The fundamental heresy

Why it matters

If we invent (most of) our reality, does it make a difference what we believe? Isn’t it like choosing your favourite colour?

For some questions, maybe. For others, not. Suppose that preferring blue over red could make you happier. Suppose that our cultural bias towards red causes conflict, wars, and misery.  Suppose that by favouring blue we could move towards peace. Wouldn’t you try to get used to blue?

I shall not argue that blue is better. Or that there is a higher truth to red = bad. But I shall show you that all your life you have been brainwashed to prefer red, and encourage you to try, just for a moment, to move towards  blue. Who knows, you may get to like it. And you can always go back to red, if you prefer.

The fundamental belief

Stated below is one of the basic tenets of Christian philosophy, the fundament of occidental culture. You encounter these ideas a hundred times a day. You may never even have thought of this as a question. And still the answer you unwittingly give has the most profound effect on your life.

There is Good. There is Evil. As humans we know the difference, and must choose between them.

In more detail:

  1. Suffering comes from evil.
  2. Innocence is the basic human condition. The roots of evil lie hidden.
  3. The other is different from us, an evil and dissembling creature.
  4. When they see the error of their ways, those who do evil can be saved. Confession and penitence are the road to salvation.
  5. Cure (for society) lies in the eradication of hidden evil.
  6. There is one absolute truth.

Now suppose that were not true.

I think it’s the small stake that worries Bertie most.

The tragic view

  1. Suffering is an essential part of life.
  2. Human motivation is multi-layered. Bad acts often stem from positive qualities or motivations.
  3. The other is similar to us.
  4. When we understand why someone acts the way they do, we can find ways to help them change their behaviour, or ways to protect ourselves from that behaviour.
  5. The ubiquity of suffering requires acceptance, compassion and consolation.
  6. There can be different, equally valid points of view.

Alon/Omer, see below, call this the tragic view, and the fire-and-brimstone one the demonic view.

Unfamiliar ideas

This way of thinking may seem unfamiliar, awkward. It certainly goes against <insert age here> years of brainwashing. You don’t think you’ve been brainwashed? Compare how often you’ve heard:

  • The bastard, he really deserves to be punished.
  • Who does she think she is?
    vs.
  • Well, I don’t like what she did, but I guess that was the best she could do.
  • I suppose he must really be in a difficult situation, if it makes him act like that.

So the second kind of thinking feels unfamiliar, maybe even just plain wrong, because you’ve rarely or never done it, or heard it. Each time you think a thought it becomes easier, and seems more plausible, but that doesn’t make it true.

Right or wrong?

Neither view is right or wrong: they are different ways of interpreting the world. There are some arguments against the demonic view, like its basic lack of symmetry: I am good, you are bad, I am right, you are wrong, see the irregular verbs. There also reasons why it’s helpful to adopt the tragic view. More another day.

Recommended Reading
Alon, Nahi & Haim Omer. The Psychology of Demonization, Promoting Acceptance and Reducing Conflict. NJ: Erlbaum, 2006.

Why God invented free will

What is free will, anyway? Here some ways of seeing it._____

Free decision _____
“If we went back to a situation and faced it again, we could go another way.”
This is simply meaningless. As Heraclitus already knew, you cannot bathe in the same river twice._____

Unpredictability _____
“Before we decide, it could go either way.”
Recent findings suggest that someone looking at your brain can see what you will decide, before you become aware of it.
More relevantly, simple factors are good predictors of our lives._____

Changeability _____
“If we go through the same type of situations again and again, we can make different decisions.”
No, we can’t. No matter how badly we want to change our behaviour, as long as the situations remain the same (for us), we tend to make the same bad decisions over and over.
What we can do, is change the situation. Often by changing the way we think about it. Therapy types that change how we think about a situation are the ones that seem to be most helpful. ___

Harm avoiders ____
“We can take measures to avoid bad things we see coming.”
Undoubtedly. In fact, we cannot do otherwise.
Call that freedom? Prisoners of the world: you are free. Well, free to remain in your cells.

Manual override 
Why do we actually want free will? Who wants to bother with all the little stuff: breathe in, breathe out, lift foot, blink eyes…?
What we want, is to have the power to make the big decisions. Especially when our actions seem to go against what we think we want. Then we want a “manual override” button, to do as we choose.

We are simply not aware of many of the factors going into the decision making process. An override button might do more harm than good. Anyway, why should our conscious self be allowed to skew the decision in its favour?

But it feels like I’m deciding 
Someone told Wittgenstein that people had thought the sun revolves around the earth “because it looked that way”. He is said to have asked: “But how would it have looked if the earth revolved around the sun?”
Now, how would it feel if you were not consciously deciding? Of course, “you” do decide. It’s just not a part of you that is in the spotlight of conscious awareness.

Where does that leave us?

Our decision making process is largely an unconscious one. Our cognitive brain may be asked for an analysis of the situation, but that’s it. Our conscious justifications come after the fact. There is an “out”: when we are too unhappy with our decision making, this triggers conscious reflection and we can take steps to improve.

German philosopher Schmidt-Salomon says: we are free to act according to our desires, but not free to choose what we desire (here).
Good enough for me.

Thought experiment on anger

Why is the free-will question so important, especially if reality is bunk, anyway? Do this thought experiment:

Step 1: Choose a situation in your life, where someone made you really angry. Angry, not devastated; no murders etc.

Don’t read on until you’ve chosen. “Person A did X, and that really pissed me off.”

Continue reading

Voices in my head

I want to sit down and write this post. At the same I really don’t feel like it at the moment, I’d much rather go on watching…Dr.Who, I’m afraid. But I do really want to write these Heresy posts. After all, that was why I started this blog.

