Death By Incuriosity

Whether or not curiosity killed the cat, it is the lack of curiosity that killed the human. And sadly, lack of curiosity is common among humans, if not cats.

There are two people I’ve known my entire life. They are highly intelligent and well educated professionals, both having spent their careers as authority figures and both enjoying positions of respect where others look up to them. One worked in healthcare and the other in higher education. They are people one would expect to be curious and I would add that both have above average intellectual capacity. They are accomplished men who know how to get things done.

I pick these examples because each has had health issues. It’s actually the one in healthcare who has shown the least curiosity about his own health. I suspect this is for the very reason he has been an authority figure in healthcare and so has acted in the role of defending establishment views. And nothing kills curiosity quicker than conventional thought.

This guy didn’t only lack curiosity in his own field of expertise, though. In general, he wasn’t one who sought out learning for its own sake. He had no habit of intellectual inquiry. So, he had no habit of intellectual curiosity to fall back on when he had a health scare. The bad news he received was a diagnosis of a major autoimmune disorder. I would assume that he took this as a death sentence and most doctors treat it that way, as no medication has shown any significant improvement. But recent research has shown dietary, nutritional, and lifestyle changes that have reversed the symptoms even in people with somewhat advanced stages of this disease.

Once diagnosed, he was already beginning to show symptoms. He had a brief window to respond during which he maintained his faculties enough that he might have been able to take action to seek remedy or to slow down the decline. But this window turned out to be brief and the choice he made was to do nothing with some combination of denial and fatalism. Inevitably, this attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was not the diagnosis but his lack of curiosity that was the death sentence. His mind is quickly disintegrating and he won’t likely live long.

The second guy has a less serious diagnosis. He a fairly common disease and he has known about it for a couple of decades. It is one of those conditions more easily managed if one takes a proactive attitude. But that would require curiosity to learn about the condition and to learn about what others have successfully done in seeking healing. The body will eliminate damage and regrow cells when the underlying problems are resolved or lessened while ensuring optimal nutrition and such, not that one is likely to learn about any of this from a standard doctor.

Like the healthcare figure, this educational figure’s first response was not curiosity. In fact, he spent the past couple of decades not even bothering to ask his doctor what exactly was his condition. He didn’t know how bad it was, didn’t know whether it was worsening or remaining stable. He apparently didn’t want to know. He has a bit more curiosity than most people, although it tends to be on narrow issues, none of them being health-related. The condition he has that risks the length and quality of his life, however, elicited no curiosity.

I had more opportunity to speak to him than to the other guy. In the past few months, we’ve had an ongoing discussion about health. I recently was able to get him to read about diet and health. But the real motivation was that his doctor told him to lose weight. Also, he was beginning to see serious symptoms of aging, from constant fatigue to memory loss. It was only after decades of major damage to his body that he finally mustered up some basic curiosity and still he is resistant. It’s easier to thoughtlessly continue what one has always done.

I sympathize and I don’t. Not much in our society encourages curiosity. I get that. It not only takes effort to learn but it also takes risk. Learning can require challenging what you and many others have assumed to be true. In this case, it might even mean challenging your doctor and taking responsibility for your own healthcare decisions. Maybe because these two are authority figures, it is their learned response to defer to authority and any dominant views that stand in for authority. That is the same for others as well. We are all trained from a young age to defer to authority (even if you were raised by wolves, you received such training, as it is a common feature of all social animals).

So, yes, I understand it is difficult and uncomfortable. Some people would rather physically die than allow their sense of identity die. And for many, their identities are tied into a rigid way of being and belonging. Curiosity might lead one to question not only the ideological beliefs and biases of others but, more importantly, one’s own. It could mean changing one’s identity and that is the greatest threat of all, something that effects me as much as anyone (but in my case, I’m psychologically attached to curiosity and so my identity might be a bit more fluid than most; the looseness of ego boundaries does come at a cost, as is attested by the psychiatric literature).

Yet, in the end, it is hard for me to grasp this passive attitude. I’ve always been questioning and so I can’t easily imagine being without this tendency (I have many weaknesses, limitations, and failures; but a lack of curiosity is not one of them). I do know what it is like to be ignorant and to feel lost in having no where to turn for guidance. In the past, knowledge was much harder to come by. When I was diagnosed with depression decades ago, after my own life threatening situation (i.e., suicide attempt), I was offered no resources to understand my condition. The reason for that is, at the time, doctors were as ignorant as anyone else when it came to depression and so much else. High quality information used to be a scarce and unreliable resource.

It has turned out that much of past medical knowledge has proven wrong, only partly correct, or misinterpreted. Because of the power of the internet and social media, this has forced open professional and public debate. We suddenly find ourselves in an overabundance of knowledge. The lack of curiosity is the main thing now holding us back, as individuals and as a society. Still, that downplays the powerful psychological and social forces that keep people ignorant and incurious. For the older generations in particular, they didn’t grow up with easy access to knowledge and so now reaching old age they don’t have a lifetime of mental habit in place.

That is part of the difference. I’m young enough that the emerging forms of knowledge and media had a major impact on my developing brain and my developing identity. On the other hand, there is obviously more going on than mere generational differences. I look to my own generation and don’t see much more curiosity. I know people in my generation who have major health issues and their children have major health issues. Do most of these people respond with curiosity? No. Instead, I observe mostly apathy and indifference. There is something about our society that breeds helplessness, and no doubt there are plenty of reasons to be found for giving up in frustration.

That is something I do empathize with. There is nothing like decades of depression to form an intimacy with feelings of being powerless and hopeless. Nonetheless, I spent the decades of my depression constantly looking for answers, driven to question and doubt everything. I should emphasize the point that answers didn’t come easily, as it took me decades of research and self-experimentation to find what worked for me in dealing with my depression; curiosity of this variety is far from idle for it can be an immense commitment and investment.

