Overcoming Ourselves

In my last post I wrote about how we are completely caught up in ourselves.  In this post I am going to talk about overcoming ourselves.  I’ve touched on the philosophical element of this idea in the past when I’ve talked about how we should seize our autonomy (become our own rulers).  This post is going to be more more about the practical side of the endeavor.  The following is an account of good behaviors and tenants that I try to act upon to rule myself.


First I want to say that I do not think it is always bad to go with the flow of the world, but it is I think of paramount importance that we acknowledge that we are doing so.  Many of my points are not about ‘absolute control’ but more ‘self awareness.


Negative emotions are the world intruding upon us.  Anger, sadness, jealousy, etc.  Nothing is going to stop us from feeling them – we are inevitably emotional.  If we are not cautious however, these emotions can control us entirely.  I think that one of the most important principles of self-control is to attend to our emotions.  If we watch them, we can see how they shift and change the world.


Routine is another element that is of extreme importance.  It is both one of the greatest tool’s of and greatest danger to our autonomy.  We build routine automatically, we are always seeking to repeat ourselves.  We can lose ourselves completely in routine, we can drown in it.  By the same coin, it can be turned against itself.  From a state of self rule, we can built a bulwark of routine against the world.  Self-ruler-ship takes willpower, and we have only a finite supply.  Building routines with willpower allows us to ease the psychological burden that will power activities take.  Exercising once takes willpower, for example, but going for a run every day at the same time becomes automatic.


Ego is another of the most powerful forces arrayed against self-ruler-ship.  This may seem odd, since we tend to think that our ego is, well, us.  The ego I’m speaking of however is the way that we come between ourselves and the world.  We become so caught up in our presence in the experience that we warp it and distort it.  We get angry in conversations, we become stressed in our jobs, etc, etc, because we become so focused on the immediate that lose the larger picture that we are capable of grasping.


Let me know what you think,


Ryan Workman

I am always right about everything!

Yesterday I listened to this CBC tapestry episode: I’m Right, Your Wrong.  I encourage you to go listen to it, but if you don’t have the time or energy, the gist is essentially that as groups we make some topics ‘sacred’, and in doing so we make it so we can’t really talk about those things.  There is one brilliant moment in the episode where Mary asks if part of why we fight in debates is because we aren’t skilled enough, and Jonathan responds by asking “do you think the purpose of debate is to persuade others?”  Mary says “yes”, and he asks, “Has it ever happened?”


There are some things that Jonathan says that I disagree with (I more disagree with the spirit of his words then anything he actually says, I would say), but I think that his assessment of human debate is spot on.  The difficulty with debate and discussion is that everyone thinks they are right about everything.  Why would we argue about something if we didn’t think we were right?  I would take this line of thinking even further though – I would say that we all consider ourselves ‘special’.  That is to say, we each take ourselves as the most monumental thing to step onto the world stage since… I don’t know… Genghis Khan.


I’m just going to pause to dwell on this point here.  Do we all really take ourselves to be great?  It seems like there are a lot of people with low self-esteem people.  My assessment would be that low self-esteem doesn’t actually mean that a person doesn’t think they’re ‘all that’.  I would tend to think that low self-esteem is more a phenomenon of the person feeling like they’re ‘failing at being all that’.  I know this isn’t a rigorous justification of us all being full of ourselves, but there is a lot of psychological research to back me up – the list of ways that we are biased in our own favour is immense.  I find it hard to imagine how we could be otherwise, given how we are so utterly and completely caught up in ourselves – we are each the locus of our own own experience.  Everything ‘is’ to each of us only to ‘us’ – we have no medium of contact other then our own minds and senses.


So we each think we’re ‘all that’.  Each of us believes that everything we believe is ‘true’ (for isn’t that what it means to have beliefs?)  It is no wonder that the world is so full of stupid people – the world is full of people who disagree with the centre of the universe (ourselves)!


It is one of if not the hurdle of the human condition – our complete and utter involvement with ourselves.  In my next post, I am going to talk about my ideas and observations about how we can try to overcome this barrier.


