Other people’s minds

Responding to comments on my dignity piece over at MercatorNet is helping me present the core idea in a different way:

Contemplating the fact of other people’s minds (subjective realities) has an effect on one’s psyche such that one may come to a greater appreciation of human dignity/worth and at the same time undermine the passions, vices, and desires that typically drive us to undermine human worth.

Eg. sometimes I get annoyed at people’s comments, like the occasional personal attacks. But then I find myself imagining the person writing the comment, and how their experience of reality is as profoundly subjective as my own. Ie. they have a whole world inside their head, like a movie in which they are, for better and for worse, the protagonist.

I’m nobody in other people’s worlds. All the experiences, insights, challenges and achievements I hold dear; all the struggles, the failures, and even the background noise of expectations – none of that exists at all in most other peoples’ worlds, and where it does exist it is a mere fact, a single dot in the vast collage of their own inner world.

When I imagine that, I can’t help but feel that my own world is smaller. I might be the protagonist in my world, but the unpleasant commenter is the same in his. They mystery of consciousness and all the existential tension of human life exists in him as much as in me.

I find that my mind changes, I no longer feel hostile toward him, because all such feelings are forestalled by the magnitude of this fact of ‘other people’s minds’. I’ve broken out of the small drama in which I’m the protagonist and he’s some ******** who’s insulted me unjustly, into the bigger picture where he and I are the same, playing by the same rules, and more often than not even imprisoned or enslaved by the dramas in our own minds.

This is my approach to understanding ‘dignity’ not so much as a technical term, but as a general and ill-defined idea which crops up all over the place. People refer to it with a confidence that is not matched by any clear definition. I think it is real, and I’ve attempted to show what I believe is the admittedly esoteric reality at the heart of the concept.

The awe-full truth of human dignity


“It’s dignity! Gah! Don’t you even know dignity when you see it?” ~Credit: Sophie Vourlos (“A Milhouse Divided” S8E6)

My latest piece on MercatorNet.com looks at the other-worldly essence of human dignity:

a true appreciation of dignity can amend not only the abstract but the personal: spend some time sincerely meditating on, imagining how your whole world, the world where you are the centre of the universe, is reduced to a bit part in the mind of every person you meet from your own family and friends to complete strangers reading your online comments. Try imagining how you look from their perspective, how big or how small a presence you are in their reality, and the result is almost guaranteed to be utterly humbling.

Overcoming the mental boundary

My friend Daan has written a great piece over at MercatorNet on the work of Leonardo Polo and the idea of overcoming our mental boundaries to grasp at reality more directly:

The common problem is very simple: being caught up in your own mental world is not a good idea, because it creates a boundary between your mind and the real world out there. And by creating the boundary, chances are your mental world will not do reality any justice.

The unexamined iphone is not worth buying

Reader dtcwee, keeping me honest, notes in regard to the previous post:

I think there is a type of shallow goal that still needs investigation. That of a shallow goal which ‘normal’ society earnestly believes is worthy. There is no intended deception or wilful negligence here. Indeed, this could be quite important, for how would you otherwise know if you have embarked in good faith towards a goal of no substance?

So far we’ve looked at naive people pursuing genuine goals with shallow efforts, and duplicitous people pursuing shallow goals that masquerade as genuine.  But what about people who, under the influence of societal norms, accept and work towards shallow goals in good faith?

Implicit in the question is a critique of societal norms, and hence a rejection of mainstream assessments of shallowness.  While we’ve looked at naive people and duplicitous people, either category could potentially be recognised as shallow by the mainstream given the right circumstances.

But critiquing mainstream norms as shallow is clearly not something the mainstream can accept.  Things are getting serious…

Firstly, critiquing mainstream norms in any fashion is likely to annoy or upset a lot of people.  Secondly, despite criticisms mainstream norms do have certain benefits: it’s better to be obese when the mainstream is obese than to be an unusual obese outlier with a set of expensive medical requirements. Anyone with a rare disease can tell you that increased incidence translates into all sorts of indirect benefits, while rarity may leave you with underdeveloped research and under-subsidised treatments.

