Category Archives: Uncategorized

Religious Child Maltreatment

In her excellent book, “Breaking Their Will,” author Janet Heimlich powerfully documents the many ways that religion motivates and justifies the maltreatment of children (see here). She identifies the following general forms of religious child abuse:

  • justifying abusive physical punishment with religious texts or doctrine;
  • having children engage in dangerous religious rituals;
  • taking advantage of religious authority to abuse children and procure their silence;
  • failing to provide children needed medical care due to a belief in divine intervention;
  • terrifying children with religious concepts, such as an angry and punitive god, eternal damnation, or possession by the devil or by demons;
  • making children feel guilty and shameful by telling them they are sinful;
  • neglecting children’s safety by allowing them to spend more time with religious authorities without scrutinizing the authorities’ backgrounds;
  • inculcating children with religious ideas; and
  • failing to acknowledge or report child abuse or neglect to protect the image of a religion or a religious group.

“Breaking Their Will” goes into tremendous detail in documenting and expanding upon each of these forms of child maltreatment, with the possible exception of the one that jumps out to me like a flashing neon light. That one seems like it is far too easy to skim over and lose sight of.

I am speaking of the second to last item. I was very pleased that, in addition to all of the more specific forms of abuse, the author did include “inculcating children with religious ideas” as a form of abuse. This foundational form of abuse deserves deeper and more serious consideration.

Fantasy is wonderful for kids. But saturating a developing mind in fantasy presented as fact does fundamental harm to their rational capacity and compromises their ability to distinguish fact from fantasy more generally. It diminishes their ability to evaluate evidence and to recognize sound logic. It necessarily trains their neural networks to falsely rationalize irrational beliefs. And it thereby does real harm their ability to make fact-based decisions as children and throughout their lives.

While none of the many of the abuses documented in “Breaking Their Will” can be excused or dismissed or minimized as merely misguided aberrations of otherwise benign religious practices, some would try to do so. This particular abuse, however, is inherent in all religious inculcation, however benign or even beneficial it may be in other ways. It is so inherent to religious inculcation that it cannot be dismissed as aberrational.

Further, as difficult as it can be to “get over” or “move beyond” other forms of religious abuse, the compromising of the developing rational faculties of a child during their most formative years has long term implications that are particularly difficult to overcome, insidious in their expression, and impacts practically every aspect of a child’s future life.

Most of us grew up with religion and we think we are just fine. That makes it very difficult for most of us to see the harm in religious training. Many people feel the same way about corporal punishment. My dad beat me and I turned out fine. Our upbringing and continued exposure to religion creates a bias to accept religious inculcation as normal.

In order to “control for” our bias, substitute religious beliefs with some other comparable belief. What if we were teaching our children that aliens are present on Earth and that they can body-snatch us if we are bad. If we are good, the aliens will take us on board their ship to their home planet where we will live in in eternal happiness. Imagine further that this idea was mainstreamed such that huge numbers of people not only believed this, but they used this belief to guide their lives and insisted that we implement public policies based on this belief.

Certainly, you would find this unacceptable. Even if you held that adults should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like, you would probably still argue that they should not be allowed to inculcate their children with this set of crazy beliefs. You would undoubtedly argue that this does real long term harm and that parents should be prevented from “messing with” their children’s impressionable minds in such a detrimental manner.

How is the inculcation of religious nonsense any different? It is not, except for the fact that we have been inculcated to accept it as reasonable.

Perhaps our own ability to rationalize away the harm caused by religious inculcation is the best proof of the harmful effect of the religious maltreatment we suffered as children.

You can learn more about religious child maltreatment and ways that you can join the fight in stopping it at the Child-Friendly Faith Project (see here).

I Say Give Them Time

As my readers know I occasionally take exception to comments made by highly respected intellectuals. I hope that when I do so it is not to engage in a gratuitous attack, but to offer an important counterpoint. In that spirit I must take exception to recent comments made by the highly respected thinker and author Malcolm Gladwell (see here).

The comments I refer to were offered by Mr. Gladwell when he appeared on The Beat with Ari Melber last week. The full text can be heard on the Ari Melber podcast dated July 3rd, 2021.

Mr. Melber introduced the segment by pointing out that we live in a period in which Republicans are attempting to revise history and promote lies. He asked Mr. Gladwell for his thoughts about all of that and whether there were any solutions. It should be noted that this question was asked in the context of promoting Mr. Gladwell as an expert on human thinking and behavior.

Here is a slightly polished transcription of the response by Mr. Gladwell:

I think about the role of time. I wonder whether we’re in too much of a hurry to pass judgment on the people who continue to lie about what happened on Jan 6th, there are many forms that denial takes. One of it is that I honestly don’t believe that anything went wrong there. Another form is that I do believe but I’m not ready to admit it yet. A lot of what looks like a kind of malignant denial in the republican party right now is probably just people who aren’t ready to come clean and renounce a lot of what they were saying for the previous four years. I say give them time.

