Destined to be Canine

Charlie was chasing his tail and was feeling pretty weird about it. He was chasing his tail because he is a dog. He was feeling weird about it because he is a clever dog. He was experiencing an existential crisis.

Charlie understands that dogs chase their tails. That’s why he keeps on doing it, being aware of his canine condition. But Charlie is not like other dogs who chase their tails in an attempt to reach it. Charlie knows that his tail is unreachable. He has even written a paper about the physics involved. But being a dog, he chases his tail anyway. And that is making him pretty uneasy.

For your lay-dog tail-chasing is actually a quite meaningful experience. Of course the sceptic mocks the effort, seeing it as futile. But the reward is proportional to the challenge. The more unobtainable the goal is, the more meaningful dogs all around the globe find its pursuit. It is too easy being a lazy critic from the outside. Anyone can try it for themselves to see how rewarding the endeavour is. Everyone, except for Charlie.

You see, Charlie is different. He understands all of this. He understands tail-chasing. He understands its evolutionary origins and benefits. He even understands the neurological and psychological processes featuring in the adventure. He can name the chemicals released in dogs’ brains when chasing their tails and how this results in a subjective experience referred to as “meaning”.

Charlie won’t stop chasing his tail – not so long as he is a dog. But his advanced understanding prevents him from extracting from it “meaning” to the same degree that his friends do. Whilst doghood is happy to carry on with its characteristic behaviour that it had been doing for eons, Charlie needs some rationalisation. So he came up with a philosophical argument. it goes something like this:

Tail-chasing is a characteristically dogly behaviour. Dogs, and only dogs, chase their tail. It is thus part of the essence of being a dog to also be a tail-chaser. In fact, ‘dog’ and ‘tail-chaser’ are interchangeable and semantically equivalent. To be a dog is to be a tail-chaser. However, this synonymity only holds if for every x that is a dog it is also the case that it is a tail-chaser. If you can find an x that is both a dog and a non-tail-chaser, then the two terms are no longer equivalent.

Now if Charlie were to stop chasing his tail, he would break the synonymity. Tail-chasing would therefore no longer be said to be part of the essence of dooghood. Charlie would therefore single-pawedly be responsible for the abolition of the essence of doghood. Conversely, by his continuing tail-chasing he is maintaining doghood in its true essence.

This was Charlie’s argument. It is a terrible argument, but it worked. That is, it helped him rationalise his actions. What was actually taking place – something that Charlie is bound to realise in due time – is that Charlie was chasing his tail. Why? Because he is a dog and dogs chase their tails.

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The Haters

“You are hateful!” said the man accused of hate to the man accusing him of hate.

After a hasty unearthing of archaic tweets and a meticulous consultation with the IAODH (Internationally Accepted Official Definition of Hate), both men were swiftly removed from their positions and disgraced out of civil society.

“We operate on a zero-tolerance policy towards hate in this society,” said the Hatespeech Commissioner in charge of this case, “Words have consequences!”

She was later found to have expressed hate in the past and was removed from her position. There was no one left to replace her. The end.

Don’t Like Hate? Stop Hating!

We cannot stop others from hating. But we can eliminate hate coming from ourselves. The question is, do we want to?
 
It’s easy to point to rising levels of hate committed by others. It is easy to be an “anti-hate campaigner” and try to tackle the hate of others. But how much power do we really have to control the emotions and expressions of others? Does “anti-hate” campaigning reduce hate in the world? I think that at most it pushes it away from where we are. At most it protects our community from the influence of the haters. But have we diminished hate in the world?
 
I think that we can have the most impact in eliminating hate by eliminating hate coming from us and by ‘us’ I mean oneself. It is not hard, but many of us don’t want to. We are trapped in narratives that justify our own hateful expressions. We see our own hate as legitimate responses to the hate that we have experienced. Why shouldn’t I show hate towards the hateful?
 
I think that eliminating our own hate is very easy. But only if we want it. Perhaps before I try convincing you to want it, let me show you how easy it is. All you need is to meditate on the psychology, motivations and experiences of others. You just need to think a little about what it feels like to be in your opponent’s position. What are the possible experiences, upbringing and circumstances that have led them to the views that they have? What are the anxieties and worries that drive them? What does it feel to be them? What would your views be in their shoes? How is their expression of hate just a manifestation of their anxieties and worries?
 
Think of your opponent as a psychological being. Try comparing her to yourself as a psychological being. Aren’t they as righteous in their own eyes as you are in yours? Aren’t they as self-justified as you are? Don’t they want the best for themselves and their loved ones just like you want for you and yours? Leave behind any metaphysical notions of “good” and “evil”. People aren’t “good”, or “evil”. They are psychological beings, acting on their beliefs and interests. So are you.
 
