Is there an Opinion so Stupid Only an Idiot Could Believe it?

The other day, I ran across a blog post from an author who was castigating American women for “whining” about rape and sexual harassment.  The author’s excuse was that he had recently read about an Afghan woman who, in some sense, has it worse than “anything American women encounter”.   And his reasoning — if one might call it “reasoning” — was that, since the Afghan woman is being treated worse than American women, American women have no right to complain.

In the small town in which I grew up, we had what were called “village idiots”.   Those were folks who, for whatever reason, were not likely to benefit from efforts to inform or instruct them.   Most of them were nice enough people.  It’s just that they could not learn or think as well as the rest of us.   In my small town, you typically knew enough about each other that you did not need to guess who the village idiots were.  Unfortunately, it’s not that way on the internet.   On the internet, you sometimes need to guess.

Especially if you’ve only read one post by him or her.  So, you’re not always sure that someone is incapable of benefiting from constructive criticism.  Yet, I’m pretty sure the author of that Afghan piece is a village idiot.  Anyone who reasons as he did, has all but got to be one.  Correcting him isn’t likely to have any effect.  He doesn’t need criticism — he needs care-taking.

I remember one village idiot from my home town who was my age.  He wanted nothing more in life than a motor scooter.  But his parents refused to give him one — knowing he was incapable of handling one.  Still, he begged and begged.  Finally, after he was 30 or something, his parents finally broke down and gave him a motor scooter.   But — in order to keep him out of trouble — they forbid him to take the scooter onto the city streets.  He was only to ride in his own, large backyard.

In the backyard was a clothes line.   The idiot got on his scooter, raced straight for the clothes line at the far end of the yard, failed to duck, and decapitated himself.

I was put in mind of that poor idiot when I read the post alleging American women have it too good to complain about rape and sexual harassment.  It seemed to me the author of that post no more knows how to handle reasoning than that village idiot in my small home town knew how to handle a clothesline.

Yet, I wonder if I could be wrong.

It seems it is routine for otherwise intelligent people to indulge themselves in nuggets of utter stupidity.  For instance, there are people who stupidly deny evolution but who are otherwise intelligent people.  So is the “idiot” I ran across the other day — the idiot who believes American women have it too good to complain about rape and sexual harassment —  a thorough-going idiot or just a part-time idiot?

In my hometown, you knew who the true idiots were because you had years of experience with them.  You also knew that nearly anyone can have an idiotic opinion now and then: After all, humans are notably poor at reasoning logically*.   But you could sort out the full-time idiots from the part-time idiots because you knew folks so intimately.   Over the net, you often don’t know people well enough to know whether or not any particular idiotic idea they harbor is actually the norm for them.

All of which now brings me to the question of whether there is an opinion so stupid that one would necessarily need to be a complete and utter idiot to believe it?  That is, an opinion so stupid that even a mere part-time idiot could not seriously hold it.

If so, what is that opinion?

(I am tempted — but only tempted —  to say that opinion is that American women have no right to complain about rape and sexual harassment because Afghan women have it worse.)

I find it interesting to take the question seriously.  At least, for the moment.  I doubt there really is any opinion — no matter how stupid — that is so stupid only a thorough-going idiot could harbor it.  Instead, I think that otherwise intelligent people can hold even the world’s most stupid opinions.

And if that is true — if even the most stupid opinions can be held by reasonably intelligent people — what does that bode?  What does it imply?

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*There are scientists who argue that reasoning in humans did not evolve as a means to arrive at true conclusions, but rather evolved as a means to win arguments.  Hence, the many cognitive biases and errors that humans are prone to indulge in when reasoning.  Also hence, the tendency of even the best of us to have idiotic ideas now and then.

The Challenge of Uncertainty

I think to varying degrees, many of us have been taught the challenge is to arrive at a firm opinion or belief.  And, of course, it helps if that’s also a true belief.

At times, it seems as if we think the human mind somehow finds it difficult to harbor a conviction.  Yet, after seven or eight years of reading debates and discussions posted on popular internet forums,  I suspect most of us might be too certain of our beliefs and opinions.

