Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Ride the elephant (you’ve got no choice), but do you have to eat him?

It was not a sudden, blinding revelation, but more of a gradual realisation: the decision I’d made to eat a vegan diet was not a rational one.

Now, I made that decision back in September 2015 and—rational or not—over the past 20 months I’ve believed that animal products are not for my consumption, with no regrets. Please understand that for me it isn’t all about purity: I’m not a vegan fundamentalist. I’ve occasionally submitted to the social pressure to eat egg-containing (and delicious) home-made cake, and in an effort to prevent food going to waste I’ve ingested some cheese made with cow’s milk. I can’t say that either of those deviations from the vegan norm have particularly troubled me, although I was hyper-aware of what I was doing as I did it.

Over the past few months I’ve come to realise that it would be a mistake to argue that my dietary decision lacks justification simply because it was irrational. Not because the rational doesn’t or shouldn’t play a role in moral decision-making, but because our secular Western culture seems to believe that true moral decision-making flows purely from rational, logical thought. And a quick review of our actual experience shows that this default theory of secular morality is mistaken. Let’s dig deeper…

Moral psychology and an elephanty metaphor
The origins of morality have presumably been debated for as long as debating has been around. In the mid-twentieth century academic psychology got involved and researchers tested hypotheses such as ‘morality is innate’ or ‘morality is learned’. More recently the field has reached a level of sophistication where some psychologists are able to conclude that, as seems to be the case generally with nature/nurture dichotomies, it’s a bit of both.

The Righteous MindOne of the most prominent researchers in this area is Jonathan Haidt, and in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind he sums it up like this:

[M]orality can be innate (as a set of evolved intuitions) and learned (as children learn to apply those intuitions within a particular culture). We’re born to the righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.

Now, I’ve been getting to grips with the idea that people’s moral arguments (including my own) can’t really be taken at face value because generally they’re post-hoc cognitive constructions developed for social reasons once the automatic and instantaneous moral intuition has done its work making the initial moral choice. I knew this was one of Haidt’s principles of moral psychology, from reading other books, Robert’s review of The Righteous Mind and online videos. Now I’ve actually borrowed the book from the library and read it I’m better informed about his model, and the research that it is entwined with.

The first part of this book is the most relevant to what I’m talking about here. In it he states the first principle of his moral psychology as being: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. It is this principle that seems to be at work in me with regards to my dietary ethics. In both his books he uses an interesting metaphor when discussing this first principle, namely that

…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behaviour. … [T]he rider and elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection.

Riding my metaphorical elephant
c-rayban-86816In the subtitle above I imply that I possess the metaphorical elephant, whereas – in the light of Haidt’s moral psychology model – it might be more accurate to say that the elephant both is me (as the part of my mind that works before and at a more fundamental level than my conscious cognition) and has me (in the sense that the conscious cognitive “I” serves it and has little control over where the elephant is going).

Going back to September 2015, there was a definite moment in time when I resolved not to eat animal products any more… I think I had been off work through illness for a couple of days and I’d been watching films on Netflix – including an American documentary called Vegucated which explores the challenges of adopting a vegan diet. Immediately afterwards I went upstairs and found my wife (I think ostensibly to discuss what we might have for dinner) and blurted out something along the lines of “I can’t eat eggs any more. I just can’t.” And then stood there wobbling a bit thinking about the half-finished box of eggs downstairs in the kitchen.

egg-1803361_1920Looking back on it, perhaps there was a bit of embarrassment that I didn’t have a rational reason for not wanting to eat eggs any more, after all, usually people want to know why you’ve changed your position on an issue and it seems culturally appropriate to have a ‘proper’ rational reason. My wife said something like “If that’s your decision that I stand by you making it.” and I went off to make something eggless for our evening meal. The elephant had decided: “Boom! No more eggs for you!” and then my cognitive mind was left floundering around trying to do some strategic reasoning that would no doubt be required in socially justifying my new food ethos.

Rational questions remained: would I have to stop eating cheese and mackerel too, in order to be consistent? Might it be easier to just stop with all the dairy products, since the dairy industry seems to involve the same level of cruel practices as the egg industry? Would my friends think I was being precious when I started turning down offers of milk in tea, or declining to join in a shared non-vegan lunch? These and many more. But, most importantly, the elephant had made up its mind and I was going to have to follow through with my role as its servant.

Feeding the elephant
Clearly the elephant had been heading in this direction for some time – I’d been a sympathiser for most of my life, not a persecutor of vegans and their weird ways. This wasn’t a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion from omnivorism to veganism. But in order to arrive at the point where I completely cut out animal products from my diet the elephant had taken a long sequence of small turns towards this direction, at at each stage my intellect had dutifully generated post-hoc rationalisations for these.

1929605_22166090365_2545_nIt goes back, of course, to childhood. I was a fantastically fussy eater, ‘difficult’ about food, and I cannot remember ever not being this way. My brother, two years younger, was quite different: a human dustbin, he’d happily eat what I would not, and probably this was why so many adults asked if we were twins; despite him being two years younger he was always the same size as me (as you can see in the photo on the right, taken perhaps when I was 9 and he was 7).

