Our enemies might be good people, if we cancelled red alert now and then


Put phasers on...stunning!
Put phasers on…Stunning

I have been saying, for many years now, that I care about what is true. And, I do. But in reflecting upon some of the events over the last few years, there has been a splinter in my metaphorical appendages which has been annoying enough to make me re-evaluate this tendency, because I’m beginning to believe that this is too difficult a task to ask for without a strong awareness of how truth is so often tribal dogma or goodthink, rather than Actual Truth™.

Actual Truth™ is not so much a goal, ideal, or entity we can hold and share, because that would imply that we already have it, or at least its coordinates, to indicate. And this, I believe, is the focal point of the error that so many people make (myself included). And so I want to take some time, today, to make a distinction between truth as a metaphysical concept versus framing it as a process, because I think this would solve many problems we run into while attempting to convince people of the “truth” of something.

Whether in politics, religion, or inter-tribal warfare, the “truths” we carry with us are designed to be defenses and weapons, more than reality.  But if you’re interested in reality, you may have to leave some of yourself aside for a bit, and take yourself much less seriously.

First, some definitions.

In reality, I'm looking mostly at Reddit
Not relevant at all

Reality as a metaphysical construct

Back in the old days, especially with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who defined much of what would be considered “philosophy” for centuries within the Western European traditions, truth was (in a sense, anyway) a thing.  Depending on how literally you took some thinkers of this tradition, truth was literally a Form or Ideal in the universe, immutable and (possibly) discoverable. Philosophy and science were just a means of uncovering truths in the universe through discourse, investigation, and (eventually) the scientific method.

In the philosophy of mathematics, for example, there is a debate which goes back quite a long time as to whether numbers, and mathematical relationships in general, are real things that we discover or if they are in a sense created as tools for our understanding the relationships between things. The nuances and grey areas within this debate are beyond the scope of this post, but if you’re interested in such things, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article which can serve as an introduction to this area of study.

For our purposes here, the point is that some people think that the truth is actually real, in some sense. What is the densest material on Earth? Well, that’s a question with an answer which we can find (it’s Osmium, according my my Google-fu), and that answer is a real, true, fact about the nature of the world.  If we wanted to know the densest material possible, well, that might be a different question which may or may not have a real answer, based upon how good our tools are to investigate such a question. Follow the same link as above to see a short discussion of neutron stars, for example.

So, in short, such a question has an answer which we can point to. What’s the densest material found on Earth? Osmium, duh. And you can point at your heavy osmium jewelry so that everyone can be very impressed. That is until you die from exposure to osmium tetroxide, which is a compound formed when osmium is exposed to the air. You know, that real stuff which is all around you all the time. Maybe settle for Iridium, if you’re seriously rich (it’s extremely rare). I, personally, wear a ring made of tungsten carbide which is like half as dense but still pretty heavy, but nobody is really impressed. Fucking haters….

Anyway, back to reality.

So, you can find a real truth to a question, but you have to make sure that the terms are well defined and have rational and empirical (when available) evidence to support the relevant facts. And many people believe that this is an indication that there is some actual reality which our language uses to describe, and by use of this idea the word “osmium” refers to a real thing which is, in fact, the densest (mass/volume, a real relationship, obviously) found on this planet. And then you can point at your collection of osmium (hopefully contained in some sort of sealed vacuum container, this time) and impress everyone with your strange collecting hobbies.

What I’m trying to get at here is that even if we have a definite answer to a question, the definiteness is the operative word. That is, we need to define the scope of the question to isolate a concept in such a way that we can make some sense of it and define the logical structure of the thought such that the answer makes sense rationally. The definition acts, for us, as some sort of lens through which we can “see” the real object. But do we? Is our definitional lens the thing itself? Do we ever really pierce the phenomenal barrier to reality and see the thing itself, the noumenal? (Kant says no, and he may be right). Aren’t all the things we perceive just simulations in our head of a thing which may or may not actually be out there, in reality? That seems to be the case, to me. But the definitions, the context, and the framing by which we perceive the real objects literally shape the world around us, and thus there is a sense in which it is true that we create the world we perceive, even if that construction is based upon something real “out there.”

And when we’re done with such construction, we have something to indicate, refer to, and interact with. We have reality, even if it’s just a simulation. It’s a construct of language, definitely (see what I did there?), but is it actually real outside of our conceiving of it with words and neurons firing? Is it more than a linguistic and cognitive construct?

Are we in some sort of Matrix?

I don’t know. But let’s take a look at another way to conceive of this question, for context.

 

Truth as a Process

Now, if you were paying attention to my clever section above, you may have noticed that I sort of hinted at this part already. Because even if there is an actual reality beyond our language and thought, the process to define, isolate, and logically structure the true thing is dependent upon, well, a process. Thinking is a process, logic is a process, language is  a process, and science is most definitely a process.

All too often we will find people describing science in terms of “science says” or “we learn from science that” followed by a fact or set of facts. Science tells us we evolved from earlier primates. Science says water is made up of two parts of this and one part of that. Science tells us that stars are giant balls of fire very far away. These facts are just more examples of conceptually defined and structured words and thoughts, and by focusing on these conclusions we are missing the really important part of what science (and intellectual investigations in general) is all about.

