Truth Above Utility

Post-truth (def.) “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak… For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not… At present, we worry that democracy is threatened by the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish…
Many news organizations have turned to native advertising as a source of revenue. By definition, native advertising tries  to sell or promote a product in the guise of a news story. Native advertising makes it difficult for unsuspecting readers to know if and when there is an ulterior motive behind the information they encounter…
More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identified by the words ‘sponsored content,’ was a real news story.”
Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning (pdf),
Stanford History Education Group

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something,
when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked

 

We have an amazing capacity to play fast and loose with the truth. For some reason it is not at all difficult for us to hold passionate opinions concerning just about everything, and in the process to allow ourselves expansive editorial freedom to cut and paste facts and fictions as we see fit. It should not surprise us that a coalition of climate change deniers have taken over the reigns of government here in the US. This type of denial is often a reaction that takes hold just about the time the crisis society is denying breaks out ferociously.

The time has come in which we must think very carefully about the circumstances we find ourselves in. The confluence of industrialized civilization’s ecological blowback and political populism denying it, looks to me like nothing so much as the cognitive dissonance we all suffer writ large. Remember, cognitive dissonance arises when one part of the mind holds something to be true that another part of the mind knows is not so. Climate change science has a very, very simple message: stop producing these outrageous amounts of carbon dioxide pollution. The message is almost too simple, it’s hard to wiggle out of the obvious implications.

The most obvious implication confronts each and every one of us every time we step outside our front doors. We know what society must do, and soon, to stop the climate from becoming hell on earth: we need to stop driving. On the other hand, this is something our societies simply cannot do. Survival is linked to driving just as driving is linked to oil. Of course the problem is larger than just driving; most all our life support infrastructures need a petrochemical energy source to power them throughout their supply chains.

For an individual these two facts create some degree of cognitive pressure: I need to stop driving for the future health of the planet and I need to drive today to procure what I need to survive. It really is this simple, there is no escaping these reasonable inferences. Since both of these statements are true they create a cognitive problem. The human mind needs to provide a consistent picture of the world and a rational explanation for our behavior in it. It becomes an interesting question, both for individuals and all of us collectively, to ask how we are to deal with this simple information and still feel ok about ourselves.

Part of what psychology has learned about cognitive dissonance might apply to the type of collective mind we find in our social interactions. The theory that coined the term was first presented in 1957 by Leon Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. In that work he presented research to show how holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously is painful and how individuals react to lessen that psychological pressure.

We avoid cognitive dissonance by remaining conscious of the opposition but using it to drive action. Staying with the painful awareness of these truths provides an energy that can inspire you to work towards whatever reconciliation of them in your own lifestyle you are able to bring about. Mindful Ecology hopes to support these types of changes by showing that they are meaningful because they are based in truth. Note that while it is painful remaining aware of the issues around driving, it is not the pain of cognitive dissonance since both of these conflicting beliefs are true. It is when we seek to escape this painful situation by denying the validity of the statements themselves that we run into the more troublesome psychological difficulties associated with cognitive dissonance.

There are two other ways to lessen the pain of conscience our ecologically informed generation must sense around driving. The mind can deny that one side or the other of these truths are actually true. It is frighteningly easy for us to make something up that is more congenial to how we want to see ourselves and our place in the big scheme of things. Once we have made something like this up, we then place our faith in the delusion and simply assert either that climate change is not happening or, if it is, our driving has nothing to do with it. Now we have entered the realm of cognitive dissonance.

Here is what to watch out for. As events provide evidence that the delusional faith is in fact unreal, it is not uncommon for those holding these beliefs to double down. The more evidence proves their belief to be false, the more their blind faith in it increases. Those who point out the truth while these conditions rule are branded as heretics, blasphemers persecuting the embattled minority of true believers.

