Saturday, 10 August 2013

Letter To My Unborn Child

I think a good rule of thumb for being true to your own convictions is this; don't do or champion anything in the name of a group that you wouldn't do or champion as an individual - for if you do so, you become a chameleon that fades into the colours of group think, and you compromise the autonomy of individuation.  Before you contemplate becoming immersed in the collective, make sure you become immersed in the liberation of your own individualism.  Rescue yourself from seeking refuge in group think, or from being transfixed on the false security of cooperative agendas, and first master the essence of your own individuality.  Only then will you really be a valuable part of a collective.
James Knight

                                                                                                               Saturday 10th August 2013

My Dear Son or Daughter,

At the time of writing, you have not yet blessed your mother and me with your presence in this world.  If all has gone to plan between the time of my writing this and the intervening years that led up to the time of your reading my words, then today is your 16th birthday, and this letter is written for you from my past to your future – intended to guide you as you approach young adulthood.  I don’t as yet know if you are a son or daughter – but whichever you have turned out to be, I know you’ll have been told countless times, with sincerity of heart, that you are loved immeasurably by us, your parents, and that you have been more of a blessing than your mother and I could have ever imagined.  At the time of writing, I also don’t as yet know whether you are our much loved only child, or whether you have any siblings – but rest assured, if we are blessed with any more children, they too will share in their own copy of these words.

As you are aware, you have always been encouraged to make the most of your life, to seize every opportunity to fulfil your potential, and focus on learning ‘how’ to think well, rather than been taught ‘what’ to think.  If my hopes have reached fruition, then you’ve always valued independence of mind and willingness to critically examine propositions, and I hope as a father I’ve achieved my goal of trying to be an encouragement to you in all you’ve attempted to do, while at the same time allowing you the latitude of volition that has enabled you to make your own choices, and learn from your mistakes.

This letter contains what I hope will be a helpful guide to you in your immediate future, as you begin to take your teenage worldview into young adulthood, and formulate your opinions further, as you face the world’s ups and downs with more independence.  So for you, precious son or precious daughter, this is the recipe-like wisdom I have to offer you in preparing your mind for what is to come in the adult world – wisdom I learned on my own journey into young adulthood.  As a child I know how greatly enriched I would have been if my future, older (and wiser) self could have time-travelled into my youth to impart all he had learned henceforth – so I offer this to you now, dear son or daughter, in the hope that it will pre-empt the regret your future self may feel when he or she has not the option of sending that retrospective wisdom back through time to you.

Regarding what you’re about to read; once you can think this way as a force of habit you'll find you're able to tackle any subject with the utmost clarity of mind.  You'll also greatly increase your chances of spotting straight away what is wrong with any argument you encounter (if indeed it is wrong) - or if it's right you'll probably be able to suggest to yourself a better or augmented way of seeing its truth.  It all takes practice, of course - but you are in a good position, with everything still in front of you. The main thing is to always remember that these things take time, and that time to mature is a point in your favour, because if you diligently feed the human hunger (however dormant or latent it is) for mental and moral excellence, then with maturity you will find a continual sharpening of the intellect, and a recurrent building of your wisdom, as the pieces in the jigsaw begin to fit and exhibit a clearer picture.

So here goes.  To start with it's important to identify just what we humans are, because this will go some way to explaining why humans are so susceptible to error. 

1) Our evolution
We may live in a world of hugely populated cities, with skyscrapers, planes, computers, and worldwide travel - but don’t let those achievements fool you.  We have brains hard-wired for hunting in the Savannah.  Humans have been around for nearly two hundred thousand years – and yet we have been technological and industrial for only a few hundred years.  I’m telling you this because the sort of brains we have and the sort of creatures we are, were, I believe, never prepared to be rushed into a world like the one we have today.  We humans have relatively primitive brains in an environment that is now not primitive.  We have brains that thrive on simplicity in a socio-personal environment that is very complex, and we have brains that seek patterns in an environment where patterns are often scarce. 

The main reason this observation is important is because it teaches us to not have unrealistic expectations of people, and hence, to not accept something as true just because a lot of people happen to believe it.  That's a strong rule I live by - because of the above, you'll find you need to attune your radar to pick up when people aren't being particularly smart or logical, and when they are lacking much of the knowledge required to have a clear picture of the topics they debate.  It is because people are a patchwork of cultural biases and bad influences and habits from others that you’ll be wise to keep sharply focused.  Don't misunderstand me - it's not something for which they should be reproached; it takes an awful lot of work to attain a highly evolved mind, and few find it; but the good news is, it is available to you (and anyone else) if you (and they) have the tenacity to work towards it.

