Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: Philosophy

How Communists Think

There’s a lot of confusion in social media about what socialists should or shouldn’t do in the upcoming election. There are many who say “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton because _____” You can fill in the blank, with anything from She’s a Corporate Shill to She’s a Liar to She’s Not Going to Support Single Payer Healthcare to whatever the concern of the day might be.

When these discussions occur between communists and other progressives, the progressive usually says something along the lines of “how could a communist support someone who will _____.”

Let’s clear something up here. Those statements are ideologically driven. If we unpack them fully, they really mean something very much like this: “If you’re a communist, then you must believe X, but Hillary believes Y, therefore you shouldn’t support her.” In other words, it’s an ideological litmus test.

The flaw in that argument is that communism is not an ideology. Dictionary.com defines ideology as “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” Doctrines, myths, beliefs, etc. are all philosophical constructs. Notions.

The basis for communist thought is not ideology. Marxism is not a philosophical construct. Philosophy is a tool of communist thought, not the foundation of it. “The point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

What, then, is the basis of communist thought, if not beliefs or doctrines? It is a method. Specifically, that method is dialectical materialism.

For Marx and Engels, materialism meant that the material world, perceptible to the senses, has objective reality independent of mind or spirit. They did not deny the reality of mental or spiritual processes but affirmed that ideas could arise, therefore, only as products and reflections of material conditions.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Materialism deals with objective reality, and proposes ideas which communicate that reality in a useful way. This is the opposite of ideology, which places “doctrines and beliefs” first and seeks to understand the world through the lens of those beliefs.

The reason why so much of the left is consumed by sectarian squabbling is because they are ideologues, not dialectical materialists. They have ideas which are dear to their hearts and which they believe explain the world around them. This is similar to the fundamentalist forms of religion, which proclaim that in order to be saved, you have to assent to the creed that they promote. It is fidelity to the creed that determines purity.

Marx described communism as scientific socialism. Scientific, because it is grounded in an empirical model, just as the scientific method is. We observe what is going on around us, then formulate hypotheses that help to explain or predict what happens. This guides the actions we take. We assess the outcome of those actions, and formulate new hypotheses based on what we’ve learned. Theories that are useful are retained and used, until subsequent experience suggests improved hypotheses. We are not bound to the hypotheses, we are proponents of a process.

Dialectical materialism is a particular form of scientific process.

In opposition to the ‘metaphysical’ mode of thought, which viewed things in abstraction, each by itself and as though endowed with fixed properties, Hegelian dialectics considers things in their movements and changes, interrelations and interactions. Everything is in continual process of becoming and ceasing to be, in which nothing is permanent but everything changes and is eventually superseded…Marx and Engels started from the materialist premise that all knowledge is derived from the senses. But against the mechanist view that derives knowledge exclusively from given sense impressions, they stressed the dialectical development of human knowledge, socially acquired in the course of practical activity. Individuals can gain knowledge of things only through their practical interaction with those things, framing their ideas corresponding to their practice; and social practice alone provides the test of the correspondence of idea with reality.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Let’s use a practical example to bring this down to earth. We see that there is a pattern of violence against blacks by police. This is the thesis. Racist violence is being expressed in this form at this time. Blacks are not being hung from trees by angry white mobs as they were in the early 1900s. This overt racism has taken a modified form.

A movement called Black Lives Matter springs up in opposition to this violence. This is the antithesis.

Prior experience from the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s tells us that if blacks persist in their demands for racial justice, and enough whites reject their racist attitudes, then improvement will occur. That is the synthesis.

In response to this, we take part in the movement, blacks and whites each doing their part. We see what happens. If we’re right, then progress takes place. If we’ve misinterpreted, then there is a different result, a new set of conditions, and we start the process again.

We see that this approach is scientific because, like the scientific method, it proceeds from practical interaction with the world around us. This is the experimental method.

Paolo Freire understood this very well, and taught a method in Brazil functionally identical to what we’re talking about here. As described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the method of praxis consists of reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed. “It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.

This Freire quote is more than a little reminiscent of the Marx quote above, that our goal is to change the world and not merely to understand it.

Often, people read communist texts and like the ideas they find there. They believe that those ideas are the essence of communism. They’ve missed the point. It’s easy to understand how this happens.

Much of our educational system is devoted to convincing people to accept the conclusions of others, rather than teaching them how to apply the method by which those ideas were formed. People who have been trained this way will habitually assume that if they have grasped an idea, they have understood the situation.

They should be attending to the process by which those ideas came to light instead, and applying that process to current conditions in their own lives. Marx himself, using the framework of dialectical materialism, might come to different determinations under the conditions of today, then what he concluded in the 1800s.

So when someone says “how can a communist support someone who believes X,” they are displaying a lack of understanding of the nature of communism.

If it’s idealistic rather than practical, it’s not communism.

Oscillation

Everything is marked by oscillation. From the vibration of the smallest wave/particle, to the galaxies and clusters of galaxies swirling around and sometimes through each other, whatever else is going on, there is oscillation.

In that phase of existence which is between the smallest and the largest – the plane on which we live – we see the effects of oscillation as well. The tide ebbs and flows. Seasons come and go and come again. Birth and death and life renewed. The phases of the moon. The systolic and diastolic within our very blood.

We don’t drive straight down a highway. There is always the slightest veering to right or left, followed by the correction back to the center. Every pilot knows that straight-and-level flight is really a constant fluctuation of pitch and yaw and roll.

And so it is in our lives. Activity is followed by rest, sadness by joy, amazement by boredom.

Even the great philosophers, sages, Buddhas, rishis, saints, and yogis are never free of this. Only the unenlightened believe in some state of perfection, in which there is no variation or twist. The enlightened ones know that no one escapes the laws of existence.

There is a story of the death of the wife of a great Buddhist teacher. When his disciples found him crying in his grief, they asked him why he was so sorrowful. Hadn’t he taught them that all life was impermanent and appearances only an illusion? “Yes, but my wife: what an illusion!”

We don’t know much about the life of Jesus, pretty much only the last few years of his public ministry. We are fortunate to know more about other spiritual giants. The Buddha, for instance, lived to be 80. We know much more about him. We know that early on in his ministry he taught certain themes. Later, he expanded them further, not abandoning the early teachings but building on them. Finally, towards the end of his life, he once more introduced great new themes into his life’s work.

