Category Archives: epistemic closure

Hamlet’s Wisdom for Our Political Impasse

Shakespeare had wisdom relevant to the political impasse of my country. He realized that human nature often leaves us trapped in a cognitive grid, i.e. being “lost in our head,” which W. H. Auden described as the world of a “logical lunatic.” In the following passage Hamlet is in deep anguish and pines for his mother to listen to him, listen not merely be “waiting” until he finishes talking:

(Hamlet, speaking to his mother, Gertrude)
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace. Sit you down
And let me wring your heart. For so I shall
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damnèd custom have not bronzed it o’er so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense. (i.e.feeling)

Gertrude was wringing her hands with her own anguish and guilt over her son’s misery. But Hamlet, consumed by rage…teeming with “mother issues”…would not give her any mercy and asked her to take a seat and let him “ring her heart.” And Hamlet knew he could, for he knew that with his murderous rage he was able to, “speak daggers to her, not use them.”

But Hamlet’s creator, Shakespeare, knew that Gertrude was like all humans, insulated with a thought-world shaped by “damned custom” that had “bronzed o’er” her heart so that it would prevent any affect which would allow genuine listening. “Damned custom” is a necessary gift of human culture, to fill our heads with contrived thinking designed to help us function in our tribe which means to minimize the influence of “bothersome” affect. But if the “bronzing o’er” is done too completely, then one is not capable of listening to anyone but only in interpreting what is heard in terms of a medley of pre-conceptions and premises. Without that “proof and bulwark” being in place, listening to the anguish of another person would prove too painful so culture provides us platitudes such as, “Oh, it will pass” or “My, I know how that feels” or, “Oh hell. Why don’t you just get over it,” or, “God knows what is best.”

In the current political situation this denial system leads to the “hunkering down” phenomena in which some, when faced with contradictions and absurdity in their stances, merely assert their beliefs with greater emphasis. This is because core beliefs are seen to be under attack and these “core beliefs” …always to some degree unquestioned assumptions…are not subject to question. And, of course it is this morass of the unquestioned that harbors “material” that is deemed too painful to address.

“They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” Goethe

Advertisements

The Intoxication of Lunacy!

Colorado has a group of people who are apparently serious about the notion of a flat earth.  When I started reading this I suspected it was a spoof but the more I read I realize that these people are serious.  They really do believe the earth is flat and they have “proof” that this notion is valid!  )  I have often in my “career” as a blogger used the flat earth notion to illustrate complete lunacy, a private world view for people who have lost contact with reality and created their own little imaginary world which, at the extreme, is collective psychosis.  Ideas can carry us away and because of their intoxicating effect on our mind-set we can lose all critical capacity, believing our pet “idea” even when all evidence suggests it is self-delusion. (See Denver Post story at following link:  (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/07/07/colorado-earth-flat-gravity-hoax/)

I have my own personal spoof of this lunacy in which I facetiously and sarcastically postulate a world in which “the moon is made out of cheese.” Yes, suppose during the night I am the victim of a neurological convulsion in my brain and awakened the next morning to know, with great passion, that “the moon is made out of cheese.”  If this should happen, I might take this very seriously and suddenly realize that it is the truth, that the darkness I’ve lived in has finally lifted, and I see clearly that, yes, “the moon is made out of cheese.”  Furthermore, some friends might try to intervene and set me straight but they would make no progress because, “when you know the truth, you just kinda know the truth” and no one is going to dissuade you.  Of course, finding truth always requires that others be convinced so I would start evangelizing and before long I would have a congregation of like-minded souls and we would then have the solace of validation, a solace which would be enhanced by the realization that only we saw the truth and that any “truth” is always rejected by those who are enlightened.  This insight would give us the comfort of borrowing a theme from fundamentalists of every stripe and sadly and piously understand that “we are being persecuted for His sake.”

I am here addressing one of my pet themes, best described as a toxic version of group-think, a private referential system in which validation is found only in those who have found our view of the world amenable to theirs.  When this toxicity infects any idea, ideas which might otherwise have value to others is immediately rejected by these “others” as they have no meaning to them whatsoever.  The resulting ideology, a passionate belief system that has become delusional becomes a private prison guaranteed to repel anyone who looks on from the outside.  But the rejection itself is perversely rewarding as it leaves the “true believers” with the smug satisfaction of owning “truth” which only they have apprehended.  What has happened is that very unhappy people have crafted a belief system which isolates them even further than they were to begin with and they slowly die from the suffocation that always comes from what Paul Tillich called “an empty world of self-relatedness.”  Emily Dickinson described it as “a mind too near itself to see distinctly.”

