Have you thought about (HYTA) why it’s so difficult to change someone’s mind?

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          When I was younger, I used to be in deep admiration for those who could do what I sometimes struggled with: being able to speak volubly with enviable eloquence, humour and confidence. They were, I observed to myself, so certain about everything they said. Ironically, despite having read widely, my present self is even more unsure than I have ever been. The more knowledge acquired, the more you realise how little you really know of anything.

          How then, can anyone be so resolutely confident about religion, politics or morality? But – and I believe this is true in most cases – those who speak so wonderfully are also the least likely to change their minds. In fact, the more persuasive a speaker, the more wary I am. If you look past the glossy presentation veneer, you will see an ugly and stubborn mind that may not necessarily have good reasons to sustain its beliefs.

          In the furious science vs religion debate (evolution vs creationism) between Bill Nye the science guy and Ken Ham the religious fundamentalist, a closing question was asked: What, if anything, would change your mind? Bill Nye stoically replied that he was willing to believe in religion if some form of strong & testable evidence could be presented. Ken Ham’s confident answer, however, was especially telling: “No, no one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”

          And that quite nicely summarises most of our social interactions. We almost always want to persuade others to take up something we believe in, follow what we like or agree with our opinions. Conversely, we are far less inclined to allow ourselves to be persuaded of a contrary statement. We seek out information that matches what we are in agreement with and make no effort to explore our hesitations. Uncertainty is not encouraged but is instead smothered to death.

          In a dinner I had many weeks ago, religion became a main (and serious) talking point. No surprise since it influences your moral attitude and understanding of the world. Though an atheist (a label I rarely use), I remained open to having my view(s) changed and so I listened deeply to my friend’s religious arguments. Unfortunately, the totality of the entire two hours could be outlined as follows:

          God is a divine being beyond human understanding. You cannot apply logic or reasoning to it.

          God’s actions cannot be judged. Only he knows what his celestial plan is. His acts of violence cannot be understood by human means.

          Therefore, no matter what you say or how difficult it is to justify my position, I won’t change my mind.

          Given the amount of convenient exceptions and innumerable fallacies present, there was no argument to be had. She simply would not entertain any possibility that she might be at the very least, slightly wrong.

          Here’s another example of how difficult it is to change minds.

          Despite Donald Trump’s bad business acumen (he went bankrupt at least ten times), blatant racism and repeated sexism, Trump supporters continuously defend him by playing down his deficiencies and dismissing his flaws as ‘good attributes’ to have in a leader. His audio recording of how easy it was to abuse his power to forcefully get any woman he wants has been accepted as ‘men’s locker room talk’ and therefore no big deal. (it isn’t)

          In the face of irrefutable evidence, people simply do not change their minds. They will however, seek to either downplay the evidence or twist it around to support their cause. This quirk of the mind is, like many cognitive biases, well-understood in Psychology. And this also means that even if genuine evidence existed to undermine the ‘truth’ of religion, you can be sure that the faithful will never revise their opinions at all. If anything, it will more likely strengthen their resolve. For many who think logic and evidence is an effective persuasive tool, it’s probably somewhat depressing.

          So what’s the point of persuading people when hard evidence (not anecdotes) can barely sway them, or if they are outright determined to completely hold on to their opinions? There’s honestly little that can be done except to educate the young on how to think well and clearly for themselves. Those younger are usually not yet locked down by their beliefs and are still forming an understanding of how the world works. Assuming they have an opportunity for exposure to authentic critical thinking, their capacity to think independently will likely stay with them for life.

          Maybe it’s just me, but I believe some of the most fulfilling conversations to have are a deep willingness to listen, a tacit respect for equal speaking room, an outright love for change and a want to be changed. There’s something indescribably marvelous about embracing uncertainty with such a person and to be humbled but intellectually invigorated. Here, there’s no need to change minds. Hearts will change. It’s a pity such a moment is far too often the exception rather than the norm.

So have you thought about (HYTA) why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind?

