Wisdom is Truth that Lasts

“There is no need to know everything, to do everything, to see everything, to hear everything, to know everyone, to go everywhere. In fact, there is much truth in realizing that knowing less and doing less, and seeing less and hearing less, and so less all the way down the line, is perhaps the beginning of real wisdom.

-Matthew Kelty, “The Feast of St. Mary.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.

“It is a matter of cutting down the input, of controlling what you are subjected to, or creating a context. We desire minimal input, a quiet context, a controlled environment. That is the idea. Cut out the outer to increase the inner. More quiet than most want, less input than many can abide. More control of the environment than many opt for. Why? Because by nature, by temperament, by character, by grace, we are called to this[, the monastic lifestyle]. Maybe we are introverts…

The joy of the monk is no less than the joy of those who share what he has, for the monk knows that it is a gifts and gifts do not last unless shared. The monk is no capitalist who stakes out a claim in order to sell at a profit. No, he freely spends all he has as prodigally as the God who gave it all to him. The people he flees from are the people he carries in his heart, sings for, prays for, lives for, and is glad to meet.”

-Matthew Kelty, “The Call of Wild Geese.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.

Today, I find myself circling back to the work of Matthew Kelty. He was a Cistercian monk, who was a novice under Thomas Merton, and who – I just discovered – was also gay. In retrospect, I can see how some of his commentary might be formed by his being an openly gay man in a religious institution that has a complicated relationship with gayness.

I took a strange route to find him. When I was a teenager, I read David Morrell’s book, The Brotherhood of the Rose. David Morrell is perhaps best known for the creation of the character, of John Rambo, who later devolved into the jingoistic Cold and Drug War action hero/anti-hero. The Brotherhood of the Rose is a typical spy-thriller, but one of the characters has such difficulty with his feelings of guilt over being an assassin that he becomes a Cistercian monk. Monks were something I associated with medieval times. Do modern monks exist, and are they an anachronism?

Of course, monks still exist. Personally, I find them talking to issues that are central to all of our lives. What could be more central in a monk’s life than the fear of missing out that you have spent your entire life in a monastery and have missed whatever is going on outside of the monastery’s walls. One of his homilies, I cannot remember which, talks about how when you go out into the desert, you do not leave your demons behind. You bring them with you, and you have nothing else to do but spend your time with them. You’re going to end up snuggling with those demands and getting to know them real well, in ways that the person dealing with the day-to-day existence of putting food on the table does not have the opportunity to experience. Monks have a lot to teach us.

It’s also an impulse I share. I remember being asked once that if I admired the life so much, why didn’t I become a monk? Well, I didn’t have the faith for it. A monastery is like a psychedelic drug, all of which are based on set and setting. Joining a shared enterprise, dedicated to the spiritual life seems to be a singular joy that is, as Thomas Merton sometimes put it, like a candle in the world, giving it hope. I’m not able to give all, to give all of the prodigious benefits back, because at some level, I worry about the morrow.

“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

-Matthew 6:26

Very easy to say. Another matter entirely to live that way. This is why reading people like Matthew Kelty is so important. It reminds us that life is lived, right there, out on the end. You cannot hold anything back for the return trip because in the end, there is never a returning. Everything is transformed and everything we learn turns to meso-facts, things that were once true and are now no longer. Perhaps this is a good definition of wisdom, knowledge of truth that lasts, which we can only get to by putting the other kinds of knowledge aside.

Chartism & Skepticism

Chartism: …Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”

-David Perell, “Friday Finds (1/29/[21 sic])” Friday Finds. January 29, 2021.

David Perell references Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism as the origin of this idea. It’s interesting, but I think it is largely a false dichotomy. Obviously, data can help explain the world and help us to make better decisions. However, equally obviously, Sturgeon’s Law applies to data, just as it does to anything else, and a lot of data is crap. Or, it is worse than crap because it gives us confidence in ideas, decisions, etc. that we should not be confident in. However, there is a solution to this problem: philosophical skepticism.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds in that Stanford article of belief, justification, and so forth about skepticism. But, the main idea is that everything you know could be wrong. On one level, none of us knows enough to be completely wrong about anything. On another, you could say that we aren’t even wrong because we don’t even know what the basic framework of being right should be. It’s a bit confusing, but skepticism is easier to understand if you tackle it using a specific problem: the problem of induction, which was originally formulated by David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature in 1739 .

At base, the problem of induction is that our past experiences aren’t really predictive and don’t constitute knowledge. Take an easy example: will the sun rise tomorrow? It has risen all the previous days for billions of years, so it seems we could say that we know it will rise tomorrow too. However, we just know history. Something could change tomorrow. There could be some detail about stars that would make tomorrow’s reality different from our expectation.

