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Jul 30 2010

Wheat fields near Châteauroux

Surrounded by yellow wheat fields I feel a rush of exhilaration, I find myself singing and laughing inside the helmet. I am filled with a bubbly joy as I have spent the day driving at random, wherever I felt, following tiny country roads, through forests and past lakes, more or less heading north. It’s always good not to loose your sense of north. A guide book told me Montrésor, une des plus belles villages de France, should be somewhere around here, and I was lucky to come across it. It is a stunning village with a castle belonging to the late Polish comte Xavier Branicki, in which his descendants are still living. From a fountain in the garden of Xavier Bendickis castle I would like to have a bash at convincing you why philosophy is good, not only the individual but for society at large.

With inner freedom you can be free in a jail.

So what is philosophy? For me it is not primarily about a quest for truth, or love for truth. It is about freedom. Freedom of mind. Without inner freedom there is no freedom, and with inner freedom you can be free in a jail. What is a free mind? It is a mind that does not depend on crutches of certainty. A mind willing to follow through to the logical conclusion and prepared change opinion in light of new insights. A mind that can look at things from different angles, and never assumes that there is only one right answer. A mind that knows there are good arguments for and against everything. A mind that does not mistake familiarity for understanding. Philosophy is one of many  roads that can lead you there.

New thoughts appear in cracks.

Philosophy is not about intelligence. Many very intelligent people have been unphilosophical and done some horrible things based on their certainties. Obviously it helps to have a natural ability to see things in perspective, but even the brightest minds need inspiration. Impressions are the food for thought. A society where people mostly consume the same impressions will have like-minded people. It is very hard to have a free mind there. New thoughts appear in cracks, when bits don’t fit together, where the story doesn’t make sense. If everything is the same there are few cracks. If there is no contrast it is very hard to think as you have nothing to compare with. This may seem trivial but it is actually what makes it all possible. In a society where most people share the same beliefs and values it is very hard to think. It is no coincidence that multiplicity and innovation coincide.

Château de Montrésor

People are not expected too think.

In the way the world is organised today people are not expected too think to much. They are not meant to feel responsible for what happens in or with the world. Even in the most democratic societies the extent of ordinary citizens’ participation in the decision making process is a nod left or right every fourth year.

Comte Xavier Branicki's weapons

The alternative ways of looking at things have been limited to a manageable two. People are expected to work and consume and leave the big decisions to those in charge. Seen that way it is amazing we have made it this far since we have been riding on the brain power of a few privileged families. (Maybe the lack of human control over nature has been our saving grace?) In so far as history has been orchestrated by humans it has been possible because the world has been, for most of its history, fairly predictable. I am not talking about famine and the black plague, but people’s positions and possibilities in society. If you were born into a potter’s family you would end up a potter. The rich could make deals between themselves and make sure the wealth stayed within the right famililies.

...sumptuous feasts with Napoléon

Take this Château de Montrésor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, leading families such as the Bourdeilles and the Beauvilliers lived in the castle. “In 1849, Xavier Branicki, a rich Polish count and friend of emperor Napoleon III, arrived to give new life to Montrésor…the house was the setting for sumptuous feasts with Napoléon.” I somehow doubt I would have been invited to those feasts.

In a predictable world it has been possible for a few to control much of what has happened (although I would not underestimate the skill, knowledge and courage it would take to do so). Now however, the world is too complex for anyone to fully grasp.

The world is fundamentally out of control.

Even if old models have worked to reduce suffering and increase the standard of living for the world, we no longer know where things are going. The world economy is not run by a small elite. It is run by millions of people moving their money at a whim, and in a blind stampede capital can move from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of seconds. Consumerism will not slow down, and hence neither will global warming. People refuse to become more rational, and in a century the population this planet needs to support will have quadrupled. Do you think we are headed for less wars? Do you think religion will help diplomatic negotiations? Would you leave the future of this planet in the hands of a few leading men?

Enter the castle

If our world was hanging in a rope over an abyss it would all depend on the strength of that one rope.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

The only successful way of dealing with the unpredictable is to be prepared for anything. The wealth of a society could be defined by its multiplicity. A society rich in multiplicity is likely to find solutions among some of its members. A healthy, future-proof society is  one with a great many free thinking people exploring many different ways of living. For the first time in history collective thinking is possible. For the first time ever, truly innovative ideas can flourish and spread without any financial obstacles. In essence philosophy is good for a changing world because it inspires free thinking.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

What's in it for me?

-”I catch your drift, but apart from saving the world, what’s in it for me?” I am surprised to hear a voice in the garden, and even more so one that replies to my thoughts. I turn my head and stare at the fountain sculpture of a little boy.

-”Philosophy makes my head hurt. Why should I bother?” he continues. It takes me a moment to regroup.

-”Well, for starters you would never feel lonely again. Or bored for that matter.”

-”How is that?”, he asks.

