Tag Archives: dogma

The Difficulties of Discourse

This article originally appeared on Disinfo.com

The futility of political discourse seems all-too-evident in America, whether at the highest levels of power concerning the nonexistent ‘fiscal cliff’ or the debt ceiling, or around the family reunion dinner table concerning guns and health care. Both ‘sides’ are guilty of pseudoscientific claims, misrepresenting the opposition, sowing division with unnecessary ‘othering’, and usually no real clue as to where they actually stand on the issues or why they stand there at all.

Authors like Alex Berezow and Hank CampbellChris Mooney and Jonathan Haidtclaim to have found the secrets behind flawed political brains, usually on the opposite ‘side’ than their own. Many studies and online polls posit to have found the mechanisms by which liberals and conservatives operate; liberals are smarter,conservatives are happierliberals stereotype moreconservatives bow to authority more. While many of these trends can and do show up again and again, it ignores the diversity within and without party lines, the cognitive dissonance along the ideological spectrum, and the subtler reckonings of individual issue orientation. It defies capitulation, conciliation, and compromise. The sweeping generalizations that each ‘side’ usually eschews concerning class, race, religion, gender and sexuality do not seem to apply when considering others in the political landscape.

As Peter Lawler discusses in a recent BigThink post, there is actually a very wide diversity of conservative opinion, some with more depth than others. If we understand the common history, traditions, populist underpinnings and umbrella themes of even widely disparate worldviews, we can begin to work together towards reasonable approaches and solutions to society’s ills.

What’s the big difference between American conservatives and leftist nationalists?  They have different views on how much big government can remedy the excesses of big business.  Another difference concerns their view of the goodness and enduring viability of local institutions and traditional morality.  They actually tend to agree that Marx’s description of capitalism as reducing our freedom to “nothing left to lose” is largely true.  They differ a lot on the goodness and efficacy of some socialist antidote.  From a socialist view, the [The Front Porch Republic] are agrarian reactionaries.  From a Porcher view, the Marxists are irresponsibly “Gnostic” utopians.

Clearly, generalizations and sterotyping are an impediment to progress on either “side”. Even this false dichotomy of language (a relic of the oligarchy’s division tactics and oversimplified media portrayal), contributes to the unhealthy ‘othering‘ that ultimately serves to dehumanize one’s debate opponent. If the other side wants to murder unborn babies, then they are inhuman monsters. If the other side allows people of color to live with poverty and police brutality, then they are heartless misanthropists.

Because, just as with any intellectual pursuit that involves reason, logic, and candor, striving for thorough understanding is hard. It would be much simpler to only intake the sources that validate our reactionary conservatism, religious zealotry, neoconservative militancy, wall street greed and austerity, party cheerleading, progressive utopia, new age psycho-babble, left-wing anarchism, conspiracy theory, or UFO dreamland.

Party affiliation can be deceptive, as can positioning oneself along the political spectrum, rife with overgeneralizations and false associations. Although it’s also inaccurate to outright deny existing on the spectrum at all; the truth lies somewhere in the middle. On issues, you exist more on a web, an amalgam of strands as varied as the visible spectrum of light (and even the invisible, if our mixed metaphor allows for our hidden biases and subconscious belief systems). Taken as a mean, however, it is fair to place yourself somewhere, at least initially for comparison.

So does a progressive have more in common with an anarchist or socialist than a neocon? Do a Democrat and a Republican each have more in common with a centrist or moderate than the radical extremists in their own parties? Do the moderates of each ‘side’ have more they can agree on than the loud and oversampled minority flanking their ranks?

Talking Points Memo highlighted the efforts of a small, but responsible, group of conservatives who are “pro-same-sex marriage, pro-choice, pro-tax Republican activists.” They may be on the rise, as the Tea Partiers whoenergized frenzied the base resulted in embarassing media coverage, abominable policy stances, a fractured party and a disastrous election. The cry to distance themselves may be ‘Everything in Moderation!’, as we all realize that those social issues are always going to be nagging ethical arguments nuanced between us, but that the majority of Americans are actively under attack by unprincipled predators.

