Saturday, 11 July 2009

Conclusion to How We are Wrong. Trying to be Right.

What I will propose here is a simple mnemonic to use as a general guide. It might not get us to the truth, but it will help us on the road to it, indeed, it is especially useful in seeing our views and beliefs in context. The tool, more or less comes from Socrates himself, as it is largely based on his Socratic Method.


S - State your position.

E - Evidence

P - Process (how did you come to your conclusion)

A - Alternatives

R - Recap and Review.

1. State you position

What is your belief? What is it you propose? Boil your belief, thoughts or views down to the fundamentals. Come to terms (understanding precisely the use of words and language) not only with yourself but with others. This is another source of value concening this tool - it can be directed at other people. For example, rather than engage someone in an argument where you are not sure that they believe what you think they believe (the epistemic fallacy) - the use of SEPAR, then, wil make youl more likely to find out the real grounds of dispute (if there is real dispute at all).

2.E for evidence.

What evidence do you have for your views? There is, of course, a number of additional questions- what kind of evidence is required to establish such and such? What would verify or falsify the belief? How reliable is the evidence? What source did I get the evidence from? Did I uncover it myself, or did I get it from a source? How reliable then, is the source? Do they (the source) have agendas?

One final note, once again, without going into modal logic, facts should never be disputed unless for very good reason, opinions are opinions and should be treated as such. This is fundamental, but it is something that can get missed. If debate turns on the question of facts - the best thing to do is consult an expert authority or a encyclopaedia or expert text.

3. P for Process.

How did you arrive at your conclusions? Was it a long process of inquiry and discovery, or did it come in a dream say, or a spark of inspiration? Have you, though, spent considerable time pondering the issue at hand? Do you have any recognised expertise on the topic? Have you read the “required” reading in the field? Was your inquiry open-ended or did you already know the answer before you began? Did you start out with an opposite view to that which you ended with?

4. A for Alternatives.

Who opposes you views or beliefs and why? Name two authorities who disagree with you and why they do. Do you believe that you have an accurate and fair understanding of their position? Why then, do you believe they are wrong? Have you got a persuasive "error theory" as to why they are wrong? What evidence would change you mind?

5. R for Recap, Review and Recapitulate.

Pretty much says it all. Review and check your beliefs regularly. Test them and make sure they are up to snuff like a man kicking his tyres. “Seek out argument and disputation for its own sake” and as a means of testing and strengthening your position. Always ask yourself “how can I be wrong?”. Try and be as sure as you can why you think you are right.



Friday, 10 July 2009

Project Eudemonia: Accept Your Limitations and Appreciate Your Strengths

“A mans gots to know his limitations”

- Harry Callahan, Magnum Force

On of they key commandments that Gretchen Rubin has on her happiness blog, is - to be Gretchen -

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.”

Coming to terms with our lives, coming to terms with our fundamental dissatisfaction, our sense of dis-ease, our limitations and disappointments is, I believe, absolutely essential if we are to have clear picture, and a sound purpose of our lives. Gretchen Rubin asks herself why she is sad when she admits to herself that life will be as it is, not, necessarily as she wants it to be -

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!--and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: "The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open." Which means -- at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not -- to acknowledge what I don't encompass.”

“die with your options open”. I like that quip, it is very revealing. Living with doubt and uncertainty is a hard thing to do; likewise, having to make a decision and hence being indecisive is also hard. As my recounting of the story of Buridan's ass shows, we agonise over decisions, because we fear making mistakes, in losing out, in failing. In many ways, our lives aspire to the ideal of NPD - Non Binding Decisions. If something goes wrong we can just press the reset button, we can change ourselves, we can reverse mistakes we made in the past. We can endlessly self improve. We can change, we can attain perfection. Our lives are not perfect and we want them to be perfect. All this, I believe, is a mistake. A corrective, or a way out of this mire is to come to terms: with a sound and realistic understanding of our strengths and weaknesses - our limitations, our lives.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.

Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible -- in fact quite easy -- to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.”

The philosopher AC Grayling notes that human life is less than a thousand months long - so it is imperative that we live life as wisely, and as productively as possible. Productively, as in the cultivation of our strengths, skilfully pursuing our ends, enjoying life and helping other people to enjoy theirs. In many ways, this is intimately tied to my third principle: living with purpose. As Gretchen points out - a life were one does what one loves and doing what one is good at - is going to be a life more likely to be happy. “Rejoice in what you are” she advises. There is only one life, and it is the only one you are living, so live it.