Moreover, the realisation that humans shouldn't excite our expectations is important because it helps facilitate love, grace and understanding, and encourages kindness and generosity in realising that often people are doing the best with the raw material they have.  All this is the first step in helping people off their pedestals – because years of experience of others has taught me that pedestals are not where we humans belong – and it does us no good to be put on them.  Don’t misunderstand; be charitable with praise where you feel it’s merited, and be keen to encourage and build up others with deserved compliments and generosity of heart – but help people down from their pedestals – it will do them no good to be on them in the long run.

2) The Necessity of Unlearning
A further part of the limitation of humans is the ways of thinking that have held most people back since childhood.  I mean this; it’s clear to me that we as humans have to unlearn lots of things that are instituted in childhood, because they are the sort of things that will eventually go on to impair our conceptual abilities.  For example, from the cradle upwards parents instil in their young a very black and white mental manifold, where ideas of right and wrong and cause and effect are instituted.  This is necessary for that time in the child’s life because children don't see the world through abstract concepts or probabilistic mental models; they require straightforward, tangible truths or facts to enable them to build a model of consistency in apprehending the world. 

Now of course, it's not that parents are at fault for helping their children process information in this black and white way; these things are necessary in childhood because the deeper realms of human subjectivity, abstract thinking and complex mental models are not engaged with until children reach greater maturity - and even then many teenagers struggle to see the world in non-polarising terms.  It is a bit of a catch 22, but some of the things that were necessary to make sense in childhood are things that go on to be very bad habits that will hinder us in young adulthood and beyond. I hope as you read this you will have found I did this for you when you were young – but always with the precaution that as you got older you’d be encouraged to broaden your perspectives beyond an overly-simplistic black and white view of reality.  A lack of unlearning bad habits is largely the reason that you’ll find so many people out there with the ‘If you don’t agree with me you’re wrong’ attitude and the ‘them vs. us’ mentality. They have lots to learn, but they also have a lot of unlearning to do. 

So, in order to reach great heights with our thinking, we humans have to rid ourselves of these bad habits by 'unlearning' some of the things that served us so well in childhood - and I fancy that this getting rid of bad philosophical baggage is something that not enough people manage to do.  Again, like most things, it takes two steps; first, awareness, and second, lots of practice. 

3) Everything we learn is gained from experience
Believe it or not, this isn’t obvious to everyone, but all our knowledge, sensory perceptions, emotions, logic, and auxiliary capabilities are the result of our cumulative experience of the world (either primarily one’s own experiences, or the experience of others).  This is one of David Hume’s most significant contributions to philosophy; he showed that it is only our experiences that enable us to form impressions of the world, and that those impressions are made from within the limitation of the human ability to form those impressions.  Without experience we would know nothing.  I’ll give you an extreme illustration I once thought up, which will show why.  Imagine we grabbed a baby from birth, stuck it in a room, kept it alive with food and liquid for 18 years, but at the same time we disconnected its ability to see, touch, taste, feel, and listen. The 18 year old brain would have none of the things I mentioned - he or she would be mentally moribund, devoid of any of the concepts ordinary humans have acquired through our experiences of the world.  So whatever you do, always remember this vital piece of wisdom; our knowledge of matters of fact amounts to explanations of descriptions of the ways external reality is after we have discovered something through experience.  If you always have this at the forefront of your mind you’ll become quite acutely perceptive to the errors I’m now going to talk about in 4 and 5.

4) Awareness of human constructs
Knowing that everything we learn is gained from experience, we then begin to see human opinions and debates for what they are – they are discussions about human constructs from the perspective of human constructs.  To expand the point, think of all the things that people talk about in debates that are constructed from mankind’s incomplete ideas on what ‘truth’ might entail.  Consider the following concepts that we focus on as talking points; morality, religion, race, country, species, virus, rich, poor, progress, prosperity, infrastructure, child, adult, education, goodness, depressed and marriage.  Those are a few words that popped into my head – and if we were to debate them at length we would go on for weeks, producing thousands of pages of text as we carried it through.  But notice something here – all of those words (and many more like them) are humanly created concepts – they do not exist as objective reality beyond the conceptions of men – they are abstract ideas that we cannot touch or feel or see.  The upshot is, when debating these subjects we are debating the ideas and thoughts of men and women, and we must guard against treating them as though they are anything more.

