Haidt Falls Short

This is a short review of Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  [I do not know if Haidt is good for liberalism.]

Microaggressions are intentional or even unintentional slights that “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups”.  The slight can be something as seemingly innocuous as “What country are we from?”  Undoubtedly, this comes across as absurd.  But if we put ourselves in the shoes of others who are inundated with references to them belonging to a marginalized group, then we could see this as an innuendo.  The standards for what is abusive have rightly changed from physical abuse to emotional abuse, which is rightly defined as whatever is subjectively traumatic to an individual.

Jonathan Haidt has written on microaggressions and the morality behind politics.  Although he is correct on us having evolved psychological adaptations that make us sensitive to topics of fairness etc., his advice on microaggressions seems to be out of his field of expertise.  I agree that if we don’t have unstable self-esteem and a history of abuse that it is better to learn how to cope with insults versus avoiding them.  Most people can learn how to not personalize the message.  Haidt is mistaken though when discussing how we should approach microaggressions in that we should always give a person the benefit of the doubt when assessing their intentions over a perceived slight.  There are circumstances where people become the target of ridicule and bullying.

Haidt’s central claim is that upon exposure we become desensitized to insults, but he fails to mention that we can also become sensitized.  Researchers do not know what circumstances lead to which.  Haidt is thus wrong to say that what does not kill us makes us all stronger.  People vary in their resiliency.  Granted his audience is college students who are probably only at minor risk for interpersonal bullying and rejection, he seems to generalize this to anyone who gets insulted.  Political correctness and popular exposure has helped in improving the status of women and LGB.  But there are many who are still rejected and ridiculed because of a disability, gender, or physical deformity.  If Haidt means to exclude extreme cases in his analysis, he sure is not clear about it.

What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us Stronger?

But teaching kids that failures, insults, and painful experiences will do lasting damage is harmful in and of itself. Human beings need physical and mental challenges and stressors or we deteriorate. [1]

I have not looked at the evidence that Haidt has for his views that exposure to insults and failures are necessary to prevent mental deterioration because there probably is none.  He argues by way of analogy and gives examples of how resilient the immune system and skeletal muscle are.  The point is that we need to stress these systems in order for them to grow.  The human mind is different than the immune system and muscle though.  The mind is very sensitive to glucocorticoids which are released when we are threatened or hurt by insults and criticisms.  In fact, some of the most potent causes of cortisol being released come from negative interpersonal interactions.  Haidt’s analysis is too generic; he does not take into account the severity and occurrence of insults.

Haidt’s argument is based on the success of ERP or Exposure and Response Prevention therapy.  The premise is that we can desensitize ourselves from our trauma and fears by exposing ourselves to them.  If, for example, we give into our social anxiety and do not go out with our friends, then we are reinforcing the fear, making it easier to avoid instead of engaging.  But I am not aware of any studies that look at how exposure to criticism and insults can desensitize us to the feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. Even if we could become desensitized, this would not work for everyone since people vary in how fragile or resilient they are (i).

There is an abundance of evidence that suggests that early peer rejection and bullying predispose an individual to anxiety and depression.  Marginalized groups, which not only include race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and identity but also those deemed as inadequate and undesirable, are more likely to be rejected and bullied.  The question becomes is safeguarding our mentally healthy youth from microaggressions a strategy that will help or harm them in the reality that we cannot abolish them.  This is the only part that I’m in agreement that it is more effective to teach youth how to cope with criticism and insults than to safeguard them.  But this cannot apply to those that are routinely bullied or dismissed because constant criticism is documented to cause subordination (ii).

The rest of Haidt’s analysis is overreaching his field of expertise, which is clearly not within the area of psychopathology.  Although I have not looked at his evidence, I am very suspect of the claim that providing safeguards in universities and colleges are contributing to the increased rates of depression and anxiety.  Haidt believes that we can overcome trauma and become better people as a result.  I agree.  But marginalized groups can face constant levels of belittling in which the fight or flight system breaks down and can cause depression.  When Haidt says that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, this is incorrect. Whether or not we are resilient or become subordinated in the face of belittling is based on our dispositions and how frequent and severe they are.


i)  One group which Haidt ignores is 20% of the population that has the trait of sensory processing sensitivity.  They are known as Highly Sensitive People.  They are sensitive to subtleties and are more easily overwhelmed than most.  In fact, skin conductance tests, SPECT, and functional MRI tests reveal differences in reactivity.  This group may be served better to be protected than exposed to microaggressions.  This is especially true if they are easily rejected based on possessing stigmatized attributes.

ii)  If one was interested, I can furnish tons of references on how pervasive criticism can lead to depressed mood states and anxiety.  When people are consistently disparaged, then they become in a defeated state.  There is a whole body of evidence on how depression is the result of spousal criticism and how early peer rejection predisposes one to anxiety and depression.


[1] Lukianoff, Greg and Haidt, Jonathan.  The Coddling of the American Mind.

That Ugly Bias

Here I would like to discuss how our bias contributes to discrimination, marginalization, and subordination.  The heart of bias, regardless of which kind—confirmation, prejudice, myside, etc.—is about favoring one thing over another.  The reason that I think this is important is because the next post will review Jonathan Haidt’s book titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” which is about microaggressions.  People engage in microaggressions exactly because of their attitudes and beliefs towards others.

A Patriot’s Biases

Linkedin Post

Linkedin Post

The above was taken from Linkedin where I, surprisingly, witness daily scuffles involving a difference in beliefs and values.  A decade ago if someone had the nerve to post a brazen statement about their conservative beliefs on Linkedin, it would have triggered me into articulating a response.  Instead, I now look at these posts as ways to learn about how we think and act.  If we recognize that we all think that we are justified in our political beliefs, that is, they are right and moral, then it is easier to not get offended.  The beliefs that this person has are based on biases, which are driven by her likes and dislikes.  This is not an intellectual position because I doubt this person has put any thought into this.  I do not have a problem if this person wants to believe in fairytales and has pride for her country, but I do have a problem with her touting traditional family values at the cost of exclusion.

To post something like this is nothing more than unabashed pride and an urge to stick it in the face of those liberals.  Furthermore, this threat she writes of does not exist.  No one wants to destroy the family but rather make it more inclusive.  Instead, she is threatened by liberals corrupting the purity of the family by introducing “unconventional” members.  I also do not think most deny that gender exists in some sense but rather claim that it is more malleable than once thought and not solely dependent on our sex.  The problem is that she is excluding others that do not fit the conventional definition of what constitutes gender and family.  We cannot fault her for having preferences toward God, country, and family although we may dislike her because she is not one of us.  We should, however, identify our own in-group biases and determine if disliking the person fits within our larger goals and ideals.

How We Use Bias

bias: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in an unfair way

We all have biases because we judge others’ abilities, behavior, and appearances.  Biases, however, lead to either playing favorites or treating others unfairly (discrimination).  Biases are not necessarily inaccurate though.  Fox News, for example, is biased not because it is inaccurate but rather because it favors information that conforms to its beliefs, which leads to a narrow perspective. Biases are a byproduct of how the mind works.  In fact, we have a confirmation bias when we select information, which makes it a feature of the mind.  Likes and dislikes drive our biases.  We can hardly prevent them since it is automatic.  The parts of perception to be concerned with are prejudices and stereotypes.  Prejudice is the dislike, hate, or contempt that we feel towards a person or their attributes, while stereotypes are the overgeneralized beliefs that we hold towards a member from a particular kind of group.

Stereotypes have a few properties.  First, they are perceptions of a person’s appearance, behavior, or abilities, which may be true or false.  When we use stereotypes or labels, we are reducing a person’s essence to those qualities.  Second, we say that these are the typical qualities of all members of the group.  Stereotypes are dangerous because we can judge an entire group of people as being “less than” before we even know them.  In order to create these stereotypes and prejudices, we must evaluate someone’s qualities in a negative light (i).  When we do this, we may feel something beyond mere dislikes, such as contempt or hate.  We feel contempt when we deem something inferior.  We feel hate when someone is a threat to our status or wellbeing.  Contempt can make us feel justified in keeping others in their place, while hate can lead to violence.  It is for these reasons that contempt and hate are threats to equality.  The antidote to contempt and hate is to look for what we have in common with others, not our dissimilarities.