What matters is the process. What tools are we using, how do we use them, why are those tools better than other tools, and are we using our tools well enough? And this is true in the history of ideas in general, not just the physical sciences. It’s also true of our worldviews, beliefs, and personal narratives about ourselves, friends, and enemies. Everything we hope to understand will be dependent upon what processes we use and how we use them. The reliability of any conclusion will hinge upon how we use such tools.

It’s much more valuable to have a strong handle on the process than the true fact/conclusion, because with the former you can get the latter, but not necessarily the other way around. Give a man a fish versus teach them to fish, blah blah blah.

And we are processes too. In a physiological and cognitive sense, we are a jumble of inter-related processes which serve a myriad of functions, rather than a static being. We are perpetually changing, growing, and cycling through processes we don’t have full conscious access to, but which are unavoidable. Our assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions themselves are dependent upon these processes and defined by them. The truths we hold, therefore, are secondary to the processes themselves.

The more we pay attention to the processes (both external and internal, assuming that distinction is meaningful) which we use to understand the world, the less we’ll be transfixed by the truths we accept, and we’ll be better prepared to replace those conclusions which have previously been put on pedestals or made into Platonic Ideals or Divine Reality with newer, better ones. Further, if we are able to improve our processes, we are less likely to get stuck in modes of thoughts and also better see past the faults in our truths and our methods. That is, not only can the truths we accept be upgraded, perhaps our processes can be as well.

If you believe Jesus is Lord or that psychic powers are real, these conclusions are based upon existing processes. If, upon further introspection, investigation, and skeptical analysis we discover that our processes can no longer support these conclusions, all the better (if the processes are good and used logically). But the further improvement would be to improve, reform, or replace your processes. A person whose epistemology consists of “God said it, I believe it” has a bad process installed, and so it’s no surprise when they conclude that Jesus is Lord. Skepticism is just a better process than presuppositionalism, for example, and can lead to more rational conclusions. That is, our processes are not merely relative, but some are better at others in terms of making sense of the miasma of phenomena we have to contend with.

What’s important here is to see that the process itself is a lens through which we construct the world. It literally shapes perceptions and defines our thought. It shapes the process doing the simulation of the world. The hard part is being able to identify your lens, in order to compare it with alternatives for the sake of upgrading or replacement; if you can’t understand how you see the world, you certainly will have a rough time correcting irrational truths and conclusions, and your beliefs will stagnate in errors.

And, this is the point in my writing that I am suddenly very aware that I’m trying to make a similar point I made in my MA thesis (a criticism of the illusion of ontological dualism as being an artifact of projecting a faulty tendency of thought onto reality itself), and that I’m about to start talking about Alfred North Whitehead.

(And yes, for once this was actually a spontaneous realization, and not a baked in “surprise” to my post, as I often do)

So let’s take a very brief pause and talk about process philosophy.

 

Make Whitehead Relevant Again

Alfred North Whitehead
Alfred North Whitehead

So, when I was in graduate school at West Chester, I had just discovered Alfred North Whitehead, or ol’ Whitey as I’ll call him (OK, no I won’t).

Whitehead was a contemporary of Bertrand Russell, with whom he collaborated in the 1890s on the subjects of mathematics and logic, but the two later moved in different directions, philosophically. Whitehead is not a well-known philosopher today largely due, I think, to his rather unorthodox metaphysics. But when I first read his work (especially his seminal Process and Reality, published in 1929), I was struck by it in a profound way. I wasn’t convinced by it, exactly. I didn’t become an acolyte like David Ray Griffin or John Cobb, both of whom went on to talk about theological implications of Whitehead’s process philosophy.  But I did find something very valuable in shifting the way we think about reality, and process philosophy became a valuable metaphor for doing so. (In fact, part 2 of my MA thesis commits to seeing his metaphysics as a metaphor rather than a literal ontology, which I still think is a valuable take on Whitehead’s work unlike the essentially worthless Process Theology of his said acolytes, with whom I am still quite annoyed)

The essential thing is this; rather than focus on reality as a set of definite stuff interacting with other stuff (whether the simplistic ancient idea of tiny “atoms” and the “void,” as articulated by Democtritus in the 5th century BCE or later ideas of atoms as protons, electrons, etc), Whitehead invited us to imagine the world made up of processes. The perception we have of stuff is, in his theory, a kind of snapshot of the process. What he called prehension was, in some sense, us perceiving a moment of the process and creating the illusion of concrete stuff.* That is, the perception of the solidity and “stuffness” of reality is an illusion we create, but that all things are just a complex process and not actually things in the sense philosophers of old tended to think of it.

The implications on quantum mechanics, metaphysics, and science are interesting, but there are reasons his theory never really grabbed hold of the philosophical world the way that his contemporary, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who was also a subject of my MA thesis and part of my criticism of Whitehead), had on later philosophical thought. The reason is that his ideas were bad, if taken literally. I still believe that, as a metaphor, they are an interesting tool to understand aspects of the world.

Read his work if you’re curious about the details, but that is enough to move on with.

 

We are the warped lens through which we see all possible worlds

Do you see yourself as a person moving through time and space, taking in information, making judgments, and coming to conclusions about people, things, and ideas?

Me too. But let’s look at a shade of that idea which might either elucidate something or merely annoy you. Perhaps both.

