A Plague of Free Thinkers

Ever since a certain music superstar of a certain chromatic disposition tweeted out his approval of the a similarly melanated individual’s cognitive workings–a person who happens to occupy a different spot on the political spectrum than most of her co-colorists–“free thinker” has been bandied about by a whole lot of people to describe themselves.

It’s an utterly meaningless term that is so smarmy and self-righteous it makes me want to puke.

Everybody on Earth think’s they’re a free thinker. Every one. Unless you are literally under some form of mind control (for example, under threat of physical violence or imprisonment or other harsh penalties for not expressing certain viewpoints), all of us think we arrived at our viewpoints based on thinking freely about all available options, looking at things from every side’s perspective, being open-minded, and so on.

The only problem is that it’s all nonsense. We have a plague of “free thinkers.”

People have biases. People have trouble overcoming biases. People are often not even aware of their biases. People also almost to a man think that they’re smarter than the average person, or even the above-average person, on every topic imaginable–call it Dunning-Kruger if you must, but I like the term illusory superiority.

I ask you again, then, what makes your thinking freer than that other guy’s thinking?

More often than not, the measure of the other guy’s status and ability as a free thinker is how well the other guy’s conclusions match with your own. If that proverbial other guy agrees with you, then wow! You’ve found another free thinker! But if their conclusions don’t align with yours, then I guess they’re just an unthinking, brainwashed buffoon. There can’t be any other explanation, right?

If you can’t see the problem with this line of thinking, then you are a part of the problem.

This line of thinking is what demagogues and propagandists of all stripes and persuasions use to build and condition their little armies–and sometimes their big armies–into believing that they are utterly right about everything and the other guy is utterly devoid of humanity. And when you have a scapegoat who’s not even human, the only sane, rational, and good answer is to completely stomp them out.

If you’ve ever wondered what can drive somebody to get really violent over a difference of political opinion, well, here’s part of the answer.

Being right feels good. This explains the asinine “We’re on the right side of history!” argument political terrorists use to punish those who disagree, because they’re obviously on the wrong side of history, and wrong is bad and needs to be exterminated.

The answer isn’t to be full of constant self-doubt and hold nothing ever to be true. This is a different kind of plague, one that we see writ large in the majority of modern European societies. They have questioned everything about themselves to the point of bottomless self-loathing; they don’t even believe their own societies should exist anymore, and are acting accordingly.

And let me tell you, I’m sure all of them think they’re the freest of free thinkers who ever freely thought.

And they’re right. They can probably explain to you how they reached their conclusions.

This, I think, is the distinction between “free thinkers” and “not free thinkers”–if you insist on using this terminology. Not whether the person agrees with you, but whether you can actually explain how you reached a conclusion and why.

Continue reading “A Plague of Free Thinkers”

Cultural Traps, Part IV

America is a funny place. And Americans are a funny bunch (when we can actually agree on what the hell being an American even means anymore, but I digress).

As time passes and more strangeness unfolds, I realize that the older I get, the more that criticisms of this country that would have rankled a younger me now see valid and very well-founded. It’s not that my love of this country has diminished with age. It’s that my uncritical, unthinking love of this country has diminished with age, as has my uncritical, unthinking love of ANYTHING.

Music, philosophy, politics . . . you name it. Things are different now, and assumptions have to be examined accordingly. That’s what my Cultural Traps series is all about. That said, let’s look at a few more of those supposedly unshakable American tendencies that either make no sense, or trap you in a harmful way of thinking that doesn’t let you fairly and accurately examine all sides of an issue.

Now, I know every culture on Earth has its own traps and foibles, but I’m an American, dammit. So I’m focusing on ‘MERICA!

Here we go.

Being Immune to History. I read an article the other day on The Federalist by a gentleman named Jesse Kelly–normally a pretty funny guyabout his preference that the United States peaceably split. A “divorce,” he calls it. It’s an interesting premise, and one has to rid oneself of the typical American tendency–discussed here–to have a hysterical, knee-jerk reaction to even the merest utterance of an idea in order to appreciate what Kelly says that’s deeper than “we should have an amicable split”:

Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history. If you don’t believe me, go try to book a plane ticket to Czechoslovakia, or look at a map of Europe from the year 1600, then look at one today. See any differences? Borders move. Countries split and change hands. They do this for a myriad of reasons.

A rebuttal on the same website, written by one Lyman Stone, calls this idea dangerous and impracticable, if you’re interested in reading the counterpoint. I’m not here to debate the merits of this idea. But I do think Kelly raises an interesting point when he says “Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history.”

By and large, Americans have an extremely narrow view of history. We seem to believe that history began in either 1963, if you ask Mr. Larkin, or five minutes ago, if you ask anyone born between 1997 and 2000.

Get “woke.” Get on “the right side of history.”