When Bias Is Justified

bigot: a person who is obstinately or unreasonably attached to a belief, opinion, or faction, especially one who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular group

We can all experience interpersonal rejection to some degree based on qualities that we may have or lack.  We are not all equal in our desirability.  If we naturally have a bias towards the attractive, smart, and capable, does this mean that these people are “better than”?  Meritocracy, the idea that effort and aptitude justify rising up the ranks, says it is ok to have a bias against those who are unintelligent and incapable within our economic system (ii).  In fact, we often unintentionally reject the undesirable and inadequate in subtle but hurtful ways.  When we are seeking romantic partners, then we have a bias against those who are unattractive.  When is it unreasonable to have a bias against someone?  Social movements fortunately have given us the categories of sex, gender, race, class, and ability.  Indeed, it seems silly to dislike someone over these qualities, but what about those that don’t make the fit (iii)?

There is a difference, however, between people not associated with a traditional marginalized group versus those that are. This has to do with which group meets the criteria of being oppressed.  Oppression is when one group, typically white-dominated males, have more power and privilege over the other.  Oppression affects people’s lives at three levels: interpersonal, institutional, and internalized. Interpersonal consists of the biases that are applied to the marginalized, institutional are the laws and social norms that form because of these biases, and internalization is when the marginalized internalize the oppression as shame and inferiority. This internalization is also known as subordination.  The outcome is that their quality of life, both mental and physical, is compromised.


i) We can also evaluate someone in a positive light and make a stereotype.  What about all Asians are good at mathematics.  Positive stereotypes are interesting because personally I would like to be associated with a group that excels at math.  But it makes them feel uncomfortable; perhaps because it draws attention to them being “different” and could be used as a source of prejudice.  It also simplifies and reduces Asians to an absurd degree.  Because of course people are complex and different even within groups.

ii) Meritocracy could be used in a couple of different ways to justify power and control.  It is conventionally said to be a fair way of advancing in the hierarchy because all that is required is effort and capability.  But we know that not all people have the same privileges and access to resources as others do.  So it is a half-truth.  But even if we eliminated privilege, it can still be interpreted as unfair because what about the people that are unintelligent and incompetent.  The system becomes rather challenging for them.

iii) Even within these groups, there is a bias that the dull-witted and incompetent are undesirable.  If we look at advertising that attempts to improve the disabled’s image, we will notice that they are portrayed as intelligent.  This is not always the case though; five million Americans suffer from some form of intellectual disability.  It is for these reasons that I generalize when I discuss marginalization.  When I use the word marginalization, I mean those that are more or less non-existent and impotent but not just in the political sense.  People that are undesirable and inadequate are often invisible even in their day-to-day interactions.

Hannity’s Snowflakes

Has anyone ever been called a snowflake, lol?  I came across this summary of what liberalism is all about and thought I’d share it. There are five criticisms embedded in the quote below that relate to paternalism, meritocracy, callout culture, victimhood, and microaggressions. Oh, we cannot forget how fragile we are too.  I think there is a reality to these criticisms albeit distorted a bit.

They have become accustomed to the paternalistic attitude that they must be shielded from all adversity and disappointment—a world where everyone gets a trophy and where university campuses train students to be victims rather than self-reliant, constantly on the lookout for “trigger words” and “microaggressions” that could damage their psychic serenity.  We do truly have a generation of snowflakes now. [Sean Hannity]

Do not expect a detailed analysis of anything from Sean Hannity since he has to appeal to his tribe with a specific dialogue in mind. This dialogue must be easy to digest; otherwise, he would alienate his audience.  He has to use keywords that elicit emotion in order to validate what conservatives stand for and are against.  So when the reader sees “victim” they feel a sense of contempt for the liberal which reinforces that they are against wimps who blame their problems on others.  But this misrepresents and conflates the concept of what it is to be a victim.  There is a difference between being a legitimate victim of subordination and victimhood. Victimhood is a mentality where we most likely were victims at one point of unfair treatment, but we never seemed to get over it.

Marginalized groups, such as those relating to sexuality, identity, ethnicity, and those deemed as inadequate and undesirable, are at an increased risk of being bullied and rejected (v).  When people are ridiculed and disparaged, then this affects the quality of their lives.  In fact, those that are bullied and rejected are at risk for mood disorders, depression, and anxiety.  This hostility and contempt can come from subtle insults to blatant hate speeches, which are acts of microaggression and aggression.  To encourage civil relations, political correctness attempts to shield the marginalized from bigoted speech.  Hannity mocks microaggressions by portraying them in an absurd way.  But in the process, he undermines the marginalized groups’ efforts in seeking emotional refuge.

Hannity further mentions that we are taught to be victims rather than self-reliant (i).  There is some truth to this because college campuses teach us to look for microaggressions, which are words or actions meant to inflict emotional harm on marginalized persons (iv).  When we are looking for malintent, then we will be assuming the worst and priming ourselves to react. When primed for the worst, we may misinterpret the party’s intentions or meaning of the slight.  When we get defensive, then that means we are threatened.  The other party wins.  If we can handle the slight with composure, then it will reduce their defenses and prevent conflict. In fact, the message will more likely be received than discarded.  It then becomes a choice if we want to come back with a vicious defense or handle it in a constructive way by asserting with dignity and respect that we do not appreciate undermining comments.

I have justified bullies bullying the bullies.  Although I did not endorse a militant style of politics, I came close to it.  There are a few approaches to identity politics, which is when a class of people with shared characteristics mobilize in order to increase their status. We can appeal to our shared humanity as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his speeches which unites us, or we can appeal to our tribal instincts by demonizing a shared enemy, which is divisive.  I do not claim to know which approach is more effective, but I do have some thoughts on callout culture, which conforms to the latter.  If we are going to attack people for them failing to uphold our beliefs, then we better have evidence of a consistent pattern.  Because we often can misinterpret their intentions and meaning (ii).

The only basis Hannity has for being against paternalism is that somehow our liberties are impeded when we have the state or institutions protecting us.  I have always said to libertarians with their obsession with coercion and freedom that sometimes we have to give up something to get something.  Putting aside the loss of freedom when mandates are implemented, a better question is how effective is it when colleges enforce certain social norms with an intent to protect their members?  How effective are political correctness and callout culture in obtaining their goals of reducing emotional abuse?  I just got done reading Jonathan Hadit’s book titled “The Coddling of the American Mind”, which I’m in about 50% agreement with him which I will critique in the next post.

Meritocracy is when we reward people based on their abilities.  Again, Hannity is mocking the belief in economic equality when he says that “everyone gets a trophy”, which is absurd.  Meritocracy is essential to our economic system because of the concept of incentives, which drives us to compete.  We are claiming that there needs to be a reasonable safety net for those that cannot keep up with the rest of us.  We have good reasons to believe that an equalizing force is essential.  I have already written about how meritocracy leads to social hierarchies that, although inevitable in a capitalistic society, have consequences for our health and happiness.  In fact, those that make $40,000 per year have a risk of death three times that of those that make $140,000 per year (iii).


i)  It may not make sense to contrast self-reliance to that of victimhood.  I think what Hannity is trying to say is that instead of forging ahead after an insult or criticism and taking responsibility for our end of a social interaction gone bad, we instead focus on the harm done to us.  We are not using our own emotional resources, such as our confidence that we are still worthy regardless of the slight. There is a concept known as “internal locus” which is about believing we are the sources of change and influence versus others. Having an internal locus view has been shown to decrease feelings of victimization.  Although people do influence our successes and failures, it may be a better strategy to focus on what we can change.  Despite this, the marginalizing of certain groups is a very real phenomenon.  I do not think Hannity is denying that marginalization exists but rather is saying focus on what we can change.

ii) A good example is when I argued that responsibilities to one another in a relationship often strive to be 50-50, which is a good thing, but it is best if we do not keep tabs on who did what.  The problem with becoming an “accountant” is that things will often not be 50-50 because we are not consistent in our efforts.  If we are keeping tabs, then we can become disappointed and resentful. Relationship experts believe that it is best to hold the belief that our partner is doing the best they can to meet their obligations.

