On a grey-skied, lightly rainy morning in the Autumn of 2016, I was taking the escalator down from the Inokashira Line in Shibuya, which runs above ground, to the Den-en-toshi Line subway. It's a common transfer, and I noticed those taking the same route as me further ahead on the crowded escalator were putting up their umbrellas for the short period in the drizzle between coverings over escalator and at subway entrance. The first stanza of Street Ecstasy occurred to me, and I worked through the ideas it contained for me over the following months to produce the piece below. A friend who I showed the draft to said the message it contains is simply "live", and I like that a lot. There are also some embellishments along the way that I feel make the journey worthwhile though, including a summary of Terence McKenna's stoned ape hypothesis that I'm particularly happy with. Also, the final point is serving me well during the cold of Tokyo's winter months this year.
A Paean to Perseverance
embrace of nature
we can feel
in this town.
Become more comfortable
in inclement climes,
reminded of the time
we were at one
with Mother Earth.
Our original birthright
is profuse supply
AND self reliance,
in equal measure.
we’ve been trained
to see one of each
of these dichotomies
its opposite as pleasure.
To take both together,
to stow away whatever
umbrella it is
is to invite communion
vitally more than human,
to become a sometime lover
of the capriciously passionate Pan.
Try as you might
in the midst of this
less than consensual union,
just a casual mind-fuck for Puck,
you can’t help
but be swept
back in time,
with the first
She went outside to pee,
awoken from dreams
by psychedelic spores
foraged earlier that day
from atop the turds
of ungulate herds.
Now she stares upwards
at a night of stars
“What are they?”
“What am I that observes?”
What are we
in out techno-logic-only,
when all joy
with any deeper meaning
is really the feeling
of being a part of,
a mind-bogglingly large
work of art,
each a song theme
in the universe symphony?
Could it be
that all we need to do
with first ecstasy
in the streets
of the cities
is to remove our shoes,
the ceaseless food supply
of ancient monkey situation,
casting off conditioning,
the traditional pain
of being an animal
by teeth’s skin.
that we’re suspended,
for which we care
by a thin string,
the weight-bearing ability
is a constantly keening
Be at ease
with your difficulties -
and nature’s unpredictabilities
other peoples’ vagaries too) -
not for a religion’s
that’re often really
an experientially rational
that states that
seeking comfort alone
is the path away
from the deepest
for a lowly primate
So miss a meal,
be too hot or cool,
to meet fruition,
impossible mission -
the barely bearable.
it’s fair to say,
my fellow apes,
that in fact
the way to hell
with metaphorical umbrellas,
9th January 2017
Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
Since the recent U.S. election, I’ve had nothing to say about politics, unless you count the Charles Mingus video that I posted on Facebook when the results came in (“…a day when burning sticks and crosses is not mere child’s play, but a madman in his most incandescent bloom, whose loveless soul is imperfection in its most lustrous groom…”). My silence was partly caution, wanting to wait to see which direction things would actually take before I committed to a viewpoint, but also everything that needed to be said was already being said, in abundance and with varying degrees of intensity. Eventually though, I realised that there was something I wanted to add which, to my knowledge, hadn’t been voiced yet.
Given the volume of discussion going on in this area, to make a point that hasn’t already been made necessitates considerable explanation, so I ask for your patience. Volume of discussion also tempers my expectations about what difference, if any, anything I have to say can make. But in the name of freedom of expression, here we go.
As liberally-minded people that want the world to move in the direction of greater personal freedom and tolerance, we can console ourselves with the thoughts that this latest U.S president didn’t actually win the popular vote and preyed on the ignorance of less educated people to get as far as he did. I think there’s something much deeper at work here though. The rise and exploitation of nationalistic sentiment in the UK, the election of the Philippine’s current president and the ongoing support Russia’s leader continues to enjoy, even the fundamentalism currently rearing its head in many of the world’s religions, are all signs of something more insidious at work.
Such institutional barriers to greater personal freedom of expression couldn’t come into existence without support. This is the crux of the matter. Who are the people that support limiting the freedoms of others, and why?
It is very easy for us, as those considering themselves well educated and on the right side of history’s longterm development, to dismiss those who disagree with us. Surely, being able to do what you want - marry who you want, do what you want to your body, hold whatever system of belief you want - is something we should all be in accordance with in a pluralistic society. Yes, self-examination and tolerance are required, but these are skills that can be developed. However, if we’re willing to take our own exhortations to learn compassion and self-reflection to heart, and truly try to see things from our opponents’ perspective, can we see a flaw in our own comportment? Is there something about us that they feel the need to stand up against with an increasingly zealous fervour? That would certainly appear to be the case.
Taking such an approach, I have found liberalism to be at the heart of something very wrong with our society, something rotting its core - and I say this as someone who identifies as liberal. Thanks to pop psychology, we’re all aware that it’s easier to see flaws in others than oneself. However, I want to question some fundamental and dearly-held assertions we hold about ourselves and our culture that may prove challenging to accept. I’m open to critique, but ask you to please keep as open a mind as possible, particularly if anything I say provokes an emotional reaction.
