Tag Archives: epistemic closure

Self-Deception, Dishonesty, and Epistemic Closure

In my last post I explored epistemic closure on the group level, using the observations from the former Czechoslovakian  writer, artist, actor, and politician,  Vaclav Havel.  Today I’d like to focus on the personal dimension of this closed-mindedness. Havel used the term “post-totalitarian state” to describe a state which operates under a subtle totalitarian state-of-mind which purports to be completely open and honest, i.e. “free.”  In this “Brave New World” prison, there is the surface belief of freedom but only because the bars which constitute the prison are so subtly imposed that they are not obvious to most.  In this “benign” police state, the gears, wheels, and pulleys that orchestrate the bondage are so well-hidden beneath the surface they are not noticed, consisting in ideological subtleties that can only be seen by those who have the capacity for self-reflection.

The individual dimension of this epistemic closure operates in accordance with the collective version described last time. Individuals imprisoned in this, “empty world of self-relatedness,” are encapsulated in their own premises which are not subject to review because there is no “self” consciousness available to conduct such a review.  The onset of such “self” consciousness would constitute a “splinter in the brain” which would be so catastrophic that internal, unacknowledged (i.e. “unconscious”) defenses would immediately intervene and rely on bromides such as the currently popular, “Fake News.”

But this “imprisonment” I’m describing is not necessarily as sinister as I’m making it appear.  Any identity seeks to maintain itself, to cohere, which means it has a certain core that borders on the sacrosanct.  In fact, “sacred” can describe this core as it is the very essence of our being and if this “essence” is not poisoned it will help us maintain a sense of integrity even in the face of conflict.  But if real “integrity” is present then conflict is welcome as exposure to different view points facilitates the flourishing, or “unfolding,” of an identity, allowing it to contribute meaningfully to the context in which it lives.  When this core is “poisoned,” however, any different viewpoint invokes that fear of “splintering” and leads to the creation of a false world in which any threats are minimized or prohibited.  In the extreme, the result is psychosis in which one’s private prison has become so confining that reference to any feedback from the external world has been cut off and one is left with the aforementioned, “empty world of self-relatedness.”

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The Elusiveness of Truth

Truth has always been important to me.  That probably stems from my discovery early in life that truth was a scarce commodity in the world I was born into…which, of course, was and is the only world there is!  What I didn’t realize then was the extent to which duplicity consumed me also even as I began to ponder the duplicity that I saw everywhere around me.  I was well into my adult life before I realized that truth was not something that one “has” but something that “has” us though can get past our blinders only if we come to realize, in the depths of our heart, just how resistant we are to it.  We always prefer the comfort of seeing “through a glass darkly” without much appreciation of the “darkliness.” In fact, those of us who talk most about it are often the ones to whom it is most a stranger. Gwendolyn Brooks, a mid-20th century American poet captured this wisdom with the following poem:

And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?

Though we have wept for him,
Though we have prayed
All through the night-years—
What if we wake one shimmering morning to
Hear the fierce hammering
Of his firm knuckles
Hard on the door?

Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Propitious haze?

Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.

The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes. 

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/

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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/

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.

ADDENDUM
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”

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!