Think about someone you love. Or like a lot. Or can tolerate for small periods of time, at least. Think about how you think about them, as well. What are the emotional associations with that person? How would you feel if you see them, or merely imagine them, being cruel to someone else, undeservedly?

Now imagine the same for someone you hate or dislike.

What’s the difference?

Now, what’s the truth? What kind of person are those people of whom you just thought? Is the first one having a bad day, and is the second person confirming your dislike of them? Or maybe you love or like a bad person, and have misjudged someone else who is just having a bad day? When did the truth of each of those people, and all the other people you could think of, become a real, definite, thing? When did you decide to love the first and hate the second, and why do you still do so?

When did you first deify or demonize them? When I asked you to think of someone you loved, you probably had at least one person in mind. Why that person? Why didn’t you get confused and accidentally think of your worst enemy? Didn’t you already have a lens, a filter, of your perception set up, for each of those people? And didn’t your new observation or imagining of them being cruel pass through that filter, rather than come to you uncolored?

Why was one on the good side of your filter, and the other on the bad side?

In order to save time, we humans tend to use general concepts (stereotypes, really) as place-holders for more nuanced and accurate perceptions. We have quick and dirty schema to make sense out of the people, objects, and concepts which surround us. One of these conceptual shortcuts is the tendency to define dualities or continuum, which leads to binary thinking, in many cases. In some religious traditions, such as Zoroastrianism, there are opposing supernatural beings pulling us in two different directions. The Light/Dark side of the Force, from Star Wars, is a fictional example of this (but aren’t they all fictional? ZING!). In the Christian world, it’s God and the devil, which derive from concepts more akin to something being placed in an idealized pedestal and something thought of as evil, harmful, but still powerful.

Gods and Demons, loved ones and enemies. Simple, effective, and rarely accurate at higher resolutions, but fairly universal of human perception and worldviews.

These examples of how we categorize people, ideas, places, etc are very natural and easy ruts for us to fall into, and doing so doesn’t make us weak, broken, or wrong in any moral sense, but I believe we have some responsibility to be aware of this tendency and to lift ourselves out of this rut when we see it happening. And I have written about tangential issue to this before, I know, but today I want to focus on seeing ourselves, our friends, and our enemies as processes so that we can, perhaps, allow ourselves to see people for what they are in the process of doing, rather than merely what they did that time when we froze our image of them in a timeless box. If we want to know what is true, we need to compensate for our tendency to sum up our surroundings up quickly and simply, in an analogous way to how video is a better tool than pictures to capture the reality of some thing we are investigating. Seeing people as processes is more accurate than seeing them as a defined and idealized objects, or static pictures.

Because if every one of us, you and I included, are stories we are telling ourselves in real time, then that story may change and have moments of mistakes, successes, and many more of boring, everyday, actions of little moral significance. A snapshot of any of these moments is only part of the whole process, and we need to be able to look at patterns over time rather than one tweet or moment of emotion (for example). It’s all too easy to allow such moments to define someone and to therefore decide to cut them out of our lives (“cancel” them), rather than the harder effort to understand them as complex human beings with possibly nuanced behavior and beliefs.

But more importantly, we need to remember that the story we are telling about ourselves is also a lens through which we see the rest of the world. It distorts ourselves as much as our surroundings, and if we want to define the lens, then we have to pay specific attention to the warping and distortions of our worldview. That is, we need to be very attentive to how we deceive ourselves before we can be sure we are beginning to see an accurate picture of the rest of the world. If you are unaware of the shape of your own lens, then you have little hope of being certain about the reality of anything around, or within, you.

You can love people who casually and normally do harm because they endeared themselves to you in the right way and at the right time, and you can despise someone who is kind and considerate because they did (or you heard they did) something that specifically irks you. And for some third person, with their own perceptions and opinions, those two people whom you love/hate could be reasonably swapped, and the person you love they will hate while your enemy is their trusted friend. And they may hate you, despite your good qualities, to boot. A little perspective goes a long way towards love, hate, and indifference.

So, how can we start to discover the shape of the tool through which we perceive reality? You have to start by being willing to question the most valued and sacred things; not your beliefs, per se, but what you are. You need to re-evaluate yourself, your processes, and the beliefs that those processes have wrought.

And it’s so easy to get that wrong, and therefore very easy to turn incorrect perceptions into deified truth because you revere your warped lens. For some people, their values are sacred parts of their identity, but I believe that those are the things we need to be most skeptical about.

If you want to see the world correctly, you need to start by seeing yourself correctly. And we are so good at lying to ourselves.

 

A correctly shaped lens has a depression

I’m going through a bad bout of depression, currently. It’s that time of year, and it’s been compounded by factors in my personal life, and I know it will pass. But in the meantime, I’m struggling. Depression lies, as the Bloggess says. But is that all it does, and is it the only liar here?

Some research has shown that depression has a tendency to offer some amount of cognitive clarity, rational thought, and nuanced reflection (the so-called “Depressive Realism,” see here and here) such that the rose-tinted view of the world is less prevalent, and we are able to see things are they are, to some degree, better

From the New Yorker, in 2014, in an article making reference to a famous set of experiments about depression and perception of reality:

Not only were depressed individuals more realistic in their judgments, they argued, but the very illusion of being in control held by those who weren’t depressed was likely protecting them from depression in the first place. In other words, the rose-colored glow, no matter how unwarranted, helped people to maintain a healthier mental state. Depression bred objectivity. A lack of objectivity led to a healthier, more adaptive, and more resilient mind-set. (source)

So much for self-help and the power of positive thinking as a means to seeing the truth.

