Man Alive! Chapter 10: A Mindful Catalog of Mindlessness

Here’s the post that kicked it all off. This is chapter 10 of 12, to give interested readers the chance to take on the free ebook chapter by chapter over the weekend, debate it amongst themselves, or even challenge the author who’s keeping tabs.


From: Man Alive! A survival manual for the human mind.

by Greg Swann

Chapter 10. A mindful catalog of mindlessness.

I told you how you came to be a self, but how did you go about failing so completely, so consistently, to be a defective, bungled and botched not-self? You worked at it, that’s how.

It really is a testament to your fundamental goodness that you have tried so hard, for all of your life, to conform to ideas of moral virtue that no one can live down to fully and yet still manage to remain alive as a human being. You were thoughtless – mindless – and so you did not know that the cause of your repeated failures at attaining those “virtues” was human nature itself. But you were damned if you didn’t try to be what you sincerely thought was “good,” and that much is all to your credit. You may have behaved mindlessly, but you gave your mindless pursuit of ethical perversion everything you had.

But how did anyone gull you into behaving so thoughtlessly so scrupulously and so relentlessly for so long?

Here’s one good way: Inclusion and exclusion. It worked great when you were five years old and it still works great today. Obviously, no one can indoctrinate you before you master Fathertongue. Before then, words are semaphores to you, ciphers, with no more conceptual content than the wagging of a dog’s tail. If someone had read the Bible to you while you were still a toddler, or the Koran or the The Federalist Papers or The Communist Manifesto, what you would have heard, absorbed and acted upon would have been nothing but incomprehensible sounds, less meaningful to you, and less interesting, than the dog’s barking. But as soon as you came to be able to think in Fathertongue, the human beings around you could undertake to reward you, physically or emotionally, for conforming to their dogmas, and to punish you for failing to.

How might they do this? Recall that much of parenting consists of invoking the subjunctive – worlds not in evidence – to induce a child to identify and reflect upon the unhappy consequences of bad behavior: “Would you like it if little Sally broke your toy?” It is but a short step from there to the Straw Man Fallacy – putting words into another person’s mouth in order to shout them down: “You don’t want for me to think you’re selfish, do you?” “Do you want for the other children to get the idea that you can’t play nicely?” “Why would you want to hold out to get your own way, when everyone else is willing to go along?” “Surely you don’t think it’s right for you not to share your toys with Bobby when he is offering to share his toys with you?”

These aren’t really questions. They’re con-games, underhanded emotional manipulations of a mind too young to have learned how to defend itself. The weapon is the subjunctive postulation of the disapproval of other people – anyone other than you. The implied punishment – the threat – is the prospect of social exclusion. Your mother or your father or some other adult or older child was effectively saying to you, “If you don’t renounce your self – if you don’t back down from this position you have taken all on your own, for your own reasons – I will exclude you from the universe of my awareness. Either yield to my will, or I will make an unperson of you.”

There is nothing morally wrong with a child wanting to live his own life in his own way, and so the purpose of those kinds of treacly, smarmy appeals is not just a topical injustice – pushing you around in the immediate moment – but the inculcation of a doctrine of moral evil – selflessness. Take account that your folks didn’t know – explicitly, mindfully – that this is what they were doing. And, never forget, you owe them a boundless debt of gratitude for the gift of mind in the first place – for the mental prowess you can use to identify and mitigate any thoughtless errors they may have made when you were young. But this kind of fallacious reasoning was very probably your introduction to the infinite varieties of anti-ontological teleology – shoulding at war with being.

Your folks may have been taking you to a house of worship all along when you were young, but before you could think in Fathertongue, church was just another place where you would squall, squirm and make eye contact with bored strangers. But once you could reason in concepts, you were swept off to a separate room, where a wannabe theologian would terrorize you with elaborate tales of eternal torment. I told you I don’t want to take anything away from you, and my friend Jim Klein has convinced me that the statement, “God loves me,” to a person who believes it, can be a benign and beautiful claim, unpacking to something like this: “I behave lovably in the eyes of my god.” A self behaving lovably is the soul and substance of truly ethical conduct. This is not something I would want to object to – or disrupt.

But the soul and substance of a dogma – which we can define broadly as the doctrinal representation of an inverted moral philosophy – is a profound mistrust of the human mind. If at any moment, when a “thought leader” is making a claim that is comically absurd on its face, anyone in the audience can summon up the courage and the intellectual fortitude to stand up and shout, “Say WHAT?!?” – the rest of the sheep in the flock just might catch on to the idea that the shepherd is a paranoid fraud making claims that he could never defend in reason.

At that point, it doesn’t matter if the undefended dogma is a religion or a political philosophy, and it is no mere coincidence that the biblical book of Proverbs says, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it” and Lenin said, “Give me a child for the first five years of his life and he will be mine forever.” Why would we take a brand new human being who has just come to be fully awake as a mind – fully aware at last of all the delights and wonders of the world – and immediately demand that he shut his mind down forever? It’s because false doctrines cannot bear up to the scrutiny of a fully-human mind – and the “thought leaders” who contrive them know it.

But all of that notwithstanding, the very most beautiful ceremony you will ever see in any church is not Christmas or Easter or Chanukah or whatever. It is not a funeral, although it can be very moving to see how deeply people can be moved to honor the deceased. It is not a wedding, even though the celebration of committed romantic love may induce you to renew your own wedding vows in the best possible way when you get home. But the most wonderful thing you can ever see inside a church is any particular religion’s analogue of child baptism.