Is this inconsistent of me? Yes, it is. We humans are inconsistent. All the time. But for some reason, we’ve learnt to pretend we are consistent. I’m sure psychologists have a name for it. It’s also held up to us as some kind of value and we tend to be embarrassed about being inconsistent.

When we look at it closely, though, there is absolutely no reason why we should be consistent. Our minds are made of millions and millions of brain circuits, which are more or less independent of one another. It is inevitable that conflicting emotions, desires, fears, and needs  coexist in my brain and pull me in different directions all the time.

The point I want to make today is that we need to listen to these conflicting thoughts. It is not a good idea to sweep any of them under the carpet. We don’t need to act on all of them, indeed we cannot, as there are far too many. But give them some space, allow them to be there. Each thought is a part of me, I want to honour every one. They do not all go together: I want to accept, that I cannot follow all of them.

Peace and quiet

If I consider each of these impulses as an interested party, and let each of them have their say, they also listen to each other. Then maybe an amicable agreement can be reached among them about what I am actually going to do. This may sound slightly loony, but I believe it is a better way of making choices, than by filtering the impulses, i.e. suppressing some at the start, or by sitting in judgement over them: which are worthy, unworthy, important, or not.

I cannot follow all impulses, but when I do act, I act as one physical human being, and I carry all the “dissenting” brain circuits with me. So if any one of them feels too unhappy about what I’m doing, chances are that they’ll let me know. Dealing gently with them to start with – giving them space and allowing sadness over the fact that I cannot act on all of them –  can minimise how badly the “dissenting circuits”, and therefore I, feel.

So no: I am not calling myself lazy because I want to go on watching Dr. Who. Or a spoilsport for wanting to get some writing done. I simply have different needs: one for relaxation and fun, one for putting some ideas down in writing, maybe gaining some clarity for myself. They are all good, all part of me. And I am quite happy with the compromise of jotting down a draft now, and doing a drawing and some polishing tomorrow.

No unhappy circuits for now. Let’s see how the doctor is getting on.

P.S. If I accept the thoughts, all of them, then I just may get the internal chatter to quiet down a bit. If I start censoring, I’m only going to get into an argument with myself – and that’s a sure lose-lose.

Responsibility vs. Blame

I’ve argued before that we are pulled in many different ways by our feelings and needs, and that we do not consciously choose our actions. Also, believing that somebody deliberately chose to act badly is what triggers anger, hatred and blame.

- Heresy n°2 -

Everyone is always doing their best.

While I characterise it as a heresy, it’s not exactly a new idea. Many people reject it because thy are afraid that if noone is to blame for their actions, we will lose any kind of morality, and the basis for social order. In one sense this is true: our current societies are based on blame, and that does go out the window. At the same time we can easily replace it with something better: responsibility.

Blaming is about looking backward, about judging and finding a guilty party. Responsibility looks forward: it is our common responsibility to find a way of living together in peace. Blame is divisive, responsibility binds us together.

Consequences

Adopting Heresy n°2 means we can think in terms of incentives and deterrents. These don’t depend on free will: if an action is connected to a cost or benefit, this becomes a factor in the unconscious decision making process, and influences our behaviour. And we can think about influencing behaviour much more clearly without the fog of concepts like blameworthiness, and just deserts.

Have you ever found yourself defending your own behaviour, although, in your heart of hearts, you were unhappy with it yourself? When we play the blame-game, we are automatically creating opposition. When we say “you are a bad person” to someone, it’s not really surprising that they push back. Suppose instead we say: “I understand you had a good reason to act as you did, at the same time I really don’t like what you did, maybe you aren’t completely happy with it either?” Then maybe together with that person we can find ways to help them act differently in the future, or to prevent the negative consequences of such actions.

Most important of all, when we adopt the idea that everyone is always doing their best we can stop wrestling in our minds with what we think is going on in someone else’s head. Have you ever found yourself repeating an argument you had with someone? Have you ever found yourself wanting to “teach someone a lesson”, or to “show them how it feels”? This is all unpleasant, and it’s not about what really happened, but about what you think is going on inside the other person’s head. When you accept that that person did not choose to act as they did, you can let it go.

Personal slant

There are many ways of expressing Heresy n°2., e.g. “Everyone is acting the only way they can act in the situation as they see it.” I prefer my version “Everyone is always doing their best” because I find it emotionally more appealing. The positive slant makes it easier for me to feel compassion with someone whose actions are getting on my nerves. Of course, everyone is free to find their own way of putting it.

A final test

If you think: “Well that’s all very nice, but it’s not really true, is it?” try this test. Think of something bad that you’ve done, something you are really unhappy with in retrospect. Were you happy and relaxed that day? Was the sun shining, the sky blue, and did you decide to do something bad just for the hell of it?  Or were you under pressure, stressed out, exhausted, afraid, or hurt? Was this something you did because you saw no other way, or you just couldn’t help yourself?

I think you will find that at that moment, under those circumstances you did the best you could, however miserable that best may have been. Now, if you claim this compassion for yourself: how can you deny it to anyone else?

Good samaritans?

Sun

We tend to see actions of others in terms of their characters. An action to us seems to prove someone is kind, or courageous, or selfish. We rarely stop to think about what situation the person is in.

Perhaps one of the most important experiments on human behaviour ever done is Darley & Batson 1973. It suggests that whether or not we help someone in need depends more on what that means to our current situation – in this case the test subjects were in a hurry – than whether or not we are “kind” or “helpful” people.

If we could stop judging people by their actions, and try instead to understand why they act as they do, it could be a whole new world. 

A glorious blaze

Trees are one of my favourite subjects.