Jordan B. Peterson and Sam Harris Debate

I would like to weigh in on the recent Sam Harris and Jordan B. Peterson debate and try to offer a solution to the problem at hand. If you are not familiar with what I'm talking about, I would recommend listening to it, but here's a quick summary. On one side you have Harris who is advocating for an objective truth that sits outside any moral judgements that human beings make about it, and on the other, you have Peterson who argues that there is no truth except a moral truth, one that is contextual and darwinian, i.e. dependent upon the survival of the species.

The problem with Peterson's argument is that it takes a concept such as truth that everyone is familiar with and uses it in a way that would significantly change our relationship to it. This is not a fatal problem, but it does make it hard to talk about. It also puts one in the position of saying some pretty silly things are "true", such as the many micro examples Harris throws at him throughout the interview.

I am, however, sympathetic to the overall point that Peterson is making, and I think he can make it more effectively if he takes his argument and frames it around the word "intelligence".

Take for example a tiny multi-celled organism that can only sense light and dark. This is a form of intelligence, in that, it is a way of interacting with the world that provides it with good (true) information which it uses to survive and reproduce. If the sensor is malfunctioning and it thinks light is dark and dark is light, then the information will be bad (untrue) and it will die. 

But let's say there is a mutation and a new version of this organism springs into being. The difference is that this new organism has another sense, temperature. It can tell when things get hot or cold. It is undeniable that with two senses this new organism has a more truthful interpretation of reality than the first, but is it as intelligent? Well, that depends on how it uses the information, how it acts in the world and whether this new vision of reality is more helpful to its flourishing.

Let's say, for the sake of the example, that this new sense of temperature actually leads to the organism's destruction, that it's lured into a hot environment that's detrimental to its survival and is killed without ever having reproduced. You would be hard pressed to describe this organism as "intelligent" and I think this is precisely Peterson's argument, only he applies this to the world of ideas instead of organisms.

For instance, you can imagine two tribes of early humans, one who spends most of its time studying the environment and learning farming techniques, and the other who spends most of its time learning how to fight and pillage. This more brutish tribe comes along and kills all of the farmers and eats their crops.  In this micro-conception, biologically speaking, the brutish tribe is more intelligent, in that, their way of surviving in this particular example leads to survival. 

However, if you zoom out with a historical lens, the ways that these brutish tribes existed, the ideas and beliefs that they valued, do not end up surviving. They're small numbers and overly aggressive tactics are in the large scheme of things outmaneuvered by large scale human cooperation enhanced by a division of labor.  So while you can make a tiny example of where "intelligence" seems at odds with our conception of it, i.e. brutish tribes are more intelligent than farming tribes, you simply have to wait for history to play out to show that this strategy fails.

This framework would then let Peterson make the argument that if some visions of the world lead to our destruction, even if they more accurately describe reality, we can say that vision was more truthful, but less intelligent.  Using this framework, Harris and Peterson could agree on the word "truth" and stop having definitional arguments over its meaning and shift the debate to "intelligence" where I think the conversation could be more fruitful.


Political Apocalypse

There's much that's been made about the polarization between Democrats and Republicans, but they do share one unique similarity.  The both have growing factions in their party that believe in a dystopian apocalyptic future despite the mountain of evidence that shows the opposite.  Why?  Because they need the world to be more violent than it is, more dangerous than it is, more unintelligent than it is, in order to justify their particular paradigm shift.  Things have to be really bad in order to have a revolution, and so they paint the world as chaotic, backward and spiraling out of control.

What each vision lacks though is humility.  They both make the assumption that they understand not only what is going on, but they claim to be able to see into the future and predict what will happen in 10, 15, 20 years.  It takes humility to say, "I don't understand what's going on and I don't know what will happen," and it is with this humble gaze that we should turn to look at long term trends in measurable data.  Looking at these trends we can see that the world is getting less violent, less racist, less sexist, people are living longer, more babies are surviving pregnancy, birth rates are drastically declining which will lead to a smaller more stabilized world population, any number of harmful diseases have been extinguished, extreme poverty is being reduced, and global inequality is falling. 

People who argue against making our progress more widely known believe that talking about our success will somehow make us stop progressing.  They believe that if people think things are improving they will stop trying to fix what is broken, and so they deliberately go out of their way to paint the world as worse than it is in order to try and achieve some future goal they have in mind.  Typically the intentions are good.  They desire a less racist, less sexist world, but in the process eviscerate any sign of progress because they see a connection between the direness of their social project and the amount of attention and resources people will spend on it.

After Trump's speech last night, these two approaches have now merged.  They both have differing future visions of the world, but they are using the same technique in order to try and achieve them.  This approach, of intentionally leading people to believe that the world is worse off than it actually is, has been a failure.  It has not inspired people.  It has not created a movement of solidarity that unites us against common problems, rather its singular focus on what's wrong has made people feel disaffected, helpless and out of control, the perfect environment for an authoritarian like Trump to step in and reassure people that he's the man that's going to fix everything.

The left and the right's versions of the apocalypse have merged into one vision with two opposing aims.  The reaction to this should not be to pander to one or the other, or to choose sides.  It should be to more accurately, more effectively depict the reality of the situation, to puncture the illusion that each side is presenting with a stronger, more verifiable understanding of how things really are.  

It used to be common knowledge that the earth was the center of the universe.  It took someone who decided to measure the world and see if this belief was true in order for us to come to a more accurate understanding of our physical place in reality.  It is no different with trying to understand the interrelations of 319 million Americans.  We have common sense beliefs about the reality of America that are based on our personal experience, but these beliefs are often partial and inaccurate when applied to the country as a whole.  Our own experiences are important, but they are poor guides to trying to understand the larger social dynamics that we find ourselves.

In general Americans are positive about their own financial well being but are disillusioned about the larger economy.  They are generally happy with Obama and his performance as a president but believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.  They think national government is hopelessly corrupt but tend to like their local politician.  This irrationality is well documented.  We are local optimists and global pessimists, and this bias may be more about our cognitive capacity, than any political beliefs we hold.  Similar trends can be found in Norway, Japan, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Urugay, the Phillipines, Nigeria, etc.  It is not so much an American problem, as a human reasoning problem.  We are just not that good at conceptualizing on a global or national level.

This is all the more reason to question our basic assumptions as to how we see America and its future. Assumptions come fast and easy.  They take little effort and seem to make sense, but when we string them out and compare them to one another, we are left with an incomprehensible narrative, one that believes many contradictory things. Empirical data is hard work.  It does not come easy.  It comes slow, and the claims it makes are typically smaller and less satisfying than we want them to be.  They can also be confounding to our unexamined assumptions, which can be unsettling, even when the news is good.

My desire here is not to paint a better picture of reality than what actually exists.  It is to most accurately describe the one we have.  It is to have humility about what we know and what we can actually see going forward, and to embrace a vision of the world that is not steeped in left or right, or democrat or republican, but what is discernibly true.  Data doesn't reduce the world to itself.  It is a guide to the much richer complexity of human meaning.  It is not everything.  It is not the complete truth.  It is simply a small flicker of light that helps us see the edges of the world around us, and it is a world I believe we should be proud of, despite all of its problems, because it is pride in one's work, not fear and despair, that will give us the strength to continue our progress well into the future.

I Stand With...

In times of crisis, such as after mass shootings, people may find themselves expressing feelings of solidarity.  You may feel passionate about gun control, immigration or you may feel compassion for a specific group of people that has been harmed.  This may lead to a social media post that says something along the lines of, "I stand with (insert idea/group of people here)".  So what does this mean, and why do people feel the need to express this sentiment?  