The child is being inducted into the religious community without his informed consent – and most probably without his conscious knowledge, if the ceremony occurs before the mastery of Fathertongue. But that child’s parents – and, by concatenation, all of the members of that congregation – are doing what they think is the very best thing they can do for that child, and that kind of conscious commitment to the ideal of moral goodness is to be applauded regardless of the anti-ontological teleology of the underlying theological gibberish.

At about that same time in your life, you graduated to the playground, a riotously colorful campus of delights and wonders modeled on the idyllic paradise to be found in Lord of the Flies. And there did you have your first one-on-one confrontation with the first of the many “thought leaders” you have known in your life – which is to say an incipient malignantly narcissistic paranoid schizophrenic dominating personality backed up by a mindless mob. And that kid sized you up perfectly in a glance, offering you the chance to prove your worthiness for inclusion in the mob by picking on the “goat” of the group. If you accepted those terms, you got to establish yourself as yet another mindless minion – probably for the first of many times in your life, in the first of many mindless mobs. And if you refused to go-along-to-get-along, you got to be the new goat, instead, and the rest of the mob – possibly joined by the former goat – ganged up on you in unison.

In Cicero’s discourse on the trial of Cataline, he says of one forum faction, “Consputare coeperunt” – “they began to spit together in unison.” We are never very far from that playground, are we? I won’t ask you what you did, with that mob or with any of the mobs you ran up against later, but I will put a different question to you, something to think about the next time your choice is either to gang-up or be ganged-upon. Socrates wondered if it is better, as a matter of morality, to inflict an injury or to have an injury inflicted upon you. If we accept that the problem can only be solved by referencing a Calculus of Loss – if we assume that both options will move your self leftward on the number line of self-regard, that both will leave you feeling less worthy of your own adoration – my question is this: Which choice will make you despise your self more, now and enduringly, and which will leave you better equipped to love your self going forward?

I can think of other dyads of domination in the undiscovered country of mindlessness. That bully on the playground and his mindless minions live out their lives in a mad, sad ballet of inclusion and exclusion, feigned impotence and omnipotence, submission and dominance and still more submission. Thoughtless people run in herds, and every group has its own power dynamic: The boss in this group will be the minion – or even the goat – in that one. And each person who submits to this chaos of collectivized ethics is a slave to it, most especially the putative “thought leader.”

Ayn Rand said, “A leash is only a rope with a noose at both ends.” There is no one who is more the slave of the mob than the top mobster. He knows with a frantically-unexamined certainty that “his” mob could turn on him at any instant. And the worst tragedy for everyone involved, for the boss bully and all the sub-bullies, is that gang “thinking” can never result in truly human behavior. The mindless minions, at the least, may think they gain something by ganging up together, but human consciousness cannot be collectivized. “Groupthink” can neither discover the truth nor identify and effect moral goodness. Too much the contrary! Whether the group “decides” by the dictatorial fiat of the “thought leader” or by some kind of consensus communicated among the members of the group in veiled Mothertongue displays, the “conclusion” the group arrives at can neither be validated epistemologically nor justified ethically. You cannot achieve the end-consequence of mindfulness mindlessly, and two heads are never “better than one” unless each one of those heads is working independently. Discovery – of anything – is particular to an individual person. This is a matter of inescapable ontology, a fact that cannot be flattered, wheedled, threatened or beaten into submission by any mob, no matter how large or how ferocious.

There is only one truth, but as you are discovering here, unpacking it in all its sublime perfection is not always easy. But lies are as abundant as weeds or cockroaches. To pull a weed or to crush a cockroach can be a needful chore, but it is not a virtue – or at least not a very important virtue. And to declare to the world that you have resolved to make a grand virtue of pulling every intellectual weed you can find is simply an empty vanity – a waste of the finite time of your one, precious, irreplaceable life on redundant, repetitive busy-work. It is worth mapping the most common paths to error to avoid getting lost on them – or to avoid getting lost on them again. But no amount of documenting and deploring and denouncing vice will result in a single act of virtue in your own life. If you cannot rid your life of mental and moral cockroaches without wasting too much of your time, you need to find a way to get away from them instead.

But when you find yourself among philosophical bullies and their mindless minions, you need to be on your guard. If you are not vigilant, they will try to impose their moral standards on you, and you will find yourself striving – in vain – to defend your arguments, beliefs or behavior according to their putative standard of value. It does not matter that they can neither intellectually defend nor successfully live down to their perverse ethical doctrine. All that will matter to them is inducing you to damn your self on their terms – to apologize to them and to the universe for being a self and for daring to live up to your self. They crave this as a bogus “evidence” of the moral righteousness of their creed, an evidence they would not seek, and would not need to seek, if their dogma were actually true.

The general process – evil people seeking “evidence” of the “truth” of moral philosophies they already know are false – is much too common. The ganging-up on the playground – and in the forum and in the tap-room and in the office and on the internet – is a form of the same madness, social “proof” of claims no one doubts are factually false and morally reprehensible. True intellectual confidence is fearless. If you need for someone to tell you that you are in the right, it’s because you already know you are in the wrong.