So be wary of what you catch people preaching or pontificating, and how they try to get you to concur with their views.  If all of these things are human constructs, then naturally humans brought them into this world – meaning the authority with which these ideas are propagated originates with humans too, and they are often based on numerous misconceptions and situational prejudices.  In summary, the strength of humans’ convictions is very often circular because most things are humans talking about human ideas as though they are objectively true outside of human self-referencing.  This leads nicely to number 5

5) Be wary of how ideas are formed and how they are passed on.
This is a very important thing to keep a check on.  Whenever someone makes a claim about something being true, don’t just ask where is the evidence for this, or what are the rational grounds for this belief, make sure you ask yourself how this claim is likely to have been brought into the world.  Whether it’s scientology, creationism, tarot, astrology, superstitions, coincidences, spurious lucky streaks, faulty ideas about numbers and patterns in nature, the many hundreds of religious beliefs, or anything of that kind - you’ll soon start to notice (if you haven’t already) how absurd many of these views are.  It’s not just because humans are clumsy thinkers who will come up with attractive theories that they think can convince others, nor is it even the fact that the past is full of charismatic people (preachers, dictators, heads of state, executives, cult leaders, celebrities, radicals, political figures, etc) who went on to lead astray millions of people or have them under their thrall.  It’s that intrinsically many of things people speak about as true or factual have little or no power when subjected to analytical scrutiny, and that this fact is largely concealed by long passages of time, after which people just assume there must be something in it when usually there isn’t.    

Here’s another good rule of thumb; if what is being taught is occurring from within a hermetically sealed discourse, it is usually the kind of nonsense that appeals to the gullible or to those who will willingly divest and delegate some of their critical autonomy onto a leader or figure of self-proclaimed authority.  The dead giveaway that exposes their falsity is usually that their central beliefs are at odds with some or many of the mainstream findings of empirical studies, which is why they mostly resist external scrutiny and dissuade their group members from engaging with the outside world.  Usually people who genuinely believe what they say, and hold those beliefs with confidence, will happily have those views subjected to critical examination, open discourse, and empirical study.  Those who have something to hide do not allow this.  So, my son or daughter, please do your best to ensure you always get a sense of how open someone is willing to be in discussing their views.  Embrace openness, but be wary of closed minds – they are usually like dead fish floating along with the flow of the river. 

What makes it harder for the untrained eye to detect nonsense is that when it comes to ideas, most of them do not stay in their original form; they are copied, changed, developed, reduced, and so forth – meaning that some initially good ideas can be disfigured into bad ones (and vice versa too).  Just like mutations in DNA, ideas (often called ‘memes’) are susceptible to duplication (the copying of an idea), insertion (where something extra is added to an idea), deletion (where something is taken away) and point mutation (where a part of the idea is changed into something else).  This means you’ll need concentration in assessing which ideas are good and which are not - and further to that, whether various interpretations of those ideas are (in your opinion) good or bad ones. 

On that point, ensure too that if you are to discuss anything with anyone, check beforehand what they mean when they use certain terms in their language. This avoids ambiguity, but it also exposes the deceivers quite readily, because, as I’m sure you’ve already sensed in life, many people compose a sentence comprised of terms without really having a clear thought about what those terms mean in relation to their point.  Clear, honest and rational thinkers usually won’t mind openness. 

6 and 7 involve two more helpful tips concerning knowledge. 

6) Most knowledge is not certainty, it is probability.
Have you ever stopped to consider how peculiarly people adhere to systems they believe are rigid?  They almost forget that most of the demarcation lines we adhere to (such as legal precedents, values, and moral issues) are humanly constructed, too often with minimal consideration for the arbitrariness of their composition.  This is illustrated best in the classic ‘Sorites’ paradox often attributed to Eubulides, who had a handful of beans, and in front of his students placed one bean at a time on the table asking them each time whether that particular bean made it a heap of beans.  They continued to say no, and then when the 15th bean was laid down, they said 'yes', that's a heap'.  The whole point of the paradox is that it’s absurd to just assume 15 or any arbitrarily designated number is a heap.  Why is 15 a heap and not 14? Why not 16? What about if Eubulides did the same experiment on another group of students and they thought a heap amounted to 19 beans?  What if one or two in the group thought a heap should be 20?  The take home lesson is that although people adhere to systems they believe are assented to with rational enquiry - most often what they are actually dealing with is arbitrary classifications that were first thought up by humans.  Whether an animal is one species or another, or whether a planet is a planet, or whether a virus is classed as a ‘living thing’, and questions of that kind, all fall within the purview of humanly constructed classifications. 