That is, it does not seem we humans have as much of a problem being certain as we have a problem being uncertain.

At the root of this problem I think is the human desire for permanence.  That desire manifests itself in many ways, but one way seems to be how it manifests itself as a fetish for convictions.  I think the sense is, if our beliefs last, so do we.

It might be that the real challenge is — not to have a firm opinion or belief — but to be open to learning something new.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

How Black and White Thinking Limits Living

Black and White Morals

Do younger people see things in black and white terms more often than older people?

A couple days ago, a friend and I were talking about a discussion we’d had with some other folks — folks much younger than either one of us.  The discussion was mostly on morality.  And both my friend and I noticed the younger folks pretty much dealt in moral absolutes.

My friend would offer up a problem, such as whether it was ever right to cheat on your spouse, or whether a woman should ever marry for money.  Some of the answers she got back were conventional; some were unconventional.  But both the conventional and the unconventional answers were usually couched in black and white terms, in moral absolutes.

Almost no one responded with, “It is sometimes right, but there are exceptions”, or “It’s mostly right, but it’s not perfectly right.”

I started pestering our young friends with annoying statements along the lines of, “I know someone who is grateful that his wife cheated on him.  He says it broke up their failed, abusive marriage — which he nevertheless would not have left, had his wife not run off with another man.”  But my examples were simply swallowed by my audience’s absolute certainty that moral matters could always be reduced to straightforward calculations of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad.

Although the discussion was mostly on morality, there was also a similar tendency to see things in black and white terms when it came to other subjects.   For instance, when we discussed gender roles, everyone except my friend and I thought they were fairly static.  For instance, men were either attracted to looks or they were not attracted to looks, but few seemed to think men were sometimes primarily attracted to looks and sometimes primarily attracted to other things.

Why Black and White Thinking?

If it is indeed the case that younger people are more often black and white thinkers than older people, then I suppose that might be because the human brain typically develops an ability to think in terms other than black and white around the ages of 13 to 15.  Thus, for some young people it’s a relatively recent innovation to think “in shades between”, and they might not have had time to fully incorporate that kind of thinking into the ways they look at the world.

Living a Full Life

So far as I know, thinking in black and white terms is not all that conducive to experimentation.  The fewer exceptions you see to the rules, the fewer opportunities you see for experimentation.

Of course, there might be some things you probably do not want to experiment with.  Yet, even ruling out those things, there is plenty in life that should be experimented with.

While there seems to be no standardized program — no syllabus of things everyone should experiment with — I have yet to meet someone of any age, young or old, who could not use a bit of novelty in his or her life.

It is often said that life is an exploration, a journey, rather than a destination.  But for it to be a journey, there must be exploration.  There must be some risk of the unplanned and unexpected.  Otherwise, life would not be a real journey, for you can no more plan every event in a real journey than you can plan spontaneity.

To the extent that black and white thinking reduces the opportunities for experimentation, it is incompatible with the fullest exploration of life.  In effect, one thus becomes imprisoned by one’s own mind.

New Rule: When You Lose Your Religion, You must Blog about it.

It is such a common thing to do, it might someday become a rule of etiquette.  If you lose your religion — the religion you grew up in — you must start a blog about it.  If you don’t, you will be accused of bad form!

Yet, regardless of whether it ever becomes a rule that you must blog after losing your religion, some of the best written, most insightful blogs I come across started that way.  And so far as I can see, they frankly outclass most — but not all — of the religious blogs.  Especially if you include in the “losing your religion” category blogs written by people who swapped the religion of their childhood for unaffiliated spirituality.

Maybe the losing your religion blogs are so often powerfully written because losing your religion can be — to put it mildly — disturbing.  And “disturbing” experiences have always been one of the fuels of immediate, fresh, and forceful writing.

So why are people who blog about it losing their religion?  Well, from what I’ve seen, there are two primary reasons.  The first gets the most attention, but — oddly enough — might be the less motivating reason.  Namely, the blogger left because he or she could no longer intellectually accept as true the theology or scriptures of the religion.  Typically, their doubts began to mount until one day some point in particular became the straw that broke the back of their faith.

