeling of insecurity and that not only do they not feel insecure underneath their apparent certainty, but may have no reason to feel such insecurity because they are smarter and better than I am.

And then I really feel insecure, all because I think it’s important to be skeptical.

But that’s a lie; I just feel insecure fundamentally, and it just happens that skepticism is benefited by a reservation of opinion, which emotional insecurity provides.

But rationalizing is fun.

—-

*There is a wonderful episode of Star Trek TNG, entitled “Attached“, which deals with this very phenomenon.  Trekacademy.com summarizes the scene thus:

Capt. Picard & Dr. Crusher are being held captive by an alien race that implants telepathic devices on both of them, enabling each to hear the other’s thoughts.

While trying to escape, Capt. Picard & Crusher come upon an area which has two possible paths to take. Crusher is unsure which path to follow. Capt. Picard points in one direction and assertively indicates that it is the correct path.

As they start down the path, Crusher hears Capt. Picard’s thoughts and realizes that Capt. Picard had no better idea than her as to which path they should be taking and that he was only guessing earlier when he chose which path to take.

When Crusher tells Capt. Picard about her telepathic observation of him and asks if he does that often when giving orders, Capt. Picard answers, that there are times when it is necessary for the Captain to give the appearance of confidence.

And when I see people confidently proclaiming a decision, I think of this and wonder how universal it is that leaders just appear confident.