Let’s start with a few basic assertions. The cornerstone of equality is rationality, which comes from a scientific outlook. One can’t say Africans or Asians are less cultured than Europeans, women are less intelligent than men, or people with big foreheads are more likely to commit crimes, when there is no evidence to support it. If we were to decipher the language of dolphins and find them to be holding intelligible conversations, we would be honour-bound to fight for their right to be treated how they want to be in the global society, because of this new information. Inversely, one of the reasons many people support vegetarianism as more compassionate is because the evident lack of a nervous system would suggest that vegetables don’t feel the pain and consequent anguish that animals do. There is greater interest in animal rights than plant rights because of this. It’s all about the knowledge available to us through our enquiries.
The tool we use in the scientific method is our intellect. As a tool, the intellect parses. It shaves off untrue statements, through logic or experimentation, to arrive at the highest possible truth, then tests it out in still further situations to make sure it remains true even after that. The finished product has a level of objectivity unlike anything previous in human history.
Thanks to this rigorous process and the understandings it has granted us, many of our lives today are luxurious in comparison to those of earlier generations. We owe a lot to our intellects, but clearly they’re not a perfect tool. They use a lot of energy, for example, as any philosopher or person who’s been caught in a thought loop knows. Their focus tends to cut out our other intelligences - the socially awkward computer expert or emotionally detached scientist are modern archetypes that demonstrate this. Everything is black or white to our intellects too, yes or no. They can be notoriously unwilling to reexamine previously drawn conclusions and excessively overconfident in their objectivity, unable to recognise outside influence easily.
Hopefully the connection between increased focus on our intellects and the desire for social equality is clear here, their concurrent rise with science in modern history no coincidence. Our assignation of rights and freedoms should be based in objectively established fact rather than opinion.
Now here’s the problem. Our culture has become over-invested in intellect. What do I mean by that? I mean that the qualities and capacities that the intellect represents have become too highly valued and heavily emphasised in our society, at the expense of others.
Let me give you a perfect example: the modern education system. We stress the intellectual skills (even going as far as to call them “core” skills) at the expense of all others, regardless of the individual child’s capacity within and outside them, which leading experts all agree is the death of motivation and creativity. Schools are structured logically like factories, in year group batches, again regardless of ability, and tests are about how many and accurately facts are remembered. Children who can’t conform to this mental discipline-oriented system, rather than being treated with consideration, are given drugs to alter their behaviour. The whole system is about producing intellectual intelligence, regardless of the consequences.
The lack of emotional, social or moral education we receive as a result is clearly visible throughout society. Look at the way that many politicians and bankers have behaved in recent years, positions that only a couple of generations ago were considered the most reputable in our communities. Yet these groups of people can rationally justify their most hypocritical and self-serving actions to themselves and others completely straight-faced (along the lines of “Subprime mortgages weren’t illegal”). Doctors and their relationship with the pharmaceutical industry present a similar quandary, not to mention the relationship between our industries and the environment. There is something maladjusted about our behaviour in all of these realms of activity that reveals a serious imbalance in our intelligence - an excessive, unnatural disconnectedness.
The intellect’s desire for certainty in its truths has also gotten out of hand. Far be it from me to promote the view that wishing for something hard enough will make it manifest for you, but there has been a concerted effort on the part of science in general and particle physics in particular to ignore the mind-boggling conclusions of quantum mechanics and face up to the fact that consciousness could be playing an important role in the structure of the universe. The reason for this is that it would mean reconsidering one of the most fundamental principles of science, that everything is a product of matter (and how do you even begin to measure consciousness?). Qualified scientists who have expressed ideas exploring this possibility are ignored or openly mocked.
This rigidness against new paradigms is prevalent in all areas of academia. There is currently overwhelming evidence that an advanced civilisation existed before current recorded history began, and was wiped out by the onset of the last ice age. Excavations that could prove this are being ignored and sometimes actively blocked by established archaeological authorities unwilling to recognise the possibility and potentially having to revise their views.
There is a body of research, collected by a scientist who set out to disprove it, that reincarnation can occur. Russian scientists have done rigorous experiments into subtle energy, known traditionally as prana in India and chi in China, producing equations and devices that Western scientists refuse to look at. They’ve also found a treatment for asthma and sleep apnea with a very high success rate, and had proof of the benefits of fasting long before Western health experts were even investigating it. An Israeli man has spent eight days under video and medical surveillance without food or water, and left as healthy as he arrived - an Indian sadhu in similar conditions for 15 days. An Egyptian architect cured a Swiss town suffering from electromagnetic radiation poisoning simply by attaching geometric shapes to the radio tower that precipitated the problem. He can explain in rational terms how he did it. There is evidence to suggest that the human heart, rather than being solely for pumping blood, is a neglected electromagnetic sense organ.
I’m not saying that any one of these examples would hold up under extended scrutiny, though I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they would at least provide a challenge. But the point is that it’s not even considered worthwhile to take up such a challenge. As a society, we won’t consider that there could still be some truth hidden from us. We think we have already discovered the fundaments of how the universe works, and anything that suggests otherwise is necessarily false. This is the intellect in overdrive, scientific confirmation hardening into dogma. If the world won’t give it black and white, then the hyped-up intellect seems to have decided to make its own!
