Monday, July 11, 2016

The Brain. A User's Guide

I have a handful of tools in my mental toolbox that I use when evaluating anything new. First of all, I make sure to consider things that I disagree with or find outside of the normal. You can’t learn new stuff if you refuse to consider new things. Blinders are not glasses. Second, I try to understand things the way someone who believes them understands them instead of as a critic. I try to listen with the intent to understand, not to undermine. I may ultimately disagree, but not before I try to put myself into the author’s world and believe the argument the way they believe it, understand it the way they understand it, and feel it the way they feel it. This can be frightening at times. As Marshall McLuhan said, “I don’t believe everything I say.” I also take nothing as sacrosanct. Any belief I hold, no matter how ancient or how dear, can be overturned with new evidence or experience. There are no sacred cows.

Then there’s the salt scale. This is how much salt I take when entertaining new information. It goes from a grain all the way up to a box of Kosher. I don’t take anything entirely salt free. Say I’m reading something on the Internet. Say an article on world politics. I will look up the author’s credentials. If the article in question was written by X. Y. Zee, former CIA analyst with 30 years’ experience who is now blogging on world events, then I will consider it with a single grain of salt. If, on the other hand, I’m reading something by Anonymous or an unidentified user’s blog, then I consider it as something authored by someone I call a Sgoti. Some Guy/Gal on the Internet. This gets mega salt. I don’t necessarily reject it, but it gets served with extra criticism. Anything this person says must be verified by a trusted third source. And of course, every argument must be scanned for logical fallacies, no matter the author.

Also, go directly to a source. If I read something about the policies of General Porkbutt, I read it, but then try to find a speech by the general himself. I don’t just listen to the analysis of someone who hates him. Vladimir Putin is a good example. He is routinely demonized in the western press, but when you actually read his speeches, look at his actions, and listen to his interviews, he comes across as the rational one.

Avoid dichotomies. Nobody is all evil. Nobody is all good. People can be motivated by different things and still agree. People can be motivated by the same things but disagree. And you can agree with some things a person says and disagree with others. It's not all or nothing. Respect the other person, even if you disagree with them.

And, ultimately, I am always willing to experience new points of view and change my mind. If you’re not willing to do that then you are in the wrong life.

Extraordinary Claims

Then there’s how you evaluate things. Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Someone else replied that this is not true. Extraordinary claims require evidence. Period. Once evidence is provided and accepted, the claim ceases being extraordinary. As a matter of fact, it becomes common place. Obvious, even. Only an obtuse person would deny it. But someone out there had to take a risk and exercise reason and logic and defy the conventional to arrive at that opinion in the first place. They were probably criticized or persecuted for it, as well. Now it’s taken for granted. Self evident, even. Be one of the innovators, not one of the mob.

My response to claims like these is simple. Prove it.

If proof is provided, I will consider it. If not, it remains uncertain, but not refuted. It doesn't matter how outlandish it is. Elvis impersonating, shape shifting aliens from Zeta Reticuli replacing world leaders? Ridiculous. Bilderberg plot for world domination? Well, er. Probably not. FEMA camps? Um. People couldn't believe what was going on in Nazi concentration camps, either, until proof was provided. Some people still deny it.

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you know if some truth is mingled in with all the lies? By considering each piece individually, of course. And demanding proof.

One of the greatest successes of propaganda in the twentieth century was the introduction of the term "conspiracy theory" to the vocabulary. This is a thought vaccine. It inoculates the hearer from critical thinking. If I hear something outlandish I just roll my eyes and twiddle my finger near my temple and say, Wacko! No need for critical thinking here!

Prove it. That's all.


We should also have, at our disposal, a clear understanding of logical fallacies, since these are what we will mostly be confronted with. It is much easier to support something with a clever lie than a well thought out argument. Never believe something that can fit on a bumper sticker. That’s where it belongs, not in your brain.

Logical fallacies that are most common, but certainly not a complete list, are: Non-sequitur, Straw man, Anecdotal argument, Ad hominem, False dichotomy, Cherry picking, Misdirection, and my favorite, Cooking the books. As we all know, 98% of all Internet statistics are invalid.

Here is a good starting point to learn more about specious reasoning. Of course, some people learn about specious reasoning in order to avoid it, some in order to deploy it.


Emergence is a notorious philosophical term of art. A variety of theorists have appropriated it for their purposes ever since George Henry Lewes gave it a philosophical sense in his 1875 Problems of Life and Mind. We might roughly characterize the shared meaning thus: emergent entities (properties or substances) ‘arise’ out of more fundamental entities and yet are ‘novel’ or ‘irreducible’ with respect to them. (For example, it is sometimes said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain.) Each of the quoted terms is slippery in its own right, and their specifications yield the varied notions of emergence that we discuss below. There has been renewed interest in emergence within discussions of the behavior of complex systems and debates over the reconcilability of mental causation, intentionality, or consciousness with physicalism.

Emergence is a philosophy that basically says that big things come from the random interactions of many small things where the properties of the big are impossible to predict from studying the small. Examples of this are bees becoming hives, ants becoming nests and neurons becoming minds.

Basically, a lot of things work together in their own small ways and produce a ‘whole is greater than the sum of the part’ organism. This is reminiscent of the Gary Larson cartoon of the blackboard with lots of flow chart squares and triangles linked together in bizarre ways with myriad lines, feeding into one big box labeled ‘And Then A Miracle Happens’ and out comes ‘The Answer.’

What does this have to do with a well-functioning brain? Just this. Sometimes things happen for no reason. Let’s take an example. I mentioned the ‘Bilderberg Rules the World’ conspiracy theory above. Does this really happen? Almost definitely not. As you probably know, the Bilderberg group is a club consisting of industrialists and politicians who meet annually to discuss… something. They won’t publish an agenda, so they are ripe for conspiracy theories.

What are they probably doing? Discussing the state of the world in the context of their own individual somewhat enlightened mostly selfish self-interest. Each wants what’s best for himself and is willing to horse trade to get the best deal from the rest of the world’s oligarchs who are also trying to do the same thing. There’s no five year, long term planning. No deciding whose going to be president or where the next war will be fought. No Masonic ground breaking ceremony for the New World Order headquarters on the temple mount. Just a bunch of selfish people pursuing their own selfish interests and grudgingly considering the selfish interests of others as long as it suits their own selfish needs.

In other words, they are emotionally incapable of creating a master plan of anything and would fail if they tried.

But how does it look from the outside? According to emergence theory, the activities of all of these players in their own play pens, when they interact, will create a greater entity that no one could have predicted from the inputs. So, conspiracy theories happen, just not intentionally. The players might be just as surprised as any of us useless eaters at what’s going on.

Never ascribe to malice what can be sufficiently explained by mistake or happenstance. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, just that there’s no real cause.

Use your brain. It emerged for no reason. But now that you have it, give it a whirl.

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