Tag Archives: epistemic closure

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.”



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





Embedded in Our Thinking #4

A judge in Tennessee provided us this week another demonstration of being embedded in our own thinking and the poor judgment that can ensue.  He refused to grant divorce to a straight couple, explaining…and I paraphrase…”Well, if the Supreme Court can tell us what is and is not marriage then I must wait until they take the next step and announce what divorce is.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/04/tenn-judge-refuses-to-grant-straight-couple-a-divorce-because-of-gay-marriage/)

This judge is voicing a conservative trope that is in the vogue currently, “judicial tyranny.”  The Supreme Court’s decisions have repeatedly rebuffed them in recent years and they are peeved, taking the stance that they are being treated unfairly rather than considering that their views, though valid for them and others like them, and not valid for everyone.  But his petulant, childish stance on this matter demonstrates the extent to which the issues are emotional, i.e. “unconscious”, rather than rational.  And that is the issue with “embedded thinking,” those who are plagued with this malady have made an inordinate emotional (unconscious) investment in a vein of thought, ideology, which makes it impossible to reason with them.  They do not “think”, they are “thought.”  This makes me think of something a high school counselor told me one time, “Arguing with a teen ager is like wrestling with a pig:  You both get muddy and the pig likes it.”

Of course, I’m posed with a dilemma with this vein of “thought” I am sharing in that this “embedded thinking” is called “reality” and anyone who stands removed from this “embedded thinking” and criticizes it is also standing outside of “reality” and is therefore…ahem, cough, cough…nuts!  Well, in a sense this is true, but only in a sense.  “Embedded thinking” evolved because it gives the tribe the comfort necessary to go about the business of day-to-day life.  And we need those who will fulfill this God ordained task.  But my concern is that our investment in our “embedded thinking” could back off a little here and there and we would find that we could be a little more inclusive of those that we had been erstwhile dismissive of.  And “backing off” would not imperil our way of thinking but it would imperil our investment in it and, related to this, our investment in our self, or ego, and would be a step in the direction of getting over our self.  And I’m working on this myself!

Embedded in our Own Thinking

Emily Dickinson noted in one of her poems the person who “is too near himself to see himself distinctly.” This is one way of describing the human dilemma of being embedded in a private, self-referential system of thought, which can also be described as “embedded in his own thinking.” This is best illustrated in someone who merits the term “delusional” and is, perhaps, wearing a tin foil hat to keep out the rays from “out there” which are seeking to influence his mind. But it is possible to find a group of people with the same delusional way of thinking which will then provide the validation to an individual who has just ventured over into the delusional realm. The only thing that makes this group delusional is that their shared delusion is different from the delusion of the shared reality of the larger collective in which they happen to be situated.

Yes, this smacks of the demon “relativism” that I was taught to eschew in my fundamentalist youth and, yes, carried to an extreme one can find himself without any grounding and without any sense of reality and come unglued in the dark abyss of nihilism. But taking that direction is not necessary and is actually merely the easy way out, avoiding the responsibility of finding meaning in the very complicated and mysterious phenomena that we call “life.” Self-indulgent nihilism is a delightful alternative though the “delight” usually proves short-lived and is harmful to the individual and to those around him. “Meaning” is gut-level work of the heart and most people avoid it, opting for nihilism or the ready-made escape into mindless dogma.

But, discovering that we are “embedded in our own thinking” does not mean that our way of thinking and perceiving the world is inherently invalid. The discovery of this “embeddness” only opens us to considering the limitations of how we see the world and the recognition that others might…and do…see the world differently. This insight is often very painful for it makes us realize, intellectually and emotionally, our existential plight of separateness which immediately subjects us to the anguish of loneliness which culture was contrived in the first place to avoid. But this discovery simultaneously makes possible a connection we did not know was possible, one that can best be described as one of spirit/Spirit. In this realm of the Ineffable we discover the interconnectedness of the whole of life– human, animal, and plant– and even Mother Earth herself. We are “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches us.

Let me close with one simple illustration of how our language illustrates this embeddedness and how it shapes our view of the world. In some Eastern languages, if an individual wants to point out that he sees a book, for example, he will say, “I see the book.” But in the West, he will likely say, “I see the book.” For, here in the West, especially in my country the subject-object distinction is more pronounced which is because one of the fundamental things we learn as a child is that we are separate and distinct from the world around us. This “separateness” is important but its emphasis neglects often our inter-relatedness with others and with the world.