Have you thought about (HYTA) whether the world continues to exist after you die?

life-cycle-picture

         
          Many of the things we do are contingent upon a hopeful certainty that long after our deaths, the world will persist indefinitely. Presumably, our children will continue where we left off, and whatever achievements we laboured for will leave behind a legacy. In fact, believing the world will continue to exist after your death is the main motivation for many forms of conservational efforts, our ability to put up with great misery and suffering, as well giving life some sense of meaning, if any.

          Looking around, there appears to be plenty of reason to believe that life has persistence. Babies are born and slowly grow up, even as the young and old die. It’s a believable cycle of successive replacements, giving a sense of continuity even after we breathe our last. However, as with many theories of the universe and the mind, we don’t have any objective proof to stand by that conclusion. (though we can continue to speculate)

          Where the frontiers of human consciousness start and end, science is at its infancy. There is much we now know than we ever did, but far too much of the human mind, whether it’s about romantic love, gender differences or hidden biases, continue to stubbornly remain shrouded from those who seek to pry open its secrets. Still, we know that our brain is the chief architect in engineering our reality. When it fails in this area (through trauma or mental disorders), an overwhelming sense of disconnect starts to fester.

          For example, we know of case studies of a woman who feels that her arms do not belong to her or the man who feels trapped in the mind of a female. And those who take LSDs (drugs that alter consciousness) often talk about how it warps their perception of reality in a dizzying euphoria. In The Matrix, though it’s a sci-fi movie, machines can hijack our brains by stimulation to manufacture a false reality. You’d never know the difference between an illusion and the truth. Our mind is so powerful that one cannot help but wonder if any of this ‘reality’ we are experiencing now is genuinely real.

          Or consider modern day role-playing games (RPGs). While you may play as the main character set against the backdrop of a rich universe, other non-playable characters (NPCs) have complex background intrigue that can rival your own storied history. These NPCs follow detailed schedules, live out their own lives, may get married and have children. They have their ethical codes, serve their own needs, and will disagree to work alongside you.

          At times, their dialogues and your ways of responding to them can be immensely branched and varied. However, despite how believable this fantasy world is, should your character die, the game ends there and then. And would it not be possible that the same holds true in reality? Your death becomes an endless sleep from which everything comes to an end. No more progress is made. Nothing else is known or can be known.

          Entertaining such a possibility has a number of consequences. It becomes easier to justify leading a lifestyle of maximising pleasure, often with the intent of putting your own interests ahead of others. A great deal of inspirational quotations lose their veneer and life becomes somewhat more mundane. Perhaps the only reason why any of us struggle so hard is because we take it as a given that life continues after our demise.

          But maybe the opposite is also true. If nothing carries over after our death, there’s little reason to stay in grief over our mistakes (though we should still learn from them), no need to over-compensate for our deficiencies, and much more joy to be had in maximising this ephemeral experience with the rare few whose company we so dearly enjoy.

So have you thought about (HYTA) whether the world continues to exist after you die?

Have You Thought About (HYTA) how darkly educational the US presidential debate is?

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          The second presidential debate was nothing short of a fusillade of acrimony, spitefulness and low blows which saw a crossfire (and repeated shelling) of personal attacks take center stage over political substance. With Hilary Clinton’s recently leaked Wall Street speeches and Donald Trump’s recorded boasting on how easy it is to have his way with any beautiful woman he sets his sights on, it’s hard to genuinely like either candidate. While Trump is obviously by far the worst choice for his repeated disrespect of women, lies and racism, there’s something telling about how both candidates have some of the poorest approval ratings in American history. But their clashes, conflicts and contradictions (the Trump and Clinton family used to be close friends) do bring out several conclusions that are grimly incompatible with the ‘positive teamwork’, ‘be a good person’ or ‘various moral rectitude’ that our schools, parents and social norms repeatedly drill into us.

