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Posts Tagged ‘Epistemology’

Feb 13 2010

Welcome to another hopelessly oversized post. In the previous two posts I have been talking about truth, and argued that it comes in two shapes, put simply, natural and cultural truth, the former being the accurate representation of mind independent domains of reality, and the latter the relationship between our beliefs and socially constructed domains of reality. In this post I will talk about why I think both of these shapes of truth are, on the whole, irrelevant for the future of human life on this planet. The reasons for this are twofold: even if people wanted to live in truth we could not as ours is a life in epistemological twilight where every assertion is somewhere on a grey scale, and secondly people are not interested in truth as much as their own happiness. Instead of idealistically hoping that truth shall save the world, I want to develop a pragmatic two dimensional epistemology where validity of any idea derives not only from its relationship to the natural and cultural world, but also its relationship to the believer and their behaviour.  I believe that it is from this primary validity the secondary conventional epistemological validity derives its authority.“Truth” as the accurate relationship between an idea and the world should step down and give way to “vitality” as the healthy relationship between the idea and the believer and their behaviour.

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What is a valid belief? What does it mean for a belief to be valid? If it is not valid, should we avoid it? Can invalid beliefs be avoided? Traditionally, that is to say in intellectual traditions, valid ideas are true, assumed to be true or reasonable guesses, and from that outlook has sprung different schools of so called epistemology, i.e. theories about what knowledge is and how to arrive at true knowledge. While the philosopher and scientists were busy trying to clarify those epistemological issues men of real power and influence, politicians, priests and patrons, were busy trying to control what thoughts people actually had. The criteria used by the men in power have never been very aligned with the distinction of what is true of false, but what would benefit their specific purposes. Men of power have always realized that the thoughts of the people have an immense importance and that this importance does not stem from whether they are true or not. That is why more efforts have been made to control people´s thoughts than perhaps anything else. This is so because thoughts have a weight far beyond that of accurate representation of reality. People´s thoughts define their identity and their behaviour. Only a small section of the population is actually interested in finding a true representation of reality. Most people need to feel safe, appreciated, happy and entertained. Because the field of thought is vastly bigger than that covered by truth, validity cannot be limited to the true alone. Ironically however the academic discipline dedicated to establishing validity – epistemology -has been run by that small fraction of the population actually passionate about truth. As much as I personally love truth, I must bow my head to reality and accept that in the life of most people it plays a minor role. So I ask myself, where else can we find validity, and how can we distinguish it from the bad, toxic, false or evil?

Towards a two dimensional  epistemology


There is no pre-established harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of mankind.

Nietzsche

Human All Too Human

Postmodernism is a dead end. That is why it is called post, because it has nothing new to offer, it only points out the faults of modernism. Where modernism believed in absolute foundations, progress, objective truth, postmoderninsm emphasized subjectivity, multiplicity, incompatibility, incommensurability and incompleteness. As a consequence of postmodern philosophy it is common today to hear people talk about having “different truths”, especially when considering the different forms of human life and different beliefs and ambitions people hold. “You cannot compare people´s beliefs”, they say, “since there is no absolute truth and no objective value scale against which to compare”. This is seen as some kind of solution to the challenge that inevitably arises when open-minded people consider the fact that they could have been born anywhere and thus would have held radically different set of beliefs and ambitions they now hold.

The logical undercurrent might, if articulated, go something like

  1. My beliefs are true
  2. My beliefs are shaped by the influences of my childhood
  3. I could have been born anywhere
  4. Hence, all beliefs all people hold are true

If the beliefs and ambitions I hold should have any weight, validity and dignity – else how could I carry on living? – and at the same time I am to respect other cultures and grant them the same privilege, how am I to avoid having to accept beliefs contradictory to mine to be equally valid? If I realize that I am innocent in regards to where I was born, and accept that where I was born determines to a large extent my belief system, am I not forced into to a logical, and often ethical, dilemma? How can I believe it is wrong to stone a thief, and at the same time accept it to be right or true since I could have been born in Saudi Arabia? That means that I have to accept that x is both true and false, not in relation to facts but depending on where I was born. While it can be seem spiritually liberating to take a hyped up version of Kuhn´s incommensurability thesis on a world tour its blessings are short lived. Relativity is illogical at best and paralysing and depressive at worst. It may seem as if postmodernists are trying to democratise epistemology, but I have argued elsewhere how it may very well pave way for fascism. Today I want to set myself up in the crossfire and offer my alternative solution to this dilemma.