In the case of driving, ecological evidence concerning its dire consequences lead to the CAFE laws that were designed to increase engine efficiency. More efficient fuel use was thought to address both the problem of a diminishing world oil supply and the problem of overwhelming the atmosphere’s capacity to act as a pollution sink. What was the response to these laws that were meant to alter the way cars are manufactured and sold? The introduction of the SUV. The laws applied to cars and the SUV was classified as a small truck, exempt from the regulations. The public responded to the advertising message that confirmed the true believer’s delusional story. The thought train must run something along these lines, ‘I’m basically a good person and choose to drive this oversized vehicle, therefore, either climate change science is a hoax or driving does not cause it.’ The convoluted logic of magical thinking has replaced the pain filled awareness of a difficult moral issue with the fake simplicity of a fairy tale.

Please understand this is only being used as a concrete illustration. There are a thousand other reasons people chose to buy SUVs, many of them noble such as concern for the needs and safety of loved ones. Similarly, dealing with climate change is speaking only of the most well known of the frighteningly large family of ecological breakdowns heading our way. We are discussing driving as its cause because it is the most obvious confrontation with our ecological madness most of us encounter every day.

There are others, equally obvious simple steps we need to take. The steps are simple, taking them, however, under the existing set of beliefs is all but impossible. For example, engineering investigations of the capacity of renewable energy sources are unanimous in saying that society will need to use less power. We could use less power today. It would require we prioritize hospitals and schools and de-prioritize, say, the excess light displays in New York City, Las Vegas, Shanghai and Tokyo. The fact that for most people on the planet such an idea seems nihilistic defeatism (a sin against progress!) and absolutely not ever going to voluntarily happen, shows just how committed we are to our delusional beliefs.

It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a bomb vest you can live forever, than that your life will be one of struggle in a poisoned, poor and violent world. It might be easier to believe that with the magic of a renewed trade deal you can restore fossil fueled industrialized civilization to its glory days, than that our economic options are now severely limited by resource constraints. It might be easier to believe that the magic of a little solar and wind power will wash away the oil stains on our future, than that the real road forward is one of using a whole lot less energy altogether. It might be easier to believe the ecological crisis unfolding everywhere around us is really not all that bad, than that these are the days of nightmare and mourning. It might be easier, but it is not going to help.

The ecological message, that business as usual has no future, fights to be heard in our time of globalization promoted by a mass media dominated by quarterly profit driven corporate interests. The ecological message is fighting an upstream battle each and every day. This ceaseless fight can drain the energy and enthusiasm of even the most passionate lover of earth. The one thing that can sustain people who are so outnumbered, unpopular, and shunned, is their conviction that what they are saying is the truth. No one wants the dismal analysis of the industrial world’s devastating impact on the viability of the earth’s ecosystems to be right. The picture that unfolds from an acceptance of the ecological facts is one in which the human population will wither, the land remains poisoned for centuries, abandoned cities become little more than sources for recycling materials that can no longer be manufactured, and predictable climate is a thing of the past removing food security from food harvests. No one wants this. The people, like myself, who insist on talking about it are doing so because we have come to believe this is the most probable truth.

Truth is more important than utility by my way of thinking. It might be easier to get through the day believing self-driving cars and Mars terra-forming are just around the corner, but it does nothing to help stop the juggernaut that is poisoning the air, water and land on which all future life depends.

This then is our next boulder of simplicity: we need to value truth above utility.

We are better off staying with the original pain of our opposing values than letting them drive us into the blind alleys of cognitive dissonance. Only in this way can we avoid the allure of the Pied Pipers, the ones external to us and the ones we have internalized, as they pipe temptations designed to exploit our gullibility.

Boulders of Simplicity

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

“But, Master Gotama, in what way is there the preservation of the truth? How does one preserve the truth?
…if he accepts a view as a result of pondering it, he preserves the truth when he says, ‘The view I accept as a result of pondering it is thus’; but he does not yet come to the definitive conclusion: ‘Only this is true, anything else is wrong.’ In this way, Bharadvaja, there is preservation of truth; in this way he preserves the truth; in this way we describe the preservation of truth.”
Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Cannon

 

Last week completed the investigation of gentleness started in August when we took note that kindness is dangerous. The arc likely did not cover the ground expected but there is a reason for that. I would ask again, along with the authors of On Kindness, “What is it about our times that makes kindness seem so dangerous?” To be gentle includes use of the surgical knife instead of a rusty sword when surgery is the only hope for saving the patient. A person who can be gentle is not spineless, that comes from a popular misconception around what compassion is all about. No one escapes the family dynamics that make us who we are unscathed. How we relate to those things powerfully determines the degree of gentleness we can bring to bear when it really counts.

