Intellect and Beliefs

A recent experience got me down and I thought maybe I’d write about it.  I am not sure what to conclude, but sometimes it feels good to just write things out.  A person who I considered somewhat of a friend or at least a good acquaintance from grad school reconnected with me at a conference last year.  He was a Ph.D. student while I was doing my Masters and he was very friendly and seemed to me very smart.  So when he friended me on Facebook I was a bit excited since he seemed like he would be a good person to get into discussions with and that he would post interesting things.   But as I started to see him pop up on my news feed he would often post things that seemed to me that he already believed an answer, but claimed he wanted to know what other people thought, but if you didn’t think what he thought he would still think he was right even if he wouldn’t explicitly say it.  He would comment on statuses that I posted if I criticized A then he would say, how can you criticize A when you don’t criticize B.  The simple answer being that sometimes I did complain about B but he didn’t see it, or I would complain about B if I knew about it, but also that I have a limited amount of things that I have the passion for fighting against and this is simply what I’ve chosen.  Over time I came to realize that he was pretty religious, was against gay marriage, and although more compassionate that perhaps some evangelicals, he certainly had no tolerance for a pro-choice point of view, though planned parenthood was evil, and that men are much more oppressed in our society than women.  And while I agree that inequality towards men is often overlooked in favor to women’s issues, for him the balance seemed to swing the other way and that we lived in a society that favored women.  We ended up arguing about most things and while he would complain about how everybody always argues using ad hominem attacks instead of discussing the issue he would frequently use language to me like “You really believe that?”, “Are you serious?” and other phrases that were clearly mocking what I felt to be true as so ridiculous that he couldn’t believe an educated person would think that way.  And to be honest I felt the same way, but would never debate like that (although I did finally get a bit snippy in retort after enough of those kinds of statements).  The final straw that led to me just unfriending him was over the Syria situation when I posted a status and talked about how we and the west have benefited so much from the cheap oil to run our economies from that region of the world and how, especially the UK and the US have actively tried to keep that area unstable to maintain control of the oil that to not help the refugees was hypocritical.  He responded by saying we didn’t cause fundamentalism, we didn’t cause ISIS, and a bunch of other things.  I thought about responding, because there is a lot of evidence that we did cause ISIS, and that by keeping the area impoverished and without a stable governments, without the ability to nationalize their own oil reserves we have kept those countries in a state of poverty and fundamentalism tends to flourish in such regions.

But what I really want to talk about is how such a person really made me doubt myself.  I have experienced it before where someone whose intellect you admire (and maybe this guy simply changed over the years) and then all of a sudden starts making you feel like an idiot and you really believe them.  It makes you doubt yourself down to the very core and its troubling, and it hurts when someone you respected as a person belittles you.  But then I had to start questioning that feeling of doubt and hurt.  Knowing that we rationalize our beliefs and that if someone tries to challenge them in a very serious way we can often react defensively to not have such beliefs destroyed.  This person has, like me, a Ph.D. in meteorology and it’s applied math and physics and is no cake walk.  Was he the objective scientist and I was biased and belief based?  I don’t think that I am, but what if I simply believe that I am the type of person who is willing to change their mind about things given evidence, but really I’m not.  Ultimately it seems that the type of person I see myself as, might also be a belief.
Then I started to worry more that I was insulating myself intellectually.  Over the past 5 years I have had less tolerance to engage with people who didn’t to at least some degree share my worldview or who had a worldview that I respected even if it wasn’t my own.  It seems to me that such engagements had little value but to drain my energy.  Either the debate was one I have had many times before and was simply repetitive, or the possibility exists that I do not have the language skills to effectively get my points across because the exchange seems to go nowhere.  My intellect however would recognize common logical fallacies that they would use and there was only so much I could take before I just decided that this person wasn’t someone I should continue engaging with.  And I’ve started to feel as I age that life is too short now to surround myself with people who only anger and frustrate me and simply surround myself with those who give me positive energy.  But as a person who wants to grow intellectually and not hide from perspectives different from my own, how do I do that and still maintain my sanity in a world that seems fraught with so many people who don’t seem to think critically?  And is my desire to think critically fading as I age where my focus seems to be shifting to seek comfort and joy over the type of adversity that helps the intellect grow?

