Scrutinize what makes you angry

We all have ideas or concepts that exasperate us when they’re brought up. Mine have changed over the years. When I was younger, anything that called into question certain ideas, such as the religious faith I was raised in, or the mantra of American patriotism, irritated me to no end. I tended to reject propositions that criticized these ideas sight unseen.

As I got older, I gradually learned to question those initial impulses. Doing so eventually led to some pretty dramatic shifts in worldview. Which I think at some level I must have understood would happen. My older emotional reactions were, in retrospect, an impulse to protect a particular worldview. I must have known that giving serious consideration to certain propositions would lead to those types of changes.

But arguably, a worldview that has to be protected is a problematic one. Ideally our worldview should adopt to observations, not be threatened by them. Which is why I think it’s important to realize when an idea feels threatening, when it makes you angry or outraged, and scrutinize carefully why that is so. It might feel comforting to just reject an idea that doesn’t comport with our existing viewpoint, but it doesn’t get us any closer to truth.

Propositions that tend to trigger me today fall into the same mold as the old ones. It’s just a different worldview that now feels threatened. Over the decades, I’ve gradually come to see science as the best tool we have for understanding reality. So I tend to react with exasperation when someone talks about science being clueless about or inappropriate for a certain area.

Often I think my exasperation is rational. People who make these types of claims are all too commonly trying to sneak in some cherished notion that science hasn’t left much room for. But I frequently have to remind myself that part of being scientific is understanding and acknowledging the limits of science, and current scientific knowledge in particular. That was one reason I reluctantly ascribed to instrumentalism for a long time, despite not being happy about it. (And was happy to find an alternative, although this is a new thing to be careful not to be defensive about.)

A while back there was an article about how clueless science is about sleep, about why almost all animals sleep. Initially I reacted with my usual annoyance, but after a little bit of reading from multiple sources, I was forced to acknowledge this is an area where science actually doesn’t have a good handle yet. It’s embarrassing really. We don’t understand something as common as sleep. There are plausible theories out there, but none of them seem well validated yet by the data. There are plenty of other areas like that, along with ones where science is genuinely not the right tool.

So I think it’s a virtue to scrutinize what makes you angry. But what is the best way to do that? I think the answer is to fulfill the requirement your math instructor always put on you in school: show your work. In other words, explicitly lay out the reasoning for rejecting a particular proposition (or accepting one). You should at least do this for yourself if no one else. Although laying it out to others tends to do a better job of exposing hidden assumptions, hand wavy steps we may not realize we’re making.

Often we may be reluctant to do this, for the same reason we reacted negatively to begin with, to protect aspects of our worldview. Ultimately, laying out our thoughts exposes them to criticism. It opens up the possibility that we ourselves may have to change, at least in the face of fair reasonable criticism. (Unfair criticism from people who won’t show their own work is, unfortunately, all too common, but can usually be ignored.) But again, if our worldview isn’t adjusting for what’s out there, then how good of a job is it actually doing for us?

Unless of course I’m missing something? Maybe protecting another aspect of my worldview without realizing it?

40 thoughts on “Scrutinize what makes you angry

  1. I dreamed up a story line about a planet that was nearly complete in its transition to an eye-ball, tide-locked orbit. It wasn’t quite there yet, its “day” being twice the length of its “year”. This caused all sorts of odd evolutionary and cultural adaptations, one of which was, the “people”, who lived at the points of the compass only, didn’t not so much as sleep as enter a torpor. Their brains were slowly converting from ones where the chemicals of consciousness, having built to toxic levels during day time activity, were now being continuously reprocessed. But not quite, ergo, they needed some down time to recuperate their cognitive capacity.

    What of a fully formed “eye-ball” earth? A world where habitation at the edges took place in constant twilight. Would sentient beings need sleep in such a situation?

    Do plants sleep? I know some flowers fold and unfold to face the sun.

