Edges Not Core, Changing Mind Not Soul (Decision Making, part 1)
The title of this entry has me going out on a limb conceptually, so here’s hoping it doesn’t break and send me spinning into the darkness of hopelessly vague ideas. Changing one’s mind has been, yes, on my mind recently, or more so than usual. As any who have read my short bio or know me in person can attest, my life has been one of rather drastic shifts in the northern mental landscape (the southern blessedly remains true to its purpose). Coming from a place of abject devotion to conservative Christianity, I went flailing and ranting in anger through the still fields of deconversion and atheism, and now more calmly dwell in the constant changing vista of belief in a god without supernatural essence that resides as principle and life-giving power within and as all of existence. There were moments I felt like a whirling dervish without a sense of centeredness, hopelessly spinning into the etherealness of the mind’s bizarre places.
Just so there’s some attempt at humility here, I do not hope to explain completely or have ever declared a complete understanding of that journey, no more than anybody can unequivocally declare with utter certainty the particular reasons why a mental shift occurs. It just happens. We awake as if from a dream and the realization comes as a new starting point, curious at how we got here but convinced this is the only place to begin. Sure, reasons are given, rationalizations spun, grand stories of our travails broadcast for any willing to listen, but that precise moment from point-A to point-B is never pinned down. Further, upon reflection it becomes increasingly obvious (and science through brain-scans have indicated) that our reasons come after the fact of our shift, not before, that they are often tangential to a vague understanding that deeper realities exist of which even the most powerful of articulated arguments don’t scratch.
This is not to say reasons are bad or foolish, I’d be the last person to declare that unwarranted conclusion. While many have witnessed or gone through a situation where the most beautifully articulated argument does nothing to dent someones certainty, of which is shattered completely at a later time by the most simplistic of devices, this does not dismiss the importance of the surrounding context to a mental shift, it only indicates that we are very far from purely rational creatures. Such reflection should encourage us to do two (in an attempt at keeping this simple and relatively short) things: one, a dedication to introspection with a continuing increase in educating oneself to the better understanding of one’s perspective/frame of the experiential world and two, a constant humility borne out of an appreciation that our minds are so much wilder and opaque than we in our egoistic hubris often believe.
Those two points will be in the next blog entry, right now I want to continue focusing on the context of decision making. We ask people to explain their actions not simply because most of us have an unverified and ungrounded understanding of the self and it’s causal association with the body, but because we also recognize at some level that while a person’s decisions are ultimately their own we like knowing the extent of the pondering that went into it. We instinctively recoil in wariness at seeing someone seemingly making behavioral choices without regard to any internal or external context, often equating such actions with immaturity. Reasons become supports, more needed as the larger the decision becomes. We speak of “buttressing” or “supporting” our decisions due to their “weight” or “size.” However, while reasons can provide a context, even a very important one, they simply do not provide an inevitable linear relationship with decisions or indicate the precise point at which a decision has been made.
To use a match as an example, one can slide a match against many surfaces as much as possible and no flame will occur, there must be a certain amount of friction. Ideas arise or are struck within a relational context (here is where issues of psychological attachment come into play). The vast majority of people growing up in particular religious households unsurprisingly grow up believing some variation of the initial foundation rather than something radically different. With near-death-experiences (NDEs), it is no great surprise that one’s religious beliefs determine the nature of the experience, as in Muslims do not see Jesus and Christians don’t see Muhammad (though I can imagine the identity crisis that would befall were this to occur!). Relationships exist also between ideas/reasons, the power of self-identification clearly shown whenever someone gets emotionally charged at their given reasons being challenged or criticized.
What does all this mean for daily life though? I can pontificate all day and luxuriate in the sound of my words being typed out, but in the end, without a connection to making life better it’s as if I’m laughing at an unshared joke, funny at first and then increasingly depressing in it’s isolation. We are not inherently rational creatures, our capacity for reason is quite easily eclipsed by our predilection for emotional outbursts and blind devotion to ideas we accept as simply a matter of our social existence. This is true of our enemies, our friends, our families, our lovers and ourselves. When we ask for or insist upon knowing the why of a person’s actions or engage in a seemingly endless self-flagellation for why we did x-behavior, the reality of the opaqueness of our minds should be kept front and center of awareness.
By noting how reasons exist as context not simple causation and that much of the mental gymnastics occurs before we are ever aware of it, we do not cease caring about why people do the things they do or diminish the legitimacy of determining good and bad reasons. Rather, we calm ourselves from the emotional explosiveness of identifying too strongly with particular ideas which encourage divisiveness. The space of grace this leads to when interacting with others in disagreement with is built on the realization that a person’s mind may be forever out of our complete understanding but the tendency towards a certain spectrum of behavior, the activity of the soul if I may engage in poetic license for a moment, is of greater concern.
© David Teachout