          [Genuine politics is bitter, ugly and unhappy] A huge, jutting and ugly contrast from the promoted ‘good’ leadership behaviour that schools and workshops try to instill, let it be said that it is impossible to win if you are consistently on your best behaviour. Even when setting Trump and Clinton aside, many other previous presidential elections in America and beyond, have always ran attack ads and vicious news articles with the full intent of capitalising on an opponent’s flaw of character. It isn’t enough to show you are better; you need to completely waste your opponent even if it means exaggerating, using half-truths or acting on purported rumours. And these tactics of bringing your opponent to his knees, or going as far as to completely terminate him with no opportunity for comeback, is aptly referred to as Machiavellianism  – named after Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote in The Prince that ‘the employment of cunning and duplicity’ is required for general conduct. In the realm of anything political, philosophizing is a waste of time – only the swift and certain destruction of those opposed to you matter. History will remember the victors because they get to rewrite it. And psychology tells us that these very people will see themselves as doing the right thing, or believe they are the necessary saviours the world needs. Good behaviour only works if everyone believes and acts on it. The reality? One bad apple is enough to spoil the entire continent’s worth of apples.

          [Public VS Private]  Nowhere is it made more clear in this debate than the stark contrast between a person’s private and public life. Of course, there are plenty of stories awash with contradictions between the public and private. There’s the Buddhist monks who seek out prostitutes on the sly; celebrities who have sleazy affairs while riding the cause for anti-drug and pro-family campaigns; and of course, Bill Clinton the ex-president who lied under oath about his indecencies with Monica Lewinsky. When men misbehave, it’s often infidelity; women usually occupy other vices such as corruption or manipulation (though statistically, both genders cheat equally). But regardless of gender, who we appear to be in public is one splendid act. To successfully fit into the expected template of what is socially accepted is to meticulously mold your public image – a skill and artful lie we quickly learn without being taught. We circle around euphemisms and silently condemn others just so that we can maintain that so important squeaky clean image. Worse, what we do in private is something that’s absolutely terrifying to reveal in public. Our sly fantasies, sexual fetishes, and morbid habits are the true stuff of nightmares that authors conveniently leave out of the heroes they try to fashion in movies and perfect romance novels. Would you feel the same sense of inspiration and admiration if you knew Wonder Woman read erotica magazines and binged watched Korean love fantasies at night while fighting for justice in the day? I think not. But hey, reality (and therefore human nature) is really, really hard to accept right?

          [Religion & how it affects your beliefs and policies] Also taking the spotlight, albeit briefly, was the discussion of the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ which Hilary Clinton and Obama refused to use. They instead explained that the problem was not with the religion since a majority of Muslims are peaceful. It does unfortunately miss the point that Islam, like Christianity, contains considerable number of verses that diminish women and call for specific horrific punishments for various offenses, particularly when skepticism is shown towards Islam.

Look at this verse (among, many, many lines): ‘Quran 5:33 – the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger…is that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land.”

It’s the exact line ISIS uses to justify their gory killings. And it’s from the same holy book used by Muslims all over the world. To be clear, it’s not just Islam. The Bible is full of nonsensical violence too.

Here’s one: ’15:18 And he [the Lord] sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out’. 

          And of course, we know that the consequence of having fundamentalist religious beliefs is that they always, always tend to always spill over into policies. For example, Christian evangelicals completely dismiss evolution and pretend climate change isn’t happening. Do you think such a president would even consider supporting research into evolutionary process or try his hardest to collaborate with other nations on tackling global warming? As uncomfortable as it sounds, if you are deeply religious, you should be automatically disqualified from any position of power. Policies should not be determined by religious rights but what’s scientifically and statistically understood. But because a majority of people in the world are religious, they are more likely to favour a candidate who understands and supports their belief – a completely absurd way of rational and democratic voting.

          In the end, maybe the idea of democracy is somewhat of a failure. No one needs extensive knowledge of politics nor a boot camp in logic but there should at least be an urgency to try to identify arguments and read up a bit more.  Are the majority of voters good critical thinkers with a decent grasp of political and world issues? Sadly no. And with the way this election is headed, there’s probably going to be more dirt uncovered, more lies exposed and more general ugliness. Even if Trump lost the election, remember that he had significant support from the masses who didn’t mind his bigotry, racism and sexism. The problem isn’t Trump. It’s the people who support him. 