To be unwittingly in error is simply a mistake. It can cost you some of your self-love, temporarily, but it will not cause you to despise your self enduringly. By that standard, we can define true evil as taking an action you know in advance is morally wrong. This is what your tormenters are doing – when they are campaigning to get you to spit in your own face – knowingly pursuing evil. You do not have to refute every evil argument you come up against, but if you cave in to the insane demands of thugs, then you are acting in knowing evil, going along to get along. You may think you are simply paying a minor toll to an ugly troll, but that is a toll that you will end up paying – in the form of quick, hot flushes of shame – in your memories forever.

Here is another way soul-sucking parasites can trap you in a miasma of mindlessness: By threatening injuries – to themselves, to you or to uninvolved third parties. Alcoholics and drug addicts pull these kinds of stunts all the time, mesmerizing anyone who will tolerate them with tales of their infinite pain – and promising to inflict still greater injuries upon themselves should their victims ever come to doubt their incurable misery. People like this will use any human value to threaten or to inflict injuries – sex in the form of adultery or pelt-collecting, holding children hostage, even preying upon your aversion to the thought of their suicide. And even though the person committing these atrocities will move much farther to the left, on the number line of virtue and vice, than will you as the victim of his manipulations, the purpose and effect of this dumb-show will be to hold you hostage to your own unwillingness to see that person suffer more pain – even self-inflicted pain.

People who pull these kinds of stunts often play a game I call Switchboarding: They interpose themselves between you and everyone else you know – everyone who might be kind enough, and sagacious enough, to clue you in to what is really going on in your life. Your personal, private Switchboard operator will try to control every conversation you are involved in, ideally by handling your communications with other people directly and then telling you only what he wants you to know. If that tactic is not feasible, the Switchboarder will undermine your relationships, leading you to doubt what other people are telling you and to suspect their motives. A true master of Switchboarding can get you to doubt your own senses! We pass the expression along as a joke, but people really do get away with saying things like, “Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?”

That kind of concentrated manipulation is one way that otherwise decent people manage to get themselves trapped, again and again, in relationships with precisely the wrong people. Another one – the counterpart to being held hostage by someone else’s willingness to commit self-destruction in order to induce you to destroy your self – is a sort of Florence Nightingale Syndrome: You keep inflicting moral lepers on yourself in the vain belief that – someday, somehow – you will cure one of them of his leprosy. You won’t, but in due course you will cure yourself – completely – of the love of life, of truth and of your self.

You can be deluded in your own behalf, and that delusion can lead you to commit the same kinds of errors again and again. The self is your idea of your life – of your whole life in all of its many manifestations throughout your life, including your external circumstances, your bodily sensations, your hopes and dreams and memories, your introspective consciousness and your purely imaginary flights of fancy – but there is no guarantee that it is an accurate idea of your life, a true reflection of your real-life existential behavior, a faithful map of the territory that is your life. If you should see yourself as being deserving of contempt or abuse, you will be drawn to people who treat you atrociously. And if you should meet someone you does not treat you horribly, you will provoke that person until he does lash out at you – validating your twisted view of your self. And if you meet a very special someone who will not abuse you, no matter how much you try to incite a negative response, you will dump that person and move on to someone who will reflect back to you the self you see in your own mind’s eye.

Back in high school, you knew a young lady I call the Swoop Girl. Someone said that high school is taxpayer-subsidized dating, and that observation was probably hard to dispute back then, as you threaded your way through corridors blocked by kissing, cuddling couples. When a stable couple hit a rough patch – perhaps he wanted to dance horizontally, but she wasn’t ready – the Swoop Girl would swoop in to collect another pelt, seducing the guy, who was only too mindlessly delighted to be seduced. Her motive was not love, nor even sexual gratification. What she wanted to do was inflict pain – on the other girl. In that way, her sex act was essentially homosexual, girl-on-girl, an act of perverse psycho-sexual sadism. Did she move farther left on the number line than anyone involved, much farther left than the nice girl, and farther left, even, than the not-so-nice guy? You bet. But there was nothing of self-adoration in her motives. She hated her life, clearly, and all she wanted was to spread that hatred to other people.

Men can do the same kind of pelt-collecting as the Swoop Girl, with the same sort of homosexual overtones, boasting to each other about the (mostly imaginary) “notches” they put on their belts. The so-called Pick-Up Artists are an even more perverse symptom of this kind of intellectual perversion. They start by cherry-picking pecking-order ideas from animal ethology. Among wolves and dogs, cattle and certain species of apes, an Alpha male will be dominant over all other members of the community – kind of like a “thought leader,” and just as well thought-out! The Alpha male will either keep all the females to himself, as with cattle, or he will mate with the highest-status female in the group – the Alpha female.

Pick-Up Artists start their sad dance of mindlessness by equating human behavior with animal behavior – the Dancing Bear Fallacy. Human beings are ascended from apes, and you can see vestigial remnants of this kind of pecking-order behavior among humans when they are behaving mindlessly – which we saw back on the playground. But human beings are not mere animals, and so even the meekest of us – the most Omega among us in this crack-pot theory – can behave as Socrates did when he is met by exigent circumstance. But those kinds of inconvenient facts don’t fit the fictional story-line running through the Pick-Up Artist’s fevered imagination, so he invokes the awesome power of mindlessness to ignore them.