In the quiet moments of self-reflection, I can tell myself that I am my worst mistakes. All the things that my enemies say about me are true. I deserve ostracism, enmity, and distrust. In times of confidence I can, alternatively, tell myself that I have done so many great things, maintained so many good relationships, and have done work to learn from those mistakes, and all the people demonizing me are merely unable or unwilling to see the distance between their crystallized image of me and the real me, which makes them wrong and possibly cruel in continuing to attack, defame, and ostracize me. So fuck them, right? They are assholes, and not worth my time.

These are just two different shapes of the lens I am capable of creating for myself.  Neither is true, in any real or absolute sense. They are different framings that I project, and they will make the world look quite different from the other. Depression lies, but so does self-empowerment and pride in some identity. All our lenses lie, to some degree. The key is to figure how how and how much each lens lies to us, and not to become transfixed by any of them whether self-deprecating or self-empowering. The truth lies elsewhere.

I don’t believe the sad thoughts my mind whispers to me when feeling down, but I’m similarly skeptical of things such as “The Secret” or optimism as a means to empower ourselves, because it seems like a self-deception as well. And in some sense it is most definitely a lie. I have a close friend who swears by it, and believes that his optimism and attitude towards success are what makes him successful. Perhaps it does have that effect, but it is still, in some sense, a lie. It’s a lie of control, and arguing with someone who believes that they will succeed would be fruitless, mostly because they are insisting upon their deception and proud of it. They begin to shape not only their own lens, but the lenses of people around them and thus creating the power structure that wasn’t there previously. So it’s not only a lie, but it’s one that creates a new kind of truth which is then accepted socially, and thus has power.

I’m not confident most people will use this power for good, so I am not a fan of this approach.

But, more importantly, this teaches us that we can create a shield-lens around us which creates an intersubjectively real social field that effects our behavior because it defines our perception. The tall man walking confidently down the street in his obviously well-tailored suit, nice shoes, and expensive briefcase carries himself with self-empowerment, and this confidence effects not only his perception of the world (which is a lie), but it effects the shape of the field of others around him (whom are telling themselves a different kind of lie, perhaps). These social shield-lenses are the social structure in which we live, every day, and it helps define the culture, economics, and local identities which seem as real to us as the car he’s getting in or the homeless person he just ignored.

Because, again, we construct reality. The simulation of the car, the man, and the social status happen in the same mind, and have similar real effects on our behavior. And if these constructions are lies, even if only in part, then shouldn’t we be more skeptical about them?

We create our own reality, right? We define and create the truth, correct? Like-minded people, who view themselves as powerful, in control, and successful band together to create a tribal lens, and rival groups push and pull the reality around them leading to a world of competing tribes with their own realities, each of which is the lens through which they see the world. Other tribes will look warped because both sets of tribal lenses warp the reality as perceived intersubjectively, and the next thing you know there is no possibility of getting to any agreement, let alone Actual Truth™, because everyone is invested in their individual or group lenses which are defining their own realities, and warping all the other realities. It’s a vicious cycle.

It’s very possible (super easy, barely an inconvenience) to be a genuinely intelligent, well-intentioned, and honest person living your life as part of a community while trying to make the world a better place while simultaneously participating in the demonization and harm to other people. It is, in fact, the norm. I think everyone thinks they are, even when acknowledging errors and mistakes, generally good and doing the right things. Actual psychopaths are rare. The rest of us have normal good people as our enemies.

I believe, after some years of deep contemplation, that I’m almost certainly wrong about a lot of things, especially the things with the most emotional weight. The people I’m hurt by and dislike the most are not monsters, but flawed humans who just happened to hurt me in the right way and at the wrong time. And I know that people exist for whom that person is a trusted friend or partner, but who absolutely hate me.  Do any of us deserve that? Like I said, actual psychopaths are rare, and it’s possible that I’ve known one or two, but in general I must conclude, unhappily but rationally, that I hate people who are decent in many ways. And so do you.

It’s very easy for me to fall into the rut of demonizing people for the ostracism, untrue accusations, and attacks I have received from factions within the polyamorous community (for example). Because despite the fact that I know most of those people are smart, honest, and well-intentioned, they are also corrupt liars just trying to protect something. And I think I know what they are protecting. It’s the same thing we are all protecting, in the end; ourselves and our lenses.

Because as a lens perpetuates in a person, group, or culture, that lens becomes a mythology, a narrative, and part of an identity. And this is how misperceptions, deceptions, and lies become part of who we are and what is sacred to us. And this is why I try to hold nothing sacred, because for me all is subject to scrutiny and criticism. And we all, in every group, have our sacred ideologies. It’s time to pull them down off their pedestals and re-evaluate.

 

It’s time to drop the shields

Remember how I was lamenting how we lose track of the fact that we are complicated, and that if we stopped deifying and demonizing people and saw them as complicated processes, then we might be better off (or whatever my point was)?

