Anger causes error

There are times when it is appropriate to feel anger, in a reasonable degree of intensity.

But anger doesn’t help us think more clearly, or leave our thinking unaffected. It warps our ability to think well.

Aristotle compares the person in a rage to the person who is drunk, and says that both kinds of person are partly excusable for their bad actions, because they aren’t fully in control of themselves, but not entirely excusable.

Does that ever resonate. When I think back on things I’ve said and the ways I’ve acted when in the grip of anger, it definitely feels, in hindsight, like I was as much under the power of a foreign influence as when I’ve been drunk. Much of your brain seems to power down, your body feels different (especially the head and neck and chest, I think), your vision constricts, you stop hearing things outside the object of your anger.

And just like when you are drunk or dreaming, this altered state and these restricted capacities are not easily recognized in the moment, but only afterward, thinking back with a cooler head.

In the moment, we have no doubt that we are quite rational, clearheaded, fully righteous; if we weren’t all those things, after all, how could we be so sure that our anger is entirely justified?

Not everyone is so susceptible to the suggestions of rage as to need anger management classes of the sort that I believe courts sometimes prescribe. But all except the most virtuous of us are more or less close to being that far gone. All of us need to work at controlling our anger better when it does arise so that we can think we’ll and act justly, and at being able to hear people when they tell us we are being too angry or emotional. It is much easier (at least for most of us) to choose not to get drunk, than to choose not to grow angry when provoked. I’ve been lucky to have been born with a milder disposition overall than many of the people I’ve known, but I am well aware that this exhortation applies to me just as much as anyone else.

It is a vitally important task, and not an easy one. The sooner we get working on it, the more progress we will be able to make, and the more regrettable words and deeds we will be able to avoid going forward.

Conspiratorial doubt

To doubt things is not always bad. Indeed, it can be very good.

If there is inadequate evidence for a belief, then we should seek what good evidence there is, and adjust our conclusions accordingly.

Conspiratorial thinking is notoriously full of doubt. (I was about to say it is notoriously “dubious,” which would also be accurate, but not quite what I was trying to say here.) That is not the problem.

The real problem with conspiratorial thinking is not its doubt but its credulousness. Conspiratorial thinking not only rejects conclusions that have a great deal of high-quality evidence, but it also must embrace alternative conclusions, which are based on much weaker evidence and argumentation.

It is well enough to reject the conclusions of a peer-reviewed paper, or of an expert, or even of an expert consensus (although, as I’ve said elsewhere, there isn’t much that is more reliable for a non-expert than an expert consensus on a matter relevant to their expertise). But to reject that on the one hand, and then to accept the testimony and interpretations of random social media users or of conspiratorial celebrities hungry for attention, does not make much sense at all, to put it kindly.

So then let’s agree to be doubtful, and to replace beliefs grounded in bad evidence with beliefs that are based on the best evidence, and see where that procedure leads us.

But we must agree to follow our doubts into a search for the best evidence, and not just for other evidence, for evidence more amenable to our preferred conclusions. The latter is a waste of time, and worse, a method for increasing confusion and error. If something like the consensus of experts is not compelling enough for you, fine; but you must tell me what higher plane of evidence it is that you take to be authoritative, before we can replace our weaker conclusions with better ones.

Stop changing the subject

I’ve reflected a few times, here, on the conversations I had about conspiracy theories with a very rightwing friend who no longer deigns to communicate with me. I find myself wondering, every so often, how we might have conducted our conversations differently and more productively, mainly so that if I end up in a similar situation again in the future with someone else or even with the same friend if we ever reestablish contact (and I feel quite sure that sooner or later I will indeed end up back in the same situation) I might be better prepared to handle my side as well as I can.

One thing that I found with him, and that I’ve found speaking with many others on a variety of topics (both on the right and on the left) is that if there is freedom to leap from one argument to another to another, without ever dealing properly with any one of them, it tends to end badly. When someone is trying to convince me of something, using arguments that are easily shown to be unconvincing, it seems to be instinctive to take up a strategy of bounding across innumerable arguments so that the weakness of each never has a chance to be fully manifest, and so that the sheer quantity may appear to be its own kind of proof (as if a mountain of garbage were any less putrid than a single item).

Arguing by constantly changing the subject is the last refuge of people who refuse to admit their ignorance and errors.

As soon as I notice this happening, I should insist on putting a stop to it. My zealous and proselytizing friend may choose the topics we will discuss, that’s no problem, but each topic must be dealt with adequately, and we must both agree that it is dealt with adequately one way or another, before the next one is broached.

Perhaps one consequence of this is that the person on the other side will attempt to choose only the strongest arguments to focus on first, rather than choosing topics which will most clearly show the weakness of the position and which will be most painful for the other person to see explored at length.