 

 

 

Have you thought about (HYTA) how our advice and criticisms are often, if not always, hypocritical?

hypocrisy_by_dianaefs-d74fxir         

          If I could count the number of people who are able to live up honestly to the very same advice and criticisms they all too eagerly dish out, I wouldn’t need more fingers than I already have. Both advice and criticisms are a curious part of the human condition: we often think others need them more than we do. And we regularly consider ourselves better than the average person and therefore beyond reproach.

          You don’t have look too far to find such examples. Pope Francis recently recommended that U.S. Catholics should carefully study their two presidential candidates (Hilary & Trump), pray and then vote. Having criticised Trump for being ‘unchristian’, his intent is likely an exhortation to the faithful to look deeply into each candidate’s moral and religious beliefs before going to the voting booth. Yet, his brand of thinking does not extend to whether religion could entirely be man made and false – an argument that is rapidly gaining traction in this modern era. Whatever thinking he wants you to do only goes as far as it doesn’t cause you to question your faith.

          And then there is Pastor Letsego who preached to his church congregation on biblical verses and Christian morality. He committed suicide after he accidentally sent pictures of his private parts to his church group instead of his mistress, who by the way was also a member of his church. Despite suspicions about his affair, he was on the record for saying that ‘he was a father to everyone and she (his mistress) was like his daughter.’ These behaviours are of course not limited only to religion. If you look hard enough, many historically famous people such as Steve Jobs, Issac Newton and even Einstein, often said one thing but failed to live up to the very issue(s) they heaped criticisms on.

          Even the future American presidential candidates are themselves monolithic monuments of hypocrisy – we know for sure that Trump is a hopelessly incompetent businessman and a psychopathic liar, and while Hilary claims to fight for the average American, she has been caught accepting generous ‘donations’ from Wall Street and ‘special’ interest groups. The barbed criticisms they trade over many issues are ironically examples of their inability to live up to their own advice. Why do we say one thing but completely do the opposite? Why do we expect others to live up to our absurd standards and yet give ourselves a free pass? For whatever reason, human psychology is obviously at work and these contradictory behaviours are not peculiar to those who study the human mind.

          We can indeed hold completely conflicting views in our mind and find no problems with it. Whether it’s the father who comes home and screams at his daughter for not studying enough and then promptly proceeds to lounge on the sofa for the next 6 hours playing hand phone games, or the principal who lies to gain prestige for the school and then goes on to happily teach moral education to a class of forty, we behave in ways that an independent observer could only, in the most optimistic sense, describe as alien and shocking. The people who are really in need of a wake-up call are often the very same people who dutifully try to dish it out.

          This phenomena of failing to evaluate yourself in the very same criticisms and advice we dispense might fall under the shadow of an extremely well-known cognitive bias, the Dunning Kruger effect: low ability individuals fail to recognise their own lack of skill and proportionally believe that they are much better than others. It’s a frightening bias that’s on display everywhere, and also explains why we fail to see the hypocrisy embedded in our criticisms / advice. We just simply don’t consider ourselves part of the fault because we cannot recognise our inferiority. When our ego risks serious damage, we move into full recovery mode that leverages on denial and deceit.

          However, it’s important to understand that even if most advice and criticisms are often hypocritical, it doesn’t diminish the truth of their intent. Even if a murderer gives a tediously moralistic speech on why murder is wrong, we should examine the contents of his argument and not be fixated on his past history or deeds. Nor should we be swayed by his silver tongue (if he has any). But I know for sure that the next time someone starts with a holier than thou attitude of ‘let me tell you about how I struggled when I was…’ or ‘this is how you should lead your life…’, I know it’s most likely exaggerated and inaccurate. More importantly, I am acutely aware that most speeches are far less inspirational that they have any business being – the speakers themselves don’t act on what they preach.

          So, Have You Thought About (HYTA) whether you’ve lived up to your own advice and criticisms?