Post by Category : Cognition/Epistemology

The Inability to Think

The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.

Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.

Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.

Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!

Daniel: You’re kidding!

Ralph: Have you read it?

Daniel: No…and I never will!

Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?

Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!

Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.

Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.

As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.

The Sands of Time

I was several blocks from home on my Sunday morning run when I realized that I had left my Fitbit at home. I did not turn around and go get it (though that option crossed my mind). Instead I tried to process the implications of its absence. I began to rumininate on self empiricism, magical thinking and the sands of time.

My friend Steve introduced me to the Fitbit. He is a music producer who works at home sitting at a console. The caveat du jour -“Sitting is the new smoking”- got under his skin and prompted his purchase of a wearable tracking device. He knew he was sedentary but when his Fitbit tallied a daily step total many thousands of steps fewer than recommended by the American Heart Association, he was truly shocked. Our psyche cannot be an objective observer or a reliable interpreter of bodily signals. These are the main reasons to contract with a third party to surveill your sorry ass. (n.b. Unlike Facebook, Fitbit is up front about the the fact that it is all about surveillance.) I am in my 7th decade and I jog in order to help me stay in shape to play squash. I do not love to run. As I pound the pavement, I am not filled with the joy of living and eagerly awaiting the rush of endorphins. When I am running my body/mind is always sending me signals to stop the madness. This is when I use my Fitbit. If my heartrate is above 140, I give myself permission to walk it down. If my heartrate is lower, that means I am simply feeling puny and I can accede to the puniness or push through it. Fitbit lets me calibrate my willpower.

To what end, you ask, do I attempt do direct my feckless will? My father lived most of his life feeling the precarity of an elevated heart rate. I have a resting heart rate that varies between 47 and 53 (according to Fitbit). Though I find this information soothing, I believe that only continued exercise will keep me soothed. I am not a cardiologist or an epidemiologist so I have no technical knowledge about any of this. My calculation is simple: the fewer beats per minute, the longer I will last. Magical thinking. I could die of a thousand different causes tomorrow, but today I get to feel like I have some agency in the determination of my life span.

Finally, there is the question of how we verify that a tree has fallen in the woods. My self and my self-conscious self have invited a third party to bear witness to our life. There is now an Other with awareness of my activity; interpreting my bodily signals, comparing them ceaselessly to abstract, objective standards and, finally, archiving them in the Cloud . When that witness is not in its usual observatory, I am no longer counted. I no longer count. There will be no record of my Sunday morning run in the digital Library of Alexandria. My version of Ratso Rizzo- “Hey, I was runnin’here!”- goes unobserved and unremarked. This Sunday’s run will not be immortalized.

Why, then, do it?

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.

Real Life Bares its Teeth

Recently, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man as part of the New School for Analytic Psychology’s Film series. Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell who spent 13 summers camping in the backyard of Alaskan grizzly bears. At the end of his 13th summer, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eaten by a grizzly. Herzog’s documentary stitches together interviews with people who knew Treadwell, Treadwell’s own video selfies and readings from Treadwell’s journal. I saw the film weeks ago and I am still trying to psychically metabolize the dog’s breakfast of emotions it left in me.

Dog’s breakfast part one…
To be perfectly candid, I was mostly repelled by Treadwell. In his last summer in Alaska, I saw him as a vain 46 year old man with a blond Prince Valiant haircut. I watched him giving 1200 pound grizzly bears names (like “Rowdy” and “Mr. Chocolate”), and, from very few feet away, baby-talking to them as if they were skittish Schnauzers. Treadwell was not an autodidact naturalist (like Audobon or Darwin) trying to add his own field observations to the store of human knowledge about grizzlies. Though he filmed himself “living with the grizzlies” and cast himself as their friend and protector, he had no real interest in the bears except in so far as they related to him.

The bears tolerated him for 12 full summers. What I would view as indifference on their part, he took to be growing acceptance. He seemed to see himself as the producer, director and star of his own reality TV show (Timothy’s Love for Bears?). To hear him tell it, his was a grand enterprise. He returned every summer to “protect” the bears (in the protected enclave of Katmai National Park?). He details on camera the terrible damage a bear could do to him and goes on to make the claim to his audience that his campsite is the “most dangerous place in the world”; a secret place to which he alone has earned access. He preferred his summers with bears to life with people and was known to greet the odd human trespasser into his summer territory by huffing and bluff-charging like a bear.