Why should you eliminate your own hatred? Well, do you want to reduce hatred in the world? If not, scroll on: this isn’t for you. But I assume that you are someone who would like to see a world with less hatred in it, you just want to know what is the best way to achieve it. You may think that expressing hate towards the hateful will achieve this. Perhaps you think of the equal and opposite hatreds as cancelling out?
 
But I don’t believe that that is the case. Not only does your hate not cancel out the hate of the hateful, but it makes you a less kind and compassionate person! Hate is the kind of thing that consumes you and clouds your vision and judgement. Once you are angry you lose the ability to make clear judgements about who is deserving to be on the receiving end of your hate and anger. You may have started out being angry at the “right” people, but your angry has distorted your judgement of who is a legitimate target of your hate.
 
I am always incredibly saddened looking around and seeing that some of the most hateful people around me are “anti-hate campaigners”. These people are self-righteous, but incredibly hateful towards those who do not see eye to eye to them. They think themselves as fighting against hate, when in fact they are its source. They think themselves fighting hate, when in fact they are fighting people. This is so bad on campus, that I am genuinely convinced that campus would be a far less hateful place if “anti-hate” campaigning and activism were eliminated.
 
Let’s extol the virtues of kindness, compassion, empathy and respect and not heed those who want to frame these values as if they are expressions of privilege and power (yes, the view that kindness and respect are “Western” and “colonial” values to be rejected is sadly a popular one in some activist circles). People can choose to be hateful if they want to. But let’s be clear with our objectives. And I say that if it is less hate that we want, then we should start with ourselves.

Gender Identity and Transgenderism

I want to have a discussion about gender, gender identity and transgender. This is going to be a long post, for shortening it would risk losing the nuance – something that is missing from most of these discussions.
 
1) A preliminary point before I start, people talk of a requirement for “lived experience” before one talks about these issues, or claim that “you cannot understand unless you feel it”. This point is legitimate but only when applied within its limit of applicability. There are two domains in these discussions. One is about feelings and the other is about facts. The domain of feelings is how it feels like to experience x or to identify as x. In this domain it is indeed the case that, unless you have felt it you don’t really know what it’s like to feel it. Moreover, everyone’s experience is different, so really no one can talk for another person as to how it is to feel a certain way. In this domain, then, no one should really speaking for others to say what it’s like to feel x. This domain is therefore one in which we cannot really have constructive discussion. I’ll therefore say nothing more about this domain.
 
The second domain is about facts: What defines gender? What is or isn’t natural and healthy? Etc. In this domain it is not experience that matters but knowledge. In fact, the very premise behind the scientific method is objectivity, meaning that it is the data that decide, not how one feels about it. In this post I shall confine myself to talking only about this domain. I will not talk about how it feels like to be x. Hopefully this preempt responses of the form “you don’t have the lived experience” etc.
 
2) Another preliminary point, discussions around these issues are often constructed as a false dichotomy: “you either accept all my claims about who I am, or else you are denying my existence.” Let it then be clear from the start that no one’s existence is being denied and no one’s rights are being denied. This post takes for granted that all humans deserve respect, safety, etc. Discussing the validity of certain identities does not mean that those holding these identities should be discriminated against, disrespected, or harmed. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but the unfortunate reality of how these discussions have been framed means that you cannot take it for granted that people will understand it that way.
 
3) A final preliminary point, the importance of this discussion. People often say “This is not your issue; why talk about this?” Here’s why: we live in a society with norms that we interact with daily and that affect us all. It is not the case that paradigm shifts in the understanding of gender affect only the people with these non-traditional gender identities. It affects everyone who has a gender and it affects everyone interacting with people with non-traditional gender identities. It is also something that is being pushed on everyone with campaigns and repercussions to those who don’t conform. It is absolutely a societal matter and society has every right to discuss it.
 
OK, I’m ready to start. In no particular order, here are some observations, questions and discussion points:
 
4) IDENTITY: there’s this mistaken belief that identity is that which you say you are. If you “identify as x”, then you are x. This claim is philosophically extremely suspect. Firstly, it is easy to make a reductio ad absurdum argument to show that in most cases where someone will “identify” as something, we will reject it. Whether I “identify” as a different race, or as a different species, nobody thinks twice before rejecting it. If I genuinely believe that I am that, then most people would recommend psychiatric help.
 