In early teenage years my moral intuition told me that I should stop eating meat, so that’s what I did. The logical reasons were well rehearsed—I’d witnessed many mock arguments between peers about whether it was right to eat meat or not—but it really wasn’t these arguments that persuaded me. It just felt like the right thing to do, even if it was considered rather effeminate for me to give up meat (this was the 1990s… but is it any different now?).

Aged 18 I very abruptly got over my life-long fussiness with food—I’m not at all sure how this came about at all, let alone so quickly—but this was the age where it also felt intuitively OK for me to eat meat again. So I did, and shortly after (when I went off to university) I didn’t introduce myself to anyone as being a vegetarian. Whilst at university I met my now-wife, and we’ve been together for 22 years. She became a vegetarian at university because it seemed like the right thing to do, although one that wasn’t particularly interested in cooking. So for those first 20 years together—with me as the domestic chef—I was a quasi-vegetarian, making and eating vegetarian food at home, but usually eating meat if I ate out anywhere. I only went through a meat-at-home phase during the three years that we lived apart in order to do our doctorates at different universities.

As an adult, then, I was definitely over my childhood fussiness and managed to get a reputation as a human dustbin. The elephant kept directing me back for seconds, thirds and so on, and I subsequently concocted rationalising stories about ‘not letting food go to waste’. Another set of questions came along with the birth of our son, just over 8 years ago: when it came time for him to be weaned, here was a tiny human being whose menu was (initially) completely dictated by his parents’ choices.

5995306074_e400da02c4_zWhat was the ‘right’ choice for us to make? To what extent would he decide what he ate and why? Either the elephant, or pragmatism, made the decision: we weren’t going to specially buy in meat for him to eat at home. He grew up healthy and un-deformed, despite some frowning from meat-eating adults, and he eventually settled into something like a pescatarian diet—vegetarian, but with occasional fish dishes—and, as far as I know, he’s never eaten the conventional chicken, beef, turkey, lamb and pork foods that most of his friends eat.

So, here are the last few elephant moves and subsequent rationalisations that brought me to the point of veganism:

  1. A lactose-intolerant wife meant soya milk in the fridge. I made the (initially gross) switch to soya milk in tea. Rationalisation: Efficiency. There’ll be more room in the fridge if I stop buying cow milk. The cow milk always goes off anyway.
  2. A work trip to California for 10 days in the spring of 2015, started off eating huge beefburgers (“when in Rome…”) but within a few days swung back to an entirely vegetarian diet. Rationalisation: Burgers are gross, my digestive system isn’t used to this kind of treatment, America has an obesity problem, I want to avoid going home ‘smelling like meat’ like last time I had a work trip to the USA.
  3. A later work trip in the summer to the south of France, with Jonathan Safran-Foer’s book Eating animals as reading material at the airport, the meatiest thing I ate was fish. Rationalisation: Eating meat supports horrific treatment of sentient beings – as explored in the book. I described myself to one of the students as ‘a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat’, he said I was hypocritical and being a hypocrite is bad. There’s lots of cheese in France, cheese is OK isn’t it?
  4. Meeting an exceptionally bright ex-student who was back from university for the summer, and had enthusiastically embraced veganism whilst at university. I felt sympathetic towards his position. Rationalisation: He is a really clever person, and a person of great integrity, therefore I should emulate him.

In conclusion
In writing all this I’ve taken a leaf out of Jonathan Haidt’s book – rather than battering you with rational argument after rational argument as to why I think it is right to eat a vegan diet, I’ve instead taken you on a personal journey. I’ve let you see that I’m a real person with vulnerabilities and uncertainties, rather than an android with a socially-awkward diet. Similarly, I’ve not set about criticising your own personal food choices and ethics using (what I would see as) pure logic and cold hard facts. Your intuition would have steered you away pretty quickly, entrenching any differences between us and leaving us both feeling like we were always right and the other was just plain wrong. In fact you would have been very unlikely to get this far in unless you were planning some kind of logical refutation of everything I’d said in order to prove just how wrong I was.

If you have the slightest interest in becoming more vegan than you already are, then I refer you to the recommended listening, reading and viewing that I’ve listed at the end of this post; they’re full of partisan rational arguments, many of them biased, but that’s the way things are and I’m sure you’re mature enough to cope with that.