He films a chilling fight between two male grizzlies over a female. Immediately afterward and only 20 yards away, he films himself reassuring “Mickey”(the losing bear), that he, Timothy Treadwell, was not going to try to take the female for himself …”yet”. To how many other creatures on the planet could such a thought occur? He so desired to be absorbed into Ursine Nature that he talked as if the timeless boundary between human and bear was a mere social convention subject to change.

Part two…
Though it is a struggle for me to excavate some more generous insights, I do have some. (more about that in part 3…).
Prior to his rebirth as grizzly man Treadwell had been another rootless American youth, fruitlessly seeking stardom in Hollywood. Painfully rejected on the cusp of stardom (he believed he just missed being cast on “Cheers”), drink and drugs almost killed him. He attributed his sobriety and recovery to his connection with the bears. He had found a higher purpose. Wouldn’t we all like a calling which is a union of our values, our passions and our action in the world? Treadwell found his calling. His affection for the bears, however bizarre by my lights, seemed genuine. He lived the way he wanted to live. Though he clearly desired recognition for his “work” (he appeared on David Letterman twice), he did not monetize his calling. There is something in all that to admire.

Though he left us over 100 hours of video footage, perhaps his major accomplishment was that he survived his own naivete for almost 13 summers. And for that, he earned a Wikipedia entry and was “immortalized” by Werner Herzog. One comes away from the film suspecting that Treadwell would have been satisfied by this legacy.

part three…

There is (and was) an undertow of shame to my reaction to this film. I am repelled by Treadwell’s delusive self-invention because it triggers a shameful memory of having lived a delusion of my own. As with Timothy, conversations with myself about the risks of my delusion went unheard. Such superficial rationality is swept aside by the overwhelming pull of one’s fantasies possibly coming true; the tug of life as you always imagined it. My delusion (All Grief Annealed in the Fountain of Youth?) did not put anyone’s life at risk but its shattering demise felt like a kind of death. As Timothy Treadwell found out, all delusions are death defying until they are not.

Simply put, “shame erupts because one is simultaneously “oneself” and something else”. We are beside ourselves and we don’t like what we see. We are not as smart as we think we are; we cannot control what will happen next; we are not as moral as we like to think we are. Though our consciousness is how we experience the Divine, our conscious self is both captious and credulous, determinate and inconclusive. We sidle away from the examination of our limits until Real Life bares its teeth and shreds our illusions. Part of me is sad for Timothy Treadwell. He was bereft of the communal resources needed to help him shape and find the limits of his self-determination. As a consequence, the death of his delusion was horrific. We are all profanely, shamefully mortal whether we cop to it or not.

Early Fall Reading List

Is traveling outside of the U.S. therapeutic? I certainly hope so. But before I teleport out, I have to share some readings with you. If you haven’t read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ piece “The First White President” (here), please do.
Adam Shatz in the London Review (here) also writes about American racism and makes the same point Coates makes; Trump is a legacy of the Obama presidency. Is it paradoxical that “a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead”?

The New School for Analytic Psychology has started a film series (here). I will be helping facilitate the discussion after a showing of “Embrace of the Serpent”. This movie, set in the headwaters of the Amazon, flips Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on its head and made me think of Gregory Bateson’s essay “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” (here). From the depredations in the Amazon Basin to microplastics in Pacific Northwest shellfish to Caribbean hurricanes to U.S. politics, we are surrounded by our pathologies.

Though like “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa”, the sublime can occasionally emerge from our pathologies.

Dog Whistling Pt 3

H. Bosch,  Gluttony

H. Bosch, Gluttony

(This being the last of three posts “inspired” by David Brook’s column, “The Costs of Relativism“)

David Brooks is a “conservative intellectual”. He can don the trappings of post Enlightenment social science (“recurring feedback loops”) and he can write marvelous and empathic sentences such as these:

The profiles from high-school-educated America are familiar but horrific….The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.