Those who wish us harm have very long memories and even longer time-horizons and visions for the future. Remember, the Chinese still smart over their humiliation at the hands of Western powers some two-hundred years ago, and ISIS and al-Qaeda and their ilk are still mad about the Crusades . . .

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Meanwhile, we here in America are totally convinced that we can eliminate all crime by disarming the populace or something.

Worse, we’re absolutely convinced that everything will continue the way it has just because. Bad things never happen here, nor will they ever. Our way of life will continue in perpetuity, and America will always be the Top Dog because of some undifferentiated belief in “Freedom!” no matter how many stupid, short-sighted policies are shoved down our throats.

Concurrent with this trap is the inability to even conceive that something may at some point change, or that maybe the way we do things isn’t the best way to do things. Who knows? Maybe this country will split someday, or some of the bigger states will break up into smaller, more representative states. Or maybe some states will want to leave entirely. Or maybe the United States will not remain the world’s only hegemon, either militarily or economically.

Hey, it could happen. But no one wants to talk about it.

Stuff like this “sneaks up” on us because we are blind to its possibility. Nothing occurs “just because” or “for no reason whatsoever.” Effects have causes. By being blind to this, thinking that America is truly the peak of civilization obviates the need to improve and leaves you with stagnation and rot which will really bring the whole thing crumbling down.

This tendency, this false sense of security, might be the most tragic aspect of the whole American experience. Which brings me to the next cultural trap in this discussion. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part IV”

When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake

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I understand, appreciate, and even applaud the instinct to stick it to the man. There’s so much sanctimonious, stifling, joyless politically correct nonsense around today that it deserves a good poke in the eye. Several, actually. If the brittle and clearly disturbed champions of the new “decency” are so mentally fragile that they can be broken by a damn politician, then they deserve all of the triggering they get.

It would be fine if people like this weren’t telling the rest of us how to live our lives all the time. But they do. And that’s what I object to.

That said, doing something for the sole purpose of pissing off the “right” people is just dumb. Dumb and counterproductive.

It reduces any actual movement, as it were, to a parody. Mere trollingA novelty act.

Spiteful posturing is the province of adolescents. It’s similar to the worst of the hippies back in the 60s, who wanted to tear everything down because they didn’t want to be “square,” which really meant (a) not getting drafted (which I can understand), (b) not wanting to work, and (c) “free love.”

Now, there’s a similar desire to say and do things just to send the morality crusaders into an admittedly amusing tizzy of rage.

But beyond that?

If there’s nothing underneath the controversy, it makes you look unserious. And being unserious is actually serious business.

If there’s no intellectual heft behind your “triggering,” no steak beneath the sizzle, it becomes a gag, and a gag only works once. Continue reading “When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake”

We Are All Frauds

Hypocrisy mask

Authenticity is an elusive concept. We all want to be “true to ourselves.” But this first requires that we know who we are.

There’s also an important, overlooked second part, and that is this: authenticity lies in acting in accordance with who we are, or at the very least, how we wish we could be.

In his excellent guest post here, Avtomat Khan of Hidden Dominion discussed the idea of sharing who you are and what you think, regardless of consequences, lest others control you via you putting undue emphasis on what they think of you.

Hmm . . . that sounds familiar. Almost like the title of a book I read recently. And like that book–Ed Latimore‘s Not Caring What Other People Think Is A Superpower–such an internal harmony is the best way to avoid charges of hypocrisy.

And remember: Hypocrisy isn’t bad only because other people will know you’re a fake or a fraud. It’s bad because you will know it too.

Authenticity Graph

I think about this because, as someone who blogs on the Internet, likes to write, and uses social media as a way to communicate, get a few laughs, learn, blow off steam, and even indulge in a little self-promotion, I wonder about the fact that somewhere there may be someone who actually takes what I say seriously.

This is both humbling and frightening. Humbling, because I like to think that I do have some wisdom worth sharing, and frightening, because who the hell am II’m just some dope with a WordPress account.

And worst of all, for my own sense of cognitive well-being, I don’t share everything with all of you. So how can you know if I’m authentic or not? And I don’t act the way I want and just let the chips fall where they may. If I did that, I probably wouldn’t have a wife, or a job, or friends . . .

So am I really true to myself? Continue reading “We Are All Frauds”

Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Moses Maimonides - The Guide for the Perplexed cover

How does one “review” a dense, millennia-old treatise on Jewish philosophy and religion?

One doesn’t. But what one can do is share insights and particularly powerful ideas and concepts with another.

In The Guide for the Perplexed, written around 1190 in Moor-occupied Spain, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (aka Maimonides aka Rambam) writes to his student Rabbi Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta, to remove some of his confusions regarding certain aspects of faith and philosophy.

