A Dialogue about the Mind


The Preface:

James: I’ve been worrying about my mind, Stanley.

Stanley: Oh no. For what reason?

James: I don’t think it has the power I once thought it did.

Stanley: What do you mean?

James: Well, I used to think my mind was an objective arbiter – that somehow, after listening to an argument, I could determine what was absolutely true or absolutely false.

Stanley: You’ve grown out of this?

James: Indeed. How could it be that my mind could know anything about “absolute” reality? You have to take into context our position as humans. We’re pitiful little creatures who have become adept at navigating our physical world. Our brains have developed to merely aid our survival. Human survival does not depend on black-and-white judgments, but instead accurate probabilities.

If I am looking at this chair, to ask “Does this chair actually exist in reality?” is pointless. All we need to know is, “To the best of my knowledge, does this chair exist, and will it break if I try to use it?”.

After all, how could it be that a creature could ever evolve the capacity to know “absolute” reality anyway? Yes, the complex circuitry in our brains creates incredibly powerful computing-capacity. But how can one make the jump from electric signals in the brain to ultimate arbiter of truth?

Put it this way: our senses give us lots of data about the external world, but our data-set is always changing and expanding. Just because we’ve seen a consistent pattern over a certain amount of time doesn’t mean we then “know” “the truth”. Finite data input can never result in perfect knowledge. I am homo sapien, not homo angelicus.

Stanley: I see your point. Thus you would conclude: with such limitations, it is impossible to know anything about reality with complete certainty.

James: Correct. To think otherwise seems presumptuous.

SocratesStanley: Such skepticism forces you to keep an open mind, does it not?

James: Of course. If you can’t know anything with certainty, one is always open to the idea of being wrong. This results in intellectual humility.

Stanley: Allow me, then, to ask you a few questions. If your argument withstands further skepticism, I, too, will conclude that we are inescapably bound by our finite thinking.

James: By all means.

The Argument:

Stanley: You mentioned this chair earlier. We both believe it exists, but you’d say we can not know, right?

James: Correct. I sense that it exists, but I do not know my senses are accurate.

Stanley: Interesting. But you sense it?

James: My eyes perceive it. But again, I can’t know if it is “objectively” there. It could be a hallucination.

Stanley: You’ve missed my point. Is it true that you have a sensory experience of a chair?

James: Yes, as I have said three times.

Stanley: Is it absolutely, objectively true that you have a sensory experience of a chair?

James: Oh, I see where you are going. Well no, I can’t know such a thing. That presupposes all sorts of things I can’t know.

Stanley: Then let’s go one step further: do you have sensory experience at all?

James: I think so, but I don’t know. I don’t even know “I” exist.

Stanley: We might debate that point, but let’s go one more step. Does perception exist?

James: I don’t know what “exist” means.

Stanley: Fair enough. How about this: in reality, is there such a thing as perception? Regardless of if perception is accurate, and regardless of whether or not “you” exist, tell me, is perception a real phenomenon?

James: Well…

Stanley: Even if nobody else experiences it, and you can’t ever know if your communication of such a phenomenon is possible, think to yourself: does it happen?

James: Yes, I suppose it does.

Stanley: Are you sure?

James: Well, yes, perception is happening to me right now.

Stanley: Are you absolutely certain?

James: That perception is happening? Yes.

Stanley: So, you’re saying that you know something is true about reality with perfect certainty?

James: Well… I don’t know if I would put it that way.

Stanley: If it is the case that perception happens, and you know that perception happens (as you have a direct insight into whether or not it does), it must be the case that perception happens “in reality”. If that is true, then you must know something is true about reality.

James: I can’t really conclude otherwise. The only way to remain skeptical is to doubt whether or not perception exists, and I can not deny that I experience perception.

Stanley: Then perhaps the worry about your mind was misplaced. Your mind must possess the capacity to discern absolute truth from absolute falsehood, as that is what you have just done. This seems like nothing to worry about!

James: But how can my mind do such a thing?

Stanley: I don’t know. That is square two. We were just dealing with square one. Just because we don’t know the how at this moment, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Perhaps we’ll have a future conversation about it.

James: I hope so.

Stanley: There are just a couple things I would like to suggest, in conclusion.

James: Please do.

Stanley: There is no reason to believe we can only discover one truth – that perception is a real phenomenon. All we have to do is deeply analyze why it’s the case we can know things are true or false with certainty. In fact, we might even be able to discover a technique, if you will, for knowing. What conclusions can be known? I’m not sure what the total amount is, but I know many.

But that is a conversation for another time.

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Intellectual Pomposity

I’d like to address a certain pet-peeve of mine. Like many of my other pet-peeves, it is a methodological mistake: intellectual pomposity.

No, I am not talking about that guy who is convinced he’s right regardless of what other people say. Claiming that one argument is superior to another is not pompous. The pomposity shines through when, instead of making a counter-argument, one simply says something like the following:

“Oh, so everyone else is wrong but you?”
“Do you have a Ph.D. on the topic?”
“Well who are you to claim such a thing?”
“All the experts disagree with you…”

Now, I am not saying that it is unwise to acknowledge “expert” opinion. Nor is it unwarranted to ask if a given speaker has relevant credentialing on a topic. However, these are secondarily relevant. The argument itself, regardless of the deliverer of it, is what must be grappled with.