And if the strongest arguments are agreed to be unconvincing, perhaps the other person will have a glimmer of a hope of recognizing that the belief that is based on those arguments is unsupported and not worthwhile. I do not hold out much hope of the conspiratorial person being able to recognize the error of their ways by means of rational discussion, but at least it will be a small possibility, rather than no possibility at all.

If, at the end of our discussion of a topic, I have in good faith shown the reasons why I don’t find the argument convincing, and if the other person can agree that in fact it wasn’t, in itself, adequate to the task of convincing me (and we will have to do this, or else find ourselves at an impasse and unable to move to the next topic), this will also be less frustrating for the other person. The alternative, of telling me constantly, “Well you’re clearly wrong but enough of that, let’s talk about this other thing” without adequately answering my objections, will lead the other person to feel I have been obstinate in rejecting all the good arguments I have heard, which is not true but is an understandable feeling.

And if there are indeed merits to the argument, then sticking with it will enable me to see why my objections might have been misplaced, which is surely desirable for both of us.

To refuse to agree to this shows nothing but a lack of faith in one’s own evidence. Thus, whether they agree to this rule or not, I will have learned all that I need to know about what they have to say, one way or another.

Parenting and emotions

Parenting has drawn out some of my emotions, and particularly my best emotions, in a powerful and somewhat unexpected way. It has snuck up on me. I feel pride and delight in a measure that I have rarely ever experienced.

That is not to say that my emotional life was entirely arid before children. Especially as a teenager I remember being buffeted by and attracted to powerful emotions. In young adulthood I was drawn to things that evoked awe in me, and in hindsight I can see how much of my thinking was undergirded with anger and bitterness of one sort or another. Fear, of course, is ever-present to one degree or another for us as finite humans. But perhaps it was all somehow more artificial, formulaic, and limited, before.

My emotional response to being a parent has grown with my children. When they were first born, I was glad to be a dad but my emotional response was overall fairly moderate. But as they grew, and their own emotional life developed, and their rudimentary moral psychology began to appear, my emotional engagement with them has similarly grown.

I feel pride when they do the right thing, especially when it is hard for them to do. I feel delight in their joys. I feel anguish for their inner conflicts.

I have also been more sensitized to the primal emotional life of my children, and have tried to shape those currents in ways that are gentle and encouraging. (I must admit that my suspicion is that we parents have less influence on our children than we like to think, and so a large part of what I have to say on the subject may tell more about the good fortune I’ve had to be a father to such good children, than about any special competence I have as a parent.)

I find myself sympathizing with their emotional responses, and trying not to change their emotions, not to make them feel or stop feeling particular feelings, but more to shape the way they interpret and experience those emotions. I don’t want them to deny the way they are feeling, but to be able to recognize it and deal with it in an intelligent, authentic, honest, virtuous way.

That’s something a bit new for me as well. Often, perhaps typically, I aim to keep some distance from the emotional lives of others. I know myself well enough to recognize that I can get caught up in the violent emotions of others, and so I have developed an instinctive emotional separation, a calmness that resists the turbulence around me. Even as I might speak and act sympathetically in the course of a conversation, I am internally resisting having too much actual sympathy and the resultant complications. It’s been a prudent and strong way to respond to a great many situations. But I have without effort found myself relating differently to my own children, and that’s been a real joy as well, somehow.

Abstract fascination with extremists

I go through phases where I watch videos on YouTube from Vice News about far right extremists and American militias and such. For some reason I’m fascinated with it. I find that I have strongly mixed and contradictory feelings about the subject.

On the one side, I dislike a very great deal of what these groups and individuals stand for, and find myself deeply unimpressed with the quality of thinking evinced among representatives of this tradition. That’s why I tend to consume reporting about them rather than anything produced by them.

It makes me sick, and violently repelled, to hear the way these folks justify their actions and projects. In everything I have found so far there is a deeply conspiratorial way of thinking, largely out of touch with reality, divorced from what is known and knowable. There is also frequently a hateful side to it, hatred directed toward the weak and the unfortunate, hatred, that is, which is turned against those least deserving of it.

When I meet the sort of person who believes the sort of things used to justify extremism, my reaction tends to fall somewhere between amusement and annoyance and anger.

But strangely, there’s something about the extremists that I also find compelling and somehow haunting.

I think part of it is the type of purpose and community that they have. I can see why some people are drawn to them. It’s a unique thing that is not widely found in modern, liberal nations. They have torn off the limiting comforts and amusements of our contemporary economy, have broken out of the bland niceties prescribed by today’s social code. They aren’t just passing time and getting by, trying to win a game that doesn’t matter.