David Brooks, being human, makes careful judgements about how to compose a column for his own purposes. His misdirection is artful. He doesn’t want to define “relativism”; he merely replaces it with “non-judgmental”. (In my previous post, I argued that human “non-judgementalism” is an oxymoron; that being without judgement is not a human possibility.) Brooks wants to leave the concept vague and then taint it by associating it with bad outcomes, despair and abuse. He wants the word “relativism” to unsettle us.

Brooks knows that he cannot explain (in 800 words) how “R” (relativism) caused “P” (poor people’s poor behavior) but by being vague he allows his readers to fill in the causal blanks. He knows he cannot forge that causal link and he knows that he doesn’t need to because he is blowing the dog whistle of a specific kind of judgementalism. Hear the whistle blow:

Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Republicans think poor people are to blame for their own poverty (their bad behavior is just another symptom of their insufficiency). Republicans do not believe in “socio-economic” forces*. They only believe in individual moral agency (or the lack thereof). When Republicans hear an expression like “structural poverty”, they also hear an excuse being offered. When Republicans hear “over 400 years of institutional racism”, they also hear responsibility being lifted from an immoral, undeserving agent. This is the politics of sin wherein true believers, without reflection, project their own private internal truths onto others. They feel that what is true for themselves must be true for others. In this “world view”, causality is not a problem. Sins are certain and their effects inevitable.

It is to this stance of self-certainty that David Brooks panders. None of us are without judgement but we are all free to adopt a stance toward our own judgements. The person with relativist inclinations will make an effort to periodically doubt her own certainties, employ critical thinking and engage her empathy in an effort to improve her understanding of other people. The audience to whom David Brooks is whistling seeks the reassuring certitude of fundamental grounds. David Brooks is often labeled a “conservative intellectual”. This label, in his case, is also an oxymoron because you cannot exercise your intellect by staying in one certain place. David Brooks and his fans are too timid to tolerate the critical examination of their own cherished and parochial judgements.

*Republicans have decided to believe in the “market” because they have mythologized it; they have anthropomorphized and then deified the “market” by endowing it first with sentience and agency and then, ironically enough, with transcendent judgement.

Dog Whistle, Part 2

These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Earlier this month, David Brooks wrote a column entitled “The Cost of Relativism”. Clearly, in his view, relativism is a dirty word. He accuses “relativism” of causing poverty but he only defines it as “nonjudgementalism”. Where does one find this “nonjudgementalism”? Who among us is non-judgemental? I would argue that all human beings who can function in their own society are judgmental. Each of us can function only when we can judge what behavior is “right” and what behavior is “wrong” for the kind of people “we” believe we are.

Let’s take for an example a stranger who appears at our front door. This situation calls for all kinds of “judgementalism”. Our visitor is a youngish, white male wearing a porkpie hat and pegged jeans. We have never seen him before, he is a perfect stranger.

First of all, we really don’t want to be surprised by the coming interaction, so we draw on the store of knowledge we have acquired directly about what “we” are like and what “they” (strangers) can be like. We then tap into our store of assumptions and feelings about strangers that we have learned from parents and peers. We need to judge whether our visitor is one of “us”. Based on what we can see, we judge that this stranger on our doorstep is probably American, probably talks like an American and probably will behave as most Americans do in this Seattle neighborhood of ours. We make some preliminary judgements based on gender and race. Because of his hat and garb, we sort through what we know and/or believe about “hipsters”. We whittle our general notion of potential male behavior down to this most specific example. We then begin to choose the “right” behavior that we judge this perfectly pegged stranger might be expecting from us.

New and even more complicated judgements are required if we are to enter into a closer relationship with this hipster. What if, for example, he is answering an ad we have placed for a business partner. Why is he is interested in our business? What are his motives? How might his motives be related to his own personal history, where he grew up and how he grew up? This perfect stranger could become the perfect business partner so perhaps we ought to suspend judgement on his slightly off-putting headdress. We don’t want to be hasty; we want to take his measure and figure out “where he is coming from”. Part of learning how to behave is learning how to juggle our judgements, when to suspend them, when to modify them and when to act on them.