Now, given that this is a Middle Way Society blog post perhaps I ought to conclude with a few Middle Way pointers:

  • The Middle Way is not a soggy compromise between two contrasting views: one can arrive at a seemingly ‘extreme’ viewpoint (that it is better to eat a totally vegan diet) whilst holding that belief provisionally, without becoming dogmatic about it. It’s not easy, but knowing that it’s not easy is the first step to making it work. Unlike the decision to donate a kidney, the decision to go vegan is instantly undo-able, and yes—of course I’d rather eat meat than starve to death.
  • The Middle Way stresses the incrementality of our beliefs – we do not need to succumb to the ‘all or nothing’ thinking of the nirvana fallacy. It is not a case of either you are or you aren’t (a vegan). You can eat less meat, you can use fewer dairy products. You can give up flesh for Lent. You could just eat less. There are many dietary configurations in the human population, there have never been such a wide variety of food options on offer in supermarkets and restaurants, and—to be quite frank—if you’re reading this you’re probably not starving for lack of funds or opportunity.
  • The Middle Way suggests that we should be sceptical in an even-handed way. If you want to be exposed to extremely polarised views on veganism, I refer you to the thing known as ‘social media’. If your elephant has chosen a particular path for you, based on intuition, make sure that any post-hoc rationalisation that you do isn’t based on the sort of absolutisations that you will quickly encounter on the interweb. If you can’t understand the way that your opponent justifies their position, or their objections to your arguments, then do you really understand the rational justification for your own beliefs?

So, as I said at the start of this post, the decision I’d made to eat a vegan diet was not a rational one. But I hope you appreciate now that choices are only rational to a degree, and that an ‘irrational’ impetus can still lead to a beneficial outcome!

Suggested listeningMelanieJoySmall

Suggested reading

Suggested viewing

Photo credits
Photos of elephants and eggs courtesy of [License: CC0 Public Domain]
Photo of brothers from the 1980s was scanned from the family archive [License: CC BY-SA 2.0]
Photo of my son is all my own work. [License: CC BY-SA 2.0]

Order, disorder, reorder – part 3 of 3

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

687px-Rohr20010928svobodatThis blog post is the final part of a three-part series inspired by the above quote by Richard Rohr (shown in the photograph on the right). If you’ve not read parts one and two I recommend doing so now so that you appreciate the context of Rohr’s words and how they might apply to the great myths of the world, and to political maturation.

Here I will attempt to frame my own spiritual development in terms of Rohr’s model, although I have some reservations about using the term ‘spiritual’ about myself. I will also acknowledge the limitations of such a simplistic metaphor, with reference to my personal history. I will conclude by taking stock of where I am right now, aged 40 – which is viewed conventionally as the mid-point of life, and where I may perhaps navigate to in future with the aid of the middle way.

Born into disorder? Not me.

What’s difficult is so many people formed in the last 30 years were born into the second box of disorder. [They] don’t have that order to begin with, to reject and improve on.

Me aged about 7 or 8. That's not my school uniform, that's what I had to wear to go to church!It’s been 40 years since I was born, and I reckon I do not fall within Rohr’s grouping of people “formed in the last 30 years”. Not due to the mathematical exactness of his figures (in context he did not literally mean a cut-off at 30 years old!), but due to the fact that I was brought up in a very rigid  – and ordered – container. My family was of the more evangelical protestant Christian variety and our acts of worship were not confined to Sundays (although there was a service every Sunday, sometimes two), but spread to other activities throughout the week and a general feeling of being watched at all times by an omniscient God who was, by turns, strict and loving. This religious context defined the pattern of my weeks and years, much more so than any other aspect of my life such as school or neighbourhood friendships. To put it into Rohr’s terms, I was, quite definitely, born into a box of order.

Due to the specific strictures of our denomination (which was a part of the so-called Holiness movement) I was brought up with very rigid views on the moral validity of abstinence from alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, gambling and pre-marital sex, as well as the more usual protestant insistence on truthfulness before God, honesty in my human interactions, an awareness of my innate sinfulness, observance of the Ten Commandments, belief without evidence (which was termed ‘faith’), worship of the one true God, Bible-reading and prayer. There was also a very strong devotion to charity work, putting others first, observing Sundays as a holy day (so no shopping or engaging in other worldly pursuits on a Sunday) and a lot of encouragement to proselytise to my unconverted peers, through deliberate use of words of personal testimony and through the example (or ‘witness’) of my actions.

This ordered container – which, of course, seemed normal, reasonable and inevitable to me as I grew up, as I didn’t know any different – started to develop holes as I moved into adolescence. It became obvious that other people did not have the same beliefs, and not just those people in the wider ‘sinful’ world but even people who I respected and looked up to within our own congregation. I’m not talking about anything illegal or conventionally controversial like child sex-abuse or misappropriation of funds, but it seemed eye-poppingly amazing to me that other church-goers might be quietly making money on a Sunda or perhaps discreetly but casually conducting a sexual relationship with someone that they weren’t married to. When the holes got big enough, I could get a better view of what might be in store for me in the disorder box. It was a confusing, topsy-turvy place…

Me, aged 18. And yes, that's a bible under my arm.For example, I was indebted to the Jesus Christ whom – I was told – had died for my sins, but didn’t believe that anyone was listening when I prayed. I respected by parents, who became ministers in our denomination when I was 16, but had to find a way of hiding the fact that I was trying out drinking, smoking and other recreational drugs with my peers. I had been instilled with the ideal that sex was expressly for marriage and marriage was for life, but everyone else seemed to be doing it and when I eventually started doing it too it didn’t seem at all immoral or wrong – nothing had ever seemed so natural, normal and right. In other areas, in my school education for example, I was realising that there were well-justified reasons for believing that the universe was not centred around the human race, and this contradicted the interpretation of holy book that I’d been brought up to revere.

