SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - Another Way Besides Obey
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
Otto Maurer, 1884
Some circumstances unleash buried human traits faster than others.
When the direction of everyday life became dependent on the announcements of experts, society shifted its weight onto a nerve we’d comfortably forgotten: authority bias. For a country born of defying authority, the U.S. has become a petri dish for understanding the social-cognitive bias that makes humans more easily swayed by anything if it comes from what seems like an authority.
While culture mitigates the impact of authority bias, every human is vulnerable to it because every human evolved within the same hierarchal systems. Hundreds of thousands of years are placed on the side of the evolutionary scale that sees obeying authority as a matter of survival.
We still fall for commercials with actors dressed as experts praising products, but authority as an overbearing presence in our lives has shrunk since the era of kings and clergy.
A novel culture sprang up that didn’t tolerate when the aristocrat spat on the shoemaker. We’ve so deeply internalized the cultural view on equality that the idea of a distinction between the social standing of a teacher and doctor seems alien.
Undoing the overt social divisions in our society didn’t undo the human tendency to uncritically obey authority. Instead, social equality tricked us into believing blind obedience is an error of the past rather than an ever-present problem.
Nine out of ten doctors are a marketing invention created to trigger the human tendency to trust what appears authoritative.
Rebellion is rare, independence is unusual; you’re far more likely to call the sky green if 10 other people around you tell you they see a green sky than you’d like to believe.
The history of researching human psychology is all the inspiration for the genre of horror any artist needs. Solomon Asch conducted a famous experiment on conformity that proves self-deception is a low price for acceptance.
Asch constructed an experiment that showed a group of 8 people two cards—one with a single line, another with three lines, one of which clearly matched the length of the line on the opposite card. The experiment’s objective was to find what it took to coax a person into disbelieving their own eyes.
The results? Not much. The pressure of being the only person to hold a different view—even on something as trivial as the length of a line—was enough to push over half of participants (59%) to give the wrong, but popular answer at least once throughout the 12 rounds of the experiment. The control group that placed no group pressure on participants had an incorrect answer rate of 1%.
Asch spoke on the results of his 1950s conformity experiment with a line that remains as prescient as the instinct to conform does:
That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.
Asch’s experiment reminds us that adults are just as susceptible to the peer pressure we knowingly warn our teenagers about. If humans will readily say that up is down to avoid standing alone, what can we expect of our independence when standing alone requires defying authority?
Stanley Milgram’s surname has become synonymous with one of the darkest research findings in his field of social psychology. You probably already know this experiment: it’s the reality we conveniently forget when life gets comfortable, like that unpleasant memory that only breaks through your inner monologue in the few minutes of stillness before sleep.
The infamous Milgram experiment is the science behind Hannah Arendt’s disturbing theory on the banality of evil. The historical atrocities that seem to belong to another world entirely weren’t enacted by demons escaped from hell, but by everyday people in a destructive system.
The Milgram experiment reveals the nature of most humans, which is no strong nature at all. It’s in neutrality that you’re most able to be the you that you think you are.
A little pressure from above and you’ll fall in line with the very thing you condemned yesterday.
The experiment required a person to electrically shock a participant in another room for getting an answer wrong; each wrong answer warranted a more powerful shock. With the researcher present to encourage subjects each time they doubted the continued torture another person, the experiment tested whether a person will do wrong if an authority calls it right.
Unlike a lot of experiments, Milgram’s has a cinematic, story-like quality that makes it all the more disturbing. Despite hearing demands to be released from the experiment, 65% of participants trusted authority and ignored the screams of the person they continued to shock.
We fear murder and malice, but the most dangerous and prevalent threat is also the most mundane: compliance.
Milgram found that the horrors we remember most throughout history weren’t committed by monstrous humans, but average humans.
A variation of this study shows how influenced the average human is by the mere appearance of authority. When the researchers switched their lab coats for regular clothes, participant obedience dropped from over half to 20%. The symbol of authority is enough to subdue an individual into deferring their autonomy and morality to another.
Milgram named a list of factors that coax people into abandoning reason at the request of authority: simple politeness, getting caught up in the technicalities of the task and missing the moral dilemma, the inability to turn back after taking a path that turns out to be flawed, and the belief that their actions contributed to a greater good.
The experiment found an even more specific justification for harming others at the request of authority: science. The everyday people in Milgram’s experiment weren’t just motivated by the desire to appease authority, but by the sense that they were supporting science. Following the science can lead you down a dark path without vigilance.
Speaking on his experiment’s results, Milgram said:
Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.
We aren’t the rational, scientific, objective beings we’ve convinced ourselves we are.
Are the stubborn, emotional arguments we have in the name of ideas just an overcompensation to obscure our embarrassing animalistic nature? We refuse to see how much we have in common with cows and bees, but it’s our denial that robs us of the most uniquely human trait we can have: self awareness.
