The Ground of Our Being Touches Us

“The foot feels the foot when the foot feels the ground.”

That quote by Ernest Wood is often misattributed to the Buddha. And it does express a Buddhist-like thought. Take the notion of co-touching from the Samyukta Nikaya:

“Who touches not is not touched. Touching he is touched.”

That being “touched by touch” (Thag vs.783) is a part of dependent co-arising and the bundle theory of mind, both central tenets of Buddhism (Robert Alvarado, The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground). The separate, autonomous, and self-willed egoic-consciousness is not fundamentally real.

Everything that exists does so not as a ‘thing’ but as a feeling, a process, a movement, and a relationship. The self or any part of the self (e.g., the foot) emerges in awareness through interaction with the experienced world and perceived other. This is the sensory and social world as the ground of our being.

One theory in social science suggests that humans develop a theory of mind about others first before internalizing it as a self concept. So, the self is the introjected other. It’s similar to Lev Vygotsky’s private speech or self-talk, as a precursor to inner speech, that is the child’s imitation of adults talking to the child (Speaking Is Hearing).

We all begin life by first talking to ourselves as an other. And we carry this into adulthood. When you talk to yourself, who are you talking to and who is doing the talking? The other forever defines us, as if if the ground were to leave a print on our foot.

To the mind, the developing mind most of all, the world around us provides affordances (James J. Gibson) for actions and other behavior (The Embodied Spider; & “…just order themselves.”). These are known more for what they make possible and allow than for what they supposedly are, their socially constructed thingness.

We never know the world except as our experience of the world, since there is no self to know or experience without the world. The world is the primal self. The self is in and of the world. There is nowhere else to be.

That is why there is no foot in and of itself within awareness, no Platonic ideal of a ‘foot’, not without the ground that affords the foot the capacity to express it’s instinctual nature of footness. If one were to be so cruel as to completely bind an infant’s foot so that it could never move, it would shrivel up into crippled paralysis with little if any sensation.

The very sense of self would be constrained and the lesser for it. To emphasize this point, consider that the infant that is not touched at all simply dies. A foot is the touch and movement of the foot in relation to the ground. We aren’t separate from the world, not outside it, but immersed in it and an extension of it.

We need touch. We are touch. We touch by being touched.

* * *

There are two ways you can demonstrate such truths to yourself. The first method is to practice meditation and mindfulness for years, preferably under the guidance of a religious or spiritual teacher, guru, etc. That is arguably worth the effort. But it does require commitment, effort, and sacrifice; and, admittedly, most of us feel too lazy to try.

If you just want to get a small taste of it, sit or stand completely still while softly and unblinkingly gazing at an unchanging visual field (e.g., an indoor wall). Give it a minute or so and your entire vision will go blank, not even go black but simply to disappear as an experience. Sensory perception is dependent on movement and change, either in the environment or from our bodies.

There is another self-experiment one can do. The above quote about the foot feeling the ground can be taken literally. Take your shoes off and actually feel the ground. Walk around your lawn. Maybe even go for a jog, if you have somewhere nice and safe for your tender feet. Try that for a few weeks or a few months. Being barefoot is the normal state of humanity, quite likely what Ernest Wood was doing when he had the above thought.

Feel what it’s like to not have your feet bound and numbed in tight shoes, thick soles, and synthetic materials. Feel what it’s like to be electromagnetically grounded, physically connected, and sensorily in relationship to the earth. The affordance of the earth is far different than the affordance (or rather unaffordance) of modern footwear.

Each will elicit different ways of inhabiting one’s body, moving in the world, and perceiving reality; maybe even altering one’s very sense of identity. Then contemplate all the thousands of other ways we are disconnected, distracted, and numbed from direct sensory experience of the natural world. That is how the isolated self is socially constructed, supported, and maintained. These rigid boundaries of self are the defensive walls of egoic consciousness.

* * *

It’s interesting to consider the fact that Buddhism arose in an environment where most people in the past walked around barefoot, since is its a warmer clime and industrialization took hold much more slowly. That is true of other religious traditions, like Hinduism and animism, that question or refute or simply never acknowledge the ego-self. Would the bundle theory of mind even occur in a society where everyone had worn shoes for centuries or millennia?

Even Western philosophers like David Hume who have written about the bundle theory of mind, as some argue, likely learned of it from Christian missionaries having returned from the East. These were ideas that apparently never originated in the West or, if they did, it was so long ago they were forgotten; maybe back when Europe was still tribal and animistic, back when footwear would’ve been more akin to a moccasin that doesn’t desensitize the foot.

Shoes are only needed in needed in colder regions, such as  Europe and North America; and only needed on rough ground, such as plowed fields. Maybe that is a causal or contributing factor to such a strong tradition of egoic individualism developing there. The European and American traditions of Christianity fear and disparage connection to nature. Maybe a long history of wearing shoes has predisposed people to that experience and worldview, identity and way of being.

That reminds one of the WEIRD cultural bias (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) that correlates to a unique profile of personality traits and social behaviors. One researcher and writer on the topic, Joseph Henrich (The WEIRDest People in the World), argues for various causes for this development in the modern West, from Catholic marriage laws to literacy rates. But maybe footwear should be added to this list.

Written laws and written texts are examples of media that are made possible by media technology (e.g., bound books and moveable type printing presses). Footwear likewise mediates our sensory experience of reality and hence footwear could be considered a media technology. It shapes not only the foot but also the foot-mind-eye axis, as a core dynamic function within the body-mind-world axis — proprioception and perception.

Besides Joseph Henrich, numerous others have theorized about mediated reality: Marshall McLuhan, E. R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, Eric Havelock, etc. But the main focus has been on language, specifically written language. That is important in a literary culture with high rates of literacy. Nonetheless, footwear have been more central and earlier introduced to Western culture. And it’s the modern thick, bulky, and constraining shoe that has become so common over the past few centuries, in relation to our altering the environment so that such protective footwear is needed.

* * *

This post is another ripple in a river of thought. We’ve been slowly building upon a theory about the physical aspects of social constructivism: the infrastructure and apparatuses and systems that shape and confine us, the lifeway patterns and pathway dependencies that predetermine and preclude our individual and collective behaviors, the ideological interpellation that hails us with voices of authority and authorization, the metonymic and metaphorical framings that came with changes in media technology.

This involves agricultural system, food laws, and dietary ideology; land reform as moral reform and substance control as social control. One can show an increasing shift, across recent millennia (particularly starting in the axial Age but speeding up in modernity), from non-addictive psychedelics and evolutionarily-consistent foods to addictive sedatives, stimulants, and high-carb foods (alcohol, opium, cocaine, tea, coffee, sugar cane, grains, etc).