Being someone who is interested in language and especially where our concepts come from, I am going to examine this idea metaphorically.  Our abstract concepts, such as "solidarity", come directly from our bodily experience.  We first need to experience "solid" before we can get to "solidarity".  Sometimes the concepts are simple and universal such as "Up is Happy/Down is Sad" but sometimes they are much more complex, comprising of multiple overlapping metaphors that form a semi-coherent system.  

The phrase "standing with" relies upon these conceptual metaphors:

Physical Solidity is Meaningful Solidity --> "That's a solid idea"
Similarity is Closeness -->  "We're not so far apart on immigration."
Relationships are Bonds --> "I feel like there's a really strong bond between us."
Determination is Standing Upright --> "We've got to stand up against the forces of evil."
Causes are Forces --> "You really pushed me into this."
Weight is Seriousness --> "Woah man.  That's heavy."
Politics is a Journey --> "We're not moving forward on gun control."

The word "solidarity" originated around 1829 from the French word "solidarite" which means "a communion of interests and responsibilities."  It was derived from the word "solide" which corresponds to the english word "solid".  (  The word "solidarity" itself is a metaphor.  Think of a solid, a liquid and a gas.  What differentiates them is the distance between particles, i.e. the particles of a solid are more stable, uniform and closer together.  On the macro level the same idea can be experienced with the legs of a table.  Imagine a table with a few disparate randomly placed legs, and then imagine a table with lots of closer together uniformly spaced legs.  One is obviously more solid than the other.

This "solidness" can be mapped onto meaningful realities such as the idea of group cohesion where a solid group of people is ideologically more stable, uniform and closer together.  People who are more ideological similar are conceptualized as being "closer" to one another, and people who share opposing beliefs are conceptualized as being "further away" thus Distance is Similarity.  You get enough people who are close to one another and, much like particles or legs of a table, you stat getting a more substantial object.  (Note: Distance can also be conceptualized as Intimacy, so when we say we are close to someone, we do not necessarily mean we are similar to them, but are more intimate.)

As people move close together, the bonds that unite them may become stronger. (Bonds are Relationships)  Imagine a group of people physically spaced long distances apart, each connected by a rope that stretches from one person to the next.  Now imagine a group of people who are uniformly close together.  The bonds are shorter and stronger.  This group can be considered "solid" since they can withstand resistance without falling apart.  They can not be pushed around as easily.  

Since we conceptualize Causes as Forces, opposing ideologies "push against" one another.  Here we replace the individual people connected by ropes with ideas, connected in a similar way, in service of forming a much larger Ideology.  A solid ideology, just like a solid group of people, has strength because its uniform density permeates throughout.  It has "impact" because when it strikes the opposing less stable ideology, it causes damage.  An ideology that is "hollow", that doesn't have anything inside of it, that has disparate poorly connected ideas, more easily falls apart when it finally meets an opposing argument.  It can even "destroy the argument" with its "hard hitting impact".

Similarly when we are going to "stand with" someone or something,  we are implying that we are going to try and help the stability of a particular idea/group in relation to the opposing forces that we see pushing against it.  We do this because we conceptualize Life as a Journey, where it has a beginning (birth), a middle (middle age) and an end (death).  Politics can also be a journey, where we see legislation also having a beginning (the formation of a bill), a middle (the debating of a bill) and an end (the bill becoming law).  

If we take the issue of "gun control" we imagine that it needs to go somewhere, i.e, it needs to get to the end of its journey (becoming law).  There are "opposing forces" that are keeping it from "moving forward", that are "slowing its progress".  These opposing forces can start destroying the object if there is not enough solidity in the group.  They can also start pushing it "backward" or "off course". If the group is ideologically "far apart", individuals are much easier to push around then if the group is a solid object.  

"Standing up" is the human equivalent of resisting the force of gravity, i.e. a force that is pushing on us.  We stand, as opposed to sitting, because standing takes effort (Determination/Will).  We conceptualize morality as "upright" as well as "a firm backbone" because we feel, rightly or wrongly, that we have the ability to resist the outside forces that swirl around us, i.e the ability for personal choice.  Likewise being a "spineless push over" shows an inability to "stand up" for oneself.  "A flake" is someone who is blown around by the elements indiscriminately.  They do not have the solidity to withstand force.  Instead they are picked up and carried off by the slightest breeze.

We express solidarity online to one another possibly as a way to show group cohesion, as a way of saying, "This thing I believe in.  It's a solid object.  It is serious (weighty).  It can withstand the forces pushing against it.  With our collective effort we will move it forward on its journey, until eventually, we will reach our goal."

Why did this happen?

The worst mass shooting in U.S. history just occurred in Orlando, and the question that everyone is searching for is "What caused this to happen?"  Before hardly any information is known people are already starting to construct their narratives.  So what do we know?  It was at a gay night club.  The shooter was muslim.  There was an assault rifle and a handgun .  50 people died. Another 53 were injured.  When searching for a reason as to why this occurred we could immediately jump to: Islamic extremism, lack of gun control, mental illness, homophobia, etc.  With such few elements to work with it's quite easy to create whatever intuitive narrative we want because there are so few facts to get in our way.

Now imagine having to wait a year before we formulate a reasonable cohesive story that answered this question of what caused the shooting.  Imagine the ambiguity of not knowing lasting an entire year and when people talked about it at work or online, they would shrug their shoulders and say, "I just don't have enough information to really know what caused that man to shoot those people."  It seems almost impossible, because the need for a cohesive narrative is so strong.  We want answers and we don't want to have to wait through the slow process of gathering information.  We want them now.

Is this a terrible thing?  No. I think it's probably an evolutionary adaptive behavior that's developed for a good reason.  In the face of life threatening events, even when it's not immediately threatening to us, we want to act quickly and decisively. We can't wait to find out the whole story.  We go with what we know.  It's also pleasurable "to understand" as opposed to have to live with the anxiety of uncertainty.  The avoidance of anxiety/uncertainty coupled with the adaptive pressure to formulate quick responses to dangerous situations makes this process of generating causal narratives quick and easy.  It just comes natural.   

We have an emotional reaction to the event which springs directly from our personal history.  We take the little information we are given and then mold it to fit what we already know.  If you are concerned about the growing influence of Islamic Extremism, then a muslim name may be all you need to start formulating your narrative.  If you are an advocate for LGBT rights, then homophobic forces may be at work.  If you are a psychologist, you might be more inclined to see the person as mentally unstable.  (Note: This is not to say that these hunches have to be inaccurate.  In this case, the gunmen did have a muslim name, and does appear to be connected to Islamic Extremism.  He most likely is homophobic, and is also mentally unstable.  All of these hunches are probably correct.  In and of themselves though, they are extremely partial.)

Imagine someone walks up to you, and pushes you over.  What would you say caused your fall?  The simple answer would be "the person who pushed me," but that's not satisfying because what you really want to know is "why did they push me?".  Later you learn the person is racist against whatever race you happen to be.  Now what is the cause of your falling to the ground?  You could say that the person's beliefs are what caused you to fall down.  The ideas pushed you, the person being an instrument of those ideas, just as the hand is the instrument of the person.  Or you could say that racism pushed you.   It wasn't the person at all but vast social forces that the person isn't even aware of that caused this to happen.  

In the Orlando shooting, all of the possible forces that could be operating are not yet known, but it's quite easy to name some that could have an effect.  Homophobia, Easy Access to Guns, Islamic Extremism and Mental Illness can all be conceptualized as forces that caused the gunman to commit this crime.  This of course is a metaphor (Causes are Forces). We don't actually think Homophobia is a force out in the world like the wind is a force, but we conceptualize it this way because it makes sense to link the two.  

