Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Trouble With Risk: Ebola and Human Psychology


Many are aware of F.D.R's oft quoted remark that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Out of context and on the face of it, this is ridiculous. Fear is a tool of assessment, like all emotions are, a means of ascertaining what it is we hold of value. The full quote is as follows: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." In its fullness, it is clear F.D.R. had quite the grasp of human nature. Indeed, as a rule for understanding the irrational creep of emotionalism, simply replace "fear" with any other, be it "love" or "lust" or "anger." The mark of a healthy level of emotion is whether it pushes us to act to gain a better understanding of and acknowledge the collective responsibility concerning whatever has inspired the reaction.


In the wake of the American Ebola crisis, for it is certainly not an epidemic here and even calling it an outbreak sounds almost hyperbolic, there is a concern about human psychology in American society. We as a people are not inevitably rational creatures. This may sound obvious, but the way in which it works is not. How our relational lives emerge in connection to our personal narratives and other people is a foundational link to the communal creation that is community. To better understand our irrationality, we can turn to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

In their book Thinking: Fast and Slow, Kahneman details the social and personal implications of the research he and Tversky have done. The sheer magnitude of their findings is a death-knell for the simplistic and naive notion of humanity as "rational animal." However, neither does the information require delving into cynical apathy concerning human decision-making. Through a better understanding of how our minds organize our experiences and make decisions, we can begin to curb the emotional excesses that lead to irrational anxiety and diminish our judgment of those too quickly mocked as being stupid.

First, let's look at how the mind is organized. Kahneman defines two modes of thinking, calling them Sysem 1 and System 2. "System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration." (Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (pp. 20-21). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)

Importantly there are two things that must be understand about this systems approach. One, these two systems are not completely separate and while 2 can help mitigate the effects of 1, it can never remove those effects entirely. We simply cannot live our lives, as the human beings we are, by focusing exclusively on one system or the other. Our lives are made experientially seamless by the ebb and flow of the entirety of mental life. Using the metaphor of System 1 and System 2 simply helps us in figuring out how that happens. Two, classifying one as emotional or irrational and the other as rational is too simplistic and falsely encourages a division in the understanding of ourselves that is unhelpful.

All that being said, for the sake of simplicity, almost to the point of definitional inadequacy, System 1 is lazy and System 2 effortful. That System 1 is associated with perception and memory tells us a lot about how we construct our lives, but the focus here is on fear and decision-making. With that in mind and to help in understanding why someone who merely threw up on an airplane is locked away in the lavatory or a teacher is sent home for merely visiting Texas for an education conference, we turn to one of the conclusions Kahneman explains.

"How do people make the judgments and how do they assign decision weights? We start from two simple answers, then qualify them. Here are the oversimplified answers:

- People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events.

- People overweight unlikely events in their decisions.

Although overestimation and overweighting are distinct phenomena, the same psychological mechanisms are involved in both: focused attention, confirmation bias, and cognitive ease." (p. 324).

The ramifications of these two answers are numerous, but in the case of fearing events, they explain a great deal of our behavior. By overestimating unlikely events, as is the case for coming into contact with and further actually then catching ebola, we lose sight of and cease calmly considering how to go about our lives. By overweighting (essentially placing more emotional baggage upon) unlikely events, our activities are grossly constrained by the improbable rather than the likely. The effect is a race from one anxiety-producing story to the next, with a great loss for considering the many supposed non-events that are happening all the time in our lives, non-events that can provide more depth and emotional positivity.

Turning off these aspects of our minds is about as easy as turning off the immediate answer of 2+2=?, but thankfully we can improve our lives by simply being aware of and actively working to mitigate the effects. Looking at the mechanisms listed by Kahneman, we can come up with three workable mental activities.

1) Broaden Perspective: actively explore more than one event currently occurring in your life.

2) Other Opinions Matter: we like to feel ourselves to be right, so respectfully seek to understand a contrary opinion, even if, or especially if, it sounds ridiculous.

3) Beware of the Easy: if an opinion or reaction seems automatic and you find it difficult to quickly come up with criticisms, you're likely missing something.

We can and must actively, intentionally, engage with the world in which we live and find meaning. The history of our species will have no future and our personal lives will have a great deal more anxiety, if we ignore the way we construct our stories. Ebola is a monstrous event, but letting it overshadow the rest of our lives is even more so.



