The Sin of Certainty

“… let me tell you that the one sin I have come to fear more than any other is certainty. Certainty is the great enemy of unity. Certainty is the deadly enemy of tolerance. … If there was only certainty, and if there was no doubt, there would be no mystery and therefore no need for faith.”

(Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, in “Conclave”, Robert Harris)

That quote really jumped out at me when I read it on Christmas Day. It seemed to sum up so much of what is wrong with the world today.

Certainty is the great enemy of unity”. That makes sense to me; if one is certain about something, then only that thing can be correct. And all other opinions must be erroneous. Instant division – either right or wrong, nothing in between.

Certainty is the deadly enemy of tolerance.” Same thing – if you’re certain about something, you’re not going to be particularly tolerant of those who don’t share your view.  At best you’re going to pity them, at worst despise them. Again that separation into the right-thinkers and the wrong-thinkers.

The trouble with Certainty is that it’s an absolute; it doesn’t allow for any shades of grey between black and white, between correct and incorrect, between right and wrong. And my experience of the world is that it’s a technicolor dream, with every possible shade available, depending upon your particular perspective.

Remember that Facebook post, where someone got the world arguing about the colour of a dress? Was it black and blue, or white and gold? Each side was completely certain about their view, based on the empirical evidence they experienced. Only later did it come out that because we each process colour differently both views were capable of being correct.

So it’s not just the airy-fairy stuff like opinions, morals and ethics – and dare I say it, religion – that is subject to unreliable perceptions, and therefore doubt. We can’t even rely on what we can see with our own eyes.

And that brings me to the last part of the passage: “… there would be no mystery and therefore no need for faith.” We need to understand that the vast majority of our experience of this reality is based on our own perception.  That means we take pretty much everything on faith. That might be faith in some higher being, or faith in what we are told by scientists, or some combination of the two.  That’s for each of us to choose for ourselves.

Because unless we have observed the behaviour of the quantum particles of an atom for ourselves, and with our own senses (hint: not with an electron microscope – that uses the very things we’re using it to observe!), then we are reliant on what the priests of the science dogma tell us is going on. Just as the churchgoers of the middle ages were reliant on their priesthood for their understanding of the world. And as the warriors of ancient times were reliant on the medicine man to explain the things that they experienced.

We have faith in science. Or in religion. Or in mumbo-jumbo. Whatever works for you.

The problems come when the adherents of one set of priests start to believe that their lot have got it all right. In other words, when they become certain. Because that means they have to tear down the followers of all the others.

History has shown us that there’s always trouble whenever anyone thinks they have all the answers. And especially if they think they’ve found The Answer. Because then they feel they have to defend their Answer, and impose it on those too stupid to see it for themselves.  And some new knowledge or perspective always pops up later, proving them ‘wrong’.  The sensible ones back down, and shuffle, shamefaced, into the canon of ‘people who got it oh so wrong’. The less sensible battle on, desperate to save face, thus taking the world into dangerous schisms, and even into war.

If you ask me, so far at least, only one entity has ever got The Answer right.  The Deep Thought computer (in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) said the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42 – which just happens to be the ASCII code for the asterisk. Which happens to represent, well, whatever the hell you want it to be!

To me, the mystery that pervades all of life, that uncertainty about the world, that doubt that makes faith necessary, that’s what makes the world such fun. If there was one single, certain truth, then there would be one single, certain, inevitable way to get on in the world.  Like robots – or denizens of The Matrix.

And I thank God, Yahweh, Allah, Gaia, Spirit, and the Scientists – that there isn’t.

Because that would be so boring!

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Photo by Léa Dubedout on Unsplash

Why You Can’t Trust Facebook

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/) about the effect Facebook (may have) had on the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the USA’s 45th President. The article itself has many reasons for us to be very wary of the information we are presented with in our social media bubbles.  And it got me thinking about all the ways it can be ‘gamed’ (or worse) to skew our view of the world.