And, as you might expect, these Mittyesque Pick-Up Artists jettison every aspect of animal status-sorting they don’t like – including those animal species where a female is always the boss. It is a sufficient Alpha-qualification, for the alleged Alpha male on the make, to have sex with as many different women as possible – “just like” a bull in a pasture full of cow-pies. The notion of taking charge in difficult situations and providing mental and moral leadership to the imputed “herd” is much too much to be bothered with – which is not to imply that these sad clowns would be of any value in actual human leadership roles in any case. Instead, the Pick-Up Artist’s definition of an Alpha male is a guy who is good at tuning in on Mothertongue signals of sexual interest being broadcast by long-in-the-tooth repeatedly-recycled evergreen-ingenues – which is to say, a guy with slut radar.

In other words, the alleged Alpha male is demonstrating his ethological “superiority” not by successfully competing for high-status women – the specious human analogue to Alpha females among animals – women who would not have the first thing to do with him in any case. Instead, like the Swoop Girl, he is simply collecting pelts – not for love and not for sex but simply in order to compete, and even then only numerically, with other similarly self-damaged men. To their credit, the objective is not anyone’s destruction – except for the on-going self-destruction the Pick-Up Artists and their slutty “conquests” voluntarily inflict upon themselves – but there is nothing of self-adoration – nor of mindful self-consciousness – in this behavior.

What is really happening, as a matter of existential reality? The Pick-Up Artist sleeps with the slut-of-the-moment, herself an already-well-used specimen of femininity, because, although her status is much the same as his, pretty low on the socio-economic ladder, and well to the left of the zero on the number line of self-regard, she is nevertheless the best woman who will consent to sleep with him – and neither of them has enough desire for self-adoration to pursue a real relationship with a partner who is not running some dumb-ass game. Consequently, each one of them goes home lonely, even if neither one goes home alone. How sad is that?

There are consolations, though – for me, at least, and I can hope for you, as well. First, this prince and princess and their pantomime of passion illustrate perfectly the self-loathing that is the sole enduring result of indiscriminate sex. Popular artists and their puerile prey – could that be you? – love to fantasize about a world with “no-strings-attached,” but that world is not this one. In the real world of real consequences, the mistake you made last night will never, ever end. It will recall itself to your memory – and to your shame – again and again, unbidden, forever. And may heaven help you if you try to “paper over” it with more and more instances of the same dumb mistake!

And second, by presenting us with such an absurdly distorted rendition of the Dancing Bear Fallacy, the Pick-Up Artists demonstrate that all Dancing Bear theories are nothing more than elaborated arguments of behavioral determinism. The Alpha-in-his-own-mind “conquers” comely round-heeled gals by means of trickery and cunning – he insists. When he is on his “game,” they simply “can’t resist” him – just as female animals in the wild mate with the best rapist, the male they cannot successfully deflect, dismiss or defeat.

But the logical fallacy in play is the same one we can identify in every determinist argument: If I as a human predator can “trick” my human prey into thoughtlessly yielding to me, it could only be because human nature is not bound by the iron laws of animal ethology. Every form of gulling putatively mindless human beings pre-supposes free will – rationally-conceptual volitionality. Without it, the predator would be as much an unthinking slave to behavioral determinism as – he insists – is his prey. The form of the claim is, “I can think of a plan of attack, but you cannot think of a plan of defense.” Those propositions cannot both be true, and, of course, we all know, without any room for doubt in our minds, that human will is free of all deterministic constraints.

Many theories of marketing turn on the same sort of contradiction: Why does a product priced at $4.95 procure more buyers than does the same product priced at $5.00? Because the buyers are thoughtless, mostly out of habit, but also because many of them understood long ago that a nickel is not worth a dime’s worth of worry, not because the marketing mavens behind this nonsense have somehow transformed themselves into magical, mystical Svengalis, super-human villains of pure moustache-twisting evil.

There are a great host of these stunts you can pull, if you would rather try to gull people out of their money, instead of delivering full value in exchange for the price you are asking for your product. They all work pretty well – until you run up against a competitor who is mindful of intellectual and economic values and who rewards his customers for being equally mindful. The Only-Game-In-Town con only works when it is the only game in town. This is why carnies and hucksters of all sorts either move up or move on, eventually. And that is how capitalism cleanses markets of criminality in due course – unless that process is impeded by criminality of the legislative kind.

Every specious argument – every claim that is false to fact, even if the person making that appeal does not know it is false – will turn on a logical fallacy, a pretext or rationale that sounds good, but is in reality simply a path to error. Logical fallacies are like catnip to fools, but they are the very bread of life for demagogues – for “thought leaders.” A fallacy – as an artifact of rhetoric, the art of valid discourse – is simply an erroneous argument, a rhetorically invalid reason to uphold or deny a proposition. Thoughtless people deploy them all the time, convinced in their stolid, triumphant preening that they have slain dragons with their profound wit.

An easy way to identify a fallacious claim is to stipulate it and see what happens. So, for example, if you were to say to me, “Your arguments make me angry, therefore they’re wrong!” – which is one of the infinite forms of the Fallacy Ad Hominem (“to the man”) – even if we embrace the premise (and I do make a lot of people angry), doing so does nothing to support the conclusion. And heads-up: Even if the things I am saying make you feel happier or better about your life and your self, that fact does not make me right. I do believe I am right, and I am taking great care to persuade you of my truth, but how you feel about that is quite literally beside the point.