What a grand methodological mistake it is to dismiss an argument based on the qualities of the speaker. There is no logical relation between the argument and the arguer, and it is the height of pretense to overlook this. To engage in such intellectual discrimination (which can be called a “methodological dismissal”) is the gravest of sins.

Granted, it is popular. After all, who would take a child’s word when it stands opposed to a physicist’s? Are we to really take seriously the philosophical claims made by a hobo? Should a drop-out’s argument be treated as severely as a post-grad’s?

Yes. Absolutely, and without exception.

How can this be? Doesn’t this render one incapable of real intellectual progress? Actually, it is quite the opposite. In fact, I think the discernment process becomes streamlined even more so than the alternative, after a short amount of time. Here’s how:

Instead of dismissing arguments based on who is arguing (which streamlines life, but runs into the risk of dismissing accurate beliefs), there is another way to cut through crap: dismiss arguments based on the argument itself. If it’s the case that a given proposition contradicts another proposition which is known to be true, that proposition must be false. Thus, by discovering true propositions, one can easily sort through any kind of argument and decide whether or not it warrants dismissal.

To give an economic example, if I know that an increase in the amount of money in an economy does not increase people’s standard of living on net, any proposition which disagrees with that principle must be false. And, any argument which uses such a false proposition at the heart of its theory is false as well (or, at the very least, has no reason to be believed).

If I know that I exist, any argument which suggests otherwise must be false, regardless of who makes the argument, how passionately they make it, and how many other people agree with them.

We can call this justified dismissal. Let the argument stand by itself, then determine if it should be rejected. As the pool of known-truths grows, so does the ability and quickness for discernment. Children usually do not make sound arguments, and contradictions can be very quickly discovered.

As I have argued before, the most important area of study, especially at the beginning of a pursuit of truth, is methodology. Thinking about thinking itself. When you can spot logical fallacies a mile away, you can dismiss bad arguments a mile away. When people make the same mistakes over and over, you don’t have to worry about which expert said what, or what the “majority” accepted opinion is. If the same methodological mistake is made, that argument is inaccurate.

Again, this is the case for logical reasoning. Truth exists, which you can know with certainty, and any proposition which does not comply with logical reasoning must necessarily be false.

(As an example, an “expert” who has been regarded as one of the smartest men on the planet – Stephen Hawking – has recently written about the concept of “nothing”. He says that “we now know that the universe can create itself out of nothing”. This is supposed to answer the problem of an infinite regress. Problem is, he uses a grossly wrong definition of “nothing”. Thus, any conclusions he draws while using a bad definition are essentially worthless. They might be right, but only by chance, and there is no reason to believe such an argument. Regardless, physicists’ continue to parade such nonsense as fact, as those who aren’t considered “expert” oblige to keep humbly silent.)

This can largely be boiled down to the following: when it comes to the pursuit of truth, you are on your own. Never cling to a belief because some “expert” said some words. If you dismiss arguments without hearing them, you will never know what you are missing.  Being intellectually pompous might win you favor, and you might feel part of the “in-crowd”, but you are infinitely more likely to believe falsehoods. Listen to all arguments, then analyze, then decide how accurate they might be. When it comes down to beliefs, you have the final say (and hopefully because of this, you will let logic be the arbiter), not anybody else, regardless of their credentialing, or lack thereof.

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What is insanity? What is the standard of sanity? Are the close-minded insane?

I have always been fascinated with so-called “crazy” people. That guy on the sidewalk with the guitar every Sunday morning yelling about how Jesus was actually the devil. Serial killers who are literally obsessed with killing – something so horrifying it boggles the mind. The guy who is convinced he is Jesus, Elvis, or Napoleon reincarnate because a dog told him so.

What makes a crazy person crazy? What is going on in the minds of the insane? They seem so unfazed by what other people think of them. Isn’t that something to be admired? Not to mention, they are passionate about their beliefs, and are driven to act consistently with them. They don’t seem to worry about their insanity, perhaps because they do not view themselves as such.

Sounds carefree, no?

To give my conclusion up front: “insanity” is awfully hard to define, and, by my own definitions, so many people qualify that the word loses its significance. I have established some specific criteria, but before we look at them, we need to identify some difficulties with the topic.

So, let’s examine the case of Joe, who firmly believes he is Jesus. We note a few things:

#1: He holds a wrong belief (reality does not match his claims about reality).

#2: The methodology used to arrive at his belief is doubtful (e.g. a dog told him so)

#3: No amount of reasoned discourse will convince him otherwise.

What else can you say about Joe? I’d like to add more to the list, but everything seems to boil down to those three categories.

Right off the bat, we have a problem. In those notes, it seems like more than just the insane have been described. After all, most beliefs are not held due to rigorous critical analysis, and this means plenty of any particular human’s conclusions are likely to be wrong. On top of that, a universally flawless methodology might not be possessed by anyone. Furthermore, as frequent conversation with others will confirm, there is no shortage of close-minded people, who are unwilling to change their beliefs for any reason. I can not tell you how many people I have talked to in vain – no argument will change their minds. In fact, people will occasionally tell you outright: “You’re not going to convince me…” Well, what use is a definition of insanity which encompasses almost everyone?