Both modern objectivism and postmodern relativism are based on some idea of truth. The former says there is one and that it has it, and the latter that there are many and that it belongs to everybody. I believe the solution lies in rethinking the fundamental problem. Classically knowledge is about finding true descriptions of, and explanations for, facts, and epistemology is concerned with how we know this and what is to be considered valid knowledge. The fundamental question I think we must come back to is why it matters if our knowledge is true if it does not benefit life? Why do we need to know things? What is the purpose of our enquiry? It seems to me the fundamental question for epistemology is not what knowledge is true, but what knowledge makes life better.

Truth deals with the relationship between a statement and a fact, whether objective, socially constructed or private. At the same time a belief is held by a believer, and has an effect on the believer, his behaviour, and thus the environment. A belief is psychoactive, and how it affects the believer is not only dependent on its truth value but the nature of the believer, his social context and present life situation. I am proposing that to move forward intellectually to something that is not just post-something we need to shift our attention away from propositional truth and focus on the pragmatic relationship between the belief and the believer. This dimension of a belief is not logical, but psycho-logical. The validity of beliefs along this second axis should not be judged by its correspondence with facts but by how it affects the believer emotionally and pragmatically at a given moment in time. (Pragma you remember meaning action.) And just like you can think what you like but not act as you like, in so far as beliefs have practical implications, we can judge and compare them.  And we do. Even the most radical postmodern relativist opposes public stoning. We need a two dimensional validity concept that reflects not only the relationship between our ideas and the world, but the relationship between  our ideas and ourselves. Where classical epistemology and both natural science and its postmodern critics operate along the axis of veracity, this second axis I am proposing should judge ideas on their vitality.

vitality

The solution to the logical dilemma above lies in accepting that it is the vitality of an idea that is relative, not its veracity. It is true or false – or neither -, for all people at all times, but it is not equally healthy for all people of all times to believe, and it does not always have the same practical consequences. I can accept that a false idea is vital to someone else, not that it would be true to them and false to me.

Evolutionary Validity: The Vitality of an Idea

“The falseness of a judgement is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating.”
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

“I don´t think false beliefs have Darwinian survival value. …I care about the truth…I want to face reality fair and square.”
Richard Dawkins, Hard Talk

It seems naïve to me to link a species level of knowledge and its capacity for survival. If a species survives, in so far as it is on its own merits, is the decisive factor how it behaves or what it thinks? Is it not obvious that when it comes to survival the only thing that matters is behaviour? Reality exhorts certain inescapable demands on living beings, and unless they behave so as to cope with those demands that is it, end of the line. As far as survival is concerned ideas are important in as much as they affect behaviour. If it is our survival we care about, the first question we have to ask in this context is: Of the ideas that affect our behaviour which ones help us grow stronger and improve our chances of survival? Is it the truthful ones or is there another more important quality they have? It is not hard to see that knowledge and survival does not necessarily go hand in hand. With our knowledge we have built weapons powerful enough to blow ourselves to pieces some 30 times over (I realize it would be hard to do it more than once). By the same token, if we thought we could fly and threw ourselves off a cliff we would also die. Hence it is not the truthfulness of the ideas that matters, but whether or not they lead to advantageous behaviour.

Thus my first definition of epistemological vitality is: An idea is valid if it helps to improve the believer’s chances of survival.

That would be a rudimentary form of validity and intuitively I feel that the validity of truth is rather a derivative from this primary form of validity. As it stand it is very crude. At first this seems to be a fine definition, but on further consideration it becomes problematic since there is nothing stopping an epistemology and morality based in mere survival casting Hitler and Pol Pot as superheroes. From the point of view of mere survival by any means, there is the same kind of validity in a way of thinking that supports survival as in using a weapon or a tool, but we want to consider the human situation as a whole, from a more civilized stance. We want to see if rethinking what epistemological validity is could help improve healthy human coexistence. Postmodern relativity, even if it is motivated by tolerance, really offers nothing to the party. If I have to accept whatever is acceptable to another culture then genocide must be OK as well. Hitler was democratically elected remember. Human values are not all relative nor arbitrary, and while there is multiplicity and vast variety, at the very least tolerance is one of those universal human values. If postmodern relativity was right why would we not also have to tolerate intolerance? Because there is a line, and that line is the demarcation between what is crossculturally acceptable and what is not, and that is where epistemological vitality lives.