All of these things, it can be argued, rigidified psychological and social boundaries. Yet no single factor alone would likely have made possible and probable the emergence of the post-bicameral, post-axial, and post-traditional hyper-individualistic Jaynesian egoic consciousness of the body-mind as isolated-subject and container-object. It was also the continuing development along each technological line that forced the transformation.

Footwear has been around for millennia, whereas more recent is the invention of shoes that are highly-restrictive, thick-soled, and synthetically non-conductive.  Similarly, language existed for millennia prior to writing, bound books, printing presses, e-books, email, texting, etc. Even written language operated far back in the archaic world but only in a minimalistic fashion, primarily as bureaucratic accounting, before it ever developed into literacy as we know it. There are still other tools of identity formation like transitional objects (teddy bears, pacifiers, etc) that were or are not common in premodern or non-WEIRD societies.

The development and accrual of changes formed slowly, if the results sometimes only fully erupted following a triggering point (e.g., Bronze Age collapse). Those eruptions allowed for a destabilizing or destruction of some former pathway dependencies, in order to lay down new foundations, but always using the material of what came before. Still, some pathway dependencies were so entrenched they remained; if reshaped, restructured, and repurposed (e.g., written text).

This area of study also overlaps with with issues of physical health, mental health, and public health. Specifically, there is an interesting history of how dietary systems and food laws (e.g., Christianized Galenic humoralism) were used to enforce identity, culture, and social order. There has been an ongoing change in what is eaten that during modernity has led to disease epidemics, health crises, and moral panics. The relationship between diet and identity might’ve been more well appreciated in the past.

These contemplations are also mixed up with the study of archaic and ancient societies, along with the anthropological literature on animistic tribes. This particularly focuses on the transitional period from the late Bronze Age and it’s collapse to the Axial Age and the resultant post-Axial world. During the Bronze Age, there was what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind, a type of bundled mind, with voice-hearing traditions. Growth of size and complexity of the Mediterranean empires in the late Bronze Age is what caused their collapse, as overwhelmed by decades of natural disasters, refugee crises, and marauders.

That is what cleared the board to make way for the Axial Age, although the changes had already begun in the Bronze Age (e.g., written laws). One of the changes that didn’t happen until the Axial Age was the systematization of agriculture where former weedy farm fields became the focus of more intensive and controlled farming. This increased dependable surplus yields and so provided more agricultural foods in the diet, but it also meant better pest control, including eliminating most of the ergot that would take over unmanaged fields.

Ergot, as a psychedelic, was inevitably consumed on a more regular basis prior to this ancient agricultural reform, often unintentionally but sometimes on purpose as part of rituals. Interestingly, coinciding with lessening it in the food supply was also the appearance of cultivars of addictive substances like opium, sugar cane, etc. In Europe, there was a ‘regression’ after the fall of the Roman Empire. Some knowledge and practice of agricultural management was forgotten, as fields returned to being weedy again. Following that was what appears to have been regular mass ergot intoxications and sometimes deadly dancing manias, what is called ergotism or St. Anthony’s Fire.

Later agricultural reforms eliminated ergot again. Yet other psychedelics persisted in European culture. Medieval church imagery often portrays fly agaric ‘magic’ mushrooms. Such imagery continued into early modernity, as seen in Christmas cards.

* * *

Related to dietary practices and the food system, there is another connection that could be made. There were also agricultural differences between East and West. One study sought to discern agricultural differences as linked to socio-cultural and socio-cognitive differences. Yes, it’s true that Westerners grow more wheat and Easterners more rice; and it’s true that these agricultural systems require different relational patterns and practices. Wheat farming can be done by a single man with a plow, but rice farming requires numerous people working together and is more labor intensive in requiring twice as many hours of work. Furthermore, rice-growing communities have to collectively build and cooperatively maintain infrastructure (dikes and canals) for water management and irrigation.

Some have speculated that this constructs, encourages, and enforces divergent cultural identities and ways of thinking. This might be what underlies the stereotypical contrast between Eastern and Western thought. The former focuses more holistically, interdependently, and concretely on environment, background, and relationships; and the latter focuses more analytically, atomistically, and abstractly on the individual, foreground, and action. Also, descendants of rice-growers are more loyal to friends and family; while descendants of wheat-growers have more successful patents for new inventions. The thing is we don’t need to stop there with a simple hypothesis of causal link, since we can control some of the potential confounders by making a comparison within a single country, though still other confounders remained uncontrolled.

Wheat and other cereal crops (e.g., millet) are also grown in parts of Asia, specifically in northern China; while southern Chinese are rice farmers. Multiple studies have been done in comparing and contrasting the personalities, cultures, social practices, etc of these two agricultural populations. Even in the East, wheat farmers are more individualistic and rice farmers more communal. But also the same divide is seen in thinking styles with the Asian wheat farmers, as with European wheat farmers, in being more likely to use linear thought in focusing on isolated objects and subjects in the foreground while not noticing much about the overall context.

To return to the topic at hand, it might be useful to look at other aspects of what differentiates the two. Are Chinese wheat farmers more likely than Chinese rice farmers to wear shoes or boots more often and to wear shoes or boots with thicker soles and narrow enclosed toe boxes, as opposed to wearing thin, open-toed sandals or going barefoot? One suspects that would be the case.

It wouldn’t only be that the dirt clods of wheat fields are harder on the feet than the soft mud of rice patties. The colder climate of northern China would require wearing thicker shoes for a large part of the year for protection against coldness, discomfort, and frostbite. Interestingly, a similar pattern is seen in Europe as well with the concentration of wheat farming countries in the north with their long history of Protestant-style individualism, as contrasted to southern European Catholicism and communalism. A better and more comparable example is the United States.

Wheat-farming, of course, has been practiced in the northern states for a long time; but also rice-farming has been common in a large swath of the Deep South, what is called the Rice Belt. Similar to southern China, “even when the correlations were examined only within the Deep and Peripheral South, the correlations of collectivism with cotton and rice production remained strong” (Dov Cohen, Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism Across the United States). That is strong supporting evidence. To link it back to the main topic, for most of Southern history in the US, going barefoot was far more common. That has contributed to greater hookworm rates, as this parasite tends to enter through the sole of the foot from infested soil. Also, note that wheat-farming and industrialization has been concentrated in the northern states, as was the case in northern Europe. Industrialization, by the way, is the letter ‘I’ in the WEIRD acronym; and maybe the letter ‘W’ for Western could equally represent wheat-farming.

