Letters from the Street

Philosophy, theology, and whatever else crosses my mind.

Category: thinking

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.

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!

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