It can be said, with great certainty, that each of these stages was preceded by a time in which he plunged back into – what to call it? – engagement, involvement, attachment. Drama, if you will. This is how the human psyche works. Not by constant progression, but in pieces, one step back for every two forward.

Carl Jung, in his autobiography, gives a thorough account of how this worked in his life. Every one of his great insights was preceded by a time of confusion, even darkness.

It is not just this way for the great and famous. I’ve just been through a period in which I lost perspective, got wrapped up in details, let go of what I know about impermanence, misplaced some of my sense of humor. Yet now it seems I’m emerging into new acceptance of myself,  a new recognition of my flaws and assets. When I first began to realize this, it was with that ego-energy that says “you were wrong, you screwed up, you’re a fraud,” because ego thrives on those petty judgmentalisms. Now, as the mists part and I step further into the warmth and light, I remember that this is just how it works. No up without down. No in without out. No learning without mistakes to learn from.

Homeostases are made to be broken.

Pacifism II – Call and Response

[I received a number of responses to the post on pacifism. This one came via email from a friend and fellow Quaker. It is so thoughtful and raised so many important issues, issues that I wanted to address, that I asked its author if I could post it and respond to it on my blog. He agreed, while asking to remain nameless at this time. His remarks are in regular type, and indented. My responses are in bold type.]

This is a well-written, accessible piece about real-life pacifism, and I appreciate thy adding this to the blogosphere.  All too often spokespeople on either side are too entrenched in their own extreme position to do much more than lob stones at those who disagree.

I’m not a life-long pacifist, having had my conversion experience as a 2nd LT in the US Air Force, also during the war in Vietnam.  A quirk in the law at that time meant I was eligible for the draft even after the USAF had decided I was a legitimate CO.  My lottery number was 1, so there was no avoiding it.  I’m one of the few folks who is an official CO in the eyes of both the military system and the Selective Service system.

Thanks for sharing your bona fides.

It seems to me that thy analysis of the situation in Dayton, leading to thy purchase of a handgun, does not include two important costs of the decision to defend thyself violently:  the cost to thee spiritually/psychologically, and the cost to the intruder(s) should thee happen to shoot straight.  Perhaps thee considered these things but just did not include them in the blog, or perhaps they were not part of thy thinking then but (one hopes) would be important considerations now.  Either way, it feels that the posting would have been stronger if thee had mentioned them.

I agree that these are two important considerations. I didn’t include them because they were peripheral to the point I was making, and because I try to keep my posts concise. There is a great deal more that could have been said about what I did say, not to mention what I left out.

For instance, much more could have been said on the dawning realization that I myself was worth saving. Someone else has said it much better than I’m likely to, so I’m just going to put up a link to Jeffrey Snyder’s “A Nation of Cowards.” I don’t endorse everything that Mr. Snyder says nor the way he says it. For our present purpose, the section early on entitled “The Gift of Life” is what is pertinent. He quotes a 1747 sermon which equates failure to defend oneself with suicide.

Sweeping generalities being what they are, there are exceptions to this. Failure to give it full consideration, though, is as big a mistake as failure to consider the two points you make (What about the cost to me of taking a life? What about the cost to the dead and his loved ones?) In fact, all of these questions are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If I could protect myself and don’t, what about the cost to my loved ones? If I let someone else take my life when I could have prevented it, what about the cost to them?

I may, at some future time, go into more detail on those questions. While I found them to be secondary to the point I made in the original post, they are not secondary to the question of violence, whether you or I or anyone else would ever act violently and under what circumstances.

Definitions are always tricky, which leads me to a second concern, which is that a commitment to nonviolence in some situations but not in others seems vulnerable to being labeled as not pacifism at all but personal utilitarianism of the sort that every person follows to a certain extent.  In other words, thy definition is too broad – almost everyone qualifies as a pacifist.  Even the most hawkish, war-like of persons does not advocate the use of lethal violence to solve every disagreement:  some things we talk out to resolve, some things we resort to lawyers to resolve, and some things we resort to war to resolve.  It is the personal equivalent to just-war theory on a larger scale.  We should use non-violent means unless the conditions of just-war theory are met, in which case lethal violence is justified.  The problem with this approach is that, to the best of my knowledge, no just-war advocate with decision making power has ever decided that in his particular case, war is not justified.

Thank you for providing me this opening. If pacifism is an intellectually-based ethical decision, then I think what you are saying is absolutely true. Left to my own devices, I could well end up with something that looks like the just war doctrine, with all its frailties that you point out. Seeing that no one is ever 100% consistent — even Gandhi and King had their moments of aggression — then we end up concluding that all pacifists are either covert “just war” apologists at heart, or hypocrites.

The pacifism I follow, like that of Gandhi and King, is not an ethical stance but a spiritual discipline. As with any discipline, I acknowledge that failures will occur. I recognize that there is room for improvement. “Progress, not perfection” as our 12 Step fellowships would put it. My motivation, first and foremost, is not to find a way to negotiate the many opportunities for aggression within an a priori philosophical framework, but to be true and obedient to “that of God within.” How well do I hear and follow the voice of the Spirit as it is given to me and as it is tried within the communities of which I am a part?

I should probably expand on the last phrase of that sentence. “Tried within the communities of which I am a part.” I do not see this as a discipline which I practice in solitude and to which none other may contribute. For instance, when I cite Gandhi and King, it is not to refer to them as authorities (my anarchist side shudders at the very thought), but because they are part of a larger community of which I am also a part and to which I am responsible. And they to me, brother, and they to me. It works both ways.

Individualism is part of our modern sickness. Communalism is not the answer to that sickness either. There is a balance in which I am an individual, who is a part of a system of inter-locking communities. Some of them are local, some are global, some span centuries. As a Quaker, I am part of a local Meeting, a Yearly Meeting, a global movement, and an historical movement. When I say “try my pacifism within the communities of which I am a part”, that means that I share openly and honestly my response to aggression within them, and am affected and changed when others in those communities share their responses with me. Because I am a pacifist, I don’t expect my experiences to be a rule which is forced on others to follow, nor do I take their experiences as such. The question is, have I followed the Light? Have you? Can we be more faithful? How?

Perhaps a pacifist is a person committed to nonviolence in all situations, who hopes (but can never be certain in advance) that his/her behavior will always be consistent with that commitment.  We are all sinners, and all fall short of the glory of God.  Thee may well say my definition is too narrow – I would certainly agree that it is very much narrower than thine.  Our reach should exceed our grasp.