Having stated this on a post, I was then attacked and shamed, which is what “callout culture” does, for being sexist because I was implying that one sex may have to do more work than the other.  But that was not my intention nor the meaning of my argument.  Although I quickly learned the rules of posting, this made me feel resentment, and it certainly did not unite me in our shared vision.

iii). See the study here and the explanation here.

iv) College campuses do not seem to distinguish between intentional microaggressions and unintentional.  It has to do with how the target feels.  I should be saying “perceived” slight because sometimes people will not mean it as an insult.  Most insults are criticisms because they find fault, but they are done with an intent to inflict harm.  That which is offensive is another route for being triggered.  When I hear someone make a misogynist comment, it is a disturbing feeling that I get.  So, first, we get offended when we hear strongly held beliefs that are contrary to our own.  I used to get very offended when people would talk about their belief in God.

Second, we can get angry when the beliefs of others threaten our own beliefs.  When I hear something that goes against my background knowledge, I find that I can get angry and irritated.  Perhaps this has to do with cognitive dissonance.  Lastly, if our beliefs ground our identity, then we should be very threatened.  For example, Christians have a lot at stake if their beliefs turn out to be false.  But that is not all because we oftentimes transfer our anger and hate to the person that holds differing beliefs.


Accountable to None

This is my chance to share what my thoughts are on the United States’ foreign policy.  What rekindled this interest is despite the necessity of condemning Russia, it comes across as hypocritical in light of what we have done and continue to do. This is not a diatribe against us but rather is posing the question of whether or not our policies, i.e., military hegemony, are effective or necessary.

I don’t claim to have the answer if our foreign policy has kept us safe, has escalated the defenses of other nations, or both.  Anyone that thinks they do, should take a look at the nuanced and complex debates within U.S. history.  But as liberals we should care about the costs of our foreign policies because it claims a lot of lives in the name of “national security” often veiled as American idealism.

The victory [WWII] now gave the US the right to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit, and by such means as we see fit.  Henry Luce [9]

In the past few decades, the U.S. has killed between 360,000 to 387,000 civilians due to its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan [10].  Supposedly, this is the cost others need to bear for us to assure our national security and the promotion of democratic ideals.  In going through America’s past wars and actions, there is an obvious trend of the U.S. doing whatever it wants, which is called American exceptionalism (i).  A complaint that I hear is that this is a progressive or revisionist view of history.  What they mean is that a revisionist’s account doesn’t equate American success with hegemony without considering how we achieved it.

Hegemony must respect international law and human rights; that is, it must be morally justified.  And justification is not pretense. The excuses for our foreign policies and wars have hardly changed, and the real reasons remain the same, i.e., to secure our geopolitical position (hegemony) and to promote and protect our economic interests [8] (ii).  A nationalistic account, on the other hand, is not particularly concerned about the welfare of others and appeals to our pride.  If we are nationalists who always think that we must come first, then we may prefer sources like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, or textbooks found in elementary school.

Nature of Nations

Hegemony is about being a dominant economic and military force.  The definition doesn’t stipulate if this is by prestige or force or if it is done with regard to others or ruthless.  Let us detour and see what biology says about this.  Human nature is both cooperative and competitive.  We have evolved over time to compete and cooperate in a way where dominance and the threat of force are no longer the preferred routes.  There are good reasons for this.  Instead, we cooperate and compete based on mutual benefit and positive displays (iii).  So instead of threatening others with force, we threaten one another with our status and competencies.

More succinctly, dominance, which uses the threat of force and makes us fearful, has been replaced with prestige, which uses the threat of eliciting positive attention from others and makes us feel insecure.  The older system hasn’t gone away, but our culture reinforces the use of prestige by its social norms while safeguarding against dominance through our penal institutions.  A natural question is why nations still relate to one another through dominance and the threat of force while individuals see this as a relic of the past?  This is because nations are unaccountable entities that consist of individuals with dangerous nationalistic pride.

What about international law and the people holding nations responsible for their actions?  International law has not been respected by U.S. officials.  It is used when we want to hold other countries accountable, but not us.  And the voice of the people is muted by the propaganda of right-winged media who pander to the interests of the state department while exploiting our tribal instincts.  The state department’s philosophy has always preferred dominance and the threat of force as the means for national security over diplomacy.  Although the strength that we project in national defense may deter most, it has the effect of antagonizing other groups.

Threats and Pretense

We should not be naive as there are genuine threats in the world.  Knowing what happened, for example, in China, North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia and the Soviet Union, the U.S. had a legitimate concern with the spread of communism post WWII. Although the statism part of communism is necessary for dictators to exert their will, we cannot be sure that all forms of socialism lead to tyranny (iv).  The U.S. used propaganda, however, to demonize all socialist movements, which created a mass hysteria over communism. This lead to the U.S. encircling socialist “threats” with hundreds of military bases around the globe and supporting rightest regimes. Although we provided a justification for our hegemonic presence, we were not bringing freedom and democracy (v).

While rhetorically committed to freedom and democracy, the U.S. supported a host of repressive and dictatorial governments, including at various times, regimes in Greece, South Korea, French-controlled Vietnam (1950-54), South Vietnam (1954-75), Indonesia, Iran, Zaire, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, and the Philippines.  The U.S. also covertly aided the overthrow of democratic governments, notably in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), each of which was replaced by a murderous rightist regime fully supported by the United States. [8]
So we were fighting the communists and bringing freedom and democracy.  Now we are fighting the terrorists and bringing freedom and democracy.  But besides West Germany and Japan, we brought instead instability and more bloodshed, while causing the Soviet Union to escalate its defenses.  We hyped the Soviet threat despite evidence to the contrary that Russia was “not motivated by Marxist ideology to aggressively take over the world.  Rather, they expressed the view that capitalism would eventually fall of its own accord [8].”  The same may be true for many Islamic terrorist groups.  In fact, Al Qaeda articulated why they waged war against us in that they despise our repressive regimes as well as our military presence within their holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Regardless if we believe or not that our dominating presence helped with national security, there were grave costs to this approach.

…at least three million Asian deaths in Southeast Asia, the wounding of millions more, the destruction of much of the Korean countryside [and three million Koreans], and the utter devastation of Vietnam, on which more bombs were dropped than on all the belligerents combined in World War II….  Bloodbaths in Indonesia, the Congo (now Zaire), Angola, Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina; the killing of thousands of peasants, students, trade unionists, priests, and nuns; the wiping out of entire villages by right-wing governments, police forces, militias, secretive death squads, many of them trained by and in the United States – these were the consequences of our cold war policy.

Law and Rhetoric

Children of Laos illustrating the devastation.

Children of Laos illustrate their attack by the U.S.[9]

If the Nazi activities represented a kind of apex to an age of inhumanity, American atrocities in Laos are clearly of a different order,” Branfman wrote.  “Not so much inhuman as a-human. The people of Na Nga and Nong Sa were not the object of anyone’s passion.  They simply weren’t considered.” [9]

The U.S. were training the Hmong to fight in a proxy war against the pro-communist Path Lao in the 1960s.  The people of Laos were also used as a means for the U.S. military to test their 2.1 million tons of explosives on.  What was interesting and egregious was that the U.S. soldiers had no animosity towards the natives and rationalized their killings as “it’s easier to lose your Hmong people than to lose Americans.”  So if we are irrelevant and insignificant, as the Hmong were, we are at risk for being manipulated and murdered by the U.S.  Furthermore, many of these bombs never detonated and hence are still destroying the Hmong population today, claiming 50,000 lives.  This shouldn’t, however, be surprising because other democratic empires, like Great Britain and Athens, were just as vicious.  In fact, there is no correlation with how democratic a nation is and their outside treatment of others.

Reagan-Bush State Department: the UN is “perfectly serviceable as an instrument of American unilateralism and indeed may be the primary mechanism through which that unilateralism will be exercised in the future.”  [2]

The intervention in Laos was obviously against international law since it was done in secrecy as were others.  The ones that we got caught for unlawful use of force include the invasion of Panama, Grenada, and Nicaragua.  As much as conservatives have undermined the United Nations, such as it being a “foolish fantasy”, there is no other mechanism for restraining nations from the use of irrational force.  The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a clear case of America bullying and manipulating everyone.  In fact, we drafted up our own resolution with ambiguous language, such as “serious consequences”, if Iraq failed to disarm.  No one, however, on the security council interpreted that as going to war.  But it did not matter if it passed or not because the US already made up their mind.