I think the most crucial part of our description of the insane person is the #3 on our list: No amount of reasoned discourse will convince him otherwise. After all, there is nothing crazy about holding a wrong belief, given that you change it if presented with reasons to do so. Similarly, if someone points out a flaw in your methodology, it doesn’t mean you’re nuts, but simply that you are obligated to acknowledge the flaw and change it accordingly. However, if you absolutely refuse to change your mind, regardless of the reasons provided, that alone seems enough to question if one is sane or not.

If everybody else in the entire world says you are wrong, and they provide reasons, only a crazy person, literally, would not sway his belief, right?

Hmm, how does this differ from your close-minded grandfather? Regardless of the facts, those of a different skin color are stupider, he insists, dammit! Isn’t this the exact same methodological error?

Grandpa will not change his mind for any reason, nor will the crazy person. They have made the same methodological mistake (of close-mindedness). Does this mean grandpa, too, is insane?

Doesn’t grandpa fit all of the above criteria, as well? He’s wrong, his methodology is faulty, and he won’t change his mind. How come grandparents all over the world aren’t considered completely insane? How come grandpa’s son, and his grandson, who also believe the same thing for the same reason, aren’t labeled as 100% out-of-their-minds?

Here’s what I believe: it has to do with the nature of their conclusions, not their way of thinking. Grandpa isn’t lumped into the same category as Joe because society takes part in defining what sanity is.

Grandpa unequivocally believes X (other skin colors are stupider than his), which is false, for reason Y (racism), which is a faulty methodology.

Joe unequivocally believes A (that he is Jesus), which is false, for reason Z (a dog told him so), which is a faulty methodology.

These examples are structurally the same. One being “crazy” or just “close-minded” has nothing to do with the truth, but rather some arbitrary societal convention. Believing false proposition X just means you’re close-minded, while believing false proposition Y means you are a lunatic.

It seems that, using the popular conception of “insanity”, other people partake crucially in the confirmation of your beliefs. For example, if you say you are wearing a hat, and everyone around you can see that in fact, you are not, yet you are still convinced that you are wearing a hat, you are deemed “crazy”. Other people confirm whether or not your claims are accurate. Because no one can confirm whether or not Joe is Jesus, or whether or not a dog really spoke to him, even if these things are true, he will be labeled as crazy.

While someone who believes black people are intellectually inferior to white, for physical reasons, is labeled a curmudgeon and a racist, but no one will treat him as if he believed he were Jesus.

Now, this means that the standard of sanity is set not by you, but by other people outside who judge your claims against their own experiences; the standard is external. If your claims deviate from the norm enough, regardless of the truth, you are “crazy”.

However, truth has no logical relation to popular belief.

This leads us to an unfortunate situation. Given that most people do not think critically about their beliefs, if you use Reason to come to your conclusions, your beliefs are likely to be quite different from your peers. The deeper you go, the more you disagree with popular opinion. Does this mean that the more critically you think, the “crazier” you become?

If you value finding truth, shouldn’t the goal be to completely disconnect your beliefs from society’s, and thus, potentially arrive at complete insanity? “Complete insanity”, in this case, would have more intellectual justification for belief than most “sane” people would. And thus we conclude: what a poor definition of insanity!

How do you know you aren’t insane? People would tell you if it were so? How do you know each of those individuals is not insane, and thus, a bad standard of measurement? And, don’t forget, a crazy person does not realize they are crazy, right? So, if you can’t use an external compass, nor an internal one, what are you left with? Insanity? How can you know?

Enter my standard of criteria for insanity: there are propositions which are necessarily true, independent of any need for external confirmation, and if one refuses to accept them, one is insane.

Granted, acceptance of the truth of these propositions does not mean you are sane, but the rejection of them is the notifier of sure insanity.

All of these propositions can be boiled down to the formal structure: A=A.

For example, a thing is itself. A box is a box. A fish is a fish. Any thing that is, is. Whatever is, can not not-be, by virtue of it existing.

Whatever a thing is, if it is a thing, it is a thing – it is itself, whatever that may be. Remarkable!

Now, we can take these statements and fill them in a little bit more if we wanted to – language exists, the self exists, perception exists, and so on.

Because the laws of logic are necessarily inescapable (if a thing exists, it exists, which means that the laws of logic apply to literally everything which exists, if it exists), Logic is the external standard of sanity and truth.

But this box IS a fish…

If fact, this is so profound that we can say confidently: even everyone on the entire planet were arguing that a thing does not equal itself (A does not equal A), they are the insane ones. Yes, it is logically justifiable to do the most presumptuous thing imaginable: tell everyone else that they are wrong, that you are right, and you know it with certainty. And, if they disagree, they are objectively insane. How about that for intellectual humility!

Now, that being said, I am open to debate whether or not A=A. However, I know that it is true. I might even say, “It doesn’t matter what kind of argument you make, you won’t convince me.” However, this is not due to insanity, but due to the nature of any argument that could ever be conjured up against the proposition A=A: it would necessarily presuppose the laws of logic.

This is no different than saying, “Any bachelor that I meet will be unmarried.”. Well yes, necessarily so given the definitions. Given that all counter-arguments are counter-arguments (in other words, they inescapably presuppose logical rules), no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise, not because I choose it to be so, but because it is necessarily impossible. Unless, of course, you can make an argument without making an argument, speak without speaking, or disagree with me without disagreeing with me.