© David Teachout

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Religion and the Failure of Liberal Thought

Criticizing an ideology is often difficult, prone to hyperbole and notorious for, at least in the mind’s eye of the believer, being unable to differentiate ideas from the adherents themselves. When this ideology is a religion, all of these difficulties become like Bruce Banner when he gets angry. Whatever the difficulty, what a person says about their belief has a causal or correlative connection with their behavior. To dismiss this is to ignore the very nature of humanity’s relationship with it’s existence. With the fate of future generations hanging in the balance, acknowledging and reflectively understanding what people say will determine the course of our unfolding history.

Unfortunately, this dismissal is at the heart of liberal obfuscation where it concerns religion, most recently that of Islam and its currently most vehement adherent, ISIS (or ISIL). President Obama recently stated that: 

"ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state; it was formerly al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria's civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government nor by the people it subjugates.”

There have been quite well articulated criticisms of Obama’s remarks, notably by Sam Harris and Jerry A. Coyne. Their remarks should be read in their entirety. Attempting to make similar statements would be presumptuous as well as audacious. Rather, the attempt here will be to show from within Obama’s comments the deep failure that a blind allegiance to liberal ideology brings, particularly when applied to religion.

On the face of it, stating that ISIL “is not Islamic” is both patently silly and leads to a great bout of head-scratching. The organization has as its goal the establishment of an Islamic world, the head of which sits a caliph, invoking the return of the original ruling elite following the death of Muhammad. If this isn’t Islamic then the Catholic Church isn’t Catholic. Such statements by ISIL are well known and globally spread, leading to the conclusion that Obama must either be completely ignorant of them or he has a different means of ascertaining religious adherence. We find this means in the latter part of the paragraph, where Obama states ISIL is not recognized “by the people it subjugates.” While this can point to a political existence, since ISIL is a religious organization by their own word, then the claim seems that the legitimacy of such lies at the feet of a populace.

As Coyne pointed out, all religions are man-made, so the demarcation between true or not in relation to its connection to an imaginary deity is impossible and foolish to attempt. The legitimation of a religion is and can only be made at the behest of those who adhere to it. With that in mind, then ISIL is certainly Islamic, as protested vehemently by its many adherents. That some of these may be doing so at the point of a gun is undoubtedly what Obama is pointing to, but if belief is to be gainsaid by emotional and physical coercion then there are any number of parental child-rearing tactics that Obama should have equal difficulty with and yet it would appear no bombs are being dropped on America’s heartland. 

Further, the causes of a person’s allegiance to a religious ideology must be differentiated from the reasons for a particular ideology being labeled religious. The first is a psychological/biological/cultural analysis, the latter is ideological identification. One may speak of a deviation, but to dismiss a stated identification by so many adherents and not a few with the scholarship to back up their claims, is to no longer be interested in real dialogue.

That last, the lack of a desire for dialogue, may be in fact what the whole point of liberal escapism concerning religion amounts to. As Obama later states: 

"ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple, and it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”

Connect this statement with the latter of: “no religion condones the killing of innocents” and the result is a tidy, if uninformed and dismissive, rationalization for both not connecting a group with its stated religious beliefs and wallowing in the very ‘us vs. them’ mentality that those groups rather happily enjoy living out of. Terrorism is the bugaboo of the modern politician. It is both a killer of debate and a justification for any action, no matter how ill-conceived, that indicates being against. 

Declaring that ISIL “has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way” begs the question of just what it is they are attempting to achieve that others would be considered as being “in its way.” For that we go back to ISIL’s stated desire for establishing a caliphate and the inevitable connection with Islam emerges. Avoiding this at all costs is the Obama and liberal agenda. 

If what a group says is in no way related to what they do, then words are meaningless, dialogue fails and all that is left is the rule of the gun. Given that the speech given was concerned with justifying a bombing campaign, dehumanizing an enemy and paving the way for irrational violent action seems exactly the point. 

Perhaps most telling is an article written by Volsky and Jenkins in ThinkProgress where they state: "Ultimately, the decision of whether or not one is or isn’t religious is left up to God.” Leaving aside that this insipid comment destroys any legitimacy to their article, the result is a commitment to a brotherhood of a-rationalism. 

For ISIL, the legitimation for their actions reside in a realm untouched by human rationality, humanistic moral criticism or scientific inquiry. By providing the same epistemic justification, removed as it is from any real analysis or criticism, these proponents of liberalism have bankrupted their ideology. That the conservative side has a similar identification on particular issues in no way removes the problem. Indeed, that both fall into the same trap says a great deal about humanity in general and indicates why criticism is so difficult to pursue. In going after ISIL, they’d have to question their own commitments to a deity. 