“The US-UK leaders “issued an ultimatum” to the United Nations Security Council: capitulate in twenty-four hours or we will invade Iraq and impose the regime of our choice without your meaningless seal of approval, and we will do so—crucially—whether or not Saddam Hussein and his family leave the country. Our invasion is legitimate, Bush declared, because “the United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security.” [2] (vi)

Donald Trump at one point called Howard Zinn, the revisionist historian, a propagandist which is not terribly insightful.  Because all information must come from a point of view in the hopes of changing minds.  In general, the left-winged view on national security places an emphasis on human rights and diplomacy while the right-winged view is on nationalism and the threat of force.  The U.S., however, is a self-conscious nation which means that diplomacy must be one-hundred percent self-interested and apologies are for weak nations.  When President Obama visited Laos for reparations, he failed to take responsibility for our wrongdoings, as it was just “part of war”, and neglected to to explain his intentions.  The real reason for the visit was to secure our ““Asia pivot strategy,” whose centerpiece is an expanded military presence that threatens a new arms race with China and perhaps new proxy wars [8].”


i) We are unique since we have the most democratic institutions, promote individualism, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and have gained a level of economic prosperity unrivaled.  But this idea of exceptionalism can go beyond pride and becomes hubris.  In fact, we are so special that we justify all of our wars and interferences with American mythology—”such as leaders of the free world”—but we are too self-righteous afterwards to acknowledge the damage done.  We are so special that reasonable and sound international legal principles don’t apply to us.  And, no, saying that this is the cost of war is not acknowledgement.  It is evasion.

ii) From a narrow perspective, everything the U.S. does towards national security contributes to its hegemony.  This comes from revisionist historians having high standards towards morality which includes the belief that war is almost never justified.  It is based on the principle of universality, which says that we must apply the same standards to ourselves as we do to our enemies.  But other perspectives, such as orthodox, have come up with different conclusions which never implicate the U.S. as escalating and causing conflicts.  For example, orthodox historians say that Russia was the cause of the Cold War and that the U.S. responded rationally.

The problem with a revisionist history, or any interpretive framework, is that it looks for some trends, say American hegemony, at the cost of other facts.  For example, the historian Melvyn Leffler notes that the U.S. misinterpreted and overestimated the Soviet Union’s intentions and capabilities, yet the U.S.’s intentions were earnest since they genuinely felt threatened and wanted to defend the U.S.  In other words, although there is evidence that the U.S. sought hegemony for its own sake, there is also evidence that they did this for perceived national security. There is even evidence at times that the U.S. restrained their power and acted prudent.

iii) Positive displays are the behaviors, personalities, and images that we project to elicit positive attention, value, and respect from others.  We compete to bestow value upon others which is signaled as a success when others value, accept, or respect us.

iv) I am not against other nations engaging in socialism if it means collective ownership of the means of production and property under a democratic government.  But any practical application of it has been statist; that is, the government owns the factors of production and property.  This makes the system vulnerable to dictators that can implement dangerous propaganda and policies.

v)  The evidence for this claim is based on two studies.  One study looked at interventions from  1945 to 2004, and only one “full fledged, stable democracy” developed within ten years.  Most experts agree that the process of democratization has to come from internal efforts and that imposing it usually results in “greater authoritarianism” or at best an autocracy.  The other study looked at cases from 1973 to 2005, where 42% of interventions resulted in no change, 30% resulted in less democracy, and 28% resulted in more democracy [3,6,11].  But the definition for democratization appears to be loosely based on the ability to hold free elections.

vi) I do not know if I agree with Bush here.  The security council must be more objective than Bush to determine if the use of force is for purposes of self-defense.  I would not know where to begin to understand Bush’s true intentions for going to war although it appears to be something like misdirected vengeance.  The war was worse than pre-emption as it is classified as preventive.


[1] Cheibub, Jose Antonio; Przeworski, Adam; Limongi Neto, Fernando Papaterra; Alvarez, Michael M. (1996). “What Makes Democracies Endure?”. Journal of Democracy. 7 (1): 39–55.

[2] Chomsky, Noam.  Hegemony or Survival.

[3] Hermann, Margaret G.; Kegley, Charles (1998). “The U.S. Use of Military Intervention to Promote Democracy: Evaluating the Record”. International Interactions. 24 (2): 91–114

[4] Leffler, Melvyn P.  Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism

[5] Shaprio, Ben.  Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings.  Time to Defund the United Nations.

[6]Tures, John A. “Operation Exporting Freedom: The Quest for Democratization via United States Military Operations” (PDF). Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations.

[7] The U.N. – International Human Rights Law.  International Law and Justice.

[8] United States Foreign Policy: History and Resource Guide.  Brutal Sideshows: Associated Wars in Laos and Cambodia

[9] United States Foreign Policy: History and Resource Guide.  Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990

[10] Watson Institute: International & Public Affairs

[11] Why Gun-Barrel Democracy Doesn’t Work”. Hoover Institution. Retrieved 2019-05-23.

Us, the U.S.

For someone that started their political interests listening to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, I have since become disillusioned and enlightened after getting familiar with United States’ foreign policies and actions.  For those die-hard nationalists and patriots out there, you will not like what I have to say.  But I make no apologies.  I once was an unwavering supporter of our nation’s interests, but once I realized the value of all of human life (i), I no longer accept our reasons for going to war without extreme skepticism (ii).

On Putin’s Intentions – Motivated by Recent Comments

I am adding this section because certain passages may not be clear.  No doubt, what Putin is doing appears to be nationalistic and expansionistic.  But we do not know what motivated him to do this as this is difficult to ascertain unless we ask the person.  This post provides a hypothesis for Putin’s recent action and is by no means the only one as others point out in the comments section.

This hypothesis states that there is no hard evidence that Putin wanted to expand territory despite the kinship between Russia and Ukraine and Putin’s leanings toward right-winged, perhaps even fascist, ideology.  I am claiming, as others do, that the U.S. may have influenced his decision to invade Ukraine by the U.S. progressively expanding NATO’s reach, which was against Putin’s will.

Now maybe both are true as Putin may have always wanted to invade Ukraine but also felt threatened with NATO expansion.  On the other hand, instead of being threatened, perhaps Putin was angry (more like enraged) because this would interfere with his goals to invade.  The only thing we can do is look for quality evidence and propose more than one hypothesis.   Please see the excellent comments!

Pursuing Our Interests

I am no Putin sympathizer.  But I am curious about what is going on in Putin’s mind besides his need to promote his interests, which has the appearance of being about nationalism (iii).  He may have had the thought, “What about the US pursuing their interests in the Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia?”  Because in every corner of the world we have harshly pursued our interests. History is replete with examples of us supporting dictators since they served our interests and quenched our thirst for hegemony.

The US supported authoritarian forces in 44 out of 64 covert regime changes, including six operations that replaced liberal democratic governments with authoritarian regimes.  The U.S. not only undermined democracy but also aided and abetted repression, torture, and the execution of political opponents carried out by U.S.-backed autocracies. [3]

If Russia was a weaker nation, perhaps Putin would have been our puppet.  The ancient historian, Thucydides reminds us, “The strong do as they can, and the weak do as they must”.  So we leave Russia alone while we have terrorized, for example, Central America throughout the 1900s.  Of course, to gain popular support for our wars and terror, we have to have pretense and propaganda, such as fighting for democracy or against the communists and dictators, that we prop up.  Putin is no exception to the use of deception.

He (Putin) told the Russian people his goal was to “demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine”, to protect people subjected to what he called eight years of bullying and genocide by Ukraine’s government. “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force,” he insisted.

Putin is threatened that Ukraine will join the EU and NATO.  He is threatened because it represents a siding with the West’s democratic ideals—the other side.  It is now time to punish Ukraine for its transgressions.  But we have also carried out illegal invasions in Panama, Grenada, and a proxy war against Nicaragua, violating international law.  We then hypocritically went to war against Iraq, a dictator that no longer served our interests, in the Persian Gulf claiming that they violated international law.

The fact that Iraq violated international law and invaded Kuwait was an excuse for us to secure the region because lots of oil was at stake (iv).  If we look at most of the conflicts that we have been involved in, the reasons given were about fighting the communists, fighting drug trafficking and terrorism, humanitarian, and democracy.  But these were not the real reasons why we would go to war. We would mostly go to war or invade when the dictators that we set up got out of line or our strategic interests were at stake.

We Influenced the Present

The above examples illustrate that we often did not go to war and participate in conflict for benevolent reasons.  We ruthlessly and deceptively pursued our interests which makes our nation a self-seeking bully.  Conservatives and patriots will be quick to point out that perhaps these wars were necessary because it represents strength through the threat of force, a force that we can back up with military might second to none.  This may certainly be true, but most of the foreign threats were a consequence of our meddling.