The Guide touches on many, many topics including:

  • The multiple meanings of Hebrew words and how to properly interpret the Torah (aka the first five books of the Old Testament)
  • Aristotelian philosophy: what Aristotle got right and wrong
  • Problems Maimonides sees with certain aspects of Islamic theology
  • The nature of God and proof of His existence
  • The nature of evil, and why it exists
  • Divine Providence
  • The nature of angels, prophecy (with a detailed discussion of Ezekiel) and dreams
  • Astronomy (as understood at the time) and the “spheres”
  • The purpose of God’s commandments

And yet instead of seeming disjointed, the Guide has as a constant thread two main themes:

  1. Discerning who God is and what He wants
  2. Achieving perfection, as much as possible, by coming to true knowledge of God

It’s heavy stuff, but it makes you appreciate the magic of the written word, and how one man’s letters nearly one thousand years ago still speak to us today, explaining mysteries and, as the title says, removing perplexities . . . or at least easing them and providing a way forward for further studies and thought.

Moses Maimonides statue Cordoba, Spain

Regular readers of Amatopia know that I am a Christian and don’t shy about writing on religious topics, so if that isn’t your bag, you have been warned. But even though Maimonides was Jewish, there is much overlap between Judaism and Christianity–same God, same creation stories, same traditions, similar rites (or at least the meaning behind them) and much of the same general theology and philosophy about God and man.

Obviously, Christians accept Christ as the promised Messiah and Son of God described in Jewish prophecy and Jews regard Him as a prophet and religious leader, but not Divine.

But the point remains: Christians can get a lot out of The Guide for the Perplexed. And even if you are not Christian, Jewish, or religious at all, Maimonides is a powerful thinker you will get a lot out of reading. Here are eight of my favorite takeaways from The Guide for the Perplexed:

Continue reading “Eight Insights About God, Man, and Creation from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed

Cultural Traps, Part III

Observing your own culture with a detached eye helps one recognize the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. I’ve written about some of these traps before, those parts of American culture that we all take for granted but might not actually make sense.

In this third edition, I’m going to look at some things that might be emerging trends in America that are both really stupid and really dangerous, many culled from my own experiences and observations. 

Some of these might not be uniquely American. They may just be human nature. But when I see my countrymen and women (whatever the hell that means anymore) act like scary monsters, I can’t help but see these tendencies shaded in red, white, and blue. 

Opposing one thing automatically means liking the other.

Are you against the death penalty? Then you clearly want to open all the prisons and are super-soft on crime.  

…or maybe you’re just against the death penalty. 

Perhaps you oppose partial-birth abortion. You obviously want women at risk of death die from birth complications to die. 

…or maybe you’re just against partial-birth abortion. 

This might be more of a logical fallacy than a cognitive trap, but it is still (a) everywhere l, and (b) dumb.

Unintelligent people think like this, or liars. I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s true. One is either incapable of seeing this trap, or is wielding it as a rhetorical club. 

If the former, you can learn. If the latter, its effective, sure, but it really doesn’t move the needle in any direction. It does something that could arguably be another entry on this list, which is assuming ill intent on the part of the other. Rhetorically, it’s a weapon. But it weakens your own position and makes you look silly. You risk losing credibility, which in a debate–akin to a trial–is the kiss of death.  

Disproportionality and overreaction, aka hysteria.

Debating is an art that requires practice and preparation. It also requires an understanding of the rules of a particular interaction, such as whether the relationship with your opponent will be ongoing, whether you’re trying to change the other’s mind, or whether you’re trying to illustrate a point to your observers. But either way, you want to make your points using reason, logic, and evidence.

Of course, what really changes hearts and minds is emotion. So use rhetoric where applicable. It’s very effective, and for some people, whether you call them midwits or IYIs (“intellectuals, yet idiots,” per Nassim Nicholas Taleb), that’s all they understand.

This trap dovetails nicely with the first, but it’s distinguished by what I call default nuclear. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part III”

Learn the Hate

America. It’s a divided place. This is no great revelation born of years and years of study and contemplation, but a conclusion one can make by scanning the Internet or television or media of your choice for ten seconds. 

One-third hates the other third, and the remaining third doesn’t care. 

But those two side that hate each other, boy is there a lot of enmity. 

This “blue state/red state” divide has gotten worse since these terms came into vogue around 2004. 

The red side accuses the blue side of living in a bubble. The blue side claims the bubble is a myth. 

The bubble is a myth? Please. I live in it. 

I’ve got a red-state core but I love and travel in blue-state circles, so I notice things others might not.

There’s a lot of hate, yes, but there’s is precious little understanding about why. 

And I think this is a big problem. 

It’s as important to understand why the other side hates you as it is to understand why you hate the other side. 

I hear a lot of the affluent, highly educated urbanites laugh at Trump’s constituency, but underneath the indignation and political disagreement is a layer of genuine hurt: These folks don’t understand why many reject them and the work that they do. 

Being called the “deep state” for merely doing their job. Distrusted as the cause of economic misery. And worst, being accused of not caring, which to this set is what really stings. 

They’re supposed to be the compassionate ones! What gives? Continue reading “Learn the Hate”