W. H. Auden on the “embedded thought” of the collective:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
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 Closed Cab of Occupation”


W. H. Auden declared that “We drive through life in the closed cab of occupation.” Auden was, like myself, an alienated soul sentenced to life as an “observer” of life rather than a “participant.” But being an “observer” with the capacity to even “observe” himself, i.e. self-reflect, he realized that even his occupation of poet was a “closed cab” and he was fated to view life through the prison of metaphor. And I’m glad he accepted that imprisonment as his work has been a god-send to myself and to many others, though he suffered greatly under its torments.

My “occupation” from very early in my development has been to “observe” life rather than to experience it, a stance that eventually evolved into the “closed cab” of a diagnostician, a mental health counselor. In the comfortable confines of that self-imposed prison I could…and still can…categorize and label this beautiful mystery that we call life and keep myself insulated from its hoary depths which are often frightening. But, mercifully I have the gift that Auden had and can self-reflect somewhat even about my “self-reflection” and thus my clinical detachment is breaking down. Yes, the prison-bars are bending and with a “little bit of luck and a strong tail-wind” I’m gonna be able to slip between those bars at some point and come out to play for moment before that damn Grim Reaper has his way with me!

A recent phrase I stumbled across on a Paul Tillich Facebook page is someone’s observation that Tillich’s teachings had taught him “just how much I am embedded in my own thought.” This “embeddedness” is a critical dimension of life that is difficult to grasp; for, to grasp this nuance of life is to see and experience a schism in the depths of one’s heart and he/she begins to realize there is more to one’s “experience” that what can be “thought.” This insight can be the beginning of recognition of one’s “closed cab.”

I want to share with you the insight of John O’Donohue about this discovery:

Thought is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. The way you see things makes them the way they are. We never meet life innocently. We always take in life through the grid of thought we use. Our thoughts filter experience all the time…Even your meetings with yourself happen in and by means of thinking.

 More often than not we have picked up the habits of thinking from those around us. These thought-habits are not yours; they can damage the way you see the world and make you doubt your own instinct and sense of life. When you become aware that your thinking has a life of its own, you will never make a prison of your own perception…In order to deconstruct the inner prison, the first step is to see that it is a prison. You can move in the direction of this discovery by reflecting on the places where your life feels limited and tight…”Heidegger said, ‘To recognize a frontier is already to have gone beyond it.’” (“Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong.”)

More Confirmation of my Biases!

I just love it when I find something that confirms that my thoughts are valid. No, in my case this is not “confirmation bias” (epistemic closure) this is God telling me once again, “You are right!” And, btw, if I read something or hear something that does not offer me this reassurance, my immediate response is, “Of the Devil!”

Seriously, “Brain Pickings” is a wonderful Face Book page and on this occasion it has offered something that is relevant, and reassuring, of a line of meta-cognitive exploration I’ve pursued for decades. (http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/30/daniel-kahneman-intuition/) The author describes research that has explored perception and intuition and concluded that we do have the tendency to believe and think exactly as we wish to. Or as someone said once, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we’ve already been led by our desires.”

So, my friend, you are reading the “coinage of the brain” of one man who is comfortably ensconced in his “delusional state!” No, I don’t really mean that but I do realize that the mind trotting this “stuff” outs springs from a heart that seeks homeostasis. Yes, this narrow little prism through which I view the world is the latest version of one which I’ve had for 63 years and I do not want its subtle premises questioned. I will say, however, in fairness to myself that being blessed…or cursed…with meta-cognition running out of my backside, I find some willingness for this homeostasis to be shaken occasionally by Reality so that I’m increasingly able to make room for other people. May it always be so!

Embedded in our Own Thinking

To think is to go beyond. Thinking that deserves the name never attempts to make a cage for mystery. Reverential thought breaks down the thought-cages that domesticate mystery. This thinking is disturbing but liberating. This is the kind of thinking at the heart of prayer, namely, the liberation of the Divine from the small prisons of our fear and control. To liberate the Divine is to liberate oneself. Each person is vulnerable in the way he or she sees things. You are so close to your own way of thinking that you are probably unaware of its power and control over how you experience everything, including yourself. This is the importance of drama as a literary form. It provides you the opportunity to know yourself at one remove, so to speak, without threatening you with annihilation. Your thinking can be damaged. You may sense this but put it down to the way life is. You remain unaware of your freedom to change the way you think. When your thinking is locked in false certainty or negativity, it puts so many interesting and vital of life out of your reach. You live hungry and impoverished in the midst of your own abundance.  (John O’donahue, “Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Yearning to Belong.)

Shakespeare addressed this issue in his first sonnet in a challenge to a friend who was so embedded in his own thinking that he was unable to make the commitment of marriage. Shakespeare described him as “contracted to thine own bright eyes,” telling us that being entrapped in a verbal prison limits us in our ability to see beyond the end of our own nose. Persons like this live in an echo chamber and their private prison is reinforced as they usually gravitate toward social groups that view the world from a similar prison. Conrad Aiken described it as “seeing only the small bright circles of our consciousness beyond which lies the darkness.” Those who do not see the world as they do, those who believe differently and often even vote differently are seen to be in that “darkness” and in some instances are seen as “going to hell.”