My longing to understand never abandoned me, as somehow it was a habit I learned at a young age. That leaves me uncertain about why I learned that habit of open-minded seeking while most others don’t. It’s not as if I can take credit for my state of curiosity, as it is simply the way I’ve always been (maybe in the way an athlete, for random reasons of genetics and epigenecs, might be born with greater lung capacity and endurance). Even in my earliest memories, I was curious about the world. It is a defining feature of my identity, not an achievement I came to later in life.

Because it is so integral to my identity, I’m challenged to imagine those who go through life without feeling much inclination to question and doubt (as happier people may be challenged to imagine my sometimes paralyzing funks of depression). It is even further beyond my comprehension that, for many, not even the threat of death can inspire the most basic curiosity to counter that threat. How can death be more desirable than knowledge? That question implies that it is knowledge that is the greater threat. Put this on the level of national and global society and it becomes an existential threat. In facing mass extinction, ecosystem collapse, superstorms, and refugee crises, most humans are no more motivated to understand what we face, much less motivated to do anything about it.

We don’t have habits of curiosity. It isn’t our first response, not for most of us. And so we have no culture of curiosity, no resources of curiosity to turn to when times are dire. More than a lack of curiosity alone, it is a lack of imagination which is a constraint of identity. We can’t learn anything new without becoming something different. Curiosity is one of the most radical of acts. It is also the simplest of acts, requiring only a moment of wonder or probing uncertainty. But radical or simple, repeated often enough, it becomes a habit that might one day save your life.

Curiosity as an impulse is only one small part. The first step is admitting your ignorance. And following that, what is required is the willingness to remain in ignorance for a while, not grasping too quickly to the next thing that comes along, no matter who offers it with certainty or authority. You might remain in ignorance for longer than you’d prefer. And curiosity alone won’t necessarily save you. But incuriosity for certain will doom you.

* * *

For anyone who thinks I’m being mean-spirited and overly critical, I’d note that I’m an equal opportunity critic. I’ve written posts — some of my most popular posts, in fact — that have dissected the problems of the curious mind, specifically as liberal-mindedness such as seen with the trait openness. The downside to this mindset are many, as it true when considering any mindset taken in its fullest and most extreme form. For example, those who measure high on the openness trait have greater risk of addiction, a far from minor detriment. Curiosity and related attributes don’t always lead to beneficial results and happy ends. But from my perspective, it is better than the alternative, especially in these challenging times.

My argument, of course, is context-dependent. If you are living in an authoritarian state or locked away in prison, curiosity might not do you much good and instead might shorten your lifespan. So, assess your personal situation and act accordingly. If it doesn’t apply, please feel free to ignore my advocating for curiosity. My assumption that my audience shares with me a basic level of life conditions isn’t always a justified assumption. I apologize to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a situation where curiosity is dangerous or simply not beneficial. You have my sympathy and I hope things get better for you in that one day you might have the luxury to contemplate the pros and cons of curiosity.

I realize that life is not fair and that we don’t get to choose the world we are born into. If life was fair, a piece like this would be unnecessary and meaningless. In a society where we didn’t constantly have to worry about harmful advice, including from doctors, in a society where health was the norm, curiosity might not matter much in terms of life expectancy. The average hunter-gatherer no doubt lacks curiosity about their health, but they also lack the consequences of modern society’s unhealthy environment, lifestyle, and diet. As such, in some societies, how to have a healthy life is common knowledge that individuals pick up in childhood.

It would be wonderful to live in such a society. But speaking for myself, that isn’t the case and hence it is why I argue for the necessity of curiosity as a survival tool. Curiosity is only a major benefit where dangerous ignorance rules the social order and, until things change in this society, that major benefit will continue. This isn’t only about allegations of psychological weakness and moral failure. This is about the fate of our civilization, as we face existential crises. The body count of incuriosity might eventually be counted in the numbers of billions. We are long past the point of making excuses, specifically those of us living in relative privilege here in the West.

* * *

To make this concrete, let me give an example beyond anecdotal evidence. It is an example related to healthcare and deference to medical authority.

The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis. There are many reasons for this. Worsening inequality, economic hardship, and social stress are known contributors. We live in a shitty society that is highly abnormal, which is to say we didn’t evolve to act in healthy ways under unhealthy conditions. But there is also the fact that opiods have been overprescribed because of the huge profits to be had and also because painkillers fit conventional medicine’s prioritizing of symptom treatment.

Ignoring why doctors prescribe them, why do people take them? Everyone knows they are highly addictive and, in a significant number of cases, can destroy lives. Why take that risk unless absolutely necessary? It goes beyond addiction, as there are numerous other potential side effects. Yet, in discussing alternatives, Dr. Joseph Mercola points to an NPR piece (Jessica Boddy, POLL: More People Are Taking Opioids, Even As Their Concerns Rise):

“Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that as many as 1 in 4 people who use opioid painkillers get addicted to them. But despite the drugs’ reputation for addiction, less than a third of people (29 percent) said they questioned or refused their doctor’s prescription for opioids. That hasn’t changed much since 2014 (28 percent) or 2011 (31 percent).

“Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore, says that’s the problem. She says patients should more readily voice their concerns about getting a prescription for narcotics to make sure if it really is the best option. […]

” “Ask why,” Wen says. “Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective. Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.” ”

* * *

“Knowing is half the battle. G.I. Joe!” That was great wisdom I learned as a child.

Curiosity and Imagination

There are two central factors to life. There is curiosity or its lack. Also, there is imagination and its power over us, whether conscious or unconscious. This is a step back from even first principles. With curiosity and imagination, we are probing the depths of human nature itself, the ground of our being. That is the foundation of any and all society, no matter the kind of political and economic system.