While this admonition for patience may sound superficially learned and wise, I find it naïve, wrong both theoretically and factually, and damagingly counterproductive. While I certainly don’t expect Mr. Gladwell to cite all his supporting evidence in a short interview segment like this, I don’t believe he has any. I suspect this is simply well-meaning but unrealistic platitude, analogous to “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s OK, except that he is putting forth an unsupported platitude as the conclusion of a purported expert in human thinking.

But such an expert on human thinking should understand that neural networks simply do not function in a way that would make “give them time” a reasonable strategy. As long as Republicans continue to hear the same old lies repeated over and over, they are not going to eventually recognize and reject them. Repeated exposure does not reveal lies but rather transforms our brains to accept them more deeply.

Our neural networks are influenced mainly by the quantity and repetition of the training “facts” they are exposed to. They have little capacity to judge the quality of those facts. Any training fact, in this case any idea the neural network is exposed to, is judged as valid by our neural network machinery in proportion to how often it is reinforced. And by the way, I know most of us want to believe that we collectively are not so susceptible to this because we want to believe that we personally are not. But we are.

So, my objection to Gladwell is that he does not truly understand how our neural networks function because if he did he would understand that “I say give them time” is counterproductive advice at this time. Now, yes, it would be good advice if we were confident that Trump voters are being exposed regularly and primarily to truthful information. If that were the case I would agree, yes, give their neural networks more exposure time. However, I don’t believe that there is any reasonable basis to think that giving them more time will serve any purpose except to further reinforce the lies they are continually exposed to from Trump, the Republican Party, and Fox News. We are simply not ready to just be patient and let the truth seep in and percolate.

The more nuanced advice, in my opinion, to the question posed by Ari Melber is that we must discredit and stem the flow of misinformation from these sources and expose Republicans regularly to truly factual information. Once we do that, then, yes, I say just give them time for their neural networks to become comfortable with it. With enough exposure their neural networks will transform whether they want them to or not. But to accept the status quo right now and “give them time” as Mr. Gladwell suggests would be horribly premature and ill-advised.

Lost Pet

Meh poor beloved Norbert has gotten himself lost or maybe worse. Norbert is jus’ a wee-bitty feller. Cute as can be. He’s really a well-behaved li’l dragon, well fer a Norwegian Ridgeback anyways. Poor thin’ mighta gotten lost in the Forbidden Forest seeyin as he likes to play with his critter friends chasin’ ’em around an’ such. I’m jus’ beside mesself wit’ worry ya know. <snif>

So if yeh see him, send him home to Hagrid in the Caretaker’s Cottage won’cha? Only don’ get too close. I mean, he wouldn’ hurt yeh or nothin’, not on purpose anyways. But he does get a bit skittish around strangers. Tends to bite a tad… well an’ claw truth be told… an’ belch flames and whatnot, bless his wee soul.

Anyway, keep yer eyes out fer my sweet los’ Norbert won’ ya? All the kids love ‘im like a brother! They mus’ be missin’ him sumthin’ terrible! <sob>

The Impending Doom of Written Language

Sci Fi and Fantasy are often lumped together, but they are very distinct literary forms. The core difference is not simply whether the subject matter is dragons or space ships, but whether the subject matter is plausible or not. Whether it could become reality. Dragons could be Sci Fi if originating in a plausible manner and if they adhere to the laws of chemistry and physics. Conversely, a space ship becomes fantasy if it jumps through time and performs “science” feats what would consume fantastically implausible amounts of energy. Lots of Sci Fi fans are actually consumers of fantasy every bit as unrealistic as Lord of the Rings.

Really good Sci Fi is not merely plausible, but likely, even predictive. Great Sci Fi is unavoidable, or more aptly inescapable, given our current trajectory.

But even mind-boggling Sci Fi can often reflect a disappointing lack of imagination.

Take for example the obligatory transparent computer screen that we see in every Sci Fi show. Or even the bigger budget full-on 3-D holographic computer interfaces that provide eye-candy in every major feature nowadays. These look cool, but are probably pretty unimaginative. Plausible and likely, but crude interim technologies at best.

Take for example my own short Sci Fi story Glitch Death (see here). In it, I envision a future in which direct brain interfaces allow people to use computers to “replace” the reality around them with perceptual themes. In that future, we skip quickly past archaic holographic technology and beam our perceptions directly into the brain.

But even that only touches the surface. For example, why would a future direct-to-brain technology be limited to flashing words across our visual field and allowing us to hit “virtual buttons” floating in mid-air? To explain my thoughts on this, let’s digress and talk about math for a moment.

Today we have entered a time where math hardly matters anymore. Oh yes, we must of course understand the concepts of math. We must understand addition, division, and even the concepts of integrals and derivatives and more complex algorithms. But we don’t need to learn or know how to compute them. Not really. We have computers to handle the actual manipulative mechanics of numbers. Most of us don’t really need to learn the mechanics of math anymore, even if we use it everyday.

We are already well on the way there with language as well. We have devices that “fix” all of our spelling and formatting automatically. We don’t actually have to produce typographically correct written text. All we need to do is to communicate the words sufficiently for a computer to understand, interpret, correct, and standardize. We are at the verge of being able, like math, to simply communicate concepts, but not worry about the mechanics of language construction and composition.