There’s more to it. It’s hard to put my finger on. I think if society falls apart (a possibility that doesn’t seem so ridiculous here in the 2020s), the people who did things properly, who got a good job and a nice house and a couple cars and watched tv and went on vacations, will probably not be in a good place. The extremists, because of the activities they participate in and the knowledge they study, might be much better off. What do we do with that fact?

Two favourite lessons from philosophy

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy, for quite a number of years now. There are a number of teachings or lessons that I’ve absorbed, that have shaped me pretty deeply and that have influenced my decisions even at pretty key moments in my life.

There are two teachings in particular, however, that have most profoundly impressed me from the very first moment I encountered them, and which have ever since been never very far from my thoughts. They are fairly similar to one another in a certain respect, but they are also distinct enough from one another that I feel they can’t really be combined into a single thought.

The first one is from Plato. It strikes me as being almost the most daring and brilliant thing that could be said about morality. I can’t justify that claim, but it is the way it seems to me.

It is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. This is not the way it seems to us by nature, but I would hesitantly say that if we believe morality is anything more than a polite fiction, we cannot help recognizing the truth in it, at least on some level. And to hear this explicitly articulated and to accept it as true and important, is to turn one’s whole world upside down. If there is only one thing I wish everyone could learn from the philosophers, this would be it.

The second teaching I picked up from Elizabeth Anscombe, from what she says about the doctrine of double effect. I know she would say it wasn’t original to her, but I have found it nowhere else so clearly and compellingly communicated.

Evil consequences entail no guilt for a good act, and good consequences impart no merit to an evil act. People certainly seem, in general, not to accept this as a trustworthy moral principle, even including many people of good character who have thought carefully about moral philosophy. It is counterintuitive to think that it is more important to do the virtuous thing than to protect the people who might be harmed by the effects of a virtuous act. From a consequentialist standpoint, it seems like someone acting thus would only be privileging the feeling of their own clean conscience over the more significant pains suffered by the affected parties. I’m sympathetic to that. Still, Anscombe here seems to me courageously and clearly right. Better to let the whole world perish as the result of a virtuous act than to enter willingly into vice, even if that vice could rescue all of a human species on the brink of destruction. Morally speaking, we should never look to the foreseeable effects to evaluate a given act.

For someone to embrace these two teachings is, I believe, a sure path to virtue and happiness, an escape from confusion and vice. I don’t think many have accepted them, and I’m not even confident that most could accept them, in the world we inhabit. But I can hardly think of anything more important and valuable for us to absorb. So, at least, it has seemed to me.

Zombie Apocalypses

Rousseau proposes in the Emile that it would be a good idea to guide young people to think about the Robinson Crusoe scenario. If you were stuck on a deserted island with minimal materials and tools, what would you do? What would you need to know how to do?

We aren’t entirely without that precise story in our day, but it is much less common, much less intriguing to us somehow. Instead, we have zombies.

Zombie apocalypses are a much more common story type today. There’s something about them that captures our imagination.

What if civilization ended overnight? What if we couldn’t buy food and supplies at the store but suddenly had instead to make, steal, or go without the things we wanted? What if our political structures abruptly disappeared and were replaced with lawlessness and the right of the strong? What if we were no longer protected by the police anymore but had to defend ourselves against hostile multitudes? What if the roads and buildings of our cities were to be overgrown, reclaimed by the wilderness?

People want to think about these things. People use fictional scenarios to work through some of the skills and precautions they might want.

I have one friend who says that the reason he buys guns is because you can’t buy zombie apocalypse insurance, and guns are the closest you can get to such a thing. Now, my friend isn’t literally worried about zombies. But he does seem to worry, to a greater or lesser extent, about the end of civilization.

And that’s a somewhat reasonable thing to worry about.

We should enjoy the benefits of the heritage we have received, but perhaps we should take care not to take it for granted. There have been many times when a “civilized” place has become suddenly lawless, right up to the present day. It might be less likely in some places than others, but nowhere is entirely safe from it.

Perhaps, then, as long as we don’t get overexcited about it, allowing our imaginations to play over the possibilities of a zombie apocalypse is not an entirely worthless exercise.

The Bickering of Fools

Do you know those angry arguments that people sometimes get into? The ones where they end up accusing each other of terrible things, threatening one another, mocking the other, lying in bed awake afterward boiling with impotent fury?

I witnessed one recently. Online, of course.

It was tough for me, because I think the natural instinct in such a situation is to want to try and pick sides, and in this case both sides were manifestly idiotic. Both of them were knowledgeable, well-educated idiots, who could throw around some big words and some important names from the history of philosophy, but no less idiotic for all that.

How frustrating is it to watch two people who are fundamentally ignorant as they are aggressively trading opinions.