Most people honestly believe their delusions and logical fallacies. They came by them honestly. It will only take the incessant jackhammering of facts to break them free. Whether they believe that there is a massive Kenyan conspiracy or that the mushrooms can talk to us, they are not crazy nor liars. The endeavor of discourse, be it personable, in the media, or the national conversation, should aim to correct misconceptions, preconceived notions, and mistakes. We are not concerned with intellectually dishonest actors here. Do not lower yourself into debate with manipulators and charlatans who are mostly concerned with power and greed. They are not usually themselves radicals or revolutionaries, unless they are using and steering such a group for their own self-interests. As a rational, reasonable debater, you will find your considerable efforts at chipping away the hard exterior of an entrenched acolyte to be far easier than dealing with an unremitting fraud. You can pull the former closer to a more moderate position with enough time and work. After all, they believe themselves pursuant to the truth; they have just fallen down a corridor of errors in their search. A liar has no such allegiance.

It is true that what is ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ changes over time. This is not a post-modernist statement endorsing relative morality or truth. It is evident that our national dialogue, and the pandering rhetoric of our elected demogogues, swings over time. There is nothing innate in it that demands it become more progressive or reactionary over time. Other trends such as changing demographics, current events, media, law, those in power gaming the system, and technological transparency help define what the New Normal is. We all contribute to it. We are all in a constant tug-of-war game.

It may be the case that in the grand scheme of the social contract and evolution, we are hardwired by default for authoritarianism, and to conserve the status quo. Think of gene preservation and proliferation and likewise other outlier mutations. But just because something is the popular consensus (logical fallacy: argumentum ad populum) or rules by our leaders (logical fallacy: argument from authority) doesn’t make it right. Likewise, just because something is novel or progressive (logical fallacy: appeal to novelty) doesn’t make it right. It is right because it is right. No, evidence and a factual revelation of how reality works should govern our beliefs and ideology, not the other way around.

We strive as civilized animals for societal progress; to protect the unprotected, to feed the hungry, to clothe the cold, to shelter the homeless, to defend the defenseless. Members in every camp can be reached who feel a sense of justice, fairness, equaility, and civil liberty as part of our American tradition and values. Only those actively working against a righteous human condition need be discounted from the discourse (unfortunately, they are often given center stage, the sensationalist media spotlight, a louder voice within their respective parties than the rest).

And there are a variety of radicals in every camp as well; neoconservatives, tea party conservatives, anarchists, corporatists, new agers, creationists, paleoconservatives, anarchoconservatives, tax protestors, ecoterrorists, corpofascists… Their numbers do not represent the larger percentage of each group (though on specific beliefs, biases and issues, there are predispositions from one group to another). That’s not to say that somebody with some crazy ideas can’t be right every once in a blue moon (see: Alex Jones or Terence McKenna), or that their outsider theories may not hold a kernal of interesting truth. A broken clock is right twice a day, and a logically fallacious argument can still happen to be right coincidentally.

Of course, given two theories, one should not simply report on both and say the middle ground is accurate. This is what has allowed climate change denialists to voice their ‘relative truth’ to an uncritical and overly open-minded media in defiance of the overwhelming and reliably tested scientific consensus (not to be confused with popular consensus or sentiment). The right has its fair share of creationist loonies and neoliberal acolytes. And the left has plenty of crystal-worshipping, anti-vaxxer, alternative cancer cure morons as well. It seems too silly to argue which unsubstantiated claims are more damaging to scientific advancement and public policy. We all have our false dogmas, and they all damage us all.

Proposed or theoretical truths are subject to analysis, and should be eviscerated by criticism, replicated by study after study, and broken down into underlying mechanistic principles. Only after these theories hold up (be they scientific, economic, legal or political), only then should they be added to ‘The Canon.’ The Canon, despite its strict title, is ever changing, ever flowing with both the passage of time, new discoveries and contemporary understanding.

If the austerians believe that we should continue to empower the rich (“the engines of the economy”) at the expense of the poor and middle classes, then theirs should not be the default prevailing Beltway wisdom. The burden of proof is on their economic religious dogma to bear that out, especially considering how disastrous the practiced results of just such strategies have been worldwide. If any policy-maker or pundit honestly believes the inane bullshit that comes out of their pieholes, they should be exposed to harsh skepticism. They may be honestly deceived (or self-deluded), or they may themselves be revealed as a deceiver.

The onus is on all of us to research understand the arguments we are making. Just as it is inappropriate to attack Chris Christie based on his weight (logical fallacy: ad hominem), bear the responsibility of understanding a religion before criticizing its adherents, whether fundamentalist Christian, zionist Jew or radical Muslim. Explore the finer points of your debate opponent’s political philosophy by forcing them to delve into their deepest motivations, cited sources, and logical mechanisms. Who knows? You might alter your stance a bit as well.