-”You would be entertained by your own company as you would always have something interesting to think about.”

-”What is interesting about what old men thought about questions without answers? Where are the special effects dude? If I am bored I choose Mad Men over Nietzsche anytime.”

-”Interesting choice of entertainment”, I reply, “because that is exactly where the creative intellectual elite has ended up – in the info- or entertainment industry. They work as speech writers for politicians or copy writers for soap adverts or some such. Whatever the profession they are likely to be engaged in selling you some stuff. It is safe to say they do not have your best interests at heart. You are surrounded by the best poets, orators, artists and musicians, and, adhering to the rules of our liberal consumerist society, they excel at seducing and persuading you. They are not evil. They just don’t care about you. They are paid to make you care about what they want you to care about. And they are good at it. They are better than you. They are the best. Those that don’t succeed are fired. Thus, the most obvious reason why a critical mind is good is to look after your own well-being.”

Philosophy good stuffed

-”Oooooooooooooohhh dear! Poor me! Are you suggesting philosophy is good for my own well-being? If I am not mistaken Herr Nietzsche turned quite a mad man himself. The list of intellectuals who have been killed, committed suicide, gone mad or spent time in prison is quite off the charts. Socrates, Jesus, Galilei, Rousseau, Lorca, Russell, Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel, TuringKoestler, Nash…”

-”These were all highly sensitive people, so they got more affected by what they saw and realized. They lived in times where dissent was punished by death, imprisonment or excommunication. But is philosophy to blame for that? Is it not the fact that the society surrounding these people was not philosophical enough that caused their misfortunes? After the aristocracy had eliminated them they turned them into martyrs and named streets after them. I am sure there are thousands of other great thinkers whose ideas were eliminated in time.  Today it is not like that. Because of the achievements of dissenters there is a free world where you can think for yourself and express your opinions without risking punishment. ”

-”Exactly! I am living in the free world. I am not manipulated. Things have changed. We are living the dream.”

-”Yes, you are living a dream, like Carlin says, because you got to be asleep to believe you are free.”

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!

Feb 14 2009

The door of my house in Granada is padded with metal and I had never given it any thought until an old lady that was born here 82 years ago came knocking and told stories about what happened here in the late 30ies. Some thugs came by one night she said and poured petrol on the door and was just about to set the house on fire when in the last minute they decided to leave the house with children alone and instead burn down the church at the mirador San Nicolas. Her father thus padded the door and all the windows so as to give them time to put out a fire should it happen again.

The most horrific crimes have been committed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause.

All over Spain there are discoloured bullet holes in the facades of beautiful old Gothic buildings and the horrific stories about mass-executions and farmers being shot through the eyes have an air of incredibility about them given the sublime beauty of the landscape today and the peaceful, fun loving mentality of the Andalusians I know. But the most horrific things humans have done are not crimes of individuals. The deaths caused by them are almost insignificant in comparison with the crimes performed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause, be that the Nation, the Leader, the Religion or the Ideology.

Perhaps no one has been more marked by the seeming irrational bestiality of humans and at the same time done so much to try to comprehend, explain and fight against it as the Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler. Just like Orwell, Hemingway and many European intellectuals at the time. Koestler came to Spain to fight against the Franco lead fascists 1936 and onwards.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler

The whole notion that a group of poets would run to the trenches in the front lines of another country is bizarre and very hard to understand for us today. What did they expect to achieve? Were they going to read at the enemy!? In order to understand this intellectual mobilisation it is important to realize the role played by Spain and what was perceived as being at stake. The Spanish Civil war between 36-39 was the stage for the battle between the public and the ruling aristocratic minority. In 1931 through general election there was established the Second Spanish Republic that granted citizens, including women, the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the abdication of the king. It was fundamentally a progressive step for justice, from a plutocratic feudal society with widespread poverty to something akin to modern democracy. One of the problems was that while the “public” agreed that the state should be separate from the church and workers given more rights, there was great disagreement about how the state should be organised. Spain was a melting pot of communists, anarchists, fascists, monarchists, and was internationally seen as a war by proxy between the old aristocratic capitalist ideology and Russian backed communism. Catalonia was mainly socialist or communist. Malaga was the strong-hold of the anarchists (but being anarchists they had problems of organisation and fell quite easily to Franco’s troops). The internal disagreements between the political parties representing “the people” was probably one of the reasons why Franco could rise to power and mobilise a coup d’etat with the unholy alliance between the aristocracy, the church and the guardia civil. Thus Spain was perceived as having immense symbolic value for the whole of Europe as the struggle between a frail democracy and an aristocratic fascist regime. Franco’s mass-execution in the bullring in Badajoz and the air-bombings of Madrid were the precursors of the way the WW II would be fought.