To know the animal we are is to give ourselves a chance to choose something other than instinct.
Humans are well-built for belief. Lacking belief can be as clear an indication of trouble in some humans as a fever. Yet, belief is often the easier choice. Belief feels like the firm, protective hand of a parent who holds all the answers.
Most people are concerned with what to believe, but some of the most important people in human history were more concerned with what not to believe. Pure lack of belief isn’t synonymous with scrutinizing what one believes. Believing in nothing can leave you in a nihilistic pit with no tools for escape. Believing in only what you’ve carefully examined can lead you to reality-changing discoveries.
The history of not knowing is a far longer and possibly far more interesting one than the history of knowing.
Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds, 1936, Salvador Dali
Like freedom and rights, skepticism is a word that’s given us so much we now only coast on the technical understanding, with no deeper relationship beneath.
In a time when far less was understood about far more, skepticism as a mode of understanding grew in both Ancient India and Greece. Questions about what can be known and how something can be claimed to be known are at the heart of world-changing inventions like philosophy and science.
If materialized into the present moment, the philosophers of Ancient Greece might look like slightly better-groomed homeless people, but they’d scoff at us for today’s peasant-like dogmatism and intellectual laziness.
The emphasis some philosophers placed upon the unknown and unknowable made them more interesting, curious, and impactful than our modern scholars with the world’s infinite knowledge only clicks away.
Socrates was famous for insisting on his own ignorance and another philosopher, Cratylus, eschewed verbal communication altogether in protest of how ever-changing meanings made discussion ineffective. Pyrrho of Elis forged his own school of skepticism, arguing that mental clarity and stillness were obtained by letting go of the compulsion for judgment. If you’re catching a hint of Buddhist rhetoric in that approach to skepticism, you’re on track—Ancient India’s history with skepticism influenced Buddhism.
The way philosophical skepticism dovetails with early Buddhism’s questioning of reality should make us wonder whether our culture’s failure to preserve skepticism isn’t just an intellectual failure, but a spiritual one.
After the ancient inquiries we still study today came more heavy-hitters in the realm of skepticism, both for and against. Rene Descartes took issue with one ancient Greek flavor of skepticism that claimed nothing could truly be known. Descartes spent a lot of time and effort just trying to figure out not what’s true, but if solid truths even exist.
While Billie Eilish might’ve brought the concept to a new audience, “I think, therefore I am” is a famous phrase born of a great mind grappling with the deepest levels of skepticism.
From Descartes we go to Hume and from Hume we go to Kant and the list of historic thinkers who made both a science and art of questioning all things eventually leads us to today.
We sit atop the empire of knowledge gained by people with far fewer tools, far less freedom, and far less comfort, yet who felt compelled to question even their own existence in order to understand the world. What have we done with this legacy of curiosity, this inheritance of intellectual rigor?
Believe [insert vast concept]. Anti-[insert noun]. Crusades against [mis/dis]-information. Questions that carry penalties for escaping the mind. Unseen arbiters of truth that prove their arguments by including “fact” before the title “checker.”
I don’t see skeptics where they once were; not in the sciences, not in the arts, not in the spaces where transcendence is said to be sought.
We leech off a rich history while scoffing at the methods that brought us to where we are today.
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
This illness of affluence isn't terminal, though. The tools we used to obtain the discoveries that changed our world sit ready for any individual who wants to wield them. Socrates didn’t attend an ivy league school and Descartes didn’t have letters behind his name to use in lieu of support for his claims.
Skepticism is one of the most radical human tools because any person can access it at any moment they choose.
There are better thinkers who can give you a step-by-step manual to skepticism. Instead, I want to give you the spirit of skepticism.
I want you to know that questions are okay, questions are an art, and questions are a language. The skeptic sees a choice that most don’t: imposition versus inquiry.
The greatest, deepest, oldest questions have never been answered; that’s an accomplishment of skepticism, not a failure of intellect.
Everything we know has roots reaching to places we’ll likely never see. Everything we know eventually brushes up against what we don’t.
Questioning a belief doesn’t destroy it simply because it doesn’t yield an answer or yields a different answer. Instead, a belief examined is like a kaleidoscope, each question replacing blocks of assumptions with shimmers of nuance and reflections of mystery.
Judgment is for criminals and competitions, not for experience and inquiry. We become blind to everything around us we don’t understand and comfortable with how our lack of curiosity makes certainty come easily. What we love in kittens and kids is the shine of wonder in their gaze and the miniature adventures they undertake in what we believe was mundane.
You can find the adventure that you once felt in a blanket fort out in the wider world, but you learned to judge and know, and robbed yourself of wonder.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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