Life Within the Synapse

Radio clicks on at 5:15,
NPR, mid interview.
The guest is saying “It’s a matter
Of chemistry and not character.”
Jolted alert, I know this truth.

Dopamine,
Serotonin,
Norepinephrine,
—Gamma
——Amino
———Butyric
————Acid.

Synaptic-cleft dwellers
Controlling mood and rhythm
Through their balancing tricks,
Grim clowns spinning
Plates on a high wire.

One moment at peace, composed,
Secure. The next
Sad, angry, anxious as those
Chemical Devils run
Amok through the
Neuronic jungle of my mind.

The Hoax of Trump

Listen. Donald Trump is a Hoax. There is nothing to fear as we march on to greatness, greatness intended, by God!, for you and for me and the USA.

We all know that socio-political upheavals have occurred in the past and have worked out just fine in the end. There is nothing unnatural about any of what’s happening.

Please understand the perpetrators of the Hoax of Trump are whiny Liberal do-gooders who just want more free stuff like clean water, adequate healthcare, a healthful environment, clean energy, social justice, reproductive rights, and a whole slew of other job-killing things that hold us back.

Or maybe the perpetrator is Russia, who really wants to use Mr. Trump to help make Russia great again. I’m not sure which, and I don’t care. And you shouldn’t care either.

So listen up, all you Trump alarmists! Fix yourselves a veggie burger and a cup of mint tea. Then sit back and relax as greatness envelops us all. These are exciting times indeed!

(I do confess a little concern about one trifling detail: my Constitutionally Guaranteed First Amendment Right to say what I want without fear of retribution. But I shouldn’t worry, because I know, in my heart, that Donald Trump is just as concerned about it as I am. I take solace in that!)

What Is True

truth, that little weasel,
scampers ahead, just
out of reach, when the

only true thing I
know right now is I am
writing this verse, but

once written, these
poor lines will be no more
true than yesterday.

The Power and Fallacy of Belief and Our New Civil War

battle_of_franklin_november_30_1864
Battle of Franklin, Nov. 30, 1864. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

With all the disinformation, fake news, innuendo as fact, and lies gone unchallenged, it’s been difficult to get a grasp of anything close to truth during the past campaign for president and post-election. This onslaught of propaganda has rendered truth irrelevant, further cementing Red-Team beliefs and Blue-Team beliefs as well. Belief is a Kevlar vest against sharp attacks of disagreeable facts. And it’s an armor-piercing bullet, a weapon of force and power.

It’s been difficult for me to disentangle what I read in the news from both camps and make of sense this of war of beliefs between the Reds and the Blues. To help me put things into perspective I reached back in history to an era where the destructive forces of belief split the nation.

We all know of the Civil War, the War Between the States, between North and South, between the Blue and the Gray. Although I think even today some would deny it, the root of this war was slavery.

Slavery was the way of life in the South. It was as natural as magnolia blossoms. It’s mentioned many times in the Bible and not unfavorably. Belief held that God approved of slavery, endorsed slavery. It was right and good. Moreover, it was a necessary duty. Such was the belief that made slavery possible, thus making it possible for those upright people of Southern gentility to sleep well at night and with a clear conscience.

Ah, but those in the North, those abolitionists, believed slavery was an abomination. It could not be possible for a good and gracious God to condone slavery. Slavery was evil and it must end.

So here we have two strongly held and conflicting beliefs. Some 500,000 people died for those beliefs. Those conflicting beliefs ripped families apart. Those conflicting beliefs wrecked the Southern economy.

Such is the power of belief.

But who was right? Where lay truth?

Did Northern victory prove that God abhorred slavery? If so, all those Southerners held wrong beliefs about God and a few other things, too. Or could it be that God got whupped along with the true believers? If that’s the case, then Satan, not God, stood behind Northern victory. And, hell yeah, the South will rise again!

Or maybe, just maybe, God had no opinion of slavery or the war, for that matter. If so, the South used God as an excuse for deplorable behavior (not at all uncommon, don’t you agree?).

Such is the fallacy of belief.

So what do you believe? Is slavery right or wrong? Was God with the Gray Team or the Blue Team? Or nowhere to be found? Is belief the same as truth, or is truth independent of belief?

And here’s another bit of perspective-putting: Abraham Lincoln, that good and deliberative man so determined to keep the union together, was despised by half the country for what he believed.

Now take this perspective on truth and belief, pop it into this very day, and make of it what you will.

On Teaching Children How to Think or What to Think

This showed up one day on my Facebook newsfeed. It’s among the thousands of catchy image quotes that friends like to share. I found one attribution to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Although I couldn’t verify the quote anywhere else, it does seem consistent with other things I’ve read about her.

Teaching children how to think seems a fine idea, don’t you agree? But what does that mean, really? What teachers themselves know how to think? Who are the teachers who know how to teach children how to think? What does “how to think” mean in the first place? 

Most children’s first teachers are their parents. And most first-time parents are, themselves, very young when they have children. Child-rearing is an occupation undertaken with “no experience necessary,” including experience in teaching anything, let alone thinking skills. From my own parental experience, I know that much of what I taught my children—if not explicitly, then implicitly—came from what I learned from my parents. 