Although some intellectuals like Hemingway did take to arms in the struggle, their role was to “make themselves useful” and indeed reading propaganda to the soldiers to boost morale. Koestler’s role was different, and the nail-bitingly dramatic story that lead him to be imprisoned with a death sentence in Seville is utterly thrilling. He was 31 years old and had been working in Berlin as a journalist, and was secretly working for the communist propaganda organisation with its headquarters in Paris. At the time of the news of Franco conquering Seville, he was however utterly depressed due to disillusions with communism in practice and personal failures as a writer, and was living in absolute poverty in a hayloft outside Paris writing on some anti-fascist book. Upon hearing the news he went to the head of the communist propaganda organisation, Willy Münzenberg, and asked to be sent to fight in the war. Willy finding the idea of a journalist fiddling with a gun a waste had a moment of inspiration and suggested that Koestler would instead go as a journalist and try to achieve an interview with Franco, with the implicit mission to establish proof that the fascists were breaking the international non-intervention agreement and were in fact receiving support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. At this time it was denied by all three countries and UK and France did not take the threat seriously. Koestler was fixed up with a fake cover as a journalist for two fascist sympathising news papers, was given more money than he had ever seen in his life and given an elegant suit. He was to enter Spain via boat to Lisbon, but by an over-sight on his part when he arrived in Lisbon his real Hungarian passport had expired and he was sent to the Hungarian consulate.

Quipo de Llano

Queipo de Llano

By a fortunate (or unfortunate), twist of events, the Hungarian consul was friends with the Franco aristocracy living in exile in Lisbon. Koestler was thus invited to a posh party in a casino and from a hayloft he suddenly finds himself buying drinks out of the communist wallet for the Marques de Quintanar, the Dutchess Vega de so-and-so, and when someone suggests a toast to the Hungarian Regent Koestler reciprocates by drinking to the health of General Franco. The most extraordinary thing is that he is introduced to no one less than Franco’s brother, Nicolas Franco, from whom he obtains a priceless document called Safe-Conduct, describing him as a reliable friend of he National Revolution that leads him all the way to Seville and grants him a personal interview with Franco’s head general in Seville – General Queipo de Llano.

Me on the road

A crucial event happens on his third day in Seville, and takes place in the allegedly famous Hotel Cristina. Having lived in Seville for a year and a half I did not know of any such place and I was curious to see if I could track it down. A couple of days ago I was invited by an old friend, a flamenco dancer that was just having her solo debut in one of the main theatres in Seville, to come down for a visit and I thought I could drive down on my bike, enjoy the flamenco and try to locate the Hotel Cristina. There is next to no info online, but it was supposed to be central, so after a bit of research and asking older people that were likely to remember such an illustrious place I managed to find the Hotel where Nazi pilots stayed in 1936. I learn that it was completely rebuilt in 1983, but while the inside is private residencies only the exterior is kept exactly as it was. One señora now living there told me: “Si, si, esto era Hotel Cristina. Aqui ibamos a bailar despues de las bodas”. The building is the yellow complex between five star hotel Alfonso XIII and El Torre del Oro where you find the modern US equivalent of cultural achievment…the McDonalds, and as it turns out about 100m away from where I used to live. Back then foreign journalists in Seville were treated with utmost suspicion, and one notorious Captain Bolin of Scandinavian descent was particularly fierce and had put a gun under the nose of a French journalist before he was expelled.

Hotel Cristina

Hotel Cristina

Any journalist entering Hotel Cristina was instantly suspected a spy since mainly Nazis lived there. As for proof of German support of Franco, it was not hard to come by as the Swastika uniforms were everywhere to be found. Against his better judgement Koestler still decides to enter Cristina and finds a group of Nazi airmen sitting by a table in the lounge bar. He walks up to the bar and orders a sherry, when suddenly his gaze is met by one of the men at the table – Herr Strindberg, the son of the famous Swedish author August Strindberg. The two had worked together in Berlin some years earlier and Koestler knew instantly that Strindberg had not only recognised him but beyond any doubt could blow his cover. In a moment of irrational panic, he orders another sherry, swallows it, and utters loudly:

-”Hello, aren’t you Strindberg?”

Strindberg replies:
-”Excuse me, but I am in a conversation with this gentleman”.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

Koestler then mounts this incredible argument, acting indignantly about Strindberg not having greeted him properly, and when the Nazi officer demands to see his credentials he starts shouting, waving his hands in the air, calling it an insult and demanding that Captain Bolin sets the record straight. By chance the Captain walks through the doors and Koestler carries on with his theatrical tantrum at which the Captain gets pissed off and basically says he could not care less about whether two foreign journalists greeted or not and that they could all fuck off! As the Captain walks out the lounge Koestler also walks off in a strop, and due to the confusion he is not stopped. When back at his hotel, the rumour has spread about what had happened and he is advised to leave at once. He manages to arrange a transport to Gibraltar and crosses the border one hour before the order for his arrest is issued.