Think of the shooter standing in an open field.  All of the casual forces are pushing against him, like giant gusts of wind.  Which force is the strongest?  Is it homophobia?  Is that what "pushed" him to do it?  Or is it Radical Islam?  Forces aren't the only elements in this equation though, because we also metaphorically conceptualize "will power" as the ability to resist these forces.  That's why we talk about someone having a "strong moral backbone" as opposed to someone who is "spineless" or a "push-over".  One of them can stand and resist the forces swirling around them.  The other cannot.   

The power of the forces, and our ability to resist them, is important because it affects how we assign blame.  If a particularly strong gust of wind comes along and picks the gunman up in the air and throws him into another person, the wind is possibly to blame.  If forces are conceptualized as overpowering an individual, we tend to blame the force itself.  If the individual is perceived to be in control and only affected by these forces then we tend to blame the individual.  Is it the gunman pulling the trigger or is it the force of Islamic Extremism?  Is it the gunman pulling the trigger or is it the force of Homophobia?  

In mass shootings there is a deep desire to want to know "why", and so we look for notes, we look toward the person's own words as the best possible information to alleviate our suffering of not knowing.  Often we are left without this information, but even when we do know, we can still question whether what they describe is what really motivates them.  A person who says the reason they killed is because their talking dog told them to, is not a trusted source of information, and many people, especially ones who kill, should not be trusted to describe the truth of their situation, though their description does give us a wealth of information, i.e. someone who listens to a talking dog is obviously mentally ill.

Finally, a problem that occurs after events such as this is to decide how to use these events to further our own future visions of the world.  If we imagine a world without guns, one where fewer people are killed, this event may give our argument "more weight".  Arguments with more weight have a "larger impact" on "pushing" us towards where we would like to go.  This utilitarian approach, that horrific events can be used in this way, bothers some people who see the appropriate response as grieving, without wanting to "use it" for a means to an end.  

This brief essay is of course doing just that.  I have a particular issue that I'm trying to communicate, that people jump to conclusions about the causation of events and overly simplify them, and I've used an event that resulted in the deaths of 50 people as a reason to make this point, as I hope it may possibly help this problem I've focused on.  How much force do I give this essay?  Very little.  Do I think it diminishes the humanity of the 50 people that were killed?  No.  What I do hope is for people to have a humbleness about their ability to come up with a singular reason for why events occur, and to be aware that their emotional intuitive reaction is likely skewing their narrative toward something that fits into what they already know.  I'm not interested in blaming or making people feel bad about their responses.  Just be open to rethinking and re-contextualizing your narrative as more information becomes available, and be humble. Remember as human beings, we only really know so much.

Deeper, Shallower, Higher, Lower

The Metaphors of Vipassana

We are not usually conscious of our heart beating or the pulse in our stomach or how our small intestine feels. Typically we only become aware of these sensations when they cause us pleasure or pain, or when they become intensified such as after we go for a run.  Part of the practice of Vipassana is to bring conscious attention to subtler bodily sensations.  "How does my stomach feel when I'm not eating?  How is my heart beating when it's not pounding in my chest?"  By sitting for long periods of time and paying attention to these more mundane sensations, we can accomplish two tasks at once.  

First we realize that our bodily sensations are directly connected to our more meaningful emotional states.  When we become angry specific things happen in the body.  We scrunch our face.  We generate heat and tension.  Our chest tightens.  When we become more conscious of the physicality of our emotional states, we gain a little more control when they occur.  So if we start to get angry, instead of getting lost in the abstract idea of our anger, we focus on what is going on in the body.  We may not know how to stop being angry, but we do know how to relax our face.  

Secondly, as we search the body, as we watch ourselves react to these pleasurable and painful sensations, we become aware of our reactions.  When we experience pleasure, we desire to keep experiencing it and to experience more of it.  When we experience pain, we desire to lessen it or to avoid it completely. Physically this makes a lot of sense.  If we touch a hot stove we want some incentive (pain) to make us stop.  Mentally though we take a physical pain, such as a sore throat, and instead of experiencing only the pain of a slightly irritated dry esophagus, we multiply our suffering by extrapolating all sorts of painful meaningful experiences as well.  "I'm going to be sick!  Now I won't be able to go out tonight!  My plans are ruined!"  In the world of meaning, instead of moving our hand away from the stove, we have the ability to grasp it even tighter, and for longer periods of time.

In the continued observance of our ability to multiply our suffering, we become more conscious of these processes, and with continued concentration, we have the ability to reach a more equanimous state of being, one which does not get pushed and pulled as easily by our associative grasping for meaning.  

The physical experience of what I've described and the experiential looking and realizations that occur because of it are often described as "going deeper".  It makes sense, in that, we think of ourselves as containers for meaning, such as a ceramic vessel.  We have an outside layer that is perceived as protective, obvious, shallow, and surface.  It can thicken, harden, soften, become more permeable, depending on how much information it lets in to the deeper more meaningful realm which is hidden inside.  When we talk about "going deeper" in the spiritual sense, we are participating in this conception.  We are penetrating into the unconscious, the hidden part of ourselves that we don't see, peering into the vessel, digging into the hard shallow surface of the exterior and entering into the depths of the unknown. 

Another way to look at this is in a more traditional hierarchy that is composed of higher order states of complexity that transcend and include one another.  For instance, at the most basic level we are made up of physical stuff, atoms and quarks, vibrating and bouncing around.  Within the physical there is a smaller realm of biological matter that has transcended and included the previous, and still, there is a smaller realm that transcends and includes biology, in that, there has emerged beings capable of abstract thought. 

Using this conception, the practice of Vispassana is not about going deeper, finding a truer, more authentic self.  It is taking our ability for self reflection and using it to explore the connections between the meaningful and the biological realm.  It seeks to root us in our body, as it is our tendency to believe that we are somehow separate from the physical blood, bone and flesh that make us up.  Vispassana offers physical experiential insight into where our meaning originates, and in doing so presents us with the reality of our existence at a more rudimentary level.  We search for our anger internally and instead of finding a deeper more complex interior reality, we find tension in our muscles, heat and pain; shallower, more basic experiences.

Embodied Cognition is also interested in the relationship of how our world of meaning relates to the biological realm.  The conclusions so far within the field have been that our concepts are derived from the physical body, are mostly unconscious and highly metaphoric.  

"She's a warm person.  I feel very close to her."  
"She's a cold person.  I don't feel close to her at all."
"She's really hot."

These sentences use the unconscious metaphors Affection is Warmth, Intimacy is Distance and Heat is Desire.  All of these concepts are derived from being a physical body moving through space.  When we are physically close to another person we generate warmth.  When we move further away from them that warmth disappears. When we are having sex with someone we generate quite a lot of warmth, and thus desire becomes attached to this more intense heat.  All three take the physical sensations of the body and use them to extrapolate a more meaningful experience.  

Vipassana tries to teach us the connections between the meaningful and the physical through first hand experiential knowledge.  We experience these connections in realtime and see for ourselves what exists and what does not. What exactly are the physical sensations that occur when you become angry?  When you closely observe them, when you peer into the depths of who you are, instead of finding deeper and deeper layers of a truer and truer self, you will find nothing but biological functions that produce warmth, coldness, itchiness, pulsations, dryness, moistness, tingling and if you hone your concentration long enough, you will be able to feel the subtle wave-like sensations that permeate your body.  

Embodied cognition intellectually picks apart our conceptual system and shows us the same thing.  Our most deeply held concepts are nothing more than re-appropriated physical experiences, such as when we describe intimacy as warmth. The conclusion should not be "This is all we are" that because there is a more basic, more rooted experience (the body) that this is somehow truer than our meaningful experiences.  Rather we should use it for what it is, an anchor to tether our mind's ability to disembody.  In this sense these two parallel practices, Embodied Cognition and Vispassana, are completely compatible and incredibly reinforcing when pursued concurrently.  

