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Thursday
Mar252010

Its Not Anything

"Your 'reality' (what to you is the real world) is playing either of two functions: it is either the concernful environment of your needs and is known by sharp, interesting figures against empty grounds, or it is a screen for your projections. If the latter, you will attempt to make the projections conform with observation — you will always be seeking proofs, making mountains out of molehills, or otherwise distorting your perspective." - Dr. Fritz Perls


Using a social "inquiry" website called Formspring.me, I've come to know friends, acquaintances as well as myself better through the asking and answering of questions about myself and others. What has struck me with some of the responses is the revelation of biases about the world that many of us hold. In the quote above, Dr. Perls, the father of Gestalt therapy insists that the world is one of indifferent abundance (an event level observation, as Korzybski would call it) or it is muddled by inferences, assumptions and unverifiable perceptions (a reversal of order.)

One such assumption that many hold is that "life has not given me anything" or that "life is no good for me." It would be irrational to assume that life must give you anything or that life must be good or bad. If life was to unfold around you without your interaction with it, we would still be stuck in caves, venturing out only as often as we needed to nourish ourselves with food and water. Once we travel through childhood and adolescence, we begin to individuate and carve our own path through life. We must depend on ourselves for fulfillment; intellectual, physical and spiritual (whatever that may entail.) If we sit idly and wait for life to approach us, we should soon realize nothing will come.

Yet people sit. They wait. They croak and wither under the pain of disappointment as life passes them by. Their regrets overwhelm them and they are lowered into the ground with frowns plastered on their faces.

Life is chaotic, but we can enjoy it. Reality is a place that holds whatever we project on to it. By observing it in its natural state and describing what we can sense rather than telling ourselves what we believe to be there, we can navigate it with less fear and apprehension and lend our causation into the grand ecology of what the world has to offer.

Sunday
Mar212010

Uncertainty and its Virtue

"[B]elief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence." - Robert Anton Wilson


"If you go into any party or place where people conversationally interact with one another, you will find that half the energy is spent in trying to convince the other that you have the right idea." - Ernst von Glasersfeld

In the social sciences, something that I am well acquainted in as I hold my BA in Political Science and study toward an MA in Media and Communication, it becomes apparent that the ideas that construct the landscape of debate are hypotheses with no extensional, definitive answer. Politics is no more a science than literature, which is no more a science than religion - it is purely the domain of human agency. No scientific test can answer "Will this legislation improve society?" since it is by and large an unanswerable question. Even as our entire existence relies upon chance, uncertainty and probability we as humans never fail in our capacity to believe in perfect exactitude within our own thinking.

Rigid, inflexible thinking has produced much of the horrors of the human age. Dogmatic, two-valued (i.e., right vs. wrong, good vs. bad) thinking has invariably produced the Crusades, the Holocaust and other unimaginable terrors. Atheists invariably turn their ire toward religion as causing these ills and many more. Religionists believe that Atheists will lead us toward a lawless, immoral society due to their non-belief or disputation of a God.

"Is there a God" is, at this present time, an unanswerable question, much like the question of "What does the dark side of the moon look like" until the invention of lunar spaceflight. There is no test, no measuring device, no real way of knowing definitively either way. In my estimation, there is a high probability of the non-existence of a God, but this is my own rationally-derived guess based on my own ideas, my own studies and etc. I can no more prove that God exists than saying that Heavy Metal is the greatest music ever created.

I can agree with the assertion that religion and the Bible is not the word of (a) God; it did not appear spontaneously - it was written by humans for consumption by other humans. The Catholic Church is administered by humans and was created for the benefit (and detriment) of humans.

Despite the empirical evidence that religion is the sole domain of humans without aid from divine intervention, it does not absolutely disprove an existence of a God, it merely confirms that humans conceive a creator in these certain images (Jesus, Buddha, Allah etc.) which has been widely accepted (or foisted upon them) by others. The Christian model of God differs from the Jewish model and the Islamic model and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary or to the affirmative, all models are equally valid.

Leaving the debate as to whether religion "poisons all things" or subjugates certain peoples, it does force people into Aristotelian, two-valued thinking if they so choose to believe all premises offered by their chosen religion. Humans in their own agency have the choice to follow a religion - irrespective of the consequences of its renunciation or not - just as much as they have a choice in which football team to favor.