Now those of you who drop by from time to time recognize that this is a favorite subject of mine. Yes, “you spot it, you got it” applies to me also! I grew up in a very close-minded view of the world and have not escaped it yet…at least not fully. As O’Donohue noted, even beginning to see what I like to call “epistemic closure” has us in its clutches is often so frightening that we refuse to give the notion another thought. And he noted that “annihilation” is the subconscious fear for ego-identity (our persona) is a verbal construct and for even one plank in this artifice to be threatened evokes primordial fears of disintegration. It is easier to just cling dogmatically to what has been “tried and true” and is validated by our peers and go merrily along our way.

Meditation has been immensely helpful to me to find some degree of clarity or “spaciousness” so that I can catch myself immersed in repetitive thought patterns of non-productive value. And when you can learn to “catch yourself” at “stinkin’ thinkin’” the poisonous thoughts often begin to diminish in power. Until we begin to pause, catch ourselves interpreting things in a worn-out manner…which must be boring and annoying to others…we will remain ensconced in the story that we tell ourselves daily.

Anti-intellectualism and “Mindfulness”

I find the current anti-intellectualism craze in my country fascinating though my fascination is mitigated by fascinated by the worry about its consequences.  As indicated earlier this stems largely from my past life in an hyper-conservative Arkansas community when conspiracy theory was one of my favorite “comfort foods.”

But epistemology is relevant.  These anti-intellectuals are not without intelligence; in fact, some of them are very well educated and have powerful posts in our government.  But intelligence is not a static phenomena, or shouldn’t be.  For intelligence to be meaningful it must be accompanied with the capacity to view things critically, even belief systems that are near and dear to their own heart.  Without that critical capacity, one will find himself in a closed mind which does include the “comfort” of not knowing one has a closed mind.  And one who lives in this prison…self-imposed in some manner…will automatically dismiss anything that threatens his view of the world.  This is the “epistemic closure” or “confirmation bias” that I address here so often.

 Intelligence is not objective.  With the anti-intellectual crowd, they have intelligence but they have used that intelligence to formulate a comfortable world view and then said to themselves unconsciously, “Ok, that’s enough.  I don’t need to know any more” and will spend the rest of their life viewing the world and themselves through that narrow little prism.  Instead of “thinking” they will be spend their life “thought” by a body of ideology comprised of preconceptions which have never been questioned.  Their thought life will be a daily regurgitation of these preconceptions.  And having that narrow view of the world pierced would be extremely painful so most who are within its “safe” confines just will not allow it to be pierced.  For this “penetration” by reality would evoke a deep sense of being existentially “wrong” which is related to why so many of them often avow a deep conviction of being “right.”  And this “wrong” that they fear is not a conscious “wrong” of having done something amiss but of “being” wrong which would evoke what I have posited earlier is the experience of “the judgment of God.”  The experience of “being” wrong is at an extreme unmitigated terror and that is why we have been given a persona without which we could not function.

But if we live our whole life knowing ourselves only as the ideology-based persona that we trot out every day, we will not have understood the question posed by Jesus, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  Our persona can survive, and even thrive on self-scrutiny but our ego will always tell us that it can’t.  And therefore, when threatened, we cling even tighter to our persona rather than experience some version of the aforementioned terror.  And for most of us the “terror” will only be some degree of discomfort,  i.e. “cognitive dissonance.”  But usually we “cling in panic to our tall beliefs” when “Truth holds our her hands” and proceed to “shrink away like an ill-treated child.”  (Auden) We prefer the comfort of our ideas rather than addressing the “Reality” that lies beneath and beyond these ideas.  We cannot bring ourselves to declare like W. H. Auden, “Oh blessed be bleak exposure on his sword we are pricked into coming alive.”

It is no accident that the fundamentalist Christians who are the driving force of this anti-intellectualism vehemently oppose meditation and yoga, often denigrating it as “Of the Devil” or “Straight from the pits of hell.”  And, they are right…in their way of looking at the world!  For the “mindfulness” that is in the vogue in our culture with many of us “damn liberals” emphasizes awareness of one’s subjective experience that precedes our “fall” into the realm of cognition.  The “awareness” that mindfulness disciplines offers is frightening to one who is an ideologue and trapped in his ideological “comfort food.”  This “awareness” frees us from the bondage to our thinking.


“Words,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”


A very thoughtful assessment of this current anti-intellectual craze is found in the magazine Psychology Today:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america





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