Breaking away
Anyway, the upshot was that by the time I was an adult the cognitive dissonance became too great, in a quiet crisis I abruptly dropped the public pretence of being ‘a good Christian’ in my denomination, to the quiet disappointment and confusion of the older generations in my family. In time my siblings also rejected the same container that they’d been brought up in, but I was the first and with that I had to lead the way. In fact my younger brother rebelled in a more roundabout way when he was 18 by moving to a different continent and becoming even more enthusiastically evangelical… a phase during which we communicated little (he did once urge me, by email, to “repent and get saved”) and which only lasted a couple of years before ending with a rather shameful implosion. He returned and recovered, I’m pleased to say.

Untitled2The thing about this transition is that I didn’t then enter the metaphorical reorder box, I just cobbled together a different order box: I was an atheist, a materialist, a natural realist, a scientist, a rationalist (and so on – follow this link to a piece I wrote in 1997 about the firewalk we did with Wessex Skeptics). This was easy enough for me to do considering that I was at university studying for a physics degree, with only superficial contact with my family back home. I even adopted a new name through this conversion: James became Jim. Conditioned humility kept me from openly trumpeting my new order to all and sundry, along with some guilt that I’d rejected the certainties of the older generations in my family, who as far as I could tell were good people with the best of intentions in the way that they’d brought me up.

I adapted quickly to my new sense of order, and very little occurred to challenge it – at first. I was living in a secular society,  and my friends and colleagues during my degree, PhD, and teaching career were pretty much all of an atheistic persuasion and those who did have religious beliefs similar to my own from childhood were discreet about it. I knew where I stood, along with the secular majority – viewing organised religion as a childish fantasy based on a human need for consolation – and it hardly had any influence on my life. I winced when I read the polemical work of the more vociferous ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins, who seemed to over-simplify a rather complex situation by attacking crude stereotypes and probably succeeded in pushing moderate Christians away via the ‘backfire effect‘.

Going through disorder

And yet, what I always tell the folks is there’s no nonstop flight from order to reorder. You’ve got to go through the disorder.

So, I think it is more accurate to say that it is only in the past few years, after the certainties of the academic world, after working way too hard as a school teacher for ten years and allowing that ordered container to define my existence, that I have moved into the disorder box. I have been brought to disorder, I have not chosen it. In fact it took a while for me to even realise that I was there, but eventually, gradually, it dawned upon me.

It seems a bit too soon to speak as frankly about this period of my life as I have about the earlier, ordered period, so I’ll just say that in my renewed search for meaning I encountered the Middle Way Society – and I’ve found it to have been immensely helpful in my navigation of the ‘messy middle’ between absolute metaphysical certainties. So, in Richard Rohr’s scheme, I’m right on schedule – as I enter mid-life I’m bumbling around in the disorder box, but I think there’s hope that I can bumble less and eventually crawl through into the metaphorical reorder box.

There is, as always, a danger of absolutising this model and treating it as a single linear progression through three distinct stages, with a definite ‘destination’. Rohr’s usage of it is as an over-arching framing of spiritual development during a person’s life, from naive, exclusive ‘early stage’ religion through to a more mature, inclusive, flexible religion that unites rather than divides. In the shorter term our integration is likely to proceed in a series of cycles rather than through a single pass through the sequence order-disorder-reorder. Also our integration may well proceed asymmetrically, which is not wholly a bad thing as explained in this video from the Middle Way philosophy series.

I’m still uncomfortable with the specific term ‘spiritual’, as I (rather clumsily) tried to explain in the podcast interview with Barry last year: to me the term is inextricably associated with New Age ‘woo’, eternal souls and Cartesian dualism, the Pentecostalist understanding on the ‘Holy Spirit’, and other metaphysical absolutes which cannot be justified by experience. Richard Rohr, as you might expect, seems to be quite comfortable with using the term but I’m encouraged by the fact that he’s more inclined to talk about spiritual development as the increasingly ethical use of your intellect, heart and body, which seems a long way from metaphysical woo.

themiddlewaysocietylogoA term that’s more agreeable to me than ‘spiritual development’ is ‘integration’, as used here in the Middle Way Society. What others may look upon as my spiritual development, I would like to name as my progress with integrating desire, meaning and belief – and in the process becoming more ethical, a person of greater integrity. As a child I could see a disconnect between the stated beliefs of the adults around me, and their ethical actions. The archaic collection of metaphysical claims which formed their creed were ostensibly used to justify their actions, but I thought that their actions would probably have been just as ethical in the absence of these words. Perhaps a more succinct way of putting it is that there was great emphasis on orthodoxy, and an equally strong emphasis on orthopraxy, but that the connection between the two was not necessarily what it was claimed to be.