Or in terms of mainstream financial choices: if a bank can be too big to fail, can an over-mortgaged majority be too big to face the consequences of bad decisions?

Importantly, the critique of mainstream norms has to come from somewhere; we need a vantage point from which to say that the mainstream is shallow.

Religious and philosophical perspectives have served us well in this regard, from Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living”, to Christ’s “But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal.”

The most basic level of critique falls in line more with Socrates than with Christ, and that is the simple question of whether our goals are chosen by us or chosen for us by the mysterious processes of societal norms.  To have unexamined goals is to have no personal role in determining the value of your objectives. It is, in a sense, to be slave to the will and whims of the majority.  It’s almost as though one’s true goal in such circumstances is to want what everyone else wants, or simply to take the ‘safest’ route of following conventional wisdom, trusting in the security of numbers.

In this sense, the shallowness lies in one’s acceptance of conventional goals, the unexamined life, the reflexive urge to do what everyone else is doing.  In this context, the critique from a position of depth is that one is not truly thinking about or engaging with one’s goals and actions, and as such the goals and actions are not truly one’s own.

This is neither a shallow effort at a genuine goal nor a shallow goal masquerading as a deep one, but a shallow approach to goals that, ideally, ought to be closely examined and existentially integrated.

Some people copy the mainstream for purely pragmatic reasons, fully aware of what they doing; a minority examine life and decide that the mainstream norms are truly what they want. But for others there is, perhaps, a common characteristic of self-deception: the failure to acknowledge that you might be simply buying into the hype and marketing of a lifestyle and goals the merits of which are, to you, ultimately unknown.



Style over substance

Intrepid commenter dtcwee asked:

what role does the goal play in determining whether an endeavour is shallow? What is a shallow goal? And can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

Appearances are always more shallow than reality.  The phrase “style over substance” is pejorative because we take for granted that substance is almost always more important than style, such that an inversion of priorities is contemptible.

Goals that invert or disrupt natural priorities may be considered shallow, like putting style before substance.  For example, an academic whose goal is to obtain a high number of publications, but who isn’t concerned with the quality or significance of his work.  A singer who wants to be high on the charts but doesn’t really care about how he gets there.  Or a multitude of bloggers, youtube account holders, and other social media fanatics who desperately want to somehow get rich, but don’t have any genuine motivation or inspiration behind their content: – these can all be considered people with shallow goals.

But is this really different from the previous post where we defined shallow endeavours as instances where “the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal”?

I think they are different, because in the examples given above the goals are quite specific and oriented toward the defect we are calling ‘shallowness’.  These are not cases where the academic mistakenly thinks his shallow efforts to merely get published are appropriate to his position.  No, a shallow goal contains a kind of duplicity or deception, like a shoddy good masquerading as something of quality.  Whereas a shallow endeavour might see someone totally out of their depth, a person with a shallow goal is quite able to achieve it.  The value of the shallow goal lies in deceiving people, finding shortcuts, cutting corners, and so on.

But as with the previous case of the shallow endeavour – a shallow effort directed toward a genuine goal – it is only with the benefit of greater knowledge that we can label the shallow goal as somehow deficient.  It is ‘shallow’ relative to the normal expectations, in the same way that a product or service is considered defective according to established norms.

I’m sure we’ve all come across situations where people have, in good faith, attempted to undertake a project vastly beyond their abilities.  But many of us have no doubt also come across situations where people have, in bad faith or cynicism, tried to pass off a half-arsed job as the real deal.

The terminology here is far from definitive, because the original intention was to clarify depth rather than shallowness.  In that case, what really matters is that we have so far described two cases of insufficient depth – one intentional and one unintentional.

In this context, how should we answer the second part of the question:

can an earnest effort at a shallow goal be considered ‘deep’?

In theory it can, though the scenario would be somewhat comedic, in that it would imply a person so dedicated to a shallow goal that their efforts become disproportionate to the goal and do approach depth.

