Education, Honesty, Human Nature, Intellectual Honesty, Language, Learning, Life, Living, Logic, New Idea, Quality of Life, Reason, Skeptical Thinking, Thinking

Three Pillars of a Well-Educated Mind

SUMMARY: There may be several pillars of a well-educated mind, but to me, the three most important are intellectual honesty, open-mindedness, and critical thinking.

(About a 12 minute read)

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”  ― Margaret Mead

Like most people who do not suffer from a crippling over-abundance of sanity, I am a staunch believer in the notion that we could do a much better job than we are doing in teaching people to think.

Saner people might point out the many ways in which American culture discourages teaching people to think.  For instance, there is a deeply rooted strain of anti-intellectualism in our society that has been present ever since the 1820s or 30s, and which most often manifests itself as contempt for anything exceeding a narrowly practical education.

I freely concede that making a living is of periodic importance in life, such as roughly during the period between the ages of twenty and sixty or so.  But to me, that doesn’t mean you should so focus your education on getting a good job that you fail to develop the skills necessary to lead a fulfilling life.

Continue reading “Three Pillars of a Well-Educated Mind”

Art, Language, Poetry

Poetry Critique: “Words” by Jane

(About a 5 minute read)

Dear Readers,

There are many things you could say about words.  You could, for instance, take an insufferably abstract approach to words and say  — as I myself love to do — that  they function much like the symbols on maps function in the sense they are symbols for some reality beyond themselves.  And you could, of course, say much about words besides that delectable mere morsel.

In her poem “Words”, Jane mostly takes a look at word as they are experienced by poets, which is a good thing, because the poetic meaning of words is every bit as important as their semiotic meaning.

Indeed, if you consider how words are routinely used to motivate and direct people, you could make a strong case that understanding their use in poetry is more important to a happy life than anything you could ever know about semiotics.  Not that semiotics isn’t also important.

So what is their use in poetry?  To me, that depends on the poet, but I would argue they can be no more useful than when used to get at a truth and then to present it in an emotional way, and hopefully an emotionally beautiful way.

But what is “emotional beauty”?

The rough test that I myself use for emotional beauty is to ask how something makes me feel and then motivates me.  If the words of a poem make me feel better about living and then motivate me to improve the world, I would say they were emotionally beautiful.

Emotional beauty is something I’ve found so often in Jane’s poems.  The other day, I read someone describing her as “an awesome poet”, but I do not think the word “awesome” does her justice.  It would be closer to the truth, I think, to describe her rhyming and rhythmic verses as “typically vibrant, always creative, and often explosive” — to describe them briefly.

Jane blogs at “Making it Write“.  Her poem, “Words” can be found here.

Best,

Paul


Words which clamber for birth,
eager to cling to the page,
words which would raise to self-worth
modestly seeking a place.
Words which admit, words which deny,
words deftly-chosen, words misapplied.
Dominatrix words which try
to overpower a subtle punchline.

Words which have something to say,
each syllable tuned in its own way,
conciliating or armed for the fray,
screaming surprise or mumbling cliché.

Words that edge to the ideal mate;
working their way towards standing up straight,
shuffling their way into ship-shape phrases
like uneasy conscripts with falsified ages.

Words scrubbed out and aptly replaced,
jackets buttoned and shoes tightly laced,
a tidy battalion of lines and stanzas;
meter supplanting the weapons of battle,
bragging the spit and polish of rhyme
till all is perfect, and all might concur,
that the verse is sublime,
the message inspired.

Words,
for all their courageous claims
of muscle, weight and girth,
often wither and fade
into an insipid blur.


Dear Jane,

As I mentioned to you earlier, this image from your poem especially seized me:

“shuffling their way into ship-shape phrases
like uneasy conscripts with falsified ages.”

It “almost made me want to fall into line behind them”, I said.  I would like to elaborate on that for a brief moment.  Are you curious why such an imagine might draw your readers in, engage them like hungry teens sniffing about the apron of a hamburger chef?

As I mentioned at the top of this post, an ideal for poetry might be to render a truth emotionally beautiful.   If so, a truth here, among so many other truths in your poem, is that picking the right words to describe something and provoke an emotional response to the description is, of course, naturally key to poetry.  And I think that’ s what you have expressed so well.