This follows very well with what I’ve said in preceding paragraphs. I do find that I fall short, and I am sure you do too. Imitating one another would not lead us out of this mess. There is no way out of this mess. Human beings by nature are imperfect. What we can do is to encourage each other, as much by example as by exhortation, and what really encourages me is when I see you live up to the Light as it is shown to you, no matter what particular form that may take in this particular moment.

Of course thee is a pacifist because it is right – we make our ethical choices based on what we see/feel/believe is right.  There are various ways of understanding what is right, however.  A commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right consequentially, because the immediate consequences are not predictable and therefore can’t be a reliable basis for that ethical commitment.  (I do believe the long-term consequences are predictable and desirable but that’s a different matter.)  In similar manner, a commitment to nonviolence is not necessarily right deontologically, because on the one hand we may disagree on what the relevant rules are or even on what the rules actually mean; and on the other hand, a deontological commitment to pacifism may border on coercion, which is antithetical to pacifism itself.

Exactly so. We don’t get to coerce one another into a particular stance. “This way, and no other, is the right way to be a pacifist.” Faith, humility, loving-kindness — these are the means by which you have the most influence on me. And by “you” I mean “everyone.”

My sense is that a commitment to pacifism makes most sense in the context of virtue ethics, which may be what thee is getting at by saying thee is a pacifist because the Spirit in thy heart leads thee to that commitment.  Pacifism is a character trait, so to speak, that God wants us to develop in ourselves – a virtue.  In that context, the Spirit teaches thee that pacifism is right for thee.

Yup.

My main purpose in writing the other post was not philosophical. Musing on the  nature of pacifism may be a pleasant pasttime, but it was not my object. I hope to open the door to those who might be pacifists, but who don’t know that it might include them even though they do swat mosquitos and would protect their children from an assault. It’s a bigger tent than it appears, if only the most strident voices are heard. The fact that one of the more heartfelt comments I received was from a retired Marine tells me that there is a place for this and that I succeeded in some measure. Perhaps some will read it, choose not to describe themselves as pacifists, but have a greater understanding and respect for what we are about, if their only previous exposure was to media coverage of the groups that show up in the streets during demonstrations and polarize these complex issues in very simplistic ways.

As it happens, I have just finished a book by Nancy Murphy and George Ellis entitled “On the Moral Nature of the Universe” (1996, Fortress Press) which argues for the kenotic nature of both God and Creation, making a strong case (imo) for a personal commitment to self-sacrificing nonviolence and accounting for nature’s apparently violent “red in tooth and claw” character on those grounds.  It is a closely argued unification of theology, cosmology, ethics and the natural sciences and rather heavy lifting in several places, but might be of interest to thee.  I know I’m planning to dive into it again right away.

I will add it to my list. You know that list? I bet you have one too.

Anyway, thanks for thy posting such a provocative blog entry.  I hope that it sparks as much reflection in other folks as it has in me.

Amen, brother. Amen.

Faustus Socinus and the Roots of Modern Christianity

[As I have said in earlier posts, it is not necessary to believe in superstition or medieval concepts in order to be a Christian. Here is the story of one man who, many centuries ago, made remarkable sacrifices to help formulate the Christian faith in such a way that a modern person could adhere to it without betraying reason or knowledge.]

Fausto Sozzini, or in Latin form Faustus Socinus as he is usually known, was born in 1539 to a wealthy Italian family. The Reformation was in full flower as he grew up and the ideas of Luther and others were fermenting all over Europe. Luther himself was interested mainly in establishing the authority of the Bible, as opposed to that of the church hierarchy, and of cleaning up the corruption in the church. Many of his contemporaries went further. Some of them, such as Michael Servetus and Thomas Munzer, preached against the idea of the Trinity and the practice of infant baptism. Socinus’ uncle Laelio Sozzini was involved in this movement, which we call the Radical Reformation, and influenced Faustus immeasurably. Laelio learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in the original, and found that much of the church’s doctrine was directly contradictory to Scripture. Laelio had a fascinating life, living in various cities in Italy and Switzerland, and knew many of the Reformation’s outstanding figures.

At the age of 21 Socinus went to Lyon, France, and was probably engaged in a mercantile business. A year later he shows up in Geneva, Switzerland, but there is no evidence that he ever came under the sway of John Calvin. Letters from this time show that he was already formulating a more radical Protestant theology, asserting that Jesus was not essentially divine — in other words, that he was not born both God and Man. He returned to Italy and lived as a member of the court of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici in Florence for many years. During this time he had many literary pursuits — he loved to write poetry — but was not remarkably fertile as a theologian.

When Duke Cosimo died in 1574, Socinus traveled back to Switzerland and never returned to Italy. In the safer theological atmosphere of Basel he once again began to publish theological works. From Basel, Socinus traveled to Transylvania. There were many there who had rejected the idea of the Trinity. The interchange between Socinus and the Transylvanian anti-trinitarians is one of the principal threads in the development of modern-day Unitarianism. Socinus left Transylvania for Poland in May of 1579, where there were many others of like mind. He remained in Poland until his death in 1604. He was a major influence on the development of the Polish Brethren, a dissenting church which forms another thread in the development of a non-supernatural way of participating in the Christian faith.

What were his principal beliefs? I’ve already alluded to his rejection of the Trinity, the idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are somehow separate yet one and the same. He says that Jesus was not born the Son of God. He suggests that, when the gospel of John says “In the beginning there was the Word,” this means in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning of the Creation. Jesus was the Son of God because he became like God. The Holy Spirit is not a separate being from God, either, but simply the activity of God’s power and presence among us.

Socinus also disagreed with the idea that Jesus died on the cross for the remission of sins. Stephen David Snobelen tells us that “Fausto Socinus rejected the orthodox satisfaction theory of the atonement, a theory that held that God’s wrath was appeased or satisfied through Christ’s death on the cross, a sacrifice that involved a sort of legal transaction in which Christ died as a substitute for humans. Socinus held that the view that held that God was a wrathful deity who demanded the satisfaction of a legal transaction prior to granting atonement for the sin’s of men and women was inconsistent with an understanding of God’s grace. Instead, Socinus argued that God has the right to grant atonement and eternal life freely, without any transaction. Socinus believes it unjust for God to ask men and women to forgive each other freely, if he does not do so himself. There is in Socinus’ model of the atonement a greater stress placed on Christ’s crucifixion as exemplary of an ethic of self-sacrifice to which humans should aspire.”

