Reductionist thinking

I read a trans woman the other day saying we should not refer to “transition”, because it fuels the idea that we change from female to male, or vice versa. It prompted me to decide we transition from pretence to authenticity. There goes my rational mind, again, working out arguments why I was right to do what I did, by expressing them in words. Some call that “rationalisation”.

This is the human way. Transition was what I desired, more than anything else. It still makes no sense to me, is arguably harmful, yet I would do the same again- even though I desperately want to make sense of everything.

I am more myself than before.

People want ridiculous things. I am reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and a hundred pages in, finding it almost unreadable. Chip built a solid academic career, but then had sex with a student and wrote one of her essays for her, contrary to explicit college rules. He feels hard done by: she led him on! He writes a screen-play, but it is deeply flawed. He sees flaws, and fiddles with it without correcting it. He borrows $20,000 from his sister and fritters it. Maybe it was something in the air, around 2000: S is reading an English novel from about the same time, about a barrister’s life imploding.

His real problems are too great to tackle, so he footers about with irrelevancies. (“Footer” is Scots– surely it is linked to the French foutre.)

At the weekend, I was away with the Quakers, where Jan Arriens wrestled with our divided selves- head and heart, reason and intuition, and quoted Karen Armstrong on myth. When we act on myth, we test their value, and unlock our heroic potential. Jesus’ story is told that we might imitate him. We cannot know we are right through ratiocination, merely feel we are right- or deny our feeling that we are wrong. Chip is wholly concerned with appearances. He sells books which cost him $3000 for $65, to not look a fool on a date with his girlfriend. He wants things to be alright, for one more day.

Feeling, and feeling, and things go right, or not-

Jan Arriens values the feelings. Quakers do. We talk of the promptings of love and truth in our hearts as the leadings of God, and acting on right leadings is the heart of our faith. Others may test our leadings: it is always easier to see the insanity of another’s desire than ones own. We dismiss as “reductionist” the attempt to make sense of the world separate from feelings. The rational mind has value insofar as it helps the person put their desires into practice.

Jan links heart and head, respectively, with love and compassion, in which people give to each other who they really are, recognise their differences and share their vulnerabilities, and with ego, competing, manipulating, and seeking to control. Yet selfish and selfless in me are both emotional. I love being loving. I fear starving and freezing alone.

Monet, Cliffs near Dieppe

6 thoughts on “Reductionist thinking

  1. Hi Clare,

    Let me start by apologizing yet again for the many comments I’ve made spelling your name as ‘Claire’. I get something stuck in my brain and I forget to spend the required effort correcting those bits that are wrong. Misspelling your name is not intentional but a reflection of my sloppiness and inattention. I am sorry.

    And I’m sorry for the length of this comment but bear with me…

    Feelings are essential to being human. How we use them, however, is very important to our health and welfare and it is here where we often have disagreements so I’m going to say a little more about their role.

    The physiological response we call ‘feelings’ are necessary to set the stage for us to take immediate physical actions. Because of this, we know that emotional responses (and the chemical cascades they cause) are guides and not teachers because they can be initiated by our thoughts alone (dreaming, for example). We also know that these guides can be produced without accurately describing the reality we are immersed in. In other words, the emotional response – the guiding – can be a false positive, can be responding to that which isn’t real but assumed to be so. That makes trusting them outside of personal guidance to be seen as a impersonal teacher highly problematic. And it is on this presentation where we often disagree on reality-based issues under consideration.

    I have read a tremendous amount of research on how dramatically emotions affect reasoning (an area of interest when one is raised under the ‘guidance’ of a mentally ill parent. Understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness and the vital role emotion plays in regulating both thought and behaviour is fundamental to forgiveness and healing).

    Whereas the critical approach is to assemble evidence – and then create models that can then be used to accurately assess reality’s arbitration of them and altered/modified/discarded to account for discrepancies – and then adduce beliefs justified by this ongoing process, the emotional approach is to select only that information from reality that then produces the best rationalizations for having that responsive feeling… and the temptation to then assume the rationalizations successfully justify the response as if accurate/reflective/descriptive of reality.

    This method doesn’t work.

    Karen Armstrong, for example, feels religion is always beneficial and that any compelling evidence to the contrary adduced from reality to that belief she feels-is-true-because-she-feels-it-is must be reflective of something else! This means reality plays no part in determining her beliefs about it, about her beliefs in the assumed and positive role religion plays. She allows no means to test her assumption and, in fact, denies reality any role to play in arbitrating it. This is the formula – elevating emotive belief to be true first – for NOT addressing real problems in real life: allowing beliefs and rationalizations to stand in for evidence-adduced reasons based on successful modeling.