A more civilised definition of epistemological vitality would be: An idea is valid if it helps to improve the believer´s chances of survival without having destructive influence on the believer´s coexistence with others.

Such a definition is not neutral, it does not pretend to hide behind “truth” as a shield. In the world we now live in, a world with clashing civilisations, I believe we need to modify our concept of validity and accept that as long as a way of thinking does not lead to destructive behaviour it is valid. Outside my café window in Dubai are two groups of women: one all covered in black showing only their eyes, the others showing virtually everything but the D&G covered eyes. They coexist and tolerate each other. Yesterday across the gulf, Iran declared itself a nuclear state, and thereby sped up what Koestler saw as the final countdown for humanity. Since the moment mankind learnt about nuclear reactions it was inevitable that one day nuclear technology would be widespread and easily accessible. That day is here. Knowledge is not neutral and therefore it is cowardice to pretend epistemology does not have ethical, ecological and psychological dimensions. The diplomatic postmodern efforts to apologetically relativise truth leads to as state where no one is right or wrong, and that is paralysing. If instead we evaluate the validity of ideas from a pragmatic stand point, we can still compare cultures and beliefs, still establish what is better and worse, without depriving people of the religious myths that tie them together and give their lives meaning. This kind of pragmatism is not a new approach and it was developed a lot a century ago in the US by the likes of John Dewey and William James. For James an idea was true in so far as it was useful, or expedient. This is where it went wrong I think. That an idea is useful does not make it true, it makes it useful, but false ideas can be equally useful depending on the purpose. Advertising agencies, corporate, religious and political powers all use false ideas and find them highly useful. Both postmodern relativism and James´ pragmatism are trying to expand epistemological validity. James famously wrote a massive study on the Varieties of Religious Experience, and was defending the will to believe as something positive. I fully agree with the motive behind both of these movements, namely to expand what is valid or worthy of consideration to include all forms of human experience. I think it is defeating that purpose however when it is trying to achieve that by hijacking the concepts of truth and reality. Truth is not relative and it is not whatever happens to be expedient. Experiences and beliefs can be valid even if they are delusional from a scientific or even common sense point of view. To realize why this must be so one only has to consider how much of human life is made up of pure fictions.

Reality & Actuality

If you look up reality and actuality in the Oxford Dictionary it says they mean the same thing, but as a matter of fact they have different etymological roots and histories. Reality comes from latin res, thing, thus reality is the world of things. Actuality on the other hand come from latin agere, to act, and hence means that which acts. When it comes to human beings, what makes us act is clearly not just the world of things, but equally the world of ideas, whether those be naturally or reflexively true or false. If reality is how the world is in itself, actuality is how we make it out to be. It is not a new distinction. The Greeks called reality  logos, and actuality mythos, the Hindus divided into brahman and maya, and philosophers have a long tradition of analysing the real thing from the perceived thing. The world we inhabit have variously been called a cave (Plato, 400BC), the world of phenomena (Kant,1781), the life world (Husserl,1919), socially constructed, the matrix etc., and each tradition describes the structure and development differently.

Politicians have long known that truth and reality are irrelevant to society. It is what people believe that makes all the difference. In his influential book Public Opinion (1922) Walter Lippmann, the American journalist and adviser to president Woodrow Wilson, writes:

“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts. [All human behavior has got] one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. /…/ what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results. “

There is one reality with different domains – natural, cultural and personal – but what we act on is not a true image of it, but our beliefs about it. On the whole those beliefs are not based in our own first hand experience but in what others have told us. Myths, folklore, disinformation, fiction are all mixed up with facts, scientific theories and honest testimonies. Between us and reality there is this pseudo-environment that seems impenetrable.

For Lippmann the pseudo-environment is made up of stereotypes, which he coined in the modern meaning of a simplified symbol with only limited correspondence to the complex facts it refers to.

“In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

But modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. “

Even if there is an inevitable layer between us and reality, and that in that our actions are based, what is to say the psuedo-environment is not an accurate reflection of how the world really is? There are two reasons why actuality is not reality. The first is that we have imperfect knowledge. In the domain of things we can know our knowledge is tainted by all kinds of human frailties, ignorance, breakdown of communication, misunderstanding, manipulation etc. These “problems” of knowledge and information are being addressed in our modern academic world, but apart from the in-principle-knowable there is the entire domain of the unknowable which will never match up well with reality. There are at least three types of unknowables,

  1. the transcendental: that which is beyond the grasp of our minds and nervous system
  2. the missed opportunities: we can never know what would have happened if so and so had not happened
  3. the future: not yet accessible, not yet understood, the unforeseen.