We’ve moved from the analogy of a snapshot image of a person, thing, or concept as being worse than a video of them. See them in real time, as a process, and we see more of the context and more of the truth. Except this is the wrong analogy. It’s the wrong analogy because it seems to imply that what we need to do is more actively pay attention to the lenses we are deceived by. It implies that we may need to take control of the shape of our lenses, talk with other people about their lenses so that we can start to understand one-another better, and finally start to talk with one another.

This, quite frankly, will not work very well. The reason, I think, is that this lens which we create, as individuals and as groups, is a projection from our (sacred?) values and beliefs about who we are. It is like a spell we cast around us, actively made stronger by the illusion, referred to above, of control. It is the very thing we see as a positive thing–confidence, empowerment, and identity–which creates it. If there is anything I have benefited from, in times of depression, it is the moments of quiet, passive clarity which allows me to drop the pretense of control and the identity it may provide.

Having actively meditated for many years helps this, as well. I have trained my mind to focus on its own processes, and between moments of sadness and self-pity and surges of confidence is a quiet space of stillness and authenticity in which even my most hated enemies are human and understandable, and my most loved and trusted human and imperfect. It is during these rare and valuable moments when I realize that the only way we can understand each other is by recognizing that we are not what we think we are.

We are not as self-aware as we think.

We are not in control of the vast majority of things

we are not right about most of what we believe

None of us. And it’s not our fault; this is the human condition. It’s just that all of us are almost always transfixed by a set of distortions of reality and ourselves, created by our attempts to better control and understand ourselves and the world around us.

We are, at best, semi-aware bits of matter filled with stories and concepts shaped by lenses we can’t see.  The more we focus on any of it, the more we create the illusions in which we live our every-day lives. Just like how money is an illusion which we create, so is everything else we see. Whether the illusions are good things or not is besides the point, because if we recognize that they are not real, then we can’t become affixed by them and defined by them. And, finally, we can’t create gods, demons, or even truths if we aren’t willing to lend reality to the phenomena we’re projecting.

I’m not suggesting that we just give up and live as nihilists, but I’m suggesting that we all, as individuals, groups, cultures, and as a species (and potentially as a member of all possible semi-sentient beings) kill all of our gods, demons, and even our very identities. If we do so, we will begin to understand that we don’t know anyone, really, especially ourselves. Then we can stop defining people so easily and quickly based on limited information and context.

Only then can we start to glean the truth.

What is the truth? I don’t know. And neither do you. Perhaps if we realized that, we would yell at each other less on social media, and realize that people in power are really projecting a narrative that probably won’t be helpful to you. The one yelling the loudest is creating the biggest lens for themselves, and they won’t be able to see you as well as you can see them.

I see you out there. I don’t know who you are, but I’d be willing to sit quietly with you and maybe try to let my shields down, if you will.

 

Parting thoughts

None of this means that there isn’t actually any true things. This is not a nihilistic screed. There are still better and worst ways to govern, behave, and things that are more true than others. The point here is that we need to realize that the beliefs and behaviors which allow us to succeed in accomplishing things in life, whether self-confidence, empowerment, or group identity is also a source for self-deception. In terms of achieving practical success and accomplishment, the useful lies are helpful. But those very same perspectives and skills are detrimental in terms of seeing the truth.

I believe that much of religion and the history of mystical thought has realized this for thousands of years, but the mistake is attributing this to some more real world or more real being. This, ironically, is exactly the problem, rather than the solution. Just like how Trump supporters err in believing Trump-like “strongmen” are the solution to corruption, lying, and incompetence in government, mysticism and religion are wrong in believing that a supernatural or magic reality is better than the mundane/sinful world it tries to overcome. It is the very projection of a solution which is the source of the problem. I think there is a reason that many Trump supporters are evangelical Christians; they are both transfixed by the same fundamental error of not seeing reality because they are believing, so hard, that their savior is real when it’s all a deception. And it’s one they could stop projecting, if they weren’t so self-interested in maintaining it.

We need to stop mistaking our lenses for reality.

I don’t know the solution to this problem. I’m just no longer impressed by our human bullshit.

And I’ll continue to do my best not to get hyped by my own bullshit.

I’m not only out of fucks, but I’m convinced that the fucks aren’t even real to begin with.

 


*anyone familiar with Whitehead just winced, because I simplified that to painful extents. In reality, Whitehead believes that our consciousness is that process of the stuff we are made of being aware of itself, as all matter is supposed to do. According to the theory of Process Philosophy, all matter does this prehension at different levels of complexity, and the level of complexity adds up to different levels of consciousness. This leads to what some followers of Whitehead call panpsychism, which is, in many ways, the foundational idea to much of the ideas of universal consciousness (a la the annoying Deepak Chopra and so forth).  The idea, popular with many spiritual traditions throughout cultures and history, that consciousness is part of the nature of reality itself, often leads to the belief that the entire universe would be aware of itself, and everything below it is in a hierarchy of awareness, including ourselves, animals, plants, rocks, etc, are all concious in some sense. This self-awareness of the universe is what God is for some Process Theologians. I’m not a proponent of panpsychism or process theology at all, but it’s an interesting philosophical attempt to make rational many spiritual and religious ideas, which I still run into when talking with many “spiritual” people. In short, Whitehead created a metaphysics which was influential on a lot of woo mysticism of the 20th century, which would make him my natural philosophical opponent.

