Thought for the week

I believe the basic premise of the Enlightenment  is that there is nothing in man or nature which would prevent us from taking some control of our destiny and making the world a saner place for our children.  That being the case, how  do we continue to manage to stop ourselves from doing just that?


Default Settings

My thoughts this morning are back on our species being meaning rather than instinct driven.  A few things come to particularly to mind.

First, my belief that by the age of 3 or 4 we all develop a default setting of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to new experience. Yes leads to explore it, find out more, this is interesting, and No leads to be careful, back off  a little, this may be harmful to me.

The difficulty with this default setting is that it goes off or engages or comes into play almost immediately upon assessing new sensory input and it does so below our level of awareness. This difficulty is compounded by a secondary default setting which I’ll call ‘proving I was right’.  Once our yes/no decision kicks in we proceed to sort any new information based on how will it fits and supports our decision. So we easily get ourselves trapped into making information fit our decision (even if we have to bend the information a little) rather than making our decision fit the information.

Ernest Becker had a good deal to say about this particularly in his book The Birth and Death of Meaning in which he points out that while we are meaning driven and thus have the capacity to rationally sort through new information and come to a logical conclusion, we are also psychologically programmed by our culture and our parenting long before we have matured to the point where we can think rationally.  So when we reach that point (which I suspect is around the age of 6 or 7) the deck we have with which to play our hand has already been stacked.

This yes/no default setting has an enormous impact on how we relate to one another, be it personally, professionally, politically, or any other way.  It shows upregularly in our daily news with the republican response to Obama’s stimulus package (solidarity of outrage because of disagreement with 1% of the suggested expenditures) or Cheney’s determination that we must continue to keep Guantanamo open and engage in torturous forms of interrogation.

The up side of all of this is that while it takes an effort and some self training, we do have the capacity bring out default settings into our awareness and intentionally look at all sides of an issue or situation or experience or suggestion before coming to closure on where we stand and what we want to happen next.   In that context I’m reminded of the doubter/believer stance handout that I made a few decades ago inspired by the writings of Peter Elbow. Here’s what the handout said:

In any situation where you are looking for the truth, making a decision or assessing  new data, there are two
basic stances you can take: Doubting Stance and the Believing Stance.

The Doubting Stance seeks truth by indirection:

  • by seeking error.  (Doubting an assertion or an idea is the best way to find the error in it.)
  • by assuming  assertion is untrue so as to find it’s weakness.
  • by putting on a negative filter and sorting all data only for what won’t work.
  • by using adversarial  method, think of ways to attack the assertion.
  • by being against, apart from the idea or assertion.

The Believing Stance also seeks truth by indirection:

  • by refraining from doubting assertions  or ideas.
  • by putting other ideas out of your head and trying this one on.
  • by putting on a positive  filter and sorting all data for the truth in it.
  • by trying the idea on as though you believed  it. (Not the fullest sort of belief which is commitmentand action, but the belief that involves trying to see things as the speaker, sees them.)
  • by being with, rather than apart from the idea or assertion.

The Doubting Stance has a monopoly  on legitimacy in our culture.  It is our default setting.
o Socrates, Descartes;        o propositional  logic;
o the scientific  method;        o “rational”  thought  process;
o “be realistic”;               o question everything you hear;
o the way to proceed to truth is to doubt everything and what is finally immune to attack must be true.

Doubting Stance traits include:  extrication – disengagement – detachment – rigidity – closing up – toughness – hardness – aggressiveness – competitiveness – adversarial – desire to talk and correct.

The results of only doubting  leads from doubt to skepticism  to cynicism.

Believing Stance traits include:  involvement – commitment – opening up – softness – flexibility – cooperating – supporting – adaptability – listening.

The Believing Stance permits one to explore and discover the value of an idea, and often to adapt it or modify it to fit the needs of the situation.

One of the most difficult aspects of taking the Believing Stance is fighting the itch for closure which the stance may create.

The results of only believing  leads from interest  to enthusiasm  to gullible naivete.