This kind of mundane, daily behavior is simply the “cultural relativism” of anthropology writ small.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment celebrated the ability of human beings to think for themselves. Once unleashed, the power of critical thinking dissolved our devotion to a single “true” church and its pre-ordained world. The Enlightenment (in all its philosophical diversity) allowed us to harness hope to our own critical thinking. That is: If we can think, we can also imagine a better reality than the one we inhabit. Anthropology began as a quest to find out if an “other” might, in fact, inhabit a better world or at least give us some pointers about other ways to be human. Cultural relativism as a stance articulated by Western anthropologists suggests (simply) that in order to understand the “other” we need to suspend some of our judgements and try to understand another culture in its own terms. How do these “others” configure their environment? Order their social lives? What are their motives for why they act so differently? What does it mean to them to be “human”? Adopting this stance entails trying to experience human cultural diversity without (insofar as possible) jumping to conclusions based on our own parochial judgements. Why in hell is he wearing that porkpie hat?

This “relativism” I have described is a stance which allows us to hold our judgements lightly and to get over ourselves just enough to unleash the imaginative ability required to see strange people (the “others”) as fellow sufferers; as humans like us.

Ultimately, it is this basic imaginative ability that threatens David Brooks and the people to whom he is whistling. More to come.

The Avatar of Reason (wherein I presume to chide Richard Dawkins)

The Little Owl, A. Durer

The Little Owl, A. Durer

ISIS is beheading Yezidis, Bokul Harum is kidnapping schoolgirls and white Americans are screaming at busloads of children. Most people would agree that these are all extreme behaviors which are, at the very least, immoral. These perpetrators are all zombies; they no longer view their victims as thinking, feeling moral entities. How did they get that way? Could I ever act that way? In earlier posts about climate change I wrote that what we think we “know” about climate change is inextricably bound up with the belief systems we hold profoundly dear. If the cognitive balance between knowing and believing is fluctuant, what does this suggest about the relationship between knowledge and morality?

What do we need to “know” (about ourselves and the world) in order to feel like we are moral entities? We need to know that morality is not character; it is not just how we happen to BE, it is how we think and decide to act. The fundamental moral question -“What should I do?“- makes no sense without our perception that we have a choice between one action and another. Morality then is an activity in which we engage. We think of ourselves as beings to whom moral concepts apply and and we see ourselves as accountable. We create ourselves as moral beings by making choices and acting on those choices and we interact with others as if they are also self directed agents. While I believe that life is a moral venture, for me, the really interesting questions begin when I ask myself, at what level DO I GET TO DECIDE?

Richard Dawkins recently issued some Tweets about rape and Palestine that elicited some strong reactions. His defense in the Huffington Post is simple. His tweets were not interpreted logically. He goes on to decry that

some of us may be erecting taboo zones, where emotion is king and where reason is not admitted; where reason, in some cases, is actively intimidated and dare not show its face. And I regret this. We get enough of that from the religious faithful.

According to Dawkins, a true moral philosopher with “a love of reason” will not fear to tread where reason leads. Dawkins makes a lovely logical point (“If I say A is worse than B, I am NOT endorsing B“) but his larger issue is the unwillingness of some people to endure some discomfort in the pursuit of reasoned discourse. Clearly, Dawkins sees reason as a counterpoise to emotion (and by extension a counterpoise to “the religious faithful”). Reason is the exalted tool that will lead us to “truth”; a notion right out of the Enlightenment. Noting that Dawkins’ immediate goals in this instance are polemical, it should be pointed out that the concept of reason has changed somewhat since the Enlightenment.

