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Posts Tagged ‘Agnosticism’

Dec 1 2008

I think the expression “I have an idea” or “I think” is curious. It seems to presuppose that I am the creator of the idea and that it is somehow mine, but when I am honest with myself and try to see where “my” ideas come from I see that almost all come from other people, dead or alive, that have influenced me somehow. At birth I was thrown into a culture that was already there before me, jam packed with contradictory ideas, like a patchwork without an overall pattern. This is the memesoup on which my mind has been raised. Had I been born somewhere else at some other time I would have been profoundly different, and so would my thoughts. 

Sure enough I have my understanding of each idea that has influenced me, and that might be unique to me, but I really can’t take credit for anything much original in what is going on inside my head. There have been of course one or two original ideas that I seem to have “come up with” but even then – from where did they come? Maybe I had a flash of insight which meant that one moment I did not see something with my minds eye and the next I did - but how did I create them? I have no idea. I paid attention. I listened and the universe gave them to me I suppose. A lot of creative people have said the same. Take David Lynch for instance, one of the most original and innovative film-makers ever. In his book on how he gets his creative ideas “Catching the Big Fish” he describes the creative process as one of diving into the inner sea to fish out a new idea. For him that is a daily meditative practice. An effort. “Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The deisre is the bait that pulls those fish in – those ideas.” But Lynch is clear on the point that the ideas come to him, and he often doesn’t know what they mean. After Mulholland Drive there were lots of debates about how to interpret the movie, in fact there is a whole website dedicated only to that and the range of suggestions is staggering. Everything from dream analysis, to meetings with the Devil and parallel universes. Particularly people wonder about what the box and the blue key meant.

Lynch view is: “I don’t have a clue what those are”.

Mullholland Drive

Mullholland Drive

The point here is that Lynch is considered an original thinker. He meditates and contemplates. Most of us are not in the habit of neither. Still we like to think that we think and that thoughts are not just things that happen in us. Ok, so lets do a simple experiment. If indeed there is a thinker that controls the thinking surely it can stop thinking at will no? Try not to think at all for a short moment of say 2 minutes. Look at a watch and try to keep the mind completely silent.


It hasn’t been 2 minutes yet…


No dice?


Oh well. It is tricky, but if one can’t keep concentration for 2 minutes one isn’t much of a thinker. Yes yes you might object, so what? We are not all Platos and Freuds but the phrase ”I think” is just a linguistic construct, a convenient way of talking. No harm in that right? Well I think there might very well be, because as is often the case, this is no linguistic accident. The fact that we say “I think” expresses several dubious assumptions we hold.

  1. There is an I that is the active and responsible thinker
  2. Because you are the thinker you as a person are responsible for you ideas
  3. My identity hinges on my ideas about the world and myself

It thinks in me.

Because we don’t tend to recognize the extent to which we are innocent of our own ideas we get emotionally involved with “our own” opinions. If someone said to us, “you only think so because your mom told you to” we would get offended. “Why, you don’t think I can make up my own damned mind?!” I’m not saying one cannot make one’s mind up, but it’s harder than we tend to think. To me it implies going deeper: Why do I hold a certain belief? Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve for me to believe it? Is it really true? If it is faith more than knowledge, am I free to believe the opposite? If I could not believe anything else, if their is no choice, how is it MY belief?

The number of active critical minds responsible for original ideas is almost insignificant in comparison with those that more or less passively spread those ideas. The amount of fundamental ideas is actually rather limited. There are new cross-breeds and new flavours, but the basic classes of ideas are not as varied as one might imagine.

The linguistically correct way of expressing things in many situations would be to say:”In Joe it thinks that a horse shoe over the door brings luck.” Joe didn’t invent this idea, he wouldn’t claim it as his, and he probably couldn’t have come up with it even if he tried. He is probably living in a culture in which this belief is common, and perhaps he hasn’t even reflected on it. He feels he belongs to that group and the horse shoe might be just “one of those things one does”. It was part of his memesoup as a symbol of belonging, like a flag. 

“It thinks in me” rings weird at first, but when I introspect that seems to be what happens often. Psychosynthesis has developed this other way of speaking that reflects this insight. Instead of saying I think A and B one often say: ”There is a part of me that thinks A, and another part that thinks B.” That opens up a space for exploration and clears out the emotional need to defend my ideas. Ultimately I am not responsible for being born and why should I defend all the beliefs I have been fed?

Another consequence of the expression “I think” is obviously “you think” and “you are wrong”. When there is no separation between the person and the idea in language, it makes it very difficult to separate them in practice. A person comes to represent the idea – for better and for worse. Agreeing or disagreeing with someone is often a matter of liking or disliking the person more that the idea. Do we trust them? If so we tend to agree with what they say. Do we adore them? They can make us believe anything. Do we dislike them, then it hardly matters what they will say and we will disagree. It seems to me that in general, if we really want to understand someone we can. When we say we don’t understand someone, we are often indirectly saying that we don’t like them.

Anything with which I identify myself controls me.