Another characteristic of a contemplative life, in addition to gentleness, is simplicity.

Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. Leopold’s Land Ethic is a crowning achievement of where we want to end up. In 25 words he captures something every heart recognizes is profoundly true; something that applies always and everywhere, at least on some level, anytime we choose to judge the justice of human activities. It is not meant as an absolute law that would ban all human use of the land, yet it gives an ethical guidance to its use that we can rely on. It has roots justifying its position that run deeply into the inherent nature of our molecular world. It is not just an ethic someone has chosen, though it is that too, for it is also an ethic that has made itself known to us as we have increased our understanding of ecology.

The cognitive simplicity that complements a contemplative life is not found in the economy of words; though beautifully expressed that is not the essence of what is important about these types of things. It is the simplicity of the insight which captures us with its almost child-like obviousness. This obviousness, this simplicity, is just that which we find it all to easy to lose track of in our very complex and sophisticated conversations around production, pollution, war and jobs.

Cognitive simplicity is where we need to start. An individual is able to resist the allures of group-think to the degree they are firm in their foundation. This means they hold to simple truths felt deeply, instead of overly sophisticated conceptual constructions which can more easily lend themselves to sophistry. There is a strength of conviction we can find that arises from our emotional nature with its intimate connections to our physiology which grounds us without making us fanatics.

Here is an example of a cognitive simplicity that has stuck in my craw since first learning about it as a child. The numbers differ but the ratio remains and is what really matters. In this world it would take, it has been estimated, on the order of 175 billion dollars to alleviate abject poverty. In this world there are, it has been estimated, on the order of 250 trillion dollars held in private wealth. Yet decades roll by and the helter-skelter of hyper-capitalism can find no way to provide “for the least of these,” as the New Testament had it. Russell Brand points out that is equivalent to having 500 pounds in your pocket and a starving, hungry child in front of you asking for 40 pence and you saying “Oh no! Not on your life, its my money!” I think, very simply, that any world system that condones this type of behavior is profoundly flawed, mistaken and dangerous.

Such a judgment is so simple our academics laugh at the naivety involved. I don’t know. I’ve read hundreds of books about the political economy, thought about these things long and carefully, including all the things I have seen first hand and heard about among friends. In all that, far as I can tell, it actually does come back to being just that simple for me. Maybe it was my being raised in a culture based in Christianity but for whatever sociological, psychological and metaphysical reasons, in my heart of hearts I believe we should love one another enough to set the needs of the poor above the greeds of the rich.

Of all the Jesus stories and teachings that molded the western ethical view none has effected me more than the eschatological ethic. From Mathew 25 NIV:

“…take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ”

The centuries of western culture have been influenced by this Christian ideal. It has produced that stream of hospitals and orphanages and other good works dedicated to assisting the needs of the “least of these” in which humankind is able to find, as Mother Teresa often said, “Jesus in disguise.” Slavery and racism eventually fell before the weight of this simple ethic which turned the powers of hierarchy and patriarchy on their head. Though today it is popular to restrict our compassion to our own, our cultural roots belie such clever means of getting our collective conscience off the hook.

So for me this is a cognitive bolder of simplicity. It is a loadstone I have found extremely meaningful in understanding who and what I am. Looking carefully, I can say both that I have chose it freely and that it has chosen me. I have chosen to make such an ethical outlook my own, accept it as a value that is true for me. It has not always rested peacefully with me; I have struggled with it, fought it, and tried to deny it or replace it – all to better get along in the world as it actually is. In the end I chose to live with the pain of a world that so often fails to live up to its compassionate potential and, as far as it is in my power, to abide by my chosen belief all the same. In coming to make this choice, as wrestling with it illustrates, there is a sense in which something larger than my ego was involved. In this sense this value has enlisted me in its ranks. In this whole process of wrestling with what I consider right and wrong in the realm of societal relations, my role has been as much a passive ‘victim’ of overwhelming emotions of compassion as it has been an active disciple of the same. I recognize that there is something about the way my ‘heart’ is constructed that insists on simple truths like this. They make up the boulders of my consciousness itself, as it were. In the simplicity I am embodied as the wisdom of age confirms the understanding of the child.