“How to think” was not part of my growing-up curriculum. “What to think,” however, was—not only at home but at school. Some things I learned as matters of fact include: the United States is the best country in the world, and good Catholics go to heaven (and, at best, Purgatory for the rest of you). Only later, when I was able to look at these two “givens” objectively—through my own reasoning—was I able to come to different conclusions.

“How to think” implies using reason and logic to analyze information or situations in search of understanding or other desirable outcomes. And that implies the need for a well-rounded education—not necessarily a college degree, but at least some exposure to a variety of topics and disciplines (e.g., history, humanities, physical sciences, civics and political science, religion, etc.) Part of that education comes from exploration and experimentation—whether physically, mentally, or spiritually. In other words, a variety of diverse life experiences. How can you evaluate something without having something else to measure against? 

Also important is an understanding of (or just recognizing) the many biases and fallacies people fall prey to without even knowing it. Salesmen, advertisers, politicians, preachers, and other persuaders are expert in using these to get what they want: which is to convince you it’s what you want too. To me, knowing how to think seems a valuable asset and survival tool (unless you’re living in 1984).

As beneficial as this may seem, however, critical thinking—and the education that fosters it—may be at odds with the Judeo-Christian ethic and core narrative of our country. Both of these are matters of faith, and faith definitely falls into the “what to think” category. 

Martin Luther, the rebellious Catholic priest and principal of the Protestant Reformation, said:

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but—more frequently than not—struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God. 

The definition of reason is: “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” Reason is dangerous because those who know how to use it may come to different conclusions about things that were once accepted as matters of faith and fact and “because I said so.” 

Animosity to reason is alive even today, at least in some parts of the country. Built into the 2012 Texas Republican Party platform is this statement:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. 

So not everyone believes teaching children how to think is a good idea. “What to think”—e.g., fixed beliefs firmly instilled by one’s parents—is the order of the day here. By objecting to this, I don’t mean to imply that we should raise little anarchists without any respect for authority. I believe in teaching respect, especially respect for one’s parents and teachers. But that respect should be founded on love and wisdom and not on fear and guilt. And parents should have enough respect for their children to teach them how to make their own decisions, develop their own consciences, and form their own opinions.

Someone else who doesn’t appreciate the value of education is Karl Rove, who said:

As people do better, they start voting like Republicans…unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.

On second thought, he may appreciate the value of education very much. Apparently, a well-educated and thoughtful electorate is something to fear.

Please take the poll, and leave your reasoning in the comments section if you’re so inclined.

 

Thinking Within the Shadows

Philly Thinker

Sometimes I’ll push away from my desk, rise to my feet, and take step a or two only to pause as though I’d forgotten where I’m headed. The older I get the truer it is I’ve forgotten my immediate intention. But most of the time when I pause in mid step it’s something else. If Robin’s in the room she may say something like: “There you go,… thinking again.” Yes, there I go again. Thinking. In my world, windows are for introspection as much as to allow me to see what the neighbors are up to.

I am easily distracted by my own thoughts. I’m like a thought hobo, hopping on a train and musing my way through a wilderness of ideas. These particular bouts of thoughtfulness aren’t the common wandering mind, or day-dreamy fantasies, or imaginary intrigues, perhaps of the kind a novelist would have while conjuring plots and characters. Rather, I’m likely trying to make sense of some vague philosophical question or even how I might develop an idea into an essay like this one. 

That’s why, while rummaging around the Internet looking for something to read one day, I was stricken with curiosity with the discovery of the essay “Thinking as a Hobby,” by William Golding (sorry, can’t remember where I found it). Golding is the author Lord of the Flies, the classic survival tale of group of British schoolboys shipwrecked on an island.

Golding’s essay begins with himself as a young schoolboy, standing in front of his headmaster, in trouble again. And once again the headmaster is demanding that he think! 

Central to Golding’s story are three statuettes kept on a shelf above the headmaster’s desk: The Venus de Milo, a leopard ready to spring, and Rodin’s The Thinker. The headmaster uses them, as needed, to drive home a point. In this case he says to the bewildered Golding as he plunks The Thinker on his desk, “That’s what a man looks like when he’s really thinking!” 

Golding admits that he wasn’t, at first, much of a thinker. “Clearly there was something missing in me,” he writes. “Nature had endowed the rest of the human race with a sixth sense and left me out.”

I know the feeling. 

But gradually, as he observes the people around him, Golding realizes the way they think drives their behavior. He derives from his observations three grades of thinking, with grade three being the lowest and most common and grade one the highest. 

He illustrates the difference between a grade-two thinker and a grade-three thinker with a story about himself and a potential girlfriend, Ruth, both now fourteen. In a discussion about religion, Ruth, a Methodist, claims the King James Bible is “literally inspired.” Golding counters that the Catholics, who use the St. Jerome Vulgate version, also claim their Bible literally inspired. Well, Ruth argues, there are so many Methodists who can’t be wrong, surely “…not all those millions?” To which Golding responds:

That was too easy, said I restively…since there were more Roman Catholics than Methodists anyway; and they couldn’t be wrong, could they—not all those hundreds of millions? An awful flicker of doubt appeared in her eyes. I slid my arm around her waist and murmured breathlessly that if we were counting heads, the Buddhists were the boys for my money.