Challenge entrenched and unfounded belief systems, especially your own. Do so with a relentless fervor, sincerely try to falsify yourself and above all be rational, be reasonable! Learn the rules of argument and logical fallacies so that you can identify when they are employed against you, by either frauds or self-deluded. Turn the incisiveSocratic Method against all claims, but do so patiently and peaceably. Make it known when you are only playing Devil’s Advocate for the sake of comprehension. Question relentlessly and mercilessly, but also earnestly and nonjudgementally. This will force someone to defend themselves not from your close-mindedness, but from critical-thinking and logic itself. It may reduce them to tears. It may change minds. It might just change the world.

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How would you like to start a religion?

In Alain de Botton’s recent book; Religion for Atheists, the School of Life philosopher argues the benefits of religious thinking. He points out that the shared values in humanist philosophy and religion are not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the structures and traditions of each may be useful in creating a society that we can all agree is good and moral, regardless of their personal God (or lack of one).

Big Think – Alain de Botton “Religion for Atheists”

Those with brilliant acumen for realizing the essential effects of religious and spiritual thinking, as well as skeptical and critical thinking, should use every tool to navigate an otherwise trapped society ruled by charlatan plutarchs and snake-oil salesmen.

Tim Mawson has argued that atheists need to pray in an open-ended fashion, at the very least as a personal experiment to falsify the possibility of one’s own spiritual pantheon. Or is this a dubious step down the path to belief, activating and placating the God delusion parts of the brain? Or can a sufficiently intelligent brain maintain the divisions between outwardly-seeming contradictory systems of thought? Though Richard Dawkins would ask ‘what’s the point?’, many others ask ‘what’s the harm?’

Or as Kadam Morten (teacher in the New Kadampa tradition of Buddhism) explains, the neuro and cognitive sciences have shown an increasing benefit to the sustained practice of meditation, which can permanently change the structure of the brain and improve attentional capacity. Buddhists belief in the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things – a kind of unified theory of everything, and that all of reality is a distortion, which is echoed in the disconnect we know exists between physical reality, our sense organs, and the brain that illusorily compartmentalizes our experiences. Morten reminds us that the human capacity for love, compassion, peace, apology, happiness and joy all live in the brain, and can be understood through the lens of both spirituality or scientific discovery.

Since we all seem to be wired for belief, whatever the survival mechanism that brought us to this point, these instincts have clearly had a massive impact on religion, art, society, ethics and emotion. And while the corroborative neural pathways in humans and other animals can tell us a lot about brain evolution, the more subjective questions of emotion may always be beyond our grasp. How could we ever fully understand what emotion an animal is feeling, or even apply the human words we’ve developed with our own electrochemical impulses? But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be more informed, more literate, in our empathic roles as researchers and investigators and thinkers.

Some of these questions are (as yet) unfalsifiable, which makes them useless to science, but not necessarily to our growth and adaptability as humans. Provided there is no conflict with the current model of scientific knowledge, the Canon, then perhaps the ever-evolving systems of religious and spiritual thinking in our history can also build into a productive model of social utility.

But reconciling the physical world of hard science and metaphysical speculation is nothing new, and the brain is certainly capable of maintaining multiple worldviews.

When Einstein referred to his God, he was referring to Spinoza’s God. Indeed, when Richard Dawkins denies God, he refers implicitly to the God of traditional theology, and not Spinoza’s being of infinite attributes… or being itself. In so doing, the Big Bang can be the creation myth, empirical discovery becomes our theology, the laws of physics our forms of magick, and the Heat Death of the Universe becomes analogous to the Eschaton.

The Philosopher’s Zone – Beth Lord “Spinoza’s God”

This is not to say that science is based on belief, that creationism is in any way equitable to evolution, that quantum physics can by extrapolated on the macro-scale to justify mystical flim-flam, or that energized memory crystals can infuse the power of intention to transform reality into the magical alternate version you desire. Some things are simply false notions.

Atheists are still the most hated and distrusted group in America, despite being on average just as moral and law-abiding as any random religious adherent (and certainly more than some I could mention). Reason and philosophy have different aims from religion, the extent to which these various factors rule our lives and interact and cooperate with each other partly determining the kind of person we will be.

Theists do battle with atheists, atheists fight right back, many religions disenfranchise or discriminate against others, while some atheists belittle agnostics and others whose beliefs and opinions differ from their own.

