Simplicity As Confirmation Bias

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For those philosophically minded, William Ockham will immediately engender various degrees of analytic glee, the name synonymous with logical parsimony or simple explanation. The more user-friendly phrase concerning parsimony is: “Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.” Then again, perhaps the phrase isn’t as friendly as it may be to some. Thankfully that’s rather the point here, simplicity being, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Consider a rose possessed of a particular color and a certain number of petals arising out of a stem. To the average person it is a thing of beauty. To a botanist there will be an entire history of breeding involved. To a chemist there will be a litany of compounds and scents included. Which one is more simple? Is that even the right question? For Ockham, the answer to the latter is most certainly not.

 

As human beings, possessed of a surplus of intelligence and imagination, the need to offer explanations is not only a seeming necessity, but the source of a great deal of social fracas. Some of the earliest childhood memories are related to giving explanations for behavior in a manner to deflect guilt, as when explaining a broken window or why there’s chocolate on fingertips despite being told not to eat dessert before dinner. Such stories certainly continue into adulthood, though the ramifications of our explanations become exponentially more. Issues of social policy will take into account explanations for human behavior, the American justice system being predicated on the offering of behavior being intrinsically free. Matters of geopolitics rest on explanations of human interaction and the role force plays in building and maintaining countries. Environmental concerns run through the sieve of explanations concerning biological diversity and origins, including the age of the earth and the cosmos. None of the offered explanations for these matters come without consequences, often beginning during the battle of determining which explanation is better than another.
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Human Nature: An Issue of Inheritance

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What are we to make of human nature? The answer depends on which story of birth is believed. Birthing stories are about identifying those attributes that continue on from the mother-figure or simply that which comes before (Turner, 1996). This is a relation of cause/effect, where something comes from having causal connections to what it becomes and manifests in the world. Whether we speak of “coming out of” or “emerging,” as in “his actions came out of a sense of fear,” we are ascribing the power of causation through the linkage. Where a person believes humanity came out of will largely determine the characteristics associated with being human.

 

On the one hand is an evolutionary origin, where our inheritance is an incremental accrual of adaptive features in relation to particular environments. On the other is a monolithic origin, dually instantiated by humanity being either fallen and predisposed to destruction or benevolent and with the right context will inevitably pursue progress. The first is usually explored through science, notably evolutionary sociobiology and psychology, whereas the latter two can be found in mainline fundamentalist religious ideologies and liberal liberation-type theologies, respectively. Interestingly while humanity as evolutionary construction is usually found in the domain of science, contemplative spiritual traditions and mindfulness training also explore humanity through this rubric.
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Reflecting on the Armed Forces: The Other 1%

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For those having served and currently employed in the military, Memorial Day is a solemn day of remembrance. For the rest, it serves as a reminder of those very people who have come before us, laying the patchwork ground of our nation’s founding and continued existence with their shed blood and lives lost and shattered. The utilization of force should carry with it the fullest attempt at matching projected action with internal value. If the action ceases to reflect or even begins to tarnish the value it seeks to support, then force and violence become less a tool of last resort and more a hammer seeking nails wherever they may be found. This connection is why it is incumbent upon the population and their representatives to do the utmost diligence in deciding when to use force. We have tasked our soldiers not merely with the protection of our national interests, but to do so at the cost of their lives and pieces of their humanity.

 

There was a time when a volunteer army was a ludicrous notion and for the vast majority of the American populace, it still is.

 

“Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform.” (N.Y. Times)

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The Power of Touch, the Immediacy of Presence

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“Life is too sweet and too short to express our affection with just our thumbs. Touch is meant for more than a keyboard.” – Kristin Armstrong

Lamenting the loss of real relationships in light of the focus on social media and technology has become so commonplace, it’s reached that vaunted realm of yesteryear wisdom, a symbol of generational differences rather than a legitimate critique of modern behavior. Such a cultural change is not without fallout, however, as human practices taken for granted are now puzzled about. Living in a world in which “the stranger” has become synonymous with all that is perilous to children and free society, we focus less on how touch can be good or bad and more on avoiding it altogether.

