Recently in Philosophical Musings Category

We're Lucky that Error Isn't Eternal


How did I ever find anything out before social networking?

Here's a great link I picked up from a Facebook friend, on Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die. Pretty fascinating and enlightening stuff:

As far as our brain is concerned, there is absolutely no need for data and belief to agree. They have each evolved to augment and supplement one another by contacting different sections of the world. They are designed to be able to disagree.... When data and belief come into conflict, the brain does not automatically give preference to data. This is why beliefs-even bad beliefs, irrational beliefs, silly beliefs, or crazy beliefs-often don't die in the face of contradictory evidence. The brain doesn't care whether or not the belief matches the data. It cares whether the belief is helpful for survival. Period.

Don't skip the section on "Implications for Skeptics," which is mainly a really thoughtful guide for how to talk to true believers. It doesn't make it sound easy:

Skeptics will only win the war for rational beliefs by continuing, even in the face of defensive responses from others, to use behavior that is unfailingly dignified and tactful and that communicates respect and wisdom. For the data to speak loudly, skeptics must always refrain from screaming.

But there's considerable comfort and responsibility in all the difficulty:

it should be comforting to all skeptics to remember that the truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone's beliefs ever change at all. Skeptics' ability to alter their own beliefs in response to data is a true gift; a unique, powerful, and precious ability. It is genuinely a "higher brain function" in that it goes against some of the most natural and fundamental biological urges. Skeptics must appreciate the power and, truly, the dangerousness that this ability bestows upon them. They have in their possession a skill that can be frightening, life-changing, and capable of inducing pain. In turning this ability on others it should be used carefully and wisely. Challenging beliefs must always be done with care and compassion.

Incompetent at Determining Competence


Here's a cool little vid on the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

We've all been in argument where we've been wrong (something we've discovered, it is to be hoped, to our consternation and contrition), and most of us have been in arguments where we've been right but our interlocutor is a complete IDIOT. It's easy enough to think of examples, but I always go back to the conversations I had with Another Person's FaceBook Friend, who liked to make statements like this:

FACT: Only four people I know of on Earth can actually tell us what the planet was really like 2000 years ago. (John and 3 Nephites)

Hey, Another Person! Since I know my blog is still in your reader, I hope you notice this and pass this on to your FBF. Let me know if he responds.

My friend G used to have a completely huge, hideous, disgusting wart on his wrist. Actually it wasn't so much a wart as a cluster of warts, and it was in a place where you couldn't help but notice it. He used Compound-W to get rid of it; it came back, worse than before. He had it frozen off; it came back, worse than before.

Then he quit his job, which he had hated devoutly for about two years. Within ten days, the wart had gone away of its own accord.

My friend M developed a horrible case of eczema. It was ugly, and it hurt. Then he came out of the closet. Within six months, the eczema was gone, never to return.

My friend D wet the bed every single night from early childhood into adulthood. Then he came out of the closet, and the bedwetting stopped forever.

Me, I had horrible digestive problems, respiratory infections and very unsettling bouts of vertigo while I was a missionary. Then I finished my mission and came home. Right away, the respiratory infections cleared up and the vertigo ceased, and though the intestinal problems didn't go away entirely, they at least lessened.

The Fine Art of Judicious Giving Up


I was a child both dutiful and resolute. If I started a book, I finished it. If I received a letter, I answered it. If I said I'd be somewhere, I showed up--on time.

This felt so natural and necessary that it seemed like the natural inclination of my own heart. Whether it was or wasn't, my sense of urgent obligation was supported and fed by my mother's firm belief--which she still lives by--that when you make your bed, you have to lie in it.

It all became more urgent and obligatory in adolescence, when I first encountered the scriptural command to "endure to the end." It shows up in the New Testament, but for reasons I never fully understood, as it set them apart from rather than brought them closer to other Christians (OK, I guess that's the reason), Mormons prefer to emphasize passages in their own scripture that use this phrase, like some passages from the Book of Mormon. (I'm not in a mood to look them all up and link to them. Just google the phrase if you don't believe me. You'll probably turn up this weird page featuring a ring designed by some Osmond.)

Anyway, the point is, this personal moral obligation I felt suddenly became religious. It wasn't just something I had to do because I was wired that way; it was something I had to do to please God. So I did it all the more.

Loss Anticipated, Loss Experienced


My favorite poem by Robert Hass is "Meditation at Lagunitas," which begins

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.

Pretty much.

Friday night I went to the Sunstone Chritsmas party, my first Christmas party of the season, and perhaps my last.... I was also invited to one last night, but I couldn't make it. No other parties are scheduled for the next few weeks except a few celebrations of ME, 'cause, you know, Jesus's birth isn't the only one celebrated in December.

Anyway, there was a conversation about New York Doll, a documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, which I wrote about several years ago in an entry that garnered lots of very interesting comments. There were people at the party who had never heard of it, and those of us who had seen it tried to explain what it was about and why someone should watch it. I mentioned what I said in my entry: that when I heard David Johansen sing "Come, Come Ye Saints" I burst into tears and sobbed until I couldn't breathe or sit up.

This struck some of the other people there are strange. "I didn't cry when I heard that hymn," one person said. "Not at all."

"You're still active in the church," I said. "You still get to sing that song as part of a community that values it. It doesn't represent a loss to you."

Loss ebbs and flows. We get over loss to some extent because we have to, and because time, if it doesn't heal all wounds, at least changes them. But our experience of loss starts not with the actual loss, but with our awareness that it WILL happen.

Last week someone emailed me a story from the NY Times, and when I read it, I happened to look at the list of "most popular emailed stories." Near the top was something titled Unboxed: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits? Which was a question I wanted to read about and have answered.

