May 07, 2009

Warning! Independent thought alarm!

The true independents of society are few and far between. It takes a certain callousness to be able to weigh what is seen without automatically fitting it into prior constraints, be they of societal norms or of how we wish to be seen in the eyes of others or even of self-image.

Hardest of all, that last. Once we have come to see in a certain way, we will bend reality around that way of seeing rather than accept any other possibility. For those in a position of authority it is even harder: for others will be all too willing to reinforce our image of ourselves and consequently of reality. There is something deeply engrained in the human psyche which begs others to make sense of the world for them.

Considering how very much we want not to have to think, we work amazingly hard to keep fitting new evidence into existing pigeonholes.

When we most believe we are rationally considering an issue, what we are usually doing instead is either identifying how it fits into our self-perception or explaining it away. Often this will require repackaging what is actually seen into something completely different, something that can safely be accepted or rejected based on what we have defined it to be, rather than on any objective analysis of what it actually is. If we view ourselves as patient, it is much easier to explain away the thing that persistently does not fit as being unreasonable and not amenable to reason, than to consider that perhaps the reason we are patient is because whenever an alien piece of evidence might threaten our serenity, we simply don't let ourselves think about it. In this way, we never permit our worldview to be truly challenged, and so we never grow as individuals.

(If we are patient with others, what feeds our patience? Are we patient out of charity, or empathy, or apathy? Is our patience born of power or powerlessness? Does our patience come out of the security of knowing we will have the last word? Are we able to be patient while hearing and thinking about what the other is saying, or is the nature of our patience simply tuning them out to preserve our Zen? Can we be patient only so long as those in our inner circle support us? Will our patience hold if we find ourselves alone against the world? Are we willing to let others take all the time in the world to agree with us, knowing all along that we can cut them off at any moment if they prove intractable? And if once we know the reason in one case, does it follow that the same reason holds true in another?)

If we are willing to risk seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror, our own actions can show us patterns of behaviour where we have stopped thinking for ourselves and substituted mental algorithms instead. Reactions to change or proposed change are particularly telling, as are reactions strong in one case but not in others which seem on the surface similar, because difference always requires us to make an effort, whether to embrace or resist, while to continue as we are is effortless. The more personally threatening the change, the more likely we are to reject it, even if such rejection requires us to redefine the proposed change into terms we can feel comfortable with rejecting. At the extreme, we will shut down any external sensory stimulus that refuses to be redefined – and if that does not work, we will shut our eyes and ears instead.

If we find that we consistently shut down a particular type of change, no matter how or where it is encountered: our personal judgement can no longer be considered reliable with respect to that type of change. What is more: we will be absolutely convinced, each and every time, that we have given rational arguments against that type of change ... right up until we take a hard look at the pattern of our actions and discover that no argument, no evidence, could ever convince us differently. Once we start substituting mental algorithms for our own judgement in some things, it becomes increasingly easy to substitute related mental shortcuts in other things, until we cease to have free will in any meaningful way.

Of course, all of this only matters if independent thought is considered of value. If it is more important that thought fit easily into an existing belief structure, all of this is moot.

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