This is why that I would recommend that any serious Vipassana mediator pursue at least a cursory study of Embodied Cognition (as well as Conceptual Metaphor Theory) as it will only help reinforce the practice they are actively pursuing, and likewise, any scientist who has an interest in the conceptual systems of the mind, should familiarize themselves with Vipassana as it will give them first hand knowledge to see how their specific mind works, and to be able to more closely examine the biological experiences of what it feels like when "meaning" occurs from (not "in") the body.

Ideological Housekeeping

Recently on social media I've found myself in the position of arguing against liberal points of view.  This has been perplexing, not just for me, but for my friends as well.  I have always considered myself liberal, and yet, recent manifestations of liberalism's beliefs, are not ones that I share.  Some of my friends have even come up and asked whether I was somehow slowly turning conservative.  Because of this I think it's necessary, personally as well as socially, to parse through what "conservative" and "liberal" actually mean, and try to get to the bottom of what's going on here.

Historically being a liberal has meant wanting to work towards a system that values both freedom and equality. Liberalism has been most effective in accomplishing these goal in the waves of rights movements that have swept over society reshaping it in important and profound ways.  Women's rights, children's rights, black rights, animals rights, queer rights are projects that are yet to be finished, but have none the less, made huge strides in the last century.

Conservatives are more focused on a deference to the institutions of the past as well as a healthy skepticism for the unintended consequences of changing those systems.  They have succeeded in that they pull us back from some of the wilder ideas that might have sounded fun and enticing at the time but have proven disastrous in implementation. Romanticism and Communism come to mind.

Metaphorically you can think of liberalism as expansive in that, it envisions a better future where there is more freedom and equality for everyone.  It wants to push out from the existing structures and explore the far reaches of what we can become, and conversely, you can think of conservatism as the necessary constriction on this idealism, reigning it in from going too far.

With these definitions in mind, we are all in some respects conservative, in that we believe there are social structures that need to be defended.  There are things that we don't want messed with, such as the abolition of slavery.  And we are all liberals when we look at society and see improvements that can be made, and imagine a better system that gives people more freedom and equality.

These terms aren't just the broad ideological stances that I've described, but as you get into the nuts and bolts of specific issues, they start to mix with other claims of reality that don't necessarily have much to do with the definitions I've laid out. 

For instance on the liberal side we have: 

- Believing GMO's are evil
- Believing capitalism/business/modernity is evil
- Believing white people are evil
- Believing that there are no cognitive differences between men and women
- Believing that people in positions of power should be called out on on cultural appropriation and their privilege.
- Believing that people need to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable
- Believing that world events can be reduced to, and thus explained by, power dynamics, racism, sexism, etc.

On the conservative side we have:

- Xenophobia
- Anti-science
- Over emphasis on gender norms and their defining qualities
- Radical religious belief
- Lack of understanding of businesses responsibility to deal with externalities
- Radical nationalism
- Lack of compassion for people considered "other"

I consider myself liberal, in that, I believe in the continued work of the rights movements that have historically been successful.  I am economically liberal because I believe in the need to redistribute wealth so as to decrease inequality. But I also consider myself conservative in that I have a healthy skepticism about our ability to enact social change and be able to understand the effects it will have on our future.  These are complex systems we are dealing with and I don't think we have adequately formed a good enough picture of human behavior to be able to create systems that push us in the directions we intend to go.  

What I propose (and in some respects this is already happening) is that both sides take care of some internal housekeeping that is causing quite a bit of confusion.

For instance, a number of conservatives are using an outmoded religious text, the bible, as their grounding rationale to restrict liberalism.  I am not asking people to abandon their faith, their belief in God, or their religion.  What I think is critical though is that conservatives understand they can not make reasonable political arguments in contemporary society with a religious book that was written in a time when slavery was still the norm.  You will lose with this approach, and you will continue to lose until you change.  Conservatives must ask themselves, "What is the best way to combat the ill conceived expansiveness of the liberal ideal?" and the answer they should come to is...empirical data. 

Do not turn to the bible if you want to refute the idea that there are no cognitive differences between the sexes.  Turn to evolution.  You will make a much better argument, and you will make one that you can win.  Empirical data has all but eviscerated the romantic ideals of Rousseau.  It challenges our gut reactions about GMO's.  It paints a more flattering picture of capitalism's effects on the world and it casts doubt on the claim that everything is culturally constructed.   And in the light of a complex empirically grounded view of causality, simplistic explanations of racism, sexism and other power dynamics will fail in their ability to explain what is actually going on.

Likewise, liberalism has its own demons to expel.  In its healthy form it wrestles with its conflicting desires of freedom and equality.  In its unhealthy form, one of these goals has completely dominated the other. In today's liberalism the entire emphasis is on equality.   Not only is it dangerously unbalanced, but it has quarantined itself in a self described safe space where in a fit of righteous indignation it has refused to debate any of the reasonable points that conservatives have made.  If Liberalism is to get back to a healthy state, it must learn how to take criticism and not simply call people who disagree with its views racist and sexist.  Because contemporary liberalism has sequestered itself away (and because conservatism grounded in religious doctrine is an intellectually outmoded opponent) liberalism has developed some unchecked, rather strange notions of reality that have become mixed up with the idea of making things "equal".  

If these changes were to happen, if conservatives, instead of trying to constrict liberal goals with religious doctrine, where to turn to scientific evidence, they would not only be doing themselves a great service, but would be doing liberalism a great service as well.  Conservatism would act as a necessary filter that would weed out the misshapen ideas that have blossomed in an environment of like-minded liberals, unable to see the faults of their own insular reality.  And if liberals could put down their righteous indignation and actually listen to the opposing point of view, the balance could be restored to this once great vision of a more free and equal future.  

Going forward, we should resist the urge to make these terms, liberal and conservative, the unintelligent forms that they can undoubtedly manifest.  It is too easy and it accomplishes nothing to point to the lowest common denominator on either side. Instead, we should value the opposition for the counterbalance that it brings.  We shouldn't seek to reduce the necessary conflict that erupts between ideas, rather we should find strategies that use the energy that's generated when they collide more effectively and to better purposes.  

So how do I define myself?  Am I a liberal or a conservative?  I am neither.  I am someone who is interested in a clearer picture of reality, and I am committed to using personal observation, empirical data, and rational thought to see where that leads.

Culturally Appropriate Separateness

There have been many claims about cultural appropriation recently in the news but none have been quite as silly as the claim that Yoga, the practice of realizing the illusion of our perceived separateness so as to find union in universal consciousness, should be shackled to its cultural origin and that people outside of that culture should not be allowed to practice it.  This happened recently at the University of Ottawa where a yoga class was shut down due to claims of cultural appropriation.

An article in the Ottawa Sun states that "Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that 'while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice.'   The centre goes on to say, 'Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,' and which cultures those practices 'are being taken from.'  The centre official argues since many of those cultures 'have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy...we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga."

Sri Aurobindo, a yogic philosopher, spiritual reformer, and Indian nationalist, who spent time in jail fighting for Indian independence against the British Empire, had a different outlook on how yoga was to be seen and practiced by the world.  In his book Essays in Philosophy and Yoga he writes,

"It is still the orthodox view that the experiences of Yoga must not be revealed to the uninitiated. But a new era dawns upon us in which the old laws must be modified. Already the West is beginning to discover the secrets of Yoga....The time has almost come when India can no longer keep her light to herself but must pour it out upon the world. Yoga must be revealed to mankind because without it mankind cannot take the next step in the human evolution. "

He saw the world as a global village, in which ideas are shared for the greater good of humanity, while the views of the people so concerned about keeping yoga confined to India are labeled as "orthrodox".  We should pause for a moment to consider that Aurobindo started writing this book in 1905, and ask ourselves how is it possible that students in 2015 have more in common with the Indian orthodoxy of a hundred years ago than with the philosopher?  It is interesting that the man who actually lived in the time of colonialism, who experienced events that students can only read about, who was marginalized to the point of imprisonment, took the opposite point of view as the people who seek to "defend" his culture from the "colonialism" of western curiosity.  