There will always be new threats on the horizon as long as U.S. leaders pursue global hegemony and parlay this to the American public as “national security.”  It is, of course, a conceit of empire to believe that all nations benefit from the aggrandizement and projection of U.S. power.

Although we may enjoy the comfort of being number one, being a bully means that we were not always trustworthy international partners.  In 1990, the United States promised Gorbachev that they would not expand NATO “one inch to the East” in return for the reunification of Germany.  By 1998, the Clinton administration expanded NATO to Poland, Hungry, and the Czech Republic.  This trend continued with President George Bush in 2008 announcing that Ukraine and Georgia would become members too.

The expansion of NATO would amount to a “strategic blunder of epic proportions” and the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era,” as it would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion,” “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations,” and “impel Russian foreign policy in a direction decidedly not to our liking.” [3]

The rationale that the U.S. has used to expand NATO was to promote democratic ideals.  But as former President Clinton has hinted, the real reason may be for international corporations to stretch their reach.  Trump’s administration then sold the Ukraine “defensive weapons”, while more recently Ukraine participated in military exercises with the U.S.  As the relationship between Ukraine and the U.S. strengthened, the more threatened Russia became.  In other words, we disrespected the wishes of Russia.

This interpretation of events is at odds with the prevailing mantra in the West, which portrays NATO expansion as irrelevant to the Ukraine crisis, blaming instead Mr Putin’s expansionist goals. According to a recent NATO document sent to Russian leaders, “NATO is a defensive Alliance and poses no threat to Russia.” The available evidence contradicts these claims. For starters, the issue at hand is not what Western leaders say NATO’s purpose or intentions are; it is how Moscow sees NATO’s actions. [1]

We shouldn’t take this lightly although the hawks would shout appeasement if we didn’t.  But I am not capitulating here but rather performing a root cause analysis on someone’s causes of action.  What happens to us when we are repeatedly not taken seriously and instead snubbed?  It does not matter if we deserve it or not.  We feel anger and indignation over the unfair treatment.  In all likelihood, this is exactly what is going through Putin’s mind.  Regardless, he made a grave mistake by invading his neighbor and will pay the costs.  We, on the other hand, have done similar actions but answer to no one as we veto international law violations.


i) Yes, human life wasn’t that valuable to me because it was not our loss.  After Vietnam, the wars that the United States engaged in would inevitably result in minimal U.S. casualties, but the other side would be devastated.  For example, the Persian Gulf war resulted in a 100:1 (Iraq: U.S.) casualty ratio.  I can’t tell you what has changed in my life, but I simply hold the value of human life to be greater than I used to.  Perhaps it was the undoing of the indoctrination of Conservative radio.

ii) After being a part of the cheerleading squad to go to invade Iraq the second time and then finding out that we didn’t do our homework, I take the reasons given for war much more seriously now since human life is at stake.  Usually, we are given pretense for going to war, such as fighting the communists or upholding democratic ideals, but this time I think the administration actually convinced themselves that Iraq was somehow related to Al Qaeda and that they posed an imminent threat.

iii).  You will have to read the comments to understand that although his actions our expansionistic and nationalistic, I don’t believe that he would have expanded if it weren’t for the perceived threat of NATO.  There is probably an element of doing this out of spite since his “sphere of influence”, i.e., his ego was bruised when the U.S. has repeatedly gone against his will.

iv) The U.S. was prepared to go to war with Iraq for over a year prior to their violation of international law.  Saddam Husein no longer served his purpose as a buffer for Iran.  In other words, the violation was a way to legitimize the U.S.’s invasion.


[1] The Economist. “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis.”

[2] The Economist.  “Sir Adam Roberts rebuffs the view that the West is principally responsible for the crisis in Ukraine.”

[3] The Fifth Estate. http://peacehistory-usfp.org/intro/.

[4] “The Making of the Modern World”.  Robert W. Strayer.

Introverts Need Therapy?

Sensitive people.., may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat . . to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom (i). Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a more robust nature. [V. Frankl]

From the therapists I have experienced, they do not take into account personality styles when practicing their trade.  I recall being given a list of cognitive distortions, e.g., “all-or-nothing thinking” or “filtering”, only to come up with the conclusion that therapists are interfering with types of reasoning that we apply in social circumstances that may have unintended consequences. So I don’t wholeheartedly accept them.  If we think the evidence for CBT is uncontroversial, then this means that we haven’t researched it (iv).

The fact that I had a difficult time accepting and using CBT shows that this is a personality quirk, but it was interpreted instead as being adversarial and not open-minded. This post will review how some, namely those with sensory-processing sensitivity—the essence of introversion (iii)—must process things deeply and thoroughly before accepting.  We all have a natural inclination to learn and understand how to navigate our outer worlds, but we do this in our own way and may not benefit from the “fix” of a therapist (v).

The What It Is

I did a post titled “The What It Is” that claimed that we can get to the essence of a trait if we observe a physiological phenomenon upon stimulation.  This is as close as we can get to a trait’s essence, but it is not a Platonic reality or something that exists beyond perception.  Jerome Kagan has identified the essence of the introversion trait as being inhibitedness (iii) which was a label given to describe what happens with twenty percent of infants—always in this proportion—upon stimulating them with say a bright light.

Inhibited infants show EEG activation on the right frontal area under resting conditions while most infants show activation in the left frontal area.  The right frontal area in the brain is where negative “affect” or emotion occurs. [6]

Studies show that infants that are inhibited are likely to develop the personality traits of introversion and neuroticism or demonstrate the behavioral disposition of shyness.  Shyness is when we feel inhibited or fearful around others and become extremely self-conscious.  We can be introverted and shy or introverted and not shy.  Currently, introversion is studied as a function of sociability (see reader’s comment below), and introverts prefer select and few social interactions as they can become easily overwhelmed.  But once we focus on sociability in terms of energy expenditure, although still correct, it misses the more fundamental roots of the trait.

Jung was right to describe innate introversion not in terms of sociability but as a preference to process information from the external world in a thoroughly subjective way. [1]

There is reason to believe that this trait of inhibitedness is a misnomer and should be labeled sensory-processing sensitivity or HSP (Highly Sensitive Person).  Dr. Aaron has framed this inhibitedness in terms of the central nervous system’s sensitivity which requires it to take life in small pieces for deep processing.  But thirty percent of HSPs are extroverts.  Research, however, shows that this subset of HSPs may have developed into introverts if they did not have positive and accepting social experiences.

HSP is characterized by “a tendency to ‘pause to check’ in novel situations, greater sensitivity to subtle stimuli, and the engagement of deeper cognitive processing strategies for employing coping actions, all of which is driven by heightened emotional reactivity, both positive and negative. [4.1]

Introverted Brain

Introverts are more sensitive to stimuli and stimulants, more vigilant during discrimination tasks, more influenced by implicit learning paradigms, more reflective when given feedback, and slower to acquire and forget information due to their depth of processing input into memory.  [1]

So by getting closer to the biology of the trait, known as temperament, we can see that it is sensitivity that makes introverts more easily overwhelmed.  Think for a moment about how being “more easily overwhelmed” will affect how we approach life. This means that we will have rehearsed questions before answering because we feel shame more deeply, that people may exhaust us instead of energize us, but it is all rooted in protection from feeling overwhelmed, which is why sensitivity is the essence of the trait (ii, iii).

This greater sensitivity and its physiological correlates are found at all levels of the nervous system, from measures of skin conductance, reaction times, and evoked potential, to subcortical areas of the brain, to differences in cortical processing (generally more right hemi- sphere activity. [2]

This sensitivity can explain introverts’ lower sociability (iii), which is to avoid feeling overwhelmed due to their exaggerated response to stimuli, but I haven’t seen an adequate explanation of how responsiveness contributes to deeper processing of information despite being intuitive.  But there are differences between how introverts and extroverts process information, where introverts tend to be more reflective, thorough, and profound, extroverts are not.  In terms of IQ, introversion does not, however, confer an advantage.