Since humanity will not live forever in practice there will always be unknowns of all three types. This means we cannot know reality even if we wanted to. My basic assumption however is that we are epistemologically greedy, we want or need to “know” more than we can possibly know. Hence we fill the gap with guesswork, stories and myths, or we have it filled for us by someone else and the tradition we are born into.

The reason we need to have more ideas than the information available to us can vouch for, is something vastly underestimated: the psychoactive function of ideas. We use ideas as Prozac to cope with the essential tension and our fear of uncertainty. We feel our happiness depends on having an identity, even though whatever we identify with is bound to be fictional. It may be the idea of a country, a god, a profession, a football team or a marriage, but they are all mental constructs we use to overlay reality with our view of the world, how we want the world to be. We are emotional beings and our thoughts are driven by our fears and desires. There are entire metaphysical belief systems constructed out of pure air just to make us feel more important than we suspect we are. Our need for myths will not go away, as society is a patchwork woven out of our fabrications. When facts come knocking on the door we still prefer to live in denial. Very few individuals are prepared to give up their beliefs because reality tells them otherwise. Susan Blackmore, a Bristol based paranormal researcher is one of them.

“Imagine this … Imagine a world in which if you love someone enough, or need them enough, your minds will communicate across the world wherever you are, regardless of space and time. Imagine a world in which, if only you can think a thought clearly and powerfully enough it can take on a life of its own, moving objects and influencing the outcome of events far away. Imagine a world in which each of us has a special inner core – a ‘real self’ – that makes us who we are, that can think and move independently of our coarse physical body, and that ultimately survives death, giving meaning to our otherwise short and pointless lives. This is (roughly speaking) how most people think the world is. It is how I used to think -and even hope – that the world is. I devoted 25 years of my life to trying to find out whether it is.  Now I have given up.

If any one of these three possibilities turned out to be true then the world is a fundamentally different place from the one we think we know, and much of our science would have to be overthrown. /…/ I am often accosted by people who seem to think that I think as follows:-  (Note – I don’t!) “I am a scientist. I know the truth about the universe from reading my science books. I know that telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and life after death are impossible. I don’t want to see any evidence that they exist. I am terrified that I might be wrong.” The way I really think is more like this “I am a scientist. I think the way to the truth is by investigation. I suspect that telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and life after death do not exist because I have been looking in vain for them for 25 years. I have been wrong lots of times before and am not afraid of it”.

I long ago threw out my own previous beliefs in a soul, telepathy and an astral world, but even then I kept on searching for evidence that my new skepticism was misplaced, and for new theories that might explain the paranormal if it existed (Blackmore, 1996). I kept doing experiments and investigating claims of psychic powers. Finally I have given up that too.

One of the reasons I have given up is probably a trivial and selfish one – that I have simply had enough of fighting the same old battles, of endlessly being accused of being scared of the truth or even of trying to suppress the truth; of being told that if I don’t come and investigate x (my near-death experience, my psychic twin, Edgar Cayce, the miracle of Lourdes, D.D.Hume, or the haunted pub round the corner) that proves I have a closed mind. It doesn’t. It only proves that after years of searching for paranormal phenomena and not finding them, I am no longer prepared to spend my precious time and limited energy in documenting yet another NDE, setting up more carefully designed experiments to test telepathy in twins, going over all the reams of published argument about Cayce, Lourdes or Hume, or sitting up all night waiting for the ghost that (because I am a psi-inhibitory experimenter) will never come.”

Why are we so reluctant to accept reality? Fundamentally because we are afraid to discover that we are worthless in the universe as portrayed by science. We are afraid of reality, and suspect it might not make us feel good. Our well-being depends on us feeling important and nothing in science seems to feed into our need to be in the centre of the world.

Psychological Validity: Therapeutic Myths

“Siempre hay algo que te auyda adelante, no importa tan mal estes.”

Alcoholic in the street of Granada.

“I think the world is constantly improving, and that overall we are always moving towards more and more democracy”.

From some conversation

“I believe that if you really want to do something the world will help you make it happen”.