Socinus did not believe in original sin, thus there was no need for justification. Socinus considered it absurd that some would be saved and others predestined to be damned to hell, as Calvin taught.

Socinus believed that the rewards of the Christian life were not to be won simply in saying that you believe in what Jesus taught, but by doing what Jesus taught. He took the demands of the Sermon on the Mount as binding on all Christians, and was a pacifist.

He denied that God’s omniscience means that God knows everything that is going to happen. Free will prevents this. Since people can make their own choices, no one including God can know everything that will take place. If there is no free will, then God must be the cause of sin. This, Faustus said, was absurd. Therefore there must be free will, and if there is, then foreknowledge cannot be said to exist.

Finally, while Socinus and his followers believed in miracles such as the virgin birth, they also said that religion should not contradict natural reason, or what we would today call scientific understanding. The rise of such beliefs in Europe, of which Socinus was an early pioneer, led to what we call the Enlightenment, or the philosophy of thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. The spirit of the Enlightenment played a large part in the formation of the American experiment in self-government, believing as they did in the rule of reason and law, and the separation of church and state.

After Socinus’ death, the Polish government was taken over for a time by counter-reformers, zealots for Catholicism and the more conservative branches of the Protestant movement. The doctrines of churches such as the Polish Brethren were outlawed, and members had three years to either convert to an accepted church or to leave. Many of the Polish Brethren fled to the Netherlands, where religious toleration was still practiced.

Socinus’ ideas had considerable influence over Isaac Newton. Newton was found to have had many Socinian books in his library upon his death, and they all gave evidence of having been studied. Four of them were written by Socinus himself. By contrast, there were only two books by Martin Luther and one by John Calvin. In addition, Newton had correspondence with several Socinians, and appears to have helped fund the publication of one of their works.

While not a Socinian as such, Newton did not believe in the Trinity. His attitude towards the Atonement was similar to Socinus, in that he did not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sins. Like Socinus, he studied the early history of the Christian church and found that such doctrines as the Trinity and the Atonement were either absent or were only one among many, quite distinct from the position of orthodoxy those precepts later obtained.

In England at one time, the term Socinian was used to denote any of the more radical forms of the Protestant church. My own Society of Friends was often labeled Socinian, although strictly speaking they were not. There are some parallels, such as the pacifism and the use of empirical reasoning in matters of faith.

I had heard of the “Socinian heresy” many times in my own studies. In those brief descriptions I saw something that seemed interesting and which resonates with my own views. Running across his name in a book again quite recently, I thought I would like to find out more who this Socinus guy was. As I learned more about him, I discovered how much his view of religion parallels my own. It’s almost like doing some genealogy and finding an interesting ancestor in your family tree.

The Problem with Thinking

[This is not the post I thought I would put up this weekend. That one is pretty much in the can, and will see the light of day before long. In the meantime, here’s the thing about trying to be Spirit-led: sometimes a topic will just grab hold and insist on jumping to the head of the line.]

First question: What’s the problem with Cognitive Therapy?

(Waves hand in air:  Ooo ooo ooo, I know this one.)

Anyone? Arnold?

The problem with Cognitive Therapy is that it doesn’t go far enough.

(Right. Here’s your gold star.)

What does that have to do with “The Problem with Thinking?” Keep reading.

When I was a young social worker, trying to do a good job with just a decent liberal arts education (a very good starting place BTW ; highly recommended), a smattering of psychology, and some native intuition, I sat down after a couple of years and tried to sum up what I’d learned. The result was an essay which described a new form of therapy, which I called Empirical Therapy. I discarded the essay later, when I found out that I was late to this party. It had been done, 10-15 years earlier, and a lot better. It was called Cognitive Therapy. (I went to a Master of Social Work program at around this time because I knew I was wasting time and effort every day, re-inventing the wheel. Boy, was I.) I encountered Cognitive Therapy in a counseling class, and recognized it for the mature expression of what I’d been groping for on my own. Aaron Beck had done stellar work in this area. So had Albert Ellis, who called his version Rational Emotive Therapy.

In 1994 I was introduced to Dr. David Burns’ work in this field, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It was like putting on a tailored suit. I’ve been fortunate to have attended a 2-day seminar with Dr. Burns. I’ve been even more fortunate to have seen the results. I literally use CBT every day, in every professional interaction, in some way or another. It’s that good.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to be included in a pilot program run by the North Carolina Child Treatment Program, a joint venture of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. 60 therapists in eastern NC were taught Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This was a fantastic educational experience, led by a group of talented young clinicians. Representing pediatrics, psychology, and social work, most were young enough to be my children. I got over that pretty quickly, when I saw how much they had to offer. The thrust of the pilot program was this: TFCBT had proven its worth over years of research. Could it be taken off campus, and taught on a wide scale to active clinicians actually out in the trenches? Yes, it could. Working with survivors of sexual assault has been a specialty of mine ever since sort of accidentally getting involved with a case in 1980. With TFCBT, I’ve seen the time it takes for good treatment reduced from a year or so to around 4 months, with very good results. Once more, CBT has proven its worth, not just in its effectiveness but in its flexibility as well.

I’ve said for years that CBT is the most important development in psychotherapy in the last 50 years. I stand by that today. I’m not as disdainful of other forms of therapy as some CBT practitioners are. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a powerful tool in the hands of a well-trained clinician. It’s a lot harder to produce well-trained clinicians in that mode, though. Good old B.F. Skinner-style behaviorism is being used with good results too. Ericksonian hypnosis and its many offspring are superb, the psychotherapeutic equivalent of laser and arthroscopic surgery. And nothing has ever superseded Carl Rogers’ insights into the nature and importance of the relationship between therapist and patient.

I dearly love a good dream analysis, and watching the ensuing changes in mood, thought and behavior as they unfold.

But if for some dire reason we were forced to select only one mode, I would have to pick CBT. You can teach more providers to be more effective with this one system than any other I have used. And, once patients have learned how to use CBT, they can use it themselves, for the rest of their lives, without a therapist. Slam dunk.