Manifesting new behavior, new responses to old ideas and habits, requires a commitment to challenging even, or perhaps especially, that which is held to be holy or sacrosanct. By shielding certain ideas from criticism, by refusing to acknowledge the connection between belief and action, the only future ahead of us is a meandering road to our own destruction. We can, we must, be willing to call into question every facet of our existence, else the bright spots of our future will no longer be signals of enlightenment and progress but that of gunpowder.



© David Teachout

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Our Need To Connect Can Lead To False Positives

In the movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks portrays a character who, upon being stranded on an island for several years, forms a deep relationship with a volleyball. The depth of this connection is hugely disproportional to the objective nature of the object in question. A volleyball is quite incapable of interactive communication, however strong a desire exists during a game to be able to do so. Despite this fact of reality, Hanks’s character draws a face on the ball and proceeds to converse with it, forming a bond that, when the ball is lost at sea, results in profound emotional pain. Whatever can be said about this Hollywood depiction of human psychology, the need to have relationship bonds is something we all share due to our inalienable humanity. Further, that need can and will, when unfulfilled, push us to project a connection that exists only in our imagination, even to our detriment.

Research out of Dartmouth College, published in Psychological Science, notes that a belief in loneliness or isolation lowers the threshold at which people declare the presence of animation or humanity in slowly morphing facial images. Confronted with the same progressively morphing images, those who believed they possessed secure attachments required far more human features in the morphing images before declaring they were alive. The alarming part of this was that typically people are far more cautious when declaring the existence of a face being animate or alive. The strength of this finding is that regardless of the people’s real-life relational world, the mere projected belief that such was absent caused this caution to diminish. This says a great deal about how powerful the stories we tell shape our perceptions.

What is not explored are the ramifications for negatively impacting the ability to discern the existence of empathy in others. Empathy is the felt feel of another’s experience. It is the grounding, combined with imagination, of the ability to be conscientious of another’s suffering and react accordingly. Generally speaking, the existence of empathy is negatively associated with behavior that is harmful or negatively impacts another. Further, empathy and its accompanying imaginative component combine to create a resonance or atunement within a relational context. Not being able to sense the depth of someone’s empathy can lead to catastrophic results including abuse, neglect and falsely associating a positive feel to a relationship form that is anything but.

The Relational Principles I have created help in broadening the understanding of human relational reality. In this case, Principles 3 and 5 concern the subjective nature of perspective and how relationship is the foundation of our existence. Put together, these two Principles lead to a recognition that our relationships form out of the contextual nature of the stories we embody. From this, the practical result in everyday living is that our relationships are only as honest, open and beneficial as the breadth of our stories allows. At face value this may not seem all that big of a deal, but when relationship is considered as the foundation of our existence the ripple effects are indeed enormous. There is never a moment in our lives that we are not in relationship to something or someone. While it is socially acceptable, even mandated at times, to speak of relationship as only pertaining to the romantic and/or sexual, the fact remains that as a general term for a connection between two objects, we are always in relationship. All that changes is the form such takes.

Let’s bring this back to the research. Regardless of objective reality, the mere projected story of loneliness or lack of emotional attachment leads people to see human-ness in faces where few real characteristics are actually present. When it comes to judging empathy, when it comes to determining the safety or care that another person is giving, the accuracy of such judgment becomes less and less as we do so from a place of loss or lack. The question of “how did I not see it?” in relation to abuse, neglect, or the myriad iniquities that occur in our relational lives is here answered. We don’t see it because of the story we are living from within.

Caveats are plenty of course, notably that our personal stories are not the only variable involved when it comes to falling for unhealthy relationship forms. That there are many aspects of any context is simply a part of living, but with each variable being better understood we become better at constructing the lives that lead to growth and expansion of our selves. The rush of a new relationship bond is certainly not helpful in allowing the cool quality of rationality to intrude, but by reminding ourselves of the reality of our relational existence and the power of our stories, we can begin being more careful in our decision-making when dwelling in narratives that lead us astray.



© David Teachout

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Finding An Identity, Losing Your Self

The quiet lull of the womb quickly and forcefully gets opened by the real world. The noise, the vague sights, all come barging down neuronal paths, blazing trails that will help determine the future of emotion, thought and the stories that bind them all together. For most this is the beginning of a long journey of self-discovery, when "self" is barely recognizable beyond an extension of mother. That journey is one of constant appraisal, both internal and social, in the hope that a singular story will provide focus, intention and direction.