Introverts rely much more on acetylcholine-mediated pathways [my insert: extroverts favor dopaminergic pathways], resulting in a longer circuit through the frontal lobes of the brain, a longer time in the planning and decision-making mode, and slower memory retrieval. They have greater synthesis of information from different parts of the brain too.  [4]


i) Spiritual doesn’t have to be divine because it is also transcendence of the here and now to create meaning and purpose.  Inner riches means the rich life of our inner thoughts and feelings that we can console and rely on.  For me, when I learn something that integrates nicely into my larger understanding of things, then I feel satisfaction.  The things that I learn are personally meaningful.

ii)  This discussion is relying on a categorization of introverts versus extroverts, but we can’t explain the individual in such stark ways since traits are on a continuum and combine in complex ways with other traits.  The larger point, however, is that people vary in how they interact with their outer worlds.

iii) This may not be the true trait that underlies introversion because of confounding variables.  The fact that we aren’t very social (introversion), for example, may not be because we are easily overwhelmed (sensitive) but instead due to aversive social experiences.  So the trait of sensory-processing sensitivity is a subset of all introverts.  Psychologists are still trying to discern the different behaviors that make up a trait, and they certainly are not monolithic.  They then squeeze them into a nice and tidy category.

…Well, whatever we name this trait, the most recent research suggests that the general strategy of being more sensitive is determined by multiple genes, and these do not come with names on them. We scientists are creating the names—introverted, inhibited, shy, sensitive, and responsive. As we learn more, we will become more accurate. For now, if you are socially extroverted yet feel things deeply, ponder the meaning of life, reflect before acting, and need a lot of down time, please, be patient. If you are socially introverted but not especially bothered by loud noise, are not very emotional, and make decisions rather easily, please also be patient. We’ll get it right about you, too…[Elaine Aaron]

iv) The status quo is that there is empirical support from CBT, but it depends on which meta analysis we accept.  In my view, CBT probably does work to alleviate “dysfunctional” thoughts and feelings that may contribute to depression and anxiety.  But these dysfunctional thoughts may have a purpose that if we eliminate them, then we may not get to the source of what is causing the depression and anxiety.  I have touched upon this before on items twelve and thirteen of this post.  I am not alone on this concern.

As far as unintended consequences, if we are familiar with the cognitive distortions, then we will see that it is essentially pointing out that we have cognitive biases such as the confirmation bias, which is labeled as “filtering”.  But this is how the brain naturally works to find evidence for something.  It is simply saying that we should look for other causes before making a hasty conclusion.  This is usually a good thing.  My concern, however, is that this prevents us from using our intuition when it comes to assessing people.

v). This isn’t fair to therapists because it reflects my experiences with a small sample of them.  Therapy is an opportunity to raise our emotional IQ and to learn about ourselves.  They can be an invaluable coach to us as we navigate the rough terrains of our lives.


[1] Aaron, Elaine.  Revisiting Jung’s Concepts of Innate Sensitiveness. Journal of Analytical Psychology.

[2] Aaron, Elaine.  Sensory Processing Sensitivity and Its Relation to Introversion and Emotionality.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

[3] Aaron, Elaine.  The Clinical Implications of Jung’s Concept of Sensitiveness.  Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice.

[4] Aaron, Elaine. Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity.  Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews.

[4.1] Booth, Charlotte; Standage, Helen; Fox, Elaine (1 Dec 2015), “Sensory-processing sensitivity moderates the association between childhood experiences and adult life satisfaction

[5] Olsen, Marti. The Introvert Advantage: Making the Most of Your Inner Strengths

[6] Schmidt, Louis.  Extreme Fear, Shyness, and Social Phobia (Series in Affective Science)

The Criticism

I always felt that criticism was a fascinating invention, but it should be used sparingly.  Here’s my take on Homo sapiens’ creation.


I am going to show how a weapon, which homo sapiens have perfected, allows us to “cut” another human being.  This is called the criticism.  I am not talking about teasing that involves affection, which respectfully knows when it has gone too far, but rather criticism that is meant to inflict harm and is a direct attack on our self-esteem.  I’m also including the well-intentioned kind that cuts deep because our subconscious knows that it is true.  Either way, the crux of criticism is “to find fault”.  If we step the criticism up a notch, then we have what is known as contempt.  When we show contempt, then we show that a person or their attributes are inferior. 

If we want to harm with criticism, we can customize it for the best effect.  We can modulate our tone, use body language, target our words, and use emotion, all to prove superiority.  There are many options to choose from.  There is teasing, which “playfully” pokes fun at the expense of another, mocking, which creates a caricature of our worst attribute, rendering us as clowns that can’t be taken seriously, and ridicule, which dismisses another as worthless.  If that wasn’t enough, we have sarcasm, which covertly puts us down.  The type is also situation-dependent.  If there are people around, then we are humiliated.  And if we fail to meet expectations, then we are berated.  We have, indeed, stumbled upon our Achilles heel since no one wants to deviate from a desirable standard.

Being criticized can cause anger or a low mood, but when repeatedly subjected to criticism, and we can’t escape or fight back, known as arrested flight/fight, then we can end up in a defeated state.  The thing with criticism is that the person that spews it wins at the cost of the other’s self-esteem.  Although the victor may feel guilt, the loser goes through an increase in cortisol, adrenaline, along with evoking the aversive emotions of shame or hurt feelings.  Anytime the self, which includes our abilities and attributes, is exposed to be inferior or undesirable, then we feel shame*.  Shame shows when we view our exposed self through the eyes of others.  By contrast, hurt feelings come if we feel that the criticizer no longer values us since criticisms can be a form of rejection.

Not everyone feels shame from a perceived threat of criticism.  This is because they either didn’t know the sense in which the word was supposed to be critical, the criticism was non-threatening, their mind fails to process it for numerous reasons, or they have already exposed their flaws and have come to accept them.  If we have any bit of intelligence, then we are going to process that threat.  The trick to not feeling shame and hurt feelings is to attribute the threat to something else, anything but us.  Common tactics include attributing the attacker to be jealous and giving false information, they didn’t mean it in that sense, or minimizing its importance.  But criticisms that reappear in life may have some truth and value to them, so it’s best to deal with the pain and accept.  Otherwise, you are stuck with two conflicting beliefs: it either conforms to a social reality or it doesn’t.  You end up with dissonance.


*Shame only works if we attribute a fault or failure to meet a standard to “us” being the cause.  If we attribute our failings to it being a fluke or we didn’t try hard enough, then it doesn’t get triggered.  In other words, It has to be global (us as beings or our attributes) and stable (can’t change it because that’s our aptitude).  One thing that would always irritate me is when someone would make me feel like my efforts were inadequate or not enough.  If we think that our efforts are caused by our capabilities and not motivations, then we will feel shame.  Otherwise, we will feel guilt, which is what we mean when we say that you are making me feel bad.

Dennett on Free Will

 … so that we can cope with the world around us effectively—if we are normal. There are unfortunate human beings who for one reason or another cannot, and they must live among us in a reduced status, rather like pets, at best, cared for and respected, restrained if necessary, loved and loving in their own limited ways, but not full participants in the human social world, and, of course, lacking morally significant free will. [1]

I have not had the opportunity to get into Daniel Dennett’s work until I got into free will.  Dennett’s view on free will is mechanical, and so I naturally gravitated towards it.  Although I like Dennett’s ideas and approach, I was taken aback by his insensitivity towards those deemed as inadequate and undesirable.  Despite the description being accurate, it could have been stated in a way that maintains the “unfortunates'” dignity.  Dennett does say, however, that the unfortunates aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions.

In Dennett’s writings, he often uses the term psychopath as a caricature of the abnormal person that can’t live within the bounds of society. Can I have compassion for the psychopath?  Probably not but I could have empathy, which would allow me to separate my disdain from their problem.  I don’t claim to have a solution to the problem of moral living, but I don’t think I like the implications of Dennett’s.  I don’t see much compassion towards “designs” in nature that are not competent enough to meet society’s standards.

This doesn’t affect the merit of Dennett’s analysis.  Dennett says that free will exists, but it’s not what we think it is.  Since free will doesn’t explain much of anything and has too much baggage to be used, then why keep it?  The only reason to not scrap the concept is so that we can be blamable for our actions.  But we can make a case for accountability without positing the existence of free will.  We don’t need to be ultimately responsible for an action because there is no shortage of good reasons to be accountable.

Dennett’s Free Will

There is not much to find wrong with Dennett’s work if you like science.  He equates free will to be nothing more than self-control and deliberation.  If freedom is to be found anywhere, then it must be found within these two concepts.  To Dennett, free will is compatible with determinism.  Determinism is the idea that given the past and laws of nature, that only one possible future exists. Dennett accomplishes this by telling us that the stipulation for free will to exist, which is could have done otherwise, doesn’t matter.