Ruth, the obviously grade-three thinker, “fled.”

Grade-three thinkers don’t rely so much on logic or reason to form opinions and make decisions. Instead, as Golding states, they feel rather than think.

Grade-two thinkers, however, are able to see the contradictions within grade-three thinking. Heartless grade-two thinkers—as Golding himself demonstrates—can easily exploit and demean grade-three thinkers.

I have a tendency to compare myself with others, usually unfavorably, and as I read through this essay I wondered how I rated within Golding’s hierarchy of thinking. Surely, were I grade-three thinker, the essay wouldn’t have appealed to me in the first place. And, if it did appeal to me, I wouldn’t have gotten too far into it before I recognized myself as a “Ruth” and dismissed it as garbage. But I did recognize myself as the grade-two Golding. I see inconsistencies, contradictions, and ironies in many things—sometimes even in my own thinking. And I confess also to having the ability to cut sharp and quick—sometimes without thinking first of the consequences.

Of course, Golding does not devise three grades of thinking only to stop at grade two. As he tells it, he tires of thinking as a hobby and goes on to be a professional grade-one thinker. But, reading the essay, I am looking for clues that suggest I, too, am a grade-one thinker. But then I read:

Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content. To find out the deficiencies of our elders bolsters the young ego but does not make for personal security. I found that grade two was not only the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth.

The emphasis is mine. I took that sentence personally. So often it happens: I have a great idea and begin to develop it. But suddenly it seems as though I have no idea of where I’m going with it or what I’m to do with it, as though I’m floundering out of my depth. I was consoled, however, by the distinction Golding draws between grade-two and grade-one thinkers. Grade-two thinkers will end a conversation with a rhetorical “What is truth?” For a grade-one thinker, however, the question is the beginning of a conversation. I recognized the instinct and felt enough ease to continue.

Although Golding, while studying at Oxford, describes a chance encounter with “Professor Einstein” (an exemplary grade-one thinker), he does not give an obvious example of grade-one thinking. Rather, I should say, the example he does give wasn’t obvious to me at first. Only after thinking it through did I realize the importance of the three statuettes. He brings them into the story three times. I mention the first above. Then, while doing some cleaning outside of the headmaster’s office, he takes advantage of the headmaster’s absence and rearranges them in a way that is meaningful to him at the moment. But, later in life he gains a different view. He writes:

 If I were to go back to the headmaster’s study and find the dusty statuettes still there, I would arrange them differently. I would dust Venus and put her aside, for I have come to love her and know her for the fair thing she is. But I would put the Thinker, sunk in his desperate thought, where there were shadows before him—and at his back, I would put the leopard, crouched and ready to spring.

Grade-one thinkers are curious, always looking into the shadows for what can be discovered there. But it’s more than that. For for a grade-one thinker it is imperative to explore what hides in the shadows. Life depends on it.

Deceived by Perception—Again

RobertFuddBewusstsein17Jh
By Robert Fludd, via Wikimedia Commons

The other day Robin said something to me—can’t remember what—but I took offense and let her know it. She said, “That’s just a story your telling yourself. It has nothing to do with me or what I think.” I had perceived—again—a meaning that wasn’t there.

Perception is a mental process that occurs when external objects come in contact with one of the five senses. Part of the process involves feelings—which are positive, negative, or neutral—and making judgements based on those feelings. Judgments then decide what we do next.

Perceptions are what guide us through our lives, helping us to secure safety and comfort. The way we perceive things—and make judgements about our perceptions—is based on experience. Lots of input from the past influences how we interpret sense-data and act in the present.

Perception works on a primal level during every moment of consciousness but usually happens without our being conscious of it.

The classic example of how this works shows a person alone in the wilderness. He hears a rustle in the bushes and in an instant recognizes the threat and grabs his spear a split second before the tiger leaps. A chain of physiological events happen almost instantly and simultaneously to make survival possible, all because of perception.

But what if… Many things besides a tiger can cause a rustle in the bushes—a breeze, a mouse, a friend approaching. Our wilderness dweller could be deceived by perception and get worked up over nothing. Still, he’d be alive.

But what if… The wilderness dweller misperceives the threat as the rustle of a breeze and does not grab the spear. Deception in reverse can be deadly.

Most of us don’t have to worry about tigers, but there are other threats that we do have worry about. Perceiving threats correctly, and acting accordingly, ensures our survival. And, if we were alone in the world, even if we misperceive a threat, no harm done.

But we are not alone in the world. Interactions with other people give rise to thousands of perceptions every day. And that gives us thousands of chances to be deceived by our own perceptions and make judgements about their meaning and what to do about them. Misperceiving a threat from someone when there is none can in turn create unpleasant—if not dangerous—situations.

If someone bangs on your door in the middle of the night, chances are good your perception of danger is real and necessitates decisive action. But in casual interactions, it’s usually a good idea to check perceptions against reality before making hasty judgements and taking unwarranted action.