Quote: Leo Tolstoy and the Challenge of Learning


“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Leo Tolstoy

Bad Thinkers

Is the way people think, to use the computer metaphor, always amenable through a software update? Or, are there people whose hardware just can’t be updated?

I suspect we all know of people (hopefully not too many) who believe in wild conspiracy theories. They tend to reject contrary evidence, solid science, or sound arguments. So a fair question arises: Are these people misinform or just badly educated? Or is their bad thinking something innate? Is this way of thinking just part of their character?

Well Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick at Coventry, discusses this idea in an Aeon piece. Cassam illustrates his argument through the fictitious story of Oliver, a guy who believes 911 was a massive conspiracy. Regardless of the overwhelming evidence against his conspiracy theory, Oliver dismisses that evidence and believes 911 was a big conspiracy. Oliver cannot be reasoned out of this belief. You cannot, and will not, get through the thicket of nonsense that’s taken hold of him.

The typical argument is that people like Oliver have an information problem: they either lack enough or cannot process it correctly. But Cassam sees the problem as even more fundamental. Oliver’s wild conspiracy beliefs aren’t the result of a lack of relevant information, they have more to do with Oliver’s intellectual character:

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn’t mad (or at least, he needn’t be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution – in a word, of his intellectual character.

This is a controversial idea, but my own experience leads me to believe Cassam may be right. It does make sense intuitively, but it would take experimental research to confirm it. The difficulty I see in conducting this research is trying to separate structural, innate, mental deficiencies in thinking from information processing problems and willful ignorance.

I suspect some bad thinkers, I realize I’m being optimistic, can be improved if they have the right attitude and receive the right kind of education. But “attitude” is critical. I say this because without some admission or realization that you’re wrong or maybe not applying good thinking skills it’s not likely any amount of education will work. As the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” So I’ll admit attitude may be the very thing you can’t turn with a bad thinker. Cassam is not as optimistic:

It is in the nature of many intellectual character traits that you don’t realize you have them, and so aren’t aware of the true extent to which your thinking is influenced by them. The gullible rarely believe they are gullible and the closed-minded don’t believe they are closed-minded. The only hope of overcoming self-ignorance in such cases is to accept that other people – your co-workers, your spouse, your friends – probably know your intellectual character better than you do. But even that won’t necessarily help. After all, it might be that refusing to listen to what other people say about you is one of your intellectual character traits. Some defects are incurable.

For the most part a good education should lead to a high degree of epistemological humility. The more we learn the more we realize just how much we don’t know. Barring strong evidence or sound logic we should approach ideas cautiously. Our path to knowledge should be inferentially, moving in a linear path from one valid point to the next, stepping stone to stone across the river. But it may be that the ability to do this or not do this, at least in some of us, is more about something that resides in our personal constitution than in our cognitive tool kit.

A Quote to Note

John Ruskin

“A wise man always finds some support for himself in everything, because his gift is in obtaining goodness from everything.” — John Ruskin

David Hume and Moral Judgements

David Hume
David Hume (photo: Wiki)

Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. — David Hume

Today in history is David Hume’s birthday. Hume was a 18th century Scottish philosopher who’s writings have gotten more attention lately because modern psychologists, notably Jonathan Haidt, have been praising parts of Hume’s moral philosophy. Haidt sees the core of Hume’s moral philosophy as anticipating Haidt’s research conclusions about how people reach moral judgements.

In short, Hume & Haidt both argue that moral judgements aren’t something we reach through a process of reflective reasoning. That’s a rationalist delusion. Our moral judgements are primarily the product of our intuitions, or in the Humian sense, our passions. Reason is simply the ex post facto lawyer who’s primary job is to defend your moral intuitions. Haidt’s social intuitionism model says, “Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes second.”

As David Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Reason serves our passions, our emotions, our non-rational intuitions.

Of course the down side of Hume’s & Haidt’s idea is that logic and good arguments are not likely to persuade anybody of anything when people’s beliefs or moral convictions are set. Haidt would argue, and I think rightly, that it’s not that reason can’t persuade at all, it’s just that until emotional barriers are soften or lowered Reason cannot make much headway in influencing our morals, politics, religion or football.

As Jonathan Swift wrote: “Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired…”

I think an honest observer of people and human nature would think Hume’s & Haidt’s idea a confirmation of the obvious. I mean watch people at election time…like now in the US.

Politics, which is very moral, is a good example. Facts, evidence, and sound argument are not what typically guides most people’s decisions about issues and who to vote for. Now, I don’t think that’s true with everyone. Certainly there are people who can be persuaded by logic, evidence, and good arguments. There are people who are aware of their emotional barriers and who do want to get at the truth or what’s best for themselves or the society. But that persuadable group is relatively small, unfortunately.

The saving grace for our society is that this group of Independent voters and thinkers have a big impact in the outcome of close elections. They’re willing to go either way and are weighing the reasons and arguments for each candidate—or so I’d like to believe.