An ongoing process of transformation
I’m not claiming to have achieved perfect wisdom, in fact I don’t really believe that such as thing is anything other than an archetypal aspiration anyway. To be more objective in the justification of my beliefs, to hold them provisionally and adapt them incrementally is a more realistic and ethical proposition. In the past few years I think I’ve had a few tastes of what might lie ahead in the second half of my life, beyond the current disorder.

For example, although I’ve felt guilty about leaving the religion that I was brought up in, I can now appreciate that I rejected the ideology and the beliefs of my parents and grandparents, without rejecting the parents and grandparents themselves. In Christianity this sentiment was expressed by Saint Augustine as “hate the sin, but love the sinner”, but – as Gandhi pointed out – this is easy enough to understand though rarely practiced.

1024px-(3)_Flaxman_Ilias_1793,_gestochen_1795,_183_x_252_mmI can also see that the Zeus-like Christian God that I was brought up with is a rather childish (but widespread) interpretation of Christian theology, and my subsequent rejection of all understanding of an Abrahamic God was also rather extreme – more subtle and nuanced agnostic understandings of the concept of “God” exist, and the meaning associated with the God archetype does not have to be thrown out with the metaphysical bathwater. For example, what I came to see as the preposterous proposition of Jesus’s resurrection at Easter can in fact be a source of meaning and inspiration, as discussed in this superb article by Robert M. Ellis.

Thirdly, with regards to the way that I choose to live my life, I can still abstain from smoking, from getting into debt and from lying… but that it is largely my choice, what currently seems most appropriate within the wider conditions of my life, and not a set of imperatives dictated to me by the absolute metaphysical dogma of a particular religious tradition. My upbringing could be (somewhat uncharitably) viewed as an indoctrination into a specific moral code, but in rejecting the supposed authority behind this code I do not instead have to embrace a nihilistic relativism. To paraphrase from Robert’s books on Middle Way philosophy:

The absolutist’s mistake is to understand the right choice in terms of overall principles regardless of the specifics of the situation. The relativist’s mistake is to believe that there is no right choice.

In conclusion…
Turning 40 is something I’ve mentioned to my friends and associates, not because it has great significance for me, but more because it seems to have significance for them. In opposition to our youth-obsessed culture’s conventional position on ageing, I approve of getting older: looking back I can see that I’m not the same fool I was at 30 (or 20, or 10, or even 39 and 51 weeks). Here’s to maturation in general, not just spiritually, and here’s (hopefully) to the next 40 years!

Featured image is an engraving by William Blake, from The Pilgrim’s Progress, via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph of Richard Rohr by Svobodat [License: CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image of ‘God on this throne’ is actually an engraving of Zeus from John Flaxman’s Iliad, via Wikimedia Commons
The three photos of me (aged roughly 7, 18 and 23) were scanned in from the original prints. Retro.

Order, disorder, reorder – part 2 of 3

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

493px-RichardRohrOFMThis blog post is part two of a three-part series inspired by the above quote by Richard Rohr (shown in the photograph on the right). If you’ve not read part one I recommend doing so now so that you appreciate the context of Rohr’s words and how they might apply to the great myths of the world. Here, in this post, I consider what Rohr’s three-box model might have to say about political polarisation in society, and what its limitations might be. In the third and final post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model and make some concluding remarks.

A political perspective

What conservative people want to do is just keep rebuilding the first box, “order, order, order,” at all costs, even if it doesn’t fit the facts or fit reality. … So many progressive, academic, liberal, educated folks, they just keep sloshing around in the second box and almost resist any sense of order.

So, the context in which Richard Rohr is speaking here is that of the political situation in the USA: dominated by two parties, Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive. We may have a different national political dynamic here in the UK, perhaps slightly less polarised, but it is broadly similar and people tend to position themselves one way or the other on the conventional political spectrum.

From Rohr’s choice of words here, he sees the difficulty with the individual maturing politically if that individual strongly identifies with one political orientation or the other. If you identify with the conservative ideology then you feel as if you’re being constructive in rebuilding the “order” box over and over, but in adhering so rigidly to the absolute belief that order must be maintained at all costs you’re blocking the path towards a more provisional, nuanced situation where you can better address conditions.

Conservative over-confidence?
I’ll tentatively suggest that the recent ‘Brexit’ result of the UK referendum (on continuing membership of the European Union) represents an example of this. I have to admit a specific difficulty here, though, as part of the large minority that voted to remain in the EU. The echo chamber and filter bubble of social media mean that I’m rather out of touch with views that might help me to understand why a majority voted to leave the EU in the referendum.

brexit-2185266_1280From the limited discussions I’ve had with ‘Brexiteers’ I get the impression that there’s a desire to put the country into a new order box that very closely resembles the one that existed before the UK entered the EU in the early 1970s (before my time!). Not that we were experiencing a period of disorder during the years of EU membership – and there was a long stretch of ordering along neoliberal lines during the Thatcher years – but there is a belief that once we’ve got through the process of leaving the EU the country will be able to construct a better order without ‘interference’ from Europe.