Walk along history lane

Avenida de la Constitucion

Back in Paris, his story becomes front page news in both France and UK, and help raise the awareness of the brotherly bond between Hitler and Franco. Koestler return twice more to Spain, first in some secret mission personally requested by the Spanish Foreign Minister to recover some documents in Madrid, and then to report as a war correspondent in Malaga, where he is eventually captured by none other than Captain Bolin himself and is very nearly shot on the spot. Instead he spends three months in the Central Prison in Seville, under death sentence, where Franco had revived vile garotte as a means of execution. The vile garotte was a way of killing someone by screwing a vice into the back of an iron collar, and listening to the screams of his previous cell mates he suffers both extreme anxiety attacks as well as some mystical experiences inspired by Euclid’s proof of infinity. Details about this episode is documented in Dialogue with Death, available to read online.

He is released in exchange for a very beautiful lady from Seville, a wife of a fighter pilot, captured by the opposition. However, Koestler spends time in jail twice more in his lifetime. Once in Le Vernet in France, ironically as a suspected Nazi sympathiser, and in Pentonville prison in London due to lack of the appropriate documents. These were extremely political times, and almost every character in his autobiography dies an unnatural death.

Franco and Hitler alliance

Franco and Hitler alliance

I reread his story by the beautiful fountain in front of Cristina, where the now car free area is bathing in sunlight and busting with a sublime spring like euphoria. Tourists in horse carriages, students on the year abroad, locals riding the public bicycles whistling along la Avenida de la Consitucion. The Andalusian newspaper El Correo de Andalucia has put up historical front pages along the walk, and with a mildly hopeful smile I notice that someone has thrown a stone through the one declaring the united front of Franco and Hitler.

I will leave you with this gem, and if anyone can understand a word of what Franco is saying about “a movie man” please transcribe it below.

Dec 22 2008

This post is a continuation of The Religious Roots of Science

Sincere and Insincere attacks on Science
I suggest one can classify attacks on the authority of science along an axis of sincerity. Insincere attacks are those that merely aim at undermining science to replace it with their own even worse justified belief system. To this end of the spectrum belong Christians like Bill O’Reily that try to argue that as long as science does not have all the answers he will stick to the old teaching. This kind of criticism is irrelevant and can be dismissed since it just tries to hide the basic message behind a load of hot air, namely that “I don’t care what you say [insert expletive], I will stick to what I already got”. They can never be proven wrong, and feel no need to justify their position with genuine reasons. At the same time we are supposed to respect their belief in talking snakes and virgin births, and not make any jokes about their prophets.

To this end of the spectrum also belong relativists that claim that science is just another belief system, and as such has no greater authority than any other. All views of the world, whether traditional or modern, are equally true. The insincerity of this position stems from the allusion to its own authority and how it is supposed to be somehow exempt from this criticism. I don’t think there are many sincere relativists in the academic world, since everyone that claims something does, implicitly or explicitly, believe in their own authority over someone else’s.  

There is of course also sincere criticism that can be dismissed as irrelevant because it is ignorant, nonsensical or just comical. An example of this could be the feminist Irigaray claim that E=M*C2 is a sexed equation because speed somehow is a masculine attribute. Or the Sokal hoax where a fake article was submitted to a post-modern journal by a physicist, just to see how much bollocks would be printed.

The danger of insincere critics is that they fight dirty. Insincere people don’t hesitate to twist the words of their opponents. The fact that insincerity still dominates the world I think goes a long way to explain the Darwinian Richard Dawkins political choice of “militant atheism”. In  one recent interview he claimed that science had about 95% of the answers to the ultimate human questions, and that it was working on the last 5%. That is a religious or metaphysical statement since there is no way he can know how much knowledge we will, can or even do possess.

In this interview however, I think Dawkins is getting close to being sincere about his faith in science. Anyone knows that being on the defensive often produces a bias, and while Dawkins enemies may be not just inclined towards their faith, but more like spun around it like a cat caught with the tail in the bicycle wheel, he himself is not exempt from this criticism.

The Church of Reason
I would like to outline some criticism that I think is both valid and sincere, that shows that science fundamentally will always have an element of religion in it. I distinguish between the scientific attitude, which adheres to the scientific criteria for knowledge, such as empiricism, accountability, impartiality, rationality, falsifiability, testability etc. and the religious attitude, which is the willingness to hold on to unproved beliefs for emotional benefit or practical necessity. Seeing is Believing vs Believing is Seeing. My point is that these two attitudes are two sides of being human, and they necessarily coexist in all of us - even in Prof. Dawkins.