At the risk of over-simplification, here’s how it works: If you have negative thoughts, you will have negative feelings. Negative thoughts can be easily changed, with new information that either changes the thought itself, or calls the negativity into question. So if I think you are angry with me, and this makes me anxious, this can change either by finding out that you aren’t angry — new information — or learning that I can be calm even if you are angry at me — calling the negativity into question.

What, then, is the problem with CBT?

It doesn’t go far enough.

Why doesn’t it go far enough? Take, for instance, the problem of information. Computer folks have known from the dawn of time (computer time) that old saying, Garbage In, Garbage Out. CBT is like a computer program, software for the mind. The best program in the world cannot overcome bad data that is fed into it. As a grad student, I was introduced to a statistics program called SAS. SAS was marvelous. You could use it to slice and dice your data any way you chose. You could run all kinds of analyses, and turn out all kinds of charts and graphs. Here’s the thing: if your data collection was bad, SAS couldn’t point it out. It would give you wonderful stats and graphs that meant nothing, or were actually misleading.

Same with the mind. The information I have, from so many sources, affects my mood, outlook, ideas, opinions, etc. How can two people — patient and therapist — be certain that they are using the best information? They can’t. Neither can see past the blind spots they share. If I really think that women should never wear pants, and I am counseling a woman who is struggling with restrictions placed on her by a church that only allows dresses for women, where is the new information that she needs going to come from? Worse yet, if I only ever really talk to people who agree with me, will my basic fallacies ever be challenged?

Also, neither of us knows that there is needed information that we don’t know. It seems this goes without saying — you don’t know what you don’t know, duh — and yet it is seldom taken into account. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his landmark work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, science advances when it becomes apparent that what we think we know is wrong. Scientific advance is held back by people who are certain that they know what isn’t so.

I see this all the time. It is a major factor in our public life. Liberals who only talk to liberals. Conservatives who only talk to conservatives. Religious people who only talk to other religious people, and atheists who only talk to other atheists. People who get angry and bitter when confronted with different beliefs than their own. People only read books and magazines, or watch TV shows, that support their own favored views. Things seem evidently correct, because “everyone agrees.” It reminds me of the Chicago socialite who couldn’t believe Eisenhower beat Stevenson, because “no one voted for Eisenhower.” No one she knew, that is.

Try it yourself. Take any random politically oriented post on Facebook. Say something that disagrees with it. Watch the fireworks.

Many people who are the most convinced that they have an open mind, have very closed minds. As A.A. Milne put it, “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. The second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. The first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.” There are so few first-rate minds. The other two are not really thinking at all. They are massaging their biases.

Which brings us to the second way in which CBT does not go far enough. The first is that it can’t guarantee that you will get better information than you have. The second is that it doesn’t really teach how to think. It does a very good job of pointing out some of the most common fallacies — perfectionism, taking things personally, etc. — but learning what constitutes the wrong way to think does not equal learning how to think.

For that matter, there are many ways to think poorly that are not covered in CBT. For these, you might need to take a basic course in logic. There, you would find out about the ad hominem fallacy, circular reasoning, “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” the straw man, and others.

It’s not a matter of intelligence. Not entirely. I know some people of average intelligence who are better thinkers than those of vastly greater intelligence. They are, however, limited in what they can think about; the ability to reason abstractly does not show up until somewhere around an IQ of 120. But having a big brain is no guarantee of being a good thinker; some of the poorest thinkers I know have very high IQs. They’ve learned how to use it in some ways, but not in this important way.

What does it take to be a good thinker?

1. High quality information, from a variety of sources. For instance, when a major world political crisis takes place — say, the fall of the Berlin Wall — don’t just watch your favorite news programs. Get a shortwave radio and tune in to news shows from around the world, such as Deutsche Welle, the BBC, Radio Canada International, Voice of Japan, Voice of China, and one of my favorites, Radio Prague. Shortwave radio listening is fun, too — check out all that different music. (If for some silly reason you don’t want to fool with a radio, many stations also livestream over the Internet. But this is cheating.) If you like Fox News, listen to NPR. If you hate Fox news, find one of the more reasonable conservative bloggers such as Victor Davis Hansen. Do whatever it takes to stay out of the “echo chamber.”

2. Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio. Signal is useful information. Everything else is noise. Most of what you get in daily conversation and via the mainstream media is noise. With just enough signal to make it seem worthwhile. This is a tough one! Recognizing good information from bad takes work.

3. Learn about the obstacles to clear thinking. CBT is very good at identifying the most common cognitive distortions — ways we let our emotions affect our thinking. And there are many websites, such as the Wikepedia article on logical fallacies, that describe ways in which we fail to keep our thinking straight in a more formal sense. Learn them. Learn to spot them when other people are under their sway. Your favorite commentator might look very different.

4. Learn to trust the limits of knowledge. Get comfortable with the idea that no one knows all there is to know about anything. We have to make decisions, even though there is never sufficient high-quality data for complete assurance.  That person you dislike so much just might know something you don’t — and it’s just as likely you know something he doesn’t. Live and let live.

5. In a special application of #4, but worthy of a spot all its own because it is so dang important, learn to accept the legitimate difference of opinion. Everyone who disagrees with you is not a fascist, or a communist, or whatever your bete noir may be. I’ve written a whole essay on this and posted it on this blog. It is the least-read of any essay I’ve posted. Many, many people just don’t really want to know how to think.

6. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to learn how to think, you have to read the works of great thinkers. Not novelists (although some of them were great thinkers), not poets, not biographers, not cookbooks. You can’t become a great musician without listening to great music, and practicing your scales over and over and over. You can’t become a good thinker without the company of other good thinkers.

7. Honesty. You have to be able to take an honest account of who you are, what you do, which distortions you allow into your thinking, what poisons do you allow into your data stream, and so forth.

As always, I know I will get comments that will add a lot to this. Good data stream!