As I have demonstrated at intervals in this treatise, theologians, philosophers, academics, artists, journalists, politicians and other so-called “thought leaders” make logically fallacious arguments very often, usually by spinning unintentionally comical claims out of their unexamined prejudices. But by far the most common logical fallacy committed by “thought leaders” is Credentialism, the Appeal to Authority expressed in an office wall papered over with waste-paper graduate degrees. The members of this would-be ruling class expect for you to yield to their “authoritah,” of course, but frequently they themselves are buried beneath their own bullshit. Heinlein said that Ph.D. stands for “piled higher and deeper,” and that claim is easy to credit when you slog through hundreds of pages of the “scientific” elaboration of facts that are obvious to any child – and still easier when the “dissertation” is devoted to the unintelligible exposition of undiluted error.

Mind you, not all of the members of this anointed class of redundantly-pedigreed “thought leaders” are true demagogues – knowingly deceptive manipulators of the pliable emotions of thoughtless people. Most of them are simply fools as well, themselves the mindless victims of true demagogues, parroting vile arguments they never would have been cunning enough – or evil enough – to come up with on their own. But for the few “thought leaders” who really understand the art of gulling fools, logical fallacies are the tools of their trade. This is why your mind will not be safe until you learn to defend it from seemingly sound but ultimately misleading arguments.

But academia also suffers from an all-but-terminal echo chamber, and this serves to reinforce the pandemic mindlessness that, by now, infests virtually all college campuses. The professor has had twenty or more years to practice the art of sneering at any hint of a suggestion of a notion that might contradict his pet dogma – and he put in six or eight or ten years before that as an undergraduate and graduate student, studying with past-masters of sneering. Like the kids on the playground, the students in his classes know very well what happens to the goat in any mob, and so each one of them quickly masters the two most vitally important skills of modern “scholarship” – and of modern life – ass-kissing and piling-on.

If you are lucky enough to study with a teacher who actually knows something worth learning, he will be delighted to take on your challenges to his presumptive authority. To him, error is harmlessly comical and an unexpected new truth is a thing of delight. But you are much more likely to run up against yet-another bully, this one resplendent in a rumpled tweed jacket that reeks of tobacco smoke, stale beer and the dirty-clothes hamper. Ah, but what the man lacks in style he makes up for in rancor. Marx said, “You can’t refute a sneer.” This is not so – but it remains that you cannot refute a sneer quickly. You have to do the job as I am doing it here, unpacking every false premise in the citadel of lies that is the modern university.

The paths to error are infinite, but two landmarks I have learned to rely on, in listening to people trying to justify their evil actions, are the logical fallacies Tu Quoque and Two Wrongs Make A Right. Tu Quoque is Latin. It means, “You do it, too.” When you catch your teenager swiping a beer, the pre-fabricated rationale will surely be, “Well, you drink, why can’t I?!?” And you were probably very young when you first heard some little proto-brute justifying his vengeance by bellowing, “Well, he hit me first!” – ergo, two wrongs make a right. You should probably be on your guard against any statement that starts with a “well” and ends with an exclamation point. That particular verbal construction seems to fit very comfortably in the mouths of liars and thugs. But when you hear those two logical fallacies being deployed in tandem, what you are hearing, almost certainly, is a cunningly-crafted rationalization of an abominable injustice.

Just as a passing note – a word to the wise is sufficient – those two logical fallacies, Tu Quoque and Two Wrongs Make A Right, are the “justification” undergirding every atrocity committed by any government in human history.

Aristotle said we are what we habitually do, and a great many of us have habituated errors-of-method in our everyday style of thinking. A habit-of-mind can be an incredibly efficient time-saver: Think of how little of your conscious thought you have to invest in driving your car, and how much mental capacity you have available, in consequence, to devote to the matters of importance you will take up when you get where you are going. The problem is that a bad habit-of-mind is just as efficient as a good one, except that you will be making incredibly efficient errors. The only cure for this is mindfulness. You have to pay attention to existential reality – to what is really happening. If you don’t, you can easily drive your life right off the road.

Habituated behaviors of all sorts can set your life on a vector of motion that will move you farther and farther along that course, whether this is where you want to go or not. Most people suffer from the opposite problem, the style of motion statisticians call The Drunkard’s Walk – they lurch a little to the left, then a little to the right, and they never manage to get very far from where they started. But if your behavior is very consistent – either very mindful or very mindless – your vector of motion over time will carry you across vast distances, both along the number line we have used to quantify the consequences of behavior and in your work and your relationships. If the vector you have set for your self is moving you closer and closer to a state of Splendor, so much the better for you. But if you are moving leftward, toward Squalor, you must either check and change your premises or endure progressively greater losses of your love for your life.

To say that dissipation is a time-sink is a tautology – two ways of saying the exact same thing. Your time is your business, of course, but it is always worthwhile to ask yourself if you are getting everything you want in exchange for each irreplaceable moment of your life you spend. Your values are organized in a hierarchy, and pursuing less important values over higher ones is disvaluing behavior. Your net motion, on the number line of self-regard, may not be leftward, but your rightward motion can be slower than it otherwise might be. Even worse, dwelling on the negative, on pain or loss, cannot move you toward Splendor. And still worse, focusing on other people’s values, instead of your own, will advance your interests in no way at all. And still worse than that, getting swept up in some “thought leader’s” obsessions – which is what the “We’re all in this together!” types mean by “Get involved!” – is a complete waste of time you can never, ever get back.