Growing up I watched "The Cosby Show" and during one episode Cosby sat down with the boyfriend of one of his daughters, meeting for the first time. The young man, when asked what he did for a living, explained that he was "on a journey to find himself." Cosby, clearly unimpressed, went into the kitchen and when asked by his wife whether he'd met the young man, responded "I don't know, he hasn't found himself yet." While clearly intended for laughs, the situation is not without a degree of poignancy for each one of us at various times in our lives. We all may not puff out our chests in a fit of intellectual pomp like the boyfriend did, but in every clique and group we belong to and are rejected from, in every career path we envision and life goal we decide upon, there is a desire often reeking of desperation. That desire of belonging, of identifying with a larger group, is prodded along by the ever-close feeling that without belonging then life is unable to have meaning.

Americans especially voice an often quite vocal pride in "being their own person," and undoubtedly there's a chorus of such declarations being made against the last statement. Before jumping on that bandwagon, I'll encourage a pause and reflection. When hearing the descriptor "liberal" or "conservative," is there an immediate emotional reaction? Is the reaction stronger connected to the label that you don't subscribe to? How about relationships? Is there any kind of strong emotional reaction to "monogamous," "single," or "open"? Again, is the reaction stronger when connected to one you don't identify as? How about the terms "management" and "employee" or "the 1%" and "the 99%"? "Feminist"? Whether identifing with or against, the immediate emotional reactions and the mental images brought up associated with them, indicate that regardless of any desire to not be a person of labels, there is an inevitability of such guiding our thoughts/emotions.

Guidance, however, does not have to write the entirety of our stories. From the sectarian conflicts in the Middle World between Sunni, Shiite and Kurds, to the American social turmoil between gays and straights, and religious identification of being a "true" believer, the result is a false division of reality. Whatever may be said about the social, political and historical roots of all these wars of identification, and there's plenty of good analysis to be had, the final point is a recognition of an artificial division of reality that is ultimately unhelpful. Labels are inevitable, they provide an easy means of categorization, but to conflate them with a holistic picture of a person is to also inevitably miss the vast array of other personal facets in existence. This is true whether it be of the person being looked at or the person looking back in a mirror.

I work with dozens of people diagnosed with an array of mental pathologies. Determining what category their behavior generally falls under can and often is helpful in providing care, just as it is helpful in social interactions, to a similarly limited degree, in knowing the labels someone else falls under. I've found though that in every-day interactions, the relationships formed are better, more fulfilling and beneficial to all involved when the person is looked at as a holistic being. The same holds true in all other social interactions.

Social media is often blasted for encouraging isolation, but truly I think it is far more accurate to say that it provides an easy path for parsing and displaying individual facets of ourselves. The jerk who wrote that nasty comment likely goes home and loves their children, even as the compassionate person may go offline and yell at their spouse. Finding an identity is part of life's journey, but it is only an identity. Our self-stories need not be burdened by an over-reliance on any single one.

If we actively engage with an ever-widening array of our potential expressions, we have that much more with which to interact and respond to others and changing circumstances. The reverse is also true, as our reactions to others are keyed to the identities or labels they're placed under, so how we react to others is contingent upon how varied our view of them is. The political opponent is also a spouse, worker, lover, hobbyist, etc. An expansion of perspective helps everyone.




© David Teachout


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Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Futility of Constraining Human Sexuality


Question: If I catch myself staring at this one boy's muscles, does it mean I'm gay?

What I love about my shared humanity is the incredibly powerful biological drives. Certainly there's more to being human than this, but let's just look at the gross biological. We eat and keep on eating well past when it is healthy, and/or place items in our mouths that are not nearly as nutritious as we hope they are, all based on a desire, a drive, for nourishment and calories.

Similarly, our bodies exude sexual energy in near everything we do, the act of movement itself a creative enterprise driven by the need to build, to make, to become. Frankly that's sexual and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. Now, as in the need for calories, our need for sexual release can be exclusively focused on to an unhealthy degree and the things we do to satiate it may not be nearly as helpful as we initially think. The ethical considerations for this are numerous and worth exploring, though at no time should the mere existence of a sexual thought/feeling be judged as shameful or wrong or serve to define the entirety of who you are.

Let me be very clear here, there is absolutely nothing wrong with looking at someone of the same gender and finding they or an attribute about them sexually appealing or attractive. People are beautiful and sexy, period. Ignoring that fact will only encourage a confusion when such thoughts about someone else come up. With that in mind, finding anything attractive about someone else in no way points to any particular sexual orientation.

Now, as to being gay or some other orientation, I'll be honest and note that I find the whole orientation labeling a practice of limitation. I get why it's done and for many there's an empowerment in deciding to focus on an orientation as a means of identity. That's wonderful and I support them utterly in that. Unfortunately what all too often happens is that the thoughts/emotions arising from within our internal/external interconnected worlds do not care about keeping within the boundary of an orientation or any other label for that matter. One way to deal with this is to create new labels and spend our time and energy parsing behavior to such a degree that the label becomes meaningless. Frankly I think we already have a great name for our experience, one that differentiates us from other biological creatures and yet still holds plenty of space for exploring what it means for each person: humanity.