There is the additional insight about how curiosity and imagination are closely aligned. Curiosity is always an act of imagination, even if only to imagine that there is something to possibly be known. As imagination increases, so does curiosity. And the further one follows curiosity down the rabbit hole, the more fodder there is for imagination.

However, a given social order will always constrain this process. It is extremely difficult to think outside of a social order, to probe its boundaries and peak beyond the veil. If it were easy, the social order would be weak and not last long. It is the rare person with the ability and motivation to step out of the allegorical cave and venture beyond the known, to question oft-repeated stories and challenge the  dominant worldview.

It’s freaking hard. And there is little reward an individual will get for the effort. If anything, they’ll be punished and sometimes severely at that or else simply made a pariah. Down this path, one does not make many friends, although one will quickly learn who are one’s true friends. Curiosity and imagination aren’t for the faint of heart.

I don’t think anyone willingly chooses that path of seeking and challenging. It is simply that some people find themselves on this path and it is the only path they see before them. Certain things once known can’t be unknown, once imagined can’t be unimagined. After being awakened, it can be hard to fall back asleep again, especially when it becomes apparent there is something lurking in the dark.

On some level, most people are aware of this. And, for that reason, most avoid that path. When given the choice, it’s not hard for most people to choose the blue pill, rather than the red one. It really isn’t even a conscious choice, as they’ve been given the blue pill their entire life. They would have to actively refuse the blue pill and actively go looking for the red pill, which would require them to imagine a red pill existed. The blue pill is just the the job they go to every day, the family they come home to at night, tv they watch before bed, the party they support every election, and simply the life they know and the society all around them.

For whatever reason, my mind is obsessed with imagination and curiosity. I can’t take credit for it, any more than I can take credit for my severe depression or introverted nature. I have no idea why I’m the way I am and I have no idea how to be otherwise. Someone must have slipped a red pill into my bottle when I was a baby. As I see it, all the world is a buffet of ideas and knowledge, possibilities and visions. Even looking at reality around me is an act of questioning and wondering. The world just seems like a strange place to me. I can’t help but see all the different ways to look at the world, to interpret things, and to sense what it all means and where it could could lead. I’m a possibility thinker, whether positive or not-so-positive possibilities.

Both the distant past and distant future seem real to me, as real as the present. We exist on a massive spectrum of space and time. And, speck of dust though I am, I go on thinking about my place in the grand scheme of things. But I’m never sure what to do with my contemplations, as I live in a society that seems rather indifferent to them. What’s the point of being curious about knowledge that is ignored and dismissed by mainstream society? What’s the point of imagining possibilities that few others will ever entertain? I don’t know.

On the imagination front, my mind flows along two broad grooves. They represent parallel universes and potential futures.

There is the dark vision of what might be grounded in a dark understanding of what already is. Many things we see in our society are what one would expect if it were already being ruled by authoritarianism.

My dad pointed to the correlations of other data to Fed monetary policy. And I pointed out that is what one would expect to see with fascism, where the economy follows policy. Such correlations are the imagining of reality, because without an act of imagination one never sees such correlations in one’s daily life experience. From this act of imagination, one can extrapolate a number of possible futures of growing authoritarianism.

My mind was in this funk because I started a couple of books about how fascism relates to American society: Right Out of California by Kathryn S. Olmsted and American Fascism and the New Deal by Nelson A. Pichardo Almanzar and ‎Brian W. Kulik. They are both scholarly books, but they are far from boring. In their own way, they are more fear-inducing than a horror movie, as American-style fascism is so ordinary that few even recognize it for what it is. At least with Freddie Krueger, you hear his claws scratching on metal before he comes for you.

On a lighter note, I was reminded of hopeful possibilities. A new Star Trek show is coming out. Star Trek was the last tv show I watched that offered a positive vision of the future. I have particularly fond memories of watching Star Trek TNG in high school back in the simpler times of the 90s.

I like thinking about positive visions of the future. It make me happy to imagine a genuinely free society. Star Trek portrays a full-fledged social democracy that could even be described as socialist, far greater than present Scandinavian countries with their cultures of trust and happy and healthy populations. In the Star Trek Federation, an individual’s achievements isn’t limited by birth, class, wealth, or any other social constraints. Each person is allowed to develop as fully as they are able and in whatever direction they desire. Everyone has resources, opportunities, and guidance available to them.

Compared to our society, it sounds like a utopia. But in the Star Trek world it is presented as so plausibly normal.

I see so much potential in society and in the larger world. Yet humanity seems to have tunnel vision. All we see is what is right before us and even that we see it in the way a near-sighted person looks for their glasses, hoping not to step on them. In this metaphorical scenario, the glasses being looked for stands for the vision of democracy. If we could just find those glasses, the world of possibilities we might be able to see all around us.

Just imagine what if. Doesn’t it make you curious?

A Curious Superpower

If I were a superhero, my superpower would be to make people irresistibly curious.

Anyone within my vicinity would have their minds forced wide open, the doors of perception blown to smithereens by psychic dynamite. All the fears and doubts, prejudices and habits would disappear. They would be filled with a sense of wonder and awe. They would viscerally know their own ignorance and hunger for knowledge, an infinite and endless hunger.

They would look at the world as a place of immense possibility and potential. All the things that could be learned. All the places to be explored. An immensity of paths and directions, some well-trodden while others not yet taken. A restlessness would overtake them. All of the universe would be vast compelling mystery, like a lover beckoning them. Anything could be around the next bend, over the next hill, through the next door. Adventure!

