actuallythinking.com

"The United States does not need the world's permission to act, but it does need the world's support to succeed."

 

Richard Haass in  The Opportunity

Excerpts from  actually THINKING:

 

"Whether we like it or not, the world is increasingly a global village. We can fill the role of constructive leader, who not only seeks our own security, but the general good of all. Conversely, we can be as primitive and divisive as our current enemies in being dead sure that our particular belief system is exactly right and everyone should just fall in line."

 

from page 69

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Evidence Matters,

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A presentation I've been making lately titled:  "Our Future, Our Dreams, Our Society"

Our Future, Our Dreams, Our Society

by Doug Matheson


On my list of self-evident truths is this:  “That we owe a decent, stable, and hopefully enjoyable planet to future generations.”  Most would probably agree; what then?  In exploring this topic, rather than the usual  - of the speaker telling his listeners things, I’d like to ask a number of questions,  in the hope that you might either find some of them to be thought provoking for you, or to be useful tools for your use in provoking thought among your fellow citizens.


In taking steps toward creating and leaving this decent and stable planet, would it be constructive and could it be necessary to share Neil de Grasse Tyson’s vision:  “I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true”?

      

In exploring a little of what’s involved in getting there, let’s start here:  Do we have to actually live through something to really learn from it?

I lived - growing up in India, a missionary kid; I lived Beirut sectarian violence; I lived Rwanda’s lead-up to and launch into its genocide… but because of where and when I grew up, I missed - the Vietnam War, not only being in the war, but our struggles in dealing with the issues of the war; I missed the whole Civil Rights Movement; I missed the depression and WWII; and we all missed slavery, the Civil War, and so much more.

 

Isn’t it great though, how through reading and reflecting, we can live, and learn from, a 1000 lives?           


Toward improving our tendency to let truth shape our politics, and thus our decision-making, consider:  Viewed from both a sociological and ecological perspective, are there any central exacerbating factors in facing the challenges of our times?


My mom died about 5 years ago at almost 92.  She could tell me stories about 1930, when she was a 10 year-old… incidentally about the same year the global human population hit the 2 billion mark.  It had taken 130 years for the population to double from hitting 1 billion in about 1800.  As it had obviously taken centuries before that to double, and millennia before that, no generation had ever seen our population double in their lifetime.  Yet in my mom’s life-time, she watched the human population well more than triple.


Should it really be a surprise, that with so many more of us, on average each consuming energy at much higher rates than our ancestors, that a side effect of using our primary energy source has added up, and has natural consequences?


Shifting gears a bit for one specific application on the population exacerbation…  Should it surprise us when minimally educated peasants in Rwanda were easily manipulated over the radio waves?  What was going on there?  Was it simply an ethnic thing, the Hutu vs the Tutsi?


Oh Rwanda, a beautiful country with wonderful people.   It was also the most densely populated country in Africa.  In generations before 1994, the average family size had barely begun to shrink, and so, the average family’s subsistence farming land-parcel had shrunk, a lot.


Now, when people perceive themselves to be in a competition for basic survival resources, can we expect rational, empathetic, choices and behavior to rule the day?  Is it really surprising that illiterate villagers believed the radioed message that it was either kill them now, or they’ll kill you later?  With the importance of perception, and the exploitation of fear, in mind, consider whether this lesson from Rwanda fits fairly well into America’s 2016 election experience.


Would it be wise to encourage ourselves to read beyond the superficial and beyond our preferred echo chamber, on all kinds of world events and issues, perhaps especially things our country does, or chooses not to do?


Now, is it possible to become too fearful of our darker sides?  Can this become a downward spiral in which we are fearful of those who are cultivating and manipulating fear, and we too end up doing the same?


Okay, let’s acknowledge our darker sides, personally and societally, but let’s not unpack and live there.  It’s real, and its depths are ugly.  But should we need to eyewitness the blood in the streets and bodies in the ditches and rivers to learn from whence this comes?  Now, how about shifting our focus to our brighter potential. 


Soren Kierkegaard said, “There are two ways to be fooled.  One is to believe what isn’t true.  The other is to refuse to accept what is true.”  Virtually everyone readily endorses that; but I add this question:  What have the centuries shown to be our best tool for slowly but surely figuring out what is true?


We can imagine asking a wide variety of people, from around the world, what they base their sense of truth on… and we can imagine their responses.  We can and perhaps should then ask ourselves - “What is the greatest determinant of humanity’s various claims?”