    What Armstrong demonstrates is the root danger of confusing the guide with the teacher: Armstrong can be shown to be factually wrong if we get our feelings out of the way and simply use critical reasoning to examine her claims arbitrated by reality – a reality that exists independent of our feelings about it. That she continues to draw a wide and credulous audience into believing – and supporting their shared belief – what is NOT the case independent of their beliefs in reality demonstrates the seductive power of rationalizing motivated by feelings.

    Feelings can be and usually are very poor teachers that reality has to correct time and time again… usually by giving us the punishment first and then leaving us to figure out the lesson later. Brutal.

    As to your kind invitation, let’s revisit your point where you say It (de-sacrilization) is partly bound up in virtue ethics, but mostly on an attitude of respect for what is around me, and desire to care for it.

    Do you see the immediate problem here? Special terms and metaphysical thinking obfuscates the fundamental problem here: if the concern is really about respecting what is around us, and an honest desire to care for it, then the very first and most fundamental aspect to acting to accomplish either is to appreciate what is actually there, what is actually in reality, what ‘it’ actually is that requires care.

    This means utilizing a method that describes ‘it’ accurately. And this is where we have ongoing problems of differences between us on just such issues.

    Understanding what is actually there means having the intellectual discipline (note the root word ‘disciple’ that means ‘teaching’ and not ‘guiding’, reasoning and not rationalizing, thinking that is not diverted by feeling) to utilize as primary the critical approach, as primary the reason-producing approach, as primary the evidence-respecting approach. This doesn’t deny feelings or their personal importance to guide us individually but places them to the side for a moment when considering claim made about reality.

    To substitute confidence at this point of identifying ‘it’ not in the critical but the in the emotive approach is to run the very real risk of mistaking one’s beliefs to be reality itself. Misidentifying this rather importance difference of approach and sticking with the mis-identification means NOT having an attitude of respect for ‘it’ (but simply assuming one does), NOT having an honest desire to care for ‘it’ (but simply assuming one does). Misidentifying this rather importance difference really means that one really has respect for one’s beliefs about ‘it’, a desire to care for one’s beliefs about ‘it’.

    Your beliefs can’t teach me anything… other than describe what you believe. There is no link to reality when we’re talking about beliefs informed by assumptions, assertions, and presumptions that are strongly felt. The emotive aspect adds nothing of knowledge value about what is being assumed, what is being asserted, what is being presumed. It is empty of knowledge value about reality and full to the brim of personal beliefs mistakenly tethered to reality by an emotive bond you may have but that I do not share. And for compelling reasons, namely, that I respect reality itself to provide the claimed link independent of your beliefs and feelings. If they are absent from reality, then I understandably cannot share the belief and will point out why.

    This is where you and I are often at loggerheads. I point out the emotive nature of your approach to some issue and you come back with demanding respect for it as a substitute for respect for you as a person.

    I know this accusation is factually incorrect. I do respect you as a person. I respect that you have perspective that can and does teach me about gender, about how much importance you place on your gender identity. I wouldn’t dream of having the audacity and hubris trying to tell you how you should feel, how you should feel about yourself, how you should feel about issues. Your feeling are a fact that I must respect. You have them. That’s a fact. But the conclusions about reality that you draw from your emotional guidance is where I often do take issue with you and criticize you for allowing your emotive response to be presented as if produced from a reason-based evidence-adduced conclusion when it is really nothing more than a substitution for it.

    My criticism of certain ideas and issues is not a separation from granting feelings their proper role but is often confused as an attempt to deny them wholesale, to demean anyone who feels anything about anything, and so on. (VW goes so far as to assume I am incapable of empathy and nothing I can say or do will alter her presumption that this MUST be the case if I don’t respect the conclusion you present as if drawn from rather than imposed on reality.) This is also not true. We are emotional creatures – as am I – but we’re violent, too, and I think it’s a sign of intellectual discipline to not give in to empowering these aspects of ourselves when trying to utilize reason, trying to understand the Other, trying to gain insight into the Other’s interactions with reality, trying to identify which claims are based on belief and which ones from reality.

    Your insights into reality through your interactions with it are valuable to me because I do not have yours. You are unique. This is what you offer through your writings: your perspectives, your reasons, your feelings. The whole package. And those are valuable. Where I benefit the most is from your reasons and that necessarily precludes emotive rationalizations (which are yours alone), which invariably seems to cause you to categorize me as discourteous, disrespectful, uncaring… from dp’s point of view part of the de-sanctifying problem!

    Au contraire.

    I have the greatest respect possible for reality, the greatest care imaginable for it, the greatest desire to sustain the natural world and maintain the wonders it contains. But I think I serve reality best when I respect it over and above the beliefs the Other may have substituted for it.

    And if you decide to ban me, make sure it’s for context of being such a ridiculous length and not for its well-intentioned content.