Anyone who met me would be overwhelmed with heart-bursting wonderment and their minds would be lost in the infinity of existence, ideas and questions simultaneously spinning off in a million directions. They would be absorbed, pulled into the flow. Their imaginations would be unleashed, no longer constrained by what they’ve known or thought was true. Knowledge would be made ignorance and the familiar alien. A joyous uncertainty, as if anything could happen.

The cup of their mind would be emptied. Then filled to overflowing. It would feel like trying to get a drink of water by standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls, the water crashing down on you until you’re beaten senseless.

For some, this would be an awe-inspiring experience. For others, it would be terrifying. My superpower would open their minds, but it wouldn’t control what spilled out. It would simply reveal what was hidden away in their psyche, their secret longings and hungers, the thoughts they never before dared to entertain.

This superpower would defeat all supervillains. They would be so absorbed in curiosity that they’d forget about trying to defeat me, taking over the world, or whatever evil scheme they had in mind. And the more they sought to resist it the more powerful would its hold take on their psyche, an ache and compulsion that if not embraced would drive them beyond the bounds of sanity, like a full blown psychedelic trip. Their sense of self would dissolve in maniacal laughter.

I would be the anti-Borg: Resistance is futile. You will be disassimilated!

Of course, to all the stable-minded folk of the world, to all those defending the social order, to those contentedly dwelling in their collective reality tunnels, my superpower would be the ultimate threat. They would see me as the supervillain, even though I would harm no one. As I passed along, the people I left behind would eventually return to their humdrum existences, fondly remembering that strange man or else futilely trying to forget the whole thing happened, although the ache of discontentment would never fully leave them.

My end would probably come like the Midwich Cuckoos. The governments of the world would quickly realize the threat I posed, once they understood my superpowers couldn’t be used for their nefarious purposes. One way or another, they would find a way to eliminate me, even if it meant dropping a nuclear bomb.

Yet the world would never quite be the same again. The wake of my passing would ripple for generations. Wild new innovations and brilliant art would be produced by those who had come into contact with me. It would take time for the surge of creativity to be bottled again and order re-established, although some almost imperceptible shift would never be undone.

Seeds of my superpower of curiosity would be planted. Then these seeds would sprout with new generations, an evolutionary contagion, a mind virus. A new age would begin, curiosity spreading across the global populations. Centuries ago began the Age of Paine, an age of revolutions. What followed now would be the Age of Wonder, a new revolution of the mind.

I’d like to think this is what would finally inspire humanity to new heights. And the world that came to be would the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Humanity, freed from all the ancient restraints, would become explorers of the universe.

And it all would have began with mere curiosity.

Marmalade’s Meandering Mind

Marmalade’s Meandering Mind

Posted on Jan 7th, 2009 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
Here are the things my mind was contemplating this fine evening…

I was walking home with an empty aluminum can that had a screw-on lid.  As it was cold, the air in the can took up less space.  The can contracted into the shape of a square.  That amused me for some reason.  Why did a round shape contract into 4 sides rather than 3 sides or 5 sides?  This incites my child-like curiosity… for whatever that is worth.

Another mildly interesting observation….

While still at work, I was talking to my boss.  His son has a learning disability.  I asked him about it.  His description of his son could just as well have described me as a child.  His son… has recall issues with words and facts (such as abstractions like dates and phone numbers), has good spatial ability in figuring out mazes, does math by breaking down numbers, and likes nature which he enjoys learning about (meaning he can remember certain types of facts that traditional schooling doesn’t care about).  What was particularly interesting about this is that my boss reminds me almost exactly of my mom, and deals with his son’s disability as my mom did. 

Its strange how humans fall into similar patterns as individuals and also in relationships.  Is there a connection to why a parent like him (and like my mom) might have a child like his son (and like me)?

Okay, next thought…

I started reading a new fiction book: Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory.  I picked it up because it plays off the idea of VALIS from Philip K. Dick.  Anyways, the character hears these sounds that no one else hears, and even he has a hard time of explaining the sounds themselves as they aren’t normal.  It reminded me of certain experiences I’ve had.  I don’t hear unusual sounds or anything, but I’ve had many experiences that are hard to describe.

I don’t know about other people’s experience.  I’d guess that everybody has experiences that aren’t easily described, and probably for that reason most people don’t try to describe them or maybe even try to think about them.  Its easier to just ignore the unusual.

So, about my experiences… I’ve had certain experiences that are very specific.  I’ve had these experiences at different times of my life but not very often.  However, every time I experience them, I very clearly recognize them and remember having had them before.  The thing is that its hard to recall these experiences when I’m not having them.  They are state-specific memories of specific states of experience.

At this moment, I only vaguely recall one of these types of experiences.  The closest I can come to describe it is that its like what I’ve felt while under the influence of Nitrous Oxide.  Its a cool buzzing sensation as if I were a contracted cloud of energy… or something like that.  I have no clue where this experience comes from.  I don’t even remember the last time I experienced it… maybe several years.  It doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason, no explanation or cause.  Its just there and then its not.

And the last thought…

For some reason, I was thinking about audio book services.  Finding some spoken word on Rhapsody and Last FM reminded me of how much I enjoy listening to people read.  Its the main reason I fell in love with Burroughs work.  He has an awesome voice.

There is a demand for audio book services.  There are many services, but they’re not very innovative compared to the music and movie industries.  Why is that?  My favorite movie service is Netflix and my favorite music service is Rhapsody.  Why isn’t there a audio book service that compares to either of these?

I’d be willing to pay for such a service if it was comparable to Netflix or Rhapsody.  So, why isn’t any company willing to offer it?  Why does this industry lag behind all others?  Is there just not enough demand?  Am I unusual?  Are most consumers of audio books happy with services that compare to where the music industry was 5 to 10 years ago?