The false dichotomy has it that people on the right behave and believe irrationally, and that those on the left are amoral heathens. But what if all parties involved transcended their petty differences to find those sticking similarities? How could we organize our communities, nations, and minds in such ways as to accept the verifiable truths found in science, and the infinitely complex beings we believe keep us thinking, going, doing, feeling, and helping?

Lest we forget that our great American experiment was started by a group of deists, who believed in a necessary first cause but were otherwise largely agnostic regarding the idea of an interventionist Creator. They believed that intellectual pursuit, discourse, and hard work were what built a nation, not an affinity to ghosts and clouds. True, while many of the groups that came to America to escape religious persecution and indoctrination were more puritanical, many others rightly splintered from them. Splitters.

Even Scientology, which is only fifty-eight years old and is largely regarded as a cult of science-fiction quackery, has spawned a reform movement of former members now disillusioned by the Church, but still firm believers in the metaphysical benefits they receive through their form of worship:

Marty was given intensive auditing, carried out lengthy meditation exercises, and at one point during a “communication drill” in which he had to silently stare into a counsellor’s eyes for an hour, underwent what he calls an “out-of-body” experience. “I literally exteriorised from my body,” he says. “It was incredible. It changed everything.”

The tools of science reveal that meditation alters brain-wave states, ritual belief and thinking change the dosage of electro-chemical impulses, and fasting raises the user’s perceptional awareness and focus. All this without the drama of a a bullying god, danger of fraud such as dying in a sweat lodge under some nincompoop new age guru, myopic prejudice rendered by dogmatic interpretations, or tithing your savings to a theocorporate entity.

Perhaps a truly superintelligent being (AI, extraterrestrial, extradimensional, god-like, or ourselves in the near future) would need to explore an infinitely rich tapestry of realities involving scientific discovery, spiritual self-reflection, psychoanalysis and even experimental psychedelic use.

“It has to do with your own intelligence. Truly stupid people aren’t interested in psychedelics because they can’t figure out what the point of it is. It feeds off intelligence. It’s a consciousness-expanding drug. If you don’t have any consciousness you can’t expand it.”

-Terence McKenna

And while an extreme intelligence would be largely unpredictable, given that its parameters for growth and survival would be very different than our mortal comprehension, it is useful to note that no strategy or resource would go ignored or unconsidered. It should go without saying, but often goes unnoticed, that a diverse set experiences, techniques and modalities for thinking will yield a more well-rounded, intellectual individual with wider options and resources for problem solving and deep reflection. We may even reach a point in our development towards super-intelligence that allows us to induce analytical or spiritual thinking, psychedelic or profound experiences all at will, depending on what suits our present needs.

Science is still the greatest tool we have for discovering the truth about the physical world, and neuroscience may bring us answers in the coming centuries concerning our elusive and dated conceptions of consciousness and self.

But epistemology and metaphysics aside, the most pressing and useful marriage of these techniques and schools of thought could further the higher order ethics usually found in humanist philosophies, and in the desire utilitarianism of Alonzo Fyfe, as “the idea that morality involves using praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.” This empirical system defines ‘general good‘, which can be either true or false, and the more specific ‘moral good‘:

“A good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad desire is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.”

It uses relational values in such a way to determine a moral realism and not a moral relativism, in the same way that, say, distance can be both relative and definitely quantifiable at the same time. This would seem to result in a society that pursues civil libertarian values that do not adversely affect the lives of others, while rejecting both the individual subjectivism of psychotics and narcissists, and any desires based on fictional precepts such as neo-conservatism or fundamentalist dogma. In other words, such a system of ethics avoids the dangers of both populist and oligarchical power-mongering based on false notions. It, like other rational forms of philosophy and political science, would allow religious followers to worship as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. This would seem simple and American enough, and perhaps such a reasonable approach may one day replace the heated rhetoric and violent passion of theocratic conflict.

Conversations From the Pale Blue Dot – Alonzo Fyfe “Desire Utilitarianism”

In the realm of the secular sciences, peace is already being wedged into the Middle East, with cooperative endeavors such as SESAME, or Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications, which has been bringing together physicists from Israel and Egypt and Jordan, and perhaps eventually Iran.

Culture codes, languages and biases cannot be changed overnight. But perhaps the ongoing reformation (of art, science, philosophy, and religion) can utilize these ideas to bridge the gaps in these disparate fields. As we can see, they all have vital importance to operating minds, and we need only to overcome the contrived conflicts that have arisen through ignorance, but that may otherwise doom us with their obstinacy.