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.

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.

Philosophy’s Reflective Equilibrium

philosophy32frontIs the study of philosophy about truth seeking or therapy for the soul? This is the gist of a discussion between Nigel Warburton and Jules Evans on Aeon.

My thoughts are that philosophy is really about both. I was originally drawn to reading philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard because his writings were both about truth seeking and therapy for the soul. Not that what I read in Kierkegaard’s books always calmed my soul! To the contrary. In this case, the potential therapeutic cure was often on the other side of a journey through Fear and Trembling or Either/Or or The Concept of Dread or The Sickness unto Death. Yes, very inspiring titles I know. But philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche used a sort of philosophical shock treatment on the patient.

And then there are the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Many of the ancient writers were moralists and philosophical self-improvement specialists. Like Plato, they were in an active dialogue with the reader about the nature of man, his society and how to live the good life. For this reason, these ancient writers were my favorite over all philosophers. The writings of philosophers like Cicero, Plutarch and the Seneca, at least in translation, were easy to understand and aesthetically pleasing. Their insights still strike at the core of the human predicament. The basic human struggles have not changed over the centuries. Man is still the same pitiful clay.

I’ve always felt that reading Plutarch or Seneca or Marcus Aurelius improved me and helped me get a better perspective on life and its struggles. I still return to them periodically, especially the stoic musings of Marcus Aurelius, probably the closest thing we have in history to the Platonic ideal of the Philosopher King:

How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings . . . Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a solider and patiently waiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight–no straightened.   

In fact, the argument that Jules Evans makes is that stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus developed successful psychological techniques for coping with emotional suffering. Some of these philosophical techniques have turned out to have scientific validity. Jules Evans actually wrote a book about what you can learn and internalize from these ancient teachings.

I remember giving my mom a copy of the Art of Living. She carried this gem of a book around with her for years and referred to the teachings of Epictetus regularly in conversation.

True happiness is a verb. It’s the ongoing dynamic performance of worthy deeds. The flourishing life, whose foundation is virtuous intention, is something we continually improvise, and in doing so our souls mature. Our life has usefulness to ourselves and to the people we touch.

There’s little doubt stoicism helped my mother cope with some of the deeply saddening things in her life at that time. I’m positive millions of readers over the centuries have found solace in the writings of these ancient philosophical psychologists.

On the other side of the Aeon discussion is Nigel Warburton, who sees philosophy as mostly just an exercise in critical thinking. This is demonstrably true in some sense. Philosophy is mental activity in clarification and elucidation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein might have said with an air of humor, “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense,” it’s to find out “where the shoe pinches.” But even Wittgenstein the great logician, in his letters and unpublished writings, was always offering philosophical advice about life and how to live it.

Philosophy began with Socrates and his attempts to educate the youth of Athens. But he wasn’t just attempting to educate them in how to think, he was also trying to teach them how to live. While Socrates used math and geometry–the linear and analytical side of philosophy–in many of his arguments, the larger point was always about improving the soul of the individual. In the Socratic view the city is like the man, the improving of the individual is also about improving the polis, the state, the collective body. Philosophy’s roots have always been about improving the individual through improving his soul. And so philosophy will always be about both the science of understanding and the art of living.

One of the best parts of the discussion between Warburton and Evans is an exchange over how Evans “sees philosophy.”:

I approach philosophy as a sort of pragmatism – I have a set of values and an idea of how the world is, and I try it out and see if I can live by it, if it fits reality, if it leads to an expanded sense of flourishing. And reality (including other people) feeds back to me, lets me know if I’m living wisely or foolishly. That two-way process is always changing, you’re always adapting and revisiting assumptions.

That nicely sums up how I’d like to think I approach philosophy: pragmatically. Philosophy is about putting ideas to the test and learning and adapting from the results. The ultimate goal is about flourishing. If we have the right mindset, and are open to learning, we can find that “reflective equilibrium between ideas and lived experience.”

The Wisdom of Proportionality

Greek runners protecting the torch
Illustration by Ann Ronan pictures, print collector/Getty

One of the common themes in ancient Greek art and philosophy is proportionality. For the Greeks, proportionality was the idea that there was an optimal mix of qualities or virtues that, properly harmonized, promoted human flourishing. We see and experience this idea in the beautiful statues and architecture that have survived in Ancient Greece. The idea of proportionality is a theme throughout Plato’s dialogues, especially The Republic, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics is constructed around the idea of a golden mean or “middle state” between two extremes.

Meden Agan (“Nothing in excess”) is one of the surviving inscriptions on the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. One of my favorite quotes in the ancient texts is from Tacitus. As a Roman patrician, Tacitus’s education consisted primarily of ancient Greek art, literature and philosophy. In writing about his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus says “he took from philosophy the greatest lesson of all: a sense of proportion.”

Another fine example of this idea is embedded in the ancient Olympic games. One of the competitions, know as the Lampadedromia, involved a relay race of runners carrying torches. The challenge was to win the race without extinguishing the torch. This meant it usually wasn’t the fastest runners that won, but those adept at running just fast enough (the right proportion) not to extinguish the torch in the wind while getting to the finish line first, before the torch oil ran out.

The idea handed down through the ages suggest that success, beauty, happiness and good judgment are very much the results of a wise proportionality.