For instance, works really do “shuffle” into shape for poets, don’t they?  And when poets jot down a few, they so often feel “uneasy” about whether the words really fit.  All of that is quite obviously included in the image you created.

Beyond that, the image inspired me.  Not, of course, to join the Red Cross in order to serve humanity, but it mildly inspired me to have a better day.  “Oh look! Something to feel cheerful about on and off today!”  So I would indeed call your image “emotionally beautiful” — as I would call so many of the images in “Words”.

Now, yesterday, you wrote an edit to replace the final stanza of your poem:

I like writing awesome rhyme
my words are poignant all the time.
so why do people talk so wicked
saying that my work’s insipid?

You scared me when you proposed swapping this out for that:

Words,
for all their courageous claims
of muscle, weight and girth,
often wither and fade
into an insipid blur.

And I wrote back to you explaining why you had scared me:

I like the original better.

Here’s why.

In my opinion — which fully merits the generous consideration anyone of us would naturally accord a jackass — the original poem ends weakly, insipidly on the word “blur”. I find it brilliant that you would conclude a poem about words being insipid with an insipid ending in sharp contrast to all that has gone before.

Really gets you thinking, that one. I mean, how can so much of the poem show words off as vigorous, robust things, then so compellingly declare them insipid? Could it be both views have justice?

But your edit ends strong, and thus negates that delightful contradiction.

So I am glad to see that you have not changed the original poem after all.  What a relief!

The only criticism I have of your poem is ridiculous as a criticism:  You should explore words more.  Write another poem about words, only this time, words not as they are understood and experienced by poets, but, say, words as they are used to propagandize people.  Words use to evil ends.

After that, if you wish, write on words from yet another angle.

Or not.  It’s up to you.

I hope this critique has been thought provoking, perhaps even helpful, although I do not expect helpful.  You are far too accomplished as a poet for me to have helped you.

All the best,

Paul

Evolution, Human Nature, Intelligence, Language, Liars Lies and Lying, Psychology, Reason, Relationships, Science, Scientific Method(s), Thinking, Truth, Values, Wisdom

Are We Humans Better Liars than Thinkers or Sages?

I am all but certain that, somewhere lying around in the minds of certain scientists today, is an hypothesis that accurately describes the origins of language.  That is, I’m nearly sure the origins have already been largely figured out by now.

I am also all but certain that, unless we invent time travel, or the gods both exist and decide to reveal their knowledge of its origins, or a genius quite improbably comes up with a mathematical proof of its origins,  or — most likely these days —  a FOX News personality stumbles across its origins while searching for ancient dirt on Barrack Obama’s alleged War on Adam and Eve,  it will never be much more than an astute guess whether the correct hypothesis of language’s origins is truly correct.

Yet, despite the improbability of actually discovering the origins of language,  various things about the fundamental nature of language and its uses suggest to insightful and very learned guess-a-tators such as myself that language might — or might not — have evolved from mating calls, that it might — or might not — have been preceded by singing, that it might — or might not — have evolved faster in women than in men, that it might — or might not — have had multiple causes for its development from mating calls (such as its use in promoting group cohesion and cooperation), and that it surely, certainly, and absolutely was used almost from “the very moment it was invented” to tell lies.

There are a variety of reasons to tentatively think that particular use for language developed early on.   Of all those various reasons, the only ones that interest me here are these two:  Humans lie with ease and great frequency, and they begin playing around with telling lies at tender ages. If lying didn’t develop early on, then why is it so behaviorally advanced in us?  Why are we so good at it?

It seems obvious to me that our brains are more advanced at lying than they are at many other things — such as doing math or science, for nearly everyone of us lies with ease when he or she wants to, but so many of us struggle with critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.

It also seems obvious to me that our brains are even less developed for wisdom than they are for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking.  There are whole, vast areas of life in which, at most, only about one in ten or one in twenty of us frequently behave in ways that consistently show great wisdom.  That is, I’ve observed that even the village idiot now and then acts wisely, but I’ve also observed that the large majority of us have blind spots — whole areas of our lives — in which we are inconsistently wise, or even frequently fools.

Human relationships are usually a person’s most easily noticed blind spot.  Indeed, relationships are an area of life in which even those folks who most consistently behave towards others with great wisdom often stumble or fall, and if someone has learned to dance among us like a sage, you can be sure it took her an age of clumsy mistakes to learn her grace.