When we think of farming cultures and practices as affecting identity, personality, and mentality, we rarely think about what people are physically wearing as being causally significant or even relevant. But consider that the person in a colder climate is not only more likely to have restrictive, binding, and thick footwear but also restrictive, binding, and thick clothing and outdoor gear. Maybe it’s no mere coincidence that, for example, many animistic tribes with their extremes of a bundled mind tend to go barefoot entirely and often to barely wear any clothing at all, other than maybe a breech cloth (e.g., Piraha). Even among farming societies, some where heavy, cumbersome clothing and others lighter and looser (e.g., the sarong common in the East).

It is interesting how much our society, particularly among intellectuals and scholars (i.e., the literary elite), is obsessed with language and, most of all, written language. We have the most literary culture that has ever existed since language was invented. And it’s precisely populations with high rates of literacy that are the most WEIRD, to the extent that brain scans shows it alters the development of brain structure and neurocognition (see Joseph Henrich).

As such, we Weirdos see everything through language and text (e.g., this post here), and so that is the primary lens through which we understand the world and humanity. There is an obsession with the study of language, from text to new media: philology, postmodernism, linguistic relativity, metaphor theory, etc. So, language and the media of language gets disproportionate credit and blame for much of the changes, problems, and advancements in society. The differences between the cultures and mentalities of East and West are often placed within a linguistic frame.

But even when language isn’t the focus, what we emphasize is often something else that is equally less tangible. When farming is studied, what researchers tend to isolate out as causal are how people relate and act within different agricultural systems, the kind of thing that is harder to measure objectively. Oddly, it almost never occurs to them to think about the most basic and concrete factors like what is grown and eaten in affecting the body-mind, despite the vast knowledge we’ve accrued in nutrition studies. Diets determine nutritional profiles and biological functioning, one of the most powerful affects on neurocognitive development.

Or consider how one of the most transformative changes in all of human existence was the agricultural revolution in general, no matter if wheat or rice or whatever else. It increased size and concentration of human populations, increased size and concentration of domesticated animal populations, and increased contact between humans and animals. It also increased pathogen exposure and parasite load, both of which research shows to raise the measures of social conservatism and authoritarianism, insularity and collectivism, which are not only correlated to social behaviors but also altered personality traits (low openness, high conscientiousness, etc) and brain structure (e.g., larger amygdala).

Pathogen and parasite levels do follow a regional pattern as well, more near the Equator and less the further away; although this can’t entirely explain the agricultural differences. Thomas “Talhelm’s study found that Chinese students who lived just south or just north of the rice-wheat divide were as different from each other as students from the far south and the far north. And he noted rice-producing Japan scores uniformly high on the collectivist scale, even though the country is cooler and wealthier than most of China” (Bryan Walsh, In China, Personality Could Come Down to Rice Versus Wheat). Even rice-growing islands in the north fall in line with the southern pattern of behavior and personality (X. Dong, T. Talhelm, & X. Ren, Teens in Rice County Are More Interdependent and Think More Holistically Than Nearby Wheat County). Do people in all Chinese rice-growing populations, whether south or north, have similar footwear?

On the other hand, Walsh writes, “The rice theory isn’t foolproof. It’s almost certain that none of the young Chinese college students participating in Talhelm’s study have any direct experience with wheat or rice farming, which raises the question of how these psychological values are transmitted.” Maybe it’s not entirely about who is growing which crop and how it is grown, as part of a socio-cultural order. Instead, it’s possible that more important is who is eating which crop. Chinese, in general, are less individualistic than Westerners, no matter which region they live in. The simplest explanation could be that, as part of a national food system, all Chinese on average eat more rice and less wheat than Westerners. It might be about nutritional differences in each crop (e.g., gluten).

Then again, it could be something else not directly related to the crop or diet. Different kinds of farming in different environments and climates will incur different public health conditions and hence different physical health of individuals. The contrast between rice and wheat farmers goes far beyond merely how people socially organize within an agricultural system or what they eat within a food system. After all, what kind of footwear one wears or does not wear depends entirely on the agricultural system and all that is involved with it, such as infrastructure, housing, etc. Enclosed footwear, for example, could be protective against parasites and pathogens when the ground is covered in human and animal feces. So, it would depend also on the animal side of the farming equation.

None of the studies that we’ve seen, however, have ever been concerned with or curious about these kinds of confounding factors. This is a vast cultural blind spot. We forget that we are embodied minds that are co-extensive with the physical world around us, not to mention bundled minds in a bundled world. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us to think about something so simple as what we are wearing. Yet footwear, like a thousand other unrecognized factors, potentially has immense impact on us.

Spend some time observing people with modern synthetic shoes. Most of them walk stiffly, awkwardly, and often flat-footed; not to mention demonstrating an unbalanced and ungrounded way of physically holding themselves. Obviously, many people aren’t comfortable in their own bodies, absolute the opposite of barefoot indigenous people. Maybe simple things like footwear affect us far more profoundly than we are aware of, to the point of affecting our ability to grasp the Buddhist truth that to touch is to be touched.

Also, the combination of other unacknowledged factors could create a greater influence than any single factor alone. It would be a cumulative effect over a lifetime. So, yes, shoes will stunt and distort the bone and soft tissue development of the feet. There would be a lack of musculature and mobility that would make one prone to injury, not only in the feet but also from the stress caused in how it would throw off the movement of other joints, particularly the knees and hips. The feet are the foundation of the body, the contact and connecting point between body and world, and hence the mediating point in the sense of the embodied and enworlded self.

Diet and nutrition could exacerbate problems related to the feet and everything influenced by it. Dr. Weston A. Price, for example, observed that populations with deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins had worse bone development: thin bones, asymmetrical features, narrow shoulders, narrow chests, caved-in chests, narrow jaws, crowded teeth, etc. But this also affected the bones in the feet: pigeon toes, flat feet, etc. This probably would make the feet narrower like all the rest.

Combine that with further squishing the feet even narrower into confining shoes. Most modern people are being crippled from a young age. We modern Westerners feel morally superior than the premodern Chinese who bound the feet of girls, and yet we also bind the feet of not only girls but also boys and then continue to do so into adulthood. No doubt, the premodern Chinese bound girls feet precisely because it alters behavior and is used for the social constructivism of particular personality traits and social roles, maybe not unlike hobbling a horse to make it more calm and controllable.

What might our own practice of foot-binding have on the entire population? When we personally observe or scientifically study our fellow humans, we tend to look to their faces, heads, arms, and upper bodies; in terms of their gaze, expression, tone of voice, gestures, etc. That is what we think most as defining who a person is, whereas their lower body of hips, legs, and feet is secondary as almost a mere extension of the upper body. We might be wiser to spend more time looking down to the literal ground of our being.