So, back to my Sci Fi vision of the future of direct-to-brain interfaces and their likely ramifications. Interfaces like the one envisioned in Glitch Death would soon make written language, and perhaps much of verbal language, prohibitively cumbersome and obsolete. Why shoot words across our visual field, forcing us to read, comprehend, process, and assimilate? Why indeed when the computer could instead stimulate the underlying processed and interpreted symbols directly at their ultimate target destination in our brain. We wouldn’t need to actually read anything. We would simply suddenly know it.

In this situation, we would not need written material to be stored in libraries in any human recognizable language. It would be more efficiently housed in computer storage in a language-independent format that is most closely compatible with and efficiently transferrable into the native storage of the same concepts in the human brain.

In this future, all of which is directly in our path of travel assuming we survive our own follies, we deal at basic symbolic levels and tedious processes of math and language become largely offloaded. Forget tools to translate human languages. We will be able to simply discard them for a symbolic language that essentially transforms us into telepathic creatures. And in this form of telepathy, we don’t hear words in our head. We just transmit ideas and thoughts and understanding and experiences with the aid of our computer interfaces. The closest depiction in popular Sci Fi is perhaps the implantation of memories in the 1990 film “Total Recall.”

A real fascinating unknown to me is, how would humans process and interact without language? Do we require at least an internal language, internal dialogue, to function? I have always wanted to be a subject in an experiment to be made to forget all language, say by hypnosis or drugs, and to experience functioning without it. Like a dog might process the world. Technology may inevitably force that experiment upon us on a huge social scale.

It’s not true that “A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic would defy the fundamental restrictions of physics and chemistry. That’s how we’d know the difference. A telepathic future facilitated by direct-to-brain computer interface is Science Fiction, not Fantasy.

Blogs are Tweets for Adults

The other day author Ta-Nehisi Coates made some comments about Twitter that really spoke to me. Read them below or watch the interview (see here).

I think for somebody like me who is most comfortable, and more than comfortable, feels that what I have to give are ideas and notions that take a lot of time to cook, you know that have to marinade, that have to be baked, have to be in the oven for a little while, something like twitter is death for me. It was probably bad and it would have been much much worse because I think it incentivizes two things that are not good for my process, it incentives immediate reaction and it incentivizes argument.

I don’t know why it’s that way but people I have met or know in real life are one way in real life and if you saw their twitter persona you would be like is that the same person? I think for me it would be corrupting. I shouldn’t be able to broadcast everything I’m thinking. I shouldn’t even have the power to do that. Because you can say I have the power to do it but I’m not going to do it, that’s not how the world works. You’re gonna do it because like all humans we’re weak, you know?

This sentiment by Mr. Coates really summed up my own feelings about Twitter and social media more generally. I’ve certainly felt the siren song to tweet. I’ve even wavered under the urging of others to get with the program. But I’ve never tweeted more than a handful of times and then only to announce a particularly important blog article.

The reason I have resisted tweeting was articulated by Mr. Coates in his interview. Twitter would be corrupting for me. I prefer writing a more well-considered and fully developed blog article than be restricted to a shallowly supported tweet followed by an increasingly argumentative tweet storm as I battle to defend it with essential nuance.

Does Twitter have any redeeming value? Of course. Lots. It is a great way to network and organize, to get a message out, to build brand value, to excite lots of people, and to mobilize a community of like-minds.

But, the benefits of Twitter (and social media in general) do not immunize it from criticism and at least recognition of its limitations and even dangers. There are benefits to having guns handy too, but that does not negate all the harm they do. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, Twitter also encourages and facilitates the worst of our natures and undermines the thoughtful, considered sharing of ideas in a positively persuasive manner.

This positive and productive sharing of ideas is where blogs shine. Certainly with respect to Twitter, but even in comparison to nightly news shows or what are often tedious and inflated books, blogs serve to give regular folks a right-sized forum that encourages and facilitates the best of our natures. A good blog requires the author to actually think an idea through completely and present it in a clear and concise fashion.

And with that as context, I want to take this opportunity to thank those of you who make the effort to slog though my blog on occasion. This is now my 164th figmentum. My first article was a post about the television series Penny Dreadful back in May of 2015 (see here). And although I garner only a handful of readers, one occasional thumbs-up from any of you means far more to me than a thousand likes on Twitter.

I appreciate you for being the kind of reader who is willing to invest your valuable time in what are hopefully thoughtful and well-developed articles (by me or by other bloggers) that not only entertain but sometimes might even inspire you.

Hopefully I can bring you another 164 installments that contribute in their small way to the productive sharing of thoughts and ideas in a world beset by tweets.

A Right Makes It Right for the Right

In order to continue to rationalize and legitimize their support for Trump and all of the reprehensible things he says and does, Conservatives have had to abandon any semblance of principled ethical decision-making. They have retreated in their ethical justification to one recurring assertion…

Well he has the Right to do it.