Regarding the question, when does a heap become a heap?  Clearly there is no ‘out there’ true/false line as there is in other aspects of human constructed logic.  The question 'When does a heap become a heap?' can only be answered in two ways.  We can say a heap must exceed n where n equals a designated number for qualification, but that method doesn’t always help us with the more complex subjects because we could then define our evidence and facts however we wanted in the most arbitrary way (we must be particularly careful not to do this with personal experiences). 

The other way to solve the heap problem is to say that the probability of calling the pile a heap increases with every bean added.   This is the correct epistemological route to take, because the world is full of many comparable examples, where things of which we think we are certain are really feelings we have based on probability estimates.  Everything that constitutes knowledge is arrived at analogously to the Sorites situation – each increase in evidence or data increases the probability of something constituting knowledge, where in each case we’ve decided where the demarcation line should sit (often with good reason, but sometimes not).  In life you’ll find no thought process occurs in a vacuum, as our discoveries and our constructs are inextricably linked. To discover is to construct, and to construct is to discover – and epistemic humility should govern your enquiries at all times, as the current word on anything probably won’t be the last word.  Think of how marvellous the modern world of hugely populated cities, skyscrapers, planes, computers, and worldwide travel would look to a stone age man, and magnify that marvel a hundred or thousand fold when contemplating what the coming years will look like when your present culture has equivalence with the stone age for future men and women. 

7) The truth about true and false
The second helpful tip is something that so few people realise – it is that only propositions are true or false.  You see, only propositions ‘can’ be true or false, nothing else can be – yet so many people base their views about truth on things that aren’t propositional.  By that I mean the following; for a statement to be considered true or false it must make a claim that is propositional, which means the statement must be able to be correct or incorrect when valued against some metric. 

For example, these statements are propositional; ‘All men are mortal’, ‘Sears Tower is the tallest building in America’.  These statements are not propositions; ‘It is windy outside’, ‘Blue jeans are better than black jeans’, ‘I like Casablanca’. Most beliefs, questions, observations and feelings are not true or false, because most are not propositions.  The strength of justification for believing a particular proposition to be true depends on the extent to which its truth can be demonstrated.  Propositions differ in the extent to which they can be shown to be true or false. 

Your sensory knowledge is everything derived from your senses (that is, touch, taste, smell, sound, sight), and can only be a fact or not a fact.  A further reason they are called facts is because they contain impermanence about them, or because they have the potential to be revised.  Truths are true irrespective of experience, whereas facts needn’t be, as facts change, and hence propositions about facts change.  If the Empire States building had some work done to it, it may then become taller than Sears Tower, which is why we use the terms fact, to denote its possibility of revision.  The other reason is that a perfectly viable fact can continue to remain a fact in one reference frame and yet be superseded by a more accurate fact in a more enhanced frame of reference.  For example, consider the relationship between the earth and the moon. This relationship cannot be a matter of truth, only a matter of fact, because science is only an internally consistent way of describing one aspect of reality (the physical), and remains distinguishable from the truths in real world.  This was demonstrated in the following way; Newton showed that the moon is in relation to the earth under the system F=GMm/r² - (which, as I’m sure you’ll know from your school physics classes, is a mathematical formula derived from an internal model of the mind which Einstein showed to be able to be superseded by a better matter of fact).  The Newtonian relation turned out to be approximate because it wasn't an explanation that acted at the preclusion of all other explanations (Newton didn't know about relativity or space-time curvature).  The upshot is, reality is describable in a multitude of ways, consistent with whichever lens through which we are assessing it (scientific, poetical, mathematical, theological, literary, to name but a few). 