Something About Love

[It’s lovely to have friends on the Internet who I’ve never met and perhaps never will. Kindred souls. I remember stories of young men and women, back in the days when people Wrote Letters and Mailed Them To Each Other, who had penpals in far-off countries that became deep and enduring friendships, all through correspondence. There are people like that in my life, but the medium is not through pen and ink and snail mail, but through email, blogs, and so forth. One who I’ve only recently encountered, but who might perhaps have staying power as a friend, is Ember. We have a lot in common, in some important ways, and I appreciate her quiet humor and quiet strength. Who knows, she might be a holy terror in person, but that’s not the Ember I know. She recently wrote a post on Love which I found thought-provoking. Now, there has been so much written, sung, and otherwise portrayed about love that one thing emerges clearly: it is a huge topic, and no one has the complete story. There’s a lot I don’t know about love, for sure. But there is some that I do know, and of a particular sort, I have a great deal of experience. Here is an excerpt from a book I wrote entitled Concordia: Psychotherapy, Healing, and the Vital Force. Ember’s blog just put me in mind of this, and while I hadn’t intended to post it, suddenly it seemed like a good idea.]

In the old science of alchemy, there were considered to be four elements of which all the universe was formed: earth, water, fire and air. Then, in the alchemical operation which was to produce “gold” from “lead”, a fifth essence – the quintessence – was introduced. Since Jung, the world has known what only initiates knew before: alchemy does not describe a chemical reaction in which one metal transforms into another, but a spiritual process in which our flaws are transformed into strengths. The philosopher’s stone, that which the alchemist strove to create, is not a physical object, but the psyche of the alchemist himself, transformed into what has been called cosmic consciousness or enlightenment.

And what is this quintessence? What is it which is essential to the process of spiritual transformation? Simply put, it is love.

Love, in all its forms. Love, unreservedly. Love, without fear of destruction or hope of gain.

Love, without which I am but a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal.

Love, which is the most inward nature of the prana or vital force of which we are formed. Love, which seeks to be healed and which is the healer.

Love, which is the dance of Krishna.

Love, which is Christ on the Cross, and Him risen on Easter Sunday.

Love, which is the Buddha returning from the bliss of nirvana to teach all sentient beings the Noble Four-fold Truths.

Love, which is in the symphony, the folk tune, the mockingbird’s song. Love, in the sunset, the painting, the new mother’s first glance at her baby.

Love, which is the Void and the One and the Manifest.

Love, as the crucible in which you and I meet for healing, and which brooks no deception or fear, but which unites and makes us whole.

Let me be more specific. The motive force in the healing relationship, that which energizes the activity of the vital principle in the interaction between healer and patient, and which most influences a positive outcome, is love.

To love our patients takes courage of the highest order. Some of my patients have required me to dig way down deep into myself, to face whatever may be there, in order to verify for them that they  could take the risk to open themselves to me. They would not have risked that kind of vulnerability if I were not willing to do the same. They understood the general rules of the game, that I would not share my life story with them to the degree that they would share theirs with me. But had I not been willing to undergo the same personal exploration I asked of them, they would have walked out. Rightly so. Only cowardice or hypocrisy could have explained any unwillingness to do so.

Bruno Bettelheim once remarked that we can approach the care of our patients in two ways. We can look at them, down in the pit of whatever their trouble may be, lower a ladder down to them, and instruct and encourage them as they learn to climb it. Or, we can go down the ladder, join them in the pit, and ascend the ladder together. The first is treatment; the second is healing.

I recall a patient I worked with many years ago, a young lady who had been through immense mistreatment as a child and in marriage. I knew that if I was ever the least bit inauthentic with her, I would lose all the ground we had gained; even the least betrayal, even the “little white lies” that are so common in everyday communication would have shown her that I could not be trusted. Her experiences had made her a superb judge of character and had given her exquisite sensitivity to what was going on around her. I was not going to fool her. Had I been unwilling or unable to dig as deeply into my own self as I was asking her to do, our sessions would have come to an end. While it was not always necessary for me to reveal what my own inner explorations discovered – I could say that I would rather not share and she would accept that, when it was clear that I was not just dodging – many times it was of the greatest value to her when I did share, so she could measure her own experience against that of someone she had learned to trust. Certainly this took dedication and the highest degree of professional discipline of which I am capable; more than that, though, it took a huge measure of that love which places someone else’s welfare as highly as my own.

At one time, after having made a great deal of progress and during a time of relative calm in her life, she thought about skipping a session. I knew, however, that although she was handling some recent disappointments quite well, it was not necessary for her to have to handle them alone. What I said on the telephone was, “You may not need to process these feelings. But you need at least to come be in the love.”

May I note at this moment that I do not see this kind of love as a personal choice or ability. I suppose, in one sense, I could just have accurately said “you need to come be in the prana.” For at times the flow of prana between us was palpable. In my experience, such love is not possible without that pranic flow. It is a love of which the healer is a conduit, not the origin. The healer must not confuse this with the kind of love which wishes to incorporate the other into his own life. Rather, the two of them, patient and healer both, are incorporated into a life greater than either of them, that One Life which is the source of all the cosmos, which is not so distant as to be unable to enfold two small people on one small planet within its embrace.

For this reason, the healer must also adopt the lifestyle which cultivates concord. She must also be well-balanced, reasonably healthy, have a daily practice of some sort which puts her into regular contact with the vital force, and all that was indicated above. (By “reasonably healthy”, I do not mean to overlook the fact that Milton Erickson did some of his best work from a wheelchair, later in life, orthat Sigmund Freud continued to perform admirably with cancer of the mouth. They were still in concord, even in the midst of these challenges.)

Such a lifestyle would promote all of these virtues in the life of the healer: integrity, flexibility, harmony, curiosity, kindness, determination, congruency, balance, duration. It would acknowledge that he has flaws, as we all have flaws. It would allow him to make the most of his assets, while minimizing his flaws.

I gave a draft copy of Concordia to a friend to review. She is not a medical or mental health professional, but is an intelligent and well-educated woman. I didn’t want her to offer copy editing or technical commentary; I wanted to know if I had communicated well to  the audience which she represents so well. She made a number of helpful comments. One of them was, “The word which keeps coming up for me is ‘grace.’ ”

I couldn’t agree more. The same word keeps coming up for me. I could not see a way to work it into the text as it stands, but it seems to fit here, in the conclusion, quite well. Because I want to say that there is no way to think our way out of fear. There is no way to act our way out of fear. There is no way to feel our way out of fear. The answer to living in a state of fear is to live in a state of grace.

The word grace has many theological connotations, especially among Christians, for whom it is a central issue. I do not use the word here in any way that contradicts those connotations. I do wish to say that it is not only Christians, not only those who believe in the God of the Christians and Jews, but anyone at all who can live in a state of grace. For a Christian, the state of grace is owing to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s OK. But anyone who has an understanding of a Higher Power, whether of God or of a deep comprehension that we are all, no matter how small we may be, an integral part of the cosmos, and we are all doing what our part of the cosmos does, can live in this state of grace.