Take, for example, the Swedish film ‘The Swimsuit Issue‘ in which a group of middle-aged Swedish men become involved in synchronised swimming as a joke, but start to take it seriously and end up competing in major competitions.  There are other examples that will come to mind later, but the point is that there can indeed be depth in the pursuit of a shallow goal, however, the depth seems to engage and transform the character in new ways, such that by the end the nature of the goal itself has changed, and is perhaps no longer shallow.





What makes an endeavour shallow?

Due to relatively popular demand (1 counts as popular here; besides ‘popular’ simple means ‘of the people’, and I happen to know that the commenter in question is people).

As I was saying: people have demanded that I expand on my previous post, in which I created a dichotomy of shallowness and depth which though clearly insightful left some questions unanswered.

What is it, specifically, that makes an endeavour shallow?

While it might at first seem that the shallow/deep dichotomy is entirely relative, there are objective limitations to the relativism in human terms.  For example, as our commenter pointed out:

Even the ocean is both deep and shallow depending on your perspective.

However, we are all bound by a particular perspective – that of a human being. And despite the diversity in the normal range of human height, we are not so different that the question of depth of water is completely relative.  Depending on the context, if someone asks whether the water is deep or shallow, we tend to discern their meaning and arrive at the correct response quite easily.  It is only when the context is lacking that we are unable to offer a meaningful response.

People often take clauses such as ‘depending on your perspective’ to imply such a variety of perspectives that objective assessment becomes meaningless.  ‘Depending on your perspective’ starts, somewhat paradoxically, to imply a kind of ‘view from nowhere’, such that we begin to feel as though deep and shallow can have no real meaning since there is no truly objective perspective from which to make a valid assessment.

But ultimately, the fact that the terms are relative is not a new phenomenon, the fact that people have been meaningfully asking and answering questions about depth, makes the relativist critique somewhat redundant.  It’s a little like pointing out that units of measurement such as the gram or the ounce are in fact arbitrary, as though this should have some practical implication on the practice of weighing things.

In light of this brief analysis, we can return to the more difficult question of what makes an endeavour (metaphorically) shallow?

In my experience, the metaphor of depth and shallowness applied to human affairs is likewise relative, in that it amounts to a criticism or observation dependent on the insight or experience of another person.  For example, if I describe my thesis topic to my PhD supervisor, he may quite justifiably recognise that my knowledge of the field is not as deep as it ought to be in order to complete my thesis successfully.  This is analogous to pointing out that the water at the end of the jetty is too shallow for swimmers to dive into safely.

But my supervisor can only critique my knowledge as shallow because his knowledge is deeper, by which we mean his knowledge is more detailed, thorough, and far-reaching.  My supervisor in turn represents a standard of scholarship that is established and maintained across the whole academic discipline.  So even without my supervisor telling me my knowledge is shallow, there would still be an objective standard of knowledge against which my knowledge could be measured.

The epitome of a ‘shallow endeavour’ then, is one in which the efforts, knowledge, everything that makes up the endeavour itself, are insufficient for the stated goal.  Which is not to say that shallow endeavours are completely useless. No, they meet the goal to a shallow degree.  A little reflection should bring to mind suitable examples.  Take, for example, an online poll presented by a media organisation on some topical issue.  Here’s one I just found on the important question of whether the readers tend to recline their seats while on airplane flights: http://specials.msn.com/more-polls.aspx

Regardless of what the results say, the poll is almost worthless.  Not only is there no way of knowing if the participants are representative of the general population, but the poll is also likely to suffer from self-selection bias; that is, people who feel strongly about the issue are more likely to respond to the poll than those who don’t care.  All we can really conclude from the poll is the apparent reclining preferences of those readers of the website who feel strongly enough to click on the poll in the first place.