1. The Rational Delusion - The basis of rationality is always irrational

Rationality as abstract deduction always begins with a set of premisses and is confined to language. It has been proven rationally all the way from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason up to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and later Wittgenstein that rationality can never become a complete system. It will always depend of some basic axioms, both linguistically, logically and epistemologically. It can say that if statement A is true then statement B is true, but how do the statements get their meaning? From the interpretation of them by person X in language L. Language needs consciousness and culture to have meaning, and while statements can be translated to other languages they ultimately only have meaning to us humans. Concepts mean something by pointing to something other than themselves, some object in the world or another statement perhaps. Even if we could construct a pure and exact logical language where every concept was unambiguous, like the logical positivists dreamt, all concepts still could not derive their meaning from other terms. The basic concepts had to be defined ostensively, by showing what they meant, eg.  like holding up a glass to a child and saying “glass”.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists, or at least that from what we can perceive we will be able to deduce all the rest. But we cannot know the limits of our own perceptive apparatus, because we can never get outside of our own bodies. Nor can we know for sure what other beings, human or otherwise, can and cannot perceive. We always perceive them through our own eyes and the limits of our nervous system. There is nothing irrational with an assumption that our perceived reality is one of many that may exist side by side and perhaps they have been rigged by a demon in such a way that neither our senses nor our intelligence will ever be able to grasp them. There could be a whole brass band of ghosts stomping away in a parallel dimension that we could never have the faintest idea about. We could be cosmically fooled and no amount of science can ever prove that wrong. This is why Descartes felt a need to invoke God exactly as the guarantor that he was not deluded by his senses. By doing away with The God Delusion Dawkins does not even have this consoling basis to lean back on. Not that I think he is left any worse off.

2. The limitations of the superficial sensory universe

Empirical science has a successful track record of explaining the world, but in a sense it has not only limited itself to that which could be attacked with its method, but also tried to limit the world to be only that which could be seen through this method. Almost all sciences are based on the experimental ideal of physics, and even in psychology there are many ridiculous attempts at applying this mathematical model on humans. This example is from Research Design Explained, (Mitchell & Jolley, 1992), where the authors teach us about love:

“Rafael Frank’s (1984) theory of love tells us how love can and cannot be measured. …”

           liking*maturity            sexual attraction
Love = ———————— *20*  ————————
dependency                         age

A formula like that exposes the parody that is academic psychology. Under the banner of “objectivity” and with a shield of statistics the quantitative researcher is proudly presenting his scientific results while the subject matter of his discipline has escaped through the back door and he is left with a pseudo-science with less substance than numerology. There is nothing wrong with numbers and statistics, but they only deal with the superficial, and a social researcher only dealing in that area is more like a tailor measuring an arm for a suit than someone contributing to the genuine understanding of what it means to be human. Sorry to be the one to break it, but no one really wears their heart on their sleeve, it is just a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I have nothing against tailors, but when it comes to interpreting human behaviour and human needs even cab drivers have more of value to say. If the problem of having a clear and simple language that represents easily identifiable objects is a challenge for natural science, it is immensely much more so for the social sciences. You cannot construct a scientific/logical/mathematical language by pretending the elementary concepts are obvious. There are no subjective or cultural facts that tell their own story without interpretation. Say we thought we loved someone only to later realize that guilt was what we really felt. Perhaps months later we again reinterpret the past and find that it was indeed profound love. The above formula will tell us nothing about what we actually have gone through. It pretends to be talking about love, but it is really talking about X as the outcome of whatever other factors you put into the equation. To understand ourselves, other people and human artifacts we must interpret, not just measure surfaces. We give love meaning, just like we give all subjective phenomena meaning. Likewise, cultural artifacts only have meaning to us. Money is only money because for a limited time in history we say it is.

There is no God that guarantees that there is a successful “scientific method” in the subjective and inter-subjective domain just because there was one in the natural sciences. When trying to understand humans and human artifacts it is not at all clear what is scientific and what is not, but operating with this inferiority complex of physics psychology as a science is dead. 

3. Our understanding of ourselves is limited to our metaphors

It has been said that what is uniquely human is our ability to understand something in terms of something else. For us a piece of paper can symbolise value. We learn the meaning of words from the world around us, and then we try to apply them to ourselves. Our language is full to the brim of spatial metaphors we don’t even reflect “over”, and we talk about our mind as being “inside” our head,  we “let someone in”, we are “superficial” or “deep”, we put ourselves “above” others and so on. Of course the mind is not “inside” the head, nor is the world “outside”. These are metaphors we have borrowed from the perceived world (or Euclidean geometry more precisely) because we cannot see ourselves “from above”.

Our understanding of ourselves is limited to the metaphors we have borrowed from the physical world.