Thank you for reading,


Ryan Workman

Human Nature

In my last post I talked about evil, and I proposed that ‘evil’ is really more about doing what the world dictates to you.  This may seem to imply that I believe that human nature is in some sense inherently ‘good’.  This issue is compounded by the fact that I also talked about the ‘evils’ of dogmatism, which makes it sound like I am talking about some sort of objective good.  In other words it may seem like I’m saying that if we free ourselves from the compulsions of the world we will all be united towards some kind of universally accepted good.


Let me just clear this up.  I do not think that human nature is inherently ‘good’.  I don’t think its evil either, for that matter.  It would be better put to say that I think that we have two different main modes of being (which together, broadly speaking, would make up human nature).  We can be free, or we can be ruled by the world.  Being free means doing what we believe we should do, while being compelled means we do what we do not want to do, because we are unable to resist the compulsion.  This does not mean that everyone necessarily has the same inclinations towards what should be done.  What I instead advocate is that I believe that the human condition is better off if it is created by those doing what they believe they should do, instead of letting the chaos of the world dictate our condition to us.  This is where the importance of dogmatism comes in – for I propose that dogmatism is another form of compulsion, subtly different, where we learn from our world an absolute law.  Autonomy is not just acting on the world, but it also means taking control of how we receive the world: reception and action are two sides of the same coin.


All of the above is my account, however.  I do not want to present it as a law, but as part of the discussion – I aspire to be one of many in dialogue about what we should do.  This constant dialogue I believe is the foundation for improving the human condition.


Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

Types of ‘evil’

Previously I have proposed that we can be ‘free’ by refusing to simply let the flow of life guide us – that we become free by seizing ourselves and subjecting ourselves to our own rule.  I have also proposed that ‘evil’ is a property of action (as opposed to a property of individuals.)  Now I would like to explore a few ‘types’ of evil that seem to fall out of my project.


I have just recently finished a brilliant book called Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie.  In this book there was one character who always took the ‘easy way’, and this was the character’s greatest flaw.  The character would flee from danger, he wouldn’t protest when he disagreed, he’d leave projects half-finished.  He wanted to do the right thing, most of the time, but he just couldn’t bring himself to act as he thought he should.  This character well highlights what I take as one of the most prominent and powerful sources of evil – our inability to free ourselves from the flow of life and act as we think we should.  Instead, we often let life dictate our actions to us.  I would say that this dictation can be something we are aware of, but it can also guide us without us noticing.  When we get in an argument and get angry, for example, we let reality run away with our control – we lose ourselves to the emotion.  I would add the influence of negative emotions as an evil of this kind.  When we let negative emotions control us we allow the world to control us.  That is not to say that we should not do things like run, or stay silent, or many other things that emotions such as fear and nervousness prompt from us.  However, it is a very different thing for us to do something because we have consciously decided to do it, and to do something just because our emotion dictates it.  I do not mean to claim that all things that we do unthinkingly are evil, just that this factor unites a category of evils.


Another category of evils that I would place as closely related but very similar are evils of dogmatism.  I define these evils in a very existentialist manner – to paraphrase Simone these evils come about when we take ourselves and the world too seriously.  These evils are caused by people who act for THE CAUSE, or THE TRUTH, believing that they understand it entirely and therefore acting without doubt.  They are closely related to evils of entrapment because the dogmatist is similarly caught up in the world – he may resist some impulses, but he does so because he has an absolute impulse.


To further clarify my concept of evil I will now explain a part of action that I do not consider evil – mistakes.  We can make some pretty awful, terrible mistakes.  It is a part of living that we have imperfect information, and as I have previously discussed we inevitably must act – so most of the time we inevitably act imperfectly.  Sometimes we mess up.  I do not consider these mistakes ‘evil’ though if they were considered actions – the best the person was capable of given the circumstances.  Evil, at least as I am discussing it here, is not about the results (how Kantian of me).  Instead, evil is something ‘brought out of us’ by the world.


I think in my next post I need to examine human nature a bit.


Ryan Workman

Deriving knowledge from belief

I have recently been reviewing my keystone project because I’m planning to try presenting it at a conference and in doing so I have been trying to figure out how my work fits with other contemporary philosophers (since most of the philosophers I have read are at least a century in the grave).  One of the most interesting comments I received on my keystone project was from one of my professors: he compared me (and Quest students in general) to students from eastern Europe by saying that since we did not study in established faculties we often diverge from established traditions of our field.  I feel that this comment fits, because I am finding it difficult to fit my work into what seems to be the current cannon.  This has the upshot that it forces me to innovate in trying to explain my thoughts clearly.


