The Spectrum of Yes, No, and Maybe

“Realism does not mean that we are able to state correct propositions about the real world. Instead, it means that reality is too real to be translated without remainder into any sentence, perception, practical action, or anything else. To worship the content of propositions is to become a dogmatist. The dogmatist is someone who cannot weigh the quality of thoughts or statements except by agreeing or disagreeing with them.”
Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman, italics in original

 

In our quest to apprehend the really real as best we might, careful reasoning is an indispensable ally. The reality of the ecological situation of the earth today presents itself to us in a collection of fairly complex observations contextualized to be meaningful within a fairly complex set of theories. Any medium which tends towards simplifying complex issues into sound bites will serve the hope of spreading the word about the intensity of the ecological crises poorly. Sound bites might deliver passionate rage but time and again we have seen historically these all too often become just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Conversely any medium that tends towards an appreciation of complexity and care in analysis can be a useful ally in the great work of spreading the word in such a way that people take the message to heart and change their lifestyles. Unlike the fading fashion of emotion dominated sound and fury, a certainty gained through rational analysis remains strong and inspiring despite the changes in the social weather.

As we consider the most probable future which the trends we see around us are bringing about and as we consider our response to this ignorance busy sawing off the very evolutionary limb on which we sit, a level of analysis is called for that respects the complexity of the task. Even with the utmost care in our crafting of theory and our collection of data the subject we are dealing with is the biosphere, an object far beyond our ability to completely capture in our models.

The problem we are trying to solve in both mindfulness and ecology is a lack of proper appreciation for the predicament we are in. The threats to what we hold dear are so dire and so irreversible, properly apprehended they force a person of goodwill to change their lifestyle. The majority of our friends and neighbors are not moved to make such voluntary adjustments because, at least in part, it is so easy not to see the full reality of the situation when you only consider it within a context of abstract generalities.

“Alas, the oceans are dying.”

Let’s consider the possible meaning behind such a statement as construed by two people, one a generalist and the other with a bit more specificity. The first in their moment of biophilia brings to mind a few sound bites and images of garbage in the ocean and maybe what happens to beaches during an oil spill. It is a generalized picture of a problem that fits comfortably beside concerns about tax hikes and every other story in the news. The second person knows about the garbage and the oil spills but they have read books and journals or watched in-depth documentaries and they also know that 90% of the large fish in the ocean are now gone, that acidification is proceeding apace, that acidification threatens the very base of the ocean food chain and scores of other aspects of the current state of the oceans. While still somewhat abstract, this view is less general. By adding more evidence a gripping specificity begins to form in the person’s understanding.

See it is very easy for us to lose sight of the richness of the actual while distracted by non-stop abstractions, generalizations. Compound this with the widespread nature deficit disorder and it leaves us ungrounded in facts as we make our choices both individually and as a society.

Of course the most specific is the actual ocean perceived by the senses. During these times concepts are seen to be much, much smaller than the thing-in-itself. The generalizations that our concepts encourage cannot capture the rich depths of existence within the actual ocean our senses encounter. Even though while standing on the shore the concepts are less, they still provide the context, the mental atmosphere by which these two differently educated persons experience their encounter. Widen this difference between these two by including the other sensory encounters with air, water, weather, forests, soils, biodiversity and mass extinction and the true extent of what is at stake here begins to appear a bit more clearly.

It is useful then to think about how we can take practical advantage of knowing the difference that makes a difference in changing people’s actions and study how to include a more evidence rich perspective. A model of how we come around to understanding and believing as we do would be quite helpful. We are going to explore a model that has full mathematical rigor by using a number of pictures and very few equations. The pictures are the more important part for our purposes.

Mindfulness practice is about changing the way one is aware of the world and all the wonders in it. With these pictures and this model an alternative is being developed to the typical attitude normally taken when considering people’s knowledge and beliefs. The domination of knowledge by experts unfortunately leaves the impression that simple answers are available if only we can find the right sources. It leaves the experience of our inner world of thinking as bare as a bureaucratic form with check boxes for yes / no or as barren as a multiple choice test with a single answer. This model and these pictures we are about to encounter are designed to replace this simplistic notion with one more attuned to the actual way a human being holds a position. The inner landscape is more like a jungle; vibrant with life, rich in patterns and shot through with interdependence, cooperation and mystery that reaches beyond what can be captured in conceptual thought without remainder.