It became very fashionable to talk about “the computational mind” and that the brain was a computer. Again, it was just because we found a new metaphor to use. But take three people, and let one of them be you. For science the fact that one of them is you makes no difference at all to any equation or theory. From a scientific perspective, even using subjective enquiry and phenomenology, the fact that one of those three is you is nonexistent. Why? Because we have no metaphor for being oneself. I don’t even think there can be such a metaphor, and it does not feature as a concept in language that I can think of. It is an example of something curious that is both experiential and fully familiar (metaphor) to everyone, yet outside normal language and the scientific method. And what about pure awareness? Is there anything else like it? Some things cannot be put into words. Sometimes it is beacause we cannot point to anything common and tangible to explain it, a specific sense of nostalgia provoked by a fragrance on a Spring walk for instance. But sometimes it is because whatever it is that produces words, is itself part of the universe. In the beginning there was absolutely not the word (to twist the Bible) as the words came quite a bit later and are but tiny parts of existence. Metaphorically speaking the rational faculty is stuck inside the basic Kantian categories like the brain is stuck inside the skull. To claim there is nothing outside language, outside our symbols and metaphors, is both naïve and a sign of grandiose hubris. Everything that appears irrational is not necessarily more primitive than rationality - it may be beyond it – not prerational but transrational. Who promised us that the mind ever be able to understand the mind? God!?

4. Science’ failure to give itself a scientific basis

All this leads up to the conclusion that science as an enterprise is yet another human project, while in many ways superior to previous efforts still very much bound to the limitations of being human. Humanity as a species will disappear one day, and with it science and its theories. Why would the theories of today be the true ones? Science itself cannot answer this, let alone religion. As long as there is no science of psychology there is no science of science. When listening to scientists like Dawkins one gets the impression that science itself is separate from all other human activities and somehow exempt from the need to explain itself as a phenomenon, but it isn’t. Why would human beings be able to get a true understanding of the universe? Science always gets into trouble when it tries to explain its own existence. One can say that the senses and reason are superior to other means of obtaining knowledge of the world, but one cannot use these means themselves to underpin this epistemological claim. One can point to practical and technological superiority yes, but one will never be able to obtain objective scientific knowledge about the minds relationship to the world. It would be like a camera trying to photograph itself or a thought trying to think about itself. However much science strives to arrive at the “view from nowhere” it will always remain our view. It threw out God and now there is no epistemological foundation to appeal to. Its hands are tied.

5. Since religion still exists does it not have survival value? 

According to Dawkins there is both a genetic and memetic evolution – the latter being the considerably faster cultural evolution that happens without any significant genetic mutations. Memetic evolution happens in the form of memes, or cultural elements, ideas, inventions, words, images, etc. all these things that make up culture and that can replicate themselves and spread. Science itself thus belongs to the memetic evolution. An essential element of Dawinian evolution is the idea that anything that remains in natural selection has survival value. Dawkins believes in the survival value of truth, and he is the first to admit that. However, the fact that religion is a universal cultural constant throughout the world for most known history raises the question about the survival value of delusions. Nietzsche was a Darwinian and while he strongly criticized Christianity, he was quick to point out that illusions can have great survival value. (And he did knock out a few of his own.) In natural selection of belief systems in the memesoup, science is not the inevitable survivor. While science may provide enough fascination for affluent rational people, for many the choice is not between truth and illusion, but between hope and disillusion. The need for purpose and hope might be stronger than the desire for intellectual sincerity and truth. If science wins over religious myths, ironically enough it won’t be because of its relative truth value, but on the merits of satisfying our existential needs. If it wins it might be simply because it is the best illusion we have hitherto constructed.

Morally speaking, science tries to describe what is, but what ought to be is essentially an extra-rational, and therefore extra-scientific matter.

One cannot derive an ought from an is.

One cannot derive an ought from an is. Looking at the world from the detached scientific point of view there is no scientific reason to care one way or the other what happens to mankind. Again, the fact that we happen to be us does not make any difference to the equations. If your goals were to exploit and destroy you could use scientific methods and technology and achieve this with utmost rational efficiency. For society at large it is quite possible that a degree of delusion is healthy and that a society without Hell or any Supreme Good could turn not only morally twisted but self-destructive. What is happening in Russia for example, a country that has lost its faith in both God and ideology? Why is it now trying to reinvigorate a nationalistic myth and hailing Stalin as the greatest Russian ever? Is this a desperate search for faith in something? Anything, even a mass-murdering dictator? Why myths exist is not a logical but a psycho-logical question. Why does the concept disillusion not have a positive ring? A degree of self-delusion may be essential to mental health and the rational thing to do, if one wanted to be happy and good, may be to partially live a lie. After all, it is inevitable as the ultimate illusion is the belief that one is beyond all illusions.