I like to play a philosophy game I call Backstory. I will look at someone – anyone I happen to see – and try to project backward in time to the past causes of that person’s present-day appearance. Toddlers and young children will have sweet faces, almost always, with no deeper meanings to be discerned. But older children and adults will have had many experiences in their lives, and those past events will have written an emotional history in the lines of their skin. Your mama told you, when you glared and grimaced at her, that your face would freeze like that, but neither one of you knew she was right: The facial expressions we wear most often – habituated Mothertongue emotional reactions – inscribe themselves into our skin. I can see those habitual expressions in the people I am watching. Their clothing and their manner will tell their stories, too, and it is interesting to me to try to suss out their histories, just by looking at people from a distance.

I stress that this is just a game. Every living organism, human or not, is in a certain sense a laboratory specimen to me. I am not cruel or intrusive in any way, but I watch everything I am blessed with the opportunity to see, and I learn everything I can from the behavior I observe. In consequence, I can tell you from having run repeated tests that a toddler at around eleven months of age is just about as clueless as dog, when it comes to finding a toy hidden under a shirt, but that same child at thirteen or fifteen months will be able to identify the toy by the distortion of the fabric of the shirt, where the dog will not be able to “see” it, even though the dog actually should “know” by its much better sense of smell that the toy really is there. That’s subjunctivity in its most basic form – the toddler “seeing” an entity that is not immediately obvious to his eyes, identifying it by its much more abstract geometrical shape – and this again is a bright-line distinction between the kind of epistemological method appropriate to a proto-human mind and the method “unthinkingly” deployed by a mere mammal.

I wish I could tell you that I see a lot of Splendor when I play Backstory, but I don’t. I see the basic ingredients of Splendor in the faces of toddlers and young children, but in older children and adults, mostly what I see are accretions of pain – not always full-blown Squalor but way too much of the squalid. But how could this not be the case, given that virtually all of the people I see are trying with all their will and all their mental might to live down to moral philosophies that no one can practice fully without committing suicide – without slaughtering the self of the body because they cannot ever manage successfully to slaughter the self of the mind? This is awful, outrageous, unbearably tragic. But in the long run, nature is just. If you damn your mind and your self completely enough, for a long enough span of time, you go to hell. You just don’t die to get there.

This is by far the longest chapter in this book, but it is by no means exhaustive. I can document many other strategies by which individual human beings – the only mindful creatures on Earth – have managed to achieve a state of mindlessness. Except in the large, I have not even bothered to criticize specific specious dogmas, first because it is not my function to crush every cockroach that crawls out of the sewer pipe, and second because the methods I have deployed in these examples should prove useful to you for a wide variety of intellectual extermination efforts.

But what is most important about all of these arguments is this: If you are gulled by bad ideas, it is almost always because you want to be. Whether you like the self you see reflected back to you by some demagogue or because you fancy yourself a great philanthropist or an irresistible lothario or whatever, if you are enslaved in a state of mindlessness, it’s because you are a volunteer. We forge the chains that bind us.

No one can control your mind but you. If you affect to pretend to make believe that you have surrendered your self-control to some “thought leader” – you haven’t. If you insist that you are irredeemably in the thrall of a professional victim or an over-cologned Pick-Up Artist or a smelly, smug, supercilious, sneering professor – you aren’t. If you tell me that you don’t think carefully because it’s hard and you don’t wanna – that confession I will believe. But only your own mind can learn the truth of your nature and only your own mind can control your purposive behavior. If you abdicate on the awesome responsibility to think for yourself, you may not die from your enormous, unconscionable error – at least not right away. But you will not live as only a fully-conscious human being can live.

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  1. Greg Swann on August 5, 2012 at 13:21

    More on backstory, from a novella I wrote but did not make public a couple of years ago at Christmas:

     Christmas — the back-story.

    “The name of the game is back-story.” I said that. I was sitting with Tigan and Chance at the food court at the Paradise Valley Mall. “The objective is to pick out people in the crowd, then come up with a plausible back-story for them.”

    “Why?” Chance asked.

    “Because it’s fun, mostly. But you can learn a lot about people if you think about how they got to where they are.”

    We had been shopping, the three of us. I sent them off on their own to get gifts for their parents while I shopped alone for gifts for them. I had sent Adora off on an errand in the car, and we had all agreed to converge on the food court when we finished.

    “Look at her,” I said, pointing to a chunky woman in scrubs barreling past us. “What’s her story?”

    “Well,” Tigan said, “She’s a nurse.”

    “Duh!” Chance said that.

    “Why is she walking so fast?” I asked.

    “Dood! It’s Christmas Eve!”

    “Okay, I’ll give you that. Married or unmarried?”

    “How could you know that?” Tigan asked.

    “You can’t know, but you can guess. My guess would be unmarried. Kids or no kids?”

    Chance scowled, glowered almost, but Tigan said, “…She has kids.”

    “How do you know?”

    “She came here straight from work. If she were unmarried with no kids, she would have changed clothes first. And brushed her hair and put on some make-up. Ms. Unmarried Nurse is available and wouldn’t waste an opportunity. Mrs. Married Nurse would have her husband and kids with her. Mrs. Single Working Mother has too much on her plate to worry about any of that.”

    I said, “I like that story. So where are the kids? Home alone? Grandma’s house?”

    “They’re with their father!” Chance enthused.

    “I read it that way, too. Dad has the kids for Christmas Eve, and mom is rushing to get ready for Christmas Day. What do we actually know? Only what we can see — her person, her face, her clothes and the way she holds and moves her body. But we can draw some very strong inferences from those details, can’t we?”