Wheat versus Rice:

The Great WEIRDing of the Jaynesian Ego-Mind as a Civilizational Project

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
~ Luke 23:34

“I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a ‘they’ at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink. What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”
~ A Scanner Darkly (movie)

Let us explore the strangeness of human nature and what it means in our society. For practical purposes, this will require us to use the examples of other people. The simple reason is that certain behavioral and identity patterns are easier to see in others than in ourselves. So, just because our present focus is turned outward, it does not imply that we are standing above in judgment, that we are casting the first stone. We will safely assume that, like all humans, we lack the requisite self-awareness to always see clearly what we do and how what we do is more inconsistent than we would prefer. The following is not about the moral failure of individuals but a reckoning with our shared species-being. The most blatant example we are aware of, in our personal experience, is that of someone we have known for about a quarter of a century. We have on multiple occasions, along with others present to confirm it, observed her say something to one person and then, upon walking into the next room, immediately say something completely contradictory to someone else. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was still in ear-shot of those she just spoke to, suggesting it was not a consciously intentional act of deceit and manipulation. In all the years we’ve known her, she has repeated this behavior many times and she has never shown any indication of understanding what she did or any memory of what transpired. It’s as if she had been two different people, in apparently not carrying a portable and unchanging internal ego structure from one place to the next.

Along with other behaviors, this has led us to suspect she has borderline personality disorder or something along those lines, whatever one might call it; not that she has ever been diagnosed and it must be stated that, in her own perception, she thinks she is completely sane. But psychiatric diagnoses and debates about them are irrelevant for our purposes here. Indeed, maybe she is sane and labeling something does not protect us from what it represents, does not quarantine the perceived mental disease. The issue at hand implicates us all. What we’re discussing here has everything to do with how memory operates, with the narratives we create in retelling memories, forgetting them, and forming new ones. The same lady above, it might be noted, is talented at shaping narratives, not only in her own mind but in the moment of relating to others and so projecting those narratives onto the world, such as staging melodramatic conflicts (typical according to descriptions of borderline personality disorder; when an inner boundaries can’t be maintained, one turns to creating external boundaries in the world by projecting onto others and then controlling them). And she is masterful in creating and controlling her social media persona. The point for bringing all of this up is that, even if her case is extreme and obvious, that kind of thing is surprisingly not abnormal. All of us do similar things, if most of us are better at covering our tracks. We’ve come across numerous other examples over the years from a diversity of people.

Often memory lapses happen in more subtle ways, not always involving overt inconsistency. Amnesia can operate sometimes in maintaining consistency. One guy we know has a strange habit of how he eats. It’s so extremely methodical and constrained. He’ll pick up his fork, place a piece in his mouth, lay down the fork, and carefully chew for an extraordinary amount of time, as if he were counting the number of times chewed. It’s very much unnatural, that is to say we could tell it was trained into him at some point. We pointed this out to him and he didn’t realize he was doing anything unusual, but his wife told us she knew why he did it. Many years earlier, he had told her that his mother had made him thoroughly chew his food as a child and, indeed, she was a strict woman as he has shared with us. The thing is, even when told of this memory he once shared with his wife, he still could not remember it — it was gone and, along with it, any understanding about the origins of his behavior. The memory of his mother’s voice telling him what to do is absent, whereas the authoritative command of her voice still echoes in his mind. An external authorization is internalized as part of the individual ego-mind and simply becomes part of an unquestionable self-identity.

To emphasize the power this holds over the mind, realize this goes far beyond only one particular behavior as his entire identity is extremely controlled (controlled by his egoic willpower or by the authorizing voice of his mother repeating in his unconscious?). He had forgotten something from his childhood that has continued to unconsciously determine his behavioral identity. It was a total memory lapse; and maybe the erasure wasn’t accidental but an important mechanism of identity formation, in creating the sense of an unquestionable psychological realism, the way he takes himself to be as inborn character. It absolutely fascinates us. That kind of forgetting we’ve noticed so many times before. Let us share another incident involving a different married couple, one we’ve also known for a very long time. The husband told us of when his wife went looking for a dog at an animal shelter and he accompanied her. According to him, she told the shelter worker who helped them about how she had gotten her first dog, but the husband explained to us that she had made it up or rather she had told him an alternative version previously, whichever one was correct or whether either was. When he confronted her about this creative storytelling, she simply admitted that it was not true and she had made it up. As he told it, her manner treated the admission like it was irrelevant or insignificant, and so she offered no explanation for why she did it. She just shrugged it off, as if it were normal and acceptable behavior.

Yet it’s entirely possible that the whole situation was beyond her full self-awareness even in the moment of being confronted, similar to the case with the first woman mentioned above. Directly confronting someone does not always induce self-awareness and social-awareness, as identity formations are powerful in protecting against conflicting and threatening information. Amusingly, when we later brought up the animal shelter incident to the husband, he had zero recall of the event and having shared it with us. These transgressions of memory and identity come and go, sometimes for everyone involved. Let’s return to the first couple. There was another situation like this. The husband told us that his wife had been pro-choice when she was younger, but now she is rabidly anti-choice and calls those who are pro-choice baby-killers. This guy told us about this on multiple occasions and so obviously it had been something on his mind for years. Like all of us, he could see the inconsistency in another, in this case a woman he had been married to for more than a half century. He is an honest person and so we have no reason to doubt his claim, specifically as he himself is also now anti-choice (did he always hold this position or did he likewise unconsciously change his memory of political identity?).

The husband told us that his wife no longer remembered her previous position or presumably the self-identity that held it and the reasons for holding it; likely having originated in her childhood upbringing in a working class family that was Democratic and Protestant (note that, until the culture wars heated up in the 1980s, most American Protestants were pro-choice; in opposition to anti-choice Catholics at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry was still strong). Not long after, when discussing this with him on another occasion, he stated that he had no memory of ever having told us this. The thing is this couple has become fairly far right, fear-mongering, conspiratorially paranoid, and harshly critical in their older age. They weren’t always this way, as we knew them when they were younger. Though they always have been conservative as an identity, they both once were relatively moderate and socially liberal; prior to the rise of right-wing and alt-right media (Fox News, Epoch Times, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, Jordan Peterson, etc). The husband used to be far less intellectual and, in his younger days, instead of reading books about religion and politics he read Time Magazine and Playboy. In their early marriage, they attended liberal churches, had pot-smoking friends, and were committed to a worldview of tolerance and positive thinking.