In my clinical career this phenomena was known as “insanity,” succinctly capsulized in a clinical bromide, “Mental illness is a reference problem.”  The individual who is completely mad…and we are all mad to some degree…has cut himself off from all external reference and finds great comfort in his delusional system.  For the intoxication of self-delusion resists any sobering-up that critical thinking would afford. It is easy for an out-sider, i.e. a non-believer, to quickly isolate the premise of a delusional system but just dare try to challenge that premises and you will meet great resistance.  For this “premise” represents an emotional investment the person/persons have made which cannot be relinquished without great pain.  Hypothetically, if one could reach into the heart of these people and surgically extirpate the premise, one would witness a complete melt-down.  For this premise is an existential anchor which holds its victims prisoners in a fortress from which they dare not escape.

I conclude with, still again, my favorite bumper-sticker, “Don’t believe everything you think.”

Rebecca Solnit on Trump’s Maddening Solitude

This is the best “sermon” I’ve read yet about Trump and his minions.  Rebecca Solnit spares no punches and delivers a prophetic word, not just about Trump, but about our whole culture.  As they say, “Read it and weep.”  And weeping is in order as this is a very sad moment in our history and could get even sadder at any moment.

My use of words like “sermon” and “prophetic” bely my rage at the church culture of my origins.  Yes, “me doeth protest too much.”  I still think that “truth” can be found in spiritual traditions but very often spiritual traditions ossify and become merely “well-worn words and ready phrases that build walls against the wilderness.”  That leaves it to artists, writers, and even comedians to “speak truth to power” and Ms. Solnit here “knocks it out of the park.”

http://lithub.com/rebecca-solnit-the-loneliness-of-donald-trump/

******************************

Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

“The Moon is Made Out of Cheese”

The following is a facetious reverie I utilize socially on occasion to illustrate the lunacy that we all wallow in occasionally.  Bear with me.  There is a point to it.

Wow, I woke up this morning and I suddenly realized that the moon is made out of cheese!  Furthermore, I knew that this insight was profound and relevant to the entire world so I immediately began to formulate a plan whereby I could spread this very important insight.

I started by canvassing my neighborhood and though many refused to open the door, some laughed at me, there were a handful of people who, knowing how special and gifted I was to begin with, immediately said, “Hey, you have a point there!  I’ve always had thoughts like that myself but didn’t have the courage to speak of them.”

So we began to meet regularly and started each meeting with an assessment of those in the neighborhood who had not “seen the light” and had so rudely refused the good news that we had brought.  We took great comfort in the realization that most people cannot handle the truth, stubbornly keep their minds and hearts in the darkness, and refuse to allow enlightenment to enter.  Often, as these meetings ended, we would be in tears as we lamented the fate of those who had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the truth that we offered.

I must make a long story short and summarize.  This initial group did grow and at some point our initial band of seven faithful souls expanded to twenty-three.  We formally organized and, of course, since I was the source of this inspiration I announced that I was the leader of the group…and also the treasurer…and that I was the final authority on some of the fine points about the moon being made out of cheese.

At this point, trouble started.  One gentleman brought up the question, “Well, what kind of cheese is it?”  I was a bit taken aback as I knew without a doubt that it was American cheese but another dared to suggest, “No, it is cheddar.”  Still another affirmed that it was American cheese but argued that it was Velveeta.  It took a lot of argument, and at times intense anger, but I managed to convince the second gentleman that the Velveeta notion was heresy and he agreed with me.  But the cheddar proponent was adamant about his viewpoint, and convinced three others he was right, and they separated from our group and focused on developing a belief system around the moon being made out of cheddar cheese.

My point here with this lunacy is, once again, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Those who do, lacking the capacity to think critically, are subject to easily being influenced by a seductive and/or intimidating person.  Whatever our “pet” thoughts are, it does not hurt in the least to subject them to a bit of critical thinking.  I like T.S. Eliot’s observation on this note, encouraging us to, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  “Pet” thoughts that have value can withstand this type of scrutiny and even flourish as a result.  This makes me think of something I read decades ago about how to make a poem, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  Grabbing a word or a thought and “pulling on it” with critical thinking can help ferret out the value…if any…if the thinking.  The less value in the vein of thought that grips one’s soul, the less likelihood that any critical thinking will be brought to bear upon it.

Each of us have passing thoughts.  That is good.  But we can be selective about which one’s we give any energy to and if it is something that tends to promote isolation, we might take pause.  We might ask, “Do I really believe this?”

