Thursday, April 18, 2019

Non Trending Topic of the Day - "Know Thyself"

The ancient Greeks Delphic maxim "know thyself" and Socrates proposal that "the unexamined life is not worth living" are still considered valuable insights more than two thousand years after they were formulated.

Many centuries later these basic ideas are the catalyst for a variety of thought.

Carl Jung wrote about something he called archetypes that reside in humans collective unconscious. One simple way of thinking about archetypes is that they are instincts that reside in our unconscious mind.

When people encounter these archetypes in their conscious mind, it can lead to anxiety; because we don't understand their source, and they can bring us into contact with our darker sides. Humans developed religions to help us deal with these anxieties. When religion fails we may turn to psychology. I say may since there are any number of other options humans may try to deal with these anxieties, that can be much more damaging and dangerous than going to a therapist.

Jung proposed that good psychology (like good religion) helps the individual acknowledge and deal with his inner darkness and the wild forces that reside inside him - helping him become a true individual rather than a conformist.

He compared archetypes that inhabit our collective unconscious to ancient river beds that have cut deeply into the earth's surface. Society, government, religion may build canals that contain these archetypal rivers. When those three canal-builders begin to fail as happened in pre-war Germany the German people were swept into the most destructive mass movement of our time.

Not all mass movements are disastrous, but they may all appeal to individuals who share some common traits - one in particular being the need to conform rather than be a free individual.

The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer describes  religious, social and nationalist mass movements, and the traits of those attracted to these movements, in his book The True Believer - Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. I read that book the first time over 40 years ago and it never ceases to amaze me that people use it to defend or denigrate whatever "mass movement" they happen to like or dislike...but I digress.


There are two topics I wanted to wind my way to in this discussion about knowing yourself - Modern day Christian Evangelicals and technological brain hacking.

Regarding Modern day Christian Evangelicals -

A Pew Research Center poll taken in 2009 showed that a majority of white Evangelical Protestants (62%) and white Catholics (51%) thought that the use of torture against suspected terrorists was justified. The author of this article in the Daily Beast asks the question, "Who Would Jesus Torture?" I can't help but wonder what impact propaganda like the Fox TV show 24, which premiered in 2001, had on these people's beliefs.

I can't begin to imagine what interior angst must occasionally occur for someone who professes to be a follower of Jesus while at the same time giving a thumbs up for torturing fellow human beings. The ugly secret is....

We gave up on God a long time ago. 

Religions that foster an interior experience of the divine and sacred have been overtaken by other religions. As Jacques Ellul said, "The elimination of traditional religions by modern culture is a process that creates new religions."

Religion asks for faith, not reason. We have moved our faith from the sacred to the secular. We have faith (often without reason although not always) in - our selves, our leaders, our political parties, in technology and in the misguided notion that some external thing (money, possessions, self-help books, gurus) will bring us joy.

The 62% of white evangelicals and 51% of Catholics who believe torturing another human being is acceptable, know - somewhere in their psyche, that they gave up on God.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was critical of mainline churches. His book Fear and Trembling is about working out your personal relationship with the divine on your own - after you've come to the end of reason...with fear and trembling. I think he also said that he liked to attend unfamiliar churches and sit in the back pew - being critical of the people who show up in church every Sunday and sit in their assigned pew to make a good impression on their fellow churchgoers.

Why is that important to this discussion?

It helps explain why professedly religious people gave up on God. True Christian faith seeks a personal relationship with the divine. It's hard individual work, not achievable by following the letter of a human-constructed theology. 

Fundamentalist religions like the Christian Evangelical and some versions of Catholicism, teach that every word of the bible is true. Obviously this is ridiculous....or maybe a better word is magical (not necessarily bad but potentially). We need magic in our lives - good magic. 

A rigid theology is easily shattered once it is exposed to the reality of this world. This explains both the hypocrisy of the pious and the turning away from rigid theological religions. A simple belief in love as taught by Jesus is harder to shatter...but that part of Christianity was never too popular anyway - what with the just war theory, manifest destiny, and whatever else man came up with to explain barbarism. 

Thinking adults, and children, can take stories from the bible as metaphors, along with wisdom literature from philosophy and other religions, in living their version of the good life.

The fundamentalists are stuck though - they have to at least claim to believe the bible chapter and verse....or whatever the prosperity preacher is selling them in the mega-church or on television. This causes a major discontinuity between what they actually believe (based on actions) and what they profess to believe (the gospel of Jesus).

That's about enough - I really don't know anything. I do find that the more I try to learn the more complex things seem and I realize how ignorant I am. The corollary being - that the less you know about something the more sure you are of your opinions.

Technological brain hacking is something Yuval Harari talks about and writes about in his books Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tommorow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. For those debating this topic, manipulating a person's brain via machine or vice versa, is a sign of either a future utopia, or dystopia - or possibly something less extreme.

I think it's more likely society is at (or reaching) the dystopian end of the spectrum. I might change my mind (or maybe a machine will do that for me).

To avoid being manipulated you have to know yourself better than the machine knows you. Maintaining some semblance of free will becomes more challenging as individual self-knowledge declines while machine knowledge expands.

In this podcast, starting a little after minute 24, Yuval Harari says that one of the most important facts about living in the 21st century is that man is now a hackable animal. He also makes these points...

Given the advances of artificial intelligence, machine learning and brain science we are quite close to where an external system can know you better than you know yourself. It can then sell you anything it wants whether it be a product or politician.
People who don't believe they can be manipulated - that their decisions and actions represent their own free will - are the easiest to manipulate. The best counter-measure we can enact to maintain our freedom is to follow the maxim "know thyself".

Propaganda (also called advertising or public relations) is nothing new, and neither is the idea that people who consume propaganda, thinking they are operating in accord with their own free will, are the most susceptible to manipulation. 

The French philosopher Jacque Ellul's book written in 1973 Propaganda the Formation of Men's Attitudes  also tells us that people who think they are immune to propaganda because of how intelligent or informed they are...are actually the most susceptible to propaganda. 

Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays wrote the seminal book Propaganda about U.S. public relations and advertising in 1928. In 1928 the word propaganda didn't have the negative connotation it does today - that only came after the U.S., Germany, and the USSR used propaganda to control their populations prior to and during wartime.

Walter Lippman wrote about the use of propaganda in mass culture his 1922 book Public Opinion. It's a fascinating book and available for download from various places being in the public domain.


If a Christian fundamentalist who supports torture had sufficient self knowledge they would (a) not identify as a Christian or (b) stop supporting torture.

If people consuming propaganda, advertising, and public relations from antisocial media, TV, newspapers, radio, and magazines, spent some time getting to know themselves, they might start to think the lyrics to this old John Prine song sound pretty darn good.

Blow up your TV, throw away your paper 
Go to the country, build you a home 
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches 
Try and find Jesus on your own…