Twentieth century history and anthropology teach us that the contingent facts of our race, gender, class and ethnicity predetermine much of who we are. We are not radically free (e.g., I am a white, North American middle class male. I cannot become an Ibo tribeswoman). In a post appropriately titled, “How Politics Makes Us Stupid”, Ezra Klein cites research that indicates that “individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” Behavioral economics is teaching us that “the rational man” of neoclassical economics is a chimera (at best). Reasonable people make economic decisions on the basis of rules of thumb, stereotypes and cultural canards. Vagaries of affect are inextricably bound up in our assessments of risk and how we value time (profit now versus profit later). Empirical studies have repeatedly shown that we all have “implicit biases” that guide our judgements but of which we are not consciously aware. Attachment theory tells us (with increasing support from neuroscience) that the earliest dyadic exchanges between mother and infant through gaze and touch will shape the rest of our psychic and social lives in primal, unconscious ways. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio argues that emotions are not opposed to reason. Emotions are not unruly beasts to be saddled by reason but are in fact the substrate of all cognition.

Another small indicator that reason (logic and critical thinking) is just the tip of the cognitive iceberg may be seen in how we attribute causation to human behavior. We all tend to attribute the genesis of human behavior either to “character” or as a response to the external world. The interesting fact is that we are far more likely to see other people’s behavior as caused by character whereas we will more likely view our own behavior as being prompted by the outside world. We impute causation to disposition because 1) we can’t necessarily see the environmental factors prompting some one else’s behaviors and 2) (more importantly) not one of us likes to caricature ourselves as a thin set of statistically likely responses.(I am not hopping about and yelling because I am needy and want attention, I have been stung by a bee.) We experience our own self as a “neutral” locus of awareness (simply, “who we are”) that reacts to our environment. So, when we face moral choices in our interactions with others are we really understanding their motivations?

Sullied as it is by all these “un-reasonable” forces, what role is left for reason in morality? Does any one of us ever make a rational decision about what we ought to do?

To be truly moral (and to be truly reasonable) requires more activity than simply deciding upon a choice. To be truly moral we need to hold a mirror to ourselves, to bring to awareness the patterns of behavior to which we are prone and look for the warp of our affect even when we are following a weft of reason. To be truly moral means recognizing that the other free agents with whom we interact are also beings whose ability to engage in reasoned discourse is as circumscribed as our own. Professor Dawkins is absolutely right in placing enormous importance on reasoned discourse because it is only through discourse with others that we occasionally can see ourselves from the outside. Dr. Dawkins might have more productive conversations with the “religious faithful” if he thought more about thinking itself.

Even if reason is an infected tool, it is the only scalpel we have available to us.

Ye of Little Faiths

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Image Courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

Faith is what helps us accept what we cannot understand. This was a recent Facebook posting that I think gives short shrift to faith.

What is faith? That the sun will come up tomorrow? (Faith that the familiar will remain that way.) That if my car rattles, I can fix it? (Faith that there is a reason and/or explanation for everything.) That if I can’t fix my car, my trusty mechanic can? (Faith in collective knowledge.) That my wife will still love me in the morning? (Faith in social bonds.) That I will recognize myself in the morning? (Faith in the continuity of the self.) That global warming will not affect me tomorrow? (Faith that the familiar is beneficent.)

Human cognition works to find predictive patterns; patterns in the world in which we can have some faith. Each step we take is based upon the faith that our perception of light and depth and color acquired from experience will continue to be trustworthy. Faith is the quintessential attribute of humankind. Faith is inextricable from everything we “know”.

Noam Chomsky has written,

We are after all biological organisms not angels…If humans are part of the natural world, not supernatural beings, then human intelligence has its scope and limits, determined by initial design. We can thus anticipate certain questions will not fall within our cognitive reach, just as rats are unable to run mazes with numerical properties, lacking the appropriate concepts. Such questions, we might call ‘mysteries-for-rats’ just as some questions pose ‘mysteries-for-humans’. Among these mysteries may be questions we raise and others we do not know how to formulate properly or at all”.

The difference between us and rats (a difference I take on faith based on some experience with rats) is that we humans (here in the form of Noam Chomsky) can pose this metalogical problem. We can frame our limitations.

The aphorism that started this post is meant, I think, to invoke this Faith-with-a-capital-F that fills in the blank after we arrive at the end of our reach. But faith is not just this Grand Counterpoint. It is the medium in which our consciousness swims.

Or to mix metaphors, our human “reality” is a patchwork edifice of empirical data-points jury rigged to faith.