We hear it all the time nowadays. But look, let’s be clear. We value and respect the Rights that we afford to each other through social norms, mutual respect, and as codified in our Constitution. But let’s also be clear, simply asserting that one has a strictly legal right to do something does not make it right to do. Acknowledging that someone technically has a right to do something does not excuse one from recognizing any other ethical considerations.

Having a legal or technical Right to do something doesn’t make it a wise thing to do, or a courteous thing to do, or a sensible thing to do, or even an honorable thing to do. In fact, sometimes asserting one’s Right is a dick thing to do. It may even be a selfish and unconscionable thing to do. Asserting a Right can in fact be the sociopathic thing to do.

It may be my Right to wear my stovepipe hat in a crowded movie theatre, but it’s a dick move. It may be my Right tell you that your little child looks like a mutant Klingon, but no one should do that. It may be my Right to exploit loopholes so that I pay no taxes on my millions, but really? And it may be my Right to brandish my gun and wave my Confederate flag around, but is it really right to exercise those particular Rights in that manner?

Similarly, the Congress may technically have had the “Right” to block Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland for eight months, but it was a dick thing to do. They technically had the “right” to appoint Amy Coney Barrett only weeks before a Presidential election, but it was still hypocritical and low-class to assert that Right. The President may technically have the “right” to personally intervene in Federal criminal cases to serve his own personal agenda, but it is still wrong. Trump may claim a “right” to grant pardons to anyone he wishes, or redirect resources, or to have private conversations with dictators, or any of a million other things. He may have the “right” to lie about matters personal and official, but it is still unethical. Simply put, his “right” to do those things does not make any of them the right thing to do. It certainly does not excuse them or make them into behaviors that we must accept.

It is not surprising that Trump, self-serving child that he is, would assert a “right” to do practically anything he wishes. Nor that Mitch McConnell would assert that any dirty tactic he may employ is within his “rights.” But it is really sad that so many outsiders, so many pundits and elected representatives, folks whose ethical responsibility it is to be ethically responsible, respond to concerns about ethical integrity only by saying “well he has the right to do that.”

Claiming that someone else has “the right to do that” is a weaselly and cowardly attempt to appear ethically-grounded while in fact abandoning anything beyond a pathetic pretense of ethical integrity. Conversely, quite often the truly right thing to do ethically is to put aside one’s own personal selfish “rights” to service a far greater and more noble good.

And it must be pointed out that very often these “rights” invoked are usually not affirmative, specifically granted rights, or even generally accepted rights. Most often these are matters of common human decency that no one ever felt they needed to enumerate in some gargantuan list of all the things no honorable person would ever do, or would even think of doing.

The lack of a specific prohibition is not a Right.

Yet, for the most part, this is the new Trumpian ethical low that we Americans have fallen to. If your totally reprehensible and unthinkable behavior has no specific law against it beyond hundreds of years of decorum and mutual respect, then you claim that it is your “right” to do that thing. And if you are a partisan or sycophant, you excuse that behavior by simply pointing out that it is technically and legally within their rights.

Invoking a technical right to do something is one of the most abused, misused, disingenuous, and yes even unethical, levels of ethical thinking and behavior. So realize that when apologists justify bad behavior as a “right,” they are almost certainly resorting to the weakest possible justification that they hope sounds principled, lofty, and unassailable.

We should not so easily let them off the ethical hook by simply invoking this sort of disingenuous justification.

Would you Buy a Used Car from this Guy?

Used Car SalesmanWhen someone makes a claim, how do you decide whether to accept it or to reject it? Ideally you make an independent assessment of the truth of the claim. But that assessment must necessarily factor in, and factor in quite heavily, the character of the person making the claim. Do they have legitimate knowledge regarding the claim, do they have ulterior motives to misrepresent their claim, and do they have a history of making false and misleading claims?

If any such character questions fail, one should be legitimately skeptical of any claim made by that person. As judges in court proceedings often instruct their jury, if a witness is caught in even one lie, it is reasonable to be skeptical of their entire testimony. If enough questions of character arise, then one should be skeptical that even the most legitimate-sounding claim made by that person may simply be “too good to be true.”

The merits of a claim can be misrepresented. Therefore a character assessment must sometimes be factored in even more strongly than our judgement about the merits of an assertion. Conversely, we should seriously consider even doubtful claims from those of high character and a strong record of being correct.

An offer is a kind of a claim. An offer makes an implicit claim that you have something of value to the recipient that you are willing to share. As with any other claim, the decision whether to accept or reject the offer must necessarily consider the character of the person or entity making the offer.

President Trump has made more false claims that one can count. Well, actually someone did count more than 20,000 false and misleading claims just since taking office (see here). Moreover, he has unfailingly demonstrated that he lacks judgment, is completely self-serving, has total disregard for facts and truth, and considers fakery and manipulation to be a high ideals. He lacks any ethical core and even his sanity is in legitimate doubt.