    “Do another one!” Chance was hooked.

    “Okay, this one’s easy,” I said, gesturing with my head. Dad was a hard-working dog: Undershirt with a chore coat over it, scruffy jeans and work boots that have seen a lot of work. Respectable enough for a working man, but he hadn’t shaved, and his face bore an expression that was jaundiced and maybe a little bit pissed-off. By contrast, his two daughters — 13 and 15 years old? — were tricked out to the nines: Tight glittery tops and tight, short skirts and slingy little shoes that would have made more sense in the summer. Both girls were wearing huge, elaborate Santa hats. “Tell me their story.”

    Chance was baldly checking the girls out. Tigan said, “That’s Mrs. Single Working Mother’s ex-husband and their kids. Not literally, but that’s the other half of the same story.”

    “Tell me how you know?”

    “He spends nothing on himself and everything on them. But look at their faces. They’re pouty and resentful. They know there’s always more to be had, so long as they’re never visibly satisfied.”

    I nodded. I read it the same way.

    “This is a really sad game,” Tigan observed.

    “It can be. I don’t see it that way. It’s all just time and a vector. If you can figure out someone’s vector of motion, you can see where they started from, and where they’re likely to end up. Not every story is a happy story, but they’re all interesting — enlightening — if you think them all the way through.”

    “What about them?” Chance asked, pointing at a young couple. The guy was a bro-wannabe, droopy jeans, way too big, a huge tee-shirt and a baseball cap thrown on sideways. She was arrayed as a manga-wannabe, her hair fluffed out to make her head seem huge, way too much eye make-up. She wore a fleece short-suit that would have looked charming on a three-year-old, and she had a “Hello Kitty” backpack for a purse. The guy was practically running circles around the girl, but she would not deign to notice his attentions.

    “Ooh!” said Chance. “He’s going to get some tonight!”

    Tigan scoffed. “No, he’s not. But she’s going to get all the gifts she wants. Those two, on the other hand,” she offered, pointing at another young couple, “should get a room right now.”

    She was right, too. They were young nerds in love, geeky and awkward, both of them bone thin with acne-spattered faces, and they could not take their hands off each other. It was inspiring in a lurid, prurient sort of way. Chance was missing nothing of the show they were putting on as they walked by.

    “There’s more, though,” I said. “Isn’t there?”

    “What else?” Tigan demanded.

    “Why are they making out at the mall?”

    “Ah…,” she said. “They have nowhere else to go…”

    “Maybe nowhere else they can be together at all. Home-schooled, as a guess, or a religious school. Chaperoned all the time, one way or another. My guess is the only way they can have time together is to sneak off to the mall.”

    “Mucking around in other peoples’ lives, are we?” Adora said that. She had managed to sneak up behind us.

    I wrenched myself around in my chair to take in the sight of her, her long hair windblown, her cheeks a little flushed from the cold. “Only from a distance.” I turned back to the kids as Adora took the seat next to mine. “Your aunt doesn’t like this game. She thinks it’s unseemly.”

    Defending herself, Adora said, “I find it…”

    “Intrusive?” Tigan said that. She was studying Adora’s face intently “No, there’s more than that… You think it’s morally wrong.” A statement, not a question, not a guess.

    “‘Judge not, lest ye be judged,'” Adora quoted.

    “I’m not judging people,” I said. “I’m just observing them. Like lab rats.”

    Adora issued an affected shudder, but I knew she was teasing me. “I just don’t think you can know that much about people, just by looking at them.”

    “Fair enough,” I responded. “Prove me wrong.” About ten yards away was a young woman sitting by herself, trying to eat a bowl of soup while never for a second taking her eyes off the hardback book splayed open before her. Mousy brown hair and glasses, a white blouse with a button-down collar and over that a maroon sweater-vest, khaki slacks and sensible shoes. “She works at the bookstore. I saw her there earlier. Tell me everything I don’t know about her.”

    “Is she a lezbo?” Chance asked, his voice for once restrained.

    “I’d bet against it,” I replied, “but she dresses that way to repel male attention.”

    “She’s really smart,” Tigan observed.

    “How do you know?”

    “Well… It’s really all she does, isn’t it? I mean, she can’t stop reading long enough to eat her lunch. And that’s part of what her clothes are doing, too. She’s telling the world how smart she is.”

    I said, “That’s an interesting way of putting it. What was she like in school?”

    Tigan’s eyes were alive with fascination, but I knew she was really seeing nothing but her own racing thoughts. “She was shy. Or, at least, the other other kids thought she was shy. She wanted them to think she was shy.”


    “So they’d leave her alone…”

    “So they thought she was a shy nerd. What did she think of them?”

    “She hated them!” That wasn’t Chance speaking, it was Tigan.

    “She hated them? Really?” Adora asked, even despite herself.

    “No, you’re right,” Tigan allowed. “It wasn’t hate, it was contempt, an icy glacier of contempt for all of them.”

    “Interesting,” I said. “How does she see herself?”

    Tigan was lost in thought — and so was Adora. Chance was bored, to say the truth.

    “…She knows how smart she is, but she doesn’t expect anyone else to notice. No, that’s not quite right. She believes that no one will ever take her mind seriously…”

    Adora said, “How could you know something like that, just by looking at the girl?”

    “Tigan’s not looking at the girl. Are you?”

    “…Maybe not.”

    “So what’s the rest of the story?” I asked.