My project is a theory of knowledge, but it does not fit with classical knowledge theory (indeed, I may be appropriating the jargon inappropriately.)  There is a great variety of thinkers in contemporary knowledge theory, but they mostly seem to revolve around the knowledge as justified true belief framework.  My ideas can be made to fit into this framework, but I feel that it kind of bends them out of shape.  What I would like to propose is that there is a way of relating my project to the main thrust of epistemology, but that the way to get at it is to dig underneath classical epistemology (and I think in explaining this I also make my account of knowledge clearer).


I propose that both classical theory and my theory start by proposing that ‘knowledge’ designates ‘high quality beliefs’.  Classical theory argues that ‘high quality beliefs’ are beliefs that are justified and correspond to the truth.  It seems to me that, by defining knowledge in this way, the classical theory divides knowledge into two parts – belief, and the truth it is supposed to mirror.  The ‘justified’ process then becomes defined as ‘process that leads our beliefs to mirror truth.’


In my theory I go about defining knowledge differently – I instead start my inquiry by exploring the nature of beliefs to see if I can give an account of ‘high quality beliefs’ based on what a ‘belief’ actually is.  I succeed at this task, at least in my own eyes, by proposing axioms about our beliefs that I argue we inevitably accept because of our own nature.  I then make an account of knowledge based on my proposed inevitable axioms (the core of my proposal is that we accept our experiences to be valid (axiom), that we build beliefs out of experience, therefore our beliefs are better the more we incorporate continued experience (humility, or not getting too attached to past beliefs)).


Let me know what you think of this framing,


Thank you for reading,

Ryan Workman

Unconsciousness: the world as it is given

When I was working on my undergraduate thesis an important foundation of my project was trying to give some account of what an idea was.  This led to me tackling what seemed to me the underlying question of what a human was.  The explanation that I eventually came up with was that we are defined by having a self experience, which let me give some account of ideas and beliefs.  When I was editing my project I presented it to other students, and the critique of one of those students was that I did not give an account of unconsciousness (since I essentially tried to define us as experience, the place of unconsciousness in my account of human nature was rather ambiguous).  For a long time I wasn’t sure how to incorporate unconsciousness into my account of human nature, but I have now thought of a way to do so.


One of the key concepts in my conception of humans as a self-experience is that we do not create our experiences.  The way that I describe it is instead that experiences are ‘given’ to us (though I leave it quite ambiguous what gives us experience.)  The things we see, the things we hear, the things we think, we do not pull them out of thin air.  Some experiences force themselves upon us, but a great deal of our experience we can in a sense take responsibility for in that we go and look for it.  We climb a mountain so that we can look over a landscape, we go to a concert or turn on our i-pod to listen to music.  We are not making the experience, we are positioning ourselves to receive it.  I would say this holds for when we act upon the world as well.  When I play a violin I do not ‘bring the sound into being’ so much as bring out the potential of my already existent experience.


I would give a similar account of thought.  Our thinking is not creative in a divine sense, instead each thought proceeds the next – we explore a thought, we follow it.  We do not prompt ourselves to think – when we wake up each morning we just… start thinking.  Our thought, our attention, is like vision or touch – we can explore it in different directions but we cannot bring it into being (because it is us, for how could we act before our own faculties – the very things that we act with?)


This is where my account of unconsciousness enters into the picture.  I am being very cautious about giving an account of what it is that gives us experiences.  I have not gone the idealist route since I have claimed that we do not create our experiences but instead they are given to us, ergo we do not create reality by experiencing it.  At the same time, I’m not really sure what to say of the nature of the reality that we experience (I think I’d lean towards a phenomenological account – but there are more then one of those).  Whatever the nature of it though, I place unconsciousness as a part of it.  I propose that our unconsciousness is part of how the world is given to us.  As much as I never thought I’d say it, I am aligning with Freud on something.  Unconsciousness is, I suggest, ubiquitously present in the world as it gives itself to us.  I am cautious about this metaphor as anything but an attempt to make myself clearer, but the unconsciousness can be thought of as a lens through which we receive reality (I am cautious because I do not actually want to commit myself to the statement that the two are distinct).  Like viewing a tree from the right or the left, different unconscious states position us differently in relation to our experiences.