Finally, think about the drugs most prevalent in our lives. They’re not around because they’re the healthiest. Coffee, tobacco and refined sugar are all stimulants of the intellect. To relax, we drink alcohol, which provides a respite by shutting overexerted inhibitions down, sometimes with dire consequences. The legalisation of cannabis has been a huge step forward in this regard, it being a substance with low longterm health risks and an activator of a variety of different intelligences. Psychedelics, which are also harmless and broad-spectrum intelligence activators but require a more responsible approach, are almost completely at odds with intellectual activity. This is why our society unwarrantedly places them in the same category as deadly, addictive substances such as heroin, intentionally miseducating us about their nature.
It seems fair to conclude that, on many levels, the qualities and values of the intellect have taken over. Please don’t take this to mean that I think intellect doesn’t have any place in our society though. I’m trying to communicate about an overreach, not a need for eradication. As I said earlier, our system of social justice must be built on established fact. But in the diverse social realm as a whole, that’s about the limit of its applicability.
Let me give you an example. I’m not an atheist, but I fully support anybody’s choice to adopt that worldview if it benefits them. I recognise the history of atheism in religions such as Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita, before it could exist independently on the cosmological framework of science. However, there is a militant branch of atheism which has developed along with the overreaching of the intellect which holds that anyone choosing to believe in a god or gods is automatically perpetrating a wrong against humanity, that belief held without proof is essentially immoral. But morality needs to be judged by actions, not beliefs. Someone whose belief system makes them uncomfortable around gay people, for example, but who still behaves respectfully and even compassionately towards them, is a moral person. Someone whose beliefs are total neutral but who takes advantage of others at every opportunity is clearly immoral. I can believe anything I want, even something entirely illogical, as long as my behaviour reflects considerate norms. Some belief systems will make such behaviour easier for me, others harder, but which is which differs from person to person. For militant atheists to suggest that only their belief system (I choose that term because god hasn’t been scientifically defined or disproven yet) can lead to morality is a huge overstep on the part of intellectual activity. There are even some who suggest that we should start attaching social stigma to non-rational opinions, put rational elitism at the centre of our culture. Hopefully it can be seen that in the realm of morality, beyond “do unto others”, the values of rationalism have little meaning. (If you require any further proof of this, try coming up with a single, definitive moral statement that doesn’t require any qualification)
There is only minimal room for rational values in aesthetics too. Yes, there are theories of art, but these are derived from practice, and can only be used as a rough guide in the creative process itself. Our sense of beauty or intuition is what leads us in that world. To use music as an example, Bach had an intense interest in the formal theories surrounding the composition of fugues, submitting compositions to a society dedicated to demonstrating the value of such rules in art to the burgeoning sciences. But it’s his ingenious sense of lyricism that allows us to still appreciate his works of this type today, above those of other submissions with the same intent. More recently, Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique attempted to iron out any preference for any particular note with very stringent rules about order and repetition (notice the parallel with the desire for social equality). While his experiments were adopted as a powerful effect by other 20th Century composers, pieces composed solely with this method are rarely performed.
As an aside, to briefly give another example of the overreach of intellect, the effect it has on creativity in our society can be seen in our removal from it. We categorise ourselves into a binary of creative and uncreative people, as though creativity were not multifaceted and quantitative. The “most talented” are put on pedestals, lauded, compared and then mocked when they disappoint by revealing their flaws. In a word, objectified. It is easier, with the intellectual bias we have inherited, to have this seemingly objective, outsider relationship with creativity than to learn to trust our often irrational intuition.
Returning to look at the inappropriateness of applying intellect in certain areas, emotion is probably the most stark example, as these two behave so differently. A poor white person in a predominantly white country feels betrayed by their government. Perhaps there are also social factors at play, such as parental abandonment issues, but let’s assume that the feeling is justified. In comparison to a person of colour in the same circumstances, the caucasian objectively has an easier situation. But this is an intellectual interjection, and in no way invalidates the emotion that the caucasian is feeling. To expect them to change that emotion because of a fact is an imposition that doesn’t recognise how feelings actually work. Based on how this caucasian reacts to the information about the person of colour, we could speculate on their moral capacity - ideally it would lead through compassion to fraternity - but any attempt to invalidate the emotion only makes its expression more volatile.
I’d like to take a few sentences now to appreciate the irony involved here. I am communicating to you about the nature, overreach and limitations of the intellect, through the intellect! It’s the medium we use to formulate language and exchange ideas. Based on what I’ve written, you’re creating thought or imagination structures, accessing memories - however your individual mind processes information - thanks to the marvel that is the rational mind. What incredible power, that it can even reflect on its own workings!
The extent to which the intellect has power comes from our identification with it. Identification is a process of putting barriers in place that define who we are (in other words, what our awareness is attached to) and, by implication, who we are not. To define is also to exclude, which is useful and perfectly natural until the exclusion begins to impinge on the variety that any system needs to function. This is what we’re experiencing as a society at the moment. Our identification with the intellect at the expense of other intelligences, collectively and as individuals, is creating disharmony between us, and in our relationship with our environment.