Telling someone they are wrong in matters they themselves cannot prove does not confirm their rightness. Karl Popper, the philosopher accused Theism of being "worse than an open admission of failure, for it created the impression that an ultimate explanation had been reached." Now (some strands of) Atheism offer the same ultimate explanation, mostly through the works of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.

The current scientific paradigm that prevails today is that this evolutionary process is the explanation for humanity's current form. However, a scientist would also concede the point that Darwin's theory could one day be invalidated by a superior conjecture and hypothesis as our technology grows. So even Darwin's theory has a very high probability of being true-to-fact and true-to-observation, but cannot be deemed 100% correct.

Of course, the virtue of being content in verisimilitude is that it relieves a lot of mental pressure on being totally "right" all the time. One can sit back and explore his own universe and marvel at its complexity. Then again, you could tell me I'm full of shit - and that's fair enough too!

Friday
Mar122010

Humanity to Man

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5.20

Over the past few days, I've seen the minds of others turn to anguish and despair due to the actions of significant others. In their estimation, the action of the other - dumping them, hurting them, acting out against them - signifies an attack on their character, that they are no longer worthy of others' acceptance or love. On the contrary, their lovability and capacity to accept such love has not diminished in any way or form; they more or less are as they were prior to these events transpiring.

So why the inevitable turn to self-loathing and victimization when these relationships fail, even if it is of no to little fault of their own? Where is the rule that dictates this rigorous mental self-flagellation must occur? It may stem from a false-to-fact belief that their significant other is the only arbiter of romantic love and care for them and that this love must be given at all times otherwise the world is cruel, spiteful and out to get them.

In reality, save for the few who have only had one relationship prior (and have little experience of breaking up, conflict, etc.) the granting of love and care is ultimately a choice that is entered into mutually with varying degrees of intensity across both (or even multiple) parties. Rationally, if the choice is not beneficial to either or both parties, then another choice can be made as to repair or discontinue the relationship. It is also a choice to further the relationship by exchanging gifts, taking holidays together, moving in and marrying etc. This choice may be "obvious" and seen not even as a choice at all despite the perceived undesirable yet still viable alternatives (staying in one's own house, for example) that are available to either party.

Like any human with human rationality and agency, the choices we make are our own responsibility. It would be unfair to blame another for the choices that we make, even if they are reached by consensus in a romantic (or even platonic) relationship. Just because you were chosen by another as significant does not mean they afford you special dispensation when this significance is later withdrawn for whatever reason. One must always take care of himself within or without a relationship - how could one have functioned prior to the relationship forming with this belief? It was never and never will be the responsibility of someone else to take care of a rational, functional, adult human being. It would be rational to remember that your significant other was once an indifferent; it is not inconceivable to think that one day they may return to that role once again.

Tuesday
Feb232010

What do you know?

"How do we know what we know?" was a question posed by psychologist and Palo Alto Mental Research Institute member Paul Watzlawick (working with such prestigious alumnus as Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir and Jay Haley) in a book he edited with a similar title.

So, how do we separate inferences and biases from our map-making or ideation of the world?

Consider an artist meeting a group of people. One works as an electrician, another as an accountant, the third a graphic designer. Introducing himself as well as his occupation, the abstraction process begins almost instantly. The electrician and the accountant, unfamiliar with art figure he is a painter of portraits. The designer, however, cannot accept his abstraction so easily and make a reversal of order and thus probes further. Suddenly, it is revealed that the artist sculpts figures from stone. What we seldom achieve is the self-awareness to ask ourselves how we arrive at our conclusions. Is it intensional assumption or extensional reasoning by way of evidence and testing?

If the accountant and electrician had not gone further in their inquiry they would only have partial knowledge of the artist's extensional occupation - they would have the word the artist used to describe himself and no other real, concrete knowledge. Their maps would be incomplete, shaded by unconscious biases and internal referential indexes based on what they had encountered previously, not in the present moment. Of course, artist1 is not artist2, yet it seems awfully convenient to coddle together all artists into an indeterminate class to save on time and mental energy.

I ask the question; does a culture that demands instant gratification inevitably demand the dissolution of knowledge into the manageable and familiar, possibly restricting the range and probity of thought and inquiry?