Here I am just wanting to give my money away to some company.  Yet, no company seems to want my money enough.  Well… their loss… fine, I’ll just keep my money.  Ha!

That is the end of today’s broadcast.  Tune in next time for more deep insights and probing observations of life.

Access_public Access: Public 3 Comments Print Post this!views (148)  

about 3 hours later

Centria said

Ben, it feels like you’re in a really creative open period of your life right now. Is that true? You’re branching into fiction and flash fiction and meandering. I am smiling to see this energy coming out in different directions. Have fun!

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 6 hours later

Nicole said

yes, it’s a delight to see your curious mind exploring 🙂

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 11 hours later

Marmalade said

Creative open period? It does sorta seem that way going by my recent blogs. I hadn’t really thought about it. I just felt like blogging and so I did. I do feel a bit more free in my blogging.

This is the result of something in particular. I decided to refocus on my own blogging a while back. Then the holidays hit and I had a bunch of free time. In refocusing on blogging, I also refocused on looking at other sites to blog at. In considering all my options, it reminded me of what I wanted out of my own blogging.

I felt somewhat restrained about my blogging in the past. For isntance, I felt reluctant to blog about my interest in horror here on Gaia as its not exactly a horror-embracing community. However, I can only be creatively free if my curiosity is free which means free also to explore the dark side of life. Now that I let my dark side show more, my light (and silly) side will also show itself more again. The two sides of me are inseparable… can’t have one without the other.

I was glad to return to fiction finally. The thinking about horror helped with this also. I’m not sure exactly why that was. Maybe its because horror is a good meeting ground between fiction and nonfiction, and so was useful as a means of transition.

The recent fiction sort of came out of the blue. My mind had been on fiction, but I hadn’t thought about either of those stories before writing them. With both stories, an image popped in my mind and I wrote the whole story down immediately.

The creative juices seem to be flowing. I was born in the winter time (December). Winter, like the night time, focuses me on more introverted activities such as writing.

Denialism: Skepticism isn’t a river in Egypt

I’ve had some discussions about science online. I even managed to find some intelligent people to debate with. However, these discussions have caused me to lose faith in human reason. I’ve come to realize that even intelligent people aren’t necessarily well-informed, aren’t necessarily open-minded about other people’s views, aren’t necessarily critical-minded about their own assumptions… nor necessarily desire to be so.

I find myself in an odd position. I’m not a fan of scientific materialism. I don’t claim science is perfect or that it has everything figured out, but the skepticism of many people I’ve met online verges on Nihilism or Pyrrhonism… but, despite this attitude of radical doubt, what makes it particularly irrational is that it’s selective. This selective mistrust falls apart under scrutiny. Part of the reason it falls apart is because of the narrowness of this skepticism. These people are skeptical of everything they disagree with, but oddly completely trusting in everything they agree with. That isn’t true skepticism. I don’t trust anything even when or especially when I agree with it. I think skepticism should even be turned towards our own biases, and skepticism should particularly be turned towards our use of skepticism. 

Some of these people are rightly called Denialists because any evidence I bring up they find a way to dismiss. They don’t need any evidence themselves because from their view all scientific evidence is suspect. They just have a vague intuition. They’ve heard one critical scientist or some other supposed expert and they assume that somehow disproves all of the science. Don’t they realize all science is skeptical. The skepticism of a few scientists doesn’t disprove the consensus of the majority. It’s important to consider the 3% of climatologists who don’t support Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), but it’s even more important to consider the 97% of active climatology researchers who do support it. A recent IPCC report was shown to have a couple of mistakes. The critics argue that these few minor mistakes (one being a typo) disprove a report that is thousands of pages long and which was contributed to by hundreds of scientists.

One recent discussion, I was able to get the skeptic to agree that maybe just maybe 97% of active climatology researchers support AGW. But he still thought the scientists were biased. I pointed out that these scientists work in different organizations in different countries with funding from many sources. But he still thought the scientists were biased. This is basically a conspiracy theory mindset. No matter what evidence is provided, there is always a reason it can’t be trusted. It’s not that they can’t sometimes bring up a few facts here and there (some connection involving financing or whatever), but the facts they use is very selective.

To counter my conspiracy theory allegation, one person denied this by saying it was more like something that got started and then all the climatologists jumped on. This person couldn’t explain how something just gets started and why climatologists would risk their entire careers to join in on this non-conspiracy conspiracy. For example, climatologists get no payment for submitting research to the IPCC. Climatologists don’t get wealthy off of their research and so what would they get out of deceiving the public? Many of these skeptics argue that the government is intentionally biasing research by which research they fund, but scientists get their funding from non-government organizations as well. One skeptic argued that climatology researchers who propose disaster scenarios will get more funding because the government will want to fund research that might help avoid disasters. That might be true to an extent, but scientists are doing research about all kinds of things. If something doesn’t prove true or potentially true, then it loses funding. Why would the government fund and why would 97% of researchers support a theory that had absolutely no evidence in support of it? It’s simply absurd to make such a claim.

I’m fine with being skeptical in terms of using good critical thinking skills, but Denialism goes way beyond that. The skeptic who I managed to get to grudgingly agree that the 97% might be true wouldn’t even admit to slight doubt about his own position. I admitted to him that there were skeptical scientists and that these skeptics played a valid role in the scientific method, but he wouldn’t return the favor by admitting that scientific consensus also plays a valid role. The only reason he held to his position is because he had his mind made up before the debate started. He didn’t care what scientists think or what scientific research concludes. He only mentioned scientists when they agreed with him. He was merely using the minority of scientific skeptics to outright deny the majority of scientific supporters, but he didn’t really care what any of these scientists said. It was just convenient that some scientists happened to agree with him on this issue.