How often is touch fully considered? Attempt keeping a small journal entry, making a mark each and every time an object or a person is touched, no matter how slight. Then start keeping track of personal mood. It’s practically a guarantee of human psychology that the more touch one participates in, however casual it may be and in so long as it isn’t negative, the more positive one’s mood will be. Psychology Today recently did an article on the benefits of human touch, coming up with a list connected with various research, notably that done by Dacher Keltner.

Benefits of human touch:

1. Decreased violence

2. Greater trust between individuals

3. Economic gain

4. Decreased disease and stronger immune system

5. Stronger team dynamics

6. More non-sexual emotional intimacy

7. Greater learning engagement

8. Overall well-being
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The Essential Humanity of Cognitive Dissonance

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We operate with several, if not hundreds, of beliefs merely by getting up in the morning. Believing in our ability to fling off the sheets, will our bodies to move and do so in a proscribed way, the capacity of our feet and legs to carry us forward, lights will turn on when switch is flipped, etc., these are all beliefs that, while unconscious, must exist to go about a morning routine. If any of those come into doubt, whether by experiential evidence or changes in mental paradigm, the entirety of a basic routine comes to a screeching halt. Thankfully this type of belief rarely faces contrary evidence. The world operates, and this is a belief as well, in a static fashion, with effects following perceived causes and experiences falling well inside acceptable levels of deviation from a perceptual norm. Generally, whether one is right or wrong about these types of belief is, by and large, of little consequence. If we were to passively accept every piece of information initially considered as contrary, our lives would be a never-ending whirlpool of changing mental structure and we’d never get anything done. Take, for instance, the belief that one’s feet and legs will operate according to personal will and propel us forward. A contrary experience is a physical stumble, yet it would be considered bizarre indeed were such an experience to be thought of as grounds for disbelieving in the capacity of physical movement.

 

When confronted with a contrary piece of experience, the process that occurs is referred to as ‘cognitive dissonance’. “Cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger in 1957, is the process of self-justification whereby we defend our actions and thoughts when they turn out to be wrong or, as in the case of sour grapes, ineffectual. We interpret our failure to attain a goal as actually turning out to be a good thing because, with hindsight, we reinterpret the goal as not really desirable” (Hood, 2012). Confronted with contrary information, whether by personal experience that doesn’t quite match our view of the world or by being presented with a different opinion, we will invariably seek to defend our mental space. This is not an inherently negative behavior to engage in. Were we to passively change our beliefs every time a contrary piece of information is presented, we’d never get anything done, being as we would be at the mercy of every wind of chance in our lives. It behooves us to live our lives essentially being ok with making what is referred to as Type 2 errors, i.e. believing something is true regardless of evidence to the contrary.
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A Democracy of Kingship

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America is an amazing country. We as a people have managed, despite tendencies to the contrary, to maintain and expand a democratic representative government for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. We have gone from a system where the color of one’s skin determined slavery, to being seen as only 2/3 of a person and eventually having full voting rights. We have gone from a culture where women were considered too frail in temperament to consider politics, to having full voting rights and now running and winning positions in government. We came from a feudalism where the worth of a person was more determined by their familial name than the power of their ideas and the passion of their lives. We did all this and more, yet we find ourselves tacitly accepting and overtly seeking the very loss of political freedom that drove this country to exist and persevere.

 

Many can likely remember the headlines when Barack Obama became president in 2008. “Change” was the word of the day and like a progressive savior he was to usher in a new era of anti-moneyed interests and fight for the common person upon which his campaign was supposedly based. Setting aside the ridiculous rhetoric out of the conservative pundits and pop-media politicians decrying Obama’s action as that of a king, there is still some comparison with the headlines and progressive rhetoric leading up to his presidency. Mainstream media has done a fine job of promoting this narrative and to an American public enamored of the Hollywood-ization of politics, the focus on a single person and family is certainly a lot easier than attempting to understand the myriad relationships and complex political arrangements of a large bureaucratic federal government. As our technology has made all things individual capable of being social, so then that same technology has made all things local into national. Cut off from any sense of empowerment through our local governments, we seek to find in the Presidency a banner-man to climb that tall hill of Washington corruption and lead the masses to victory.