Paulo Coehlo

In general, the way I am trying to think about epistemology is from a medical point of view. Thoughts are not abstract representations, they are integral parts of the human organism, and they guide our emotional life and our behaviour. Only a naïve religious view of the universe would maintain that a true image of reality can guarantee well-being for all. What ideas help to improve mental health and personal growth is different for different people, at different moments and different stages in life. At the recent disaster the people of Haiti were encouraged to look for consolation in their faith. Even in such a moment when it must be hardest to believe it may save people from total psychological breakdown. A doctor would not prescribe the same drug to every patient at all times, likewise you do not console children and adults in the same way.

An idea is valid if it increases the mental health of the believer.

Religious people want a God that

  • created the world with us in mind,
  • is sociable, listens to and cares for each one of us, and
  • can change and break the laws of nature as of when it pleases him.

Are these beliefs true? No, not unless everything else we know about the universe is wrong. Even a short introduction course in modern cosmology and a pinch of probability theory makes it painfully apparent what a tall order this is. Even for an infinite and omniscient intelligence it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen even 5 minutes from now and stacking tiny uncertainties on top of each other a few billion times no one, divine or otherwise, could have predicted the exact appearance of the human race. Furthermore, given not only opposing desires between people, but even opposing desires inside a person, the most caring God imaginable could not always satisfy the needs of one person without doing harm, either to another or the same person. And finally, if a law of nature is broken once and in one location, all other laws are broken in all other locations as well as they are all connected. As a matter of fact, there could be no laws at all if they could break. I cannot see how such a God could exist.

Are such beliefs psychologically valid? Absolutely. People with strong reality anxiety need to have firm opinions about things about which we cannot know.  Like a placebo has no active ingredient, an idea needs to have no resemblance to truth to have a healthy effect on the believer. I think the aim of human existence for the time being is to achieve sustainable happy living for as many as possible, and I am prone to believe that myths and outright fabrications will always play a crucial part in that drama.

The Red or the Blue Pill

I hear you object: “Seeing our myths were born at a time when we did not know much about the world, is not the obvious road ahead that people should simply discard their superstitious fictions in favour of more accurate models of the universe? Is the solution not one where people instead of rewriting their myths adapt to reality as it is?” Our environment is different from that of any other animal. The reality to which we would need to adapt involves nebulous objects to which we cannot adapt as they are intrinsically unknowable. Part of the human world is both anticipation of the future, psychological reflexive guesswork and metaphysical imagination, neither of which have concrete determined facts for objects. Animals on the whole do not ponder their own death, theorize about what others are thinking (particularly not about them) or if the universe was designed with any particular purpose in mind. Reality is not a mechanical clockwork but is made up of natural, historical and personal times unfolding in unpredictable and self-referential ways. How do we adapt to a reality we help create? Should I for instance adapt myself to a social reality where people are collaborating or where they only look after themselves? Both are possible but they depend on what others adapt to. Should I adapt to a personal reality where I am insignificant and disposable or one where we I am appreciated and unique? Again, both are possible ways of reading most of our lives, but each reading helps bring about a different story.

Furthermore, there are at least two different red pills to swallow: first to accept natural reality and secondly to accept social reality. The former would include at least accepting as a possibility that humans have no value in the universe, and that if we blow ourselves up that is just one less noise to be heard in our galaxy. The latter would mean to really emotionally take in the injustices that exist in society. Things like:

  • The nasty people without conscience make the money the rest need.
  • The people with the least empathy can climb over others and become their leaders.
  • The people with the least to say shout the loudest.
  • The people with the sickest lives make the headlines.
  • The people who need love the most are least likely to get it.

My point is that the Matrix is trying to make it black or white, when in fact it is not. They also cast those who knowingly choose to believe in myths as evil. Again, it is how you behave, not what you believe that matters.

Political Validity: Reflexive Potentials and Auxiliary Beliefs

Our behaviour is the bridge between the imaginary world we live in and the natural world around us. Our behaviour is the converter, the actualiser, between our more or less true beliefs, and our environment. Just like a diesel engine can run on a variety of combustible fuels human behaviour can run on all sorts of beliefs. Our minds live in actuality but our bodies live in reality and thus the consequences of acting based on a false belief are real. So how come we survive? Why is there not more of a “break in the texture”? I know two things, a) we believe in things that are not there and b) we are alive, thus we have survived. That means it is possible to live happily in a fiction. I assume we could have gone extinct by now had we lived by beliefs whose ecological consequences were so grave that we would have destroyed the basis of our own survival. Beliefs with destructive consequences can be false, but they do not need to be. Is there a limit to how deluded I can be and still survive? If those beliefs are tied to behaviour yes. The outer limit would be the limit of evolutionary validity.