Can the idea that science is superior to religion at organising society be tested empirically? Is Dawkins belief that a “mythless life” is somehow superior to a ”religious life” a scientific hypothesis, i.e. falsifiable? Religiously inspired violence comes to mind as simple examples in support of such a thesis, but isn’t science equally vulnerable to some such arguments? Looking at history, was not the Stalinist dream of a scientific Utopia just such a test? It was not Moses in the desert that invented the nuke or the psychological experiments of brainwashing performed by the CIA. It is in the choice of evidence religious bias shows itself. Dawkins says that he is not aware of any evidence that prove that a rationally based culture is any more moral than a traditional religious based culture, but he just “doesn’t want to live a lie”. If he is not aware of any evidence why does he not scientifically explore it? Not wanting to live a lie is a religious ideal as good or bad as any, but before imposing it on others should he not investigate the psychological and sociopolitical implications thereof? Maybe a “mythless life” is better for him, but how would he even test that? It is not like he can become religious for a day just to see. There is recent research to support that the God delusion may make people more moral and function better in society. Studies suggest that “belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous“. Who benefits from a scientific mindset? What societies are mature enough for it? While one can derive any type of morality one wishes from natural science – because there is none obligatory - hedonistic nihilism is definitely near at hand, and technology in the hands of hedonistic nihilists might ultimately lead to our demise. While cave people did not individually live as long as we do, they might end up having been here much longer than we ever will.

Ultimately science has no transcendental epistemological basis to offer itself, and while that makes it rationally inconsistent that is hardly a question that would keep people awake at night. The practical question of science vs religion is more important. I don’t think Dawkins is scientific enough about his own belief in science. I think he is much like an android finding a cable sticking out from its head and not understanding what it is for is wondering whether to unplug it. Until one clearly understands our need for religion simply trying to jerk the cable might do more harm than good. It is hard for a rational mind to believe in fairy tales, and to understand people that need them, but ultimately there are things beyond even the rational mind and its ken. Religion is not all about God, it is also about the Highest Good. How do you replace God with a secular Good? What does Darwin’s self-proclaimed pit bull know about this Brave New World? Well, nothing as it would be an evolutionary ermergence never seen before in human history. On what should this God-like intervention in the course of humanity be based so as to prevent this mutation in the memesphere turn out a freak? A hunch?!

I don’t know. What do you think? Please leave comments.

Dec 21 2008

I think science needs to be understood historically as a reaction against religious epistemology. It was, and still is, a struggle against irrational authority and faulty reasoning. Throughout Western intellectual history it is hard to find thinkers and philosophers that were not religious, and whatever separates science from religion there is bound to be more in common as they are both human quests to answer the big questions.

Learning from Experience
Both extremely religious and extremely scientific people are human – comes as a surprise doesn’t it?! Point is that humans like all other animals learn from experience, whether we want to or not. I do believe that the religious and the scientific attitudes to life are complementary, and coexist in us, but humour me for a moment and allow me to sketch them out as opposite extremes. For a person with the religious attitude it is impossible to have a mistaken belief in God or more specifically how God manifests himself in daily life. The belief in a God is an emotional attachment and daily experiences will only be allowed to either confirm it or be irrelevant to it. This denial however only works up to a point. Some previously religious people can no longer cling on to their beliefs when confronted with extreme evil or injustice, hence the emotional benefit derived from the religious belief no longer compensates for the cost of turning a blind eye to those painful parts of human experience that contradict a belief in Divine Justice and Providence. Historically this challenge to faith goes under the name the Theodicy problem, and it has given rise to many desperate attempts at defending the essentially anti-empirical belief in God. The Devil with a Tail manifests himself when a Christian has been beaten literally sense-less by life itself. In this sense even a desperate believer is a reluctant empiricist, forced by an experiential anomaly to find a new hypothesis to explain and justify the validity of the original belief. The empiricists would only bring this natural animalistic ability to learn from experience to the fore and hail it as the supreme source of knowledge.

Numerology as a Proto-science
Rationality, in the sense of an ability to draw conclusions from premisses, is neither an invention of science nor exclusive to science. “7 is a sacred number and everything in nature is made up of 7. As there are 7 orifices in the head, 7 notes in the musical scale, 7 colours in the rainbow there are 7 planets orbiting the earth.” This kind of reasoning was seen as valid in the Christian tradition, and while the premiss that there are sacred numbers may be false it is still an attempt at drawing some kind of rational conclusion based on an assumption. Numerology is an example of rationalised mythology, and is another way Christianity is close to its alleged opposite Occultism, and the mysticism of Pythagoras, the Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic ilm al-huroof.  (“…it is still common today in some Islamic cultures for potential in-laws to analyze the numerical values associated with the letters of a man and woman’s names to see if the couple will make a suitable match.”)

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality.

It is an attempt at using the rational faculty to find the patterns that connect, and to make predictions thereof.  In a way it can be thought of as proto-science; It has an assumption and to verify it it is searching for evidence that supports it. It is an exclusively corroborative effort, meaning it is only looking to confirm and elaborate some basic ideas, namely that there are sacred numbers and that God arranged the world accordingly. Any example that supports the theory is counted, and anything that contradicts is ignored. In this sense the theory can never be mistaken and it shows why verifiability is insufficient as a scientific ideal. You can find an infinite amount of things that can be grouped into seven it will never prove that seven is a sacred number, nor that there will be exactly seven of something as of yet unknown. The brain is wired to see patterns in things and do what we may we cannot avoid it. We often see meaningful coincidences and synchronicities as evidence of higher purpose and destiny. When this healthy and natural tendency takes delusional forms it is called apophenia, and schizophrenics often claim to see conspiracies and meaningful connections where sane people see only a random events or a bunch things. But this ability to see patterns and to make generalisations from experience is the basis for all empirical knowledge, and again science is just a refined form.