    Isn’t our diurnal legacy the source of our need to slumber? And even nocturnal creatures, bound by their origins as daylight wanderers, not find time for noonday snoozing?

    ~~~

    Ultimately, in contentious situations, I tend to resort to my default philosophical canon, the Universe is Absurd, life is meaningless, nothing really matters.

    Don’t believe in science? So what? You’re gonna die. I’m gonna die. In the end, all life dies. Believe what you want.

    Of course, one can’t survive in such apathy for long. Eventually DNA says, “eat, sleep, work you slug!” And then you have to pull back from the edge, have a snack, watch the news and gape aghast at the stupidity of humans around the world. “How could you so blatantly ignore the scientific evidence? CO2 is absolutely rising. The seas are absolutely becoming warmer and more acidic. Vaccines and wearing a mask are proven to reduce infections.”

    And then I remember, we’re all gonna die, the Universe is Absurd…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sounds like an interesting story idea. Definitely when we sleep seems to be set by the cycles of our environment, whether a species is active during the day or at night. I don’t know of any species whose sleep wake schedule is independent of that cycle. Although humans are starting to get that way with the rise of electrical civilization. (Although if you talk with anyone on a night shift, they’ll tell you how much of an illusion that is.)

      I do think there is some physiological need sleep addresses, even if we don’t understand it yet. Even in species (some birds, dolphins, etc) where evolution has made it beneficial to not sleep, they appear to have one of their brain hemispheres sleep while the other continues driving its half of the body.

      Definitely reality is absurd, which is why statements about a idea or theory being absurd or ridiculous carry no weight with me. By the standards of innate human intuitions, the universe is ridiculous. But reality doesn’t care what us hairless apes prefer to be the case.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There are various kinds of anger (I am not an expert). Personal anger pops up when you think someone done you wrong. Righteous anger is when you perceive others are being done wrong. For example, I think the people who have told and repeated lies, knowingly, about COVID vaccinations, should be line up against a wall and shot. I get righteously angry anytime I see people oppressed, especially for profit.

    My personal anger used to be a volcano, I believe an attempt to have power when I had none (which is kind of what that emotion is for). I have tamed that tiger by inserting time between stimulus and response, time for creative action, a teacher of mine said.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely what we call “anger” is a hazy category of reactions, early draft evaluations by our nervous system of the state of affairs. It’s the “fight” in the “fight or flight” response. The thing to remember about anger is that it’s an early draft evaluation, one we can always override.

      In that sense, your strategy of putting time between the stimulus and response is wise. That’s my strategy too, and I find a lot of problems get headed off by it. It’s a policy that seems to get easier to follow with age.

      Like

  3. I think what you wrote fairly describes the rest of us. I know that science “prefers” to stay out of some domains, but I do believe that science is a process more than a sum total of evidence and/or knowledge gained. It’s a process that methodically chips away at our ignorance and wrests from it a modicum of certainty; however, we should never gloat or rest on those laurels since any “certainty” can become suspect or uncertain the next day. Science has certain domains (mostly based on what can be funded), but I believe a rational person can apply scientific methods to just about any potential domain, even religion — which is why I am an agnostic. Although I would prefer to live in a universe in which there is a God who has my back and, in general, makes sure things turn out for the best for all of us, I see no evidence to allow me to believe that is in fact the case; besides, I’m not sure what to do with a God who is “above the law” of physics.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Definitely science doesn’t reward statements of certitude. Everything is provisional, subject to change on new evidence. It always pays to remember that.

      On God, I agree. It’s conceivable there’s some kind of intelligence running things, but if so the chance that it matches any of our traditional (and comforting) conceptions of it seems pretty low.