Like who you like, appreciate them for any and all of who they are, always being mindful that there are depths and possibilities for each person hidden from any single perspective. Whether you decide that you're gay, or lesbian, or any other orientation is secondary to dwelling in the magnificence of what is to belong to this shared living experience called being-human.



© David Teachout

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Faith As Leading To Mob-Rule


The Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case has been handed down and then expanded quietly. The immediate response has been nearly constant criticism, calls for women to rise up and declarations of impending religious rule. I've hardly been lacking in reticence for my own shrill pronouncements, so the potential hubris involved in any critique of the criticism is front and center for me. As such I won't be critical so much as point out what most have not, to offer that spirit of dissent I try to keep alive and well within me.

What is commonly missing in most criticism of the Hobby Lobby decision is a recognition of the different means by which people in the religious camp are coming to their conclusions. This absence is so appallingly blatant that despite the Supreme Court noting how the original religious abnegation statute in the ACA contributed to their decision, in a recent attempt by Democrats to mitigate the damage done by the court decision, they have decided to keep the same religious exemption. However one may accurately refer to this as a political stunt in no way removes the glaring absence of understanding what is a foundational problem: that of faith being used as a valid epistemic tool.

The Supreme Court stipulated that the corporation must indicate a "sincere belief." Moving beyond, but not forgetting, this rather insipid means of determining the legitimacy of subjective mental states, the underlying process that supports said belief is left unscathed. The notion that life, by which is meant the divine spark or imago dei, begins at or by the intention of conception, is rationalized only within a religious construct held together by faith.

Peter Boghossian, in a tour de force of redefinition, calls faith "pretending to know what isn't actually known." (1) In other words, a particular piece of declared knowledge has no external or socially objective means of verification, leaving said knowledge wholly within the realm of the internally subjective. Basically faith is the means of establishing warrantless confidence. Let's work backwards from the conclusion of those who "sincerely beiieve" the notion that birth control is a means of abortion. One step before is the belief that abortion is the ending of a life. Further back is the belief that said life is an established manifestation of God's will. Further still, God works in mysterious ways that are his to share if and when he determines are appropriate. Finally, foundationally, God as established in a particular Holy Book, exists. This is not merely ignoring science, this is an internally coherent interwoven set of beliefs that is contrary to the methodology of science. This is not about stupidity, it is about how one frames an understanding of existence.

With this in mind, focusing on the effects of faith is about as useful as removing the symptoms of an illness, the person may be able to go about their daily life easier, but their body is still being ravaged. Indeed, without treating the core disease, the person may find themselves in a worse situation later. Such is precisely where we find ourselves today with religious ideology being legitimized as a means of circumventing legal reasoning.

Faith-based interventions manifest two distinct social problems. One, pretending to know what isn't actually known provides grounds for the legitimacy of delusion. Two, because faith is solely an internal subjective system of knowing, there is no means of correction, no path for deligitimizing any delusional statements. The effective result is mob-rule.

Let's keep "delusion" simply in the realm of "a truth-claim that is objectively unwarranted" rather than delving into pathology. With this in mind we can all, if honest, note previously held ideas that fall into this category. For that matter, it is undoubtedly accurate to say that there are truth-claims currently held by myself or any number of people that are delusional in this sense. This is simply an inevitable consequence of being human and the always tentative quality of knowledge. In a law-based society, the attempt is made to codify in broad social interactions the legitimacy of scientific inquiry and rational dialogue. This maintains a theoretical basis for the interactional quality of existence, that knowledge is tentative and constantly evolving in understanding, and social policy is therefore to be based on what is accessible to all on an equal footing. In other words, no special requirement is to be possessed to understand, debate and possibly change any legal/social policy.

Faith does away with all this. By creating a space where delusion is sacrosanct, where special knowledge gained by means unaccessible on socially equal grounds (i.e. divine revelation), a law-based society is impossible. The very foundation is destroyed. With truth-claims cut off from rational debate, the legitimacy of one's subjective claim is established only by the quantity of adherents. I've heard it said that "one man's cult is another man's religion," the only difference being the breadth of devotees. Within the context of establishing social policy, this is no different than mob-rule.

Fighting a single legal case may win a battle and offer temporary benefit, but the war for human civilization rests on institutionalizing reason and scientific critical inquiry as the means of increasing our knowledge of our existence.


© David Teachout


(1) Boghossian, Peter. "A Manual for Creating Atheists"

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