Given his deplorable character and his clear and almost entirely blemished record of deceit, it is truly mind-boggling how anyone can believe anything Mr. Trump says, no matter how plausible it may sound or how much they want it to be true. Gullible people are those who believe false claims, often willfully ignoring the character of even known liars or confidence men making the claims. Anyone who believes anything Mr. Trump says without exceptional external validation is simply gullible.

Similarly, one cannot be criticized for being skeptical regarding any offer made by Mr. Trump or by his Administration. It is unfortunate when public officials pretend to ignore his character when expressing skepticism regarding his policy offers and recommendations. For example, in interviews regarding Trump’s offer to deploy Federal police into cities to deal with rioting, several Mayors have been asked “Would you reject Federal law enforcement assistance if the offer did not come from the Trump Administration?” The question suggests that considering the source of the offer would be somehow “politically motivated.” Those Mayors tend to skirt the character issue completely and give vague answers about how Federal assistance is not needed.

The correct answer, both rationally and politically, should be “Of course I have to consider veracity and motives of the person making any claim or offer, particularly one of such great consequence as this.”

And of course Mr. Trump’s character must influence the reluctance of those Mayors to accept his offer of “assistance.” If the same offer was made by any of our previous Presidents, it might be reasonable to consider it more favorably. Those Mayors might feel far more comfortable in doing so because no other President has demonstrated such an egregious degree of disingenuous lies and manipulations for their own benefit or spite. Coming from any other President, Mayors would have less reason for concern that the offer was politically motivated let alone another step on the road toward the realization of his Dictatorial aspirations. If the offer had come from any other President, those Mayors would have had far less cause to consider that the offer originated from a morally corrupt and even mentally unstable individual.

It is of course unfortunate that even if Donald Trump were to make some claim or offer that is actually truthful and helpful, most sane and ethical people should be rightfully skeptical of it. That is why an individual as fundamentally untrustworthy as Donald Trump should never hold a position of public trust.

 

The Bridge that Binds

RelationshipsOur consciousness is like a lone person wandering around within the confines of their own small island-body. We see people on their own islands all around us, but we can only wave and call out to them at a distance. But sometimes, miraculously, we happen upon a rope-bridge spanning the void at the same time that another discovers their end of the bridge, and we can come together, embrace, and share our islands as one.

Unfortunately, rope bridges easily fray, and all of our running back and forth together inevitably wears them out. If we are not extraordinarily smart and careful, the tenuous bridge binding us together collapses irretrievably. How do these interpersonal bridges get frayed and can we prevent it?

Four years ago I blogged about the relationship between memory and happiness (see here). Long story short… the better your memory the more unhappy you are likely to be. People with “good” memories invariably remember every insult, every slight, and every disappointment. Those painful memories pile up and eventually weigh one down with bitterness, regret, fear, and anger. These are often directed toward your partner.

When it comes to maintaining a close, loving relationship, a bad memory can be a good thing. Sure you may forget that occasional birthday or anniversary, but you can chalk that up to your bad memory. Hopefully your partner will forgive those oversights. But much worse is to carry every inevitable and unavoidable insult or emotional injury with you in your unforgiving memory banks – especially since it is likely to get worse and worse with each recalling (see here).

But how does a person with a good memory forget a bad experience? Excellent question. One thing you can do is to consciously resolve to wake up each day like Lucy Whitmore as played by Drew Barrymore in “50 First Dates” (see here). Resolve that even though you may indulge in being justifiably crabby, sullen, snippy, or plain pissed with your partner till bedtime, come morning you’ll reboot and revert to normal, just like Lucy. You may need to “show them how it feels” or simply shut down emotionally for a day, but don’t carry it on past the morning light.

And if you are the on the receiving end of this behavior change, don’t adjust to a new normal too quickly. Help make it easy for your partner to return to normalcy without either of you losing face.

Because if both partners do not reboot quickly, you run a even bigger risk than adding on another toxic memory. You run the risk of falling prey to an insidious type of “behavioral memory.” What happens is this sort of sequence… say you get angry with your spouse so you do or don’t do something in response. In the morning you feel not ready to let up so you don’t. Throughout the day, you continue with your response, because you now feel awkward going back. By the next day, you no longer know how to go back. Your temporary anger or hurt reflex has become internalized and both you and your partner have adjusted to it. Now, it’s a permanent part of your relationship and there is no way back. You may forget the precipitating event, but your response has become a permanent behavioral memory. It is your new normal, and it diminishes your relationship. The bridge between your islands is frayed and weakened.

So, after a trying episode, wake up like Lucy and try to forget your pain or anger from yesterday. Of course you can’t and shouldn’t forget real abuse and mistreatment. But do try to let go of those minor spats with those who you love and who love you. Don’t allow something relatively minor to fester and grow. Most importantly, don’t allow your response behavior to become ingrained as a permanent behavioral memory.

Second, be on the lookout for any time when, in response to hurt or anger, you say to yourself “for now on I’m gonna…” This is almost always something unfortunate. When you hear yourself think that, just stop that line of thought. Don’t make behavior changes that arise from negative reactions.