In that same book Aurobindo explains how as human beings, we should expect things to mix and change, adapt and evolve (even the structure of religion) and he specifically states that we should not define ourselves by rigid dogmas and social frameworks. 

"The world moves through an indispensable interregnum of free thought and materialism to a new synthesis of religious thought and experience, a new religious world-life free from intolerance, yet full of faith and fervor, accepting all forms of religion because it has an unshakable faith in the One. The religion which embraces Science and faith, Theism, Christianity, Mahomedanism (Islam) and Buddhism and yet is none of these, is that to which the World-Spirit moves. In our own, which is the most skeptical and the most believing of all, the most skeptical because it has questioned and experimented the most, the most believing because it has the deepest experience and the most varied and positive spiritual knowledge, — that wider Hinduism which is not a dogma or combination of dogmas but a law of life, which is not a social framework but the spirit of a past and future social evolution, which rejects nothing but insists on testing and experiencing everything and when tested and experienced turning it to the soul’s uses, in this Hinduism we find the basis of the future world-religion. "

Again, here is a man who is stating that even after spending a good part of his life fighting for India and devoting himself to the practice of Yoga, he can see a day in which Hinduism mixes together with the other world religions to form something greater, what he call the "future world-religion".  Whether you agree with anything that Aurobindo actually believes is beside the point.  What's of interest is his stated openness that things change, that cultures mix, that ideas spread, and that this is a good thing.  

This is important because when practices such as yoga go through cultural translations such as is happening now, we should be forgiving in the variety of manifestations that may occur as well as be vigilant that the deep structures of what makes Yoga a spiritual practice, and not simply exercise, remain in place.  This is not an Indian problem or a Hindu problem.  This is a human problem.  As human beings we need to defend our good ideas.  We have to decide which ideas from the library of ancient practices are actually useful, and which are irrelevant.  Saying that an idea is 4,000 years old is not saying anything.  How is it operating in the people that are alive today?  Does it really make us less egocentric?  Does it really help us feel more connected?  Does it really provide us with contentment?

These are the questions that need to be asked, and they are questions no one culture can answer by itself.  They are questions that no one can adequately approach without actually experiencing them first hand.  This is why it is dangerous for people to restrict others from experiencing another culture's practice, regardless of the perfected form it has taken.  They are essentially denying people the right to experience and see for themselves.

Good ideas are for everyone, and they should not be held back.  I believe yoga is a good idea.  The claims it makes are straightforward and it asks that the claims be tested, not by people of authority, not by philosophers, or religious historians, but by every single person that decides to practice.  

Yoga seeks to show us the mechanics of our mind by having us examine our inner dialogue until we are convinced that this does not adequately define who we are.  It stretches our bodies so we can move with ease.  It hones our mind through concentration so we are able to give our full attention to the people around us.  It seeks to remind us, since we often forget, that we are bodies, splashing around in the shallow pools of culture, and that we are yet to see the ocean.

Refugee Regret

Paul owns shares in company A.  During the past year he considered switching to stock in company B, but he decided against it.  He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had switched to the stock of company B.

George owned shares in company B.  During the past year he switched to stock in company A.  He now learns that he would have been better off by $1,200 if he had kept his stock in company B.  

Who feels more regret?

The results are clear-cut: 8% of respondents say Paul, 92% say George.

This excerpt from the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is timely because I believe it plays a factor in how people are thinking about the Syrian refugee crisis.  

First of all, it's worth understanding why people view George's situation as more regretful than Paul's.  The answer is that when we make an active decision, such as transferring one stock to another, we feel more responsibility for the consequences of that decision.  The reason then that George feels more regret than Paul is not the outcome (they both lost $1,200) but that George actively did something (trade stock) and Paul did nothing.

Helping Syrian refugees is an active decision.  Being an active decision it opens leaders up to more regret if something bad were to happen as a result, such as accidentally letting a terrorist into the country and have people die because of it.  A passive decision, letting the situation continue to enfold without any interference, may also cause violence and death, but it is easier for leaders to distance themselves from being responsible for it.

Leaders are also aware of who they are responsible for.  A decision they make that shifts violence and death to people they are not responsible for, may be more enticing because by their inaction, of not accepting refugees, they can reason that they are making their population safer by removing the smallest chance that violence might occur, regardless of how it affects the overall world community.

Death by terrorism in the United States is statistically extremely low, but we are still talking about death, and so much like what motivates people playing the lottery, we overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events and overweigh them in our decision making process.  Someone has to win the lottery (1 in 175,223,510) just like an American has to be killed by terrorism (17 in 318,900,000 in 2011).  

The common reframe, "What if it was your son/daughter" is an example of this skewed outlook.  Everyone is expected to act as if they are the statistically unlucky person who loses a family member.  This is asking a group of 318,900,000 people to behave and make decisions as if the probability of an extremely rare event is equally likely for every one of them.  Needless to say, this makes for an irrational group of people.

The humane decision in this situation would be if we asked ourselves, "What can I do so the least amount of people suffer?"  Our political, as well as our biological system, is not so interested in this question.  We are biologically predisposed to care more about people that look like us, that share similar interests and that are closer in proximity.  Our political system is designed so that our leaders are prodded to care more about their respective populations than the overall outcome of human events.  How then can we overcome these obstacles to make the humane rational decision of easing the suffering of the greatest amount of people possible?  

There are no easy answers, but what I can offer is a way to reframe the issue.  Often it is assumed that putting highly emotional situations in numbers is dehumanizing, but I would say that in the refugee crisis, it could have the opposite effect.  Imagine these three scenarios:

  1. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Every country decides to put the safety of their respective populations over the lively hood of the refugees.  All 4 million people are turned back from every border.  Through the hardships of traveling as well as the costs of returning to a war zone 250,000 people die.
  2. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Some countries accept them, but only under strict screening.  This strict screening weeds out a few terrorists, but also denies refuge to 35,000 people that are not terrorists. The slowness of the process, as well as the rejection of 35,000 people, ends up causing 10,000 people to die.
  3. 4 million Syrian refugees flee their country.  Most countries accept them.  The screening process is thorough, but not so strict.  Most all of the 4 million people are let in, but unfortunately, a handful of them turn out to be terrorists and years later, through a coordinated attack, they end up killing 500 people.

If we care about the overall suffering of human beings, obviously the third choice is preferable, even if the number killed by terrorists is substantially higher.  The only way the second option makes sense is if you value American lives significantly more than Syrian lives.  Putting these situations in numbers makes people have to quantify exactly how many Syrians an American is worth.  If you are inclined to choose the second option, it is a question that should be uncomfortable to answer.

Impactful Intimacy and the Proportions of Power

How much responsibility does a parent have over their child's behavior?
How much responsibility does a baseball manager have over the performance of their 25 ball players?
How much responsibility does a CEO have over the performance of their 1,000 employees?
How much responsibility does a university president have over the behavior of the 25,000 students that go to school?
How much responsibility does a mayor have over the behavior of the 500,000 people that inhabit the city?
How much responsibility does the President of the United States have over the behavior of 318,900,000 Americans?

I would imagine that you answered these questions in descending magnitudes of responsibility, so that as the number of people increases, you are less likely to hold authority figures responsible.  I would also guess that you are more willing to hold a parent responsible for their child's behavior because you believe that the intimate relationship of a parent (1 to 1) holds more power than a baseball manager (1 to 25) or a CEO (1 to 1,000).  We might call this belief, "Impactful Intimacy" since it's implied that a closer degree of intimacy is associated with a greater ability to shape behavior and thus affect the future outcome of events.