What he refused to understand is that skepticism goes both ways (or rather goes many directions). Yes, the 3% are skeptical of the 97% consensus, but the 97% are also skeptical of the 3%. Furthermore, even within the 97% there are those who are skeptical because they think the mainstream doesn’t go far enough in support of AGW. Scientific institutions such as the IPCC are very conservative. These institutions represent the consensus, represent the slow and conservative process of the scientific method, represents decades of  peer-reviewed research. There are scientists with all kinds of opinions outside of the consensus, but it would be utterly stupid to base public policies on the minority of scientists rather than on the consensus. In the past, there wasn’t a consensus about AGW, but then the data changed and so through painstaking discussion a consensus developed. That is quite significant.

Michael Specter makes a very good point at the beginning of that video. He says there are two topics he doesn’t discuss: Creationism and Global Warming. If someone believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then there is absolutely no basis for a rational discussion. If someone dismisses the mountain of data on climate change, then one more intelligent presentation of the data will be pointless. I probably should follow his example. I’m sure I’d be happier if I didn’t waste my time with these extreme representatives of denialism.

I’ve written about all of this before. There is a long history to my irritation towards rampant irrationality, anti-intellectualism, ideological rhetoric, apologetics, and general ignorance.

Climategate, Science Funding, Public Ignorance
Online Debates: Ideology, Education & Psychology
Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)
Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking
Liberal Facts vs Conservative Ideology
Head in the Sand Syndrome
Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry
Denialism: Science and Public Debate
Righteousness: Ignorance and Inauthenticity
What is Intellectuality?
Intelligence & Curiosity
Lies and Truth: why care?
Reality and Rationality: a discussion
Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists
Love of Truth: Discussing vs Arguing
Re: All Evidence to the Contrary
NT Scholarship and Discussions: limits, failings
The Love of Truth vs. the Sophistry of Apologetics

Considering I’ve already written so many posts along these lines, what does this post add? I don’t know. I’m just continually frustrated and just need to vent. But there is one thing that was new on my mind.

I was recently reading Charles Fort… now, he is a real skeptic. He is an important example because he was very critical of science, but why I respect him is because he was critical of everything. Fort wasn’t an anti-intellectual. My respect for him, though, goes beyond just his equal opportunity skepticism. Fort didn’t just doubt for his doubt was motivated by wonder. He wasn’t denying for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate and he certainly wasn’t denying other view points in defense of a Sacred Cow. He was truly curious and he followed the facts. His skepticism was more about interpretations than the facts themselves.

Fort is my kind of thinker. I put him in the same category as John Keel, Jacques Vallee, Robert Anton Wilson, John C. Lilly, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. These people thought outside of the box which sometimes means questioning mainstream science but more than anything it means using critical thinking skills and being independent-minded.

I’m not sure what any of them would think about Global Warming. They’re all dead now. Fort died before the really amazing advances of modern science. I too probably would’ve been more skeptical of science if I lived when he did. It’s possible that Fort or any of these others might’ve had doubts about Global Warming. I too have doubts. Any intelligent person has doubts. But I imagine that, even if these thinkers were skeptical of climate change, I still wouldn’t be irritated whether or not I agreed with their assessment. The reason I say this is because all of these people seemed to have been true skeptics rather than denialists.

From my perspective, denialism seems like a defensive attitude motivated by fear and uncertainty. Scientists are saying the world is changing. Science is about true skepticism. So, what are the denialists trying to defend? I see a number of possibilities. Some might be defending the status quo. People like the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to and they don’t want to consider the possibility that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Similarly, some are just afraid of the unknown. The paranoia of the conspiracy mindset is motivated by this kind of fear. There is this sense of an invisible or elusive enemy whether scientists, liberal elite, one world order, the anti-Christ, or whatever. Another possibility is that some people might be defending against complexity. In a global world, life is no longer simple. The easy answers of the past no longer seem to work. Society seems to be breaking down. The environment may be more precarious than we previously thought. It’s a scary world.

From a psychological perspective, denialism is understandable… but that is all the more reason we shouldn’t ignore the denialists and dismiss them as merely ignorant. Denialists aren’t necessarily stupid, but many of them do seem to at least lack critical thinking skills. I think our education system has failed… as have many things in our society (politics, corporations, communities, etc). I think we need to try to understand this from a larger perspective that can include all of the diverse pieces. I don’t know what the answer is, but I wish curiosity (especially intellectual curiosity) were promoted more in our society. It depresses me that people seem more motivated by ideology than by a love of knowledge.

That is the issue I’m personally dealing with. I’ve met many intelligent people online, but I’ve come to realize that a deep sense of open-minded curiosity is a rare thing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of the failings of others… no doubt I have failings of my own. If even intelligent people can fall into the trap of denialism, then maybe a more compassionate and understanding response is required.

If people are this afraid of the world (of the government, of the elites, of modern life in general), then throwing facts at them isn’t likely to lessen their fears. They sense something is wrong with the world and they’re trying to understand the cause. I agree that there is a lot wrong. How can I blame them for looking for an easy answer? By creating an enemy that can be fought, the world can feel safer. Someone like Glenn Beck may be more of a symptom than a cause of this collective sense of fear. Of course, he wants to blame Obama, the socialists, and the liberal elite. Of course, people want some single thing to be the problem (statism, socialism, fascism, etc) or some combination of problems held together by that singular sense of fear.

Even some environmental alarmists get pulled into this overwhelming sense of fear. It can be found in all sectors of society. I guess that is why I think science is so important. The purpose of the scientific method is to filter out the biases, the assumptions, the emotions. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for us. If we can’t trust science, then we can’t trust anything and we are just fucked. If we can’t trust human reason, if fear is greater than hope, if denialism is greater than the wonder we’re born with, then we might as well just give up right now. We have to be willing to face our fears, both personal and collective… and that is the hardest thing to do. The world is a scary place. There are no easy answers. But what is clear is that knowledge is better than ignorance… even imperfect, partial knowledge is better than ignorance.