If your partner didn’t laugh at your joke, don’t resolve to never tell jokes again. If your partner insulted your lasagna, don’t resolve never to cook again. If your partner shrugged off your hug, don’t resolve to never to risk showing affection again. Each time you decide to make some long-term change out of hurt or anger or just as your sensible adjustment to your partners behavioral change, just stop as ask yourself if your reaction is really worth the cost. Don’t whittle away at the bridge that binds you together.

Finally, if your partner does establish a destructive new behavioral memory, try not to adjust to a new normal too quickly or too deeply. Don’t lock in their behavior through your own adjustment to it, as reasonable as that may seem. Remain open to creating or finding opportunities to restore or strengthen the precious bridge you share.

The picture accompanying this article tells a tragic story of a couple that didn’t start out more interested in their cell phones than in even a merely perfunctory embrace. They started out strongly connected and madly in love. But years of memories that only fester and grow have wedged them apart. A hundred ingrained behavioral memories have destroyed all that they once gave them so much joy. Now their once mighty bridge is merely a tenuous thread.

You don’t need to become them. Choose not to become them. Choose to be Lucy.

 

Three Major Flaws in your Thinking

BrainwavesEEGToday I’d like to point out three severe and consequential flaws in your thinking. I know, I know, you’re wondering how I could possibly presume that you have major flaws in your thinking. Well, I can safely presume so because these flaws are so innate that it is a statistical certainty that you exhibit them much the time. I suffer from them myself, we all do.

Our first flaw arises from our assumption that human thinking must be internally consistent; that there must necessarily be some logical consistency to our thinking and our actions. This is reinforced by our own perception that whatever our neural networks tell us, no matter how internally inconsistent, nevertheless seems totally logical to us. But the reality is that our human neural networks can accommodate any level of inconsistency. We learn whatever “training facts,” good or bad, that are presented to us sufficiently often. Our brains have no inherent internal consistency checks beyond the approval and rejection patterns they are taught. For example, training in science can improve these check patterns,  whereas training in religion necessarily weakens them. But nothing inherently prevents bad facts and connections from getting introduced into our networks. (Note that the flexibility of our neural networks to accommodate literally anything <was> an evolutionary advantage for us.)

Our second flaw is that we have an amazing ability to rationalize whatever random facts we are sufficiently exposed to so as to make them seem totally logical and consistent to us. We can maintain unquestioning certainty in any proposition A, but at the same time be perfectly comfortable with proposition B, even if B is in total opposition with and incompatible with proposition A. We easily rationalize some explanation to create the illusion of internal consistency and dismiss any inconsistencies. If our network is repeatedly exposed to the belief that aliens are waiting to pick us up after we die, that idea gradually becomes more and more reasonable to us, until eventually we are ready to drink poison. At each point in the deepening of those network pathways, we easily rationalize away any logical or empirical inconsistency. We observe extreme examples of this in clinical cases but such rationalization affects all our thinking. (Note that our ability to rationalize incoherent ideas so as to seem perfectly coherent to us was an evolutionary necessity to deal with the problems produced by flaw #1.) 

The third flaw is that we get fooled by our perception of and need to attribute intent and volition to our thoughts and actions. We imagine that we decide things consciously when the truth is that most everything we think and do is largely the instantaneous unconscious output of our uniquely individual neural network pathways. We don’t so much arrive at a decision as we rationalize a post-facto explanation after we realize what we just thought or did. Our consciousness is like the General who follows the army wherever it goes, and tells himself he is in charge. We feel drawn to a Match date. Afterwards when we are asked what attracted us to that person, so we come up something like her eyes or his laugh. But the truth is that our attraction was so automatic and so complex and so deeply buried, that we really have no idea. Still, we feel compelled to come with some explanation to reassure us that we made a reasoned conscious decision. (Certainly our illusion of control is a fundamental element of what we perceive as our consciousness.)

So these are our three core flaws. First, our brains can learn any set of random facts and cannot help but accept those “facts” as undeniable and obvious truths. Second, we can and do rationalize whatever our neural network tells us, however crazy and nonsensical, so as to make us feel OK enough about ourselves to at least allow us to function in the world. And thirdly, when we ascribe post-facto rationalizations to explain our neural network conclusions, we mistakenly believe that the rationalizations came first. Believing otherwise conflicts unacceptably with our need to feel in control of our thoughts and actions.

I submit that understanding these flaws is incredibly important. Truly incorporating an understanding of these flaws into your analysis of new information shifts the paradigm dramatically. It opens up powerful new insights into understanding people better, promotes more constructive evaluation of their thoughts and actions, and reveals more effective options for working with or influencing them.

On the other hand, failure to consider these inherent flaws misdirects and undermines all of our interpersonal and social interactions. It causes tremendous frustration, misunderstanding, and counterproductive interactions.

I am going to give some more concrete examples of how ignoring these flaws causes problems and how integrating them into your thinking opens up new possibilities. But before I do that, I have to digress a bit and emphasize that we are the worst judge of our own thoughts and conclusions. By definition, whatever our neural network thinks is what seems inescapably logical and true to us. Therefore, our first thought must always be, am I the one whose neural network is flawed here? Sometimes we can recognize this in ourselves, sometimes we might accept it when others point it out, but most of the time it is exceedingly difficult for us to recognize let alone correct our own network programming. When our networks change, it is usually a process of which we are largely unaware, and happens through repeated exposure to different training facts.