      Like

    1. That’s true. I’m sometimes accused of being closed minded because I won’t sink time into ideas too far outside of the scientific mainstream. We all have limited time, and can’t be open minded about everything all the time. At some point, a worldview is doing its job in helping us to decide what to spend time on. The key is to monitor whether we’re getting a lot of misses with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like you and I started out with a similar worldview and went through some similar transitions in thinking. For me, the change was driven by my own Sci-Fi writing. My own stories kept developing themes that ran contrary to the political/religious worldview I’d grown up with. Eventually, I had to accept that I did not actually believe the things I professed to believe.

    These days, when someone starts talking to me about the things science doesn’t know, my guard goes up. But I try not to get angry or annoyed until I get a better sense of what this person is trying to say. If it’s “science doesn’t have the answers, therefore my personal beliefs must be true,” I don’t have patience for that. But if it’s “science has some institutional flaws, and maybe there are ways the academic community could do better,” that’s a discussion I’m more comfortable having.

    More often than not, though, these conversations go in the “therefore my personal beliefs must be true” direction. So my guard does, naturally, go up pretty quickly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s interesting you say that about science fiction. I’ve been a sci-fi fan since I was a little kid. But at some point, as I got older, I started learning actual science and started seeing problems with the sci-fi in TV and movies. I gradually developed a mental strategy to allow myself to keep enjoying the shows. I made up, in my head, excuses for why things worked they way they did in fiction. I did it for so long, it became a habit, a mental reflex.

      But about 15-16 years ago, I realized it was pointless. It was better to just relax and enjoy those shows as fantasy. But the mental reflex had been around for so long, I had to develop a counter-reflex to respond to it, to in effect say, “Never mind, just enjoy the fantasy.” That’s when I realized I had been making mental excuses for a lot of things outside of science fiction.

      That’s a good distinction between different meanings about the limits of science. I’m with you completely on it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. For a long time I have thought that “anger” was the default emotion from deep within our animal nature whenever we are deeply shaken by circumstances—a default expression of irrationally if you will. For example, if your small child becomes separated from you in the park and you find yourself frantically searching for her. When you find her unharmed your first emotion may be anger even though it makes no sense. I also think it is a sign of maturity and wisdom when one, like yourself, admits to feeling anger when one’s emotional/intellectual equilibrium is strongly challenged.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks Matti.

      The way I think about anger, or any primal emotion, is as an initial draft evaluation done by our brain. It’s a reflexive reaction that we can (partially) override. But sometimes the reaction is so strong, we have trouble inhibiting it completely, so it ends up getting redirected, which is what I think happens when someone gets angry at a child who ran off. I think we call these scenarios “frustration”. It’s why we often feel the need to pound our fist on the table, even when all it is is a release of pent up fight-or-flight reaction that has to go somewhere.

      Like

      1. I completely agree. As a side note, your discussion tracks Stoic psychology. The Stoics divided sense impressions into two parts, the raw sensation and our involuntary judgment upon the sensation. The Stoics taught that we can train ourselves over time in the habit of withholding assent to involuntary judgments. Modern psychology I think labels this “cognitive distance.”

        Like

    2. Matti,
      I’m quite agreed with what you and Mike have said so far on the matter of “anger”. What I would add is that anger punishes us (given common meaning for this sensation in English, I think). “It” seems to be something that evolution developed to motivate us to end our apathy and so take charge of a perceived bad situation. So here we’re essentially meat puppets motivated by what we’re caused to feel.

      Is it rational to castigate a separated child when found unharmed? Well the relieved worry may demand some sort of frustration outlet anyway. Perhaps the kid was somewhat responsible and so needs general correcting for the future? Or maybe not, but damn, that was scary!