Now take a look at these questions:

How much responsibility does a baseball manager have for the team's performance?
How much responsibility does a CEO have for the success of the company?
How much responsibility does the president have over the country's economic performance?

In these questions the collective actions of people are described as a singular entity (team, company, country).  It sounds much more likely that a CEO should bear responsibility for the performance of the company than to say that a CEO bears responsibility for the individual performances of all 1,000 employees, and yet they are essentially saying the same thing.  

While you may have answered the initial questions by choosing less and less responsibility as the numbers increased, typically people don't behave as if this were true.  When a baseball team is doing poorly it is common practice to fire the manager.  This same logic gets extended to CEO's of large companies, as well as to the President of the United States, such as in the case that when the economy is doing poorly, some people act as if the president is to blame.  If we are talking about the world economy, in which the United States takes part, we are holding a single individual responsible for the interactions of around 7 billion people.  Even though it is often stated that the US president is the "most powerful person in the world" it is unlikely he/she can have much effect on the overall performance and behavior of the 318,900,000 million Americans, much less the economy as a whole.

Recently in the news, the president of the University of Missouri is being held at least partially responsible for the actions of students on campus.  This can be framed in two ways.  The first is to say that the president is responsible for the cohesion of the student body, which sounds somewhat reasonable.  The second is to say that the president is responsible for the interrelations of 25,000 individuals, which sounds less reasonable.  This presents us with an interesting problem.  

When we are dealing with raw numbers, we may be less likely to hold leaders accountable for groups of individuals, and yet, when those same individuals are translated into concepts such as (team, company, country) we may be more likely to substitute the 1 to 1 intimate relationship that a parent has with a child, and so we assign the authority figure in those situations more responsibility over the outcomes, regardless of their ability to actually change the direction of future events.  The expression "student body" is an even further metaphoric reference to this effect, as it invokes the image of a singular human body in place of the 25,000 people that it is supposed to represent.

This substitution provides us with a concise narrative, one with easy to recognize characters, a clear path of causality, and a direct correlation to "who's responsible".  Instead of having to deal with 25,000 individual entities with their own desires, concerns and personalities, we simplify the situation by dealing with two characters, the student body and the president.  Unfortunately, this narrative may be more in service of providing us cognitive ease than in actually explaining what is happening. 

It seems when trying to determine authoritative responsibility, we are torn by two well founded conflicting fears.  The first is the fear of exploitation, that if we give our leaders the slightest rationale to avoid responsibility for their actions, they will use it to exploit us for their own personal gain.  The second is the fear of misperception, that by overestimating the effect our leaders actually have, we are failing to see the true causal nature of events, and thus, are doomed to an incoherent view of how the world actually works.   

As we find ourselves constructing narratives that have clear causal explanations for events that spring up, such as the conflict at the University of Missouri, we should stop and reflect upon how we are framing these problems.  This is much easier said then done.  I struggle with the same biases of judgement as everyone else.  It does help though to slow down and spend time mulling things over, writing about them or discussing them with friends.  We should be willing to take both views, to be able to look at the raw numbers as well as take into consideration the unifying concepts such as team, company and country, that provide human-like qualities to abstract entities.  Through this process I believe we can reach a more rational position of holding our leaders appropriately responsible, which should lead to more effective institutions and a better ability to gauge what is actually going on.

Experiential Explosions, Bad Vibes and Emotional Residue

The Alchemy of Turning Meaning into a Physical Substance

written by Jori Sackin

(Note:  This article deals with the belief of emotional residue and is written as a means to better understand it.  I am not writing with the intention to hurt anyone's feeling or to disparage ideas that people closely identify with.  It is merely a thought experiment which has helped me think through some of these important ideas in which we try and understand the world.  I've worked hard to present these ideas as clear as possible.  Please don't confuse the clarity I've tried to cultivate, with certainty.)

John owns a small hotel on the outskirts of town that he runs entirely by himself.  Unfortunately there is nothing John loves more than killing people and mutilating their bodies.  He hates watching people in pain though, so he devises a system where there is an air tight room in the hotel where he painlessly kills the person in their sleep by filling it with gas.  The victims are not aware of their death and do not suffer in any way.  Later he removes their bodies from the bedroom, takes the knives from the kitchen, goes down into the basement and mutilates the bodies in every way imaginable.  After John is done, he buries them in the back yard and cleans everything up.  After 10 years and countless murders, John dies in his sleep.  The police come, find nothing of interest and remove John's body.  The hotel is repossessed by the bank and is later sold to a couple who turns it into a swanky bed and breakfast.  They remodel all the rooms in the hotel, buy new sheets and paint the walls.  They decide to keep the kitchen knives though as they are immaculately taken care of and extremely expensive.

I present this scenario because I think it posses interesting questions about the mechanics of what some people call emotional residue, the belief that people's emotions leave traces in the physical environment which can later influence or be sensed by others.  This is quite different than meaningful residue which would be the emotional reaction you would have knowing the story I just told you and then walking around in the hotel.  Emotional residue is contingent upon you being able to sense something without any meaningful story attached.

The idea of emotional residue most likely stems from early beliefs in the contagious nature of magic which were summed up nicely by Sir James George Frazier in the Golden Bough (1889):

"If we analyze the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion."

So if a murder takes place in a room, there is a residue that is left behind, almost like an invisible ectoplasm, that acts as the contagious agent transferring the emotions that lie within it.  Questions that immediately arise are: Is the emotional residue that is created in spaces equivalent to emotional residue that is embedded in objects?  For instance, if there is emotional residue in the basement where people were mutilated, would there also be emotional residue in the knives themselves?  If this is true, then does the chef take on some of that emotional residue by using the knives everyday?  Is the food that is prepared with the knives infected, and likewise, does that infection transfer to the person that is ingesting the food?  The overarching question here is, "To what degree is emotional residue contagious?"   

What degree do you believe that emotional residue is contagious? Does it affect both objects and spaces with equal intensity? If a space or object is contaminated with emotional residue, does it ever degrade? If it does degrade, does it do so over time or does there need to be a counteracting force involved?

How you answer these questions may depend upon the metaphor you decide to use in trying to understand these unseen forces.  Often I hear people talk about these ideas as "vibes" or "energy".  Saying that an event has "residue" is different than saying that an event has caused "bad vibrations".  Residue can conceivably hang around forever.   An example would be buying a new book and peeling off the price tag only to leave a patch of sticky residue behind.  That residue is not coming off until you really work at cleaning it.

Vibrations, by their very nature, are temporary.  Vibrations are put into motion and then run out of energy and return to equilibrium, such as when you strike a bell.  The sound reverberates out, but then dissipates and returns to its previous state.  Emotional energetic vibrations then should have similar attributes.  They should eventually dissipate regardless of any action being taken towards it.  

I don't think you actual have to choose between these conceptions because they are actually parts of a coherent metaphorical structure: Negative Events are Explosions.  An explosion is dangerous, intense, has the ability to cause collateral damage, vibrates out from the initial release of energy and leaves a residue behind.  An explosion of violence is also dangerous, intense, might result in other people being hurt, causes emotional vibrations to ripple out from the act itself and leaves a meaningful residue behind, such that you will never think about the violent person the same again.

If we use this explosion metaphor as an understanding for the creation of emotional residue, then the question that perplexes me is, "What is the relationship between the residue and the initial event?"  It is common practice to investigate the aftermath of a bomb to try and glean information pertaining to the event that preceded it, and so there should be a similar process to try and understand the relationship of the residual emotional aftermath and the event itself.   In essence, what is the correlation between these two things?