But just because we cannot fully trust our own thinking doesn’t mean we should question everything we think. We simply cannot and should not question every idea we have learned. We have learned the Earth is spherical. We shouldn’t feel so insecure as to question that, or be intellectually bullied into entertaining new flat Earth theories to prove our open-mindedness or scientific integrity. Knowing when to maintain ones confidence in our knowledge and when to question it, is of course incredibly challenging.

And this does not mean we are all equally flawed or that we cannot improve. The measure is how well our individual networks comport with objective reality and sound reason. Some of our networks have more fact-based programming than others. Eliminating bad programming is not hopeless. It is possible, even irresistible when it happens. Our neural networks are quite malleable given new training facts good or bad. My neural network once told me that any young bald tattooed male was a neo-Nazi, that any slovenly guy wearing bagging jeans below his butt was a thug, and any metro guy sporting a bushy Khomeini beard was an insecure, over-compensating douchebag. Repeated exposure to facts to the contrary have reprogrammed my neural network on at least two of those.

OK, back on point now. Below are some examples of comments we might say or hear in conversation, along with some analysis and interpretation based on an awareness of our three flaws. I use the variable <topic> to allow you to fill in the blank with practically anything. It can be something unquestionably true, like <climate change is real>, or <god is a fantasy>, or <Trump is a moron>. Alternatively, if you believe obvious nonsense like <climate change is a hoax>, or <god is real>, or <Trump is the greatest President ever>, using those examples can still help just as much to improve your comfort level and relations with the other side.

I don’t understand how Jack can believe <topic>. He is so smart!

We often hear this sort of perplexed sentiment. How can so many smart people believe such stupid things? Well, remember flaw #1. Our brains can be both smart and stupid at the same time, and usually are. There are no smart or stupid brains, there are only factually-trained neural network patterns and speciously trained neural network patterns. Some folks have more quality programming, but that doesn’t prevent bad programming from sneaking in. There should be no surprise to find that otherwise smart people often believe some very stupid things.

Jill must be crazy if she believes <topic>.

Just like no one is completely smart, no one is completely crazy. Jill may have some crazy ideas that exist perfectly well along side a lot of mostly sane ideas. Everyone has some crazy programming and we only consider them insane when the level of crazy passes some socially acceptable threshold.

I believe Ben when he says <topic> is true because he won a Nobel Prize.

A common variant of the previous sentiments. Ben may have won a Nobel Prize, he may teach at Harvard, and may pen opinion pieces for the New York Times, so therefore we should give him the benefit of the doubt when we listen to his opinions. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that he may still be totally bonkers on any particular idea. Conversely, just because someone is generally bonkers, we should be skeptical of anything they say but still be open to the possibility that they may be reasoning more clearly than most on any particular issue. This is why we consider “argument by authority” to be a form of specious argument.

It makes me so mad that Jerry claims that <topic> is real!

Don’t get too mad. Jerry kinda can’t help it. His neural network training has resulted in a network that clearly tells him that <topic> must obviously be absolutely true. Too much Fox News, religious exposure, or relentless brainwashing will do that to anyone, even you.

How can Bonnie actually claim that she supports <topic> when she denies <topic>???

First, recall flaw #1. Bonnie can believe any number of incompatible things without any problem at all. And further, flaw #2 allows her to rationalize a perfectly compelling reason to excuse any inconsistency.

Clyde believes in <topic> so he’ll never support <topic>.

Not true. Remember our flaws again. Clyde’s neural network can in fact accommodate one topic without changing the other one, and still rationalize them perfectly well. All it takes is exposure to the appropriate “training facts.” In fact, consistent with flaw #3, after his network programming changes, Clyde will maintain that he consciously arrived at that new conclusion through careful study and the application of rigorous logic.

Sonny is conducting a survey to understand why voters support <topic>.

Social scientists in particular should be more cognizant of this one. How often do we go to great efforts to ask people why they believe something or why they did something. But remember flaw #3. Mostly what they will report to you is simply their rationalization based on flaw #2. It may not, and usually doesn’t, have anything to do with their extremely complex neural network programming. That is why “subjective” studies designed to learn how to satisfy people usually fail to produce results that actually do influence them. Sonny should look for more objective measures for insight and predictive value.

Cher should support <topic> because it is factually supported and logically sound!

Appeals to evidence and logic often fail because peoples’ neural network has already been trained to accept other “evidence” and to rationalize away contrary logic. It should be no surprise that they reject your evidence and conclusions and it doesn’t accomplish anything to expect Cher to see it, let alone berate or belittle her when she does not.

And that brings us to the big reveal of this article…

There is a fourth flaw that is far worse than the other three we have discussed so far. And that is the flaw that most of us suffer from when we fail to integrate an deep awareness of flaws 1-3 into our thinking. We may not be able to completely control or eliminate flaws 1-3, but we can correct flaw number 4!

