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. 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.

Come, let us reason together

Is there any book you wish all incoming freshmen at Harvard would read?
Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong” advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom. Her book would reinforce my encouragement of Harvard’s accomplished and successful freshmen to embrace risk and even failure.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard in N.Y.T.’s By the Book


The ability of humans to reason is Promethean. Some praise it as our gift from the Enlightenment and are sure it can better man and society. Others curse it as the trickster that lead to the cold-hearted blindness and hubris of the death camps. Some are sure the dignity of human beings lies in our ability to reason and others are sure it is nothing more than a tool of imperialism, empire and chauvinism. Reasoning has had a rough work-over by the philosophers as well. Hume’s problem of inference, for many people who care about such things, remains a terminal blow to the edifice of scientific method.

We are living in a Faustian age when engineering and science are serving as the repositories of our ultimate allegiance. We trust them to uncover the truth, reveal what is really real. As the mighty continue to fall and the public turns ever more against its current gods of corporate science and engineering another potential threat to our dignity makes its appearance. With the fall of the corporate, military-industrial complex’s research labs may come the witch hunts that fail to separate the (scientific) method from the (corporate) madness. We have already looked at threats to human dignity arising from the ecological crises when we examined the current circumstance of overshoot. Now we are going to start taking a look at this thing we call reason. If we are to successfully preserve what is valuable through the coming collapse, and I believe our advances in understanding reasoning is certainly worth preserving, it helps to define it carefully. Further, it is my contention that when defined well, reasoning carries with it its own defense of human dignity. There is grandeur in this view of mind, in this view of the inner world … as I hope to demonstrate over the next cycle of posts.

Wisdom entails seeing through delusions, seeing you were wrong about something. It is an astonishing experience to admit to being fully mistaken, completely wrong about a set of ideas that you had previously held dear. The spectrum of what we can be wrong about runs from the trivial to the very things we have dedicated our lives to. Consider the not uncommon case of someone who lives a religious life for 70 years and then comes to doubt its truth. This is an example of the extreme version of seeing through a delusion. The impact on the personality is shattering; life changes after that point, never to return again to the state of comfortable, easy belief. It is what some call an initiation.

That the deepest beliefs of a ‘self’ can be destroyed by another part of one’s ‘self’ opens a rich compost heap of fertile questions about just what this ‘self’ actually is.

What we are interested in here are valid cognitions; tools to separate truth from falsehood. Valid cognitions correspond to the environment; they capture an element of what is real about the external or internal worlds we find ourselves a part of. Valid cognitions are thoughts, concepts, and sets of ideas that have some degree of correspondence with the external or internal environment.

What is it that empowers us to see through our delusions? A whole host of psychological factors play into the details of just when and how such an undoing of delusions unfolds in any individual’s life but I am going to suggest that at its core all these experiences share a type of reasoning as their defining characteristic. The weight of evidence against the delusional set of beliefs grows, as it must since they are out of touch with what is real. Eventually we enter the realm where a choice must be made between cognitive dissonance, snapping and liberation. We are talking about changing the mind and like fire, it can harm or heal.

Removing mystification from the reasoning process clears the deck for our understanding one of the most profound yet taken for granted aspects of human experience. The existential core of our deepest questing after what is really real and truly true leads directly to a confrontation with a psychic power beyond our ability to manipulate – that which makes the real seem real. We have now come to the cornerstone of my philosophy; that which makes what seems real to me, to seem real to me, is the god within before whom I bow. It can be challenging to communicate clearly the felt sense that accompanies my understanding of this point. Though I just used theological language words are fundamentally inadequate. The philosophy of epistemology comes close as it studies how we know what we know but this too typically falls shy of the felt sense that accompanies the insights. It is why this blog site includes a poetics section.

There is a functional type of reality-sense operating in our sensory field of awareness (we know a hallucination to be a hallucination) and in our cognitive operations and classifications that cleanly divides the world between that which is real and that which is imagination. This reality-sense operates at multiple scales; there is not one monolithic, capital ‘T’ truth. So we have a sense for what is real at the atomic level of analysis, or molecular, cellular, that of ecosystems and so on. The reality-sense runs like a thread through our every conscious experience. It provides the contrast by which we recognize when we are dreaming. It provides the contrast by which we classify reality separately from illusion.