Had this former fellow student of mine been someone I did not know I probably would have shut them out awhile ago as I recognized their arguments were never steeped in evidence, but simply asserted with strong language.  Followed by an expectation for you to give evidence if you disagreed even though none was offered to you in the first place.  Such tactics are the hallmark of belief based thinking.  When we have attachments to people and when we respect their intellect it’s hard not to take them seriously.  The words sink deeper into you and shake you up regardless of their truth.  And I do have friends that disagree with me on big issues, but when we discuss them the language feels much more like mutual respect for each other, and so maybe in the this guy was just a giant asshole, and only my admiration of him from the past blinded me from seeing it for too long.  I’d like to believe that I stuck it out longer than I normally would have and gave him the benefit of the doubt.  I guess though, part of me still stuck on the idea that perhaps I’m protecting my worldview because I don’t want to change it.

Of course when I analyze my worldview I don’t see it as a bad one.  But I’m sure all people feel that way.  I do continue to read and learn, even if it is something that I don’t agree with.  In the end I guess I’ve decided that however I decide to keep my social circle, I am at the very least a person who looks to reduce the harm and suffering of my fellow humans in this world and I only hope that this drive continues to help me be the person I want to be.  And maybe it’s most important to recognize that the intellect does not always dictate beliefs and that these come from more of an emotional place.  And so maybe doing things that keep me emotionally healthy is just as important as that which keeps my intellect healthy.

What Makes A Good Human?: Love

My second quality for what makes a good human comes as no surprise to anyone.  Who doesn’t like love?  Who doesn’t want love?  Is this a quality I really have to try at? Is this something that I have to be vigilant about?  The word love tends to conjure up images romance and being in love.  But anybody who has thought about love for any length of time knows that romantic love is really just one aspect of love.  In fact I would argue that your ability to romantically love someone has little to do (at least in a direct sense) with your ability to be a good human.  We all have the capacity for love and this wonderful human trait gives rise to many of other ideals and qualities that make the world a better place.

If you’ve tried to define love before, most likely you’ve had difficulty.  Music, poetry, art have all had their attempts, and one could argue that through the medium of the arts one might be more successful. Love, like art, is often open to some degree of interpretation and means different things to different people.  While neuroscience has made a lot of headway in look at love and attachment as a biological drive, I want to go back to older Socratic definition of love that separates love into four categories.

  1. Eros – Romantic love
  2. Storge – Familial love
  3. Philia – “Brotherly love”, or the love between friends
  4. Agape – Love of humanity

So in terms of having the quality of love, I assert that every one of these is important to both ourselves and others on a variety of scales.  Think how much happiness all these types of love can bring, both in loving others and feeling that love towards you.  Now from a biological level storge, and philia are shown to both to be important drives in our brain, with eros still up for debate, but at the very least eros is a secondary drive that helps give us the attachment and friendship to a possible mate.  And it is our capacity to love that I believe gives us agape as an emergent property that can extend to all humanity.  It should also be noted that most of us learn first about love from the familial love.  How our parents love each other and love us.  This, perhaps, makes storge the most important in giving us a healthy sense of what loving each other is really about.  And since loving is learned, it should also be noted that there are those who adopt and raise children that are not their own that do wonderful jobs, so the biological connection of family need not be there for familial love to be shown to children.  In fact one of the strongest cross-cultural morals we have is protecting children from harm, so it’s not surprising that love and bonding can occur between adults and children who are not their own.

Love, at least to me, is the best cure we have for suffering, whether it is suffering from sickness, poverty, fear, depression or any other situation that causes harm and pain.  When you love you have a desire to stop another’s suffering.  Thus love leads us to both compassion and empathy.  Ultimately I find that our capacity to love motivates us to do so in the best way we know how.  I would also argue that love without feelings of compassion and empathy is pointless.  It’s insincere and unhealthy and can sometimes be destructive, because then you are just loving for your own sake and not because you truly care about the other person.  Perhaps that really isn’t love at all.