Over the decades, they had re-scripted their identity, according to a powerful right-wing propaganda machine (i.e., the Shadow Network started by Paul Weyrich, initially funded by the Coors family, and ushered in by President Ronald Reagan), to such a degree that it erased all evidence to the contrary — their former selves having been scrubbed from personal memory. So, it’s not only that they’ve dramatically changed their politics over their lifetimes but that they no longer remember who they used to be and so now will deny they were ever anything other than ultra-conservatives. The change has been so dramatic that they probably wouldn’t like their younger selves, if they could meet; and their younger selves might be appalled by what they’d become. It does get one thinking. To what degree do all of us change in such a manner with similar obliviousness? How would we know if we did? We are unlikely to see it in ourselves. And often those around us won’t notice either or else won’t mention it to us. There is typically a mutual agreement to not poke at each other’s illusions, particularly when illusions are shared, entwined, or overlapping. Unravelling our own narratives or those of others can be dangerous, and people will often lash out at you for they will perceive you as attacking their identity.

This perfectly normal strangeness reminds one of anthropological descriptions of the animistic mind and porous self. In many hunter-gatherer tribes and other traditional societies, self-identity tends to be more open and shifting. People will become possessed by spirits, demons, and ancestors; or they will have a shamanic encounter that alters their being upon receiving a new name. These changes can be temporary or permanent, but within those cultures it is accepted as normal. People relate to whatever identity is present without any expectation that individual bodies should be inhabited continuously by only a single identity for an entire lifetime. Maybe this animistic psychology has never really left us, not even with the destruction of most tribal cultures so long after the collapse of bicameral societies. That other way of being that we try to bury keeps resurfacing. There are many voices within the bundled mind and any one of them has the potential to hail us with the compelling force of archaic-like authorization (Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism meets Louis Althusser’s interpellation). We try to securely segment these voice-selves, but every now and then they are resurrected from the unconscious. Or maybe they are always there influencing us, whether or not we recognize and acknowledge them. We just get good at papering over the anomalies, contradictions, and discontinuities. Julian Jaynes points out that we spend little of our time in conscious activity (e.g., mindless driving in a trance state).

What we are talking about is the human nature that evolved under hundreds of millennia of oral culture. This is distinct from literary culture, a relatively recent social adaptation layered upon the primitive psyche. This deeper ground of our species-being contradicts our highly prized egoic identity. To point out an individual’s inconsistencies, in our culture, is about the same as accusing someone of hypocrisy or lying or worse, possibly mental illness. The thing is maybe even psychiatric conditions like borderline personality disorder are simply the animistic-bicameral mind as distorted within a society that denies it a legitimate outlet and social framework. That said, we shouldn’t dismiss the achievements of the egoic mind, that is to say Jaynesian consciousness (interiorized, spatialized, and narratized). It isn’t a mere facade hiding our true nature. The human psyche is flexible, if within limits. There are genuine advantages to socially constructing the rigid boundaries of the literate ego-mind. This relates to the cultural mindset of WEIRD (Westernized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic or pseudo-Democratic). Joseph Henrich, in his book The WEIRDest People in the World, argues that it is literacy that is the main causal factor. He points to research that shows greater amounts of reading, presumably in early life, alter the structure of the brain and the related neurocognition. More specifically, it might be linguistic recursion, the complex structure of embedded phrases, that creates the complexity of abstract thought — this is lacking in some simpler societies and indeed it increases with literacy.

Importantly, what the research on the WEIRD bias tells us is that most people in the world don’t share this extreme variation on the egoic mind and a few remaining populations don’t have an egoic mind at all as they remain fully adapted to the bundled mind, although surely this is changing quickly as most of humanity is becoming some combination of Westernized, modernized, urbanized, and educated; specifically in how literacy spreads and literacy rates go up. We are only now reaching the point of mass global literacy, but it’s still in its early stages. Literacy, for the average person, remains rudimentary. Even in Western countries, the civilizational project of Jaynesian consciousness, in its WEIRDest form, is still partial and not well established. But, in recent centuries, we’ve begun to see the potential it holds and one cannot doubt that it is impressive. The WEIRD egoic mind is obviously distinct in what it makes possible, even in its present imperfections. Studies on WEIRD individuals do show they act differently than the non-WEIRD. Relatively speaking, they are more broadly consistent and abstractly principled (uniform standards and conformist norms), with a perceived inner voice of a supposed independent conscience (as originally reinforced through the moralizing Big Gods that were believed to see into the soul); and that relates to why principled consistency is so idealized in WEIRD society. Even when WEIRD subjects think no one is watching, they are less likely to cheat to help their families than non-WEIRD subjects. And, when asked, they state they’d be less likely to lie in court to protect a loved one. This is what the egoic structure does, as an internalized framework that is carried around with one and remains static no matter the situation. The WEIRD mind is less context-dependent, which admittedly has both strengths and weaknesses.

It’s not clear that this mentality is entirely beneficial, much less sustainable. It might be the case that it never will become fully established and so could always remain wonky, as the above examples demonstrate. The bundled mind is maybe the permanent default mode that we will always fall back into, the moment our egoic defenses are let down. Maintaining the egoic boundaries may simply be too much effort, too much drain on the human biological system, too contrary to human nature. Yet it’s too early to come to that judgment. If and only if we get to a strongly literate society will egoic WEIRDness be able to show what it’s capable of or else its ultimate failure. Consider that, in the US, the youngest generation will be the first ever majority college-educated and hence the first time we will see most of the population fully immersed in literary culture. It’s taken us about three millennia to get to this point, a slow collective construction of this experimental design; and we’re still working out the bugs. It makes one wonder about what might further develop in the future. Some predict a transformation toward a transparent self (integral WEIRD or post-WEIRD?). Certainly, there will be a Proteus effect of mediated experience in shaping identity in new ways. Building off of mass literacy and magnifying its impact, there is the Great Weirding of new media that might become a Great WEIRDing, as there is a simultaneous increase of text, voice, and image. Will the egoic mind be solidified or fall back into the bundled mind?

The challenge for the egoic identity project is that it takes a long time for the external infrastructure of society to be built to support internal structures of identity (e.g., private property and the propertied self), since individualism does not stand alone. That is what modernity has been all about; and most of us have come to take it for granted, in not realizing the effort and costs that went into it and that are continually invested for its maintenance, for good or ill. This is what the Enlightenment Age, in particular, was concerned about. Science and capitalism, democracy and technocracy involve constructing systems that reinforce egoic consistency, principled morality, and perceived objectivity. Liberal proceduralism, within democracy, has been one such system. It’s the attempt to create a legal and political system where all are treated equally, that is to say consistently and systematically. That is far unlike traditional societies where people are intentionally not treated as equal because context of social roles, positions, and identities determine how each person is treated; and that would be especially true of traditional societies where identity is far more fluid and relational, such that how even a single person is treated would vary according to situation. Much of what we think of as corruption in less ‘developed’ countries is simply people acting traditionally; such as what the WEIRD mind calls nepotism and bribery where one treats others primarily according to specific context of concrete relationships and roles, not abstract principles and legalistic code.