Let’s start by saying I’m not a massive conspiracy theorist. I choose to believe that the algorithms the social platform geeks cook up are genuinely intended to serve up valuable content that we will be pleased to see and will enhance our lives.  That’s not to say I think they always get it right though.  At best it seems to create an ‘echo chamber effect’ where everyone’s preaching to the converted, and we don’t get to see a real diversity of opinions and attitudes. And at worst it can lead to views becoming increasingly entrenched, coupled with massive cognitive dissonance when we finally do get to see some conflicting material.

Fans of the US TV show “Homeland” will remember the “Sock Puppet” plot, where hundreds of geeks sat in a darkened room, controlling thousands of online profiles, inciting their social media “friends” to outrage about political issues. It’s not far-fetched; in the Atlantic article, ad agencies admit to using FB Ads to skew political results in specific swing counties. So we know what people see on their social media feeds can either change or reinforce their views.

And what that means is that if a foreign government wanted to affect the result of a democratic process, they wouldn’t need to hack into anything. They could simply set up a massive sock puppet operation.  OK, they’d need to be a bit clever with their routing – it’s fair to assume that a whole load of connections from Moscow or Beijing servers befriending US voters in swing states might raise a digital eyebrow or two in Menlo Park. But that’s a whole lot easier than hacking a mainframe.

The trouble with (and the effectiveness of) sock puppet campaigns is they appear to be people like us.  And we tend to have an inherent trust of ‘people like us’.  In many ways that’s not too much of a problem when all it does is create the “echo-chamber effect” – our social media feeds being full of stuff we already agree with. That simply reinforces what we already think. It might save the odd ‘swing voter’ from flipping, but the overall effect is limited.

But there’s a much bigger potential danger in the combination of sock puppets and the ‘people like us’ effect. ‘Sock puppets like us’ if you like. And that’s when our sock puppet friends start to subtly change their views.  We like them, they’re people we get on with, we have shared interests. If they start to have doubts about our favoured candidate/policy/party, maybe we should also have doubts? When they ‘come across’ some convincing argument to weaken our position, we’re probably going to take more notice. More notice, even, than if we came across that new information ourselves.

All sorts of things are going on here, from Cialdini’s consistency to Maslow’s belonging. I wrote a blog some years ago back in my Ecademy days (the first real business social media platform, sadly now defunct through lack of funding), called “Where should you focus your efforts for greatest effect?” about how we are more likely to be swayed by our moderate opponents, especially if we consider ourselves to be moderate too. And that’s even more likely when they used to be just on our side of the argument.

That social media connection of yours may appear to be a socially-conscious mother of two from Wisconsin, with ideas and attitudes you can align with.  But for all you know you could be getting subtly influenced by Boris from Bratsk, or Supremacy Steve. So my advice is to be very wary of any online connection who you haven’t met in person. You really have no idea who they are, so before you allow someone’s reasonable argument to sway you, pick up the phone or jump on skype, and find out what they *really* stand for.

Don’t be fooled …

The new US President is no fool.

It seemed inconceivable even as little as 6 months ago that he could really become POTUS.  A loud, ignorant, brutish man, with little political savvy and even less sense of decorum.  And yet, here we are, with Executive Orders seeing long-term, legal, US residents getting removed from their flights home, and facing a three month wait before they can return, if ever.

But do not make the mistake of believing that Donald J Trump is an idiot. He has made a career – and a fortune – out of a negotiating style that uses bluff and bluster, and not a little sleight of hand, to get his way – to enrich himself.  This is what he has brought to the White House.

With his close team doing all manner of strange things, from eviscerating departments to describing blatant untruths as “alternative facts”, or seemingly mistaking a living civil rights leader for his dead father, we are kept on the hop. We just don’t know what’s real any more – and that’s the way they want it.

I would urge you to take a look at the similarities with the way Vladislav Surkov has used misdirection and confusion to hobble opposition to Russia’s President Putin (see http://clamour.co.uk/surkov-and-the-politics-of-confusion/ for more).  Trump’s team are showing many signs of using similar tactics; he may not be sophisticated, but he is not stupid.

When we focus on Sean Spicer’s (apparent) incompetence, or on Trump’s (apparent) thin skin; when we make pejorative reference to his (apparently) tiny appendages, or his (apparent) ire about unflattering photos; when we call him things like “orange man-child” (amusing though that is) – when we do any of that, we are playing into his hands, and allowing ourselves to become focused on the minutiae.

