If You Seek Wisdom Drop Your Opinions

The Buddha observed that if you seek wisdom you should drop your opinions. Experience has taught me an additional truth: if you seek wisdom develop your capacity to empathize, perceive and see issues from someone else’s point of view. Specifically, just because an idea or issue isn’t important to you (or doesn’t affect you directly) this doesn’t mean that that idea isn’t worthy of consideration or that the issue isn’t important in principle.

Too many of us, without even realizing it, think and operate from a narrow position of egocentrism or self-interest; we think we’re informed, and we hold strong opinions, but–instead of seeing the 1s and 0s that make-up reality like Neo from The Matrix–we are ultimately just making things up as we go along. We are being arbitrary. This kind of thinking follows the formula: if I don’t personally approve of X, or if I don’t like X, I appeal to a combination of my dislike, and fundamental ignorance, as a sort of evidence in support of my opinion on X. The problem, though, is your like or dislike has absolutely nothing to do with anything whatsoever.

I’ll explain.

I make mistakes in reasoning all of the time. I know for a fact I reach conclusions without having all the necessary information or without taking time for proper consideration. So why, I wonder, should I ever hold an opinion or view so strongly I am unwilling to change my mind? Moreover, should my experience ever be the standard by which everything else and everyone else is measured? I’m thinking, no.  I understand people are going to form opinions (that’s inevitable). Yet, isn’t it possible to form more thoughtful, nuanced, and principled opinions? I think so. But we must practice more empathy and more humility. We have to drop some of our opinions.

Former American Vice-President Dick Cheney was an outspoken opponent of the LGBTQ community for decades. Then, suddenly, he changed his mind…when his daughter came out as a lesbian. Now he supports gay rights. Gay rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. The rights of people of color are human rights. Rights don’t just belong to my tribe. Cheney should’ve supported gay people, not because his daughter is gay (and he is now personally affected), but because reasonable people should seek to operate from a consistent set of principles and beliefs. If you do otherwise, you are just making stuff up as you go and living incoherently (worse still you’re imposing your incoherence on others).

 

According to the Buddha, when we form opinions we are creating not discovering reality. We construct a narrative that both makes sense to us personally and which agrees with whatever political culture we just so happen to belong to by the accident of our birth. Arguably, we need to create meaning; doing so helps us navigate and make sense of the world; nevertheless, in the process of creating meaning we would do well to avoid becoming a sort Dr. Frankenstein giving life to a monster (an opinion) reflecting our vanity on to an unwitting world; rather, we have a certain ethical responsibility to ourselves and others to think and contemplate well; and, if you can, give life to opinions reflecting principles that are self-evidently true rather than to ones satisfying the need to win arguments or mock others. In the end, there’s more that links us than separates. Perhaps if we forget some of the things we were taught, or that we’ve taught ourselves, we can in principle work towards building better and happier communities.
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Quotables #5

It is indeed remarkable how strongly a person will believe X is true based on the slimmest (or even complete lack of ) evidence while at one and the same time deny Y is true that actually has empirical and observational evidence in support of it.

The World Needs More of Canada

My American friend Lane wondered why Canada turned out so different than the United States. While conducting some research for a Canadian Studies class I teach, I came across the following paragraph explaining why Canada followed the direction it did (despite forces pushing it in other directions):

“What was revolutionary in Canada was not so much the arrival of democracy at its conception. Democracy arrived as a broad program of social, political, economic, and administrative policies consciously and intellectually designed to bring together opposing religions, languages and races. What was radical was the idea that a fair democracy could be based not on a definition of race as an expression of a nation state, but on what today we would call diversity; fairness was the key to diversity and diversity to fairness. The second revolutionary fact was that the Canadian movement was based on the rigorous use of political restraint, precisely the opposite of reform and revolutionary movements in Europe (1848) and the United States (1776-1783). Third, the reform movement here would manage to hold on to power while the others collapsed” (Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin by John Raulston Saul (p.5-6)).

Canada’s English elite in 1848 genuinely believed in the importance of a race-based authoritarian form of government (dominated by the English minority); however, two leaders emerged–Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a Quebec politician) and Robert Baldwin (from Ontario)–who challenged the notion we had to live in two solitudes or warring tribes by bringing French and English together; these two men faced considerable pressure to give into the temptation to use violence to advance their political vision for the country; nevertheless, they had the courage and foresight to support, unequivocally, a principle of fairness where all of Canada’s stakeholders (relative to the 1840s) were given equal security under the law; and they created a country (and political process) where people were willing to make decisions based on one another’s opinions and well-being instead of one’s origins or tribe.

LaFontaine and Baldwin are my heros. The world needs more of Canada.

https://www.historicacanada.ca/…/heritag…/baldwin-lafontaine

Btw, LaFontaine was Canada’s first prime minister (pre-Confederation).

Mr. King & Me

Martin Luther King Jr. observed he’d (and the civil rights movement) placed too much hope in white people, in that, after some freedoms had been won and initial progress made they abandoned African Americans. King argued white people were more concerned about stability than justice.