Of course I’d argue that Brexit does not represent an improvement, that it is not a synthesis after the years of pre-1973 order and the perceived disorder of the EU years; I personally view it as a step backwards to an outdated form of political order (that probably wasn’t so great anyway back then) and seems unlikely to adequately deal with conditions now. But then my political inclinations dispose me towards that kind of view. I imagine the stereotypical conservative Brexiteer to be clinging to a fragile absolute view (“it is right that the UK determines its own path” or “our greatest problems are caused by immigrants”), and that view cannot be properly examined because the lack of incrementality means that it wouldn’t survive the examination process… fear of disorder (where simplistic, absolute beliefs are recognised as being inadequate, or even harmful) holds them from making political progress.

Progressive pitfalls?
AntifragileOn the other hand, if you strongly identify as a progressive, as a liberal, then there’s the danger of only being able to see tradition and the existing order as an absolutised evil, and rejecting it wholesale, whether or not it actually addresses conditions. I’ve found the Taleb’s perspective to be of use here in helping me to challenge my own liberal, progressive views – for example, in his book Antifragile he points out that the longevity of a product, tool, book, idea or ideology is positively correlated with its age, since the products, tools, books, ideas and ideologies that don’t address the conditions of the real world don’t survive! Time, using his language, is the best creator of antifragility, as in the course of time unexpected events eventually occur and demolish the things that were fragile to that occurrence. This is also known as the ‘Lindy effect‘.

It is tempting for me to think that the Middle Way would involve a liberal, progressive politics – but since it seems to me like such an obvious, certain fact the Middle Way itself suggests that it is a belief worth critically examining in significant detail. The work of Jonathan Haidt on what he calls ‘moral foundations theory’ looks for common ground between the conventional camps of the political divide, which might be useful in finding a middle way that better addresses the current political conditions that we find ourselves in. The idea of synthesis also suggests that a better way lies beyond the dualism of conservative and progressive, and the Middle Way is a promising tool to guide us in examining and integrating our desires, beliefs and meanings.

fresco-379932_1280There’s also the problem of progressives taking the order-disorder-reorder model and appropriating it into an absolutised form. Consider, for example, the Russian revolution. The old order of the Russian tsars collapsed in the disorder of the first 1917 revolution, and eventually the one-party state of the Soviet Union emerged from the disorder. The party constructed the history as an inevitable progression from order, through disorder, to re-order – and then stifled any political attempts to challenge the re-ordered state by stating that history had run its course and the inevitable end-state had been achieved. In political revolutions the dis-ordered period is lasts a relatively short time – a likely sign that it’s not going to lead to a more synthetic, re-ordered situation but instead to more of the same order in a different guise. (Aside: see this excellent article by Nicky Case for more on the perils of and alternatives to political revolution.)

It seems likely, on an individual level, that adherence to a dogmatic left/right ideology is an impediment to our own maturation politically, as well as spiritually (whatever that means – more on this in the final part of this series). There’s a clear link here with the very Middle Way-ish idea of looking for a synthetic approach to dealing with apparent dilemmas: the thesis and the antithesis initially clash, but through some difficult process the two seemingly opposed ideas are somehow brought together into a more complex new whole. The  practice of critical thinking, and the processes by which we can encourage integration are prominent in the Middle Way: see this post by Robert about integration, for example.

Featured image of ballot boxes created using an image from (License: CC0 Public Domain)
Photograph of Richard Rohr from wikimedia commons (License: CC0 Public Domain)
EU/UK flag graphic and photograph of revolutionary fresco courtesy of (License: CC0 Public Domain)

Order, disorder, reorder

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

The words above are taken from a recent On Being podcast, where the host Krista Tippett interviewed the American Franciscan friar Richard Rohr. I’m not one for listening to religious programming, given my leanings towards the non-dogmatic and agnostic Middle Way, but I’ve found that this weekly series hosts a variety of guests with a range of beliefs, from diverse backgrounds and traditions. Krista Tippett, as host, guides the discussions in such a way that the conversations are always mature, nuanced, and tolerant of ambiguity – truly conversations rather than sycophantic platform-building or antagonistic arguments. Furthermore Richard Rohr described himself as being “on the edge of the inside” of traditional Catholicism, pushing at the boundary of Christianity in a very liberal, mystical way.

1024px-Richard_Rohr_02While I was listening yesterday to the episode featuring Richard Rohr (and I recommend listening to the full ‘unedited’ version of the conversation rather than the 50-minute ‘produced’ show) many interesting facets revealed themselves, but I was particularly intrigued to hear about his “three box” metaphor for the path of adult spiritual development. I understand that in his 2012 book Falling Upward he further explores the idea of the two halves of life, intending to show that those who have fallen, failed, or gone down in their spiritual progress are the only ones who understand ‘up’. However, I’ve not read that book(!) and what I’m going to discuss here is based on what I heard during a part of the interview with Krista Tippett.