Dennett says that events are not inevitable but evitable; that is, we are designed by natural selection to avoid situations that could interfere with our survival.  Dennett claims that the problems of free will go away if we view it through a biological framework as agents.  Although he shows through thought experiments and computer simulations how complexity arises at a higher-level, which gives the appearance of indeterminism, he never labels it as an indeterministic system like many other philosophers seem to do.

We know at the quantum level that nature is indeterministic, but at the macro level it is deterministic.  Even though we may not be able to observe the causes at a high-level, we assume that there are causes.  For example, a coin toss is random because we can’t identify and predict its complex motion, yet it is deterministic.  Philosophers aren’t clear on whether or not indeterminism is meant in the stochastic sense or in the uncaused causes sense.  Dennett does agree though that high-level randomness is deterministic.

If all of our actions are predetermined by our biology and the inputs of our environment, which they are, then how can we be free?  It has to do with the framework or level of description we are using.  There is no ghost in the machine or mysterious force controlling us but rather an agent.  Relative to the agent, there are possibilities presented that we control the outcome of because we can deliberate with reasons to act or not to act.  But this is nothing more than self-control and deliberation.  Why force a fit with free will?


[1] Dennett, Daniel C.. Elbow Room

[2] Dennett, Daniel C.. Freedom Evolves

Rethought Free Will

The apparent paradoxes emerge from a false theory of mind and language that assumes that freedom can be defined abstractly on its own terms, frame free and metaphor free.  [5]

The reason why there is such a divide on free will is that we all think of it in our own terms.  The existence of free will is a matter of framework.  If we prefer a materialist worldview, then free will is an illusion or an experience at best.  If we prefer to use the language of intentionality, then free will exists as freedom of action and maybe freedom of choice.  The problem is that philosophers believe that an absolute objective concept exists independent of our understanding and experience (i).  Cognitive science says that this is false.  Since I privilege science over any other body of knowledge, then I am justified in saying free will’s existence depends.

Free Will As Metaphor

Free will is a concept made up by humans, but it wasn’t arbitrarily created.  It is actually grounded in our real-life experiences.  Since it is grounded in our real life, then it is physical yet still metaphorical.  You will see how soon.  The problem is that philosophy is trying to make free will an objective truth.  Although concepts, by the objectivist approach, are defined by their inherent properties, we understand them by how we interact with them.  Not only that but we only understand concepts in light of what we already know.

Philosophers are usually doing us a service by clarifying concepts, but they need to do a better job in communicating this.  Because everyday understanding relies on our frames, metaphors, and point of view.  If we have a materialist mindset, then free will strikes us as an abomination.  This is especially true if we view ourselves as a third party—that is, as passive observers of physiological mechanisms.  But once the system is viewed as “you” and we adopt the use of intentional language, then “you” have some freedom.

To break down free will, we must figure out where freedom comes from.  It is based literally on the physical act of moving [5].  If freedom is about moving, then we need the metaphor “freedom as freedom of motion” for it to make sense.  Freedom as freedom of motion breaks down to freedom to do what we want or freedom from being pushed off our path.  What we want is the freedom to achieve something, which means we have a motivation to get and do what we want.  So freedom is bodily motion towards a goal.

We need the metaphor motion in space to allow for the will to move around.  The will is governed by reason (reason as force) though since we should be rational.  If our will is weak, then the battle between better judgment and passion is lost.  We may not want to achieve a physical purpose but a higher purpose, say reach the pinnacle of our career, so we extend the metaphor even further.  We now project freedom onto the will, and we have free will.  Free will of course chooses rational and reasonable goals.

Freedom of Action 

  • Freedom is freedom to do what we want and freedom from being prevented to do what we want.
  • Freedom is a physical phenomenon because it is rooted in the metaphor freedom as freedom of motion.
  • Language is replete with references to freedom from: “in chains”, “repressed”, “trapped”, “held down”.
  • If we want a cup of coffee, we have the freedom to get it as long as we have the freedom from being blocked.
  • If free will is defined as a capacity to control our actions, then free will exists as freedom of action.
  • We must define the reference of “our” actions as the ‘self’ being the entire mind and body (i).
  • If freedom is defined in different terms, such as freedom from the laws of physics, then it won’t work.

What Is Real Anyway

So free will is metaphorical although it is rooted in our understanding and experience of motion toward a goal [5].  This narrative on how the will works is not an accurate picture according to neuroscience.  In fact, it came from the Enlightenment era and has its influences from “faculty” psychology.  Faculty gave each one of these entities, the will, passion, etc. a role to play out.  Despite this, metaphorical thought is a necessary part of understanding our world and all of science uses it to glean insight into processes.

What do we think neural computation, the brain is like a computer, and even Einstein’s theory of general relativity is?  These are all metaphorical and not physical entities.  Metaphors are used to help us to understand things because they allow us to see concepts in terms of other concepts.  Since the mind only understands things in light of what it already knows, then we can hardly do without metaphorical thought.  Although some concepts are literal, to understand them we often frame them in terms of something else.

If a model or theory allows us to explain and predict phenomena, then the phenomenon is real.  But it’s intentional agency—humans’ capacity to act in goal-oriented ways—that predicts human behavior, not free will.  Philosophers may argue that they are identical but then fail to mention the baggage that comes with free will’s use.  To be sure, concepts that are not literal are socially constructed because there is a consensus that agrees to believe in their existence.  Even so, free will as a concept is rooted in a physical reality.

Concepts Need Frames

A framework or frame means that there is a compatible context in which we use concepts.  There are two frameworks for free will, the physical and the intentional, but many frames.  A frame or framework is how we interpret concepts.  For example, the concepts price, buy, sell, goods, and services have to be interpreted.  Intuitively, we think about the free market because we have a frame that dictates what these facts mean and how they relate to one another.  Think of each concept as having a role to play in a scenario [5].

If we need to understand new concepts, especially abstract ones, then we use metaphorical reasoning.  To illustrate, if we say that the “water level is rising”, then this is literal, but if we say that the “stock prices are rising, then this is metaphorical [5.1].  We mapped water rising to the abstract level of stocks rising.  But we could only do this in terms of what we already knew; that is, we had to have known the primary metaphor “more is up”.  We intuitively acquire primary metaphors as we experience the world at an early age.

This is how language is built, and a majority of it is metaphorical and not literal.  There are two points from the opening quote.  One, all concepts need frames and metaphors to understand them.  Two, because concepts rely on frames, then they can’t be absolute objective facts since they are relative to those frames.  But this doesn’t stop philosophers from attempting to define concepts, such as free will, in objective terms.  They do this by finding a concept’s inherent properties with necessary and sufficient conditions.

Philosophers have yet to etch out free will with necessary and sufficient conditions.  This is because free will is a multi-faceted, metaphorical concept.  If it was literal, say biological “life”, then this would be easier to give inherent properties.  For example, water is a necessary property for life but it is not sufficient.  When philosophers create arguments, they also make sure that the coherence requirement is met, which means that no concepts contradict.  My focus, however, is exclusive to how philosophers neglect frames.

Physical and Intentional 

It is only agents that have the property of intentionality which is to say that they act on their intentions.  On the other hand, neurons and neurotransmitters don’t have the property of intentionality.  When an agent has the intention to do something, then we say that it is “caused” by a mental state, which is a desire, intention, or belief.  The language of intentionality will only work within its intentional framework.  If we, for example, believe that the capital of Oregon is Salem, then this mental state contains a proposition that is either true or false.  If we have a desire to travel to Oregon, then this mental state contains a proposition that we desire to make true.

A system is intentional if some of its states, such as its belief-and-desire states, are directed towards something: they encode an attitude towards some meaningful content. [6]

The content of these mental states has the property of aboutness which means it is about something.  More specifically, the content is “an attitude towards some meaningful content [6].”  In the case of beliefs, the attitude is representational since we represent some fact, and, in the case of desires, the attitude is motivational since we want to get something [6].  The intentional framework allows us to understand concepts in the following ways: rational (explains the behavior), relational (references to things), and semantic (gives meaning) ways.  In sum, “intentional properties stand in rational and semantic relations [6]” but this isn’t true for physical concepts.