Now love as a verb can be tricky.  Above I said “the best way we know how” and this can often lead to honest attempts at love that are ineffective.  Sometimes loving someone is staying close, sometimes loving someone means to let them go, sometimes loving someone is being tough and unyielding.  At this point I’d rather not get into a discussion about how best to love, because when we talk about all the other qualities that will be discussed in this series, I believe the answers about how best to love someone reveal themselves. So knowing how best to love someone is another part of what makes love so difficult to define. However, I believe that love is love, it’s just that the ways in which we can experience love, show love and give love are far too numerous to list.

Biologically we are a social species that operates on reciprocal altruism.  Love is therefore the primary way in which we build attachments to each other for our long term survival, both for reproduction and bonding.  Thus the idea that there is no unselfish act is somewhat true as a whole.  However, we are not always so shallow that we expect kindness to be repaid right away, In general if we love, and show kindness and caring to others they will hopefully love us and thus want to do the same for us when we are in need.  In a broader sense, our ability to love tells us that we survive better when we cooperate, and your motivation for cooperation is increased by the love you feel for those in your group.

The downside of reciprocal altruism is that it makes love mostly beneficial for those in your immediate circle.  Loving humanity as a whole becomes a somewhat abstract extension of our ability to love those closest to us.  Showing love to humanity may involve acts of charity, but how do we know that we are helping?  We are used to having love returned when we show it, so how does humanity give back to us?  Trying to better humanity as a whole is also an extremely slow process. The impact you may have may not be felt until beyond your lifetime. The problems of humanity are large and it takes great momentum to affect change that no individual person can do on their own.  Even great people like Gandhi And Martin Luther King, Jr. needed the support of the people.  In this way acts of kindness and charity for the greater good may be the most unselfish acts other than it give you a sense of well-being and happiness.  But just because loving humanity as a whole is more abstract, and can feel like we are just adding a drop to the ocean, it does not excuse us from the fact that it is more moral for us to love humanity.  To move from the abstract to the tangible one has to remember that empathy and compassion also have an intellectual side that must be fed.  I will address this more in another part of the series, but for now remember the following:

  • All humans are of the same species.
  • The biggest factor in why you are what you are has much more to do with where you were born and the circumstances you were born in than any inherent ability you have (or think you have).
  • Any race or gender put into the same set of circumstances will produce similar outcomes.

Therefore when we feel empathy for those suffering that we can see, feel, hear, etc it takes little imagination to determine that even those beyond our senses suffer in the same way and that doing something to alleviate the suffering of others is the moral thing to do.  One of the chief ways to morally justify inflicting pain and suffering on others is to dehumanize them.  Getting people to believe that another group of people are not of the same species lessens our empathy, therefore, logically, dehumanizing is immoral.

If love has a darker side it is only perhaps to let it envelop you to the point of not paying attention to anything else.  The oft portrayed young couple in TV shows or movies who give no thought to other things claiming they can “live off love” are ridiculed for a reason.  We’d like to believe that John Lennon was right and that “love is all you need”, but anybody past about 30 years of age knows that’s a crock.  The world can be a shitty place, and love can be hard to muster at times, and so life has to be full of other things as well that are fulfilling and happy.  Love can also be unhealthy when we direct it towards inanimate objects.  We’ve all met people who love money too much, their car, sports teams, drugs, other material goods, etc.  While love shouldn’t be predicated on whether it can be returned, it should at least have the potential to be returned.  Pouring love into things that cannot feel your love, or return your love might be okay for a light hobby, but should never take a backseat to the suffering of the living. Perhaps the common theme to the darker side of love is obsession.  Obsessions usually don’t serve one well in the long run.

It could easily be argued that love is the most important of any virtue, and given how much of our lives are spent looking for it, maintaining it, and grieving over it, it’s probably true.  Nevertheless I hope to convince you with this series that there is more to life than love and there are many things we can do to be better at love.  I encourage you all to celebrate love and show love as often as you can, and keep striving to diversify the ways in which you add love to the world.