      Though I didn’t initially delve into it given other concerns, on Schwitzgebel’s “deepCherie” post I think you got it right. I have reason to suspect that my comment went to the span folder, though I’d rather not bug the professor when he’s hanging out with family on the weekend. If it doesn’t come up then I’ll resubmit on Monday.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Eric. And thanks for your support regarding my “deepCherie” posts. I’m new to that particular blog as you know and, for me, the jury is still out. I’m still deeply disappointed that the unfair mischaracterization of John Searle’s position (re:”How to continue to be Puzzled…6/23/21) has not been acknowledged and corrected.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Actually Matti, I like how Schwitzgebel left things over there. In the comments just before you came in, he did admit to me that he mischaracterized Searle and shouldn’t have. Who knows why he left the “especially John Searle” thing in his post after admitting the mistake and even doing some slight revising. Then you came in and utterly crucified him for this! Surely I amplified things by asking his thoughts on UC Berkley using it’s natural supply of women to keep Searle around for his degrading sexual amusement. I guess people “in the know” won’t be out to punish Searle’s enablers, since good proof should be hard to come by and the school should have learned its lesson. But surely Schwitzgebel and others knew far more than what they publicly let on, and so should feel that weight here as well.

          In any case consider the potential for our cause to do better as martyrs than simply by getting him to remove Searle’s name from the post. I think that’s how Gandhi would see our situation.

          From what I can tell there are two groups of people who want to characterize Searle in terms of “only biological stuff can be conscious stuff”. My experience has demonstrated to me that the professor isn’t part of either, though he may have been subtly influenced by the loudness of their voices for that post. The smaller group is simply adamant that only biological stuff can ever be conscious stuff, and so they’ve enjoy counting Searle as one of their supporters, and perhaps most don’t even grasp this to be wrong. For example one of them once told me that Searle was on their side, and then linked to an article that demonstrated the opposite.

          Then the larger group seems to mischaracterize Searle this way because his Chinese room thought experiment has been considered the strongest argument against what Susan Schneider has called their “information patternism” approach to consciousness. Many of them might not consciously grasp this to be false either, and instead accept it for its convenience to their narrative. Things seem quite screwed up out there Matti, so I’m very pleased that you’re around!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Eric, thanks for that succinct, clear, and quite wise, perspective on the matter. I went back to carefully read the posts you referenced. You are correct. My efforts are better spent in more positive and productive ways.

            Like

  6. Emotional psychology is not a precise science. We are animals, and, whatever we do, consciously or unconsciously, is filtered through, or, at least, colored by emotions. Thanks to your post, this is the first time I found that emotional psychology even exists. We are, probably, better to learn it.

    The other thing is that any attempt to control our emotions could be positive in one regard and, at the same time or in the long run, negative in another respect. We should learn here and know how to maintain a healthy balance.

    The third aspect is the direction of our emotions – are they directed to other people or ourselves.

    The fourth point is that sometimes being over reflective is harmful.

    Take all that together, and you will get a highly complex picture. So far, I have lived my whole life, 75 years, without digging into all of that, and I’m not sure will the digging now help or harm me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I know what you mean. Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. But the vast majority of human beings who have ever existed lived that life and never missed the alternative, and it’s doubtful it would have made that big a difference for most of them.

      That said, I do think there’s a lot of value in developing emotional intelligence. Our emotions evolved in a particular environment, and evolution hasn’t had time to catch up to all the changes of the modern world. So emotions often misfire. I don’t think it’s wise to trust them, at least not too much.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When someone defends science as the ultimate tool to solve the problems of humanity, I always remember my favorite quote from Hume:

    Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    Scientific method can be applied to research propositions that should not be researched for completely unscientific reasons. Examples:

    Is a particular race or sex intellectually or otherwise inferior to another race or sex?
    How to kill more people faster and cheaper?
    Can we use DDT to fight infectious diseases?
    Can we breed or genetically modify people for certain purposes like we breed horses for racing or dogs for fighting? How about making people resistant to certain diseases through genetic manipulation?
    How to make a deadly virus infecting bats highly contagious for people?

    All of these ideas have been a subject of scientific research at different points in history. Some have obviously depraved motives, but some may seem like a good idea.

    Now, suppose, some depraved scientist does discover that a certain race is indeed inferior to another race in some respect. Now what? Do you have to adjust your dogmatic and unscientific belief that all people are equal to this new “scientific discovery”?