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Which comes first: head or heart?

The age-old question strikes again. Which is primary, your head or your heart? Given the emphasis I have placed on logical analysis, especially discovering necessary presuppositions, it should come as no shock that I think the heart should come before the head.

Say what?

Yes, that’s right, as it relates to an individual’s pursuit of truth, the heart plays a more critical role than the mind. How can this be? Well, I have a very specific definition of what I mean by “heart”. I don’t mean emotions and feelings. Rather, I mean intent. An individual’s intention comes before the application of their mind.

One can possess extraordinary mental prowess, but if they are not sincere in intending to find the truth, is it wise to trust any conclusions drawn by such a mind? For example, someone who can speak well might put forward very “good” reasons for why the government should act in a certain way, but if they financially benefit from such an action, does that cast extra doubt on the reasons put forward? Equally, an abusive husband might use all of his mental talents to create “reasons” for his behaviour, and he might craft an intricate theory for why his wife shouldn’t leave him. It doesn’t matter if these arguments came from Einstein, they aren’t sincere (his “heart” isn’t in the right place), and, therefore, we doubt their accuracy.

Do you trust a philosopher with malintent?

Would you trust the smartest person in the world, if you also believed he was disingenuous and narcissistic? Why not? What is his goal, and why is it relevant?

(If you answered yes to either of these questions, your naiveté will not get you one step closer to truth, only the approval of the person who is deceiving you. Trusting disingenuous people only gets rewarded in politics and academia.)

So, the boring qualities of “honesty”, “integrity”, and “sincerity” find themselves relevant to the pursuit of truth. We’re forced to turn the question inwards: Am I trustworthy? What is my own intent?

When I ask, “why do I believe this?”, does self-interest ultimately trump the sincere pursuit of truth? If I answer, “I believe X because… it’s practical/it works for me”, does that reflect poorly on my intent? Could it be the case that the truth gets overlooked because it doesn’t harmonize with my perceived self-interest?

If you are skeptical of a intellectually lazy philosopher, how skeptical must you be of your own conclusions, if you find laziness within your own thought processes!

Yes, with a hat tip to logical necessity, you can think of the heart being a necessary presupposition for human action. Before you speak, before you think, you do so because of your intention. Application of your head, but not your heart, is nothing more than intellectual pomposity.

In contrast, application of your heart, but not your head, is also a mistake, but it is a temporary one. If one is sincerely seeking truth, an overwhelming case can be made for the application of reason (your head) in order to discover it. Given that the heart is in the right place, discovery of this fact, and the consequential admission of inaccuracy and change of behaviour, is nothing difficult. In fact, it is exciting. Bad reasoning is hopelessly easier to correct than malintent.

Change of belief or action becomes seamless and productive when your intention is sincere (discovering inaccuracy sort of becomes the goal). However, it is nearly impossible to change your beliefs if your head is in the game, but not your heart. If you don’t ultimately care about truth, it is a lot easier to save face and make empty arguments – just enough to convince yourself you are still “justified” in believing a given proposition. Maybe the cop-out is that “there are so many different arguments, how could you say yours is correct?” and subsequent lack of acknowledgement of a superior argument. Been there, done that.

Here’s the exciting part: you are in total control of your intention. Even if you are overwhelmed by arguments and find the application of your head to be a daunting task, you can still control whether or not you are sincerely seeking truth. Granted, this may be difficult at first, as it requires truth to take priority over everything else in your life, even your immediate self-interest. Of course, I am not saying one should live as a hermit until they sort things out (though it is reasonable), simply that if there is ever conflict between the truth and your self-interest – or even the interest of your family – truth wins. Always. This means all of one’s beliefs are at the mercy of proper argumentation. This should hopefully light a fire under the buttocks. Learn how to think accurately, critically, and logically, and then see what conclusions you can draw. It is much wiser (and easier in the long run) to base your life off of the truth, than some convenient lies which keep life “easy”.

Once you’ve determined to get your heart in the right place, and intend on sincerely pursuing truth, then (after you’ve built up a critical methodology) you can trust your conclusions, and the reasons for them. It’s true, given that there aren’t too many people of whom you can be certain their intention, this puts you somewhat on an intellectual island. But that is the inescapable fate of a truth-seeker: you are ultimately responsible for your beliefs, not anyone else – not your parents, your pastor, your spouse, or the “experts”.

So, in this sense, your heart comes before your head.

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Why ideas control your life

The whole world revolves around ideas. Every decision you make is because of your ideas. In fact, all human action throughout history – every uttered word, every daily choice, every conscious movement – is directed by the ideas and beliefs of each actor.

Don’t believe me? The argument can be summarized in one word: “Why?”

Take, for example, the following situations:

1. Talking on the phone
2. Choosing vanilla over chocolate
3. Mowing the lawn
4. Helping someone
5. Working for money
6. Paying your bills
7. Going to war

So, example #1, you are talking on the phone. Why? It might be because you are ordering a pizza, talking to your mother, calling the police, philosophizing with a friend, etc. There are innumerable reasons for you to be on the phone. There are also innumerable beliefs and ideas which must be held if you are behaving in such a way.