These kinds of considerations helped to foster the ideal of the rational debate. Traditional authority, personal preference, unquestioned opinions, twisting the opponents words, seeing only what one wants to see, etc. all of these were summoned up in the contemptible concept “subjective” and not fit for a genuine debate. In fair debates we should be able to justify our beliefs with arguments, but not all kinds of arguments qualify. To argue ad hominem for instance is not accepted i.e. to use arguments about the personal character of the opponent. Like “You are an alcoholic, therefore you cannot be trusted and your claim X is false” or “What you say is not true because your middle name is Hussein, and that sounds fishy to me”.  The truth value of X of course cannot be settled with such rhetorical “tricks”. These ideals still govern academia, wikipedia and the political parliaments but they are very difficult to adhere to. (Check out these tragic fist fights in parliaments for instance.) The difficulty stems from, I think (I doubt it is my original thought actually), the whole issue of personal identity and that as long as we think we think, we identify ourselves with whatever happens to be thought in us. And we treat others the same way, which is why we feel we should punch them in the face when they are wrong.

Anxious juice maker

How is it possible for us to identify with an idea? It is amazingly curious the whole thing.  Fascinatingly puzzling and uniquely human. If a juice maker could think would it believe it was an orange? Will computers get upset when we no longer use Windows? 

If we call an idea a “thing” it is a curious thing, so odd indeed that many philosophers believe they live in a whole different world, a 3rd world beyond the physical and mental. Be that as it may, but they are not ordinary things in so far as they always point to something other than themselves. An idea about a thing is not the thing itself. It points to it. And then we come around, jump on that idea and say that we are it! Huh?! The idea that there is a heaven, or karma or reincarnation or whatever, points to something “otherworldly”. It is this “pointing to” that gives it meaning, and that makes it “not-a-thing”. But as if that wasn’t odd enough already, we come and sit on the poor beast and claim that we are it. I am a Muslim! I am a Marxist. Yes sir, that is what I am. All of it. That is me.

One might object: “If I am not [a Christian, scientist, dentist...] then what am I?” Well, you are what you are. The idea doesn’t change that. Seems to me we don’t know what we are, therefore we feel a need to invent an identity. But the idea we identify with is necessarily something other than what we are. But we don’t know what it is like just to be, so we feel a need to fill the silence with images and words.

In psychosythesis there is an idea that says that anything with which I identify myself controls me, and that I think is the stone in the shoe. There are many practical exercises to disidentify from parts of oneself that help increase the inner space and freedom. Check out this one for instance.

I leave you with another Lynch gem… 

“Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in – your consciousness – you can catch bigger fish.”

Please leave comments and show me how bonkers this all sounds!

Nov 15 2008

When I was 13 I was singing in the village church choir and would happily deliver the most obscure Christian lyrics with the same plastered smile. But I remember this one line that at first I did not understand at all, and that then made me choke as I learnt what it meant. It was taken from the Book of Revelation 3:16 and said that “God would spew the lukewarm out of his mouth.” The choir leader explained to me that lukewarm meant “neither hot, nor cold”, that’s to say neither with God or Us nor with the Devil or Them, and spew really meant that God would vomit such a person out of his mouth.


Art thou lukewarm?

This image made a horrific and lasting impression on me, not primarily because it depicted a most vulgar vomiting God which did not coincide with the glorified image of the divine I had in my head, but more so because it did not make any sense. Had God gone bonkers? Even with a 13 year old’s logic I understood that there was something truly fishy about this. Why would God prefer someone outright evil to someone unsettled or in doubt? Why would God prefer a definitive liar to an honest doubter? If he was “the truth, the way and the life” then surely any honest searcher would eventually get it right and fall into the right faith like a snail into a water well. The only situation in which God would win anything from this vomiting business was if he was hiding something. For all the talk about how OK it was to doubt and question, here it was in black and white: If you seriously doubted God you would become God vomit. There was of course the paradox that if God didn’t exist then he could not spew either, but that was the kind of insight you were not supposed to have. More with my guts then with my bedazzled indoctrinated mind did I realize that a liar stood to benefit most from people not asking any more questions. If there was a truth then jumping to conclusions would only stall the process of finding it out. Why would God be in a rush? It’s not as if it was his time that was running out!

Thinking about it now, God seems not just a little bit neurotic here. The God of the old testament has often been called jealous and angry, but this is at the end of the new testament. If he cannot deal with the undecided why not just do something else?! It’s not like he doesn’t have the rest of the Universe to attend to. Prozac perhaps? A spliff? Maybe he just had a bad day and needs a massage.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

It was with the same gut feeling I listened to the US ex-president saying “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” when going to war on Iraq. What about the undecided? What about the ones feeling they lack sufficient information to make such a choice? Even if one agreed that destructive belief systems were dangerous and called for action, how could anyone imagine that you could bomb them away without creating even more enemies? Does not wanting to fight fire with fire make you a terrorist? No, but causing 1,288,426 of Iraqi deaths does.

Dichotomization and forced choice is something most totalitarian organisations have in common, and while that may serve the purpose of domination they do not lead to truth about the world nor a clear conscience.