To briefly explain identification further, when someone says “I’d die without my morning coffee”, we understand that this is somewhat hyperbolic. But the truth being expressed here is that without the stimulation that the caffeine provides, then the mindset that the individual has come to identify with isn’t available to them. They don’t feel like themselves. Increasing the stakes now, people willing to die for a cause are experiencing an amplified version of this. A state of being means so much to them that they would rather be dead than live without it. Identification has that level of importance to and power over us.
(A rough history of our identification with different aspects of ourselves can be seen in Carl Jung’s theory of the four stages of mankind - Primitive Man identifying purely with the currently largely subconscious intelligences for body processes, for example. His conclusion was that the next stage of our development is to evolve out of Modern Man’s intense “left brain” rational focus and into a consciously-maintained, holistic balance and flexibility. He saw that the intellect had become overused.)
So, here’s the point that all of this exploration of the intellect has been building up to. We are those in society that identify with the desire for equality (though of course morality and other areas are relevant and interest us too). Equality being based on a rationality informed by intellectual enquiry, it is vital for us to realise that to people not identified in the same way that we are that, in the social realm, to them, we are the representatives of the intellect!
Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
To fully understand this point (that, as proponents of social equality, we are seen as representatives of the overemphasised intellect), it is important to bear the recent history of our species in mind. We have undergone more change in the last one hundred years than any previous century (as per Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns), and as primates this inevitably means a certain amount of stress added to our lives. We are creatures of habit, denied the social stability that is natural to us. Our technological advancements, as well as allowing us to connect to an precedented degree, have also made us more aware of the global scale of human suffering. Regardless of whether the world is a better place or not, it is certainly a more tense and fearful one. Many of us, ill equipped to deal with these circumstances, seek scapegoats in various forms on which to blame our discomfort.
Now think about what a bully the intellect has become, what its overreach has done and continues to do to society, to our children, to the planet. To some people, resisting social equality - the most publicly visible application of the intellect - is synonymous with opposing what it is fair to say is among the most negative influences on our development today. They are heroes in their own stories, standing up against an evil enemy, and they’re not entirely unjustified!
To clarify, I’m not saying that any of this is our fault - the overreach is a cultural phenomenon, a consequence of industrialisation. What I’m trying to explain is why we encounter the resistance that we do to the perfectly reasonable propositions we make about how people should treat one another. It’s important that we understand how the defining aspect of our way of identifying is a figurehead for a genuine problem that all humans are facing.
I’m also not saying that this reasoning is conscious on the part of our opponents. Did we, as supporters of the application of intellect, consciously make the decision to over-apply it in the world? No, certainly not. That doesn’t mean we weren’t moved to contribute to it though, as a function of identification. Likewise, they resist from a subconscious, intuitive need to limit intellectuality. And to explain that to themselves or others would require an intellectualisation contrary to that urge which is driving them. They’re responding to emotion and intuition, which is why they can seem so nonsensical to us, appearing to almost revel in their irrationality. So we can’t expect this information to come from them - our medium of communication itself is offensive. (And, to be fair and balanced, this is an intellect-specific analysis of a problem that’s being experienced across all intelligences and their means of communication. I look forward to experiencing the kinaesthetic-oriented interpretive dance version some day!)
And I’m definitely not trying to justify any violations of personal liberty, especially acts of violence, committed by those people opposing equality. Immoral behaviour is still exactly that.
What I’m proposing is that there are fundamental subconscious energies and interactions at work on all of us that we haven’t been paying attention to. Think of it like the fictitious (yet entirely credible) science of psychohistory, which forms the basis of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The idea is that there are rules which govern how societies develop, fractal system of checks and balances that are invisible to individuals in their private workings but both grow out of and influence them. Our society has swung too far in one direction, so a contrary force has arisen to oppose it. Or imagine an ecosystem. What happens when one species is able to multiply beyond the environment’s capacity to sustain it? There’s an aggressive compensating factor, a famine or disease, to bring back balance.
An advantage to these perfectly feasible, rational ways of seeing the current situation is that they allow us to go beyond the feeling that our opponents are attacking us personally (as those who identify with the intellect, we can experienced an insult to it as an insult to us). Seeing through that, we can make dispassionate, compassionate and - most importantly - balanced choices about what to do next. First though, before we do that, let’s take a look at how this picture of a natural and necessary counter-intellectual movement as I have described it fits with the facts of the situation. As a basic summary of counter-progressive conservatism internationally, it’s not at all unfair to say that its most active proponents are those living in rural and less diverse areas, where the objectivity of intellect plays a less important role in day-to-day interactions, because people are far more similar to each other. Generally, they’re older too, which means they’re more likely to have a point of comparison for less intellectually driven times (I’m only 39 and see a big difference between the milieu I was educated in and the still further increased stress on today’s high school students). Age would also account for an adaptation later in life to technological advancements, particularly the internet. The joys, challenges and distractions of technology are ideal for becoming increasingly identified with the intellect. The same is true of identifying with a minority group, whether racial, sexual or gender, because functioning effectively within such groups requires self-analysis. Counter-progressive conservatives rarely self-identify with minorities. And finally, they are usually not in professions that require a high level of intellectual acuity. Please remember, this is not a comment on intelligence, which is necessarily diverse (a farmer can be as intelligent about crops as a lawyer is about law). The only point to take away from all of these observations is that conservative people are less likely to be strongly identified with their intellects. It plays a less important role in their lives and sense of identity than it does in ours, which is not only natural but also positive given the need to lessen the intellect’s role. This is also exactly the demographic where one would expect a pushback against intellect’s overreach to arise - in those least invested in it, most likely to feel its excessive impingement on their lives, even if they’re unable to articulate what it is.