If you are talking to your mother, you must have believed in the effectiveness of pressing numbers into a telephone. You must believe that your voice has the capacity to communicate with another person, that the sounds coming out of your mouth will be understood as words. If you are calling the police, you have the idea that a certain situation is more likely to be ameliorated by contacting them than by not, that police station has a phone on their premises, and so on.

Granted, these might not be conscious thoughts passing through your head before you make a phone call, but upon introspection, you can see that your subconscious at the very least must have an idea about these things.

I will go through the list more quickly now, just to illustrate. Example #2, you’ve chosen vanilla ice cream over chocolate. Why? It must be because you believe that vanilla will more likely satisfy your goals than chocolate. Your goal might be to eat it, to give it to someone else, to paint with it, but whatever it is, you have chosen vanilla for a reason, based on ideas.

Example #3, you are mowing the lawn. Why? Doing something so boring still requires ideas and beliefs. You must hold the idea that your push-mower will do the job you intend it to do. You believe, for some reason, that the lawn should be mowed, perhaps you have an idea of responsibility which leads towards such behaviour.

Example #4, you choose to help someone. Why? You believe that your actions will be effective in helping that person. You have an idea that it is a “nice thing to do”. You might choose to help someone because of deeper beliefs that you hold, about morality or religion, that you “ought” to act in a certain way.

Example #5, you go to work. Why? You might not like working, but you go anyway because you believe that you will get paid. You also hold the idea that the money with which your employer chooses to pay you can be used to purchase other goods or services. You have an idea of value.

Example #6, you pay your bills. Why? You belief that there will be consequences if you do not pay your bills. You hold a conceptual idea about how the money you send off is to pay for services that you use. You believe in the idea that when a company sees the check that you’ve written them, they will accept it as payment.

Example #7, you go to war. Why? You have an idea of the enemy threat. You belief that violent engagement is acceptable to protect your country. You have ideas about guns, bullets, and human bodies.

Etcetera. You get the idea (pun intended).

While it may seem like, on the surface, humans simply act willy-nilly, this is not the case. We function entirely on ideas. But we aren’t done yet. Let’s dig a little deeper. After all, you can ask the question, “Why?” more than once.

So, you find yourself on the telephone again. We’ve established that you must hold the belief that number-pressing will result in communication. Why? You’ve called people a million times before, and seen it done by others a million times before that. You believe that the police will make a situation better. Why? That’s what you’ve been told? You’ve interacted with them before? Why do you believe that what you were told is true? And so on.

The deeper we dig, the more ideas, reasons, and beliefs we discover. We also find a chain. Reasons demand reasons which demand reasons for your reasons. There is a very long chain of ideas which you hold, and it runs very, very deep. If one of those fundamental ideas changes, everything following it changes too, and eventually, your behaviour changes.

Now, you might say, “Not me, I don’t worry about all that stuff. I just live to have fun.” Oh, it isn’t so. You may think you’ve avoided the power of ideas, but you are just as chained to them as everybody else. You hold a belief that “happiness” or “fun” should be the goal of your actions. You have an idea about what behaviours will lead to the most “fun”. You believe “family” or “marriage” or “love” is objectively more important. You believe that it is a waste of time to philosophize and think about these things. You identify with the idea that you can never know what truth is anyway.


Any response is another reason. Your life is completely dominated by ideas, and you can’t escape it. Are your ideas accurate? Have you given careful thought to the most fundamental ideas which you hold? The ones that shape all the other ideas in your head? Have you been living consistently with false ideas? How would you answer that, and why would you respond that way? Based on what other ideas? What amount of time should you dedicate to sorting all this out, before running into other endeavors?

Wow, heavy, right?

But don’t despair. The sooner you understand this truth, the sooner you can take control of your own life. It is easy to conclude, when we are overwhelmed, that the truth is unknowable, or that it is hopeless to try to sort these things out. Those ideas are fundamental; they have big implications, and they are false.

Here’s the cool thing: in the world of ideas, there are rules you can discover. There are critical thinking techniques which allow you to cut through bad ideas with a razor. Before worrying about the specifics of what to think, take the time to learn how to think. Reject the beliefs that you’ve held without good reason, and start over. It’s scary at first, but nothing is more valuable. You’d be surprised how quickly the fog lifts once you discover, and hang on to, the first bits of truth.

My advice: acknowledge that your life is completely determined by the ideas which you hold, and, given their importance, treat them with appropriate caution and respect. In other words, base your life around them (it is already, but acknowledge it as so). Treating your ideas frivolously is like treating the steering wheel of a car frivolously. In no time, you’ll wind up in a ditch, and you’ll never get any farther down the road. Before you start getting wrapped up with destinations, you should first learn how the steering wheel works.

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Three a week: Spirituality

Plenty of people call themselves “spiritual”. Three questions:

Question 1: What does it mean to be “spiritual”?

I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this question. From what I understand, it generally means that an individual values “higher” goals than merely physical pleasure, and is supposedly more aware of how they fit into the bigger picture. [note: I am not talking about “spiritualism”, which is a philosophy based around the existence of “spirits” which can be communicated with]

They also seem to stress reflection upon the nature of “being”, or what the “self” is. This leads to the next question:

Question 2: Does being “spiritual” require you to reject physicalism?