Obviously, liberal proceduralism doesn’t always work according to intention or rather the intention is often lacking or superficial. Even conservatives will nod toward liberal proceduralism because, to one degree or another, we are all liberals in a liberal society during this liberal age; but that doesn’t indicate an actual shared commitment to such liberal systems that promote, support, and defend a liberal mindset. Still, sometimes we have to pretend something is real before we might be able to finally manifest it as a shared reality; as a child play-acts what they might become as an adult; or as a revolution of the mind precedes revolution of society and politics, sometimes preceding by a long period of time (e.g., the transition from the English Peasants’ Revolt and the English Civil War to the American Revolution and the American Civil War). This is what we are struggling with, such as with the battle between science and what opposes and undermines it, mixed up with crises of expertise and replication, and involving problems of confirmation bias, backlash effect, etc. The scientific method helps strengthen and shape the egoic structure of mind, helps an individual do what they could not do in isolation. We need systems that create transparency, hold us accountable, incentivize consistency, and allow us to more clearly see ourselves objectively or at least as others can see us, that force us into self-awareness, be that egoic or otherwise.

All of this relates to why it’s so difficult to maintain liberalism, both in society and in the mind; as liberalism is one of the main expressions of the literary WEIRDing of Jaynesian consciousness. Liberalism is an energy-intensive state, similar to what Jaynes argues; a hothouse flower that requires perfect conditions and well-developed structures, such that the hothouse flower requires the hothouse to survive and thrive. Do anything to compromise liberal mentality, from alcohol consumption to cognitive overload, and it instantly regresses back into simpler mindsets such as the prejudicial thinking of the conservative persuasion. This is precisely why inegalitarian right-wingers and reactionaries (including those posing as liberals and leftists, moderates and centrists; e.g., DNC elite) are forever attacking and undermining the very egalitarian foundations of liberal democracy, what makes liberal-mindedness possible at all; and so casting doubt about the radical and revolutionary possibility of the liberal dream. To be fair, there are real reasons for doubt; but the dark alternative of authoritarianism, as advocated on the reactionary right, is not a desirable option to be chosen instead; and there is no easy path open, besides maybe total collapse, for returning to the animistic and bicameral past.

This is a highly problematic dilemma for we have become committed to this societal aspiration and civilizational project, based on centuries and millennia of pathway dependence, layers upon layers upon layers of interlocking cognitive introstructure (metaphorically introjected structure), organizational intrastructure, societal infrastructure, and cultural superstructure. If we come to think this has been the wrong path all along, we’ll be scrambling to find a new way forward or sideways. In the conflict between what we are and what we pretend and hope to be, we will have to come to terms with the world we have collectively created across the generations. But maybe we are not actually schizoid and psychotic in our fumbling in the dark toward coherency, maybe we are not splintered within an internal self and not divided from external reality. If the bundled mind is and will always remain our psychic reality, our selves and identities have never not been pluralistic. Still, we might find a way of integrated balance between the bundled mind and the egoic identity, according to the integralist motto of transcend and include. It might not be a forced choice between two polar positions, a conflict between worldviews where one has to dominate and the other lose, as we’ve treated it so far. Until that changes, we will go on acting insane and denying our insanity, not recognizing in our fear that insanity itself is an illusion. We can never actually go against our own human nature, much less go against reality itself.

“When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.”
~ Gospel of Thomas, Saying 3

“Barfield points to an “inwardization,” or a simultaneous intensification and consolidation of subjectivity, that has transpired over the evolution of humanity and whose results characterize the structure of our souls today. In fact, just because of this represents what is normal to us, we hardly notice it, having no foil to set it off.”
~ Max Leyf, Mythos, Logos, and the Lamb of God: René Girard on the Scapegoat Mechanism

“Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong. They might set Arctor up, plant drugs on him and collect a reward. Better it be me, despite the disadvantages. Just protecting everyone from Barris is justification in itself. What the hell am I talking about? I must be nuts. I know Bob Arctor. He’s a good person. He’s up to nothing. At least nothing too bad. In fact, he works for the Orange County Sheriff’s office covertly, which is probably why Barris is after him. But that wouldn’t explain why the Orange County Sheriff’s office is after him.

“Something big is definitely going down in this house. This rundown, rubble-filled house with its weed patch yard and cat box that never gets emptied. What a waste of a truly good house. So much could be done with it. A family and children could live here. It was designed for that. Such a waste. They ought to confiscate it and put it to better use. I’m supposed to act like they aren’t here. Assuming there’s a “they” at all. It may just be my imagination. Whatever it is that’s watching, it’s not human, unlike little dark eyed Donna. It doesn’t ever blink.

“What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me, into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly, because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better. Because if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again. I’ll only wind up dead this way, knowing very little, and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

Introspective Illusion

On split brain research, Susan Blackmore observed that, “In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating.” This relates to the theory of introspective illusion (see also change blindness, choice blindness, and bias blind spot). In both cases, the conscious mind turns to confabulation to explain what it has no access to and so what it doesn’t understand.

This is how we maintain a sense of being in control. Our egoic minds have immense talent at rationalization and it can happen instantly with total confidence in the reason(s) given. That indicates that consciousness is a lot less conscious than it really is… or rather that consciousness isn’t what we think it is.

Our theory of mind, as such, is highly theoretical in the speculative sense. That is to say it isn’t particularly reliable in most cases. First and foremost, what matters is that the story told is compelling, to both us and others (self-justification, in its role within consciousness, is close to Jaynesian self-authorization). We are ruled by our need for meaning, even as our body-minds don’t require meaning to enact behaviors and take actions. We get through our lives just fine mostly on automatic.

According to Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind, the purpose of consciousness is to create an internal stage upon which we play out narratives. As this interiorized and narratized space is itself confabulated, that is to say psychologically and socially constructed, this space allows all further confabulations of consciousness. We imaginatively bootstrap our individuality into existence, and that requires a lot of explaining.

* * *

Introspection illusion

A 1977 paper by psychologists Richard Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson challenged the directness and reliability of introspection, thereby becoming one of the most cited papers in the science of consciousness.[8][9] Nisbett and Wilson reported on experiments in which subjects verbally explained why they had a particular preference, or how they arrived at a particular idea. On the basis of these studies and existing attribution research, they concluded that reports on mental processes are confabulated. They wrote that subjects had, “little or no introspective access to higher order cognitive processes”.[10] They distinguished between mental contents (such as feelings) and mental processes, arguing that while introspection gives us access to contents, processes remain hidden.[8]

Although some other experimental work followed from the Nisbett and Wilson paper, difficulties with testing the hypothesis of introspective access meant that research on the topic generally stagnated.[9]A ten-year-anniversary review of the paper raised several objections, questioning the idea of “process” they had used and arguing that unambiguous tests of introspective access are hard to achieve.[3]

Updating the theory in 2002, Wilson admitted that the 1977 claims had been too far-reaching.[10] He instead relied on the theory that the adaptive unconscious does much of the moment-to-moment work of perception and behaviour. When people are asked to report on their mental processes, they cannot access this unconscious activity.[7] However, rather than acknowledge their lack of insight, they confabulate a plausible explanation, and “seem” to be “unaware of their unawareness”.[11]

The idea that people can be mistaken about their inner functioning is one applied by eliminative materialists. These philosophers suggest that some concepts, including “belief” or “pain” will turn out to be quite different from what is commonly expected as science advances.