One of the reasons I continue to value my Mormon upbringing was the whole goal program I grew up with. There was this official church curriculum for teenagers, which presented them with six specific areas of well-rounded humanity--physical health, spiritual development, social interactions, personal ethics, I don't remember them all--and we were expected to set and complete two goals in each area every year while we were in junior high and high school. If young women completed the program satisfactorily, they got a really ugly necklace. I don't remember what young men got. Maybe a merit badge; their version of the program might have been tied up in scouting, which the church has sort of commandeered.

I used the goal program to great advantage, collecting a slew of virtuous habits such as thrift and punctuality. I made running three miles every school-day morning a habit--albeit one I hated--and the fact that I managed to do that for a full year helped me acquire that necklace I never wore once. I wasn't in it for the necklace, you see: I was in it for the habits and the accomplishments themselves.

Good Grief (as Opposed to Bad)


Here's an article I found really annoying and trite, despite--or rather, because of--the fact that its goal is to complicate the way we see depression. Written by some British psychiatrist, it decries "the assumption that depression is a disease," an assumption "reinforced and perpetuated by biologists, psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies, all of whom have a vested interest - consciously or unconsciously - in the clinical perspective." He also laments the fact that "Most of the time, depression is hidden from view because of the stigma attached to it."

I've already written about what I think was one of the greatest benefits of Prozac: that it made it so much less shameful to be depressed or to seek treatment for it. So I'm a bit surprised to read a passage like this one:

Sartre Was Right


You know my last entry, the one about my New Year’s Resolution to convince myself that “a stranger’s a friend I just haven’t met yet”? Well, I’ve already revised that resolution, because I’ve already seen the limitations of that attitude. And it all has to do with travel, with the fact that getting back from Chicago was as stressful and difficult as getting there in the first place.

I didn’t go into the whole rigamarole here, because it was painful and not that interesting, but it took 48 extra hours to get to Chicago. Mercifully it was the first leg of my journey that was canceled or delayed each time, so I just ended up leaving two days late, sleeping in my own bed each night. This is what you get when you travel so close to the holidays, I thought, and vowed to avoid it again in the future if I could. I thought about canceling the whole trip, but I’d made my plans and had stuff to do, and anyway, I wanted to go. Given how much fun I had, I’m really glad I did.

But then there was the trip home.... I left on schedule, got to Detroit on time, sat down to wait for my connecting flight which was scheduled to depart at 10:10 p.m., and was informed at 9:30 p.m. that it was canceled.

There was one agent at the gate to rebook flights for every last passenger on a completely full flight; it took her 25 minutes to deal with the first stranded passenger, a young mother with a very unhappy, tired baby. No one begrudged the fact that this woman was taken care of first--that poor baby was really tired--but we all resented the fact that no one else showed up to help the rest of us too. Some of us called the 1-800 number, because spending 20 minutes on hold was still quicker than waiting in that line, and learned that there was not another available seat for the next 48 hours, not on any flight into the airport closest to home, or, for that matter, into any surrounding airports.

So my choices were: spend two days in the Detroit airport, or do something like fly to Atlanta on standby then fly to LaGuardia on standby then fly to Buffalo on standby and rent a car. Yeah. And then a woman in line near me said, “I guess my husband and I will just rent a car here, because we’ve got to be back tomorrow--he’s a doctor and he has to see patients. It’s not that far to drive; just four hours.”

At that point I turned to the woman next to me, who was trying to get home for her grandmother’s funeral. “Want to split the cost of a rental car?” I asked.

She paused. “Sure,” she said. “If you drive.”

Then the woman married to the doctor said, “Maybe we could all go together, if you don’t mind riding with our daughters.”

And that’s how I ended up sharing a minivan with five strangers on a four-and-a-half hour trip through some very bad weather. It beat the alternatives, I admit that. I was glad to get home. And I was also glad I’d thought carefully about how I wanted to interact with strangers.

It’s 4:30 a.m., I’ve been crying for hours and the medication I took to combat my insomnia isn’t working, so my judgment isn’t the best. This entry is overwrought and earnest and I hope it’s not too annoying but it’s one of those things I have to post because it really matters right now. I just I hope I don’t sound too ridiculous and unproofread later.

Monday during an appointment to have my teeth cleaned I picked up the newspaper to read while I waited for my dentist (whom I love--he’s both a good dentist and a very nice man) to check my teeth after the hygienist cleaned them, and read an item about how South Dakota (who knew?) is the least depressed state in the country, while Utah is the most depressed. (There are also only six states in which people commit suicide more readily than in Utah.) I laughed. “Of course it’s Utah,” I said aloud to no one in particular, shaking my head. I wrote down the details of the study in the notebook I always carry with me so I could find a link to it later, thinking I would write a glib, funny blog entry about how appropriate it is that Utah is not only the most depressed but the most depressing state in the country, filled as it is with miserable Mormons.

And then yesterday I read this account on Young Stranger of a young man’s desire to kill himself because he is both gay and Mormon, and I lost all enthusiasm for mocking the misery an actual human being experiences when his life is in conflict with his religion.

I’m going to do that incredibly maudlin 80s thing and quote a Smiths song, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore,” which always makes me weep when I think seriously about the lyrics:

Dare to Dream


So, I have this unusual skill, though I don't use it very often or very well: I can control my dreams.

I started being able to do this seven or eight years ago, when I was finishing up grad school. It's not like I set out to acquire this particular skill; I just discovered one night that I could do it. But it didn't come to me out of nowhere: partly because I wasn't always that interested in the work I was supposed to be doing for grad school, and partly because I suffered from an array of mild but chronic maladies I wished would go away, and partly because I wanted to become more ethically and spiritually deliberate and aware, I started pursuing all these activities that would help me develop my spiritual and intuitive faculties and give me more control over my body and mind.


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