This discussion may have left you feeling helpless to understand, let alone influence, our truth-agnostic neural networks. But it also presents opportunities. These insights suggest two powerful approaches.

The first approach is more long-term. We must gradually retrain flawed neural networks. This can be accomplished through education, marketing, advertising, example-setting, and social awareness campaigns to name a few. None of these efforts need to be direct, nor do they require any buy-in by the target audience. The reality of network training is that it is largely unconscious, involuntary, and automatic. If our neural networks are exposed to sufficient nonsense, they will gradually find that nonsense more and more reasonable. But the encouraging realization is that reprogramming works just as well – or better – for sound propositions. And to be clear, this can happen quite rapidly. Look at how quickly huge numbers of neural networks have moved on a wide range of influence campaigns from the latest fashion or music craze to tobacco reduction to interracial relationships.

The second approach can be instantaneous. Rather than attempt to reprogram neural networks, you force them to jump through an alternate pathway to a different conclusion. This can happen with just a tiny and seemingly unrelated change in the inputs, and the result is analogous to suddenly shifting from the clear perception of a witch-silhouette, to that of a vase. Your network paths have not changed, yet one moment you conclude that you clearly see a witch, and the next it becomes equally obvious that it is actually a vase. For example, when Karl Rove changed the name of legislation, he didn’t try to modify people’s neural network programming, he merely changed an input to trigger a very different output result.

I hope these observations have given you a new lens through which you can observe, interpret, and influence human behavior in uniquely new and more productive ways. If you keep them in mind, you will find that they inform much of what you hear, think, and say.

Any Fool Can Do It

SurvivorOn October 9th, 1989, I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “The Survivors” that made quite an impression on me. In it, Captain Picard and his crew encounter an elderly couple living in an unnatural oasis on a devastated planet. It turns out that the wife is a phantasm, an unknowing replica of the actual wife, now long dead. She was conjured by her husband Kevin, a godlike being who was devoted to her before her death and who has remained so centuries after.

By the way, Kevin was played by the iconic character actor John Anderson (see here). You probably don’t know his name, but if you watched any television from the early 50’s to the early 90’s, you cannot fail to recognize his distinctively Lincoln-esque countenance and voice.

Anyway, at the end Kevin reveals his shameful secret. When the planet he was living on with his wife was attacked by hostile aliens called the Husnock, he tried his best to use his powers to trick or dissuade them. Those efforts failed. Refusing to take any life, even those of the deplorable Husnocks, Kevin stood passively by as they devastated his planet and killed his wife along with the rest of her people.

The anguish of this loss caused him to lose control of himself, releasing a momentary outburst of uncontrolled rage. As Kevin told it:

“I went insane. My hatred exploded, and in an instant of grief, I destroyed the Husnock. I didn’t kill just one Husnock, or a hundred, or a thousand. I killed them all. All Husnock everywhere.”

What touched me was not merely the poignant tale of grief and loss and shame and regret. What touched me was what was implied by the story. What touched me was what else the story of Kevin teaches us.

Take note that Kevin was essentially a god. Unlike Thanos, Kevin didn’t need to expend all the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. It only required one stray thought for Kevin to selectively exterminate billions of lives. He was that powerful.

So after watching this episode, I asked myself the logical question. Given all that power, and given Kevin’s deep love and mourning for his wife, why didn’t he simply think her back into existence? Why didn’t he bring back all her people and restore her planet? In fact, given his deep regret, why didn’t he bring back the Husnock and direct them along a better path? Of course he would have… if he could.

The only answer is, he couldn’t.

So the truth, the revelation, the epiphany for the viewer must be that any fool can destroy. Tearing down is easy. It can be done with one errant thought. But even an omnipotent god cannot easily create. Even one as powerful as Kevin cannot in a million years ever recreate what he can mindlessly destroy in an instant.

We humans are certainly not gods, but in this regard we are the same as Kevin. We can easily, even unthinkingly, break a dish, crush a rose, tear someone down, shoot a gun, dash a hope, take a life, smash a historical relic, burn a building, bomb a city, nuke a country, even devastate a planet. Any fool can destroy. But it is immensely difficult, even impossible, to create or restore any of those things.

And what makes us immeasurably worse than Kevin is when we take pride and joy in destroying. When we believe that destroying makes us powerful. It does not. Any fool can destroy. Fools destroy because it makes them feel powerful.

However, it takes real strength and true genius to create.

This applies not only to physical things but to ideas. Any fool can knock down ideas. Any fool can pick them apart and tear them to pieces.  It takes an exceptional person to conceive new ideas and to build on the ideas of others rather than take delight in crushing them.

And this applies to ideas like Democracy as well as to our institutions. It required generations of strong and wise people to create our democratic ideals and institutions. But it only takes a few short years for a weak-minded and craven fool like Donald Trump to mindlessly tear them all irretrievably asunder. Feeling power and even pride in the “dismantling of the administrative state” – without building something stronger and better upon it – is the work of fools.

And we have no shortage of fools.