The origin of Accountability – The Rational Debate
If we could not make mistakes and if the world was a simple thing all would be peace and harmony, but alas even within the religious traditions all around the world there would be debates about how to interpret experiences, scriptures, and what predictions were the correct ones. From these disagreements would naturally spring some kind of criteria of accountability, i.e. a demand to be able to give a reason for one’s belief or interpretation. If two people argue and both think they are right, while they might both be mistaken, it is likely that the argumentative energy will dig out a bigger epistemic hole by pushing each other and trying to prove the other wrong. This is only guesswork on my part but I think that the demand for accountability which is central to science comes from these traditional disagreements. From debates would come some norms about what is a justified belief and while there have been many different epistemological school “meta-debating” what qualifies as a justification, gradually having no justification for a belief at all would leave the contender out of the game so to speak. Today this ideal has evolved into the basis for the academic discourse, and it is a pillar of Wikipedia. A contributer says: ”Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a community devoted to producing this encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a corpus of fact, not opinion, not mystic truths. Thus our community must abide within Pirsig’s “Church of Reason” as an academic entity. Logic and rationality alone set the standard for what we do here. To refuse to discuss a topic squarely—to refuse to look the bull straight in the eye—is to forgo all consideration.

Questions of the validity of some authority only arise when there are conflicting views, each claiming authority. It has always been dangerous to oppose authority, and to question faith still today means running the risk of receiving a death threat. That many Muslims have no sense of humour is not a joke if you are a Danish cartoonist. One of the motivations for the scientific ideal of impartiality and objectivity can be understood historically in the context of conflicting interpretations within religious traditions, but also as a necessary neutral hiding grounds for heretics like Copernicus and Galilei. If you risk being beheaded you want to make it a question about the world and not about subjective opinion. You don’t want to be personally responsible for the earth not being at the centre of the universe. Impartiality, objectivity, verifiability, testability, reproducibility – all of these are scientific ideals that probably have religious precursors from times of conflicting “powerdimes”. But apart from generating more reliable knowledge about the material universe I think they can be understood as protections against power abuse.

Religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science.

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality. It had to limit itself to explaining and establishing demonstrative facts, but all reality might not want to wear that dress. Value neutrality, objectivity and impartiality work very well in physics, but not necessarily in social science and humanities. To simplify, religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science. This, I think, is one of the reasons why science still has not be able to replace neither religion nor ideology as the definitive authority in today’s society.    

How Science is not Religion
Science came out of religion and philosophy, and is still struggling to assert its separate identity. Religion is also learning from experience, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It is making generalizations from basic observations and seeks to verify them. It is making predictions about the future. What then is the difference between science and religion? Apart from it having developed those learning abilities it inherited from its religious past, and having self-consciously tried to sacrifice the ballast of irrational authority of holy books etc, the essential difference I think is captured in Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong. As long as a belief that can be proven wrong stands the test of time it can be considered true, or rather nearer to truth than its opponent, i.e. have verisimilitude. The beauty of this idea is that it captures a fundamental asymmetry in our knowledge of the world, namely that we cannot know the truth but we can know what is a lie. Popper was, I think, the first to point out that while we cannot prove a proposition true with any number of observations to support it we can prove it false with a single observation in contra. A numerologist can find new examples of seven every day but it will never prove that nature favours seven over twelve or two or whatever. According to this idea of what scientific knowledge is, the hypothesis that nature favours seven is unscientific and basically unknowable due to how it is formulated. If one said instead that “everything in nature is made up of seven” one could easily prove it wrong by picking up one stone. Falsifiability thus gives us something extremely precious, namely a criterion to help distinguish between the knowable and the unknowable. Science should devote itself to the knowable, and religion the unknowable.

Science still on the defensive
The idea that science should deal with the knowable and religion with the unknowable sounds clear and simple, but in practice it is virtually impossible since the things that mean the most to us, our hopes, needs and symbols, are not facts that can be easily known. Being strictly scientifically scientific and adhering 100% to the falsifiability criterion would limit the scientific enterprise to merely observable phenomena, to simple facts, and exclude the strict scientist from weighting in on anything political or existential. But the very existence of science is a political and existential issue! Why should there be science? Why should we try to solve the small and the big questions? How should we organise society? Should the state fund scientific projects? Science is necessarily based on assumptions that themselves cannot be proved scientifically, and thus there is political or even religious aspects to science. Unless science finds a way of embracing its own religiousness instead of religously denying it the debate is skewed. The ultimate questions need to be solved through honest debates where all the brightest minds work together.

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