Can I take it for granted that we can face the fact that the greatest determinant has been the coincidence of birth… the family, the culture, and the century into which one is born.  Yes, people do break out of this, but this exception helps prove the rule.


In this field, there are endless conflicting claims, usually based in one faith or another.  And many feel or think that claims in this arena should not be so much as questioned, never mind deeply and critically examined, or openly critiqued.


This was the world in the dark ages, the crusades, the 30 Years War, and more.  Do we want to return to that, assuming we left to a fair degree?


Are the risks of this claim-based approach to life real, concrete, and consequential?  And does this approach present a second key exacerbating factor?  Viewed globally,  


Do these risks include -


A willingness to die for, and to kill for, our various “right” gods?  Does this sociocentric tendency lead to more quickly and enthusiastically jumping onto the bandwagon of war?  And is this manifest in some of our nation’s very recent history?


Do these risks include - a tendency to presume that there is a soon-coming supernatural solution to our various natural and man-made problems?  Can and does this contribute to failing to take challenges seriously, much less urgently?


Do these risks include - becoming habituated to beliefs of preference, believing what we simply want to believe, and expecting that to be respected, to go unchallenged?  And does this habit of believing what we want to believe, and then denying what we don’t like, spill from the faith connected areas of our thinking over into other areas of our thinking… including things like climate change? 


Let’s circle back to deliberately shifting our thinking away from our darker sides.  How did you answer what our best tool is for figuring out what is true?

 

One of the fundamentals which gave the Scientific Revolution validity and momentum was the realization and application of the idea that it is okay to question… anything and everything.  And to seek answers by systematically gathering and analyzing evidence, and then - in reaching conclusions – being willing to change your mind, your claim, your belief, when the evidence shows that this is called for.

 

What did the Enlightenment then do with that concept and momentum?  It extended the okayness of asking questions, and seeking evidence-based answers, beyond the field of the hard sciences, to the social sciences.  It was now asked - whether there really was such a thing as a “divine right of kings,” whether maybe all (eventually extending far beyond property-owning white males) were equal and had basic rights, whether exploitation was an acceptable part of life and economics, or is simply wrong.  


In slowly but surely figuring out what is true, have we had a tool with a better track record than taking the approach of science?  Is it sufficiently clear that it has not been the many fights over the irreconcilable, and uncheckable, claims of the various faith-groups?  The application of questioning things, of gathering evidence, and verifying it, of reaching honest conclusions… this has brought us an understanding of the universe, tremendous progress in technology, and an ever-progressing understanding of human history, and what society can and should aspire to. 


Would you agree that the evidence-based means, and constantly-open-to-change ends of a science-like approach to solving not only ecological challenges but also sociological challenges, have a better track record than simply the millennia-long conflicting faith-based claims approach?


How do we strengthen and build on this demonstrated problem-solving approach?  How do we demand intellectual honesty of ourselves, of our fellow-citizens, and help cultivate it in our fellow-humans globally?  


Is it helpful to consciously acknowledge that the easiest person to fool is … one’s self?  Can we gain from contrasting the two possibilities when our beliefs, our claims, are in contradiction with the best verifiable evidence?  We can… A. impose that evidence on our beliefs, recognize that we had been wrong, and change our minds; or, B. we can try, yet again, to impose our beliefs on the evidence, selecting, or manipulating, or ignoring our data points, as needed.


Someone said, “When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either  - cease to be mistaken, or, he will cease to be honest.”


Can that new awareness of the inevitably repeating need to be willing to change one’s mind, to update, eventually become a habit of changing it when called for?


To get there, do we need to be willing to recognize the most common stumbling blocks?  When the thinking of society around us still embraces stumbling blocks, do we need to develop ways and means of constructively pointing out the stumbling blocks, and pointing to processes which work better?


It can start to get touchy here.  Some would misunderstand this as walking all over the rights to freedom of speech, of press, and of religion.  Can we see the difference between absolutely respecting and defending the right to these processes and the obvious implied right to freedom of thought without coercion from any form of authority, vs. actually respecting any and all specific conclusions?  Do we respect as intellectually honest the idea of a flat earth?  A young earth?  Do believers in the most commonly claimed god in America take as fully seriously as their own notion of god, a reddish, elephant-headed but human bodied deity?  What about Allah?  What about Thor, or Zeus, or the “God” promoted in the writings of Joseph Smith, or in those of Ellen White, the prophetess behind the Adventism I grew up in?  Some take the virgin birth and the Madonna as essential and literal; others are able to smile at one more claim, one more story, one more myth.