Both stances are powerful and important  ways of getting to the truth or the best decision.  We need both. We also need to know when we are using which stance and why we are using it at that point in the process of
coming to a conclusion.

Using the doubting stance first leads to negativity, mistrust  and withdrawal.  The values of an idea are never discovered  or explored.  Using the believing stance first leads to exploring all the possibilities  of an idea.  Following up with the doubting stance avoids pitfalls and naive mistakes.

In closing this little blog I’m reminded of Ernest Becker’s suggestion that sociologists regularly evaluate organizations, institutions, agencies, schools and government decisions with the critria of moving toward decisions that most enhancethe standards of individual freedom and social harmony, and away from decisions that retard those two standards.   Becker even suggested that public schools teach its students to do the same.  Not only am I in favor of that, but I’m aware that Pinehenge School which we founded some forty years ago did comply to those standards as did Summerhill, the school upon which Pinehenge was based.

Military Advice

Dear President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates:

No military victory will ever be achieved in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Continued military attempts will only swell the ranks of those who desperately resort to terrorist acts. There can be no ‘War Against Terrorism’ because going to war with an ideology is a non sequitur.  Defining our response to terrorist attacks as a war dictates how we respond and how we utilize (waste) our financial resources. There are no “terrorist nations” against whom to declare war.  terrorists are international criminals engaging in heinous acts for political reasons.  They must be hunted down and brought to justice for their crimes. Only a diplomatic political response which solicits the cooperation of all nations will reduce the threat of terrorist attacks. I urge you to curtail all military activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Respectfully yours in the inappropriate, unlawful, meaningless and unsuccessful slaughter of innocent human beings,   Collateral Damage

Some suggestions of what we as a nation might do to abandon our stance as a rouge state and rejoin the international community.

1. Accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court;

2. Sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols while negotiating for their improvement;

3. Let the UN take the lead in international crises including Afghanistan;

4. Rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terrors;

5. Keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter;

6. Give up the Security Council veto and have ‘a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,’ as the Declaration of Independence advises;

7. Cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending.

8. Comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which we have signed.

9. Comply with the Geneva Convention Treaty which we have signed.

10. Comply with the UN Genocide Convention Treaty which we have signed;

11. Sign and comply with the Ottawa Convention agreements banning the use of antipersonnel mines.

Tape notes

Record Becker yellow highlights chapter by chapter rather than waiting until you’ve finished the whole book. It will have more impact on your writing that way.  Go back through the introduction and highlight more carefully.

Write something about early life default yes/no and the different neural paths each uses and that when you become consciously aware of your default you can bipass it and reassess before deciding yes or no.

How do I explain who I am to myself in such a way as to know and decide how to present myself to society in a manner that affirms my self esteem through my behavior and my actions. (How do I decide to act in ways that meet my personal criteria for warranting positive self esteem.) How do I explain myself to myself to support my own self esteem?  These questions are worth reflecting on.

Crises of meaning are ALWAYS about self esteem. That is a primary component of meaning crisis. One is having difficulty explaining oneself to oneself in such a way as to retain or fabricate meaning and value in ones life and/or in the concept of life.

When I’m having a crisis of meaning how am I explaining myself and my existence to myself and how does that devalue me in such a way that I conclude that there’s no meaning to life.

I might evaluate my daily activities and rank them according to the extent to which they enhance or contaminate my positive self esteem.

I’m aware from the above notion of evaluating my daily activities that after the fact is when I’m apt to get a positive or negative self-esteem hit.

2009 goals and schedules

Happy New Year.  Where will 2009 take me?  I’m at a rather good place in life and do like much of our living here in Juneau set up. Love the house, the shop is setting up bit by bit, my music learning is proceeding steadily, my health is good with one caveat which is that my blood pressure is too high. Continue Reading »

Self reflections

Last day of the year. Upon awakening at about 4 AM I found myself reflecting on where I am and where I want to be. I’m feeling mildly at loose ends with how I want to organize my time living here in Juneau.  I know the things that I have as priorities: guitar, woodworking, writing, exercise club, but beyond the generalities I’m having trouble Continue Reading »