 

obama headline 2008In “Escape from Freedom“, Erich Fromm discusses the nature of freedom within the context of human social psychology. It is worth quoting him at length here:

“Both factors, his need to live and the social system, in principle are unalterable by him as an individual, and they are the factors which determine the development of those other traits that show greater plasticity. Thus the mode of life, as it is determined for the individual by the peculiarity of an economic system, becomes the primary factor in determining his whole character structure, because the imperative need for self-preservation forces him to accept the conditions under which he has to live” (p. 16).

With this in mind, let’s consider the latest ascendent to the progressive populist throne, Bernie Sanders, and the political context that he rises within, a context that seems forgotten by the American people.

 

In “Fortune,” it was noted: “Saez and Zucman show that, in America, the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.” This inequality is not simply a reflection of an economic system creating a modern-day oligarchy, it is an indication of our political system as well. To win a seat in Congress takes money, but the amount has dramatically increased over the years. From 1986 to 2012, the average cost to win an election for the House of Representatives has risen from $360,000 to $1.3 million, an increase of 344%. During the same time period, the average cost to win an election for Senate has risen from $6.4 million to $10.4 million, an increase of 62%. The Presidential election of 2012 was the first time in which over $2 billion was spent by the candidates themselves, with a grand total from all organizations and groups at over $7 billion. To put this in context, that’s more than the entire GDP of Bermuda in 2012.

 

Much is currently being made, as it was during Obama’s campaign, of Sanders’s appeal to the general populace. His campaign page has the line “not the billionaires” to indicate his interests are with the populist 99%. This is not a hard case to be made, as a look at the contributors to his political campaigns shows. For the purposes of distinguishing Sanders from Hillary Clinton, Vox published a side-by-side comparison of donors since 1989. While only one of Clinton’s top 20 donors are non-corporate, 19 of Sanders’s top donors are unions. Were this merely an issue of ideological purity, the numbers would be an open and shut case of who is truly for the people rather than the vested interests of the disproportionately powerful. However, taking a look at the numbers again we see a remarkable problem, Clinton’s number one donor has given more than Sanders’s top 13 donors combined. With an acknowledgment of how much money is required to win political campaigns, we can see that the issue of being elected is not one of ideological populism but economic disparity. When that disparity is connected with the grotesque difference in wealth inequality, we are no longer discussing a representative democracy.

 

When faced with such distinct inequality in wealth and the absurdity of campaign finance, the solution is often presented as connected to voting. With that in mind, there are two more points to consider, both having to do with incumbency. For the congressional elections of 2014, incumbents enjoyed a heavy advantage in financing their campaigns. The average amount of money raised by an incumbent over their challenger was 12 times as much money for the Senate and for the House of Representatives, nearly 6 times as much money. This monetary discrepancy carries over to the rate in which incumbents get reelected, which in 2012 was 90%. Lest we think this was an aberration, the 2010 election saw an 85% reelection of incumbents and that was the lowest number seen since 1970, also at 85%. We are faced with a situation where it is not ideas and character which determine an election, but money and whether the incumbent is still breathing.

 

The American people are not merely not voting, with voter turnout in 2014 at 36.4%, the lowest since World War II, when they do they are simply voting in whatever name they remember. To be fair, 2014 was a non-presidential election year when turnout tends to be higher. In 2012 the turnout was 58% and in 2008, 62%. Those numbers are considered high, in a country governed by those who are supposed to be of the people and for the people, and yet are being elected into office by less than 2/3 of the eligible population. It is as if after having fought so long to get equal suffrage we gave up any pretense to caring for it.