The second poll provides an even clearer example of the problems: the poll asks whether Obama is vacationing too much, and it turns out that an overwhelming 66% believe that he is, and he ought instead to be working.  Even the poll question itself states that ‘The President’s leisure time doesn’t sit well with his detractors’, which, one might think, would imply that his detractors would be more motivated to respond to online polls on the issue.  Again, all this result can tell us is that 66% of those who clicked on the poll after seeing it on the website believe, or profess to believe, that Obama is having too many holidays.  It doesn’t tell us how representative of the general population this is, though it may be possible for the owners of the website to work out what percentage of page views included a response to the poll.  Even then, the result would not tell them what their readers opinions are, but merely the opinions of those of their readers who care enough to click on a worthless poll.  In that sense, the real value of the poll is for the owners of the website to determine the level of interest in any given topic among their readers, assuming a correlation between level of interest and level of motivation to click on the poll.

In terms of shallow endeavours, these kinds of worthless polls are most egregious when people attempt, either wittingly or unwittingly, to use them as evidence of broader public opinion on an issue.  As marketing tools and gauges of reader interest, they may be more valuable; but rarely are they presented as such.  What makes this such an excellent example of a shallow endeavour is the failure to think or ask questions beyond the superficial appearance of valuable data.  On a shallow level, such polls appear to have the same merit as legitimate polls.  It is only by going deeper, by asking questions and seeking to understand in more detail, that a person may begin to tell the difference between shallowness and depth, value and farce.

The Disadvantages of Depth

One of the first attractions of philosophy was that it offered a deeper understanding.  It may not have promised answers, but some things are too big for questions and answers, and philosophy was the one discipline that allowed no limitations on its inquiry.  I took for granted that a deep understanding was superior to a shallow one; that a considered answer would always trump an ill-considered response.  But it turns out that there are realms where a shallow understanding is more than sufficient, and an ill-considered response is by no means disadvantageous.

How is this possible?

It is possible because regardless of the merits of depth, it has the following drawbacks: depth is slow, depth is cautious, depth is elitist.  Depth is therefore easy to decry as unnecessary, wasteful, and inappropriate.  Better still, depth can be characterised as something other than depth entirely – it can be superficially described as uncertainty, hesitation, arrogance, obstinacy, or inactivity.  In fact all of these descriptors may seem entirely justified from the point of view of someone with no interest in depth or appreciation of its value.  So long as one is judged by shallow people, one’s pursuit of greater depth will be entirely unappreciated and disparaged.

In many fields, shallow people are at an advantage.  Why look for greater depth than is required to convince one’s peers?  Greater depth will just slow you down, and when it comes to selling oneself, creating an image, or making an impression: qui prior est tempore potior est jure.  ‘He who is earlier in time is stronger in law’.

As one of the most enigmatic passages from the Dao De Jing explains, he who pursues a deeper understanding finds himself at odds with the rest of humanity:

How joyous the mass of people are, as if banqueting on the sacrificed ox, as if mounting a tower in spring –
I alone am still, without visible sign, like a new born baby yet to smile, all listless, like one with no home.
The mass of people have more than enough –
I alone appear bereft; I, with the mind of a dolt, so slow.
Ordinary men are brilliant –
I am dim.
Ordinary men are perceptive –
I am closed.
Sudden, like the sea, like a tempest, as though endless, the mass of people all have their means –
I alone am obstinate, uncouth.
I alone wish to be different from others, and value feeding from the mother.

translated by Robert Eno


The pursuit of depth separates us from the majority of people.  It brings with it different priorities, different concerns, a different way of perceiving the world.  But for us it is self-evidently the better part of life.  And if the better part of life is ridiculed by others, then as the Dao De Jing states:

When the man of highest capacities hears Tao
He does his best to put it into practice.
When the man of middling capacity hears Tao
He is in two minds about it.
When the man of low capacity hears Tao
He laughs loudly at it.
If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Therefore the proverb has it:
“The way out into the light often looks dark,
The way that goes ahead often looks as if it went back.”
The way that is least hilly often looks as if it went up and down,
The “power” that is really loftiest looks like an abyss,
What is sheerest white looks blurred.
The “power” that is most sufficing looks inadequate,
The “power” that stands firmest looks flimsy.
What is in its natural, pure state looks faded;
The largest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel takes the longest to finish,
Great music has the faintest notes,
The Great From is without shape.
For Tao is hidden and nameless.
Yet Tao alone supports all things and brings them to fulfillment.

translated by Arthur Waley