We can’t sort through each and every claim and remotely hope to find consensus.  But can we learn to differentiate between these types of claims which can be neither confirmed nor proven false vs. well-founded statements of fact and principles which can be checked and re-checked?


Imagine asking the following two groups to reach consensus on things:  Group 1, a gathering one individual each from Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, Pakistan, China, and the U.S.A., of conservatives.  It is noteworthy that in some, but not all, of these countries a conservative would have very well defined traditional religious beliefs; those without a religious tradition, would still be preoccupied with defending their tradition, even simply an economic system.  Now Group 2, a gathering from these same countries of progressives.  Is it not obvious which group would remain in endless disagreements, disregarding some evidence, and selecting other evidence which they would be willing to seriously consider, in reaching conclusions; and which group would be able to reach consensus on any topic because they would let verifiable evidence impose on their previous claims, and be willing to change their minds?   


Are some of the challenges of our times reaching a point of urgency?  Do we need, or not, our very best in problem-solving, in honesty with the evidence, in order to find solutions? 


If we as a nation are a ship on the sea, and we passengers get to hire the crew which runs the ship, do we need to challenge poorly-based claims, be they wrapped in tradition or not, which can continue to promote shortsighted decisions, and based on which a crew which might well steer the ship toward unnecessarily perilous waters?  Could it be constructive to begin to picture that the real ship on the sea is planet earth, that we are all passengers, and that the various crews need to actively embrace this view?


I should probably clarify that I don’t actually advocate that everyone must embrace something like atheism.  But I ask you this:  if persons a, b, or c, feel compelled to believe in gods x, y, or z, is it not constructive for them to consciously acknowledge and self-monitor against those key risks – more quickly jumping on the bandwagon of war in the names of our gods; presuming that there’s a soon-coming supernatural solution; and habituating to beliefs of preference, and therefore dismissing or denying what we don’t want to believe or even accept as likely?


Can we thoughtfully explore how we can best sort out which claims about life are likely to be true, and which are likely to be false?  We’ll come back to this. Can we reflect on the implications if others around the world followed the same general pattern which we deem acceptable for ourselves?


Can we recognize connections and tendencies here?


Those who deny not only evolution in general, but the clear evidence of the five mass extinctions And the subsequent five rapid re-diversifications of lifeforms, also tend to deny climate change.  Those who fully anticipate and count on a supernatural solution see no possible need for shifting from an economic-growth-forever mantra to a consideration of, and then concrete steps toward, sustainability.   


Yes, I dream of a world where a pope will finally say, “You know what, if there’s a God, he can’t be for the suffering and death of poorly cared for children; therefore family planning is and must be Okay.”


I dream of a world where a Baptist or an Adventist will say, “The evidence is overwhelming; the earth has been here, and life forms with it, ever-changing, evidently for several billion years.  What’s the point of trying to dance around that?  It’s also time I looked very seriously at other evidence I haven’t liked.” 


I dream of a world where a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and more, will all say, “I know that had I been born in another family, in another culture, in another century, I’d believe in another God; I can no longer pretend that my God is any more right or legitimate than other people’s Gods, and I certainly won’t kill over it.”


And yes, I dream of a world in which more and more of us will, with conviction and commitment, say, “You know what, I will no longer try to impose my beliefs on the evidence; I will impose the evidence on my beliefs.  I will constantly be open to changing my mind, just show me the money, let me check the evidence.  I will seek solutions to the challenges of our times, and personal convenience and prior convictions can Not be factors.”


Some have argued that this is simply expecting too much, that it is asking for what doesn’t come naturally.  Well, it is asking a fair bit, and it does indeed not come naturally measured at the level of simple instinct.  But let’s ask a few more things.


We, like all creatures, have a lengthy history, deep roots.  A hyena which ate really well the evening before, might get up in the morning and think about getting a drink, or mating, or defending their turf, but it is not going to think about a vigorous chase to kill and eat.  It doesn’t think about tomorrow, or next week - month - or year, never mind generations ahead.  It operates on instincts which worked well when focused on the moment, the day. 