In terms of Chartism, we have a lot of data points about the sun’s daily rising. We’ve been able to predict, successfully, the sun’s rise in the past. We may even have some ideas about star formation and other details that would inform our expectations. But do we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow? No, we don’t.

And once you are willing to question the sun’s rise, you’re on your way. Everything is up for grabs. You can still go about your day thinking certain things will happen. But, you also know that there’s uncertainty there that you were not aware of before. It is one of the principle problems of humanity that we believe that we know things that we don’t. With skepticism, we introduce a little intellectual humility, a quality that never hurt anyone.

The Illusion of Certainty

“Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness…

…Most people are not comfortable with the notion that knowledge can be authoritative, can call for decision and action, and yet be subject to constant revision, because they tend to think of knowledge as additive, not recognizing the necessity of reconfiguring in response to new information.”

Mary Catherine Bateson, ” 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?: The Illusion of Certainty.” Edge.org. 2014.

R.I.P., Mary Catherine Bateson.

Your Cup is Full

“We found that if you really want a new idea to come into your mind, you need to deliberately force yourself to stop thinking about the old one,” said co-author Marie Banich, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder.

“Once we’re done using that information to answer an email or address some problem, we need to let it go so it doesn’t clog up our mental resources to do the next thing,” he said.

-University of Colorado at Boulder, “How can you declutter your mind? New study offers clues.” EurekaAlert. December 17, 2020.

Reminds me of the classic story of scholar Tokusan going to see Zen master Ryotan and how he kept pouring tea into his glass after it was full to illustrate how what we already know is sometimes an impediment to learning something new.

One Question, Forty Answers

People want to believe in something, even if it is false. No one knows enough to be completely right (or wrong) about anything. But, how do we judge? If we think of truth as a continuum, where answers are more right and less right, or more wrong or less wrong, compared to other answers. Then, the one mistake that we all make is that we don’t look for enough answers.

We want the answer that is right enough for our needs. But, maybe what we really need is more answers, more points of comparison. With more facets of truth at our disposal, perhaps we will gain a fuller appreciation for the elements of truth that are in each answer. For even the wrongest answer has some truth to it.

So, a modest proposal. Find more answers. Use those to refine your questions. But, never be satisifed with just one answer. Answers are a dime a dozen. Get a quarter to fifty cents worth. It’s worth the expense.

Related: A Day in the Park.

Mary’s Room

“The questions raised by ‘Mary’s Room’ – including whether anything about experience transcends physical facts – remain some of the most perennial and unsettled in philosophy, even if Jackson himself actually reversed his position, concluding that the experience of colour vision does indeed correspond to a brain state, albeit one we don’t yet fully understand.”

—TED-Ed, “Mary’s Room.” Aeon. September 3, 2020.

Abdiel’s Party

“In my case, I found that my interest was most vividly caught by the meaning of the temptation-and-fall theme. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence. The end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a non-existent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are going to do any good in the world we have to leave childhood behind.”

-Phillip Pullman, “The Sound and the Story Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.” The Public Domain Review. December 11, 2019.

I read Milton’s Paradise Lost over two decades ago. And while I loved it, my interest was most vividly caught by the scene of Abdiel, a single voice among the infinite host of the rebelling angels, who rose up to answer Satan’s arguments, and stood alone against him:

"Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
Among innumerable false, unmov'd,
Unshak'n, unseduc'd, unterrifi'd
His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passd,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind
Superior, nor of violence fear'd aught;
And with retorted scorn his back he turn'd
On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom'd."

Everyone imagines that they would stand up, as Abdiel did, against the mob in the cause of what is right. Everyone wants to believe that they are, or could be, the guy who refused to join in the Nazi salute:

But, maybe there can be only one. Or, they are only few and far between. Like the appearance of a Buddha or a Bodhisatva living in limbo, trying to save everyone.

I like to imagine that Abdiel, in a scene not in Paradise Lost, arguing against God, his Son and the heavenly Host about throwing Satan and the other rebelling angels into Hell, and just as he resisted the rebelling angels, he remained as the only rebelling angel in Heaven, a loyal Opposition.

Note: Standard Ebooks has a good epub edition of Paradise Lost. There is also a BBC Paradise Lost audio drama from 1993 available via Archive.org.

Open Questions – Gwern.net

  • “Why do humans, pets, and even lab animals of many species kept in controlled lab conditions on standardized diets appear to be increasingly obese over the 20th century? What could possibly explain all of them simultaneously becoming obese?”
  • “Why does writing in the morning (anecdotally so far) seem to be so effective for writers, even ones who are not morning persons? While programmers, which seems like a similar occupation, are invariably owls?”

—Gwern Branwen. “Open Questions.” Gwern.net. Accessed: November 9, 2018.

I like the idea of open questions. Added a category to this blog to start collecting them.

Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.