I’d like to focus on the most recent U.S. election as an apotheosis of the counter-intellectual movement. This is because of the United States’ role as the most internationally influential nation, but also because this president’s victory was a wake-up call of the most palpable kind. We aren’t surprised at the continuing support for the Russian leader. The Brexit leave vote and the Philippine’s choice of leader are unfortunate occurrences that could indicate a trend. But when someone with the character traits of the current U.S. president is voted into office, with open pride on the part of no small percentage of the population, it is nothing short of a paradigm shift (let’s just take a second to sit with the idea that what we’ve been feeling since the election is the completely justified shock of a new paradigm coming into existence). It borders on the inconceivable, at least for those of us oriented intellectually (and perhaps it’s possible to understand the jubilation of those oriented otherwise somewhat more now).
It is difficult to imagine someone who embodies the antithesis of intellect more fully than the U.S. president. He makes up facts and gives flimsy or no justification. His emotions rule his responses in argument. His focus is on surface image rather than depth of analysis, and his proposed solutions to problems are a reflection of this. Like the Russian and Philippine leaders, he identifies with the masculinity of his body over any abstract conceptual quality. And he’s entirely self-interested, incapable of objectivity. Could a more suitable figurehead for a movement against the intellect be found? He is our mirror image on the opposite side of the equation, our Other made incarnate.
During his campaign, there are countless examples of his supporters giving up intellectual rigour of any kind. Tautology abounds, contradiction is irrelevant. It’s clearly documented that the appeal of his speeches is how they make people feel, how they confirm the feelings that the listeners have. To give credit where credit is due, as is the case for the lead speaker at a protest march, it takes skill to externalise the emotions of large crowds, though note that it’s not a particularly intellectual skill.
There was also no concern for control or consistency - intellectual considerations - during the campaign. When the basest emotions saw expression in hate speech or violence, they were neither officially praised or disavowed. Let’s be fair though, supporters of the now-president range from the openly nazi to the morally well-intentioned, which is another important point. They are not united under any one ideology or vision other than wanting some unnamed thing to change (that I am positing here is the overreach of intellect). This can also be seen in the way that the opposition candidate was targeted. An adequate mainstream politician, her orthodoxy and intellectual capacity were used against her by weaving a web of potential conspiracies - some ridiculous - meant to reveal a conniving intelligence. She was scapegoated as an example of the hypocrisy of the intellect, to people averse to deeper analysis anyway.
To talk briefly about the administration as it stands now, it is painfully clear that intellectual intelligence is playing a minimal role. From the beginning, clarity of intention has been lacking. It’s uncertain whether they’re idiots or evil masterminds. Appointees for cabinet positions are mystifying, not because of conservative views that candidates hold but because of their often complete lack of knowledge in a field they would ideally be leaders in. The birth of the term “alternate fact” and the overriding of evidence by the president’s “deeply held beliefs” give a taste of the disdain in which intellect is held, the overall effect being an eroding of the very medium of intellectual communication itself, the meaning of language. Perhaps the perfect metaphor for this, though, is his refusal to accept official daily intelligence reports.
Hopefully this is enough evidence to encourage you to at least consider the possibility that we’re dealing with a subconscious, society-wide, natural aversion to the intellectual intelligence, in response to its overemphasis. I do realise that this requires a leap of faith of sorts. There is no scientific proof that this is how things actually operate. I remind you of two things though. First, how you felt on first hearing of the current U.S. president’s victory. If you’re anything like me, a strong element of that feeling was disbelief that the world could work this way. Shockingly, it can. We are up against something outside our expectation and experience here, and can either bemoan the hardship of that or make it a precious opportunity to expand our conception of what’s possible. If there is any truth in what I’m proposing then that expansion of understanding means a vital, continuing acknowledgement of realities outside of what we consider normal, an acknowledgement and acceptance of the Other. That’s the challenge I believe is being presented to us here, and if we don’t embrace it we risk having a future totally outside of our influence being forced on us.
Secondly in an effort to convince, consider the idea that, if it was simply a matter of possessing the relevant information, the problem would already be solved (which I’ve tried to source, but the closest I could get was Einstein’s “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move towards higher levels” - close but not quite the point I want to make). We’ve had accurate data on the dangers that climate change poses to us, for example, for well over a two decades. Yet not only is change painfully slow due to multiple entrenched social factors, there is a movement to outright deny the facts. Information alone isn’t working. The application of intellect to the world, which, in the case of climate change among many other things, is what has precipitated the problem in the first place, is not where to look for the solution. A new approach is needed. Einstein, a huge proponent of multiple intelligences, certainly didn’t mean a more intense intellectual focus when he used the term “a new way of thinking”. Whether my overall explanation speaks to you or not, that the time has come to employ a different tactic should be obvious.
Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
So what, if anything, do we do about this counter-intellectual groundswell? Our liberal ideals are misunderstood by a significant part of the population as representative of an international malaise, which we didn’t consciously make and which, in fact, all people in the industrialised world have contributed to and indeed even benefitted from. While recognising how this is unfair for us, it’s also important to recognise that this has not happened without reason. On top of that, as those most self-reflective in society, we’re probably in the best position to actually do something about it. However, what we do must be very carefully considered. We risk deepening the association between us and the overreach of the intellect, which will only lead to greater opposition. This concern must be central to any action aiming for the heart of the problem.
First, we mustn’t stop standing up for ourselves, and others who are unable to do so for themselves. We are the guardians of something very precious, the idea that every human born, regardless of circumstance or social preferences, should have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. It is a concept opposed by many factors in the natural world. Now, in an unfriendly paradigm, is when the strength of this idea and the extent of our belief in it are tested (Alan Moore has proposed a “survival of the fittest” of concepts, of which this is a perfect example). We know, feel it in our bones, that social equality is the fundamental building block of any civilisation worthy of the name. This is the time to let people know that, be it with protest, social dissidence or simply in conversation.
It’s also important to stand up because, while we have a situation where a substantial part of the population would carelessly throw the proverbial baby of social equality out with the bathwater of intellectual overreach, there are those (especially in the current U.S. administration) for who there are far more focussed, sinister motives at work than in the general populace. These would seem to centre around returning power to its supposed rightful owners. The backlash against the overreach of the intellect has the potential to be used as a tool for the instituting of oligarchy on a previously unknown scale.
Be mindful though. How we protest, dissent and converse is of the utmost importance. For example, attacking with facts is the perfect way to increase our association with intellectual overreach (this is different from defending against false facts, where we need to ask for evidence until it’s produced or it’s obvious that there is none). If you’re writing a placard for a rally, put how you feel on it - an expression of solidarity or fear - rather than a statistic or clever policy refutation. Instead of talking about how a solution proposed by the administration won’t work because it’s illogical, phrase the impracticality in emotional terms. I don’t want to be too prescriptive beyond basic guidelines here, as embracing the intellect-disarming creative process and developing intuitive, personal solutions is the ideal. Suffice it to say that we should become experts at disarming the view of us as solely driven by rationality. (Perhaps our greatest weapons in this regard are humour and an outright embracing of the irrational - let’s add a sprinkling of self-deprecation and pure nonsense to our protests, an element of fun)
The distance it puts between us and intellectual overreach is why the protest at Standing Rock is such an important symbol of our resistance. It is the native people of America, whose belief system is pre-rational, who are standing up against the corporate system using non-logical reasoning (though there are logical reasons for resisting the DAPL too). By showing solidarity with those who believe in a literal conscious being called Mother Earth, we transcend representing only the intellect and open ourselves up to identification with a more holistic way of looking at the world of which we are a part. The same is true of the so-called Muslim Ban. That protests at airports were an occasion for displays of compassion, and that the emotional turmoil caused was the focus of our ire (rather than, say, the inappropriate use of power or diplomatic repercussions) is a sign that we’re on the right track.
As intellectually-oriented individuals, our instinct is to lead with that intelligence. We have to fight smart in a different sense though, by putting our other intelligences on public display, as genuinely as we can. We’re going to win this one with soft skills, not rational argument.
Secondly, we need to fight for longterm reform, particularly of the education system. The intellectual bias it currently reflects is the breeding ground for so many problems. That schools are usually run like businesses, and are therefore beholden to the overarching expectations of the corporate system as a whole, is the main obstacle. Parents can begin the change by putting the immediate emotional needs of their children first, above even longterm employability concerns (I’m aware that social pressure makes this easier said than done, bear in mind the unhealthy place that this pressure stems from though). The ongoing battle about the place of scientific fact versus religion in the classroom has to be replaced with making students aware of the difference between reason and belief, and the appropriate application of both, because neither is beyond negative influence.
A science and academia less dogmatic and more open to mystery would greatly influence the world to be less intellectual at the expense of other intelligences. As would politicians, CEOs, bankers and doctors open to looking at their respective worlds in alternative, more holistic ways. However, for the time being, society-wide reform depends largely on my third point.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult, we need to weed the intellectual biases out of our culture by noticing them in ourselves. I’m not suggesting we beat ourselves up over them, after all they were unconsciously ingrained in and may always be a part of us. But we need to shine the light of awareness on them, which is not an easy task.