Intelligence & Curiosity

I want to speak about intellectual ability.  Some of it’s inborn intelligence and some of it’s learned habits such as memory tricks or reading comprehension.  However, those aspects aren’t necessarily the most central or most important.  Without intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn, all the ability in the world is useless.

In online discussions, I’m surprised how often someone asks a question when a five second websearch would’ve given them an answer.  So much time gets spent on explaining (sometimes very basic ideas and facts) to people who lack any motivation to learn.

I’m surprised how often people don’t read a link when I post it explaining what it is and why it’s relevant.  I’ve even cited a link as a basis of an argument and the argument itself was straight from the article, but the other person disagrees with me demonstrating they didn’t even read the article.  If I’m citing an article by an expert or which quotes an expert, then any disagreement anyone has should be with the expert or the article.  But do they quote another expert or link another article?  No.  They just disagree with some magical power of intuition.  They just know your wrong.

It’s a rare person who goes to the effort of actually backing up their opinions with logic and facts.  And I really hate it when people pull the ‘experience’ card.  Someone may be a mother but it doesn’t mean they understand every mother.  Certainly, a survey or scientific research of thousands of people has at least equal or greater worth than the anecdotal experience of one person.  Another stupid tactic is when someone argues, for example, that since you take a liberal position that therefore you don’t know what it’s like to be fighting on the frontline… as if all soldiers are conservatives.

Then there are the nitpickers who either are trolls or simply lack inter-personal skills.  There comments can seem stupid as the person never adds anything of intelligence, but the person might actually have some hidden intelligence.  It really annoys me when I sense or suspect they’re intelligent because I keep waiting for an intelligent response which never comes.  What is the point of having intelligence if you don’t like using it?  I’d rather deal with a well-intentioned idiot than a halfway intelligent troll… a little bit of intelligence can be a dangerous thing.

The most typical variety of intellectually challenged debater is the person who simply repeats the same statement or belief or supposed fact.  They’ll rarely back up what they say with any cited source and if they offer a link it’s probably a ranting blog, a conspiracy website, apologetics or whatever.  If this person is also a nitpicker, they can be extremely annoying because they’ll demand that you cite sources for every minor statement.  This kind of person if they’re subtle enough (as some intelligent apologists are), they can lead you on for hours.  They make you think they actually care about the discussion, but they just want to make you run around.  They already have their mind made up before you wrote your first word.

It’s not that most people are stupid, but most definitely the average person tends to under-utilize their intelligence to an extreme degree.  What is lacking is curiosity.  How sad!  😦

I realize people are busy with more “important” things, but I still think it’s sad.

PKD Trumps Harpur and Ligotti

Sometimes I wonder why I write a blog.  When I write in my journal, I never wonder about this… I suppose because there is no potential audience to make me self-conscious.  But a blog is a public spectacle… and so I wonder what purpose it serves.  I sometimes hope someone reads it and at least finds it interesting, and at other times I’d rather be left alone with my rambling thoughts.

I’m wondering about this specifically in relation to my recent blogs about Christianity.  I partly write just to give my thoughts form and to make notes about the subjects I study.  However, I’m also trying to communicate… afterall, that is what writing is about.  I’m sure like everyone my motives are mixed.  There are various aspects to my personality, various hopes and fears.  Plus, blogging is simply a good distraction from other more responsible activities such as washing my dishes.

In writing about Christianity, part of me wants to persuade.  I believe in truth and I want others to believe in truth.  I have this lingering faith that truth can somehow win out against all the BS in the world.  Along with this, I’d like to believe that religion can be something more than history too often demonstrates it to be.  Tom Harpur writes about the horrific side of Christian history, but he also writes about hope… about the possibility that spiritual truth (whatever it may be) can rise above the politics and superficialities that mainstream Christianity has consisted of for centuries.  I was raised a New Age Christian and so this message resonates with a part of me that is still innocent and earnest in my sense of faith.  Who knows, maybe society can change.  Maybe religion can become something more than a means of social control. Tom Harpur believes that if Christianity was willing to face up to its own dark past that a bright future is possible.  What a happy thought that is.

But then my inner Thomas Ligotti speaks up.  Going by Zappfe, Ligotti the pessimist dismisses such New Agey hopes as just another attempt to avoid suffering.  Life is suffering and everything we do is an attempt to avoid the awareness of suffering.  Sadly or fortunately, we’re simply incapable of even comprehending the horror of our existence.  It doesn’t matter what cruelties any particular religion was built upon because our whole society is built upon misery.  We’re just f*cked!  Then again, if I have to waste my life in some manner or another, maybe that is all the more reason to sit around contemplating spiritual truths… even if they are nothing more than pretty lies.

I do on occasion think of myself as a Christian, in spite my constant criticisms.  My friend tells me I’m a Christian… and, heck, why not?  I’m a Christian and many other things besides.  It’s all good.  To be serious, I actually do feel drawn to Christianity, specifically certain Gnostic ideas.  Plus, I’m just fascinated by these great myths that percolated down through the millennia to finally take form in the figure of Jesus and the rest of the cast.  When I contemplate these stories and symbols, I do sense a deeper truth, something that feels real.

In the end, neither Harpur nor Ligotti wins out.  Their voices fade away, and I see Philip K. Dick sitting with one of his cats and he is bantering about something or another.  It is true that he was crazy, but crazy in an entertaining and mostly harmless way.  He had a playful imagination and an overactive one at that.  Harpur and Ligotti, on the other hand, seem like such serious fellows.  I can often be quite serious myself.  Still, I’d rather be  a fool like PKD.  He took various random ideas (including ancient mythology and Gnosticism) and he made it his own.  He wasn’t a good person, he wasn’t a bad person.  He was just a guy who liked to tell stories and who had an insatiable curiosity.  Who needs hope or pessimism if they have curiosity?