There is one further proposition I wish to offer. Both Aristotle and the Buddha thought that for a happy life a person needs to cultivate excellence in what he or she does. The Buddha prescribed this for lay people wishing to lead the good life, thinking that it was important for a person to cultivate excellence in whatever his living was, both as means to feeding himself, but also for the intrinsic enjoyment of his efforts and skill. Aristotle wrote about arete or excellence. That cultivating our, and especially, harmonising our various abilities, virtues, and excellences, are central to achieving eudemonia.

I think it is, then, important to have a certain pride. Not a pride in the sense of being better than others, but a pride of overcoming weakness and acquiring skill and excellence in one or more of our endeavours. A undertaking of this kind is something that will encompass our entire lives. So I guess we should be more easier on our selves, we are only human after all - we cant do everything, and we cant get everything overnight.

So perhaps then, we should have a “downsized self”. We should be prepared to reject our delusions, our fantasies, even - many of our hopes. Coming to a clear and realistic understanding of ourselves is one of the necessary conditions for appreciating the life that we have, for we are not lost in mental thought, either cursing the present state of affairs, or engaged in some fantasy of what the future might hopefully be. This, no doubt, is not easy, living mindfully is something I try to do, not always successfully, but I try, and I’m getting better at it - and that is the main thing. Gretchen Rubin captures this sentiment well - accepting who we are in this present moment yet striving to improve - “That’s another paradox of happiness: I want to “Be Gretchen,” yet I also want to change myself for the better.”

Quotes from Gretchen at -



Thursday, 9 July 2009

How we are Wrong: Part Five - The Shaming Principle.

The origins of this term lie with the author Lee Harris - "the shaming code". When I first encountered this term“from the Suicide of Reason”, I must admit that I misunderstood it. I was skimming through his book on a pre-reading and read some remarks on this term, it was not the full definition however. Nevertheless, it is the misreading of it that I will be offering here; it has only a slight resemblance to the original term. It was, if you will, a serendipitous mistake.

I will now define what I mean by shaming principle. I intend this to be a psychological term that covers a spectrum of cognitive phenomena relating to experiences we have with our parents, friends and loved ones. A full understanding of this, can, perhaps, be best grasped by an example. First though, let me explore the outer edges of this issue - how people are “wrong” and how it relates to the shaming principle.

I think it can be said with some confidence, that modern education has produced a generation of men and women who are well aware of political correctness. For example, if a teenage boy were to stand up in class and say that black people are all violent or stupid, or that a womans place is in the home; he would almost certainly meet with opposition, both from teachers and fellow pupils. More importantly though, he would be well aware that he would be voicing unpopular views. It would, be fair to say that every person knows the problems with, and general repugnance, of such views. Why then, does racism and sexism continue to exist? There are many factors of course, too many to go into here, however, as I mentioned in my last post, the role that parents and social groups play in determining ones social, political and religious outlook is a very large factor indeed - one that I will be discussing here.

Many times, humanists, liberals and moderates ask themselves this question - how can people believe such nonsense? How can people hold beliefs that are without credible evidence, that are deeply immoral or, are held in the teeth of contradictory evidence? Though there are many factors that we can use to explain these misadventures; I intend to offer an specific error theory.

So, how then can children, who later grow to be adults, hold exactly the same beliefs as their parents, which, to other people seem ridiculous? I believe one of the reasons for this is shame: they do not want to feel ashamed of their parents. For example, we all love our parents, and we, to some degree value their insights and wisdom. Some of us, its true, value our parents wisdom more than others. It should also be said that there is a range of experience that our parents have a greater hold over us, some more so than others. For example, our parents are not likely to greatly influence our thinking when it comes to mathematics or musical taste, however, they are likely to exert influence, directly or indirectly, over politics, ethics and religion. These things, I should not need to say, produce very deep and powerful emotions in people. They are to many, much, much more important than, for example, what subjects one likes at school, or what music one listens to, they are, sometimes, life and death.