It seems likely that many people believe on some level that popularity is a sure sign of wisdom in dealing with others, and — if that were indeed the case — there would be a lot more people in this world who are wise about relationships than there really are, for there are certainly a lot of popular people.  Indeed, I myself can believe there is some small link between wisdom in relationships and popularity, but I cannot believe that link is more than a small one, if only because I’ve known too many fools who were popular, and too many comparably wise people who were not.

So I think the human brain is least of all evolved for wisdom, somewhat more evolved for critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking, and most of all of these evolved for lying.  And, likewise, it seems to me that language is best suited to lying, less suited to the sort of precision and exactness that one so often needs to communicate critical, mathematical, or scientific ideas, and least of all suited to communicate wisdom.  In fact, I’m pretty certain wisdom is not merely difficult, but extraordinarily difficult, to communicate, if it can be communicated at all.

For instance, this morning I came across a meme post to a website that stated, “It’s better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship”.  The first thing I thought was, “That’s true for a number of reasons”, and the second thing I thought was, “Among those reasons, it is better to be alone than to be in a bad relationship because, ironically, we are more likely to suffer from intense loneliness when we are in a bad or abusive relationship than when we are by ourselves and alone.”  But the third thing I thought was, “If one does not already know the truth of these things, then one is unlikely to learn the truth from either the meme or from any other words spoken about it.   How often have I seen people plunge themselves into bad or abusive relationships, or refuse to leave one, primarily out of fear of being lonely?  At least a third or half of the people I’ve known well in life have had at least one story of getting into a bad or abusive relationship and then delaying or even failing to leave it largely out of fear of being lonely.  Yet, nearly everyone who actually left such a relationship has looked back and said to me, ‘I only wish I left sooner, or not gotten into that relationship at all.’ Not a single person has yet told me that being alone has turned out to be lonelier than was being in the relationship.”

Now, I have heard people say that wisdom is “subjective” because there are no objective means for determining what is “right or wrong”.  But I think that might be a half-truth, and perhaps only a quarter-truth.  In many cases, all we need for wisdom to become objective is pick a goal.  Once we have picked a goal, it so often becomes possible to know with a fair amount of assurance which actions will bring us to our goal, which actions will not, and even which actions will be more efficient or effective than others in doing so.

For instance, if our goal is to avoid for ourselves the worst of loneliness, then it is obvious that choosing to get into a bad or abusive relationship is not the wisest decision we can make, while remaining alone or getting into a healthy relationship is a wiser choice.  Of course, this assumes that it is true for us, even if for no one else, that we will feel lonelier in a bad or abusive relationship than we’d otherwise feel.  But that question can be answered objectively.

The choice of goal is ultimately subjective (but that should not distract us from the fact that we can many times objectively determine the wisest means to that goal).  And yet, it is only ultimately subjective, for goals themselves can be arranged in hierarchies so that a higher goal might determine whether or not one expresses or attempts to actualize a lower goal.

In this blog post, I have been using the word “wisdom” as nearly synonymous with the phrase “most effective”.  Which, if I am being logically consistent, means that I harbor the somewhat dismal notion that our species of super-sized chimpanzees relatively excel at lying; perform mediocre at critical, mathematical, or scientific thinking; and suck the big potato at assessing the comparative effectiveness of various relevant behaviors, and then acting in accordance with those assessments, in order to bring about the most desired outcome.  If all of that is substantially true, then it naturally raises the question:  Why is it that we’re better liars than “thinkers” or sages?

Language, Late Night Thoughts, Spirituality

How Do You Define “Spiritual”?

I think quite a few people think of the word “spiritual” as referring to spirits and hence a reference to the supernatural.

Of course most words have more than one meaning.

I myself use the word in a somewhat different sense — a sense that I guess is ultimately derived from the word’s use to refer to a person’s “spirit”, as in “That’s a very spirited person”, or “She has a pleasant spirit”.

Thus, I use the word “spiritual” to refer to how someone deals with the various issues that arise from the the fact we humans perceive a distinction between an I that observes and things that are observed.  It is that perception that creates the basis for a psychological self or “I”.   I don’t think that use of the word has anything to do with the supernatural.

But what does that word spiritual mean to you?