One does not live in a state of grace by thought alone. Anyone who follows some of the suggestions of this present work, whether they be a healer or not, will be able to live that way. I refer especially to the suggestions regarding the regular experience of prana or vital force. Whether by movement such as yoga, by meditation, by music, art, or poetry, anything that puts you “in the groove” with the vital force will, if allowed to do what it does, enable you to live in grace.

At this point, some might ask “but what is this state of grace?” I will not try to define it or even describe it. Neither of these would be helpful. For one thing, to do so renders the unconscious suggestion that this is an intellectual exercise. This would be less than helpful. My suggestion is, rather, to experience it for yourself. You can easily do this; you probably already have, without knowing it.

If you have ever been enraptured, then you already know what grace is like. If you have been enchanted by a piece of music, taken “outside of yourself” by a beautiful piece of scenery, lost yourself in your lover’s eyes, or been completely smitten by holding a newborn child in your arms, you know all you need to know about grace. Now, the only thing is to get on with it. Make it a regular part of your life. Do it so often that it becomes your natural state. It has been done, and so you can do it too.

[Copyright © 2012 by Bruce R. Arnold, just so we keep that straight. And yes, I’m looking for a publisher. No luck so far. Still trying.]

All the Truth that Can Be Said …

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Bible. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Bhagavad Gita. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Tao Te Ching. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Diamond Sutra. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Upanishads. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the Lotus Sutra. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

All the truth that can be said in a certain way is in the I Ching. Having been said in that way, it cannot be said in another way. But there are other ways.

And so forth.

Why I Call Myself a Christian

Bonnie asked me this summer if I consider myself a Christian. I do, and yet that simple answer is hardly enough. That could mean a lot of things I don’t intend it to mean. I thought I would like to write something to tease out the various elements of what that means to me. Each of these points could receive a lengthy treatment on its own; this is meant more as a summary than as a full explanation. Some day I may flesh these out more.

First, the fact is that I was raised in a Christian home in a largely Christian country, in the Western culture that was formed largely within a Christian context. That alone predisposes me, whether I wish it or not, to certain ways of perceiving, feeling and thinking that are characteristic of the Christian faith. Even people who do not consider themselves Christian, who grew up in this cultural milieu, have many of those same outlooks and perceptions.

Second, I find that the life of Jesus is a watershed in human history. I hardly think that the most objective observer from any background would deny this. The nature of the Christian religion, and its spread in its various forms all over the globe, has had an enormous impact on people everywhere, Christian or not. I have no doubt that Buddhists would see the life of Gautama in the same way; or Muslims, the life of Mohammed. I have no quarrel with that; in the same objective way, I would have to agree. I don’t see any of them as the watershed in human history; they are all tremendously significant. Given my personal history and cultural heritage, I have to honestly state that, as much as I love or respect other faiths, the life of Jesus is more pertinent to my life than the others. See #1.

Third, I have long felt that, no matter what you think of Jesus, for such a simple man to have had such an enormous impact on history, there had to have been something extraordinary about him. People like this just don’t live in every generation, every century, every millenium. In religious matters, you’ve got Confucius, you’ve got Buddha, you’ve got Moses, you’ve got Jesus, and you’ve got Mohammed. Outside of those five, who else?

Fourth, I find that most people’s views of God and Jesus, whether believers or not, are essentially those that gained dominance during the medieval period. There are large admixtures of superstition, magical thinking, and the uncritical acceptance of legendary elements in those viewpoints. Many people who consider themselves atheists have in fact rejected superstition, yet do not know that there are non-superstitious ways of conceiving of the Divinity. Many people who consider themselves staunch Christians still maintain those old viewpoints. If educated, they have adjusted them somewhat to the post-Renaissance world view, but not much. Perhaps, for instance, they do not have an anthropomorphic idea of God, but beyond that, it’s pretty vague. Of the recognition that there is equal value in the teachings and practices of other religions, there is mostly lip service, if at all. As a post-Renaissance person, I find that the Christian religion still has great meaning, although I do not think of it within those medieval boundaries. I don’t think that the sun goes around the earth, that you can fall off the edge of the ocean, or that kings rule by divine right, either.

Fifth, I don’t believe in some of the old Christian stories, such as the virgin birth or the resurrection; at least, not as historical fact. Agreeable with Carl Jung, I acknowledge that the archetypal value of those stories transcends the question of historicity. Yet the same myths are found in other cultures; Christianity does not lay exclusive claim to virgin birth or the resurrected God. The parallels between Jesus and Mithras, whose religion was as prominent as Christianity in the Roman empire until the time of Constantine, are astounding. They celebrated the feast of Natalis Sol Invicti (The Birth of the Unconquerable Sun) on December 25, for instance. Candidates for initiation were bathed, similar to full-immersion baptism. There was a meal associated with the worship, not unlike Communion. Descent into and return from the Underworld is characteristic of other sects, such as that of Orpheus. This, to me, does not discredit Christianity; it highlights the power of those archetypal elements. While I don’t find the Genesis account of the Creation to be literally true — the fossil record is pretty convincing in that regard — there is no denying the narrative power of the story, and this is significant in its own right. I am not going to elaborate on the importance of archetype here; it is too complex for a brief exposition. Let me just say that, since the pioneering work of Jung, followed up by such brilliant scholars as Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, calling something a “myth” does not mean that it is any less profound or powerful.

Sixth, I do believe that Jesus is an exemplar of the way God can act in people’s lives. He is wholly divine and wholly human, because his surrender to God was complete and without reservation. Yet, unlike those in the mainstream of Christianity, I consider Jesus to be the Great Example, and not the Great Exception. He is not the only Son of God; he shows us the way to a birthright which we all share. If, through Jesus, the Word became flesh, so too can any of us be that Word that God utters in this moment. The more we surrender to that, the more Christ-like we become.