Secondly, that is simply not how identity works. Identity is a complex relationship between oneself and their environment and how they see themself relating to the society around them. It is not something that is fully internal between one and oneself. In order to be valid it has to have some external manifestations and people around you have to see you as such as well. For example, if you are a transwoman and you make an effort to be seen as a woman, to pass as a woman and to associate with womanhood, then there’s a case for your identity as a woman to be legitimate. However, if you are by all appearances a man, you behave like a man and make no effort to relate to your surroundings as a woman, then your insistence that you are a woman means nothing. You can’t “identify your womanhood into existence”. Identity is not some metaphysical or magical act of pronouncement “I now pronounce myself a woman”. It is a complex relationship between one and their social environment.
 
5) BEING BORN IN THE WRONG BODY: I wouldn’t even devote writing to this if not that I hear this claim so often. And there I thought that scholastic metaphysics was dead! What does it even mean for your body to be “right” or “wrong”? The only thing that you can say about your body is that it is yours. Unless you are some kind of radical dualist, believing that you metaphysically exist independent of your body, then there is no “you” who really “belongs” to another body. This is such a dodgy claim that I doubt that anyone with an understanding of philosophy 101 takes this claim seriously.
 
Perhaps what people mean to say when they make this claim is that they feel uncomfortable with their body, or that they would have preferred to have a different body. Perhaps individuals even feel intense pain about how their body looks. Perhaps they’d do whatever they can to alter their body. I have the greatest of sympathies with people who feel such pain, but it is not their body that is “wrong”. What’s at fault here is the way they relate to their body.
 
At this point I want to bring up another thorny issue regarding transgender: is it a mental disorder? The WHO has very recently removed it from being a mental disorder. I understand that that they moved the “transgender” category from mental disorder to sexual health. This may be as much a political as well as a medical decision. But here I want to think about just the feeling I described in the above paragraph, not being transgender as a whole. The feeling of looking in the mirror and hating your body and wanting to mutilate it or change it – whether this is because you think you are too fat, too ugly, or don’t like your body’s sex – this feeling is almost by definition a mental disorder. There’s no other way to describe such a painful relationship between one and their body. This shouldn’t be controversial either. There should be no stigma in having a mental disorder. I have one. I suffer from anxiety and depression and take daily medication for it. I think that the first step in trying to help people who are suffering mentally is to recognise that they have a mental disorder.
 
So how to help people who are suffering like this mentally? This brings me to my next point of discussion:
 
6) TRANSGENDER: I want to make a conceptual distinction here which will help articulate what I am about to say about this. I do not mean to claim that this distinction actually exist in real life. As I said, this is a “conceptual” distinction. To help with the following, I’m going to give these two concepts different arbitrary names: trans* and trans^. Here is what these concepts mean:
 
A trans* individual is someone who believes that sex and gender are distinct. They were born male and continue to acknowledge that they are male in terms of biological sex. However, they really feel more comfortable interacting with society as a woman. They like to do traditionally feminine things and to wear traditionally feminine clothes. They also interact with society as a woman and relate to others as a woman. In turn, others also see them as a woman. They identify as a woman. They’re a trans*woman.
 
The trans^ individual was also born male, but they were never comfortable with that fact. From as young as they can remember they always wished they’d get rid of their male parts. Their male body gives them intense mental pain. They tried acting like a woman, wearing women’s clothes etc, but their male body still causing them a lot of pain. They fantasise about when they can be a “real” woman with female body parts. They are a trans^woman.
 
Now I’m ready to make an argument here to distinguish the two. The trans*woman is by all appearances a healthy adult. They want to express their gender in a specific, unconventional way. That makes them a maverick, not someone who is unhealthy. More strength to them for defying societal norms! I say, live on with your life and your identity in whatever way makes you happy. Good for you!
 
The trans^woman, however, is clearly suffering and unhealthy. We can try to pretend that they have no mental disorder, but the reality of their constant mental suffering contradicts that. So let’s help them! How do we do that? Well, I can think of two possible options: the most straightforward one to me is therapy and antipsychotics. Like any mental disorder, we can try to help them in the way that we treat mental disorders like anxiety, depression etc. This seems to me like the most straightforward way, since this individual is clearly suffering from a mental disorder. If after treatment they still want to identify with their non-traditional gender, good for them. But let them do so without internal suffering!
 
The other solution that seems to me less reasonable, but more popular, is sex-reassignment. Individuals might feel that if they alter their body to conform to their mental image of themself then that would get rid of the pain. Now, whether or not this is an effective treatment for their mental anguish is an empirical matter. I am not going to say that I’m convinced that it works, but if it does then so be it. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce the individual’s suffering.
 