    Suppose, one believes in principles laid out in Nuremberg Code and the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights saying, in particular,

    Article 6 – Consent

    1. Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information. The consent should, where appropriate, be express and may be withdrawn by the person concerned at any time and for any reason without disadvantage or prejudice.

    Will any “scientific evidence” invalidate this principle to justify vaccine mandates and passports?

    Did I make you angry yet by challenging your belief in science? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess, my argument is for distinction between what is and what ought to be. Whereas science is a great tool to find out “what is”, it can never tell you “what ought to be”. In fact, scientific research is driven by our understanding of “what ought to be”. The most heated political debates today are not as much about “what is” as about “what ought to be” which has nothing to do with reality or science. Try using science to prove that “transgender women are women”, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In the post, I noted there were areas where science isn’t useful, and the core of ethics is one of them. Mainly because ultimately there isn’t a fact of the matter involved. There is no objective morality. As a result, science can’t determine what ought to happen, except in terms of what ought to happen for particular outcomes. But follow the chain of the valence of those outcomes and it seems we eventually and unavoidably encounter a wall of subjectivity.

        On the other hand, science can inform our ethical reasoning, an admittedly nuanced distinction. In other words, science can’t tell us whether corporal punishment (for instance) is right or wrong, but it might be able to tell us the long term psychological effects of it. How we judge those effects depend on other values which science can’t determine.

        So your challenge doesn’t make me angry because it’s already incorporated in my worldview. Of course, if you insist there is a fact of the matter with morality, that could trigger annoyance. If you do, I hope you’ll show your work. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I perceive myself to get less annoyed than standard with people who I disagree with. If so I suspect this is because of an answer that I developed as a high schooler. It’s that we’re all self interested products of our circumstances. From the most beloved of us to the most psychotic, I believe that we all have the same need to make ourselves as happy as we can. So at least when I’m in big picture mode, it doesn’t feel all that sensible for me to get inordinately angry with others — I believe that I’d function the same way if I were them too! But people do still perturb me given that I don’t even try to view things from that perspective exclusively, not that I could even then.

    So who tends to perturb me, and should I suspect that I’m deluded in those areas? Well of course people who show me disrespect are perturbing and worse, though it’s not like I’m missing something there. Online I actively seek intelligent people who are interested in discussing topics that interest me. Do the intelligent people who I meet that disagree with me, also perturb me? When I believe that I’ve made good arguments and they seem overly invested in flawed positions, yes that does get perturbing. I suppose they feel the same in reverse. I generally find these situations enjoyable as well however, and I do tend to learn and hone my arguments anyway.

    Mike and I perturb each other on certain topics, though hopefully the good always ends up outweighing the bad in the end. I do worry about him sometimes since, as the post suggests, he’s newer to this sort of perspective. I kind of doubt that either of us have the integrity to concede to the other by means of solid reasoning alone regarding “consciousness”. For that, one of us should need experimental validation. I am hopeful on that however.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric,
      It does seem to me that in the last few years you get outraged faster and more often than before, although maybe that’s just with me, following the dynamics you describe in your final paragraph. But it’s worth noting that it’s hard to scrutinize what angers you if you don’t realize you’re angry.

      We do disagree on certain things, and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. I can live with that disagreement. I hope you can too. I actually don’t know anyone I agree with on everything. Often we just need to agree to disagree and move on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. (Note: I didn’t mean psychotic above. I meant sociopathic.)

        So Mike, you’d call what I’ve referred to as “perturbed”, instead as “outrage”? Well okay. But you do grasp that I’m also having fun don’t you? Does that comes through from my words as well? I don’t know of many who say that they’re having fun while they’re outraged. And surely you don’t perceive that you’ve been disrespectful to me. I don’t perceive that from you. So then what else could perturb me here other than I think that I’ve made some solid arguments that you’ve denied given past investments? And then I suppose you could say the same about me in reverse. Or am I wrong again? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Eric, I’d say anytime someone feels the need to ask if others knew they were only kidding, they already know the answer.