Too many people in the world have answers.  Even though I have many opinions, I know I don’t have any answer myself.  But part of me wants an answer.  And that is fine to an extent.  Maybe we can’t live without some answer or another to hold onto.  Even so, I don’t want to ever stop questioning.  If life ever becomes so depressing or boring to me that I lose my sense of curiosity, then what would be the point?

So, I can get annoyed at fundies who present apologetic self-deception as truth.  That is their answer and it seems a fairly stupid answer to me.  Then again, I get annoyed at lots of things in life.  I pretty much get annoyed at anyone who claims any final conclusion about anything.  And I get annoyed  at life for its lack of a conclusion, its lack of a clear point to it all.  I must admit I get too easily annoyed.  It must be nice being a fundie, or a fanatic of any variety for that matter, who possesses unquestioning certainty.  There is no doubt that fundies get annoyed as well, but at least they have conviction in their annoyance.  As for me, I just end up turning my annoyance back on myself.  I get annoyed even at my own attempts at finding answers.

Its just with every answer comes a role to play.  The fundie is playing their role of righteous believer and some of them can really embrace that role, but there are many other roles besides.  I get tired of roles.  I go to work and play various roles… for my supervisor, for my fellow employees, for the customers.  And then there are all the family roles I’m stuck in… son, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, etc.  It almost makes me feel envious of the people playing the role of homeless… a much simpler role to play in many ways even with its drawbacks.  There is this one homeless schizophrenic guy that I often suspect has life figured out.  That is almost the perfect role because then everyone leaves you alone.

It makes me wonder what conclusion I’ve come to in my own life order to play the roles I  play.  I guess any story has to have its roles to be played.  Maybe I just don’t like the story I’m in.  When I’m blogging, I’m usually playing the role of the intellectual.  It’s a role I’m good at to an extent, but intellectuality can bring out the cynic in me.  I suppose I could play the role of the person who has no opinion at all… except I’m too opinionated to attempt that role.  I’ve tried many roles in my life.  I’ve even tried to play the optimist a number of times, and I really suck at it.  I’m almost attracted to the role of the Christian miserable sinner except that role doesn’t seem like very much fun, and the dogma of the role of the  righteous Christian would give me brain cramps.

I somewhat admire Ligotti in his adamant pessimism which almost feels like a stoic fatalism.  His view seems so simple and straightforward.  Ultimately, I don’t understand such a view.  I’m a spiritual person.  One of the best roles I’ve found for myself is the spiritual seeker who never finds.  It isn’t always a perfectly satisfying part to play, but it keeps me occupied.  As an endlessly questioning seeker, I feel some connection to Philip K. Dick.  He definitely had restless mind syndrome.

Another aspect to PKD was that he had great interest in social roles.  One of my favorite stories by him is his novel A Scanner Darkly.  That story has a strong Gnostic theme.  It’s a bit dark in it’s portrayal of society and relationships, but I oddly find it gives me a sense of hope or else something related to hope.  The main character Arctor never gives up.  He is confused and split, but he continually questions and in some ways sees more clearly than the other characters.  Partly, he tries to step outside of the roles he finds himself in… even though he ends up stepping into other roles.  No perspective gives him absolute clarity, but more significant is his nagging sense of doubt.  In Arctor, I see something akin to my own seeking nature, my own seeking without knowing what I’m seeking.  The seeker is just another role I suppose, but at least it isn’t a mindless role.  There is a sense in this that there is something more than the masks we wear.  In Arctor’s shifting perspectives, he at times nearly forgets all roles and a deeper aspect seems to emerge.

Arctor is very much a Christ-like figure.  There is the dual nature, the sacrifice and suffering, the descent, the emergence of something new.  The dual nature aspect is particularly compelling.  Saviors tend to be dual natured in several ways.  There is the well-known duality of God and man combined.  However, saviors are unifiers of duality in general.  Many savior figures combine human and animal features for instance.  Another duality is that between good and evil personified as Jesus and Satan or Horus and Set.  The relationship of the latter two is a really good example because they were even at times represented as a singular dual-natured god, Horus-Set. 

What is interesting about Arctor is that he has a split personality such that one half of him is both spying on and looking out for his other half.  Meanwhile, sweet little Donna is playing the role of Judas, but in a sense Arctor willingly plays into this betrayal by his past choices.  Arctor is both outside and within the oppressive system, pretending to be a narc.  Still, he holds something back from the drama of it all.  Donna may think she knows the game, but she doesn’t really know Arctor.  Despite her larger perspective, she is more identified with the role she is playing than Arctor is.  Most of the characters seem to be stuck in roles.  Even though outwardly the story is about drug addiction, the story is really about social roles and social control, about how people get stuck in patterns of mind.

And beyond all of that, there is another message.  Those who think they’re in the know may not know as much as they think.  Instead, at the bottom of loss of all certainty, one might discover something unexpected.  It isn’t nihilism for there is a different kind of certainty within the faith that allows one to survive the descent.  There is some kind of balance in it however precarious it may be. 

In real life, however, many people don’t survive the descent.  Staying within the confines of conviction is much safer.  Although, how I see it is that such descents are part of a story, and I suspect we ultimately don’t choose the stories we are in.  I happen to be sympathetic to the story of Arctor, but I’m biased.  Maybe ideally I should try to feel compassion for everyone in their respective stories.  And maybe I should do many things.  Compassion for fundies?  I’ll have to work on that.