Here is my hypothesis: for people to admit to themselves that ones parents are wrong, or even worse, that they hold ridiculous or immoral views, would be to experience feelings of shame and guilt. Doubly so, for they experience shame, both for the fact that their parents hold beliefs that are contrary to reason or majority opinion; and, secondly, they experience shame, for the sole reason that they recognise the shame as shameful. We don’t want to think ill of our parents, and when we do (even slightly or unconsciously), its doubly troubling because that is what we are feeling - and we are not supposed to feel that.

Loyalty and love, and shame, then, are what motivates people to hold outlandish beliefs. In order to avoid the cognitive dissonance of having racist or credulous parents - we practice a method of self deception, and bad faith. There can, also, be a third way that shame operates on us: we don’t want our parents to feel ashamed of us. For example, imagine the shame of Catholic parents, in good standing with their community, having a lesbian daughter, or an atheist son. This leads to people becoming hypocrites and self deceivers, presenting one face to the world and one to themselves. Such a situation, needless to say, is not likely to make for happy men and women.

Daniel Dennett, talks about a similar "shaming" process in relation to people believing in God. Love for ones family and fear of letting loved ones down, can make people outwardly and even inwardly “believe” what is contrary to reason. Family can be a comforting and supportive institution, it can, however, be a oppressing and stultifying one. How then can we overcome this problem?

I would offer similar advice to what I gave in my last post. Namely, that the fact that we can recognise this process, that we spot this happening to us, is - liberating. Being aware of the ways that we can be manipulated (even if, in many cases its unintentional and undirected) into believing things that are ridiculous. When our consciousness is raised, when we see the conjuring tricks laid bare, when the cloak is ripped away - it is a very powerful and liberating insight. But, how do we deal with the painful experiences once we see that we do not share our parents or our friends beliefs?

What I recommend is courage and perseverance. Do not go out of your way to be deliberately provocative and hand waving, but at the same time you must be principled and steadfast in your views and opinions. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. This of course, does not mean you should be obstinate, or dogmatic, be, however, confident in what you believe, and be prepared to defend you views if necessary. This of course, offers little support for people in difficult situations. All I can offer besides sympathy is that, in the long run, it is better to live life according to ones own chosen principles than live a life that was handed down to you by your family or community. In order for a happy, honest and purposeful life, our convictions and principles must be our own. We should develop them by a long process of education and inquiry. Living a life according to ones own principles, is, in the end, refreshing and vital for ones sense of self and ones self respect. For it is impossible to have any respect for oneself if one does not believe, really believe, what one has to profess in public and pretend to believe in private.



Tuesday, 7 July 2009

How can we be Wrong?: Part Four - Moral Paradoxes and Cognitive Illusions.

Here is a infamous thought experiment: a brother and sister decide to sleep together. They agree to do it only once, they practice safe sex; no pregnancy; and crucially, no psychological harm results from the action. They do not do it again, and no one else ever learns what they did. In what sense, then, are they morally at fault? Saying that it is legally wrong and therefore morally wrong is a fallacy. Claiming that because it’s illegal this provides a sufficient reason to oppose it, is also weak; for we can ask, why is it fundamentally wrong? Providing a religious reason, faces many of the similar problems, given the well documented problems that divine authority has faced from moral philosophers: this approach is a dead end. Deontological ethics could provide reasons, reasons, that are not substantial. Utilitarianism then, faces a huge problem: namely that no harm occurred, therefore, it falls outside its abilty to condemn it. How then, can we say this is wrong?

It disgusts us? Though this is a powerful emotion, it does not really provide a convincing reason, namely that this particular action was wrong. Here is, I think, the rub. On a more general level, the reasons why we should not practice incest are strong. However, when we get to particular cases (in this case a fictional incident) we find it hard to specifically justify it being wrong. This gap however, is not one I intend to focus on for present purposes. What I intend to discuss here, is the way our moral intuitions and initial built in “biases” can lead us astray. How - they make us go wrong. How, we just know it feels wrong but cant provide a reason as to why.

Nothing I have said or will say however, should lead you to think that moral intuitions are unimportant. They are important, vital even, but they are just that - intuitions. In the example of the incest thought experiment, there is a very sound biological reason as to why we should not engage in the practice of incest. Furthermore, it makes sense that nature would have selected for organisms who did not engage in the practice. It would also, have weeded out the beings who did engage in it. Though there are lots of examples that I could site of our intuitions going astray;(our ability to easily succumb to authority figures, social pressure, deluded by a person's likeability, our sense indebtedness to favours and so on) I will focus on just one. Namely the tribal trap: in group/out group hostility.