I know people who would describe themselves as “spiritual”, but would chafe at the idea that things exist which are non-physical. If humans are physical animals, how can there be “higher” or “lower” values? Sex releases dopamine in the brain. So does love. Where does a hierarchy of values come from if everything is reducible to physicality?

I don’t think the implications of “spirituality” are understood by those who describe themselves as spiritual. It might sound romantic to talk about the spirit of humans, but it sounds downright crazy when you flesh that belief out to its conclusions.

Question 3: Can you be spiritual without a spirit?

I think “spirituality” can be more philosophically tolerable if it doesn’t require belief in the non-physical. One that sounds something like this:

Human beings, like everything else, are entirely physical, and are not animated by a non-physical “spirit”, but by the hard-wiring inside their bodies. Some humans are hard-wired to value reproduction highest, others to value relationships, others to exercise their brain in thought; there is no objective hierarchy of values, just subjective preferences based on the specific wiring of each homo sapiens’ brain.

Of course, that kind of takes the romance out of spirituality.

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Precise Communication: Concrete or Abstract? Even possible?

I am a fan of precise communication. Big time.

However, I wonder how accurately humans really communicate. You understand these words, right? No problem.

Well, let’s examine that a little deeper (it might seem tedious, but hang in there):

The cat is sitting on the chair.

Clear enough. You understood these words. But have we communicated precisely? (“Precisely” means that your understanding of those words matches what was intended.)

“The cat”? “Sitting”? “On the chair?” What comes to your mind when you read “the cat”? Is it the same thing that comes to my mind? If you visualize that sentence, does the cat have a color? Is it a house-cat, or maybe a lion?

What does “sitting” mean to you? Does this mean sitting like a cat, or sitting on its butt like a human? Might the cat be sitting in the lotus position?

“On the chair”? Does this mean on the normal part of the chair? The armrest? The back? What is meant by “chair”? Could a stool be a chair? Is it a chaise? Recliner?

He just uncrossed his legs.

I intended to communicate that there was a lion sitting cross-legged on a throne. Silly, yes, but revealing. (Nevermind what is meant by “lion”, “cross-legged”, or “throne”.) Unless this is what immediately came to your mind, my communication was not precise.

But hang on, given that the sentence “The cat is sitting on the chair” is so vague, what is actually communicated? Unless otherwise cleared up, those words mean completely different things to different people.

It is like the equivalent of saying, “that is there”. What is communicated by such a sentence? Anything? Are these essentially meaningless sounds? “That is there” means nothing? Literally, nothing? If it means something, what? And be specific.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Let’s say that there is some small level of effective communication with the cat-example. Though our initial understanding of the sentence might be wildly different, there is some correlation – but it is an abstract correlation. Someone might say, “Well I didn’t know it was a lion sitting on a throne, but at least I knew it was a feline sitting in some way on some thing.” We see categories of things (chairs, animals, etc.), and recognize our ideas fall into the same general categories.

If you knew I was talking about a lion, but you were thinking of a specific species which was different than mine, would we call that ineffective communication? Even if you nailed the species, but we were talking about different sexes, would that be ineffective? You get the idea. At some point, precision and specificity becomes irrelevant, oddly enough.

Whatever degree of specificity is intended to be communicated the speaker, that is the degree of specificity which must be understood by the receiver, in order for there to be precise communication. Two examples:

Let’s say a physicist wants to teach his class about gravity. He drops some various things. How effective was his teaching if all the students went away from his class thinking that gravity only effects the specific items which the professor dropped, in that classroom, at that time and place, with that amount of people watching. The students will have missed the larger abstract principle (gravity seems to affect everything), and we have an example of ineffective communication.

On the other hand, let’s say you are an aspiring criminal detective. Your superior tells you about a specific investigation where a woman killed her boyfriend with a knife. He phrases things in such a broad way that you conclude, as a principle, women always kill men with knives. From his specific example, an abstract principle was drawn. Another example of poor communication.

So, is what you are trying to communicate very specific? If so, use specific words. If it is broader, be explicit about the general principles. (If you are mad that your spouse didn’t do the dishes, is it understood that, as a general principle, he/she should do the dishes all the time? Or was it just in that specific case, due to specific circumstances, he should have done the dishes that one time?)

But alas, it isn’t so easy. Let’s get a little more skeptical. When you choose the words which you want to communicate, how did you arrive at the meaning which you attach to those words? Do you communicate over a dictionary, looking up and agreeing on the definition for every word? Of course not. Your experiences determine what specific definitions and feelings which you attach to words. If you’ve never experienced the color “red”, you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, even if we use the same word.

Happiness. Government. Frustration. Greenish. Table. Seven. Failure. Fan. Striped. Backwards. Illegitimate. Desire. Insane. Country. Upset. Mom. Competition. Marriage.

I assure you, whatever you mean by those words is different, to some degree or another, than what I mean. In fact, if you and I were to look in the dictionary, it still wouldn’t resolve this difference.

[Yes, we can agree with the formal definition of "illegitimate", but our associations attach to it are very much our own, and thus, the use of the word will differ. We agree on what a table is, right? Can a stool be a "table"? You can make the case either way, and it seems silly to ask what the "true" or "real" definition of a table is.]