Don’t do that. Don’t be that person. Don’t try to convince someone you’re right until you’ve studied the subject so well that you feel you could have an intelligent and respectable conversation on the matter with a subject matter expert who would not need to dumb things down for you or smirk quietly at all the signs of your incomprehension.

Studying is an immeasurably more beneficial way to spend time than bickering.

And once we’ve done some studying, we will probably no longer have any desire to lower ourselves to the level of those who want to bicker ignorantly about things. We can’t always avoid those people, of course, and sometimes it is emotionally a difficult thing to ignore the mockery of the ignorant. But at the very least I think we’ll find that we have little impetus from within ourselves to debate those who have no desire to make an effort to educate themselves, and that alone will be a great advantage to us in terms of our happiness and even of our intelligence.

Beating your bias

Scientific consensus and the best of the ideologues. Those two phrases represent the best ways that I’ve found so far to beat my own biases.

We all start out biased. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a starting point. It’s better than starting from nowhere and nothing.

But biases aren’t really an entirely good thing either. As biases, they are partial. They get at some piece of the truth, but they exclude things too. Not only do they neglect or ignore some things that we ought to accept, but they actively oppose us to those things, incline us to fight against what we should embrace. As long as that’s our position, we are warped, misshapen intellectual monstrosities.

Insofar as we can beat our own biases, we end up miles ahead of everyone else who hasn’t even managed to do that much yet. Trying to find a way to escape your biases is the most basic level of clear thinking. But even just doing that demands huge effort.

And I know there are some people who have no desire to escape their biases and are proud of it, and will scold anyone for having such an outdated desire in the first place. They will have no interest in what I wish to say, and I am happy to leave them, in turn, to their devices.

But if we want to start to extricate ourselves from bias, there are two things I’ve found to be most helpful. Firstly, a respect for expert consensus. It’s not necessarily a good idea to accept at face value everything said by a person with letters after their name, though if that’s all a person has access to it’s better than nothing. But much better is to see what consensus exists in a field, and commit beforehand to accepting it as the best that can be said at this point (at least from the perspective of that one field; often different fields will contribute different perspectives on a single question, which need to be integrated together as much as possible). We as non-experts aren’t in a position to judge between experts who disagree with one another, but the consensus within a field shows how the people who are experts pass judgement on such disputes. Expert consensus can certainly be wrong, but it is the best we have in any given moment. By following the consensus rather than hand selecting the experts we want to believe, we eliminate a lot of the contamination our biases can introduce.

And beyond that, it is good to try to find the best representatives of an opposing view and learn as much truth from them as it is possible to find. It’s a way to trick our minds into opening up beyond the point they are usually capable of. This doesn’t necessarily take us out of our biases, but it certainly begins to broaden our views in a powerful way. Find the best libertarians and see what intelligent things they have to say. Find the best socialists, conservatives, progressives, reactionaries, pacifists, militarists, atheists, theists. It is amazing how much there is in apparently opposite viewpoints that can be extracted and drawn together.

BJJ shapes and aims

I’m very much a beginner in BJJ. I spend a fair bit of time thinking about it, though.

I’ve heard, and my experience corroborates it, that learning BJJ as it’s often taught, as a sequence of moves, is not the best. That sequence you learned and practiced against an in resisting opponent, will not translate into actual sparring. Basically never.

What actually happens, I think, at least for me, is that you learn to recognize particular goals to seek in a particular situation, and a variety of . . . shapes, let’s say, that can be helpful for accomplishing a given goal.

If I’m in closed guard, I want to get the guard open and pass the legs. That’s the goal. Not the only possible one, but still a fairly common one, worth pursuing. I know I can do that while kneeling by angling myself and pushing down and then sort of swimming forward. I can do it standing if while hand fighting I stand up with one leg forward and one back, and push down on the legs and then sort of dive toward the torso while trying to keep limbs from getting in my way.

I could also try to tire out the other person (or rest up myself) by cupping my hands against the inside of their elbows, pushing my head onto their chest, and driving forward. Different goal, different shape, but still a goal and a shape.

Obviously, those are not very technical explanations of what to do, but that’s the whole point. Certainly for myself, once I start rolling against a resisting opponent, that’s as much as I can remember from a technique, when I can remember anything. You learn pretty quickly that when you try to think of a technique as a sequence of steps while rolling (“and then I put my knee here, and then I post my hand here, and then I catch an underhook, and then I step around to the side, and then”) it doesn’t work out so well.

And to be charitable, I’m pretty sure the teachers know that the sequences they teach won’t be remembered and wouldn’t be very useful, and that (even if they wouldn’t put it in these words) what is taken away from the lesson is goals and shapes, and that that is the only useful thing that could be taken away. In this day and age, though, I wonder if those useful things, or at least many of them, could be as easily learned on YouTube for free and then brought to an open mat to practice.