Forty years of scientific research and the long history of human conflict attest to the ease of which humans can be divided against each other. The problem is not just with other groups, but bullying of outsiders, and picking on the lonely individual who is different. Just recently, in my own country, we had the sad example of raciest attacks on Romanians by white supremacists. Just today, as I read the Guardian online, there was reports of ethnic and religious violence in China between two groups. The problem of the tribe and the group will be with us for a long time. What factors however, can help reduce it?

to take a micro approach, I think an enormous importance lies in the upbringing of a child, in curbing tribalism, though it is not an iron cast law: - raciest parents beget raciest children, non raciest parents beget non- raciest children. This is something I will tackle however, in my next post. So what other factors can we discuss? Firstly, as with everything, we should ask ourselves what are the facts? Do we have any reason to be frightened? Do they, the group or set of people have any reason to wish harm to me? If so, what are the options of resolving the problem? Secondly, as a general rule: we should view people as sympathetically and compassionately as possible. Imagine, if we can, circumstances from their standpoint. Thirdly: There may be real problems and disputes, however, we should ask ourselves what is the best time and place for attempting to resolve such things. We should exhaust every other avenue before attempting to resolve things by force.

Though there is many macro or societal level recommendations I could offer, I wish to stick firmly in the micro or personal. Some further recommendations I would offer, would be to become aware and vigilant when tribal or hostile feelings emerge. Bertrand Russell cautioned people, that, when they felt themselves getting angry or upset by reading or encountering something that they disagree with - they should, pay careful attention for it may expose or reveal a flaw in our thinking. Even if this is not so, we should pay careful attention, for if the emotion gets a hold on us, we may be liable to make mistakes in our ability to reason, as a fog of emotions has clouded our eyes. We should closely examine, then, every time we feel threatened and challenged, and ask ourselves - is it reasonable to feel like this?

The final recommendation I would offer: is that we learn and draw from as many sources as possible about the differences and varieties of human life. This is not an endorsement of mindless multiculturalism, far from it, for I think learning about other cultures can actually help us see what is vital and important about our culture. However, what this openness to learning and investigating can do, is leave us with a sense of the universalism of human nature. That many of the same problems and irritations that we face in our own countries are present elsewhere. That, travel and literature and foreign films, can give us a much more realistic picture of our place in the world and In the universe. That we are not special or inherently superior, and in a lot of ways, we are incredibly lucky.



Thursday, 2 July 2009

Do Not Dwell or Be Introverted. Project Eudemonia, Principle Five.

The famous story of Buridan's Ass- a poor old donkey, who starved to death because he could not decide which bale of straw to eat as they were both identical. I have a friend, who can on a whim, spend hundreds of pounds on electronic equipment, yet frets over which bar of chocolate to buy in the local shop. I, myself, spend far too much time attempting to decide what to have for dinner, rather than attend to the more important matters, such as the eternally pressing questions of philosophy or what to do at the weekend.

The relevance here of this fable to the topic I am currently discussing, is how wasteful, and unproductive much of our thinking is, especially when it takes the form of brooding, worrying, introspection. While my above examples are somewhat comical, there is nothing funny about being wracked with chronic indecision and worry about the more existential topics, such as death, love, money, purpose, family, friends, etc etc. Yet, even more for an obsessive thinker like myself, I would have to seriously question the value of applying all the rigour and laser like critical attention to myself and my problems. In my view, I think it is not only wasteful, but harmful, in that one is left in a worse state of mind than before.

What is to be done then? I will be discussing practical thinking in a later blog. In the meantime, however, I would like to mention two things that I have learned from Zen practice. In many ways the spirit of Zen could be neatly described as “just do it”. Charlotte Joko Beck states that “practice” (mindful attention) “is simply maintaining awareness of our activities and also of the thoughts that separate us from them.” The result of such mindfulness, would be a mind liberated from the paralyzing effects of obsessive thinking. You live in the Zen way, you live your live like making the "Zen cup of tea.” You are present in your experience, you observe and notice all the sensations and perceptions, internal and external, that arise, but, you do not become mired, caught, and lost in thought. Your activities become effortless, there is no worry, it’s as simple, as making, a cup of tea.