The faulty guesses that people make to explain their thought processes have been called “causal theories”.[1] The causal theories provided after an action will often serve only to justify the person’s behaviour in order to relieve cognitive dissonance. That is, a person may not have noticed the real reasons for their behaviour, even when trying to provide explanations. The result is an explanation that mostly just makes themselves feel better. An example might be a man who discriminates against homosexuals because he is embarrassed that he himself is attracted to other men. He may not admit this to himself, instead claiming his prejudice is because he believes that homosexuality is unnatural.

2017 Report on Consciousness and Moral Patienthood
Open Philanthropy Project

Physicalism and functionalism are fairly widely held among consciousness researchers, but are often debated and far from universal.58 Illusionism seems to be an uncommon position.59 I don’t know how widespread or controversial “fuzziness” is.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that illusionism seems to be endorsed by a small number of theorists, given that illusionism seems to me to be “the obvious default theory of consciousness,” as Daniel Dennett argues.60 In any case, the debates about the fundamental nature of consciousness are well-covered elsewhere,61 and I won’t repeat them here.

A quick note about “eliminativism”: the physical processes which instantiate consciousness could turn out be so different from our naive guesses about their nature that, for pragmatic reasons, we might choose to stop using the concept of “consciousness,” just as we stopped using the concept of “phlogiston.” Or, we might find a collection of processes that are similar enough to those presumed by our naive concept of consciousness that we choose to preserve the concept of “consciousness” and simply revise our definition of it, as happened when we eventually decided to identify “life” with a particular set of low-level biological features (homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproduction, etc.) even though life turned out not to be explained by any Élan vital or supernatural soul, as many people throughout history62 had assumed.63 But I consider this only a possibility, not an inevitability.

59. I’m not aware of surveys indicating how common illusionist approaches are, though Frankish (2016a) remarks that:

The topic of this special issue is the view that phenomenal consciousness (in the philosophers’ sense) is an illusion — a view I call illusionism. This view is not a new one: the first wave of identity theorists favoured it, and it currently has powerful and eloquent defenders, including Daniel Dennett, Nicholas Humphrey, Derk Pereboom, and Georges Rey. However, it is widely regarded as a marginal position, and there is no sustained interdisciplinary research programme devoted to developing, testing, and applying illusionist ideas. I think the time is ripe for such a programme. For a quarter of a century at least, the dominant physicalist approach to consciousness has been a realist one. Phenomenal properties, it is said, are physical, or physically realized, but their physical nature is not revealed to us by the concepts we apply to them in introspection. This strategy is looking tired, however. Its weaknesses are becoming evident…, and some of its leading advocates have now abandoned it. It is doubtful that phenomenal realism can be bought so cheaply, and physicalists may have to accept that it is out of their price range. Perhaps phenomenal concepts don’t simply fail to represent their objects as physical but misrepresent them as phenomenal, and phenomenality is an introspective illusion…

[Keith Frankish, Editorial Introduction, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 23, Numbers 11-12, 2016, pp. 9-10(2)]

“…consciousness is itself the result of learning.”

As above, so below
by Axel Cleeremans

A central aspect of the entire hierarchical predictive coding approach, though this is not readily apparent in the corresponding literature, is the emphasis it puts on learning mechanisms. In other works (Cleeremans, 2008, 2011), I have defended the idea that consciousness is itself the result of learning. From this perspective, agents become conscious in virtue of learning to redescribe their own activity to themselves. Taking the proposal that consciousness is inherently dynamical seriously opens up the mesmerizing possibility that conscious awareness is itself a product of plasticity-driven dynamics. In other words, from this perspective, we learn to be conscious. To dispel possible misunderstandings of this proposal right away, I am not suggesting that consciousness is something that one learns like one would learn about the Hundred Years War, that is, as an academic endeavour, but rather that consciousness is the result (vs. the starting point) of continuous and extended interaction with the world, with ourselves, and with others. The brain, from this perspective, continuously (and unconsciously) learns to anticipate the consequences of its own activity on itself, on the environment, and on other brains, and it is from the practical knowledge that accrues in such interactions that conscious experience is rooted. This perspective, in short, endorses the enactive approach introduced by O’Regan and Noë (2001), but extends it both inwards (the brain learning about itself) and further outwards (the brain learning about other brains), so connecting with the central ideas put forward by the predictive coding approach to cognition. In this light, the conscious mind is the brain’s (implicit, enacted) theory about itself, expressed in a language that other minds can understand.

The theory rests on several assumptions and is articulated over three core ideas. A first assumption is that information processing as carried out by neurons is intrinsically unconscious. There is nothing in the activity of individual neurons that make it so that their activity should produce conscious experience. Important consequences of this assumption are (1) that conscious and unconscious processing must be rooted in the same set of representational systems and neural processes, and (2) that tasks in general will always involve both conscious and unconscious influences, for awareness cannot be “turned off” in normal participants.

A second assumption is that information processing as carried out by the brain is graded and cascades (McClelland, 1979) in a continuous flow (Eriksen & Schultz, 1979) over the multiple levels of a heterarchy (Fuster, 2008) extending from posterior to anterior cortex as evidence accumulates during an information processing episode. An implication of this assumption is that consciousness takes time.

The third assumption is that plasticity is mandatory: The brain learns all the time, whether we intend to or not. Each experience leaves a trace in the brain (Kreiman, Fried, & Koch, 2002).

The social roots of consciousness
by Axel Cleeremans

How does this ability to represent the mental states of other agents get going? While there is considerable debate about this issue, it is probably fair to say that one crucial mechanism involves learning about the consequences of the actions that one directs towards other agents. In this respect, interactions with the natural world are fundamentally different from interactions with other agents, precisely because other agents are endowed with unobservable internal states. If I let a spoon drop on a hard floor, the sound that results will always be the same, within certain parameters that only vary in a limited range. The consequences of my action are thus more or less entirely predictable. But if I smile to someone, the consequences that may result are many. Perhaps the person will smile back to me, but it may also be the case that the person will ignore me or that she will display puzzlement, or even that she will be angry at me. It all depends on the context and on the unobservable mental states that the person currently entertains. Of course, there is a lot I can learn about the space of possible responses based on my knowledge of the person, my history of prior interactions with her, and on the context in which my interactions take place. But the point is simply to say that in order to successfully predict the consequences of the actions that I direct towards other agents, I have to build a model of how these agents work. And this is complex because, unlike what is the case for interactions with the natural world, it is an inverse problem: The same action may result in many different reactions, and those different reactions can themselves be caused by many different internal states.