Seventh, I do not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross and the myth of the resurrection have anything to do with remission of sins. Even as a child, I could not imagine a God who would condemn to hell all the people who had never even heard of Jesus and thus could not accept him as their savior. For that matter, I have never believed in heaven or hell. I don’t believe in a punishing God, nor in original sin. People — all people — have a capacity for great goodness and great wickedness. That’s the way it is. We can be more one than the other, partly by our own choice and partly by accepting the guidance of the Spirit which is in all of us. Jesus set a uniquely revealing example of what it means to live a spirit-filled life to the fullest. God didn’t drop a dime on Jesus to set him up to be tortured and killed so his blood could somehow magically wipe my slate clean. I’m responsible for my own transgressions. Better get on with making my amends.

Eighth, there is that Spirit in all of us, what Quakers call the Light Within. It is a rule and guide, a comforter, a source of inspiration, a healer, and many other functions. In Hindu philosophy, the Atman is the individual expression of (not separate from but identical to) the Brahman, the undifferentiated Source of all existence. This is my experience also, as close as it can be put in words. If we remove all ideas, feelings, illusions, etc. that separate us from full immersion in that inner Light, then we find ourselves as we most truly are, nothing other than that Light, which is none other than That One which is beyond all name and all description. Thus each of us is an incarnation of the Divine, whether we know it or not, experience it or not. Jesus shows us what it is like to be fully That, and invites us to follow. This is more clear in the Gospel of Thomas than in the four canonical Gospels, which contain significant alterations for the benefit of the powerful elite. For instance, in Thomas, Jesus says, “… the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father.”

Ninth, I don’t believe in Jesus as “a good man,” a “great philosopher”, a “prophet.” I believe he was in fact a fully-realized Son of God. It’s just that I don’t think that possibility is his and his alone. While his death on the cross has tremendous significance for me, as evidence that God is not above or removed from our sufferings but shares them with us, I don’t see it as the central event in the life of Jesus. I’m not sure I want to pick a central event.

Tenth, being Christian is not the same thing as being Christ-centered, although I find that some people use these terms interchangeably. I am more Spirit-centered than Christ-centered, myself.

Eleventh, to have a dialog on this subject, both sides must acknowledge that there are is a wide diversity of beliefs which all call themselves “Christian.” No one gets to decide for you whether you are Christian or not, based on their own beliefs. There is a tendency within the Christian tradition to define in-groups and out-groups, and then to persecute the out-groups. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-trials, etc. This goes on today, sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly. I don’t think Jesus saw things in this way. His life and ministry was inclusive, not exclusive. All those who would follow his way were welcome, even the Pharisee Nicodemus or the Roman captain.

Twelfth, as a modern Christian, I don’t find myself limited to the ideas or practices of my native culture. I have found spiritual nourishment in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. I find their outlooks more highly developed in many ways than those of the West. The Buddhist idea of how the world comes into manifestation, for instance, resonates with me on a profound level, deeper than the Genesis story. Then too, the practice of Yoga has led me into the most intimate association with the One Source of All. The sage advice of the Tao Te Ching and I Ching is as penetrating a guide to action as any that exists. I don’t think everyone ought to feel this way; I have a penchant for philosophical exploration. I don’t see why it can’t be acknowledged as a vital option by any Christian. It isn’t, by many if not most, but it could be.

Thirteenth, the theology of liberation gives me a way to reconcile my lifelong concern for peace and justice with my spiritual life. This gives outward meaning, depth, and relatedness to what, for me, would otherwise be primarily mystical, inward, personal. It also gives a context for that concern which is more loving and humane than the political ideologies I have been associated with before.

I feel I need to add this: These are not propositions I thought out in philosophical form. Each of them is an attempt at expressing the experience I have received of the Spirit, or the Light Within. I find it repugnant, in spiritual matters, to think up ideas (George Fox called them “notions”) first, and then try to prove them by experience. Inevitably, two things happen in the latter method. One is that parts of experience which do not accord with the previously adopted ideas are ignored. The second is that people tend to think they are right, and when people think they are right, they often want to enforce their ideas on others. Sometimes in vicious or brutal ways.

Saying that these expressions arise from my experience does not make them right for you. It does not give them greater authority. I have found that, when people are moved by the Spirit, differences in how they perceive or express that can often be reconciled. Not always, and to our sorrow, but often. Whatever the case, when experience precedes philosophizing, the process tends to be more genuine, authentic, or honest. Maybe even more humble; not so sure about that. These are tendencies, not absolutes.

The Legitimate Difference of Opinion

If you don’t have the proper tools, you can’t get the job done. You can use a knife for a screwdriver, and get away with it some of the time, but sooner or later you will bugger the head on the screw and then what?
So, from time to time, I will talk about some tools that are needed for proper thinking.

Or, to be really clear, for doing philosophy.

The ancients understood that philosophy is the root of all understanding. What we now think of as “science” was called “natural philosophy” for instance. Yet the change in term, from natural philosophy to science, is revealing. Philosophy is not just about knowledge, it is love of wisdom. There is knowledge of a topic, and then there is wisdom about it. Much of our science has no wisdom at all. Our knowledge of how to do things has in so many cases far outstripped our understanding of whether or not they ought to be done. We can all think of numerous examples of technology gone haywire.

So, everyone does philosophy, whether they know it or not. Most people do applied philosophy — the search for understanding of one particular subject. When you learned to figure out unit prices in the grocery store — 4 quarts of milk costs twice what one gallon costs, although it is the same quantity — you were doing applied philosophy.

And then there is the kind of philosophy we think of when we commonly use that word: Socrates. Hume. Sankara. Nagarjuna. Wittgenstein. I’m not going to try to define it in this short post. No way. I’m just going to mention that and move on to the main point, having set it up.

So, tools for thinking. Tools for effective philosophy. Here’s one that is all too uncommon: the Legitimate Difference of Opinion. If I think a flat tax is the best way to balance the government’s need for money with the people’s ability to live free and prosperous lives, and you think that a progressive tax is a better way, we have an important difference of opinion. But it doesn’t mean that you are an evil usurper of people’s natural property rights, or that I am a greedy SOB who is insensitive to the human needs of my fellow citizens. You might care very much about fundamental rights as an important part of our national happiness, and I might be constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of my neighbors. We just disagree about the way to get there.

All too often, in political debate especially but in most any arena you can think of, people do not recognize the legitimate difference of opinion. If you don’t agree with me, you are wrong, and furthermore bad. I see this all the time, in matters large and small. Among other things, such as displaying a certain kind of insecurity, and probably arrogance to boot, it is also intellectually dishonest.

And you can’t think straight — effectively — if you aren’t honest. Period.

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