At first it might seem like the residue should be reflective of the sum total of the emotions outputted.  So in a grisly murder, the pain and suffering that is experienced is embedded in the residue.  But given the scenario I presented in the beginning, this kind of explanation is unsatisfying.  The only emotions that were outputted where the joy of the killer doing something that he loves.  If residue is relational to the sum total of the emotional output then the residue that should be left after 10 years of murder and mutilation, is joy.

If residue is not relational to the emotional output then what is relational to it?  I have yet to come up with a satisfying answer, since the options seem to be choosing between subjective interpretations (I think this is bad and so it should have negative residue) to absolute energetic principles that do not take into consideration human interpretations, such as the laws of physics.

How do you understand the relationship between emotional residue and the event that caused it? Does it rely upon subjective interpretations of what is bad, or is it dependent upon universal laws that are unchanging?

Discrimination between types of residue seems to be another issue worth examining.  For example in the given scenario, where does the most negative emotional residue occur: the bedroom where the people were painlessly killed, the basement where their dead bodies were mutilated or the backyard where the bodies are buried?  Is there a difference between these residues that is discernible or are they all equally negative? 

Killing the victims seems to be a far worse crime, and yet it had the least amount of emotions involved, since the victim was not conscious and the killer was not present for the death.  There is something particularly disturbing about mutilation that might bother us and cause us to think there is greater negativity attached, especially when it happens in a dark underground basement.  We also might be inclined to believe there is something more sinister in the backyard, since the bodies are decomposing in secret; bodies that are the evidence of moral wrongdoing.

How you would explain the difference (if there is any) of emotional residue between the bedroom, the basement and the backyard? Is there a difference in intensity between these three places? What caused the intensity to change?

I am skeptical of the idea of emotional residue, but the mechanics of it fascinate me, and so I am genuinely interested in how people understand it.  It is an important topic to consider because while most Americans say they don't believe it, they behave as if they do (Savani K. 2011).  For instance a study by James Larsen and Joseph Coleman showed that, "houses where murder or suicide have occurred can take 50% longer to sell, and at an average of 2.4 percent less than comparable homes." In California a death on the property has to be disclosed, but only if it happened in the last 3 years, and in certain states houses with "stigmas" which include hauntings, murder/suicides, drug dealing, prostitution and debt, legally must be disclosed to the buyer.  There is even a map of stigmatized properties that lists the tragedy that happened within them.

In some cases, disclosing these stigmas might be perfectly reasonable.  There might be consequences for buying a former drug house since old clientele or angry competitors might show up on your doorstep.  In other cases you might not want to live with the knowledge that a woman committed suicide in your bathroom.  But for some people, this meaning is embedded in the physical structure of the house itself and needs to be dealt with in a physical way.  They do not want to be infected by the negativity and so they either avoid it or have to take positive action against it, such as burning sage or other cleansing rituals.

A powerful factor in the belief of emotional residue is a fear of contamination.  They do not want the negative energy to infect them and cause them harm.  This idea makes sense when linked with our behavior toward physical illness.  Essentially this metaphor takes the destructive explosiveness of a bomb and transfers it to a sneeze.  People cover their mouth because they know there are invisible germs that project out of them that leave a contagious residue wherever they go.  When we come in contact with someone who is ill, we avoid them, but even after they have gone, there are contagions left behind that are invisible to the naked eye, that need to be cleaned.

Emotions have similar qualities to viruses, in that, sometimes when we see someone cry, we feel sad.  When we see someone happy, it can make us happy.  Emotions can spread invisibly, such as weeping after thinking about a loved one's death.   It is not such a leap to conclude that if emotions are contagious like viruses, they can assume other qualities of viruses as well, such as the ability to leave a contagious invisible residue that also needs to be cleaned in order to be safe.  In both cases, with emotional meaning as well as germs, it presents two parallel responsive behaviors, avoidance and pro-active cleaning.

This idea of an invisible infectious world is reinforced in any number of ways.  A striking study published in Nature shows that chemicals in women's tears unconsciously affect men's testosterone levels as well as sexual arousal.  Human sweat also unconscioulsy relays information about individual identity, genetic relatedness, emotional states and health status.  So when we walk in a room and we feel something shift within us, it may be connected to the fact that our body is processing a lot more information from the outside environment than we are unaware of.  Some people might be more sensitive to these chemical signals and so they might be better at perceiving the physiological changes in their body, which they infer is due to positive/negative energies.

Another reinforcing factor is that we may be uncomfortable with the ephemeral nature of meaning, that the stories we create for ourselves and our loved ones, are simply imagined, somehow not real because they lack a physical manifestation.  To ease this anxiety, meaning takes on a physical form with physical properties that operate in the world.  The meaning of a murder can stay behind long after the murder has occurred, not just in the minds of people who remember, but in the actual physical substance of existence.  It is a comforting thought, in that, it eases the anxiety we have over our own death, of our complete absence from the world, since a residual history of events, much like a comet tail, survives and lives on in the concrete structures of the world. 

It also may be psychologically helpful to think of ephemeral emotions as physical substances, since it may help people process them in ways they otherwise couldn't.  If someone was dealing with the lose of a loved one, the ritual of "cleansing" a space of energy/residue might give them a physical process which could help them deal with the situation in a way they might not have access to by simply thinking or talking about it.  It is similar to the feeling of solidification that we get when a thought is finally said out loud.  It takes ephemeral meaning and puts it into sound that reverberates in the world.  Similarly, emotional residue takes the meaning and imbues it into objects/spaces that surround us, making it even more physical, more relatable, more real in a sense.  

A third reinforcement is the fact that we hold our lives in high value and if we perceive there is danger, we are better off being cautious. Even if it seems unlikely that spaces and objects hold on to residue that may be harmful, it probably doesn't hurt us much to operate as if this were true, just in case we are wrong.  That we cannot be absolutely certain whether emotional residue exists, may make people hedge their bets, especially when there is little cost in doing so.  Even if you don't logically believe in emotional residue, you might hesitate at buying a house where someone committed suicide, or picking up a knife that was used to murder people, just in case.

These reinforcing factors, coupled with the close associations we have between disease and emotions are the alchemical ingredients that may cause us to turn emotional meaning into physical substance.  

Can you think of any other reinforcing factors that could contribute to the belief that invisible physical agents are acting upon us?

The law of contagion, that "things that once have been in contact with each other continue to work on one another", may or may not be true in the physical sense, but in the world of meaning, it is a keen insight into its very nature. Meaning is contagious.  It is ephemeral.  It seeks to be made physical so as to become real.  

The Theory of Social Contagion makes similar claims about the contagious nature of meaning.  A good deal of empirical research in the social sciences shows that "affect, attitudes, beliefs and behaviour can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious."  (Marsden, 1988)  This is essentially admitting to a loss of control over who we are, in that, through mere exposure, we are to some degree contaminated.  This calls upon similar behavioral approaches that we take toward illness, avoidance and pro-active cleaning of unwanted beliefs and emotions.  That this cleansing process is made physical suggests that these rituals we engage in, whether meaningful, spiritual or physical, are important processes that may help us deal with the loss of our own agency in relation to the larger social dynamics that surround us.  

Two paths emerge in talking about this subject.  The first, which I explored in the beginning is "In what sense is this belief true?"  This leads us to examine the mechanics of such a belief and how it could physically operate.  A second would be "To what extent does such a belief help us deal with the fact that in many ways, we are not in control of our own experience?"  This is quite different, in that, it would examine how the belief operates in relationship to what it seeks to resolve, our inability to control our emotional meaningful selves as we navigate our place in the world.

In one sense you could see how it could be helpful, such as the reasons that I stated above.  In another you could see the psychological damage that could be caused by viewing the world as filled with contagious diseases that either need to be avoided or cleansed.  