The point to remember, however, is that, unlike the trans*woman, the trans^woman is not in a healthy mental state. Their being trans is not a mere matter of identity choice. It is them dealing with their intense pain. If transitioning does not alleviate that pain, then it is a sad mistake. This is an upsetting point to talk about. Their is so much political pressure to present as if sex-reassignment is the only treatment for gender-dysmorphia. How many people could be saved from costly and painful operations and life-long dependence on mediation if they’d try the route of therapy and antipsychotics?
 
7) GENDER-NON-BINARY: People often claim that gender is non-binary, or that they “are non-binary”. I am not going to discuss here whether or not that it is a legitimate position to hold. I just want to analyse the idea to see its implications. From what I understand, gender-non-binary theorists claim that gender isn’t a binary between “man” and “woman”, but is instead more like a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum you have the archetypal man and on the other side the archetypal woman and every real human fits in somewhere on this spectrum in terms of their gender expression and identity.
 
Now let’s analyse what this theory is committed to in order to be consistent. It is committed to the idea that some behaviours are inherently more masculine and some more feminine. If has to accept this otherwise, what does the spectrum consist of? Accepting a spectrum means accepting that some behaviours are closer to one side of the spectrum than others – meaning that some behaviours are inherently more masculine or feminine than others. I am not necessarily arguing against this view, but note how this claim is incompatible with the view that gender can be separated from gender roles and performance.
 
According to this view you cannot be a very masculine and butch woman, for being masculine puts you closer to the male side of the spectrum, thus stripping you of womanhood. Likewise, an incredibly camp, gay man would according to this view not really be a man, as they are closer to the feminine side of the spectrum. Some gender-theorists disagree, of course, and claim that your gender performance has no impact on what gender you really are. According to them you can of course be an effeminate man or a butch woman. In fact your manhood and womanhood is not affected by how masculine or feminine you are because these are only social constructions. There is nothing inherently unwomanly about being masculine, or unmanly about being feminine. Again, I’m not going to disagree with this position. I’ll just point out that this position is incompatible with gender-non-binary theory.
 
So you cannot have it both ways: you either believe that gender is non-binary, but then you have to accept that people’s performance – feminine or masculine affects what gender they are, or, more precisely, where on the gender spectrum you belong. Alternatively, you can believe that no performance is inherently masculine or feminine and that your manhood or womanhood does not depend on your gender expression. But in that case you have to see gender as something essential to the individual – perhaps their sex?
 
8) LANGUAGE: We often hear slogans, such as, “transwomen are women”; “Woman: adult, human, female”. Well, in reality, “woman” is just a two syllable sound that we make with our moths. Just like any other linguistic term, it has no inherent meaning and just means what it communicates to people. If you want to know whether or not transwomen or women, all that you have to do is go out and say the word ‘woman’ and see if people understand that to signify the class of females excluding transwomen, or the class of females including transwomen. Ascribing essentialism to language is a common fallacy. There’s nothing in the word woman that would either include or exclude transwomen. It all depends on how people understand the term. I would go as far as saying that transwomen are women on most campuses and or not women in many places off campus. It really does depend on the linguistic community you are associated with.
 
Another linguistic issue is the insistence on “inclusive” language, such as “people who give birth”, instead of women and “people with penises” instead of men. On the surface you’d think that this follows naturally from the belief that sex and gender are separate. Surely, if you can have men giving birth, then surely it is no longer a woman issue, right? Wrong! This is another language issue. There’s a big difference between saying “some men can give birth” (which is, depending on your view on the matter, plausibly true) and saying “giving birth is not a woman’s issue, but an issue of people with wombs” (which is most certainly false). Here’s why:
 
Just because we say that gender can be separated from sex does not mean that there is no correlation between them. It may be true that some women are male and that some men are female, but womanhood is still the default of females and manhood of males. This is not some accident of our cisnormative society. There are strong evolutionary, psychological and biological reasons for a correlation between femaleness and femininity and maleness and masculinity. Note, I am not saying that gender is biologically determined or that gender is biologically essential. What I am saying is that the two are closely correlated. It is isn’t arbitrary that most females are women and that most males are men. Outliers aside, I believe that, generally speaking, males are men and females are women.
 
One reason for why I insist that that is the case is because we still haven’t figured out a healthy and “natural” way of transitioning. Unlike being gay, that does not require hormone replacement, medication and surgery, transitioning is definitely not an easy or natural procedure. It is therefore not the case that some women just happen to be male and vice versa. Those males who are women have done so at great cost to their health, mental and physical. It can therefore not be regarded as the “natural” gender of their sex. I’d be happy to regard it as natural if transition would not involve so much mental and physical pain. In the meantime, I will insist that men and women are “naturally” divided into males and females respectively, acknowledging some outliers.
 