Negative Capability, Humility, & Politics

For 40 years I’ve been keenly tuned into literary wisdom, often memorizing tons of poetry and prose, some remnants of which remain today but only those which resonated with the deepest recesses of my mind/heart.  Facebook offered me one gem yesterday that will stick with me, from Gore Vidal, “The unfed mind devours itself.”  That took only seconds before it fluttered down into the inner-most depths of my being and I understood what he was saying.  All of us have a mind and it is always incorporating “stuff” from our world but by nature this “stuff” is then incorporated into our reality by our ego’s self-serving grasp and thus we skew it to merely reassure ourselves of our premises.  For example, when the earth was assumed to be flat, any “rational” intellectual of the day took this as an unquestioned assumption just as when I was a youth in the South I never doubted my culture’s wisdom that blacks were inferior to whites and should “get back in their place.”  This does not make practitioners of conservative tradition “bad”; it just makes them human and therefore capable of “badness.”

But Vidal was challenging us to consider that a mind trapped within the premises that constitute its “reality” can metastasize, and slowly eat away at its very core, devouring itself, or as Shakespeare put it, “feeding even on the pith of life.”  A mind imprisoned in this dark world has not ventured to explore its parameters, its boundaries, and to tippy-toe into the world of the liminal where “what is ‘out there’” and “what is ‘in here’” is not so clear and distinct.  This is the very heart of spirituality but when “spirituality” consists of dogma (“well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness”–Conrad Aiken), even spirituality has drifted into the domain of the ersatz and is the very antithesis of the teachings of persons like Jesus Christ.

This is the “willful ignorance” spoken of in the New Testament (2nd Peter).  Terry Eagleton, reviewing “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski in the current edition of London Review of Books declared, “The closest one can come to the truth is a knowledge of one’s self-deception.” This knowledge is the awareness of a penchant to be “wrong,” that one “sees through a glass darkly” and inevitably will lead to inevitably to the pain of disillusionment occasionally as the flicker of light burns through some of our ego’s obfuscation.  This is related to poet John Keats’ term negative capability which is the ability of some individuals, usually writers or artists, who can delve into the realm of ambiguity and uncertainty and not live enslaved by religious or philosophical certainty.

But the willful ignorance noted by St. Peter is an unconscious blindness to even the possibility of knowing that one might be deceived.  One cannot handle even the notion of being wrong. This problem is relevant to the Dunning-Kruger effect though I’m hesitant to use this that term because it refers to “stupid people” and my focus here is people that are often very bright and not stupid in the least.  These are merely people who lack some version of “negative capability,” their “non-literary” version being my recognition that negative capability is not for everyone and that in fact the world could not with function with too much of it!

But when “negative capability” is squashed to the extent that all vestiges of it are obliterated, the result will always be an arrogant certainty which will be some version of, “Let’s Make America Great Again.”  And when this ego need metastasizes to some point, some version of Isis will appear on the stage be it Nazi Germany or the extremism of the hinterlands of modern day evangelical Christianity.

I want to include a brilliant observation by Hannah Arendt from her book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.”

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men* as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Thinking “Deeply” Out of the Box

One of my followers on this blog, and a personal friend, shed interesting light on this notion of “thinking outside of the box.”

“It seems likely to me that thinking outside the box is impossible without then thinking from inside a larger box which contains that previous box. So what we encounter is a collection of telescoping boxes. The most we can hope for is that with each escape from a box that holds us captive, we are then held captive in a more liberating box.”

This gentleman’s observation and the subject matter I’ve put on the table here brought to my mind the Christian notion of “the fall” and the resulting fate of being able to only “see through a glass darkly.”  For, this “fall”, if one deigns to approach it from a metaphorical/mythical dimension, was our expulsion from the blissful of unity with all things, i.e. the Garden of Eden, into the realm of symbolic form.  That Divine spark with which we are born, that “Christ child,” needs to enter into the world of form so that we can experience the joy, and the frustration, of the human enterprise.  Aesychlus, thousands of years ago, referred to this event as “having been banished thought-ward” as he began his heroic journey.

But becoming a “thinking human being” is both a joy and a curse.  We can have the joy of human consciousness as we revel in the incredible mystery of our brief sojourn through this time-space continuum.  But the “curse” is always a temptation, that mistake of taking our thoughts too seriously and falling into the delusion that with them we have captured reality.  This makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw recently, “Don’t believe everything you are thinking.”

My reader is very astute.  We never can escape “the box” but with awareness of our confinement to human form for this brief moment we can allow our reality to be more fluid and can be less obnoxious about our view point.  And, alas and alack, this even applies to me as I discourse here and even, occasionally in real time!

This makes me think of a verse from W. H. Auden:

In the desert of my heart,

Let the healing fountain start.

In this prison of my days,

Teach this poor man how to praise.