If we reverse this thinking, instead of asking “how deluded can we be and still survive?” we can ask, “could our survival be dependent on us believing in myths?” According to chaos theory the future of any complex open system is undecided and dependent on tiny changes. Each change feeds back into the system and opens up a different set of possibilities. For conscious agents certain future potentials only exist if they are aware of them. You only have a choice if you are conscious of having one. There is no such thing as an unconscious choice. Therefore our future depend to a large extent on our beliefs about the future. The future is made up to a large extent of reflexive potentials. Following the logic developed around evolutionary validity however we can ask whether the belief about a future potential needs to be true or not for it to really exist. I would maintain that beliefs about the future cannot be true or false, but can be more or less realistic. Thus does the future potential depends on a realistic belief? Do I need to believe I can win X-factor to be able to win X-factor? It is unlikely, but not unthinkable, that I would enter the competition without believing I stood a chance, but maybe I did it as a joke. In reality I need to enter the competition and impress the judges, but in my actuality perhaps I believe I won because God wanted me to. Without feeling God on my side I would never have overcome the nerves to enter. My belief in God would then be an auxiliary belief for this reflexive potential to exist. If I was a willing suicide bomber, without my belief in a life after death I would not be prepared to blow myself up. Can we come out of the financial crisis without believing that we can? It seems to me that many potentials depend on auxiliary beliefs to actually exist. Those beliefs do not need to be realistic, but they can nevertheless open up certain potentials that would otherwise not exist. This is getting a bit technical. Sorry.

Say that you were the political leader of the world, and you realised that unless people changed their ways they would suffer catastrophic consequences. At the same time you realized that no amount of rational persuasion or simple educational campaign had the necessary practical effect. Would it then be valid for you to manipulate people to believe in lies if that was the only way you could make them change their ways? What if your vision gave them meaning? What if there was a purpose everyone could buy into, that tallied up with scientific facts and still could be boosted by endless mythologisations and artistic creations? I can think of a purpose that would blow all other purposes out of the water, something that is universal, something every healthy human being should care about, something that would, if taken to heart, change most political policies. In my mind I can think of no higher purpose than the well-being of our grandchildren. Make that your new religion, give the well-being of our grandchildren a God, a marketing campaign, a lobby, a TV station, preachers and priests, print T-shirts, make dolls and dollars. You might ask why our grandchildren would be more precious than us currently living? I don´t think they are, but they will suffer the consequences of our current stupidity, and I think we are too immature, irrational and weak to make the sacrifices required without something transcendental, something beyond ourselves that give our lives a direction and meaning.

Black Lies & La Via Negativa

I am not really suggesting the intellectual and political elite should invent any myths so as to manipulate the masses. History is paved with those skeletons already. It seems leaders tend not to be very good, and cannot be trusted to be as wise as Plato would have wished. Moreover I think political validity needs to be treated separately from psychological vitality since the demands of transparency, truth, scientific accuracy, honesty and accuracy that citizens can demand of the state are not the same as anyone can demand of an individual. The more I think about validity and what are healthy thoughts the harder it gets to find clear definitions and criteria. It seems to me it is almost impossible to say for sure if a line of thinking will lead to positive or negative consequences, and whether that can even be established without first defining whose well-being we are concerned with. One man´s bread and all that. Instead of trying to establish exactly what thoughts are healthy I do think it is a lot easier to establish what thoughts are unhealthy. Just like Popper realised it is easier to prove something false than it is to prove it true, it is easier to prove a belief unhealthy than to positively healthy. I am saying this because I believe that the role of intellectuals should not be to ram their wisdom down the throats of those with a simpler constitution but to try to identify when certain lines of thought definitely go astray. People do not have time to think, and the mental food they get is shallow and controlled. Currently the intelligentia is engaged in getting the non-thinkers to consume. How much of the mental capacity of mankind is applied to actually making the world better and for us to solve real problems? If critically minded people acted as filter against sick ideas the world would be a better place. When people start to act aggressively and destructively something is likely to be sick in their belief system as well. Just like wealth does not produce happiness, does poverty not produce destructiveness. Something more is required. When China is warning the West from even talking to one of the most peaceful man in the world, and when Iran is arresting citizens for expressing their opinions and blocking their access to information, then something is not right. That is the subject of the next post…whenever I get the time.