As an illustration of what I mean, polydactyly is the condition of being born with more than 10 fingers. According to Wikipedia 1 in every 500 births have this condition. Again, according to Wikipedia, 3 in 500 Americans are transgender. That means that being transgender is only 3 times as likely as having more than 10 fingers. And yet, no one (I hope!) would say that the statement “humans have 10 fingers” is false or uninclusive. We understand that we are talking about how people usually are. I’d say that we similarly need to understand that despite transgender people existing, it is still the case that we can talk about “women health issues” and “men health issues” and do not have to twist our tongues to deny that giving birth is something that women do. Again, that doesn’t mean that no man can do it, just that by the natural way of things it is something that women do and not men.
 
I’ll finish here for now. This should not be seen as some well-researched, flawless academic paper, but rather as a discussion starter with some considerations for certain positions. I am sure that there are some mistakes in this and I am happy to be corrected on them. Ultimately, no one ever discovers the truth all at once. It is a process of coming nearer and nearer to it, where on every step one discards some falsehoods that were there on the previous step. So please see this as me trying to make a step forward towards the truth, but by no means the last and final step.
 
People also say, “these are real lives you are talking about”. I know. That’s exactly why it is so important to talk about this. “Real lives” are equally affected when we don’t talk about things as when we do. Silence on the issue isn’t going to help these real lives, neither is bullying everyone into accepting a certain orthodoxy. I hope that I have shown nuance in this post and I sure hope that it is not meant personally because it was sure not intended as such. I am sure you disagree with me: please do so charitably and respectfully.

Autobiographical Talk at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London – 20th of March 2019

(Note: I took minor artistic licences in the telling of my story. As it was intended as story sharing with moral lessons, I did not put emphasis on some of the nuances and complexities in charedi beliefs. All of the details are correct, but for a more objective picture some nuances need to be taken into consideration) 

Tonight’s theme is “transitioning to one’s authentic self”. I am not sure what an “authentic self” is and I definitely haven’t found mine yet. But I can tell you about my transition: a transition from chassidic yeshiva boy, to secular university student.

My name is Izzy Posen. I am a second year physics and philosophy student at the University of Bristol and the founder and president of the Bristol Free Speech Society. As you can probably tell from the fact that I am speaking at a Liberal synagogue, I am not a chassidic ultra-orthodox Jew. But that is exactly how I spent the first twenty years of my life. How did I get here? Following is the story of my transition.

I grew up in the chassidic ultra-orthodox community of Stamford Hill, East London in a family of rabbis and Torah-scholars. My parents raised me to be a God-fearing Jew and hoped that I would go in the paths of my dad, grandad and many of my uncles and cousins to be a Torah scholar.

My community led a life insulated from the outside world, trying to guard themselves and their children from outside influences, considered profane and immoral. We spoke only Yiddish and read only Yiddish books published by fellow ultra-orthodox Jews. The themes were all about the righteous and the God-fearing. Not much general knowledge, history, or science made it in there. We had no access to TV, films, radio, or newspapers. The world was corrupt and we preferred to know about it as little as possible.

Instead of primary school, we attended Cheider. Cheider was like school, except that there was no secular education and corporal punishment was used to discipline us kids – oh, and my cheider was also illegal.

I didn’t like cheider. Not the hours of sitting and studying texts and not the constant hitting and abuse. When I would come home crying, my dad would tell me that he went through the same. ‘It is normal,’ I thought to myself. ‘This is just what childhood is meant to look like.’ I couldn’t wait for the day that I would no longer be a child and the big adults would no longer be able to abuse me. But I knew that I wouldn’t let the same happen to my own children.

When I turned thirteen I had my barmitzvah. From then on I was considered an adult and was going to devote every second of my day to the service of God and to the study of His Torah. Indeed, I started yeshiva, where I spent fourteen hour days studying Talmud and Jewish Law. But that wasn’t enough for me.

I wanted to learn about some of the things that weren’t in the Talmud. I wanted to know why rainbows form, why birds fly, why the world goes round. I was told that the answers to all of these questions are contained in the Talmud and that if I study hard enough they’ll be revealed to me. I did. They weren’t.

I had other questions as well. Forbidden questions. Why does the rest of the world think differently to us? How do we know that our way of thinking is right and their’s wrong? These were scary questions. Heretical questions. I didn’t dare ask them. But they bothered me.