The best place to start is with a recognition that there is such a thing as having a sense of intellectual privilege. Society is so heavily geared towards producing identification with the intellect that those of us who pass benchmarks recognising intellectual achievement (and you can guarantee that there are suitably complex systems of recognition!) are given a sense of self-worth that often outstrips actual practical applicability. Our opinions become worth more, we are entitled to be taken more seriously. This is why it has been so important for women and minority groups to be represented in such systems. But why is an intellectual response more important - worthy of recognition - than an emotional one, or an intuitive or physical one? Surely, this depends on overall context. Sometimes an intellectual response is downright inappropriate. Whenever intellectually validated people are judgemental, of others or themselves, for being non-rational, the dysfunctional overreach I have been talking about is perpetuated. Can any of us genuinely say that we don’t make such judgements? These are what we most need to be working on. (Personally, I believe that a great deal of the mental anguish that is currently effecting our society in the form of depression is a product of people’s criticalness of their own natural non-rational impulses)
Let me give you a couple of examples of the subtleness of intellectual privilege. The term ‘post-truth’ has gone as far in public acceptance as to be named the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016. Yet consider the bias that it reflects. The truth that it refers to, particularly as a part of the phrase ‘post-truth politics’, is intellectual truth. To return to my previous example of the poor caucasian feeling abandoned by their government - there’s truth in that feeling too, regardless of counterbalancing rational considerations. Dance and abstract art reflect truth when done well. The word that the Oxford Dictionary would’ve chosen to enshrine if we lived in a culture without intellectual privilege would be ‘post-fact’.
Secondly, one of the more comedically-intentioned jabs at the U.S. president has been the assertion that he cannot actually read. On the surface this is just a bit of hypothetical fun at the president’s expense, but consider this: What if a liberal candidate were running for election, with cogent policies and strong grassroots support, but couldn’t read? Perhaps because of a learning disorder, or origins in poverty. This candidate is honest about their illiteracy, can even joke about it, and is able to operate effectively regardless. Yes, we would be less likely to poke fun in this instance because of our liberal bias, and the honesty, but the point that I want to make is that there is no correlation between literacy and efficacy as a leader. The current U.S. president deserves ridicule because of his actions and insensitivity. To think that illiteracy, a basic intellectual achievement, is a damning factor, is an expression of intellectual privilege. There were effective, intelligent leaders long before written language.
You may be thinking that these examples are insignificant. But anyone who has suffered discrimination knows that it is in such micro-aggressions that systemic prejudice actually lies. Overt expressions of intolerance - burning crosses, gay and trans bashings - are easily labelled and condemned. It’s the looks given on public transport, unquestioned stereotypes coming up in conversation and portrayals (or lack thereof) in media that are the most insidious, and are the true expression of a society’s biases. We are quick to respond to expressions of racial, gender and sexual discrimination, but how we respond to the one that’s at the heart of our way of identifying is the real test of our mettle.
So like all senses of privilege, the intellectual one is subtle and subconscious. It takes work to even notice it. That’s what we have to aim to do though. But how? A mindfulness practice such as meditation or breathing exercise can be very helpful here. These aid in the noticing of judgemental tendencies by rendering the thought patterns more clear, a foot in the door that allows us to start asking why we have negative reactions. Responsible use of a psychedelic, with the intention of learning about oneself, can have powerful results. There is another way more widely accessible than these though, which also parallels my recommendations for how we protest publicly. We need to actively explore our non-rational intelligences. This could mean regularly dancing to favourite music, or taking up a musical instrument. It could mean exploring a family religious tradition, or taking up a new spiritual belief. Spending more time with loved ones and friends, getting to know them more intimately, counts too. I’ve personally benefitted a great deal from practicing improvised theatre, in which over-analysing is actually a handicap. Be creative in your choices and you’ll find yourself responding to desires long ignored. Anything which relaxes the hold that the qualities and values of the intellect have on us personally can be useful. Every non-rational impulse recognised as valid makes a contribution to the amelioration of society as a whole, and through the resulting contrast to the perception of social justice as more than just an extension of intellectual overreach.
Activities that challenge the supremacy of the intellect - which, for us, because of our identification with it, is essentially our conscious mind - are going to produce internal friction and resistance though. So don’t think this is an easy solution that I’m proposing. “This is stupid!”, “There’s no improvement!”, “What’s the point?” are all thoughts that actually show we’re heading in the right direction. This is what intellectual privilege being challenged on its home ground sounds like. Make the level of discomfort you feel the metric by which you judge how successfully an activity is working for you. There is no objective or plan, these being intellectual considerations. Learn to enjoy being out of control, or doing something just for its own sake. It is an internal activism that is required, in order to create equality between the intelligences (an idea expressed as Deep Democracy in Process Oriented Psychology).
To summarise, the obvious advantages of having a rational social equality at the heart of interactions in our pluralistic society has been overshadowed by the excessive application of the tool of rationality, the intellect. In a pluralistic culture without such an intelligence bias, social equality wouldn’t be a liberal cause, it would be common sense! As things are now though, it is impossible to force this eminently practical ideal. The majority has to be on board of its own volition.
The solution to this problem cannot come from the intellect, though it may play a part in the process, and recognising all of this in intellectual terms (the goal of this document) is helpful.
I’ve highlighted the strengths, weaknesses, functioning and enemies of the intellect here, but what this is really about is perfecting this particular intelligence. Rather than some abstract omnipotence as symbolised by Sherlock Holmes-type characters, what this really means is training the intellect to be able to recognise and accept intelligences outside of itself, and work with them harmoniously - to perfect itself by transcending itself. From the perspective of this article, it’s difficult to image a more worthy challenge for the intellectually-oriented individual.