The point is, it is mistaken to think we appeal to objective definitions to words when we speak. My understanding of the government will never, ever be exactly what anyone else’s is. And yet, we act like it is so.

Here’s the bottom line: though I don’t think we can share information perfectly, given the nature of language, and it seems more likely that there is a sliding scale for effective communication. If someone is careless about their word choice or vagueness/abstract vs concreteness, their communication skills will be negligible. They are going to live in their own world, stuck with their specific definitions for words, and unable to share information and ideas at any precise level.

Only when you are aware of the limitations and biases of your own language, and you try to put yourself in the shoes of the person whom you are communicating with (also known as “getting on the same page”), can you feel justified in believing your exchange of words was not a mere exchange of syllables. And that you are, for the most part, speaking the same language as the other person.

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Three a week: Education

It is difficult to think of anything more important than education. Three questions:

Question 1: Why education?

Humans have to balance a lot of things in their lifetime. Should we spend time getting educated, enjoying our family and friends, learning skills, or maybe watching TV? Should any one of these things be more weighty than the other? If so, why, and based on whose standards?

I think by merely asking such questions, we have arrived at an answer. Here’s why: when we ask, “Should we do X or Y, and for what reasons?”, the only way of answering such a question is through some form of education. If you spend time pondering the question of how you should spend your daily time, you are pursuing knowledge.

Is spending time with family important? There is a more important question we have silently asked before we can respond – “Is the answer to the following question important: Is spending time with the family important?” If we didn’t care about the answer to the question, we wouldn’t have bothered asking. Even such innocuous questions like, “should I change the channel right now?” are related to an individual’s pursuit of knowledge, if sometimes trivial knowledge.

Of course, that being said, if education and the pursuit of knowledge are so important, perhaps people should spend a considerable amount of time learning about education itself, or refining the technique which they employ to learn anything. One’s life becomes exponentially more effective if you pursue knowledge with an accurate methodology of thinking/learning.

Question 2: Who is responsible for education?

We live in culture where we naturally assume education takes place in a brick-and-mortar school. However, is this the best setting for education? It is perfectly plausible that if you put a bunch of kids in a room, tell them all to pay attention to a teacher, they might completely ignore everything that is taught to them. Why? Because before any education can take place, the individual needs to be open to learning. All the lecturing in the world will not teach a child anything who is tuning them out.

On the other hand, even a poor teacher, bad tools, and unhealthy school setting will not stop an avid learner from learning. You can be using the dirtiest hand-me-down copies of textbooks, and an individual who is open to learning will soak in as much knowledge as possible. This is why young children pick up on things so quickly – they haven’t yet lost their love for learning. Cram them in a school desk; tell them to be quiet and pay attention, and watch their love and passion for knowledge fade away.

As far as I am concerned, with the learning tools available today (like the internet), we should be entirely focused on encouraging the pursuit of knowledge, not just throwing words at people in a boring classroom setting. Given that education is ultimately up to the individual, I think school teachers and professor should largely just get out of the way of the intellectual curiosity that so many people are born with. Allow people access to information when they request it. Don’t shove it down their throats.

Question 3: Is all education equally valuable?

I am just going to give my opinion here. There is good education, bad education, and anti-education. The majority of people who have been through a public school system have received anti-education, and the rest have received a bad one. OK, maybe not literally, but close. Here’s what I mean by that:

Students are taught to repeat information taught to them, not challenge it. There is a deliberate hierarchy in modern education, and students who challenge this structure get in trouble and are squelched. The question “But why?” has been synonymized with that bothersome student who just wants to prove the teacher wrong. There are a nearly unlimited amount propositions which students are expected to believe, defend, and regurgitate for the teacher whenever called upon, without ever spending a minute deeply thinking about.

For example, Abraham Lincoln was a great president, right? How many people were taught this? Virtually everyone? What kind of reaction would a student get if they were to challenge this notion, and call Abraham Lincoln one of the worst, most disturbed, and power-hungry presidents we have every had? Regardless of the reasons put forward, not only would the student be corrected, but his very intellect and patriotism would also be called into question. It is openly stated: a large component of public education is to make “good citizens” out of pupils. Part of teaching students to have civic virtue is to instill a sense of pride and responsibility about their country.

Whether or not this is a good idea is up for debate, but it is most certainly an intellectual travesty to have students (and anyone else, for that matter) condemned for merely challenging the idea of civic responsibility. Do I have a duty to my country? Should we even have a country? Are public servants actually doing anything respectable? Are the police really on our side, or are they power hungry sociopaths? Are judges really independent arbiters of justice, and should they be respected as such? I don’t know, but the answer to these questions seems awfully important, and it is never, ever up for debate.

There are innumerable sacred cows in the academic world: the virtues of public service, the theory of evolution, the efficacy of our government, the theory of gravity, the wonders of modern science, etc. You merely challenge for a second any of these, and you will have your head bitten off by a teacher, fellow student, or your neighbor. Of course, this is what I mean by anti-education. Deliberately teaching students to put their heads down and not challenge authority. There really seems to be no difference to me between the dogmaticism of modern education, and the domaticism of the medieval church, especially when you see those student/congregation members enjoying a direct correlation between their perceived educational level, and the amount of mindless sentences they can regurgitate.