    “You tell me.”

    “Time and a vector,” I said. “Here’s what we know so far: She was a smart kid in the early grades, but soon enough the other kids started to punish her, teasing her and tormenting her for being so much smarter than they were. So she pulled her head into her shell, like a turtle, and she managed to grow up by hiding from them right before their eyes.”

    “Then what?” Chance was interested again. It’s the miracle of stories: Everyone wants to know how they turn out.

    I shrugged. “She had so much contempt for the people around her — the kids at school, the teachers, her parents — that she blew all her chances to exploit her brains. She’s wicked smart, so she works at the bookstore. But everyone there sees her as nothing but a clerk. None of them can see her frustrated intelligence.”

    Adora’s eyes were glassy, almost teared up, as were Chance’s. Tigan glared at me with a look of anger and defiance.

    “Who,” I asked, “is the author of that girl’s frustration?”

    “She is!” Chance expostulated, loud enough to draw stares.

    “Here’s a better question. What could she have done, when she was back in school, to have avoided this fate?”

    “She should have cultivated indifference!” Chance again, and I want to paste a gold star right on his forehead.

    Tigan smiled, but not from joy. “You’re really good at this game, aren’t you?”

    “So are you. Adora doesn’t like to play back-story, because she thinks I’m talking about those people out there. But I’m not. Mostly, I’m talking about me.”

    Tigan said, “I thought–”

    “I know,” I said, cutting her off. “I know about her and I know about you because I know about me. There is nothing we have seen today that I have not lived from the inside, in one way or another. It goes for you, too. For all of us. How do you know what petulance looks like? Anger? Fear? Joy? How do you know when someone is proud or ashamed or bored? You recognize these emotions in other people because you’ve lived them, again and again, inside your own mind and body.”

    “‘Judge not, lest ye be judged?'” Tigan asked in mock-defiance.

    “I hear that as ‘observe not, lest ye be observed.’ That’s an admonition that cannot be honored in a universe ripe with bouncing photons. Other people can’t see you the way you see yourself, but they’re going to see you, and they’re going to draw conclusions from what they see. Those conclusions can be in error, but you can also lead people to draw incorrect inferences about you — just like the girl we’ve been talking about.”

    “Why would you want people to draw the wrong conclusions about you?” Adora said that.

    “Tell her, Tigan.”

    She shrugged. “Camouflage.”

    “Armor!” Chance concurred, and I wanted to hug them both.

    “Let’s do one more and then we’ll hit the bricks.” There was a certain tableaux I had been waiting for, and I knew it would come shuffling along eventually. “Take a look at those folks,” I said, gesturing with my head.

    Mom was short and thin and frazzled. She was visibly pregnant, but her only baby weight was wrapped around the baby. She was pushing a stroller. Within it, a writhing three-year-old was boy doing everything he could think of to escape his seat-belted bondage. Every storage space on the stroller was stuffed with packages, and there were shopping bags hanging from both handles.

    Flouncing near Mom, never quite beside her, was the Dad of the family, his hands empty and hanging loose at his sides. He was looking every which way, talking a mile a minute, while Mom just pushed the stroller with a grim endurance.

    “What do you see, Chance?”

    “What’s to see? It’s just a family.”


    Before she could answer, Adora said, “Why does she put up with it?”

    “…She’s trapped.” Tigan said that.

    “At least she thinks she is. What about him? What’s in it for him?”

    “He’s getting everything,” Adora said. “Isn’t he?”

    “Is he…?” I said that.

    Chance put his hand over his mouth and squeezed hard. He said, “That’s my parents, isn’t it? That’s me in that stroller. That’s our family…”

    “That’s your family twelve or thirteen years ago, I think.”

    Tigan said, “Time and a vector…”

    “How much motion has their been along that vector?”

    “Not much,” said Tigan.

    “None!” said Chance.

    I nodded. “Back-story isn’t intrusive. But it’s not the only game I know. Tomorrow, everything changes — god help us, for the better.”

  2. Elenor on August 6, 2012 at 07:36

    “so even the meekest of us – the most Omega among us in this crack-pot theory – can behave as Socrates did when he is met by exigent circumstance”

    You mean by swallowing hemlock?!

    Do you believe that, by conscious choice, you can somehow choose to become something OTHER than a member of the playground mob OR the goat of the mob? Do you believe you can ‘exist’ on this (world) playground as some sort of independent entity — as if mobs and goats do not exist or somehow do not interact with/apply to you? Perhaps in a cabin in Montana… (but then only if all the local “playground mobs” agree to leave you alone there). However, if you wish to participate in ‘real’ life? Belong to some community or other, have a family, a house, a way to earn food and other resources?

    The “mob” you (will thus) belong to may choose to be a less vicious mob (help the goat, exile the goat, do something other than torture the goat), but do you think they can be something OTHER than a mob? It’s all very nice to sit in your solitude, typing in a computer and envisioning a “Self” who is not enmeshed in a community — of some sort(s) — but … how’s the saying go? “No man is an island”?

    (Nice story Greg Swann; well written and a good ‘explanation.’)

    • Greg Swann on August 6, 2012 at 12:33

      Shoe pinch? This is not a necessary consequence. All you have to do is turn around.

  3. Greg Swann on August 8, 2012 at 08:00

    Here’s some good news: Free will makes it possible for human beings to do something no other organisms can do: Correct their dumbass mistakes.

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