As I grew older I grew more bold in the questions that I’d ask and in my quest for forbidden knowledge. I got hold of a dictionary and some English books and started teaching myself the language. Seeing my quest and thirst, my mom bought me some science books to read. Before giving them to me she’d kosher them by censoring out all heretical words, such as, ‘evolution’, ‘the big bang’, or any number greater than 6000.

When I was 18 I left home for yeshiva up North in Gateshead. Away from the pressures of my parents and my community, I started frequenting the library to quench my thirst in philosophy, theology and science. In yeshiva I also discovered the internet, which opened up for me a world and wealth of information. My faith didn’t last long.

It soon became evident to me that the Torah was a man-made document and did not miraculously appear on a mountain, that the Talmud did most likely not contain all scientific truths and that Ultra-orthodox Jews do not have a unique claim to religious truth. I knew that I wanted to go to university and I started planning my next steps. I was still in yeshiva when I stopped practicing orthodox Judaism.

An organisation called Mavar helped me integrate in secular society and catch up on my education. Working during the day to support myself, I did my studies in the evening. I did some GCSEs in my first year after leaving and a foundation course in maths and physics in the second year. In the third year I was studying physics and philosophy at the University of Bristol.

My family and community had rejected me as soon as I left and three and a half years later I am still not in touch with my grandparents, my dozens of uncles and aunts, hundreds of cousins and eight of my siblings.

Transitioning to secular society is a little like being an immigrant in your own country. I had to learn the language and cultural norms. But in addition to that, I discovered fifty percent of the population whom I knew nothing about: women. It took me a while to get the hang of modern dating culture. Last summer, three years after I left, I met my girlfriend. We’ve been together since.

My journey has taught me never to leave societal views unquestioned. The thing about frameworks of knowledge is that when you are in it, it is very difficult to see whether it is right or wrong. Growing up there was nothing more certain to me than the truth and rightfulness of my way of life. This is still the case for my former community members. They cannot see that what they believe in may not be true and right because they are on the inside. It is only from the outside of a framework that one can see how well it does or does not fit in with reality.

We all have frameworks of knowledge and morality. It may be our belief in science, in democracy, in justice. There is nothing wrong with having a framework. But my experiences have taught me that every now and then it is worth dipping out of the framework for a brief moment to examine it from the outside. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat self-sceptical. We shouldn’t be afraid to be somewhat irreverent, somewhat sacrilegious and to question our own sacred cows.

Each and every one of us has some mistaken beliefs and we can never hope to be right about everything. What we can do though, is try to be less wrong. We can try to have as few false beliefs as possible. How do we achieve that? One way is to broaden our horizons, by meeting different people with different beliefs and values. This helps us to put our own beliefs in perspective and to perhaps come across different and better alternatives.

To this end I have founded the Bristol Free Speech Society at my university. We come together weekly to discuss a wide range of topics and to question our frameworks and entrenched beliefs. This, for me, is the ultimate heresy. It is not about the rejection of God, or religion, but about a general openness to challenge one’s own beliefs and to be sceptical of one’s societal frameworks.   

In my journeys I also discovered the Jewish people. This may sound paradoxical, given that I left a Jewish community to secularise. But the community of my upbringing didn’t see themselves as part of a larger community of Am Yisrael. They excluded based on practice, beliefs and lineage. For them being Jewish was synonymous with being ultra-orthodox. It is only after leaving that I have discovered my people. My lovely, diverse and vibrant people. Jews of all beliefs and practices, of all shapes and colours and of all walks of life. I am proud to be part of the Jewish people. I am a Jew. A secular Jew.

 

The Deaf and the Mute

Adam B. had some strongly held beliefs. He held them so strongly that he was convinced that he arrived at them by entirely rational means. Not that he thought a lot about how he arrived at these beliefs. But with every fibre of his body he knew that they were true.

Adam has a rival, Becca C. He knew that she disagrees with him strongly because he sees her get angry when he expresses his beliefs. But her views are irrational. They must be, since his are right. Becca would disagree, but Adam feels the rightness of his ideas in his body. He doesn’t feel Becca’s disagreement.

Adam knows that Becca has passions too. And he knows that when Becca seems angry, that’s because she is feeling something on the inside. But all of this is what Adam knows. He doesn’t feel it. His beliefs, however, he feels – with a burning passion.

Adam doesn’t just know that Becca is wrong. He experiences it. He cannot negate his own experiences. If Becca could talk, she would tell Adam about the experiences of her own. But Adam is deaf and Becca is mute.

