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?: Curiosity

If you’ve been reading so far, you might not be convinced with vigilance or play as being important and that love does not conquer all.  As I said, my goal here is not to make any one quality more important than the other, and I hope with this topic I will convince you that life isn’t all about love.

As natural as our capacity to love, is our inherent curiosity about the world.  If you’ve had children, and hopefully paid attention to them, one of the first things you will notice about them is how curious they are.  From simply being curious about who you are when they start seeing 6 inches beyond their face, to be curious about what this thing called a hand is, to starting to interact and test objects out as they begin to grasp them.  They want to explore, they experiment with sounds, they like to watch things fall, taste different things, and they learn by watching you and then imitating.  Curiosity is learning.  The reason why I call this curiosity over learning is that when you say learning people tend to think of book learning or school learning, but learning is far more than that.  And sadly in my experience our education system today tends to squash a child’s natural curiosity in favor of more directed learning for the purposes of getting funding for the school and for you to supposedly get a good paying job.  I remember one time I gave a talk on tornado safety to a group of 2nd graders, I did not even get to start my presentation before a bunch of little hands went up to ask questions.  A lot of them were nonsensical but I loved it all, because it was clear that they were curious and questions seemed to just burst out of them.  In retrospect I was simply not prepared for that level of curiosity.  At the university level I can go through an entire lecture without 1 in a 100 students raising their hand to ask a question about how things work.  Curiosity is an important natural trait that  forces us to ask questions to ourselves and others.  As a society we need to make sure we foster this trait and not suppress it.

As a professor I have been in school for almost my entire life either as a student or a teacher; 37/41 years to be exact.  Obviously I love it, because I love to learn, but I’m not so institutionalized to believe that this is where I’ve done the entirety of my learning.  Now I know there are all sorts of great texts and books written about learning and how we learn, but I don’t want to expound too much on things you can read elsewhere, but I’d rather focus on why learning is important and the different ways we can feed our curiosity.

One important type of learning is purely experiential.  This is the type of learning that leads to wisdom.  Regardless of how much knowledge you accumulate in your head until you actually apply it, you can only understand it really in a theoretical way.  By actively experiencing something through our senses  And of course we can continue this sort of learning throughout our lives through doing.  Whether through learning different hands on skills, trying new foods and cooking new recipes, learning to play an instrument and listening to new music, and traveling.

Now I’d like to spend a little bit more time on traveling.  Certainly traveling to things like museums or traveling to any sort of wonder of nature can be a learning experience.  It can be very fulfilling in the additional for the additional sensory input you gain,  but in some ways is very similar to book learning.  I speak very personally here, but I believe traveling to places different from your everyday world is a very important learning experience. Traveling to a different country is the best way to understand what different societies, cultures and people are like.  There is learning about people of different faiths, different values, and different perspectives.  Curiosity drives us to explore the world, and the world has more to teach you than you think.

In my blog post about love in this series, I talked about how empathy needs to be fed.  Empathy can be broken up into two categories (as illustrated by this great video) into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  Affective empathy is the compassion we feel when we observe the suffering from another.  Cognitive empathy however is the empathy we gain through learning about others, putting ourselves in their situation, and trying to see something from their perspective.  Something the world could surely use more of.  It is this type of empathy that we can develop through being curious about others regardless of whether they are close to home or far away.  The important thing is to try and know a diverse group of people.   If we can understand someone else’s troubles, pains, and/or suffering, even without going through it ourselves, we are more likely to want to help raise those people up than to allow a situation to continue that harms them.  Many times we are responsible for that harm without even realizing it.  I find it interesting how many politicians change their stance on homosexuality upon finding out that their son or daughter has come out as gay.  The more we intimately know someone the less likely we are to do any action that causes them harm.  How our actions cause harm is the basis of morality.  Thus, actively learning about others makes for a more moral society.

Curiosity also allows us to build our intellect.  For most of us we have done this formally for many years.  Intellectual pursuits, with the exception of those with a clear goal of what they want to achieve in life, often don’t seem to have much value in our day to day lives.  The oft heard complaint, “when am I ever going to use this” speaks to this disconnect between what we learn and what use every day.  Given the wide variety of interests amongst individuals it is unlikely that any one person will feel that everything they are learning has value.  The learning of knowledge, however, is always teaching you one important lesson.  And that’s how to learn.  The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to learn new things.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  It would be nearly impossible to determine a set of knowledge that was important for everybody.  It may also be true that the purpose of school is also to introduce you to things that you don’t know anything about, but might be important to you, that might inspire you and turn into a passion.  The large accumulation of knowledge through human history also means that most of the first things you will learn our foundational and must be built upon to realize their application and use.  Thus diligence plays an important role in learning.

In terms of what knowledge you should learn, in general a breadth of knowledge is best.  Regardless of what your passion might be, it is clear for a democracy to truly be successful it requires people to be knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. But even beyond its value in politics, life is never really about one thing.  One of the ways that you connect with people you meet is by having the knowledge to understand the basics of their interests which would allow you to ask better questions.  When we let our curious nature, then people notice the genuine interest you have for the knowledge base that they have which makes people feel closer and may cause them to become curious about you.  Many academic fields are focusing on interdisciplinary research, because as knowledge has advanced we see how many other areas of study the problems we face include.  For instance take a look at something like climate change.  The scientific basis itself requires knowledge of physics, meteorology, geology, oceanography, geography, biology, and statistics.  Then if we want to act on the issue of climate change we need to understand things like economics, communications, commerce, law, education, emergency management, etc.  Of course one can’t know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. 🙂

Is there a dark side to curiosity? I honestly don’t see much of a downside to always being curious.  The only thing that comes to mind is the expanded ego that might come from knowing a lot of things in comparison with others.  The battle against such conceit is dealt with in the next post in this series.

The most important thing to remember is that time spent learning is never wasted and you should never stop.  There are a variety ways we can learn, there is a multitude of people and knowledge to learn from, and it is the best way to continue to grow in an ever changing world.  Being curious is a perfectly natural drive from the day we are born and it requires only an effort of maintenance than an effort in development.  Adults I meet who have that same thirst for knowledge as those 7 year olds in the 2nd grade are always some of the most thoughtful, and enjoyable people to be around.  The best part of traveling on that road of knowledge is that single roads branch in many directions and you never know where you might end up.