Based on these observations, one provocative claim about the relationships between self-awareness and one’s ability to represent the mental states of other agents (“theory of mind”, as it is called) is thus that theory of mind comes first, as the philosopher Peter Caruthers has defended. That is, it is in virtue of my learning to correctly anticipate the consequences of the actions that  dIirect towards other agents that I end up developing models of the internal states of such agents, and it is in virtue of the existence of such models that I become able to gain insight about myself (more specifically: about my self). Thus, by this view, self-awareness, and perhaps subjective experience itself, is a consequence of theory of mind as it develops over extended periods of social intercourse.

The Shallows of the Mainstream Mind

The mainstream mindset always seems odd to me.

There can be an issue, event, or whatever that was reported in the alternative media, was written about by independent investigative journalists, was the target of leaks and whistleblowers, was researched by academics, and was released in an official government document. But if the mainstream media didn’t recently, widely, extensively, and thoroughly report on it, those in the mainstream can act as if they don’t know about it, as if it never happened and isn’t real.

There is partly a blind faith in the mainstream media, but it goes beyond that. Even the mainstream news reporting that happened in the past quickly disappears from memory. There is no connection in the mainstream mind between what happened in the past and what happens in the present, much less between what happens in other (specifically non-Western) countries and what happens in the US.

It’s not mere ignorance, willful or passive. Many people in the mainstream are highly educated and relatively well informed, but even in what they know there is a superficiality and lack of insight. They can’t quite connect one thing to another, to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. It’s a permanent and vast state of dissociation. It’s a conspiracy of silence where the first casualty is self-awareness, where individuals silence their own critical thought, their own doubts and questions.

There is also an inability to imagine the real. Even when those in the mainstream see hard data, it never quite connects on a psychological and visceral level. It is never quite real. It remains simply info that quickly slips from the mind.

Most Americans Know What is True

There is one topic I return to more often than most, a topic that has been on my mind for about a decade now. This topic has to do with the confluence of ideology, labels, and social science. I’ve written about this topic more than I care to remember.

I’m about equally interested in conservatism and liberalism (along with other ideological labels). But liberalism in some ways has intrigued me more because of all the massive confusion surrounding the label. Most Americans hold fairly strong left-leaning views on many of the most important major issues.

There are a number of facts that have become permanently caught in my craw. I considered two of these in a post from not too long ago, Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism. In that post, I pointed out that most Americans are more in agreement with one another than they are with the more right-leaning political elites who claim to speak for and represent them. But there is a complicating factor involving the odd mixture of liberalism and conservatism in the American Mind (I never get tired of quoting this fascinating explanation):

Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).

What the heck is a symbolic conservatism? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know if anyone has that one figured out yet.

I also pointed out that even most Southerners are on the left side of the spectrum. It’s just that most Southerners are disenfranchized. If most Southerners voted, Republicans would never be able to win another election in the South without completely altering what they campaign on.

The claim of a polarized population is overstated. This brings me to a new angle. I came across another piece of data that now can be permanently caught in my craw with the rest. It is from a book by Cass R. Sunstein, not an author I normally read, but the book looked intriguing. He wrote (How to Humble a Wingnut and Other Lessons from Behavioral Economics, Kindle Locations 249-253):

Recent studies by Yale University’s John Bullock and his co-authors suggest that with respect to facts, Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot less than we might think.

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe.

This was from a fairly short essay that ends with this conclusion (Kindle Locations 271-282):

What’s going on here? Bullock and his colleagues think that when people answer factual questions about politics, they engage in a degree of cheerleading, even at the expense of the truth. In a survey setting, there is no cost to doing that.

With economic incentives, of course, the calculus is altered. If you stand to earn some money with an accurate answer, cheerleading becomes much less attractive . And if you will lose real money with an inaccurate answer, you will put a higher premium on accuracy.

What is especially striking is that Bullock and his colleagues were able to slash polarization with very modest monetary rewards. If the incentives were greater (say, $ 100 for a correct answer and $ 25 for “I don’t know”), there is every reason to expect that partisan differences would diminish still more.

It might seem disturbing to find such a divergence between what people say and what they actually believe, but in a way, these findings are immensely encouraging. They suggest that with respect to facts, partisan differences are much less sharp than they seem—and that political polarization is often an artifact of the survey setting.

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

Incentives can make people honest. And when honest, people agree a lot more. This reminds me of research showing that, by doing word jumble puzzles and such, people can be primed for rational thought and indeed they do think more rationally under those conditions. Between incentives and priming, we could have a much higher quality public debate and political action.

This also reminds me of implicit knowledge (see here and here). Many writers have observed the strange phenomenon of people simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Maybe this directly relates to incentives and similar factors. It might not just be an issue of incentives to be honest, but also incentives to be self-aware, to admit to themselves what they already know, even when such truths might be uncomfortable and inconvenient.

A further confounding factor, as research also shows, the political elites and the political activists are very much polarized. Those with the most power and influence are the stumbling blocks for democracy or any other moral and effective political process. This plays straight into the cheerleading of the masses. Too many people will simply go along with what the pundits and politicians tell them, unless some other motivation causes them to think more carefully and become more self-aware.

One wonders what the public debate would be like about issues from global warming to economic inequality, if the incentives were different. A single honest public debate could transform our society. It would be a shock to the entire social, political, and economic system.

My Bumper Car Philosophy of Life

I sometimes find myself complaining about a particular person or group or criticizing a type of person. It’s amusing. Everyone feels this way sometimes. In being who we are, we inevitably can’t fully understand (emotionally or cognitively) others who are very different from us. It’s perfectly normal, but most often we don’t think about how odd this is.

None of us really knows why we are the way we are or even exactly how we became that way. We all have our own stories that explain our lives, but these really are just rationalizations to explain away the uncomfortable fact that we are mostly shaped by and motivated by things of which we are unaware. The factors that go into making a human are infinite, beyond comprehension. Maybe what bothers us about not understanding others is that we ultimately don’t even understand ourselves.

In life, we are driving blind. We learn of the world by running into things. This is my bumper car philosophy of life.

When Stupid People Don’t Know They’re Stupid

Calvin Hobbes Ignorance