Adam is angry at Becca, for she denies his own experiences. He is also scared of her, as her denial is contagious. With her very existence she makes him question his experiences. If his experienced truth is unreliable, then what is? It’s a scary thought. Adam therefore avoids Becca. Even just being reminded of her throws him into existential dread.

Adam doesn’t disagree with Becca; he lives a different kind of existence. And his existence denies hers and hers his. They cannot coexist.

Becca is not wrong. She is evil.

My World: A Tour

Welcome to my world, the space wherein I reside. It is a profoundly lonely place, although neighbouring it are many other worlds, as access is limited to me alone. In my world there is only one thing that matters and that is my own interests. However, surprisingly often those coincide with the needs of other worlds.

My world is a stormy and tumultuous place. Here battles, revolutions and natural disasters are common occurrences. There are no constitutions, base values, or core beliefs, although there are underlying persistent currents of zeitgeist which seem to evolve more slowly.

So let me take you on a tour around the perimeters of my world. I cannot let you in, but you may get a glimpse from the outside.

If you asked me what my prime goal and motivation in life is I would tell you that it is to discover as much of the general and universal truths as I can. This does seem somewhat consistent with what I have been doing over most of my mature life, however I do not know to what extent it is a fundamental driver, rather than a rationalisation of some deeper subconscious need.

This is especially a problem given that I do not even believe in the search for truth as a worthy ultimate goal. I do not believe that anything other than the pursuit after positive subjective experiences is worthy of being a primary motivation, although I do think that the most efficient way to achieve this primary objective is to focus on secondary ones. Thus, if I want to be happy and discovery makes me happy, I will get to my primary goal by focusing on a secondary objective, namely on discovery.

But what if I have gone astray and am worshiping a secondary goal like an idol instead of my true God, the primary goal? What if by my stubborn adherence to a specific secondary goal I am being blinded to more obvious and efficient ways to achieve happiness from which I am prejudicially closing myself off? Perhaps if I was not so insistent that it is discovery that needs to make me happy I would find happiness and fulfillment through some other easier route?

Mill commits this fallacy when he proves the superiority of man over beast or of the clever over the simple by appealing to the former’s refusal to turn into the latter even on reward of achieving greater happiness. The oversight here is that this refusal is irrational and stems from secondary-goal-worship. If achieving happiness is the ultimate goal, then being human is only advantageous insofar as it can form a secondary objective leading to the primary one. But choosing that over a direct route to the primary goal is confusing the means for the end.

Admitting that our ultimate goal in life is our own happiness may not be socially admirable, nor productive towards that very end, but as far back as in Plato compelling arguments are put forward arguing that no other ultimate goal is rational. The most that can be done whilst maintaining some sort of rationality is to extend that ultimate goal to other sentient beings too. Instead of one’s own happiness, one can strive for the impartial maximization of utility. This maxim may not be provable, but I think that it is defensible.

Besides for the discovery of general truths, forming relationships also makes me feel happy and content. They give meaning to my life. However, unlike the former, it happens through passive as well as active participation, which is why intellectual growth is my major explicit focus even though forming relationships is no less important.

In my world intellectualisation is prominent, but oftentimes I wonder how much my life choices are actually due to rational considerations, rather than to primal, psychological drives. I claim to be rational and I try to be rational, but I do not know to what extent I am successful. At least I am open to self-criticism and introspection, as I am aware that deeply ingrained beliefs must also be justifiable.

Sometimes when it comes to my very fundamental beliefs and core values it can be very painful to have them critically examined, as it feels like the rest of my epistemological edifice will crumble should they be shaken, but I never use that as a conscious excuse not to question them, although I suspect that there may be subconscious layers of defense surrounding them as a means of survival.

Talking of epistemological edifices, Hume discusses two kinds of philosophies. He talks about the common-sense philosopher who never ventures out too far in her arguments, maintaining close proximity to common-sense reality. She will address issues piecemeal and expand on them individually, so that all of her ideas are both self-contained and not too far from accepted reality. The second kind of philosopher, the one he calls ‘profound’, is the analytic one, who attempts to bring all knowledge into one coherent system of truths, each member of the system being consistent with the rest.

In order to achieve this the analytic philosopher must divert from common sense and give new meanings and interpretations to everyday objects of language and experience. But this comes with an inherent danger. Not only can one false assumption or premise lead the whole endeavor astray, but when that happens the philosopher has lost touch with common sense altogether, so that he is left wrong in a much more profound way than the common-sense philosopher can ever be. So whilst the common-sense philosopher does not come up with any profound revolutionary changes in thought, she also has less chance of going astray.