In what ways do you think such a belief is helpful? In what ways could it hurt someone?

It is at this point that most people interested in metaphor might offer a way to reframe the issue, such as offering another conceptual system that presents us with a different outlook.  This is actually already happening on its own, as we can see with the growing populating of The Law of Attraction.  This idea takes everything I've written in relationship to contagion and transfers it to the power of magnetism.  

This metaphoric reframing does not focus so much on avoidance and cleanliness, but rather on attitude.  A positive attitude attracts positivity.  A negative attitude attracts negativity.  This stance may relieve the problems of looking at negativity as disease, but it manifests problems that may be even worse, such as it logically follows that if negative things are happening in your life, it is not because of bad luck or other factors, it is because you caused them to happen since you are a negative person.  The amount of control it claims that people have over their experience then places a great deal of responsibility for the outcomes of their lives squarely on their shoulders.  Essentially bad things don't happen to good people. They only happen to negative people who have manifested them in their lives.  

It is because of issues such as this that I am not going to offer a metaphorical reframing, rather I would conclude that the best way to approach such a problem is to research and understand it more, so that, these metaphors lose some of their power.  The more you extrapolate the metaphors, the more you will realize that, while they do coherently describe a part of what is going on, they fail in their ability to describe everything and cannot be the way things actually work.  In gaining greater knowledge of these topics, in thinking through some of the more complex issues, in seeking clarity over the ambiguity that some of these ideas present, we can temporarily free ourselves from the power that these concepts play in our lives.

If you find this article to not adequately express what you believe, or feel it has reduced or overly simplified your beliefs, please extrapolate and give me a more complex metaphorical description of how it operates in the world.

The Casual Rhythm of Lying

It was Friday.  I had taken the day off and had little to do but lay in bed and worry about what was going on at work without me.  I was antsy not doing anything, so I decided to take a walk and buy some boxers.  As I put my shoes on, I winced at the thought of spending my day off buying underwear.  I mean, there is really nothing more mundane in life then going to buy underwear in the middle of the afternoon, but I had needed them for awhile and it was a pleasant walk that took me through Gilham Park, past the Nelson and into the Plaza.  

At the store I examined the wide selection of stripes, checks and polka dots then picked out four pair.  The young woman at the counter wrung me up and placed them in a shiny blue bag.  I walked back with the bag the same way I had come, holding it by the strings as it casually bounced against my leg.

By the time I got to Gilham park I had given up on holding the bag by its string and was clutching the actual plastic making it look much smaller.  I looked at my phone.  12:01.  
There was a middle aged woman sitting on a bench smiling at me as I walked toward her.
"Lunch time?" she asked rather buoyantly.
I smiled and responded "Oh yeah," trying to match her upbeat tone.  
I was now walking past the bench where she sat.
"Did your wife pack your lunch?"
In a split second I realized that she had assumed that the blue bag I was carrying was my lunch.  Not wanting to stop and explain things I suddenly found myself answering, "Yes."
"What did she pack you?"
I struggled for another second and then replied "A sandwich."  
I was now moving away from her to the point I had to look back to answer.
"Are you eating your lunch in the park?" she joyfully asked with anticipation.
I was now much further away, but still could recognize the happiness this question seemed to bring her, and so I answered, "Yes."
"That's the way to do it!" she said beaming and gave me a big thumbs up.
I returned the smile and continued to walk on.  The whole exchange took about 20 seconds, but as I walked, I contemplated each step of it and tried to make sense of how so easily she had have turned me into such a liar.

She initially asked a question that was relatively straightforward.  'Is it lunch time?'  I had primed myself by looking at my watch to answer the question literally.  It was noon. People eat lunch at noon.  It was lunch time.  In doing so I committed myself to a statement that meant two different things to two different people.  In my mind it meant the time of day and in her mind it meant 'my lunch time'.  

We both made a number of assumptions in a matter of seconds.  Not only did she assume I was eating lunch, possibly taking off work from my job she assumed that I had, but that I had a wife who was nice enough to pack my lunch for me.  And she did this all so ecstatically.  She pulled me in with her buoyant jubilation.  She was happy to engage me in conversation, more happy that it was lunch time and even more happy that my wife had packed my lunch.  

The next question, "What did she pack you?" strained something inside me.  My first decision had been to pasively let the misunderstanding go uncorrected, but now I had to do actual cognitive work.  Now I had to creatively imagine an answer for what my imaginary lunch should be, and for some reason I answered, "A sandwich."   

I think I did this for a number of reasons, or rather, I think there were 5 specific pressures that pushed me toward this answer.  I don't feel as if I chose to say "a sandwich".  Rather, it just kind of came out, almost as if I was eavesdropping on someone else's conversation.

So the first pressure involved here is that I did not want to do any cognitive work.  I just didn't want to think about this that hard.  Throughout the exchange I was looking for the easiest answer that had the least amount of effort behind it. This path of least resistance led me to lie, because it was so much easier than having to go back through and properly explain what had actually happened.

There was the pressure of maintaining pleasant conversational rhythm, which is partly a time constraint problem.  Just like musical notes must fall on beat, a reply to a question has a certain response time that when drawn out feels as if it builds pressure.  To alleviate this pressure all anyone has to do is come up with an answer, regardless of whether it is true or not.  A misplaced note is then somehow better than the enduring absence of any note at all.

There was a compounded time pressure in that I was an object in motion moving away from an object at rest.  I knew given my trajectory down the path that I had a small window of time to actually engage with this person.  Given that small amount of time I tried to keep my answers short, as my motion took precedence over having a more in-depth exchange.  I had no particular place to be, but for some reason, in that moment, I felt compelled to not stop moving, and so my answers to her questions were constrained.

Because the exchange seemed rather minor, and the stakes were rather low, I didn't especially want to sort out with this woman what the truth of the situation really was.  The value that I put on this exchange (minor) affected the way I handled it.  Had I given it an importance of (major) I might've responded much differently.  The fact that I thought of it as unimportant then informed how much work I was going to put towards this, which we have already established was low.  I probably wasn't going to ever see this woman again, and this brief exchange probably wasn't going to have any great impact on either of our lives.  An assumption, I know, but one I felt confident in making at the time.

Finally, there was the pressure that I consciously saw that my answers were making her happy.  Each time I answered it seemed to please her more and more and the final answer to her question of whether I was eating in the park was answered with a "thumbs up".  Because she so visibly expressed a certain amount of joy at my answers, I was pulled along with the thought that agreeing with her is the best possible path.  It made her genuinely happy to believe that a man took some time out of his day to eat lunch in the park, and on top of that, a lunch that his wife had packed him.  That seemed to validate some desires she had about how things were supposed to work, as is evidence in her expression, "That's the way to do it!"  There was obviously some kind of romantic connotation to be eating lunch in the park, and as she was also in the park in the middle of the day sitting on a bench, it might've been a connection that she formed with me however briefly, something like "Here's another person that enjoys the beauty of parks!" 

She was also being made happy by my answers because I was continually affirming her intuitions.  It made her happy to think that she could not only understand the world, but was able to predict small things before she had adequate knowledge of them.  I affirmed her intuition that I had a lunch in my bag, that I had a wife who packed it, and that I was eating it in the park.  All three instances, caused a little bit of joy, because it validated her assumptions, and it gave her the tiny pleasure of being right.

I thought about this exchange for a long time after it had happened and wondered whether I had done the right thing, and also, whether I had any choice in the matter.  Did I at any point have a conscious will that could've intervened and decided to divert this exchange down a different path?  If I did, then I didn't see it.  Not in this situation.  Perhaps if the stakes were higher, if I had given it a higher value, I would've taken a more conscious approach to my answers and strained against my initial intuitions.  Maybe.  I don't know.