In February of 2017, Eddie Izzard did a one-night-only performance in Tokyo. It was a stunning show, a serious demonstration of skill and imagination, and very entertaining.
At one point among all the mirth though, I was made to feel quite uncomfortable by Eddie's openly stated assumption that, as a room full of rational people, none of us would believe in God. As a rational person of faith who has struggled, searched and largely found the answers they were looking for, I felt alienated.
At best, Eddie was referring to the stereotypical depiction of God in Christianity, as a bearded old man who lives up among the clouds, which is undeniably irrational at this period in our history. At worst, it was attempted Atheist propagandism through peer pressure. I don't know what the truth is, and it doesn't really matter, but the situation inspired the words below as a response.
Defense Against Modern Belief Masquerading as Certainty
People say with such certainty that god is not real.
“Where was he when this disaster happened?”
“How could he allow children to die of cancer?”
“Does he ever actually answer prayers -
how could he even, when so many of them contradict one another?”
This thinking is predicated entirely
on the belief that only physical things exist.
If god does not have physical attributes, he cannot be real.
(That’s how the “he” sneaks in there too)
I’m not saying that I know for a fact
that some things aren’t dependent on matter for their existence.
I’m saying that no one knows one way or the other.
It’s as much an act of belief to say that only physical things exist
as to say that non-physical things can have their own independent existence.
We don’t know either way.
Think about ideas.
We are literally surrounded by the physical manifestations of ideas,
but where do they come from?
They could be generated by the brain,
or the brain (perhaps our whole organism) could be tuning in
to a non-physical dimension of concepts which we then apply to the world.
Either is a reasonable hypothesis given the evidence.
Please don’t fall back on Occam’s Razor.
Saying that physical reality alone existing
is the simplest explanation here
discounts a huge variety of experience,
from the spiritual, near death and supernatural
through to the daily awareness of our own consciousness,
the origin of which is still a mystery.
There’s nothing in Occam’s Razor about excluding relevant data,
and to say that anecdotal evidence is inadmissible
because there’s no physical proof
is to be caught in a tautology of the most dogmatic kind.
What if god is meaning?
What if every time someone experiences genuine meaning in their life,
or gets a little taste of it,
that’s them tuning in to an independently existing, timeless non-physical quality
that provides a particular perspective?
(I’m not referring to meaning here
as acquired knowledge of something in particular,
such as the definition of a word,
but as a personal, active insight into one’s part in a larger picture,
an emotionally experienced objectivity)
Q: “Where was god when that train derailed, killing everyone on board?”
A: “How much meaning did each person have in their life when they died?”
Q: “Where is god when children die from painful diseases?”
A: “What meaning are their parents and support network able to bring to their suffering for them?”
Where is the logical fallacy in this choice to see meaning as independently existing,
not as something of our own invention for the purpose of self-consolation?
There are also plenty of other such contenders for god
among non-physical experiences:
Beauty, truth, perfection, creativity, emptiness, self-awareness, unconditional love.
To believe in any of these as real independent of matter
is totally within the bounds of rationality.
Or what if god is experienced by tuning in to some…
that we find impossible to describe with language,
that is fundamentally at odds with the nature of our linear rational minds
to encapsulate in words
(perhaps because it expresses what appear to us to be contradictory qualities)?
I considered coining a term to use
for those of us who choose to believe
in non-physical reality - the “rationally faithful”, perhaps -
until I realised that this misses the point.
Anybody who commits to a position in either direction,
whether it’s that non-physical experiences have independent reality or not,
is engaged in an act of “rational faith”.
Any assertion of certitude here,
beyond what has actually been proven,
is a stepping outside of objectivity into belief.
To be clear, if you’re praying to a deity
to smite your approaching enemies like a giant Monty Python foot,
or to help a horse run faster so that you can win a bet,
you are not in touch with reality.
If someone is forcing their opinion
of what the physical characteristics or place of residence
of a deity are,
they are not in touch with reality.
Because one thing we can say with certainty
is that god does not participate in physical reality in the same way that we do,
and most certainly doesn’t acquiesce in any obvious way
to individuals’ personal desires and expectations.
So there are some things that we can say are not true.
Praying for the soul of a deceased loved one
to be looked after by an intelligent non-physical entity
entirely capable of responding to the request
is different though.
There is no reference to the material world here.
So while it is not based on established facts of how we know the universe to operate,
it is not contrary to rational possibility.
That’s a fact.
Objects can represent non-physical qualities and people can embody them.
Non-physical qualities can guide us in how to lead our lives
and, through us, they change the physical world.
The question is whether they are generated by matter
or are free-standing realities in their own right.
Unless you have decided to be impartial on the subject,
actively clearing yourself of biases and waiting for conclusive evidence,
or are genuinely indifferent,
then you are a person of faith.
To be specific to our culture at this time,
denying the possibility of god’s existence
is the exercising of a belief,
to which of course anyone is entitled, but which is still nevertheless a belief.
It should not be considered a forgone conclusion
that is spontaneously graspable by anybody with sufficient intelligence.
To automatically discriminate
against those who choose to believe in non-physical reality
without knowing anything else about them
is literally prejudice.