If expediency breeds increased probability for error, as has been demonstrated in so many cases, could the same lust for rapidity erode maps, distorting them to such a degree that it impairs sane and rational judgment? We are all guilty of this and oftentimes it leads us into despair and ruin. I would implore all people to use their nature's gift of self-reflection and self-awareness to avoid such semantic and symbolic traps and to use their nervous systems and the nervous systems of others for the greatest outcome. How? By routinely asking questions and (almost) never staying satisfied with the first answer you get.

In the words of Robert Anton Wilson: "Doubt. Doubt that you have doubted enough. Doubt your doubts." Never take anything on its face value; the world is infinitely complex and in constant flux; those that attempt to answer simply and definitely we should be especially skeptical of.

Wednesday
Mar112009

A Guide to Grabbing Cash while Impoverishing Science

After flipping through a magazine to pass the time, I noticed an article on the worldwide phenomenon of "self-healing" - "The Power of Now", the name of a self help book authored by "spiritualist" Eckhart Tolle. While I have no claim to refute or confirm his methods validity or usefulness since I have no basis for a scientific, rational study, I do however take offense to his writings as since they are almost direct reproductions of Gestalt Therapy, a method of psychotherapy and individuation formulated by Dr. Fritz Perls in the early 1970s.

After some even very preliminary readings, it seems that Mr. Tolle has merely taken most of the Dr. Perls' Gestalt therapeutic teachings, cloaking them in Christian mysticism so as to appeal to a new "spiritualist" market.

For example, an extract from Mr. Tolle's book reads:

In your everyday life, you can practise [this exercise] by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention. For example, every time you walk up anti, down the stairs in your house or place of work; pay close attention to every step, every movement, even your breathing. Be totally present. The moment you realise you are not present, you are present. Or when you wash your hands, pay attention to all the sense perceptions: the sound and feel of the water, the movement of your hands, the scent of the soap. Or when you get into the car, after you close the door, pause for a few seconds and observe the flow of your breath.

Similarities can easily be found with Dr. Perls' work, bolded sections that correspond to Mr. Tolle's writings:
(1) Maintain the sense of actuality—the sense that your awareness exists now and here. (2) Try to realize that you are living the experience; acting it, observing it, suffering it, resisting it. (3 ) Attend to and follow up all experiences, the "internal" as well as the "external," the abstract as well as the concrete, those that tend toward the past as well as those that tend toward the future, those that you "wish," those that you "ought," those that simply "are," those that you deliberately produce and those that seem to occur spontaneously. (4) With regard to every experience without exception, verbalize: "Now I am aware that ..."

...walk, talk, or sit down; be aware of the proprioceptive details without in any way interfering with them.

Also, the resemblance becomes starkly apparent in the following tracts:

Tolle:

If you keep your attention in the body as much as possible, you will stay in the Now. [...] When you are unoccupied for a few minutes and especially last thing at night and first thing in the morning, "flood" your body with consciousness. Lie flat on your back. Close your eyes. Choose different parts of your body to focus your attention on briefly at first: hands, feet, arms, legs, abdomen, chest, head ... Feel the life energy inside those parts as intensely as you can. Stay with each part for about 15 seconds. Then let your attention run through the body like a wave a few times, from feet to head and back again.

Perls:
As you sit or lie comfortably, aware of different body-sensations and motions (breathing, clutching, contracting the stomach, etc.), see if you can notice any combinations or structures—things that seem to go together and form a pattern-among the various tensions, aches, and sensations. Notice that frequently you stop breathing and hold your breath. Do any tensions in the arms or fingers or contractions of the stomach and genitals seem to go with this? Or is there a relationship between holding your breath and straining your ears? Or between holding your breath and certain skin sensations? What combinations can you discover?

While Dr. Perls uses the language of science and Mr. Tolle uses non-sensical abstracts such as "life energy", it seems that "The Power of Now" is a religious rehash of field tested, empirical science.

Mr. Tolle even ransacks one of the many psychotheraputic techniques from Dr. Albert Ellis, father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy to comprise one of his many "life-lessons." While Mr. Tolle can refute the claims and brush them off as coincidence (although I doubt that he could do so successfully) its disheartening that so many people would flock towards his spiritualist re-interpretation of already established therapies grounded in science - and let Mr. Tolle get away with it.