A second reason — and it seems to me a moving one — is they discovered their religion was repressing them.  That is, if you listen to the bloggers, they are often folks who discovered their religion was not helping them to be who they are, but was actually opposed to who they are.

Maybe they were a strong woman in a patriarchal faith.  Maybe they were a homosexual in a homophobic faith.  Maybe they were an intellectual in a mind-numbing faith.  Or maybe they felt they had a spiritual side that was not only unaddressed by their faith, but actively suppressed by it.  Whatever the reason, they are people who discovered their faith was detrimental to their being authentic.

Both the bloggers who left because they could no longer swallow the theology or scriptures of their faith, and the bloggers who left because they could no longer stomach the spiritual oppression of their faith, have frequently been accused by some of the faithful of being petty and malicious in denouncing their former faiths.

Yet, that strikes me as self-serving.  I think it would be more accurate to say the bloggers are, in some sense, mourning their loss.  If they feel anger towards their old faith, I think that’s usually part of the process of any mourning.   Wasn’t it Kübler-Ross who first pointed out that we typically go through — and all but must go through — an anger phase when we mourn a loss?

Now, my survey is about as scientifically rigorous as a limp noodle, so please take my impressions for what they are  — impressions.   But, if my impressions have any degree of accuracy, then perhaps a significant number of people are leaving religion because they find it fundamentally opposed to them.   Aimed at their heart and minds: They find in religion an aggressor.

Can Men and Women be Just Good Friends?

I had a drinking game I liked to play when I was in school.  The goal was to guess someone’s religion based on their answers to a short series of questions.  The catch?  The questions couldn’t be about religion.  Instead, the questions had to be about love and sex.

The game fascinated me.  I got so into it, I would keep a running tally of hits and misses from which to work out a “career average” for correct guesses.  I couldn’t get over how often you could match someone to the religion they grew up in with no more than the answers they had given you to three or four questions about love and sex.

To be sure, I did not try for the denomination.  The categories were Catholic, Liberal Protestant, Conservative Protestant, Jewish, or Mormon.  In other words, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of religious diversity.  Back then, most everyone fit into one or another of those categories.

I can only recall one of the core questions now, but it was my favorite because I felt it did more work than the other questions in allowing me to figure out someone’s religious background.   If I was asking a woman, for example, I would phrase the question this way, “Do you feel men and women can be just good friends, without having sex?”  Followed by, “Why or why not?”

I read a blog post tonight that reminded me of that game.  Specifically, the woman claimed it was all but impossible for a man and woman to be platonic friends.  She said she’d only in her life had one boyfriend she wanted to be real friends with.   And making friends with him had taken 20 years from the time the two of them broke up to the time they were “just good friends”.

Twenty years to make a friend?  After reading that, I figured maybe he and she didn’t bring to the problem the world’s best people skills.  But I also took a look at her “About Me” page, and noticed that her religion fit her attitude that men and women cannot be just good friends.

Religion isn’t everything, of course.  Lots of other things influence how easy it is for men and women to be just good friends.  For instance, the older you are, the easier it gets.  And the biggest influences of all are arguably the individual people involved.  But religion does seem to have an influence on what we tell drunks in college bars about our attitudes towards sex and love.  Of that, I’m reasonably certain.

Bi-Curious Kids and the Ruin of Us All

This is an earthquake issue. This will change our state forever. Because the immediate consequence, if gay marriage goes through, is that K-12 little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it.

– Michele Bachmann

“Perhaps they should try it?”

Well, suppose they did.  Suppose, say, that a heterosexual junior in high school became bi-curious one semester due to a lecture on homosexuality in his or her sex education class, and gave it a shot?  For the sake of argument, let’s say they engaged in protected sex with a classmate.

What would be the most likely outcomes of a bi-curious youth experimenting with his or her sexuality?

Not the worse outcomes.  Because the worse usually doesn’t happen.  If you want to go by worse outcomes, please first explain why anyone should get married or drive a car, because the worse outcomes of marriage and driving are arguably murder by your spouse, and death by accident.  So, let’s go with likely outcomes.

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(H/T: Cognitive Dissenter)