This level of “resist-and-react” opposition is not going to work. A pull back to the previous political landscape is destined to fail – the old politics was already failing, that’s why we needed a Trump, and we cannot go back.  The only way forward from here is to a different politics altogether, one where people of like mind can come together for particular issues, then dissolve and regroup in different ways, to create other things that matter. The days of bi-partisan “align-and-agree” are numbered.

Make no mistake, one way or another, we are watching the end of the current form of democracy.  It can go many ways from here – to a Trumpian dictatorship designed to enrich just an oligarch class of billionaires, or to a utopian experience of universal care and compassion that enriches the whole of mankind on many levels. Or anything in between – and how it pans out is up to us.

Just don’t underestimate The Donald – that would be a dangerous mistake.

Delusions of separation

When we define and label others we make them less.

A person who happens to have black skin.
A black person.
A Black!

A person who chooses to follow the jewish faith.
A jewish person.
A Jew!

A person with light hair
A blonde person.
A Blonde!

A person who is very good with computers.
A technical person.
A Nerd!

The more succinct the label, the more likely it is to carry some degree of pejorative energy, making the person less (than us?)

All these labels focus on only one aspect of the the person, and seeks to lump them all together with other people ‘like them’ – separate.
Something judgeable, “Not like us” (whoever the heck “us” might be!)

And they ignore all the multifaceted gorgeousness that the individuals are.

When we name them ‘something-or-other’ we are making them not something else – maybe even not everything else?

Black; not white
Jew; not my religion (or not the other religions)
Blonde; not brunette (or not bright, or not undesirable, or lots of other loaded interpretations!)
Nerd; not social
… even Conscious; not stupid!

What if we were all part of one big thing, mankind, even consciousness?
What if every attempt at creating separation – at being separate – was just a false concept, designed to keep us unconscious, unconnected, divided, impotent?

And what if we could choose something different? Right now.

Why they want us beFUDdled …

Have you ever wondered why governments and the mainstream media are always so keen to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt by reminding us how much danger we are in, everywhere and every day?

Whether that’s from ‘a massive influx’ of refugees, or being ‘swamped’ by immigrants from other parts of the EU (substitute other neighbouring state if you’re not from the UK); from drugs gangs or wildfires or just people of some other religion; or from the latest ‘unstoppable’ health pandemic (that mysteriously stops almost overnight – or at least doesn’t get reported any more).  Or any one of dozens of things that we are told could harm us / kill us / ‘destroy our way of life’.

Because their mates in the Military Industrial Complex want to sell them more tanks and guns and missiles, right?

Well, no, not really.  Or perhaps I mean ‘not only’ – that is certainly one of their objectives.

But there’s a far bigger reason why propagating an atmosphere of fear is good for those who seek to control us.

Physiologically, there is a big effect that fear has on us: it puts us into “Fight or Flight” mode.  As well as diverting resources away from our organs to our extremities – the bits we need to either hit people or run away – it also closes down our finer reasoning ability.

There’s a good evolutionary reason behind that: we really don’t want to be having an internal debate about that sabre-toothed tiger’s intentions towards us, and whether we might be able to avoid conflict if we talk to it nicely.  We just want to – need to – either lop off its head, or leg it! Any other thought process is redundant until the threat (feeling of fear) has passed.

And there’s a good political reason behind ‘our masters’ wanting us to be constantly afraid: it stops us getting wise to what they are up to.

When we are in a state of constant fear (or uncertainty, or doubt), our critical thinking is impaired, and we don’t see what is going on.  We don’t notice our rights being slowly eroded, in the guise of protecting us from what they have made us fear.  We don’t see the subtle (and not-so-subtle) diversion of our tax money to their mates in the arms and drugs companies.  We don’t realise that our economies are being slowly undermined by fake ‘money’ that is nothing more than bits and bytes in a computer programme.  And we don’t see that cash is steadily being outlawed – and it’s the only way we get to operate outside of the electronic net (hmmm, interesting use of language there) they have us all tangled up in.

The simple reason fear, uncertainty and doubt is so valuable to those who seek to govern us, is that it stops us thinking straight!