I leave you with some questions that probably will keep me busy for the rest of my life. If you can answer them for me I will send you a jar of pickled herring.

  • Would life be better if people were forced to give up their myths?
  • Is there dangerous knowledge?
  • Are there situations where true knowledge can kill?
  • What is the relationship between the delusional belief of a mad man and his hallucination?


For a chance to win an extra mackerel maybe you could have a guess at whether reality is

1.meaningless for humans and we must invent myths to stay sane
2.meaningful but too complex for us to comprehend, therefore we need myths
3.meaningful and comprehensible, no need for delusions
4.meaningless but better to be depressed than delusional

Like I said…your chance to win some juicy fish!

Dec 15 2008

“There is no objective truth and we create our own reality”

This idea has really gained popularity lately, and for a lot of people there is something very appealing about it. It offers freedom from rules and limitations, and by taking back the responsibility for one’s life from the world and say that how you see things is more decisive than how things “are” one is “empowering” the individual. The Western world is full of sofa-bound people who feel despondent and disenfranchised not only from the fame and fortunes of the successful but almost from life itself. To them being born is becoming a victim right from the get go, you are pushed out from a warm cosy womb into a cold and confusing world and it is all downhill from there. How do you restore trust in life in people with that attitude? How do you activate them? One of the American dogmas is that “in order to get success you must believe in yourself”, and thus in order to get people out of their sofas they need to start believing in themselves. How would a group of successful Americans, such as Oprah and  Bob Proctor - the “philosopher” you know – go about restoring people’s faith in themselves, and make a good bit of cash for themselves in the process. Well here is…

The Secret - Fleece the Flock

Essentially The Secret is an ironic commercial where rich people teach poor people how they got rich by believing in themselves, and visualising money pouring in through the door – the irony being that their money came from the same poor people paying for the book. Notice how it speaks in terms of “absolute certanties” and offers simple solutions to all problems. The movie teaches that by visualising your parking space you will make it real, and a change of attitude will even make parking tickets a thing of the past. By exploiting people’s infantile belief in magic these spiritual business people have managed to create their own, very real, get-rich-quick scheme. Hell, if you pay me a million dollar I will teach you the secret of how to get rich quick as well.

The Church of Christ vs The Church of Oprah 

The most influential female spiritual leader in the West today is Oprah and many people watch her and are seduced by the magical message that by positive thinking you attract positive things into your life. Christians are deeply scared of the spread of these New Age ideas, and they try to demonise her as the new Antichrist. This video is a Christian anti-Oprah propaganda movie and as such it really isn’t doing itself any favours as it would only hope to appeal to Bible thumpers. As a desperate last measure, like death twitches of a dying faith, they try to convince us that a desire for peace is a proof of evil, and that by denying that Jesus is the only way Oprah is an instrument of Satan leading people down the path that leads to eternal Hell.

Christians are terrified and revert to warped medieval reasoning: “False teachers stare at Truth but fail to recognize the identity of truth. Jesus himself said, ‘I am truth.’ Thus we know that Truth is an aspect of God Himself. Christianity is the only truth because it is anchored in the Person of Jesus Christ.” However, in a battle in the twilight of spiritual mythology it is not truth that will win but whoever manages to make the greatest emotional appeal. When you have to revert to threats of eternal damnation you are fighting a loosing battle. Oprah on the other hand has many million viewers and joined forces with Obama – the so called O2 effect – and her version of spirituality rings of American optimism and is bound to reap many victories in terms of “minds and hearts”.

The Good News

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential.

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential. In a struggle for world domination Christians and Muslims alike with their insane exclusive adherence to their prophets will only lead to either a new global totalitarianism, or a mutual extinction of us all. In a struggle for tolerance Oprah is fighting the good battle. There is something very important in the relativistic message that highlights how differently people’s perspectives of the world are, and how we do not have access to any neutral ground outside our human-ness.

It is directed towards personal experience and not towards any particular Holy Scripture. This is an intellectual upgrade in comparison with the Abrahamic religions since it stimulates an open ended learning and does not, in theory, surrender to an authority in terms of a priest or a mullah. This is a similar move that science did in terms of rejecting the authority of the state and the church, in favour of reason and empiricism during the Enlightenment, and spiritually it has a very strong Eastern influence. Buddhists seeking personal enlightenment have long since given experience priority in a kind of “see for yourself” approach. It has always been accompanied by methods to get to that personal experience of the divine, and in the same way this new spirituality emphasizes the need for inner development.