When I say this I think of Peter Singer. His profound analytical approach to ethics led to two famous positions, one which he is applauded for and the other which brought him much hate. His very utilitarian ethics that caused him to be a champion for animal rights is also what led him to do away with the idea of the sanctity of human life and to see infant euthanasia as the right course of action in certain circumstances.

The common-sense moralist would not come up with either of these principles, as they are not rooted in our evolutionarily inspired values. Singer however discovers profound principles, which if right are revolutionary and progressive, but if wrong have profound negative implications.

In my personal life I have followed Singer’s approach, basing far reaching and irreversible life choices on the basis of introducing consistency to my beliefs, even at the expense of deviating from common sense. As I know that my personal epistemology is nowhere near consistent and that the significant holes in it may lead to an overturning of my current beliefs, I am not sure what justified my moves. I guess that I have been moving up over gradations of coherence and that the state of my current belief system is so much more coherent than what it was that – even though it is not perfected yet – a move away from my old epistemology in favour of the new one was justified. Perhaps it is analogous to moving from an Aristotelian mechanics to a Newtonian one even if ultimately it is the Einsteinian mechanics that is true.

This leads me to an interesting thought that perhaps a Popperian approach should be taken to epistemology as well as to science. Perhaps the perfect epistemology is unobtainable and instead it is discarding the more mistaken one in favour of the less mistaken one that is how epistemology progresses.

In my world there are many beliefs. They are of two kinds: empirical and logical. For my empirical beliefs I try to rely on others, usually experts, to inform me about them. This is a difficult task, as whom to regard as an expert is in itself an empirical question. I therefore have very little certainty in many empirical questions, especially those around which there is lots of controversy amongst experts themselves. This reality leaves me with lots of room for skepticism, which can be very annoying when everyone around you seems certain and passionate about certain issues.

For the logical issues I usually form my own opinions, although they are always informed and influenced by the thinkers that inspire me. The meta-epistemology of how I can be reliant on my own opinions continually haunts me. Even to rely on others is to rely on your own judgment of their reliability, meaning that it is ultimately you who determines what kids of beliefs you will have. I do not know how we are justified in forming any beliefs in matters of controversy, unless we have the arrogance to consider our own conclusions superior. As with the empirical beliefs, this conundrum leaves me with much room for skepticism and caution. It can be very annoying, but I think that overall it results in much tranquility and moderation. The Pyrrhonians already claimed that this was the case.

In terms of  conviction my beliefs lie on two axes: the passion axis and certainty axis. Although there is some correlation between passion and certainty, the axes largely retain independence from each other. Thus some of my beliefs with high levels of certainty have very low levels of passion and vice versa.

The factors that determine the certainty are mainly epistemological, whereas passion is impacted by psychological as well as sociological factors. If a certain belief has become the hallmark of a group with whom I have fundamental disagreements I often find it hard to join them in passion, even though I agree with them on that issue. For example, I share many of the core beliefs of the social justice movement, and yet I find it hard to express passion regarding those, since I abhor the philosophy and methods of this movement, specifically in their dogmatism and intolerance. This kind of sentiment is what is meant by identity politics. I play it even though I do not like it.

In my world it is the method of arrival at a certain belief that matters far more than the belief itself. I will often side with those who disagree with me against those who share my beliefs if I think that the former’s methods are purer. As an example, on utilitarian grounds I do not regard abortion as morally problematic, and yet I think that the argument against abortion made from seeing the fetus as a potential being is stronger than the fallacious claim sloganised as ‘my body my choice’. One may argue that the reason for why I feel more passionate about the theoretical, rather than the practical, aspects of this argument is because I do not have a stake in the matter. This is a reasonable argument. I am describing here how I do feel, not how I ought to feel.

This uneven distribution of passion often results in people misunderstanding my position, as they take my passion as proportionately representative of my beliefs, when in reality this is not the case, as I have just described. Another source of misunderstanding is when I defend someone’s right to an opinion and it is mistaken for an endorsement of that opinion. I can without contradiction fight for someone’s right to talk and when that right is granted them personally protest their position, believing that it is wrong. I would protest outside a holocaust-denying conference after campaigning to have them be allowed to hold it.

In my world there is always something going on. At any given moment there is some questions that preoccupy my mind and that I – perhaps unhealthily – obsess over. I want to share these newsbits as they occur and I intend to do so in the form of occasional blog posts. In this tour I have described some of my core beliefs and  my general thought structures. They may change, but for now a lot about how I think and see things is given here. My world is one amongst many, but it is unique – as unique as your world is. There may be similarities between our worlds, but that does not diminish from their uniqueness, as my world is exclusively mine and yours is exclusively yours. I like my world. I hope you like yours.