You can’t hear what you’re not listening for

One way of understanding “open-mindedness” is to allow the possibility of changing your mind. And yes, it’s a good idea to leave the door open a crack, listen to your opponents, in the off chance they may be right about something. But that’s only one dimension of openness. Another is not making assumptions about what your opponents are saying.

Windmill with birds
While cell towers, cats, and skyscrapers kill many more birds, research continues to make windmills safer. Image credit: Phys.org, click to read article

Recently on a thread about clean energy, I read this:

You never hear environmentalists talking about windmills killing birds #DirtyLittleSecret

This “gotcha” happens a lot in online discussions, where someone assumes the other side ignores their own problems.  I provided several links to environmentalists doing exactly that going back more than a decade; it’s a pretty hot topic and the subject of a lot of research. And a strange thing happened: the other fellow actually read them, and thanked me for the information.

More examples:

“You never hear atheists complaining about Islam, only about Christianity!” (Yes it’s true that in the US atheists complain about the theocrats closest to them, but I’ve read a lot of atheist discussion online and Islam definitely gets its turn.)

Oct 2017 march in London against ISIS
From massive Oct 2017 anti-ISIS march in London. Image credit: Guardian, click to read article

“You never hear Muslims protesting terrorism!” (Oh man, where to start. Mass demonstrations against terrorism, Islamic leaders issuing Fatwas against terrorism, Muslim anti-terrorist op-eds, and much more.)

“You never hear liberals going after their own for sexual harassment!” (There’s too much truth in this one, but it’s changing. And not a moment too soon, given the patchy record of white male leaders in our country. And I have seen a few conservative OpEds calling for change.)

“We’re not even allowed to say Merry Christmas!” (Nobody said you can’t say Merry Christmas. That’s not a thing.)

…and so on ad nauseam.  The worst thing about the “You never hear” gotcha is it tries to find moral cover in the idea that no one really cares about anything, that only tribalism matters.

It is true that tribalism matters. Our country is a feedback loop where ideologies split so close to the center line that neither side can afford to give an inch for a moment, for any reason at all.

But what if it didn’t matter so damn much? What if we could acknowledge worthwhile thinking on the other side? The acknowledgement would an act of rebellion in itself, tossing threads of communication across the divide.

A more relevant point is that it’s a waste of social opportunity to argue against a point of view that is not real or at least which your correspondent does not hold.

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Our lives are shaped by belief in the human soul

When an airplane crashes, the FAA somberly reports that “154 souls were lost.” Most religions have some doctrine of a transcendent personal essence that survives beyond death, perhaps to enjoy the eternal presence of God, the suffering of His absence, or another round through an endless cycle of re-birth.

The soul is often held to be the substance of personhood. In the United States, a seemingly eternal battle is fought over the personhood of human zygotes. Some white nationalists assert that neither black people or Jews have souls at all. Most people in the West take their own personhood for granted, never stopping to wonder if (as Buddhism claims) the self might be an illusion.

The soul is also a foundational concept behind punishment and blame. Personal responsibility for one’s own misfortune requires that there be a self to be personal – a “person”.

So you have a self? Your likes and dislikes, your gender, your religion, your ethical holdings – these are you? Are you sure?

What would it mean for “you” to grow up in a majority Hindu or Islamic country? Or a century when women were held responsible for the sins of mankind?

What does it mean to be “masculine” or “feminine”? If the set of expectations for men and women’s behavior is handed down by culture, then how much of your gender was simply assigned at birth, and not part of your “soul”?

Hang on tight, because we’ve been on paved road this far. Now we turn the wheel out into the wilderness…

The people who did things in the past that were culturally acceptable at the time, but not now… does your belief in the self influence your opinion of them? Are you a better person than they were?

Once you strip away culture, what’s left? Do you, for instance, dislike pumpkin? Could be the expression of a genetic allele that influences the development of your taste buds.

Once you strip away culture and biology, what’s left? What’s YOU? What’s the soul in there that deserves accolade for compassionate deeds or judgment for wrong behavior?

“OK, wait a minute”, you say. “I’ve been through thousands of experiences and that shapes who I am.”

OK, fine and good. Those would be the “culture” mentioned earlier. But it means that personhood can be an emergent property of body, brain, and experience. Does it emerge all at once? When? And how much?

We have not even got to the metaphysics of transcendence yet.

NOTES:

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  • This post isn’t supposed to be a comprehensive view of any religion’s view of the soul or the self. Or even the distinction, if any, between the two. It’s about the widely-held cultural belief that there is some kind of abstraction underlying each of our visible persona. That belief affects our daily lives in countless ways.