Skepticism: Orthodoxy v. Orthopraxy


One of the criticisms which has appeared over the last several years, in response to the rise of the atheist/skeptic community, is that we atheists/skeptics are just like those religious people (as if that were a criticism worth taking seriously). But even while that criticism is silly, we can still step back and take a look at commonalities of human behavior, including how these behaviors inform and compel behavior of people in both religious and non-religious communities.

In the skeptical community in particular, emphasis is often on methodology.  What tools are we using to figure things out? How much emphasis do we put on empiricism? How about rationalism? Most skeptics utilize, primarily, the scientific method which utilizes logic, empiricism, and applies a probabilistic approach to truth.

But these tools are used with the intent of discovering what is true (or at least what is likely to be true). And so once we have those answers, how certain should we be? Should we be willing, once a conclusion seems to be very certainly true, to defend it as the right answer?

This tension, between the best methodology and the best answers, is reminiscent of the tension throughout much of religious and theological history between orthopraxy (correct action/practice) and orthodoxy (correct belief/doctrine). If you look at the history of religion, this tension plays out over and over again and can teach us quite a lot about human behavior.

My general view of religion is that it follows the rules of how culture operates.  If you want to understand religious behavior, understand cultural, social, and idividual behavior. As a result of this view, I could also say that if we were to track some of the arguments between skeptics/atheists about whether it is the conclusions (or definitions) which matter more than the methodologies we use, you might see the similarities start to emerge from the mess.

The Best of Religion and Skepticism

If we were to be forgiving of the many atrocities (both of practice and of beliefs) of religion, we could take a look at the many mystical, introspective, and social boons which religion provides to so many people. At its best, religion provides a perspective of ourselves, our communities, and the world itself which is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. So long as we can avoid the metaphysical bird-catchers* that these perspectives are often glued to, we can walk into and within religion without detriment to ourselves or the world around us.

Of course, we could have those same perspectives and experiences without religion. Science and logic do not strip away such things, although they may often cause our minds to reject them for the sake of what appears to be a cleaner and more precise description of the world (and it often is such, but perhaps not always).

And whether or not we step away from religion, insofar as we are capable of practicing good skepticism, we will be armed with a methodology which can aid us in a plethora of ways and provide us with yet more peep-holes into reality, including the murkiest part of reality; ourselves.

Skepticism gives us a sieve through which falls bias, delusion, and deception. What remains is a jumble of truths, in need of structure and meaning, which we can push and pull with our fingers like children at play with rocks, toys, or sand. 

What may become a problem is what happens when we start to build castles out of that sand. For, in a sense, we are prone to see what we make as the truth. Objects made of truth do not necessarily make larger truths, for truth is also contained within structure, and not merely components.

Getting caught up in constructions

We create narratives, structures, and often monuments of truth. Now, I personally believe that a real world exists, and in many cases our descriptions of this reality are reliable and ‘true’, if by ‘true’ we mean that it coheres with our experience and stand up to scrutiny. Some Platonic TRUTH simply has no meaning, at least not one that we, sentient and subjective beings taht we are, can participate in. 

So I believe that it’s valid to say that we know something, insofar as that thing has survived skeptical analysis, especially if it has done so repeatedly and without significant contradiction. So we can say that our understanding of how gravity works (insofar as we understand how gravity works) is true because the description keeps predicting and explaining results. Similarly, we can say that evolution is a fact which is explained by the theory of natural selection (among the other parts of biological theory related to evolution) because the theory keeps being supported by evidence.

These facts about the world are real things which we can point to and demonstrate why we accept them as true, but this demonstration is dependent upon the methodology. Methodology is the thing that determines the structure of truths, after all. Again, trye structure is as important as true components. The “correct” answers which science provides for us would be meaningless without the methodology by which we discover and construct those answers.

If we are to have a new set of facts replace such an answer, it would be the methodology which would bring it to us.

Deconstructing our sand castles

Let’s go back to religion. I’m going to unequivocally say that the largest failure of religion, in general, is the set of facts it proposes as the truth. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that when science and religion butt heads, science always either agrees or it wins. In the places where science and religion agree, all religion has done is either used, somewhere in the past, some skeptical methodology to find that answer or it simply got lucky. It is the accidental nature which leads us to the second reason.

The second reason that religion fails in the face of science is that when it comes to belief, the very methodology of religion is backwards. Where religion finds answers that work, it can only do so by borrowing from science or by getting lucky. Religion does not try to prove itself wrong, it looks for support for what it already believes or merely asserts without an attempt to provide evidence, and then calls it “faith.”

In the skeptical world, the tension between method and answer works differently than it does in religion; with religion, the tension between orthopraxy and orthodoxy ultimately revert back to the right answers; to orthodoxy. Even in religious traditions which tend to lean heavier on practice over doctrine, it is the doctrines, or at least metaphysical beliefs, which anchor it as a religion rather than a philosophy. 

Even with religious interpretations which focus on moral action, personal growth, etc, it is the beliefs of that group which act like a gravitational center. Otherwise, you would not have a Buddhist or a Muslim, you’d just have people who value certain ways to live, surrounded by Buddhist or Islamic scenery. The more individuals in religious communities move away from doctrine as their focus, the more they move away from religion and towards secular philosophies.