It is also very important that people take responsibility for their lives and use the possibilities there are, and it could be argued that any idea that inspires that to happen is simply good. The positive energy in this spiritual teaching could be experienced as a boost of morale and anything that gets people out of their sofas is precious. Pragmatically speaking, if it is good it is true enough. Optimistic and positive people tend to attract other positive people and that good energy spurs opportunities.

The Bad News

The bad news is that it is based on a lie. Perhaps a white lie, but still it just isn’t true that positive thoughts cause changes in the physical or natural world outside the body of the thinker. Actions and the spreading of ideas can produce great changes in society, but not positive thoughts themselves by means of some mythological Law of Attraction. It is a return to magical thinking, i.e. an inability to distinguish between subjective and objective reality and it is a phase children go through before they realise the universe does not revolve around them. Kids can believe they cause bad things by thinking them and they can feel guilty about anything from bad weather to their parents divorce. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget also called this phase preoperational because preschool kids had not yet developed the capacity for logical thinking, and it is supposed to be followed by a stage called conrete operational at about the age of 7. After 21 years in showbusiness Oprah tells Larry King that it was her prayers and positive thoughts that paved her way from a fat, black country girl to a role in the movie The Color Purple and that made her friends with Spielberg and Quincy Jones. She “knows” that she had “drawn” this success into her life. According to cognitive psychology that would imply she has the mental maturity of a preschool child.

While it is directed towards experience it still is neither empirical nor rational. The scientific attitude is different from the religious attitude to life in that a person with a scientific attitude can be proven wrong by experience or argumentation. A person with the religious attitude cannot, in the meaning I give the word. If a religious person prays for some personal benefit X – as they do in all major religions - they will either get it or not. If he gets X it is seen as a proof that God listened. If he does not it just means God did not want him to have it. There is no way of falsifying a belief for a religious person, even if it deals with perfectly knowable things. An openness to experience is not genuinely educational if you don’t really learn from your mistakes. It is one thing being optimistic. Another being a dipstick.

Relativism paves the way for fascism since it undermines critical discussion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant and power is the final judge.

Relativism undermines critical discussions since evidence and arguments have no higher value than any other opinion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant. Things like real atrocities, genocides, climate crisis and the reality of our limited economical and natural resources can be dismissed as matters of interpretation. When evidence and reason have no bearing power is the final judge. Relativism lends itself to fascism because it actively undermines reason, and while it happens to be sold in a packaging promising success in terms of love, sex, business and money, it can be used to promote and justify anything. In a world of complete moral pluralism what is perceived as positive by someone is untouchable by someone else, whether that be abusing children or cutting down the rain forrest. The belief that “with absolute certainty you will attract that which you think about” is deeply and disturbingly paradoxical when thinking about the amount of opposing desires between people and the limited resources we have at our disposal. What if it is the extermination of another race that I aspire to? What is bad about it? Nothing according to this belief system, and a Jew in a German concentration camp must somehow been guilty of attracting this “bad” experience by having bad thoughts. The Nazis were inspired by magical belief in their own superiority, and Himmler allegedly had his personal astrologer.

Tolerance implies a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know.

What does tolerance mean? It implies that there is a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know, and that in the domain of the unknown anyone’s guess is a good as any one elses, at least as long as it works for them and doesn’t hurt anyone else. It does not mean that we have to accept that in the domain of the knowable there is nothing more true or false, better or worse or even uglier or more beautiful. To be tolerant cannot mean one has to give up being reasonable or it will take us right back to the Dark Ages. Irrationality is fertile soil for false gurus and dictators alike. I have discussed this more in the article on The Art of Not Knowing.

While it talks about mind development it is essentially a Western consumerist type of spirituality that is profoundly egotistic, narcissistic and impatient. Do a two week yoga course and get enlightened or your money back. There are a lot of religious virtues in the Abrahamic religions such as patience, dedication, respect, care for your neighbour, help the poor and so on that are lost when the whole self-actualisation generation is making a dash for nirvana as if it were a pair of shoes in the highstreet sale. The frivolousness and shallowness of new Western secular spirituality is stirring up a lot of bad blood in the Middle East, and I see this as a justified reaction to a serious risk of moral collapse.

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”

Zen

Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered ”true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity