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.

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.”

A Quote to Note: Friederich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.

A Winter’s Morning Walk

Walk in the Woods
Image: Jeff Wills

One early winter’s morning, before anyone was awake, I went for a walk in the snow. For me, the wintery wonderland provides a unique chance to be alone with my thoughts and to do some deep reflecting and communing with nature. It’s a good time to just be. Henry David Thoreau would surely have approved.

I quietly put on my cold weather clothes, slipped on my snow boots, and gently opened the front door. My face was immediately flushed by the icy air and the prickly like chilly tingle of blowing snow. As I stepped off the porch into the snow, the sun was just starting to peer over the horizon. Its gentle caressing light pierced the air and shimmered the pale blue dawn with shades of soft amber. I could hear the wind gusts roaring through the tree tops. As I turned toward the woods, I could hear each of my footsteps as I tramped through the virgin white powdery snow. The air was sharp and crisp with the faint smell of wood from fireplaces.

I walked into the woods and made way toward the stream. The snow was deep enough to keep my pace slow and deliberate. It was at this time, along this path to the stream, that I slipped into a semi-meditative state. My mind cleared. I began paying precise, nonjudgmental attention to the steady stream of impressions coming from all around me. It was calming and peaceful. I had drifted into a state of heightened self-awareness and total absorption in the present moment.

I briefly lingered at the stream and listened to the gentle flow of the water over the rocks. I then began walking toward the road. My mind was quiet, relaxed, and clear; yet focused and engaged. I began to think about life and the meaning of it all. A philosophical mind like mine can wander across a vast landscape of ideas trying to find some kind of coherent and satisfying answer. But sometimes the best answers come from just being in the moment, from just letting go. After reaching the unplowed road I stood and took a deep breath of the cool moist air and looked up at the morning sky through the mists of my exhale.

Thoughts and ideas flashed across my mind. The environment invoked awe and a sense of amazement and wonder. I thought of how many millions of other people over the centuries must have had similar thoughts while out on a quiet morning walk in the snow. Looking up at the millions of fading stars in the morning light made me think of just how mysterious it all is. I thought of just how impossible it seems that we (Man) will ever truly understand it all.

An old philosophical argument sprung into my mind. How can a finite mind understand the infinite? The very concept of something being infinite in nature, always existing, never having a beginning, whether you believe it’s God or the universe or just matter, is almost impossible to conceptualize or understand for a finite, limited being who resides on a tiny little planet, amongst a sea of planets, in one universe amongst thousands of other universes. Man’s presence on this planet has so far been a mere blip in time. Vast infinite time existed before us and vast infinite time lies ahead when we’re all gone. Are we, as Conrad Aiken said, “Cosmic Mariners, destination unknown?” Or is this short journey of ours somehow the plan of some divine providence?

Of course the simple truth is we don’t know with certainty either way. We know many small “t” truths about life and things. These can be answered mostly by science and reason. But we don’t have any sure answers for the big “T” truths about existence and the universe. Exactly how did conscious beings come to exist in a universe of lifeless atoms in the void? Having a scientific turn of mind, I can hypothesize and attempt to scientifically explain how this could have happened based on our current scientific understanding. But each possible answer I could give would only generate a number of philosophical and scientific questions that would cast some doubt on my scientific explanation.

And so it is with every big “T” truth in life, we live and believe by faith, religious or otherwise. The secular-materialist may shudder at the idea, but they’re as much a faith community as religious believers are when it comes to the big “T” truths about existence. The great question of existence asked by Gottfried Leibniz still remains unanswered: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Which brings me to an important understanding about faith. Genuine faith is always based on doubt. One commits oneself to an idea after having processed it, after having raised and analyzed doubts about it, after having applied it in the front trenches of life and found that the idea still lives and breaths. One rightfully has faith in such ideas. It has worked. It may not be “proven” true. More evidence may be needed to determine its truth. But despite these hesitations and doubts, one continues to live by the idea. That, my dear reader, is faith. “If doubt appears,” said Paul Tillich, “it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith.” In the general sense, faith is that courage that allows us to live by possibilities rather than certainties.

My thoughts were broken by the sound of a snowplow off in the distance. It was time to head back to the house. My wife and children would be getting up soon. I had enjoyed these brief moments of meditation and reflection and the chance to commune, Waldenesque like, with nature and the mystery. I cherish moments like these. We all need time to clear our heads and momentarily cast ourselves adrift in the flow of our thoughts.

Debts and Lessons

college classroomWe all have debts, and most of them aren’t financial either. I realized one recently while I was reading Gregory Hays’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’s ancient philosophical journal, the Meditations. Book one of the Meditations begins with a section entitled “Debts and Lessons.” In this section Marcus briefly summarizes the positive things he learned from various people in his life while growing up, and this got me to thinking about a debt I have from an earlier time in my life.

I went to college like so many high school graduates because I wanted to “get an education” and then get a job. At the time, of course, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life; most of us aren’t at that age. And I wasn’t sure exactly what getting educated really meant. So I began college by signing up for a number of general education courses at the local community college. One of the courses was Philosophy 101. At the time, I didn’t know much about philosophy and didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I did know that “Phil 101” was available and it fulfilled my general education requirements. The course description also made taking philosophy seem like a no brainer. The course catalog described the study of philosophy something like this:

The study of philosophy serves to develop intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills required for any particular profession. Properly pursued, it enhances analytical, critical, and interpretive capacities that are applicable to any subject-matter, and in any human context. It cultivates the capacities and appetite for self-expression and reflection, for exchange and debate of ideas, for life-long learning, and for dealing with problems for which there are no easy answers. It also helps to prepare one for the tasks of citizenship. Participation in political and community affairs today is all too often insufficiently informed, manipulable and vulnerable to demagoguery. A good philosophical education enhances the capacity to participate responsibly and intelligently in public life. — The American Philosophical Association (APA)

After reading a course description like this I was sold. It sounded like what getting educated was all about. (To this day I would say the description above is the best and most accurate way of describing the benefits of a philosophical education.) Philosophy 101 was an introductory course, but I suspect it might have been the only philosophy course some of my unsuspecting classmates completed. Philosophy isn’t easy, even at the introductory level. You have to do something a lot of people at that young age aren’t always ready to do, and that involves thinking deeply and critically. It’s mental work of the highest order. You don’t take Philosophy “for fun” or an “easy three credits.” Those who did were quickly disabused of the notion. You stayed in the class either out of genuine intellectual interest, necessity, or sheer determination. Ultimately, if you stayed and pushed yourself it was very rewarding.

The instructor was Tom Hilton. As I recall, he was relatively new to the college (As of this writing he is still teaching there.). He was a soft spoken man with an easy manner and a gentle approach to teaching. He had a genuine love for philosophy and was a natural teacher. He made the class interesting and engaged us intellectually. He made us think in ways many of us hadn’t even vaguely reckoned at that age. Using the Socratic Method, he forced us to stretch our minds—to examine, to question, to think, to learn, and most of all, to grow. The English word “education” is a derivation of the Latin verb educes, which means “to draw forth from within.” Mr. Hilton was indeed educating us, he was prodding us to engage and exercise our critical abilities. At least that’s how I felt in his class. The very best teachers are those who can get you to engage the subject and think deeply about ideas. That’s how you grow intellectually. It has the potential to change your life. It certainly had an affect on mine.

I took two more philosophy classes from Mr. Hilton. I took Philosophy 102 and a class called Practical Reasoning. Philosophy 102 covered the existentialists. It was a very interesting and very challenging intellectually. I actually still have the text book. Existentialism is very deep, it took some real effort to understand the thoughts of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Buber, and Heidegger. As with all theoretical philosophy, you had to follow extended lines of reasoning and conceptual complexity. You had to sweat, mentally.  I remember being particularly fascinated by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. At first I struggled to see through the words to the ideas, but slowly the mental fog evaporated and I began to recognize (I believe) the deep meaning and genius of their work.

Practical Reasoning class was another awakening experience. Mr. Hilton taught us the structure of a good argument and how to detect a bad one. We learned basic logic and how to recognize the vast array of logical fallacies most people bring into everyday discussions and arguments. Mr. Hilton usually began the class with having individual students read articles from The Virginian Pilot newspaper. He would then lead the class in anatomizing the statements and arguments made by the author to determine if they were logically sound and, well, reasonable. The course made me realize just how illogical, and at times totally unreasonable, most of us can be in our everyday thinking; a realization that has been sadly confirmed—tragically and humorously—over and over throughout the years since. The theoretical philosophy I’d learned so far was interesting, but it was this course that really brought philosophy down to earth. All of us, every day, must navigate arguments. These arguments come in many forms, from TV commercial, to newspapers, the political discussion at lunch, to an employee’s explanation (or spin) of an event or problem. All of them are laced with arguments. By “argument” I mean attempts to persuade you. TV commercials about buying a product are, rhetorically, an argument for you to buy something. Our daily life is filled with arguments of some type, situations that require us (if we’re conscious) to reason effectively and decide.

Philosophy is a hard subject to define. In ancient Greek philosophia simply meant “a love of wisdom.” The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle philosophized on just about everything. No set of ideas or inquiry was off limits, all domains of knowledge were open to inquiry. I still see the task of philosophy as Aristotle did: a synoptic vision of reality. There’s no exact, settled modern definition of philosophy. Over the centuries philosophy bracketed into various sub disciplines and schools of thought. Look at this Wiki page and you’ll see just why philosophy was once called the “Queen of all Sciences.” Philosophy is really about everything.

After Mr. Hilton’s class I began reading philosophy on my own. I spent years reading through various works of Philosophy. I didn’t end up with a degree in philosophy if you’re wondering. My graduate and undergraduate degrees are actually in management. Both of my degree programs, however, were Liberal Arts based and did contain courses in ethics. Of course I really enjoyed those courses because the discussions centered on philosophical theories and the philosophers who constructed them. I was also fortunate in graduate school to have some very fine professors for those courses. (My hat’s off to Professors Stephen Vicchio and Christopher “Aristotle is the man” Dreisbach of Johns Hopkins University, two exceptional human beings, teachers, and mentors.)

I don’t read very much pure (or theoretical) philosophy now. The truth is, as Moses Mendelssohn once said about one of Immanuel Kant’s books, it “consumes the fluid of the nerves.” You have to be in a certain mindset for that type of reading and thinking. I’m talking primarily about epistemology and logic. I still read and enjoy the practical philosophers like Aristotle, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius & Cicero, along with the many modern philosophers. Practical philosophers are generally interested in politics, ethics, society, personal development, and many other practical affairs. It’s reading that has a direct impact on my thinking. And of course my interest in philosophy naturally led me into many other areas of the humanities, especially history.

So it was Mr. Hilton, in that community college class room (circa 1987), who first sparked my interest in philosophy, ideas, and great thinkers. It hasn’t provided me with any professional status or fame, but it has shaped my perspective in many positive ways and enriched my life. It was, as Mark Twain said, a “conspicuous link” in the chain of my being and for that I’m very thankful to Tom Hilton.