          Everyone thinks their own arguments are solid. They wouldn’t make them otherwise. Again, I can live with us disagreeing, with no need to say anything about your motives.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Much enjoyed this post. Balanced and thoughtful. I feel much the same about life. Perhaps I sit on the fence to a greater extent than you do (between materialism and other) but I feel much the same way as you do. Nothing much makes me angry these days except human failings. Injustice, poverty, cruelty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks.

      Yeah, “angry” is a strong word. Here I’m using it as a stand in for anything that causes a negative emotion in us. Sometimes that is full anger, but like you, for me these days it’s most often irritation at the most, at least for relatively intellectual topics.

      I think with age comes the acceptance that much of the world doesn’t see things the way we do, we have only a limited capability to change it, and any change takes a lot of time, with us really only able to seed possible future changes.

      Like

  10. I don’t think you’re missing anything at all. Doing this work and being honest with yourself shows intellectual integrity. It seems like a no-brainer, but how many of us actually confront our own biases before opening our mouths? I can’t say I do it 100% of the time, or even 50%.

    It’s funny, we’re coming from opposite directions. When I was younger, high school mostly, nothing made my blood boil more than religion. Anyone who believed in God had to be total idiot. Worse than an idiot, really. I felt the same way about religion as I feel about Trump now. Those who wanted to convince me that I was being pig-headed had a hell of a job, and most weren’t capable of breaking through even a little bit. We just weren’t speaking the same language. It was only in college and through reading the classics that my thinking adjusted, and my indignation dissipated. A slow and gradual process, to be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On confronting our biases, I can’t claim to do it anywhere near 100% either, particularly in daily life. The truth is that many of our biases are ones we don’t even know we hold. So we often may think we’re being cold hard objective realists, when in reality our cold hard objective realism is inescapably seen through bias tainted glasses, glasses we don’t even know we’re wearing. The only way I know around that is discussion with people who may challenge those biases.

      We did start from opposite ends, although I went across the spectrum and bounced back a little. My movement away from religion really happened over decades, although I only really became conscious of it toward the end. My anti-religion phase hit its peak about a decade ago, when I started debating people online about it. That’s when I came closest to where you were in high school. Those debates never moved me back toward belief, but they did eventually moderate my view of religion as a social institution and coping mechanism. Which is basically where I’ve been since around mid 2013 (just before starting this blog).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “The only way I know around that is discussion with people who may challenge those biases.” Right-O, Socrates!

        I did have a movement away from religion, though I’m not sure it counts because I didn’t ever really believe, and I was always at least dimly aware of not really believing. I remember going to various churches and youth group meetings with friends to see if there was anything in it for me. I found all of them pretty horrifying, but I remained open. Mainly I thought something must be wrong with me for not believing when everyone else around me did. (That’s growing up in Oklahoma for you.) By high school, a classic teenage rebellion kicked in and I went totally Nietzsche. I was what you might call a cranky atheist. I loved going around arguing and stirring up trouble. So maybe we didn’t come from opposite ends? Anyway, it’s a good thing I didn’t have the technology to get online back in high school, or I would’ve been doing the same thing you did, though probably not as respectfully.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. In the debates I participated in, there were a lot of cranky atheists, so you would have been right at home. But the theists had more than their share too. (One regularly insisted that all atheists were Satanists, and ignored my point that atheists don’t believe in Satan. Another fantasized about watching skeptics burn in hell through a window from heaven.) It was an interesting time: the heyday of the New Atheist movement. In many ways, I’m glad the old HuffPost discussion threads are gone. It took me a while to moderate on religion, and I’m not proud of some of what I said before it happened.

          Liked by 1 person

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.