Sitting on my bolder I am unshakable not only because I have made a choice among equally real potential options. The existentialists can miss this point, that just choosing alone may not be sufficient to supply our absurd life with meaning. Sitting on my bolder I experience those parts of my being that are unshakable. This experience has its origin as much in the world as it has revealed itself to me as in my choosing to ‘believe’ it. The world and I have come to this point, together. It holds it in its mountains, sings of it in its rivers, whispers of it in its soil. There is another power among us humans. We all know how the powers of greed, violently corrupt lusts, and stupidity have turned the pages of history. Still, there is another power among us humans. In every generation the joyful, awe inspiring, passionate dedication of true love among couples has always been a part of what we are. I live in America; I can almost hear the long centuries of Native American lovers in the woods, dancers in the valleys, families in the plains, honoring their elders long past who are now resting in their burial grounds just as I honor mine. This is just as real as the corporate boardrooms on our lands today.

What this love teaches us is real too. We hurt ourselves when we lack the courage to admit these parts of ourselves into consciousness, into our public conversations, into our institutions. We could talk about compassion explicitly, it is not beyond our capacity. Instead we are choosing to amp the hate and vitriol of our public discourse, with rising acts of hate crimes and attacks on women and children the predictable outcome.

For centuries, millennia, our forefathers and foremothers who knew the sweet taste of love held it close, however darkness may have tried to assault it. Everyone who has ever loved has nurtured the same flame of hope, delicate and yet invincible, that someday all people would be able to enjoy its blessings, to enjoy what it is like to be in love. If we could, we dare to whisper in our deepest heart wish, there would be no miserable poor suffering unspeakably just beyond our feast table. The feast cannot be complete until all have been invited.

‘Oh my god,’ I can hear some readers crying and gnashing their teeth, ‘this is communism!’ Well far as I can tell that is just how it goes. Consciousness is inherently individual, like a dot amidst space-time. Each individual consciousness records such unique paths through time and space there is no way we should expect concord. Whether or not that allows us to retain respect for one another depends solely on our attitudes towards the views we hold. We can hold them deep enough to die for, inspired to fight to protect what we honor and yet never need to cross that line that separates intellectual and emotional honest and integrity from sham and lies. We can learn, as Buddha taught, to hold who and what we are without insisting we are certain in what we know and that all others must be wrong.

Ethics is one bolder, one simplicity on which it is possible for each of us to arrive at our own convictions. Like a mandala, there are other boulders set equidistant from this one. I do not expect, nor insist, that the universe conform to my ethical choice. In fact, from what I have experienced first hand that certainly does not seem to be the case. Not in any straightforward fashion anyway. I have known of far too many cases in which bad things happen to good people. The ethical values are what I work to promote, want to see more of, seek to nurture when I find them and generally molds how I understand what it means to be a human being.

Another foundational simplicity is associated with my study of physics, chemistry, and biology in which the roles of atoms and molecules is front and center. This is how it all works; the explanatory power of the relatively simple atomic hypothesis is amazing.

Energy follows a one way path, creating the arrow of time. Materials cycle, the waste of one process being input into another always and everywhere. These are the ecological cognitions from which all the rest of my ecological outlook flows. They are simple, incontrovertible. To this I have added my study and experience and arrived at my view.

Contemplative simplicity is not the same as fanatical clinging to conceptual content. It is much more visceral than that. I have arrived at my view. That is not the same as saying it is the only one or that all other views are necessarily incorrect. I cannot know that with any certainty, all I can know is that I have arrived at my view. I know how I got here, how slow and careful contemplation has been open to where the deep molding of my evolution has worked its way with me and left me who and what I am.

The simplicity of our cognitive boulders serve us well when we find ourselves on the battlefield performing open soul surgery in triage tents. It does no good to panic in a crisis. Grounded in simplicity there just might be a chance to do some real good.