Tolstoy’s Calendar Of Wisdom

Tolstoy Reading his Calendar of Wisdom
Leo Tolstoy reading A Calendar of Wisdom

One of the most fascinating figures in the history of literature is Leo Tolstoy. Unlike most people, who discover Tolstoy through his novels and short stories, I was introduced to Tolstoy through his religious writings.

Many years ago I remember reading William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. As I recall, I was fascinated by James’s analysis and commentary on some of Tolstoy’s religious writings. (James’s book was perspective altering and left a big impression on me. I hope to read it again some day. I highly recommend you give it a go if you enjoy philosophical psychology and religious studies.)

So I picked up a Penguin Classic of Tolstoy’s writings called A Confession and Other Religious Writings. This book, the imagines and ideas, still haunt my memory. After reading this book, I started dipping into the rest of Tolstoy’s works. It was, like Tolstoy’s Russia, a vast and consuming experience. Tolstoy is not just a writer or moralist with something to say, he’s more like the yogi who wants to change your consciousness and reveal a world hidden from your view. This is Tolstoy’s mission in life.

Tolstoy’s deeply philosophical and religious mind get full range in his greatest novel, War and Peace, a large—and seemingly endless—canvas where Tolstoy paints his ideas about determinism and contingency in history, which he brilliantly elaborates on in an essay at the end of the novel.

Tolstoy’s writings and ideas have been highly influential. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both influenced by Tolstoy’s principle of non-violent resistance. The great 20th century philosophical genius Ludwig Wittgenstein was highly influenced by Tolstoy’s religious book, The Gospel in Brief. The popular historian and biographer, Niall Ferguson, credited Tolstoy, specifically War and Peace, with making him a historian. And who can forget the tragic story of Chris McCandless, the young idealist who appears to have been influenced to go hiking alone in the Alaskan wilderness (see Into the Wild) to commune with nature after reading Tolstoy’s Family Happiness.

Now, when it comes to novels, Tolstoy is not your casual read. If you’re use to reading popular novelists then you’re probably going to find Tolstoy, at times, difficult to follow. Tolstoy is not looking to just entertain, though he does, but to impart wisdom through the medium of art. Tolstoy is using words and story to cast the mind’s eye upon what Rudyard Kipling called “the impenetrable plinth of things.” Immersion in Tolstoy’s work has the real potential to alter your perspective on life.

But most people, other than for work, don’t have time for reading much at all, especially a large book like War and Peace or a book of Tolstoy’s religious writings. And Tolstoy understood this.

So in the mid 1880s Tolstoy came up with the idea for A Calendar of Wisdom: “A wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all peoples.” He added, “I have to create a circle of reading for myself: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal, The New Testament. This is also necessary for all people . . . I would like to create a book . . . in which I could tell a person about his life, and about the Good Way of Life.”

Instead of a big novel or philosophical treatise on the meaning of life, Tolstoy decided one of his last works (he updated and edited the book in the last years of his life) would be a book of daily thoughts to nourish the soul:

The difference between real material poison and intellectual poison is that most material poison is disgusting to the taste, but intellectual poison, which takes the form of cheap newspapers or bad books, can unfortunately sometimes be attractive.

(January 1)

Knowledge is real knowledge only when it is acquired by the efforts of your intellect, not by memory.

Only when we forget what we were taught do we start to have real knowledge.

(Henry David Thoreau, January 9)

A constant flow of thoughts expressed by other people can stop and deaden your own thought and your own initiative…. That is why constant learning softens your brain…. Stopping the creation of your own thoughts to give room for the thoughts from other books reminds me of Shakespeare’s remark about his contemporaries who sold their land in order to see other countries.

(Arthur Schopenhauer, January 9)

Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know. Among the most necessary knowledge is the knowledge of how to live well, that is, how to produce the least possible evil and the greatest goodness in one’s life. At present, people study useless sciences, but forget to study this, the most important knowledge.

(Jean Jaques Rousseau, March 16)

There is only one real knowledge: that which helps us to be free. Every other type of knowledge is mere amusement.

(Vishnu Purana, Indian Wisdom, June 23)

The way to true knowledge does not go through soft grass covered with flowers. To find it, a person must climb steep mountains.

(Josh Ruskin, September 20)

Intellect is the quality that makes us different from animals.

Buddha said: “In meditation, in speech, in life, in studies, I never forget about the most important thing: the requirements of the intellect.”

The moral and the intellectual are always in harmony.

(June 13)

Each morning, for the past few months, I’ve started my day by opening to the current date in Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom. It has helped put my mind in the right frame, or for lack of a better word, rhythm for the day.

“I cannot understand,” Tolstoy wrote, “how some people can live without communicating with the wisest people who ever lived on earth . . . I feel very happy every day, because I read this book.”

In this busy world we rarely have time to dedicate to our spiritual an intellectual growth. Regardless of where you’re at in life or what’s going on, it’s important to imbibe the nourishing water of wisdom.

Tolstoy has provided a cup. I recommend you take those brief moments and drink daily.