I find that the model and the pictures that illustrate it aid my study of Buddhism. I think it can aid anyone on the contemplative paths where we care very much about what valid and invalid cognitions are. They also help in studying the sciences, becoming a more careful listener, and while striving to understand the news of the day and the behavior of my friends, neighbors and enemies. It is a fairly simple model far as these types of things go yet having it in the background has brought me all these benefits and more over the years. Your mileage may vary but all I can do as a writer is share those things that have worked most powerfully for me as a modern, western individual on the path. Without further introduction we jump now into a question and our first set of pictures:

Do you think the government is doing a good job?

Answer yes or no but either way I will ask, really? If you take the time to examine all the ways you think the government is or is not doing a good job isn’t it obvious your position is a bit more nuanced than a simple yes or no? Perhaps you oppose the wars of late and hate the Wall Street bailout but appreciate the general reliability of paved roads, that the water running out of your tap is clean enough to drink and the handiness of someone else dealing with your daily wastes.

How might we draw a picture of this more nuanced answer to the question, ‘Do you think the government is doing a good job?’ Instead of just the binary yes or no let us allow for a spectrum of responses. The spectrum will run from raging no to raving yes. Actually it will run from raging no to solid no through mostly no and slightly no before reaching the balance point and continuing from slightly yes through mostly yes and solid yes to raving yes:  YesNo1This is sufficient to capture the differences between the radical revolutionary and the super-patriot as well as all those whose opinion falls somewhere in between. The fact that the yes or no could be strong or weak is no longer lost in the simplicity of the binary yes or no. We are accounting for more of the actual evidence.

However, the bulk of the evidence is still not being accounted for. There is a whole other dimension, the vertical as it were. Government is an abstract noun, a generalization, an umbrella term for what are actually a number of different features and functions in the real world we can see and touch. In our attempt to think carefully about the role of government in our lives we work our way slowly across everything we have encountered, the whole laundry list of governmental functions. If we put a small block on our spectrum for each aspect of government before long the vertical dimension will also begin to express additional information. Here, for example might be the look of things after the person mentioned above placed the blocks for war and bailouts but then admitted the usefulness of un-poisoned tap water:  YesNo2_3blocksAs this process continues the analysis includes more and more features of government. Thought is given to details around foreign affairs, law and justice, keeping the peace, conducting elections, protecting civil liberties and all the other aspects of government that are relevant and important to any given persons’ analysis. For the sake of this introduction each person gets 16 blocks to place to express their answer to the question. Our example citizen opposed to war and bailouts but a fan of fresh tap water might end up something like this: YesNo3_NoWe can sum these details with a curve that captures more of this example of a middle of the road displeasure with the functioning of government then we could capture with the spectrum alone. Saying that everyone polled had a collection of 16 blocks to use is the same as saying mathematically the area under the curves needs to be the same. With the curves we gain the expressiveness of the detailed analysis in a streamlined form. What kinds of political positions do you expect owners of these curves to hold?  YesNoCurve3_avg YesNoCurve2_yesWhat the curves are capturing here are the differences in the spreads of various people’s opinions. Those with the basically wide patterned mental states expressed by the curves shown so far stand in stark contrast with either the super-patriot or the radical. These more extremes views bulk their blocks at one end of the spectrum. They have the same number of blocks, the area under the curve remains constant, but their curves are tall and narrow compared to what we have seen so far:  YesNoCurve4_NO YesNoCurve5_YESHow much agreement do you think the people represented by these last two curves are going to have?

Engaging in rational debate requires of both parties a commitment to an honest appraisal of our situation. Part of this includes the willingness of all involved to admit there may well be factors critical in the real world yet missing or misunderstood within our analysis. An intellectual humility is comfortable with that and instinctively understands why conversations bound to integrity necessarily include a background of probability. That is, we can say this or that is most likely or least likely, that this or that is almost certain, or almost certainly impossible. As we will see next week this is what we were capturing with our spectrum and curves between no and yes.

The intellectual position of the corporate shills denying anthropomorphic climate change, for example, rests on the most improbable interpretation of evidence imaginable. The model of reasoning we are going to develop over the next few posts, in my opinion, is the single most effective counter argument to those who are insisting business as usual can continue for another fifty years or so. By taking a careful look at their positions we find that they simply do not have a leg to stand on.

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