Is that what we’re limited to?!  I respect and appreciate all life forms, but even elephants, dolphins, and the great apes, can’t ponder, re-evaluate, learn, anticipate, and plan, on anywhere near the level that we can.  With a world this filled and stretched, consider substituting one word in that sentence – those creatures “… can’t ponder, re-evaluate, learn, anticipate, and plan, on anywhere near the level that we Should.” (instead of simply ‘can’)


I think we’re up to this; we can do it.  We can reach into the depths of our humanity and grow to go well beyond instinct.  Chief Seattle is credited with saying that we ought to consider how our decisions and actions will affect the lives of our descendants Seven generations from now.  Do you think that is something which we should genuinely aspire to and actively work toward?


You will each need to evaluate for yourself the degree to which you embrace this from Peter Boghossian, and how willing you are to apply it to your life and your politics: “The only way to figure out which claims about the world are likely to be true, and which are likely to be false, is through reason and evidence.  There is no other way.”


Just before closing I want to address an objection some have expressed that - I’m picking an unnecessary fight.


I ask you to consider this:  A man in his late 30s presents to his doctor with a bad looking infection in one foot.  But a more complete medical history also reveals:  deteriorating vision, chronic pain in his ankles, knees, and lower back, frequent urination, hyperglycemia, hypertension, and obesity. 


Now, the question is:  should the doctor simply deal with one symptom at a time, or try to find a background connection, and deal with that deeper lifestyle and habit issue while dealing with the most urgent problem?


In teaching young people, and in unnumbered discussions with my fellow adults, I have seen various specific problems, symptoms, which we might seek to address.  They’ve included:  a commitment to denying climate change; a commitment to keeping racial inequities alive and racial discrimination acceptable; a commitment to religious freedom for the ‘right’ group, and restriction for the ‘wrong’ group; a commitment against the established law of our land that people have a right to marry the person they love, with no imposed restrictions as long as it’s a consenting adult; a commitment against science and evidence when it doesn’t fit preconceived beliefs, and thus against various concepts including evolution; a commitment against true equality between the sexes, including equal pay; a commitment against protecting the environment if that might mean economic or other inconvenience; a commitment against key social safety nets and against a decent living wage for all workers; a commitment to the old magic of trickle-down economics and against the idea that some semblance of economic justice is possible and matters; a commitment against taking habitat destruction and ocean acidification as serious much less urgent issues; a commitment to the idea that economic growth is infinitely possible and against the idea that sustainability is relevant and urgent.  Need I go on?


I ask us each to ask ourselves:  “What central thread weaves its way behind the scenes of these commitments?”  Allow me to suggest that it is the reflex toward conserving whatever set of “beliefs of preference” we might happen to have, allowing ourselves to dismiss ideas we don’t happen to like.  A few more questions:  Where in society, today or ever, where in human experience, do we tend to get the most practice, the most reinforcement, and the most refinement, of this natural inclination to double down on what we already believe, and dismiss what we don’t like?   ……   Do you have a more clear answer than standard fair religion?


This is not to say that we should run about bashing any and all faith.  But it is to suggest that we should be more open and courageous about being out of the closet as critical thinkers who respect evidence, who have no sacred cows, and who are willing to change our minds about anything and everything.


To fail to clearly set the counter-example to one of the most pervasive stumbling blocks leaves us battling one symptom, one commitment against progress after another commitment against progress after another…  without ever going ahead and recognizing (and publically acknowledging) the central thread these various commitments share.  Do we want to endlessly fight the same effect without ever squarely dealing with it?    


There is a reason that today, in only the recent decade, the religiously unaffiliated have grown from 16% to 23% of the population.  And when you look just at millennials, those who describe religion as “not too, or not at all important” are now over 30% and growing yearly.  (Pew Research Center, November 3, 2015)  The question is:  If we’re going to address the listed commitments against progress, and more, does urgency demand that we address the central thread behind these denials? 


Again, I don’t think this requires bashing, but it does call for being open and courageous about being “out” as evidence respecting critical thinkers who are open to changing our minds, and then promoting the necessity of this in our fellow citizens, and growing this portion of our population.  Even just 25 years ago we didn’t have today’s rate of change.  Do we need to build on this self-reinforcing cycle of acceleration in evidence-based openness to changing beliefs, in more honest conclusion-reaching, and therefore in better problem-solving, by being more visible?


Can we distinguish between attacking and being against things vs. promoting and being for things?  I challenge us to be actively and openly for evidence respecting critical thinking, and the willingness to change our minds, and for accepting that this must mean challenging societal stumbling blocks which encumber this vital process.


There is a great Greek proverb whose central idea I certainly hope you will join me in putting into practice in our thinking, our decisions, and our actions:   “A society grows great when old men (and women) plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.”