These two characteristics of reasoning are the proper context to appreciate the study of reason about to be undertaken. The first is that it can lead a person to change their mind, a most amazing thing (is this not what is being sought on a quest for enlightenment?) Second is that it is not a process that answers to our whims and fancies. We cannot make ourselves believe something we “know” to be fake and often we are powerless to maintain our most cherished beliefs in light of the evidence of our experiences however much we may want to, or even feel the need to in order to maintain our very sense of identity. It brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s observation about science advancing only as the old guards of the previous generation die out. The paradigm change he describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is all about us culturally changing our minds about what is real.

Now I think we can better appreciate the role of reason as it is more commonly understood. This ‘sense’ that separates for us what we will consider really real from what we will consider false is the engine of wisdom-building. We feed it with our curiosity. As curious creatures we try this and that, observe this and that and use the process to feed data into this reality-sense. We are driven to seek out what it needs to know to perform its vital role in our continual survival. We are fashioned in such a way that concerns about properly understanding our environments are vital. The aborigine on the walkabout and the scientist in their research lab are both gathering data within this type of process.

This newly acquired data does not exist in isolation. The data either confirms or disconfirms sets of ideas or beliefs the aborigine or scientist had before the event which provided new data occurred. These prior beliefs play a key role in the model of reasoning we will be exploring. It could be that we have a number of conflicting opinions about the truth of a matter without a justifiable preference for one or the other. This is not a lack of a prior belief but a special case where the prior beliefs contain the maximum possible entropy.

A funny feature of this reality-sense is that it has a reading on everything, even subjects we actually know little about. It is never the case of a blank slate confronting data since we always bring our current understanding with us. The role of data then is one of strengthening or weakening our previously acquired beliefs. Imagine a set of pans on a balance beam. On one side there is the weight of prior experience, study, thought, theory and data while on the other side the pan holds the new data to be assessed. There is a chance that even when the new data does not fit the prior set of ideas its weight will be sufficient to tip the scales. When the scales shift a new set of ideas are sensed as more true, we have changed our minds.

This is what Darwin did with his theory of evolution by natural selection; a gathering of evidence shifted the scales. Eventually it shifted the culture into the secular worldview we now live in where the need to appeal to a creator no longer enjoys the intellectual support it once did. This is also what the climate scientists’ warnings about climate change are doing right now alongside the whole host of ecologically educated producers of evidence for the ongoing eco-crises. There is value in working to share the truth as we understand it and letting the collective balance beams do their thing.

There is not a human alive who has not experienced being mistaken, believing something that is just not so. This universal experience opens the possibility that other beliefs being held with equal assurance may one day turn out to be equally delusional. In our heart of hearts we know this; it is a universal human experience. Humans can easily make vocal noises insisting they know something is absolutely true or absolutely false but since all assertions rely on a whole host of supporting ideas and we have seen where such ideas could be wrong, these claims to possess absolute knowledge are dishonest. They are dishonest both in what humans subjectively experience around the sense of what is really real and objectively in claiming a result reasoning is incapable of arriving at.

The key to thinking clearly about reasoning while giving proper weight to the characteristics just outlined is to frame our understanding within the ideas of probability. In a circumstance where absolute knowledge remains inaccessible (if not incoherent) the field is open to continual refinements of what can be considered to be most probably really real and most probably truly true. With probability we can have degrees of belief running between 0 and 100. I can be 80% sure the Declaration of Independence under glass in Washington D.C. is the original document and maybe 99.9% sure that if I drop my pen right now it will fall to the floor. Why not 100% sure in this later case? Maybe there will be an explosion nearby the moment I drop my pen and its trajectory gets blasted sideways or a cosmic gravity wave from a sudden inflationary black hole alters the surrounding space-time or maybe even my mischievous friends tied a very thin thread to my pen so when I drop it they can laugh with glee as I stare at it, astonished. The point is: with the idea that complex human understanding entails degrees of belief the absolute false of 0 and the absolute truth of 100 are traded for a wealth of possibilities. Importantly it also provides an effective means by which people can persuade one another about what is real and what is not.

Learning to speak in terms of what is most probable could renew the moribund national conversation. Learning to habitually frame our debates in such contexts could return dignity and respect to our interactions. Regardless of the probability of probability impacting social norms, individuals can benefit from adding this tool to their cognitive tool belt. A transparent, coherent and complete model of such a core constituent of our makeup as reasoning promotes a certain peace of mind and an easier acceptance of the human condition. It also fine tunes our B.S. detectors.

There is another point. The ethical question of our time comes couched in terms of probability: What is the most probable future facing humankind? The corollary is also couched in terms of probability: What can we do today that has the greatest chance of making tomorrow better?