 

IMAGE_206To quote Bernie Sanders: “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated in this country is going to the top 1 percent. How does it happen that the top 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent? My conclusion is, that that type of economics is not only immoral, it is not only wrong, it is unsustainable.” When faced with such incredible wealth inequality, where to be elected requires monetary acquisition greater than small countries, and when those already in office possess such a distinct advantage in getting reelected it’s a serious question as to why they bother campaigning anyway, little wonder then that the American people feel powerless and reach out in emotive exuberance for anyone who seems to care. However accurate the concern being expressed by Sanders and previously by Obama is and may have been, no single person will effect the change popular sentiment desires.

 

From Fromm: “Thus a man, trapped in a fire, stands at the window of this room and shouts for help, forgetting entirely that no one can hear him and that he could still escape by the staircase which will also be aflame in a few minutes. He shouts because he wants to be saved, and for the moment this behavior appears to be a step on the way to being save – and yet it will end in complete catastrophe” (p. 152).

 

For all the good people like Sanders desire to accomplish, their will is not that of a king, no matter the hope-filled longings of those desperate for that good. Until the American populace looks beyond a name, looks beyond the social separateness resulting from identity politics, to a genuine appreciation for a government of and for the people, any change will be like the flames of a will-o-wisp.  Only when groups are more concerned with building a system that provides real opportunities for the majority rather than scrambling for the scraps from the powerful, will full social upheaval occur. So long as we remain divided by declarations of which group has had more evil done to them, we will never rise up to follow even the most charismatic banner-man to the shining city upon the hill.

 

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Using Anger to Hide Legitimate Criticism of the Patronizingly Powerful

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Identity politics in the United States is a testament to the human ability for self-blindness. Essentially the practice of identity politics boils down to “a particular social identity is considered good in itself” and then combined with “all actions therefore by true adherents of that very social identity are inherently good and right.” There are two central points to consider here: 1) actions themselves are not judged by merits but the association with a social identity and 2) by deeming only the actions of “true” adherents sacrosanct then anything contrary is removed from criticism and sets up an ideological aristocracy. In other words, those in power, whatever form that may be, get to occlude themselves from any critical analysis of their actions or the legitimacy of their ideological stance. This is not only anti-democratic, it is contrary to the pursuit of knowledge through skeptical inquiry that lies at the heart of science, and sets up the nastiest form of tribalism that such can manifest.

 

With knowledge, facts and even the type of questions to be asked circumscribed by social identity, there are few behavioral possibilities when dealing with external criticism. The first is a self-proclaimed elitism, where by virtue of being a “true” believer one has access to a set of information or source of knowledge that others simply don’t. This is a favorite of fundamentalist religious believers and of presuppositional apologists in particular. Unfortunately such a tactic is also becoming prevalent in the political playground. Accepting that they can’t actually prove their opinions to anyone, they resort to a metaphysical reality that is completely self-referential. In other words, anybody inside the box knows what they know is true and anybody outside the box will simply never understand. The metaphor is particularly apt considering the blinders that must be constantly kept in place and the isolation that results. The apologist ignores the inherently shared reality required to even have a conversation, and the political demagogue, with false humility in full splendor, will declare “I’m not a scientist, but…”
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Dominionism: Why Cruz’s America is Not Concerned with We The People

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In 2014 Ted Cruz won the straw poll for the second year in a row at the Values Voter Summit. The Summit was started back in 2006 based on upholding the social conservative holy trinity of “traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government.” For a conference that draws all of 3000 people, focusing on it would seem silly if not for the outsized role those associated with it play in American politics. In warfare the technological expansion of destruction makes it so fewer and fewer people can deal death to a degree that previously required enormous armies. In a country like America where political identities are diminished to a select few and media is more interested in entertainment that disseminating information, groups who otherwise would have little influence in national discussions now carry heavy weight. Regardless of the ability for someone like Cruz to win a full presidential election, he still stands for an ideology that plays an outsized role, one that is diametrically opposed to the humanistic history and egalitarian principles of the American ideal.

To show just how far Cruz and his supporters are from the American ideal, we have but to focus on the three areas for which the Values Voter Summit demands allegiance. Cruz is running to represent the entirety of the United States and since religion is at core divisive, we’ll set it aside initially to see how the ideas presented through a broad public application in no way are representative of America.