As it is rather lengthy, I’ve split this discussion into three separate blog posts: in this, the first, I discuss the synthetic metaphorical three box model in the context of a well-known a modern myth. In the next (second) post I will consider how Rohr’s three box model might be usefully applied to political polarisation in society. In the third and final blog post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model.

A modern myth – Toy Story
Now, I’m not sure to what extent the Disney/Pixar film Toy Story counts as a great myth of the world, but it’s a story that’s familiar to anyone in the Western world who has grown up – or has had children grow up – in the past 30 years. I have a soft spot for it, having it watched it first (somewhat guiltily) in the cinema as an 18-year old, and more recently on DVD with my son and his cousins. I’m going to use the plot of Toy Story as an example of this “three box” metaphor for the path of transformation – and note that I’m using the term ‘myth’ its original sense as a story richly imbued with archetypical meaning, and not meaning a widely-believed falsehood.

Toy_StoryAnyway, in Toy Story the character Woody, the old-fashioned pull-string cowboy doll, starts off in the metaphorical “order box” as Andy’s favourite toy, de facto leader of all Andy’s toys, and comfortable with his position in this microcosm. He is forced into the “disorder box” by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut action figure, who upsets the social order and brings out feelings and behaviour in Woody that he’s not had to deal with before. This disorder is a product of circumstances beyond Woody’s control: he wouldn’t have deliberately chosen to break with the status quo as he was so comfortable within it. His sense of self-esteem is closely linked with his role as Andy’s favourite plaything.

However, through the messy process of being taken out of his comfort zone and learning through novel experiences, Woody eventually is able to move into the metaphorical “re-order” box by integrating his conflicting desires and meaning, establishing a new equilibrium where he and Buzz can cooperate in their roles as Andy’s ‘favourite toys’. However, and more importantly, Buzz and Woody also enjoy the new meaning and richness that comes from their relationship with each other, a relationship that has value beyond their existence as playthings for a child.

By the end of the film Woody has developed a new perspective on his existence, one that encompasses the need for constructed order and the inevitability of uncomfortable disorder – he knows that suffering is part of the deal, and is better embraced than pushed away. Not only is Woody now wiser, but his new worldview better addresses the changing conditions, as Andy is growing up (as seen in the sequels, particularly Toy Story 3) and will no longer ‘need’ Woody, depriving him of his original raison d’etre when he was comfortably housed in the “order” box.

Note that, alongside Woody’s development, Buzz follows a parallel path of transformation. His original existence – where he truly believed himself to be a space ranger crash-landed on a hostile alien planet – may have been delusional, but it was well and truly ordered. He had a sense of who he was, what his mission was, and was confident in his superiority and rightness. Only when his delusion was eroded by continued contact with the ‘real’ world did he have to face up to disorder. Buzz’s fall from order was harsh, but he made progress through the disorder and – by uniting with Woody against common enemies – he was able to reorder his worldview into something more mature mature, integrating his love of himself with his newfound love for others (as opposed to his earlier ‘duty’ to others).

At the close of this first installment in the series I invite you to participate using the comments section below. If you can see how this model can be further extended to Toy Story, or other myths, please go ahead and share your thoughts. If you can see limitation of this model in this context of analysing mythic narratives then please also jump in. In the second installment I will move on to consider how the order-reorder-disorder model might shed some light on the problem of political polarisation in society, and in the third and final installment I’ll be viewing my own spiritual biography through the lens of this model. I hope that you will join me there…

Featured image of US mailboxes in the snow courtesy of
Photograph of Richard Rohr by Svobodat [License: CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Toy Story image is a low resolution version of the Disney-copyright poster, used for illustration only under ‘fair use’

Springtime sort-outs and sunk costs

The misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments, and experiences.
The truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something, the harder it becomes to abandon it.

–David McRaney
You Can Beat Your Brain

kelly-sikkema-216021 About an hour ago someone I’d never met before knocked at my front door. I gave him a pair of headphones, he said thank you, and the transaction was done. I don’t imagine that we’ll ever meet again.

We both benefited, me and the stranger: he gained a working pair of good quality hi-fi headphones, and I was rid of an object that I really didn’t need to own. This wasn’t as random an act as I’ve made it sound, and I haven’t started giving away everything I own in a fit of asceticism or altruism… it’s just that there are some possessions that I really don’t need to hang on to, and exists in order to rehome those things that I don’t have the energy or inclination to sell.

A familiar story?
Here’s the backstory: a long time agoprobably over ten years agoI bought a pair of headphones. At the time I was spending a lot of time listening to music through some tiny in-the-ear earphones, and it seemed sensible to treat myself for my birthday or whatever to a reasonably good-quality pair of hi-fi headphones. So I did. The sound quality was great, but however I adjusted them they were never really very comfortable to wear and after a few weeks of trying I pretty much gave up using them.