We humans must be more careful with how closely we attach ourselves to conclusions.  Conclusions create a center of gravity, which does help create a community, but it also can be the parent of tribalism, groupthink, and ultimately the narratives which become doctrine.

Within the skeptic/atheist world, certain centers of conclusion-gravity exist as well, and they define the borders between factions, not unlike what has happened with religion except that so far those lines have not become full walls which define different sects.

Not that some of the distinctions are not important; and not that I don’t think that some factions in the rift are more right than others, but I worry that the focus will become, just like with religion, the conclusions themselves, rather than the method by which they came to those conclusions. Tribalism breeds orthodoxy and diminishes focus on methodology–on orthopraxy.

Over there on this side, they all know that this thing is true that this person over there is like that and so they all dislike that person. This person becomes not part of the other group, and any contribution from them is suspect to them. Next thing you know, all the friends of this person have created their own narrative and then we have factions, tribes, and points of conflict. They have banners to put on flags, for when they arrive at the field of battle. They have identifiers to make sure they don’t kill their own.

You know, “friendly fire.”

And rather than focus on how we got to that battle field, why they chose that banner, or even what the other people with another banner think, the soldiers focus on the narratives, gripes, and injuries that their friends have suffered. And thus skeptics, atheists, and other people who think of themselves as intelligent fall prey to the oldest of humanities weaknesses; rightness.

Righteousness.

What orthodoxy do you cling to? How do you know that thing and what are you going to do, how are your going to live, and what right actions are you going to practice to either confirm or deny that right doctrine. How are you going to justify that righteousness of yours?

Is skepticism or atheism like religion? No

Are skeptics and atheists like religious people? Yes

Because we’re all people.

Let’s focus on why we disagree, more than what we disagree about. Once we have a better handle on why we disagree, the disagreements will still be there, probably. In the end, we may still hate each other, but at least we didn’t merely bow to a flag that may or may not even be true.

Good luck out there.

*”To confront man henceforth with man in the way in which, hardened by the discipline of science, man today confronts the rest of nature, with dauntless Oedipus eyes and stopped-up Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird-catchers who have all too long been piping to him “you are more! you are higher! you are of a different origin!”—that may be a strange and extravagant task but it is a task” (Beyond Good and Evil,§230)

Checking Ourselves: Mental Health, Cognitive Bias, and Rifts


Proposition:

Mental health and cognitive errors are the foundation upon which we struggle with interactions with groups, individuals, and ourselves. Whether we are diagnoseable in a mental health context or not and whether our cognitive biases are significantly problematic or not, how these types of factors interact with each other will influence how we understand ourselves and the world around us. These individual concerns will supervene into group dynamics, whether for good or bad, and if we are interested in any kind of cohesion, cooperation, or truth as any kind of group then we must pay primary attention to our personal tendencies towards cognitive errors and mental health concerns.

confirmation-biasIt’s pointless to merely defend our position with logical argumentation if our very position is subject to biases and potentially mentally unhealthy attitudes. Before we can be concerned about being right philosophically, we have to first be attentive to the effects of mental health, cognitive biases, and self-justification. Being a skeptic means first being skeptical of our own internal processes, because if an error lies there then that error will expand exponentially at every level of our argument, very likely.  The very basis of motivated reasoning, self-justification, and rationalizations arise when we fail to recognize our own errors in forming opinions.

To trust ourselves or other people, we have to pay attention not only to our intentions and overt logical steps, but also to the emotional and cognitive foundations of our ideas. Thinking we are being rational, honest, and forthright is pointless if we don’t pay attention to the self-correcting steps we need to take in order to be truly authentic as feeling and thinking beings. Intention and honesty are not enough if we are blind to biases which lie under those intentions and our desire to be honest. Honesty is impotent if we’re wrong.

In terms of this, I agree mostly with Peter Boghossian in the following video:

Yes, we need to be forthright.  But in addition to being forthright, we also need to be willing to be wrong, to self-correct, and to head off cognitive biases, whether they take the form of emotional or  rational patterns. If we start out being unwilling to self-correct, this will have obvious ramifications for how we interact with the world, other people, and with our own internal concerns.

Cognitive Biases

mediocreWhen I started writing in blog-like form more than 15 years ago (college newspaper columns mostly, but also some essays I wrote for various publications as well), I was writing almost exclusively about atheism. I was writing screeds against religion, “new atheist” style, back in the lat 1990’s. In college, I studied world religions, cultures, and some philosophy, and my senior thesis was about the philosophical and cultural influences of Greece/Rome on the development of the Catholic Church. I had heard all the apologetics (I have not heard anything really new in years), became fairly good at responding to them, and this helped me discover and become part of the atheist community in early 2002, when I started graduate school.

In talking with theists and other atheists, I had come to witness all sorts of rationalization, motivated thinking, and cognitive biases. I became fairly good at spotting when people are subject to these cognitive errors.  I’m not immune to such things myself (none of us are), but I’m fairly good at noticing it during or at least shortly after doing so (especially with Ginny around to help point it out), and I try to correct it as best I can. The more emotional I am, the more likely I am to be subject to biases. But exposure and attention to these things has helped make me less prone to such things, even if I do occasionally find myself twisted up in logical rationalizations from time to time.

