Friday, February 6, 2015


In order to have an opinion about anything you have to begin with a series of basic assertions and assumptions. And even though we prefer to have our worldviews grounded upon concrete experiences and ideas, the truth of the matter is that this isn't really ever the case.

The reality is that we, as human beings, choose how to approach the world around us based on many often contrary sets of stimuli and ideas. As a fundamentally tribal species of primate we do share many foundational traits regardless of ethnicity or culture, the evidence of which is all around us. And yet when these similarities become modulated by culture they can also lead to vast and shockingly opposing worldviews.

One need only be a passingly attentive student of history to realize one fundamental truth about human beings. Humans can be convinced, at the level of the individual up to the scale of whole societies, to value the wrong things. Granted, by even making such a statement, I am making a truth claim about what constitutes right and wrong. And that my actually the point of this little blog post.

Before we make judgments about the things we observe and experience in our lives, we modulate our opinions through a series of foundational ideas we rely on as “our truth”. Whatever that “truth” might be for you or for me might be different, true enough, but in my experience the differences are often negligible. Rather, what I often see and experience is people in general seem to share a commonality in ethical considerations that they merely fail to apply as globally to their existence as they think they do.

My foundational philosophy is painfully simple, and one that doesn't require the structure of a dogma or ideology to support (which is perhaps the primary reason I'm both not religious, nor all too keen on things like political affiliations).

  • Learn more about myself and the world around me than I knew before.
  • Know and experience the value of compassion and love for those around us, and strive to alleviate suffering where you can.

You'd be surprised how far that can get you, and all without dusty iron age books or authority figures telling you what to believe, value, or fear. Simple in statement, yet complex in practice, it does at least save you from the pitfalls of being wrong about something because you valued authority over evidence. It doesn't absolve you from blame, rather it lays the blame solely where it belongs when things go south (i.e. namely at your own feet), which is equal parts humbling and liberating.

Learning is the most difficult aspect of this simple philosophy of mine. Because it requires that you actually pay attention. It demands that you devour information. And it requires you to be healthily skeptical of almost everything, even and especially of things you might at first glance agree with.

To make decisions based on the knowledge gleaned from learning you must also equally grasp the real nature of compassion and love. And it's really here where the difficult ideological battles occur.

The nature of love and compassion can be deconstructed in scientific and evolutionary terms, but often that truth is largely meaningless to most people. For some reason, to many, being able to explain why our emotional frameworks work as they do somehow cheapens the experience. I think this is the reason why people hold onto ideas like “spirituality” or concepts like the human soul, because it is somehow more comforting than accepting that how we experience the world (and our place in it) is all due to a few pounds of meat in our skulls.

This “otherwordly” nature most people ascribe to their ethical frameworks is, in my experience, almost entirely why people can often value the wrong things. The other significant reason is simply the fact that people can be convinced that almost anything is true, even if it's a truth that is demonstrably false. Even if it's something that goes against our nature.

I recall this image being discussed in a book I recently read.

One of the most difficult things to do is fake a smile. One of the reasons why we revere actors in our culture is that they have mastered the difficulty of portraying believable emotions. It is the reason why actors have to immerse themselves in a character, because it is nearly impossible to portray emotions that you do not inwardly experience. It is also the reason why 3D CGI can come across as creepy (hence the term “the uncanny valley") because human facial expressions are complex and nearly impossible to fake.

Because of this it is perceptual childs play, from a scientific perspective, to spot genuine and fake smiles in a photograph. As human beings we do this intuitively, but thanks to the analytical capabilities of machines we can and have raised this to a fine art. As such, the photograph above has been shown objectively to clearly depict people feeling genuine happiness and joy, within themselves and with their colleagues. There are no fake smiles there, so it'd be difficult to think of these people as monsters wouldn't it?

The fact that the picture is of the administrative staff of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a place where unconscionable horrors against our fellow humans took place, in no way seems to have interfered with their ability to have fun. Disturbing? Perhaps. Telling? Most definitely. And what it tells us is a rather disturbing truth about ourselves. Remember this picture the next time you form some opinion or other about a fellow human being.

One of my favorite quotes, which is also an important foundation of my second point about compassion is this.

“Anyone, anywhere in the world, for any reason suffering needlessly is enough reason for me to question my values.” - Penn Jillette

There are many things I would not find myself agreeing with that have crossed the lips of that guy, but this isn't one of them.

The next time you feel compelled to form an opinion on some trending topic of the day “gay marriage, transgenderism, racism, guns, free markets, vaccines, government regulation, contraception, gmo's etc...” at least do yourself the courtesy of going back to your foundations and asking yourself whether or not the opinion you have formed tracks with what you say you value and believe in.

It keeps you from letting your perceptions and innate biases steer you on the wrong course.