Traditional Marriage – Cruz’s position on marriage equality is unabashedly against adults making decisions for themselves.

“I support traditional marriage between one man and one woman,” Cruz said after speaking to the Richardson Chamber of Commerce. “The Constitution leaves it to the states to decide upon marriage and I hope the Supreme Court respects centuries of tradition and doesn’t step into the process of setting aside state laws that make the definition of marriage.”

“Tradition” here is of course selective and time-limited since Cruz is not promoting the purchasing of women for heads of cattle. Rather, marriage is here defined through sexual identity, where it exists as a social demarcation between groups based entirely on reproductive possibilities. For a country built upon the transformative pursuit of personal potential, relegating any social structure to the presence of particular genitalia is essentially to be against the individualism that supposedly makes America great.
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When Persecution Isn’t: The Technological Expansion of Ego

© David Teachout

1428593672_featuredThe seeming necessity for bonding within like-minded groups is not simply an affectation of modern society, it is foundational to being human. This selection provides a sense of safety in numbers and relatedly a continuity of experience. While the lone dissenter has attained a certain mythologizing in modern story-telling, human history is far more often about groups of like-minded people working together towards a common purpose, regardless of whether such ends up being helpful from the hindsight of the future. Thus it is in studies concerning social relationships, people often state that they like surrounding themselves with different opinions, but the reality is quite different. To be found wrong is not just a subtle shifting of one’s opinion, though to paraphrase Kathryn Schulz in her book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” there is no real feeling of being wrong because that feeling is a lot like the feeling of being right.

 

This aversion to being wrong and the desire to be right provides the emotional impetus for and the cementing of many communities. With the advent of the Internet, communities no longer need to be geographically constrained. We can find like-minded individuals scattered throughout the world, fill chat-rooms, create private groups on various social media outlets and given how search algorithms take into consideration our own personal history, even seeming objective searches for information are inevitably curbed by our biases and predilections.
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Moving the Values of Myth: A Reflection on Easter

© David Teachout

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From moment to moment, our lives can embody any of the multiplicity of purposes that we can identify with. The stories we tell, from socially created myths to benign exaggerations expressed to friends and colleagues, project the particular purpose we want to make front and center. This can be due to a desire to express an idea to another or to make sure we’re on the same track we first set out upon. Whatever that purpose is, the values that come along for the ride, both in the telling and the type of story chosen, do so in the form the story takes. Thankfully stories are more than single-use thought-devices, else we would never be able to reuse them or get something new regardless of repetition. Because of a shared human experience, we are able to remember lessons imparted through literature or voice because they continue to resonate with new situations. Importantly, this allows us to determine whether the form the value took before is how we’d like it to continue. Take the example of a father telling a joke, a form of story, about how he’d scare his daughter’s date with shotgun in hand. The value on hand is paternal care, a value most of us hold in some fashion and have no problem promoting. However, the form it takes in the joke makes that value so prominent that it overshadows any other, for instance respect and personal integrity. As time has gone on the joke is no longer the best form to express paternal care, precisely because the values of respect and integrity have increased in significance in association with that situation. Consider it like a movable hierarchy, where the original story form presented paternal care at the top of the pyramid and respect and integrity being derived and below it. It’s not that respect and integrity didn’t exist, it’s just that rather than being equal, they were subservient to the form of paternal care being presented.

 

I know of no situation where a person’s values have utterly disappeared, though certainly they will rise and fall in conscious consideration as time and experience go by. I grew up with stories, my father sending me and my siblings to sleep with short made-up stories that imparted humor or whatever lesson he’d considered that day. I am also a voracious reader and, like the bed-time stories the form they take has changed over the years. There came a point when the bedtime stories stopped and simplistic fiction no longer sufficed. I still held the same values of honesty and valor, dedication to an ideal and perseverance in the face of adversity, but the way those values stood in form had become more complicated. For others the original form no longer made any sense.
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