The difficult thing about my account of unconsciousness that I will need to dwell further on is our capacity to unveil it.  For I think it can well be argued that some of our unconscious self can actually be brought to the light of our own experience, and thus become part of our consciousness.  On the other hand, I think that there will always be some of our-self beyond our actually awareness – we can never be the ones giving our experience to ourselves.


Thank you for reading,


Ryan Workman

Situated Cognition and Phenomenology

Today I am going to examine the ties between a philosophical branch (phenomenology) and a recent psychology theory (situated cognition).  I am going to start by briefly explaining generally what the two ideas are, and then I am going to get into the relations between the two.


One of the newest theories of cognition is situated cognition.  The proposal of situated cognition, at its core, is that you cannot understand cognition without understanding the circumstance in which that cognition takes place.  On the face of it, this seems like a fairly banal claim – of course our circumstance is important to how we think.  If we see a tree, we think about the tree, if we’re talking to a friend we act differently then if we are talking to a stranger.  The divergence of this theory is more radical though.  Classical cognition has tended to conceptualize the human mind as a unit – a single unified thing that takes in information and generates outputs.  It conceives, if I may be so daring, as the mind almost as a soul, or essence.  Situated cognition, on the other hand, splits the person into a collection of tools which are brought on line by different circumstances.  The tool that is applied depends on the circumstance in which we find ourselves.  One of the most researched phenomena that may support situated cognition is how people react to problems of the following form:


     “You are shown a set of four cards placed on a table, each of which has a number on one side and   a colored patch on the other side. The visible faces of the cards show 3, 8, red and brown. Which card(s) must you turn over in order to test the truth of the proposition that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is red?” (thanks Wikipedia)


People have difficulty with this problem, but if you change the presentation by swapping numbers for ages and colours for “is or is not drinking”, and ask people to identify who they should check for ID, they have no trouble at all.  What this suggests to the situated cognition theorist is that we have a very finely tuned social cheating detection tool, but our abstract logic tool is not as effective (and, specifically, that the situation makes us apply different tools).


The branch of philosophy that I want to tie into this discussion is phenomenology.  Phenomenology is a tricky subject.  Its essence (at least as I understand it) is the observation that the world is to us as an experience.  It is something seen and touched and tasted and thought about.  It is, broadly speaking, an attempt to ground the world in consciousness, as opposed to an objectively existent physical.  Phenomenology toes the line on idealism (the idea that the world’s existence is dependent on the observer).  However (again by my understanding) phenomenology is not neccesarily idealism.  For example, a phenomenological could conceive of the world as experience that is waiting to happen.  This is all somewhat of an aside though – the essential point that I want to bring out is that phenomenology tries to understand everything in terms of experience.


I like phenomenology.  I will state it plainly, I buy it.  I think that everything that we know of the world is experiential.  Though I hesitate from saying that existence is dependent on us, I am willing to say that the world as an experience only exists in us (and I would also be willing to say that ‘knowledge’ is inherently experiential).  Situated cognition and phenomenology have some interesting repercussions for each other.  The thing that I note if I consider situated cognition phenomenologically is that the situation that brings out different thought processes would itself be dependent on our previous state.  Situated cognition at first seems to demand a real world to prompt our toolkit, but what it really requires is just a preceding experience to prompt the next experience.  This suggests, to me, that an interesting avenue of study for situated cognition would be toolkit chain reactions – if an experience triggers a certain toolkit, that will shape our next experience, which may result in predictable toolkit patterns (put in plain language, perhaps if someone starts to get nervous this seems like it may often result in a chain reaction which leads to panic, or suchlike).  On the phenomenological side, situated cognition significantly broadens the realm of potential phenomena (not only the tree as experience from the left side or the right, but also the experience of the tree when happy, or sad, or in a social gathering).


Thank you for reading, feel free to send me requests if you have a subject you’d like me to talk about.


Ryan Workman