I’m a white dude. I also consider(ed) myself a moderate. I contemplated King’s words and I wonder: am I part of the problem? By wanting to just introduce piece-meal reform of the existing system, am I actually getting in the way of something better?

I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. I definitely wouldn’t prefer living under some sort of communist system; I’ll take class systems and freedom of mobility over that every time. But I’m not exactly in favor of an economic system that pools so much wealth into so few hands that it actually contributes to political instability and human suffering.

So, what exactly do we replace capitalism with? Capitalism lite? I like Hedges because he identifies the symptoms of what’s wrong. But, man, where are the people who can genuinely articulate what we can replace the extant system with? And what would prevent that system from simply being dominated by some sort of elite eventually?

I just want people to be free, happy and secure. What political system allows us to achieve that? Democracy and the rule of law are definitely great steps towards this. Hmmm. Maybe reforming the existing system, meaningfully, can achieve some semblance of a more equitable, just society?

We Have a Choice

Sobering. So we have a choice: democratically and as voluntarily as possible make the ‘Great Transition’ to a post-carbon based economy (and grow our economy in that direction, ie. hey conservatives we can still grow an economy, jobs, etc. through renewables…it is possible…fossil fuels aren’t the only way (look up ‘false dichotomy)) or we can maintain the status-quo and coast blindly in to a future fraught with risk where governments will be forced to take Draconian measures to limit our climate impact.

What little room/time we had to maneuver gradually to a solution has been lost. If we would have taken climate change seriously in the 90s (which scientists did as corporations spent money on media campaigns to obfuscate the issue and confuse the public to prevent action) we would have ultimately been in a better position to make the transition we need to make today.

You do not have to be a psychic to read the future. You just need to be scientifically literate.

http://www.iflscience.com/environment/what-would-happen-climate-if-we-stopped-emitting-greenhouse-gases-today/

Teaching White Hatred…Accidentally

There are a lot of websites and videos online illustrating how terrible Europeans were with respect to establishing their overseas colonies or how poorly minorities have been treated in the former colonies of Canada and the United States. These sources are often used in primary, secondary and university classrooms. These ideas have their place in an accurate retelling of Canada’s and every other Western nation’s history.

I wonder though: how effectively is this information being presented? Is it taught in a nuanced way where students emerge with an appreciation for the overall ethical and historical significance of these events? Or is it taught in such a way as to push people towards fascism, towards obstructionism, or to reinforce an ideology like progressivism? Regrettably, the way these things are taught sometimes has unintended consequences.

The unstated premise of “white people have enjoyed unearned privilege and power” could be “white people are the enemy of progress.” I accept, historically speaking, that because of that power white people have inflicted–intentionally and unintentionally–a lot of pain and repression on people of color and other marginalized peoples. Also, I totally support the justice aims of everyone being secure in their person and equal under the law; however, the villianizing of white people will no more establish a culture of tolerance, or a more equitable and sympathetic society, than the repression of marginalized peoples could.

I am white (and a male) but I most certainly did not establish the reserve or residential school system. I never held the opinion that women could not do anything a man could do. I have always argued in favour of Canada possessing a progressive tax regime where the nation’s most vulnerable have access to healthcare or unemployment insurance. My being the prototypical “white male” has nothing to do with the values I hold; a sense of justice isn’t limited by or an expression of genetics.

So, I think it would be great if schools taught the facts–that yes Canada has some sordid periods of history–but avoid teaching this collective white guilt nonsense.

To illustrate: when I learned about Catholic repression of Lutherans during the 15th century when I was in my grade 10 history class, I automatically sided with the Lutherans and came to detest Catholicism. This is because I had no larger context to operate under. I had a knee jerk reaction (typical of emotion rather than reason at work). I just saw injustice in the most immediate sense and failed to see a larger picture (mainly because my history teacher was substandard). Over time I came to see the issue in a more nuanced way and that I did not have to practice self hatred (I was a Catholic) in order to feel fraternity with Protestants.

I have since studied race relations at the university level and had professors tell me only white people are capable of being racist or repressing others. I challenged that notion in class by appealing to racial/ethnic differences being the cause of genocides in Rwanda and Turkey in the 20th century; and I pointed to the fact that the Chinese have an unflattering term used in reference to white people that translates to ‘garbage’ and that during the 1930s and 40s Japan taught master race theory to its people. My professors largely ignored me (one literally telling me to just be quiet).

So it seems I had crappy professors and teachers at every level: myopic intellectuals fixated on the moment or present need, incapable of seeing a larger picture.
If we are realistic we accept the fact any individual can not only experience racism but also be a racist. Schools that teach a limited narrative, that refuse to build an appropriate overall context are inadvertently teaching young white people not only to hold a greater sense of civil responsibility to others but also, potentially, to feel a sense of “white guilt.” This is counter-productive; and while this might appease the emotional requirements for revenge held by some of the more emotionally charged folks out there, it results in the creation of a self defeating fiction.

Effective teaching would not result in this happening. If you go into teaching, please do not do this.

The Continued Influence of Ancient Greece

Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.

So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.

Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.