“Bad education”, on the other hand, is common, but less destructive in the long run. Bad education is simply inaccurate information taught to a student, but in a more positive way. While it wouldn’t be a good thing to have students taught that 2+2=5, it isn’t the end of the world if the teacher is open to being proven wrong. Merely teaching students bad facts is infinitely easier to overcome than teaching them the virtues of groupthink.

“Good education” is something of a rarity, and I don’t think it can be simply taught. An open-minded professor can do wonderful things with students, no doubt. But you take an inquisitive mind, couple that with the internet, perhaps couple it with an inquisitive professor, and you have a recipe for accurate, open-minded self-education. Anyone who does not take what their teacher/professor/pastor/holy book/parent says as truth is well on their way to having a good education. Once you tear down the inhibitive walls of intellectual authority, and start putting every single proposition through the critical-thinking wringer: you start truly thinking for yourself, and are that much more likely to hold accurate beliefs.

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Three a week: Ideation

Are you responsible for your ideas? Three questions:

Question 1: Where do ideas come from?

Simple answer: our mind. However, when we look a little closer, that answer doesn’t satisfy. Do you consciously think “I am going to think about X” before you start thinking about X? When you come up with a new idea, are you consciously responsible, or has that thought been given to you by your subconscious?

Think about the specific thoughts you might be thinking in the future. There are a lot of options – you might be thinking about your dinner in an hour, the television, your car or job. Why is it that at any given moment, you are thinking that specific thought? Surely, you didn’t choose it beforehand – you only become aware of thinking a thought after you start thinking about it.

If the awareness of our thoughts lag behind their actual ideation, who is in control of them?

Question 2: What are the implications?

Scenario #1: we do not consciously control which thoughts “pop” into our head and are only aware of them after the fact. This seems to imply that our actions are not really conscious decisions, but decisions made by our subconscious which later we become aware of. Does this have implications for something like morality? If we are not in control of our ideas and our decisions, how can there be a “right” and “wrong” way to act.

Of course, perhaps there is a difference between the event of ideation and acting on that idea. While I may not be able to consciously give myself an epiphany, perhaps I can have control over whether or not I act on that epiphany, and whether or not I choose to accept it as true.

Scenario #2: we can consciously control thoughts before they come into our head. This makes all of our actions deliberately controllable, with the human “will” (whatever that is) being responsible for behaviour, rather than the subconscious.

Question 3: Does it matter if ideas are fundamentally physical?

If an “idea” is just another event which takes places due to specific stimuli in a specific environment, there is nothing remarkable about them. However, if the ideas themselves are not so easily categorized as being physical, and the control over them is not fundamentally due to physics, we are talking about something awfully radical, with enormous implications.

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Three a week: Definitions

Philosophers are boring, always insisting on defining words to death. Three questions:

Question 1: Why such insistence on precise definitions?

Rather than ask a series of questions related to this broader question, as I normally do, I feel compelled to give an answer.

Precise definitions are absolutely fundamental to accurate thinking and accurate communication. We can argue all day about “human rights”, but if our definition for what “human” or “rights” differs, we might as well be speaking different languages (in fact, we are). Communication becomes a complete waste of time if the communicators are not using precise definitions for their words.

Philosophy crumbles at its core when people use vague definitions. We can not arrive at truth if we have not defined what we are even talking about. Cloudy word-choice leads to cloudy thinking and cloudy communication.

Question 2: How do we define words?

This question seems innocuous, but it is hugely controversial with enormous implications depending on how we answer it. The reason this is a tricky question is because we seem to fall into an infinite regress of defining our words. For example:

A: I understand you don’t like taxes, but this is a democracy.
B: Are you sure? What do you mean by “democracy”?
A: Where we the people vote for representatives in Congress.
B: What do you mean by “we the people”?
A: The average citizens of our country.
B: But what do you mean by “average” and “citizen”?
A: Just normal people, no royalty.
B: And what is meant by “normal”?
A: In contrast to the elites. Other systems are monarchical and stuff, they have kings.
B: What do you mean by “in contrast”, “elites”, and “other systems”?
And so on… ad infinitum.

Yes, this seems silly, but if there is no ultimate answer that we can give (in which the definitions do not need defining [which would make them non-words]), how can communication be possible? How did we arrive at the definition of “definition”, anyway? And when I try to answer that question, I have solved nothing if I need to define every word by using additional words. Communication has become impossible.

Eventually, it seems like we need an ostentatious definition: we point. What is the definition for “table”? That thing, right there. What is a “cat”? That creature right there, on the table.

Some people have concluded that language, and the basics for communal word-usage, are inherent in every human mind, from birth – that there are innate ideas and concepts which do not require previous learning. How are such things innate? Good question. This is why it is a controversial position.

Others have concluded that we can not have “innate ideas” or language, but that everything is learned. From the basics of language to the height of conceptual reasoning, all language – definitions included – is learned.

(Of course, this does not answer the infinite regress problem. Does a conceptual understanding of language presuppose a mind capable of understanding concepts, or can such a thing be learned? If every word needs to be defined, how does one go about defining words to babies without presupposing a language? How does a blank-slate mind understand what a word is? By what structure? If we say there is some kind of structure found in the mind of babies which allows them to understand language, aren’t we really saying there are “innate” concepts?)

Question 3: But how do you define “define”?

Just kidding.

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