Awe, Buddhism, Consciousness, Enlightenment, Epistemology, Language, Mysticism, Nature, Quotes, Religion, Science, Spirituality, Teacher, Teaching, Transformative Experience, Zen

The Religious Sensibility, the Sense of Awe, is Non-Mystical

[A]s dawn arises on the new day, the Buddha achieves illumination.  This illumination so stuns him — it is an opening of the world — that he sits there for seven days.  Then he steps away and for seven days, regards the spot where he had sat.  Then for seven days he walks back and forth integrating what he has learned. Then he goes and sits beneath a tree and thinks, This cannot be taught.  And that is the first doctrine of Buddhism: it cannot be taught. No experience can be taught.  All that can be taught is the way to an experience.

Joseph Campbell, David Kudler

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

S. Mitchell, translator

At a website called, Ask the Atheists, back in October, some folks asked this question:

When theists and atheists feel awe, is it the same thing? I imagine that theists and atheists both get a feeling of awe and amazement when we see a beautiful sunset, mountain valley, etc. But the believer sees this as God’s handiwork, and attributes the beauty to Him. Is it a similar thing?

Five atheists then volunteered answers to the question.   Four of them agreed that atheists and theists feel almost the same thing when they experience awe of nature, while, in my opinion, a fifth atheist (“logicel”) over-thought the question instead of answering it.

Here, as an example of someone who answered the question, is “Mike the Infidel”: “As a former believer, I can tell you that it’s almost identical. The only difference is that I don’t go a further step and feel awe at the thought that it was all made with us in mind.”

In general, the atheists answered the question in ways very compatible with Carl Sagan’s reflections on nature and wonder:

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and literature. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religion feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right.

I happen to believe all of these folks are correct to suggest “the religious sensibility, the sense of awe” is more or less the same for atheist and theist alike.  But only if they are not claiming that this religious sensibility, this sense of awe, is a mystical experience.

That is to say, the mystical experience is radically different from the awe of atheist and theist alike, and it should not be confused with that awe.

Of course, the two are confused all the time.  There are plenty of people in this world — maybe a large majority of people — who could easily read Campbell’s and Kudler’s descriptive myth of the Buddha’s illumination and then promptly, without thinking about it, confuse the Buddha’s obviously mystical experience with Carl Sagan’s awe when “looking up on a clear night”.

Yet, I don’t blame them for their confusion.  In my experience, the only thing more difficult to grasp than how radically different mystical experiences are from normal experiences is the nature of the mystical experience itself.  Confusion is the norm, not the exception, and no one should ever be blamed for looking like an fool when discussing this particular subject.   We all in some sense must become fools to discuss this subject.

Before we go on, it seems necessary to do a bit of housekeeping here: There are many kinds of mystical experiences.  Yet, we are only concerned here with just one kind of mystical experience.

That is the kind of mystical experience the Buddha was referring to when he thought, “This cannot be taught”.  And I take that kind of mystical experience to be practically the same kind of mystical experience that Lao Tzu, the author of The Tao Te Ching, was less directly referring to when he wrote, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Put differently,  the mystical experience being discussed here is the experience that one seems almost certain to have should a person’s subject/object perceptions abruptly end, thus dissolving the process that creates the self, while experiencing yet continues.

So far as I can discover, people who have not had an experience like — or very close to being like — the mystical experiences of the great sages will almost always confuse those mystical experiences with Sagan’s feeling of awe.

To express the same point with a touch of absurdity:  Sunstone’s Law of the False Equivalence of Mystical and Non-Mystical Experiences forceably asserts that,  “Anyone who has not had a mystical experience will inevitably understand mystical experiences to be the mere equivalent of an intense feeling of awe (usually regarding nature).

It’s the only law I’ve ever come up with, and it probably ought to be the last.  Enjoy!

Further writings on mysticism are here.

About This Blog, Art, Dale, From Around the Net, Language, Literature, Outstanding Bloggers, People, Talents and Skills, Writing

Rambling on about Blogging

I would be astonished if anyone who cared was astonished that I enjoy writing.  Especially blogging.  Blogging almost never feels like a chore.

Most days, I even look forward to it — which is certainly more than I do my cooking.

I believe, in fairness, I am moderately skilled at blogging — which I think of as mostly a separate category of writing from, say, writing a novel, a magazine article,  a short story, etc.