So, when I later started hanging around polyamorous people at meetups, private parties, etc, I started to utilize those tools which I had honed within the atheist community, and started to notice patterns of motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations there too.  it’s not just theists (or atheists) who are subject to these concerns.

Most of the motivated reasoning, biases, and rationalizations I ran into was pretty low-level every day stuff, but occasionally I would spot a behavior which was really dug deep in self-justification. And over the years, I have gotten to know various levels of these types of cognitive errors in belief, behavior, and preferences which exist among polyamorous people.

What I have come to believe (tentatively, of course) is that we bring cognitive biases, rationalizations, and self-justification with us into whatever communal or social networks in which we spend significant time.  Those cognitive concerns influence how we will interact with other people, how we will think about issues which come up, and will be the foundation of where we will stand in the case of any disagreements, rifts, or enmity. When things go bad, where you will be stand relative to an argument will be at least partially based upon what kinds of cognitive errors you are prone to.

Going back to the atheist community for a second, let us take a moment to recognize the various splits, rifts, and arguments which have raged over the last several years. A-plussers, slymepitters, and freethought blogs, oh my! Now, I have not seen any significantly complicated analyses of how things like cognitive biases, self-justification, and personal preferences determine where a person will lie on these battle lines, but I’d bet we would start seeing some correlations if we did (which says nothing about causation, I know).

We’re all subject to cognitive errors.  We all have to be cautious with certainty, whether we err on the side of servility or arrogance. We all have to improve at making sure we are paying attention to how our cognitive biases and mental health issues help determine our opinions, behaviors, and relationships. All too often people will demonize another person out of a need for self-justification.  We will idolize someone else for similar reasons.

We need to have the bravery to demand complete honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to be wrong (or right) when not only the facts support it, but also various perspectives on those facts support it. Because facts are also subject to bias. That is, they may seem like simple facts, but memory is subject to emotion and bias, and perhaps we don’t remember that “fact” correctly. When people disagree over events, I’m willing to bet that all sides are not only subject to memory fault, but also with their ability to think intersubjectively about the issues well enough. That is, even if the actual facts are not in dispute, certainly our values, preferences and biases will shade how we skew how those facts interact with the world.

And then all we have is arguments steeped in motivated reasoning, mental health issues conflicting into personality disputes, and rifts with people who do not understand each other. We can do better.

Mental Health

keep-talking-about-mental-healthConcerning mental health, we have a similar problem at hand. The symptoms of mental health concerns are common among all of us, to varying degrees. Even if we are not diagnoseable per se, we may have behavior patterns, emotional issues, or cognitive impairments which cause us to miss seeing important influences on how we perceive and interact with the world. We should all be willing to recognize the symptoms of our behavior, how we are seen by people, and how we can improve.

If you suffer from symptoms consistent with anxiety, depression, or even a personality disorder, then you need to understand how those symptoms effect how you behave and think. You don’t have to be diagnoseable as a borderline to be subject to problems with emotional management, for example. You might not fall under 5 out of the 9 symptoms to learn something about yourself as a person, if you struggle with some of the symptoms.

Consider the difference between having to interact with a person who displays symptoms which cause conflicts but who is aware of them and is trying to solve them, rather than behave defensively and deny or rationalize their behavior as if nothing was wrong. I know that when I have been defensive and have rationalized my behavior, I have caused immense tension for other people. I care about that and I care about my mental health, so I work to overcome such struggles.  Because I know I am capable of rationalization and self-justification, I have to check myself in order to see if I’m not just emotionally or cognitively compromised when I’m in conflict with someone else. Learning how to see past your own biases is perhaps one of the hardest things we have to do, as humans.

Watching someone who is in defensive denial about their behavior is among the most frustrating and powerless positions I have dealt with in my life. For a person to get better, they first have to admit there’s a problem. If they are not willing or able to see the problem, any conversation, criticism, or attempt to help is met with a wall, emotional reactions (feeling “attacked”), or a counter-attack. Combine this with with intelligence and you have a recipe for bullying, enmity, and potential abuse. I’ve seen both sides of this, and we can do better.

 

Please, be willing to look honestly and fully at yourself. Do not merely invite criticism, but hear it. Do not merely argue your case, but try to understand your interlocutor as well. Learn as much as you can about not only logical fallacies but also cognitive biases, memory, self justification, cognitive dissonance, and mental health.  If we all do this more, there will be less drama in the world (wouldn’t that be nice!).

There are genuine causes for personal and cultural rifts. Sometimes, people are just harmful and wrong. But sometimes those narratives we tell ourselves about how terrible someone else is are based in cognitive errors and may be related to mental health concerns. Sometimes, when all sides are a little wrong, we can convince ourselves that it’s just them.

Own your mistakes, try and mitigate our blame of others’ mistakes, and do not allow tribal thinking, self-justification, and anger to shape how we interact with each other. Because even if you have reason to be angry with someone, there is often room to step back and realize why they are angry with you, and what you both might learn from each other if you just stop drowning in your own emotional and cognitive crap. If we fail to do so, we risk exacerbating conflicts rather than potentially solve them.

Of course, I don’t expect some people to hear or understand what I mean here. That might mean that I’m just wrong, but it could also mean that those people are just too biased to comprehend.

More likely, however, is the possibility that I’m a little wrong, and they are a little biased.

I still have to try.