The take home lesson here is that facts always require a context, which is why science gives us truths about reality only in the same way that chess does or language does - they are rules within a closed system we call ‘facts, and must only be called factual or non-factual on the basis that they are empirically evidential through the lens of human physical interpretation of reality.  It is the propositions about these facts that are true or false – so be careful with the language you’re employing, and watch for the way others misuse language in this way.    I have talked about ‘facts’ in a way that may surprise you – but the reality is, your knowledge of tables, chairs, buildings, and anything material is not classed as true or false, because such knowledge is also not propositional.  That’s a good golden rule - sensory knowledge isn’t true or false either – it is judgements about our perception of the outside world.  The brown, smooth left-handed crescent desk in front of me isn’t true or false – it is a medley of potential perceptions.  The colour brown isn’t true or false – for the shading changes according to my relative positions in the room, and my perception changes in accordance with where the light is shining in, and so forth.  The smoothness isn’t true or false – again, its texture depends on my reference point of observation.  From a distance I see the table as being smooth.  With a powerful microscope I see lots of pits and crevices.  That is why sense data of this kind is not true or false.  You can say that it is true that tables exist if you like, and I won’t disagree.  But you haven’t made any meaningful statement about what accounts of truth actually are.  Sadly, that is what you will catch many people doing.  Be wary of them. 

Mind in potentia
A few more points and I am done here. Time is on your side as the flowers of your mind bloom – and in the advent of bloom I encourage you to develop your interpretations of the foregoing considerations further into your years, as I have confidence that they will be immensely edifying for you.  See them not as authoritarian templates, but as recipes that require necessary input from you, as you invest meaning in them and attach them to your own personal pursuits in life. And just like food recipes in real life – they are only paper and ink awaiting culinary fruition when they are actioned into the production of wholesome food.  Recipes of the mind are no different.

That you have (I hope) had the kind of upbringing that has helped engender your already smart mind has, I believe, been in no small part down to what I’ve called the ‘six key tenets of personal development. I’ve said that we need to unlearn bad habits, but that also those learned aspects of childhood serve us well in growing up.  These are the tenets - where, from childhood to adulthood, I find that minds work best when they have had the following;

1) A mind that has been shown love and encouragement in order to will its highest intellectual development;

2) A mind that has been taught how to think not what to think, and has remained free from indoctrination, and had uninhibited access to all forms of education available.

3) A mind that has had the freedom to pursue all areas of information and knowledge it chooses, and remained virtually unrestrained in its pursuance of ideas.

4) A mind that has experienced the wide considerations of what others believe and why they believe these things.

5) A mind that is well equipped to assess complex subjects and work out the relationship between objectivity, subjectivity and relativism.

6) A mind that has been taught love for one another (even those against us), goodness, patience, kindness, and concern for one’s fellow human irrespective of their culture and beliefs.

These six tenets are the protective shield against extremism, fundamentalism and indoctrinated worldviews. If you can take the tenets into adulthood – maybe even as foresight for your own children – remember that these six key tenets do not just happen in our younger years – they are developed and enhanced right through to young adulthood, and then right throughout one’s life into old age.  You may have also noticed that these six key tenets are based more on the background, home life, culture and environment in which one was brought up rather than specific things one does.  Conversely the things we need to unlearn are not really to do with what we are – we don’t really need to unlearn our culture or environment – we unlearn the specific ways that we’ve been asked by our parents to view the world, and we unlearn by separating the epistemological wheat from the epistemological chaff.  A person who has an environment consistent with and conducive to the six key tenets, but who has gone on in mature years to unlearn his philosophical baggage from childhood, is the most likely to have rich wisdom and high intellection – and that is what I hope for you as you approach young adulthood.  . 

Closing wisdom regarding others
On courtesy, conduct and how you treat others – continue to afford value to what I’ve always taught you as being valuable – it has held you in good stead thus far and will continue to do so.  Continue to; respect authority when you feel it has been earned, but always be prepared to question what you've been told, and check if it corresponds with the facts as you interpret them. Never shy away from formulating your own views based on what seems rational to you, even if those views seem to depart from the consensus; if it turns out you're right you'll teach someone something or help them attain greater clarity of thought, and if you're wrong then someone will teach you something and you'll learn something new - so it's win-win for you.

Finally, keep faithful to what I've always taught you about treating others with love, grace, kindness, mercy, generosity, compassion and respect – and keep close to your heart the mindfulness of not discriminating against anyone on the basis of things that are beyond their control (skin colour, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation). 

While I hope this has proved a useful insight – I think that’s about as much as I should include right now without sending your mind into overdrive.  I want you to know that I write all this as a very proud father – one who delights in the fact that your love, grace, kindness, mercy, generosity, compassion and respect for your fellow humans has held you in good stead over the years.  Whenever possible, always find ways to forgive others, as you look to see the best in people – and, last but not least, always be keen to search for the goodness in others, and make it easy for others to see the goodness in you.  Leave others in a better state than when you found them and you’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll do the same for you. 

I wish for you every blessing in the forthcoming years

Lots of love

Your Father

James Knight