Blogging, I believe, has its own rules, and those rules are still being worked out and refined by us fearless bloggers.

As time goes on, it will become an ever more distinct form of writing.  But already, some people are very good at it.  Some are very poor at it. And I am somewhere in the middle.

What is it like being in the middle?  I confess that, every night, I retire to my bed in tears that I will never be the Shakespeare of blogging; but soon, I turn into smiles that I will never be the Bulwer-Lytton of blogging either.  I am routinely tossed between one grand passion and another.  My life is truly exciting because I am a middle of the road talent.  Only rock climbing, race car driving, and running with the bulls are arguably more extreme than life in the middle.

I think, among other things, really good bloggers write sentences, paragraphs or short passages that can stand alone.  I know that is true in other forms of writing, but I think there is something about the medium that might make it especially true in blogging.

Here’s Dana Hunter, an outstanding word smith and blogger, describing just how moved she can be by the written word:

There are moments, when I’m watching or reading something, where the story leaves me hyperventilating.  Shivering, shaking, aching, breaking, flying apart in fragments.  Crying, yes, because strong emotion of any kind has this tendency to sting the eyes, stun the brain, leave a person feeling like they’ve shaken hands with the third rail while breaking the fourth wall.

I’m not sure, but I think really good writers like Dana usually feel words much more deeply than the rest of us.  And it probably has something to do with why they are such good writers.

What I do know is that I — for all my love of words — am never moved to “flying apart in fragments” by words alone.  I need more than words: I need also in conjunction with words, the sight of someone’s perky, naked breasts, to move me as much as Dana is moved by words alone.

Chauncey De Vega is another hugely skilled word smith and blogger.  Here he is casually crafting a superb stand alone passage:

I am going to try my best to write something on Tuesday’s Election Day massacre political fubar coronation of the stupid classes, but I am more of a mind that folks should just look away. Just avert your eyes as though you were at the proverbial urinal….

In just a few words, he sums up the election results, the political consequences, and arguably the best way of handling the situation — all the while pumping into the passage enough snark to jolt the moon in its orbit.  Not bad for a big city kid.

Now, I think Dale’s posts contain some of the freshest language I’ve seen in blogging.  He is also at home with logic.   And here he is employing a combination punch of creative language and hard logic to thoroughly knock down the argument made in a video against gay marriage (I believe his third paragraph is especially creative, and that it could almost stand by itself without the other two paragraphs introducing it):

Declares a guy with street affectations in this video, “we have got to have a standard, otherwise everyone in our society will be affected”….

The legalization of gay marriage is, of course, the foul specter that will affect “everyone in our society” — somehow. True to the pro-inequality position, the guy with the street affectations and the other speakers in the video don’t bother listing the effects, let alone specifying why we should care about the effects, let alone detailing an argument (philosophical, political, sociological, or other) that links the suggested cause with the unnamed effects.

I gather they’re bad effects, but are they unjust effects? Oppressive effects? Painful effects? Will our hair fall out, our skin get blotchy? Will our cats fill their litter boxes more frequently? Will Christmas move to an every-other-year schedule? Will more college football programs adopt a garish shade of turf, as they have done in Boise?

I think any fair minded person, even if they are opposed to gay marriage, would have to agree that Dale has kicked the bejeebers out of the video’s argument in far fewer words than it takes many professional columnists to warmed up to their topic.

Dana, Chauncey, and Dale strike me as three bloggers who each in his or her own way is stretching the medium, and pioneering what can be done with it.

I seriously doubt they see themselves as in any way special, but I think if you were to read much more of their blogs than I can republish here, you yourself might see them as exceptional writers by any standards.

Moreover, so far as I know, they have each of them managed to excel at blogging without requiring the crutch of perky, naked breasts to inspire them.

How weird is that?

By the way, my sidebar contains many more links to well written blogs than just these three.  Just so you know.

Art, Beauty, Environment, Language, Love, Meaning, Nature, Quality of Life, Quotes, Spirituality, Ugliness

“A Language Older by Far and Deeper than Words”, by Derrick Jensen

There is a language older by far and deeper than words.  It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone.  It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory.  We have forgotten this language.  We do not even remember that it exists.

~ Derrick Jensen