Every now and then I’d rediscover these headphones, wherever I’d stashed them, and try them again and then realise why I’d stopped using them. It got to the point where I’d accidentally find them, glare at them because they reminded of how I’d invested a reasonable amount of money by purchasing them, then ignore them. One more thing that I owned, but never used any more. One more thing that I might as well not own, but could not get rid of because (once again) I’d been taken in by the so-called ‘sunk costs’ fallacy.

sennheiser_padsActually, about six months ago I re-discovered these headphones, found that the material on the ear pads had perished, and bought some replacement ear pads over the internet. Thus investing even more money in this thing that I owned, but never used. I thought I was being rational, after all – what good were the headphones if the pads were falling to bits? Buying new pads would make the headphones great again! But that was the fallacy at work. A more objective view would have been that I was ‘throwing good money after bad’, expressed very clearly as ‘the truth’ in the quote from David McRaney’s book at the top of this article.

Anyway, conditions have changed and I think I’ve now made a better decision by freecycling the headphones rather than putting them back in a box under my bed to be ignored for another six months. There’s always going to be the nagging concern in the back of my mind that I might just need those at some future point, and I’ll regret having got rid of them. But I’ve felt that often enough before, and I seem to have survived.

The ‘sunk costs’ fallacy
The headphones story is just one aspect of a greater springtime sort-out that I’ve been engaged in over the Easter holiday. And turning up unused item after unused item I’ve been realising that I’ve been reluctant to let go mainly due to the sunk costs fallacy. This fallacy is behind a huge range of dysfunctional human behaviour, from the relatively harmless (eating a whole bag of crisps, even though you’re not very hungry, because you paid for a whole bag of crisps) to the very harmful (a head of state starting a war against another nation, even though the war will not improve things under  current conditions, because you had previously committed your country to that course of action based on the conditions back then).

967186270_4087dae835_bIn economics a ‘sunk cost’ is a cost that has been put into a project, and that cannot be recovered. In psychology the same term, by analogy, applies to emotional investments that have already been made: things that we cannot forget or un-do. The fallacy part comes in when we assume that we’re operating rationally (by not allowing the sunk costs to disproportionately influence our decision making) while actually operating irrationally (because of the strong emotional investment we have already made).

Apparently this fallacy is a consequence of the way that human minds work; the prospect of losses is a more powerful motivator on our behaviour than the promise of gainswhich is also known as ‘loss aversion’which means that we tend not to treat losses and gains in an even-handed way. In David McRaney’s highly readable book about cognitive biases and logical fallacies, ‘You can beat your brain‘ (US title: ‘You are now less dumb‘), he explains the enormous success of the Farmville game on social media in terms of the sunk costs fallacy. You can read this chapter of the book on McRaney’s own website (link).

Love people. Use things.
leather_bookmarksBefore I finish I’ll tell you about one more example from my springtime sort-out, one where the monetary value wasn’t a factor. And I’m not talking about the box of sixty leather bookmarks, although that was snapped up the same day by an enthusiastic freecycler whose mother apparently ‘loves all things books!’

For the past 25 years I’ve been hanging on to an A5-sized spiral-bound drawing pad, full of black pen landscape drawings that I’d done when I was about 15 years old. It was so long ago that I can’t quite remember what it was that made me start filling this book – I liked drawing and wanted to get better at it, I had time to spare during the school holidays. Anyway, the thing is that I’ve been hanging on to this pad for a quarter of a century: whenever I moved house, and that’s fairly often, the pad moved with me. I couldn’t get rid of this thing that was the only tangible reminder of the hundreds of hours I’d spent drawing these pictures in my mid-teens.

Looking through the pad of drawings a few days ago, with slightly more objective eyes, I realised that 90% of the drawings weren’t even original! I’d been working through a tutorial-style book called something like ‘How to draw landscapes‘. So I’ve removed the three pictures from the back of the pad that were my own creations, and recycled the rest. In fact I’ve gone one better and I’ve scanned these three pictures and they now live in ‘the cloud’ instead of my sock drawer.

Soulbury_cottagesAnd it’s not even the pictures that have value for me, it is the meaning they hold for me and others, and this meaning doesn’t depend on the continued physical existence of the object. For example, one of the drawings was of the row of cottages where my grandparents lived for most of their lives (shown in the picture here). I know that my grandfather, in his 90s now, will find this fascinating, it’ll be something we can talk about. We can laugh together about the sheds where he accumulated about five duplicates of every kind of gardening tool – that was quite an effort when he eventually moved out and down-sized, to help him let go of 60 years worth of well-hoarded stuff.

Let it go, let it go…
To conclude then, I’m not going to tell you that you might as well get rid of that material clutter in your life – you probably already know that! I’m not about to give you any advice about how to let go of the stuff that you’re needlessly hoarding either, there are enough minimalism blogs and progs which can help you with that. My point is this: remember the sunk costs fallacy, which lies behind your irrational reluctance to get rid of stuff that is of no value to you. And in remembering it, you’re no longer beholden to its underhand influence. If you can remember this with the more trivial issues of day-to-day living, there’s hope that you might also avoid the unethical actions that we are driven towards by loss aversion.

Looking to the near future, it will soon enough be time for the great summer sort-out, which means tackling the dreaded shed. Wish me luck.