By contrast, physical concepts only stand in a causal relationship with other physical concepts.  For example, the neurotransmitter dopamine caused an action potential in the neurons in the mesolimbic pathway.  If we, on the other hand, want to say that the capital of Oregon is Salem, we would make a reference to this belief (relational) which is about something that has meaning (semantic).  Intentional language also gives explanations for our actions called rationalizations.  We went to, for example, Oregon because we wanted to see the beautiful forests (rational).  Desires don’t just cause action but make them instrumentally rational [6].

It stands in various causal relations to other physical properties, but it stands in no semantic or logical relations, such as relations of rational coherence with other intentional properties or relations of reference to objects such as Washington or the United States. [6]

Instrumentally rational means that we follow means-end rationality, which is that we act in accordance with our motivations.  These motivations are mental states (beliefs and desires).  It is said that mental states supervene the physical level of neurons and neurotransmitters.  This means that mental states take on a similar role to that of a bitmap image, where the pixels are the neurons and the image is the mental states [6].  The image “supervenes” the pixels.  It is an apt description because mental states are the outcome of the physical.  Many philosophers, however, want to claim that mental states and not physical states cause action.

Frames Plague Philosophers

The above matters because it helps to explain why there are so many disagreements amongst philosophers and laypeople.  Let me go through an example of a challenge that philosophers face.  Philosophers have created categories based on the assumption that determinism is true, which means that given the past and the laws of nature, that only one possible future exists.  Determinism, as they use it, is not necessarily a force and is different from causal determinism, which says that all events have preceding causes.

The first concept is compatibilism which is the thesis that freedom of action and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism.  The second category is incompatibilism, which says that neither moral responsibility nor freedom of action is compatible with determinism.  The third category is libertarianism which is the thesis that freedom of action and moral responsibility exist but are not compatible with determinism [7].  The example I give applies to some aspects of free will: AP, UR, and CC.

The consequent argument (CA), given below [4.1], is a challenge that libertarians put forth for compatibilists to show that free will is not compatible with determinism.  The fifth statement is an inference made from three and four, which is called the Transfer of Powerlessness (TP) inference.   Premises one and two are obviously true, while number three follows from two.  The fourth premise is a consequence of determinism.  The problem is that the inference, number five if interpreted by another frame, could be false.

  1. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the past.
  2. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the laws of nature.
  3. There is nothing we “can” now do to change the past and the laws of nature.
  4. If determinism is true, our present actions are necessary consequences of the past and the laws of nature.
  5. Therefore, there is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

That is, we are “powerless” to change the past and laws of nature, but we are not powerless to get a cup of coffee, which means there is something we can do now.  Philosophers phrase this as “you would do it if you wanted or tried to” and conclude that the TP fails.  The counterarguments that libertarians give are verbose, and they claim that compatibilists’ analysis is incorrect or not meant in their “sense”.  Whenever we see the word sense, we should think of frames.  The consequent argument is plagued with framing issues.  It uses the first-person pronoun “we” which is an intentional human being.  The CA is a physical and intentional composite.

Libertarians only mean to speak in terms of the physical level where we must be passive mechanisms taking inputs from our environments.  If we are physical mechanisms taking in information and responding, then we are not intentional beings.  The operative word which has been one of the most difficult metaphysical concepts to grasp is “power” [4.1].  It must have a frame of reference like any other concept, and “we” must have its own concepts that take on roles within its own frame.  We can change the future if we intentionally try, but we can’t if we are interpreted as passive mechanisms, which is the language of the physical level.


i). Absolute objective truths don’t exist because all concepts, including free will, are relative to our conceptual understanding.  So we interpret concepts within our own framework, which is our own understanding.  But this isn’t fatal to any philosopher’s arguments because the concepts become relative objective truths.  I make this point because it explains why there is so much division on the concept of free will.  I also use it to argue that since everything is relative, then I am justified in saying that free will depends on what framework we choose to apply to the concept.

ii) In metaphysical terms, mind and body are one and the same.  This distinction is made here because we commonly think of ourselves with these categories in mind.


[1] Roy F. Baumeister.  “Free WIll and Consciousness”

[2] Ib Bondebjerg.  “The creative mind: cognition, society and culture.”  Nature.com.

[3] Holton, Richard, “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[4] Kane, Robert.  “The Oxford Handbook of Free Will”

[4.1] Kane, Robert; Pereboom, Derk; Vargas, Manuel; Fischer, John Martin. “Four Views on Free WIll”

[5] Lakoff, George.  “Whose Freedom”

[5.1] Lakoff, George.  “Your Brain’s Politics”

[6] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”

[7] Mele, Alfred R. “Free Will and Luck”

Rethinking Free Will

I thought an outline of the problem of free will would help anyone that is interested in the debate.  To answer if free will exists, it depends on what we mean by free will as well as what framework we use to interpret the concepts, and it even depends on our point of view.  If you want to say that free will exists without saying that it depends, then you are motivated to show that it exists.

The Problem of Free Will

Philosophers rarely address all of the problems and pick one or two and call it a day.  So I would be suspect of anyone saying that free will exists or doesn’t without qualification and explanation.  There is a reason why some philosophers have spent thirty years on the problem but seem to have made little progress.  It is a difficult problem.  To be clear, I have come to the conclusion that free will exists within a certain linguistic framework, but once we start explaining things at the physical level, it cannot exist.  I concede that number “1” below is true, which is freedom of action, and I will explain why the rest are problematic in the next posts.

First show:

  1. show the capacity to act freely (easy to show)
    1. also known as freedom of action (FA)
    2. there is empirical evidence that we experience free action which includes [1]
      1. Acts that show the person resisting temptation and resisting external pressures.
      2. Acts that involve the pursuit of long-term gain, rather than short-term impulse.
      3. Acts that indicate conscious reflection and thought are regarded as free.
    3. the fact that we have self-control implies that we have some degree of freedom
    4. e.g., If I will a coffee, then I am free to get it if no constraints.
    5. the question becomes how much control do we have over our actions
  2. show the capacity to freely make choices (difficult to show),
    1. this is freedom of choice or alternate possibilities (AP)
    2. includes “could have chosen otherwise”
    3. requires that options are open to us in the first place
    4. requires the characterization of choices
    5. obstacles of making it work with determinism
  3. show that mental states cause action
    1. also known as causal control (CC)
    2. do mental states—our intentions, beliefs, and desires—cause us to act?
    3. a majority of philosophers think that mental states do cause actions
    4. epiphenomenalism, endorsed by neuroscientists, says that mental states don’t do the real work
  4. show that conscious intentions lead to action
    1. “If all behavior were produced only by nonconscious processes, and if conscious decisions (or choices) and intentions (along with their physical correlates) were to play no role at all in producing any corresponding actions, free will would be in dire straits. ” [1]
    2. the above quote illustrates what a pro free will philosopher believes would be the end of free will
    3. because if we have no awareness of what is happening, then free will is meaningless
    4. even if that were true above, it may not affect freedom of action, “1”
  5. but it depends on the framework (level of analysis) used
    1. “1” above depends on using the framework of intentional agency to understand it
    2. intentional agency framework relates concepts to one another by semantics and logic
    3. the physical level relates things by physical causes
    4. we can not reduce intentional agency down to the physical
    5. the intentional agency level is said to supervene the physical level
  6. but it depends on our point of view or frame of reference
    1. there are three ways in which we can shift perspective on the self
      1. we can view ourselves as the entire body
        1. this means that it is always us choosing
      2. we can view ourselves as a series of mental states
        1. if we are our mental states, then it is us
      3. we can view ourselves as an executive
        1. a passive executive that witnesses action so not us
        2. an active executive that decides action so us
  7. but it depends on your definitions of what is real
    1. for some neuroscientists the physical level or materialism is the only thing that counts as real
    2. for others, like cognitive science, multiple truths exist since truth is defined as “to understand”

Then answer:

  1. if we are free, then show that freedom is sufficient for moral responsibility?
    1. also known as ultimate responsibility (UR)
    2. we do have the capacity to control some actions but not others
    3. but it is not fair because we have different genetic dispositions, which is the problem of “moral luck”
    4. there is the problem of infinite regress in terms of ultimate responsibility


[1] Roy F. Baumeister.  “Free WIll and Consciousness”

[2] Richard Holton. “Willing, Wanting, Waiting.”

[3] Kane, Robert.  “The Oxford Handbook of Free Will”

[4] Leary, Mark.  Selfhood.

[5] List, Christian.  “Why Is Free Will Real.”