    (As for Karen Armstrong’s brutality in the name of spirituality towards one of humanity’s greatest teachers – mythology – I’ll leave that for another day. Suffice to say, I have zero respect for her reality-denying beliefs.)


    • Thank you for your careful, detailed, courteous reply. You are forgiven.

      I don’t tend to ban, actually. I deleted a few of Arkhenaten’s comments, as he was getting repetitive. Occasionally I edit comments to mock, though only when I am very bored and offended with the commenter. I can reverse their meaning, or mock them cruelly. I find it amusing.

      I admire your commitment to epistemology, making the phenomenon match the noumenon, but for me humans and our messy relationships are part of that Reality, and I relate better to people with older primate circuits, which sometimes are non-verbal, than by patiently working out what is Reality logically.

      And your comment says nothing about what we ought to do, simply what we might believe. How do we decide what to do, if not by emotion? Clear understanding of reality is useful to find a way of achieving a goal, but how do we choose the goal?

      And I would like some yes/no answers, you can say why if you want:

      Should I be allowed to present female?
      Should I be allowed to use women’s loos?


      • Well, what we decide to do will most likely produce the best result only if we first understand what we’re dealing with. If we mistake our beliefs for reality and act accordingly, we will most likely be acting in some way that does not produce the best results but create and then add additional problems. Epistemology is not simply a noumenon approach but one directly connected with the real world, with causes in it we can recognize to be directly connected to real world effects, real world consequences, allowing us to be fully cognizant of our responsibilities for our directed actions. I think ‘oughts’ are most likely connected to ‘is’ when we deal not with ourselves as we wish to believe but ourselves as we really are.

        How do we choose our goal? We exercise wisdom on how to live well. If we are wise, we decide how best to do that based on the best available unbiased information we can obtain, and that means we first recognize the truth of the claim that our epistemology (how we approach life) determines the quality of our ontology (what we make of life). Sure, if people want to do otherwise, they’re free to do so… and be as wise or as unwise as they so choose. But we can swing ours fists as freely as we want… right up until it threatens the noses of others.

        Q1: yes.
        Q2: only if you own it. If you don’t, then someone else does and they are the ones to set the rules to follow. If we want to change the rules, then we have to take it up with the owners. If the owner is the public, then facilities must either be made available or piss on them. I favour unisex bathrooms but a local school created a trans bathroom to serve the needs of two students and I’m fine with that. Why bathrooms should be gender specific (and not based on sexual preference as far as I know) is one of life’s Great Mysteries to me.


          • Clare, you replace my term ‘deal’ with the term ‘find’. Makes a rather important difference, don’t you think?

            How does any individual know themselves? That’s the most important task before us, yes?

            I have learned to step back from my focused perspective/bias/preference/rationalization and view myself in some setting as a dispassionate observer might in order to better identify what it is I am actually doing (which I do to utilize a compare and contrast model). I use this technique to effect all the time (with varying levels of success, I may add, because it’s really hard to get ourselves out of the way) in a variety of important settings… professional and personal… because I know it works to successfully describe and reflect reality and allows me to be very effective in my real-time responses.

            Children are especially emotive and this helps us to identify what it is that is actually motivating this emotive response. By intentionally learning to look past the emotions and seeking the root cause for them, we can then act to great effect… with insight and appropriate caring for their welfare. We can teach children to do the same, to know it’s fine to feel whatever… but acting requires a level of care and responsibility. Think before we act. Understand actions have consequences. Learn whether or not the action is really addressing the issues at hand. Control impulse.

            We do this by consideration, the root of which means examination. We are not being considerate of ourselves or others if we don;t take the time to consider. Knowing ourselves is not a discovery in this sense of the term ‘find’; knowing ourselves is a result of consideration that lies hidden from actions we undertake. That’s what we need to examine and that’s where our epistemology makes such a vital difference in the quality of that contribution.


            • “Deal” or “Find”. Mmm.

              I want to “find” because of will-power. I hear that will-power is not a muscle to be exercised, but a resource to be used. It takes energy. I lost my job in 2010 because I had no will-power left to undertake the tasks, which I found unbearable. And I transitioned: it makes no sense, especially because of the extreme hostility in some quarters, but I could do nothing else. My main question is, how can the rational/conscious parts of me care for the wounded animal parts?

              Your right to swing fists actually ends at my personal space, which is a few feet out from my face. Boundaries are far more uncertain than 1mm from my face, and people push them all the time. These things are negotiations.

              Thank you for sharing your conviction that you have your epistemology right. I don’t believe you, but it indicates the limitations of your persuadability, and therefore how much it is worth engaging with you. I might want to get things clear in my mind, so respond once, or address other possible readers. But please do comment. I will listen to you.

              I also find sharing experience of more value in dialogue than stating positions. We see more clearly what we have in common.


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