Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Problem with Platitudes

“Spiritual” books, teachers, and groups – particularly the execrable “New Age” movement – typically present seekers with no end of platitudes: pithy expressions of so-called wisdom that are often accepted uncritically by these seekers, who usually have never been taught to properly evaluate claims (or, indeed, why they should even bother evaluating claims).

A new series of posts (“The Problem with Platitudes”) will examine some of these phrases.

Make no mistake: uncritically accepting these fortune-cookie sayings is absolute poison to any real attainment. This series of posts aims to explore exactly what’s wrong with these platitudes and exactly how they impede progress.
First up: the classic canard, “Everyone’s opinion (or belief) is equally correct.”

This phrase – far from being “wisdom” – is a lie that, if accepted, will make it almost impossible for the individual to gain a clear picture of reality (and thus impossible for an individual to attain in the Thelemic system).
Read on for more.

Right off the bat, there’s a huge problem: if everyone’s opinion is equally correct, then what about my opinion that “some opinions are correct and some opinions are not”? Is this a “correct” opinion also? If it is, then it invalidates the platitude. If it’s not, then it contradicts the platitude.
So in all of about three seconds of thinking about it, we’ve determined that the platitude is self-defeating and should be discarded by anyone who cares at all about whether his or her beliefs are true.

But never fear. Believers always can salvage their cherished beliefs by playing word games. Often, they will simply say, “I meant that everyone’s opinion is equally correct (for him).”
Incidentally, this alteration does not fix the problem: if everyone’s opinion is equally correct (for him), then does that mean that the opinion “everyone’s opinion is equally correct (for him)” is correct only for the person speaking it? If it’s only true for the person speaking it, then it doesn’t apply to “everyone” and contradicts itself. If it’s not only true for the person speaking it, then it still contradicts itself.

Regardless, let’s temporarily overlook the self-contradictory nature of this platitude and turn to analyzing what in the world it means.
It should be very clear that not all opinions or beliefs are created equal. A guy who holds the opinion that a baseball will fall when dropped on Earth and a guy who holds the opinion that a baseball will float when dropped on Earth are not “equally correct” in their opinions on this subject.

But believers who accept the above platitude aren’t usually talking about claims about the physical world. Almost always, they’re talking about some sort of moral idea or otherwise unfalsifiable and unconfirmable metaphysical position. One person might hold the opinion that one should almost always show compassion to people in jeopardy, while another might hold the opinion that “tough love” is on average a far better approach to dealing with people who are in crisis.
But such “opinions” aren’t claims about what is: they’re expressions of values, in exactly the same way that an opinion about which flavor of ice cream is the “best” is just an expression of values/preferences, not objective truth.

As such, it doesn’t make sense to say that these kinds of value-statements are “correct” or not. “Correct” has two basic meanings: the first is “aligned with reality” (as in, “It’s correct that two and two equal four"). The second is “consistent with certain assumptions” [often moral assumptions] (as in, “It’s correct for a Christian to turn the other cheek”).
Value-judgments might arguably be “correct” in the sense of consistent with a person’s values, but this is just a meaningless tautology: “My opinion that compassion is good is correct” translates to “The value I place on compassion is consistent with my values.” Well, duh. Saying that it’s “correct” is redundant and needlessly obfuscatory, as it invites equivocation with the other meaning of “correct.” It’s one way that people talk themselves into thinking that their moral beliefs are “true” instead of the absurd lies that they actually are. Such tricks of the mind are especially devious when people talk themselves into thinking that they have a “personal morality” that “comes from within.” These kinds of thoughts are the pathway to getting lost in a labyrinth of the mind, instead of following the True Self in the moment.

The hardest prison to get out of is the one you build for yourself, and any thought about your moral “opinions” and how “correct” they are is nothing more than a prison you’ve constructed.
Value-judgments are certainly not “correct” in the sense of being aligned with reality, as value-judgments are simply subjective statements of preference. The statement “vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate” can’t be “correct” in the sense of being in accord with reality, for reality has no inherent sense of “better.” In the same way, “compassion is better than tough love” also can’t be “correct.”

Now, the statement, “I’m a person who thinks that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate” might be “correct” in the sense of being in accord with reality (since it’s a statement about a fact, the kind of person the speaker is), but the actual opinion (“Vanilla ice cream is better!”) can’t be said to be “correct” at all.
Thus, the platitude is meaningless, in addition to being self-contradictory.

What’s so bad about accepting a self-contradictory and meaningless statement? Well, as I’ve noted frequently, individuals draw conclusions on the basis of other conclusions that they’ve accepted.  Accepting a false premise right from the start may very well poison future conclusions.
For example, someone who holds the belief “Everyone’s belief is equally true,” could very well conclude that whatever false ideas he happens to have about Thelema are “just as true” as any other ideas about Thelema. Thus, the wackaloos from the Order of Thelemic Knights – who preach that Thelema is all about helping other people – might convince themselves that their interpretation of Thelema is just as correct as the one advanced, say, on this blog.

The fact is that not everyone’s “belief” or “interpretation” is equally correct, and the only people who go around trying to convince themselves that that is the case are egalitarian dimwits who can’t stand the idea that some people might have more knowledge or superior insight on a particular subject.
Witness, for example, the following post which showed up on the Omaha Community of Thelema. A poster remarks that he was struggling with interpreting AL II:21, and he concludes his post by saying:

I won't tell you what I decided about compassion. That is not the important thing. What is important is this: Your interpretation of anything is the "correct" interpretation. Because we decide what we need Liber Legis to say to us, that is what we will find if we truely seek it. My answer may not be right for others and theirs for me. This doesn't mean that either of us is wrong. We find that which we truly need.

Oh, brother. At least “Non Serviam” – aka one of the few more-informed posters on that site, from what I can tell – tries to set this guy straight by explaining that a text can’t mean anything that a person wants. [See here for a post by me on interpreting the Book]
Here is a practical illustration of the dangers of believing that everyone’s opinion (or interpretation) is equally correct: someone who holds such a position believes that *any* reading of *any* passage from Liber AL is “just as correct” as any other.

Consider what that means: taken to its logical conclusion, this idea indicates that every verse of Liber AL can mean absolutely anything. In practice, this means that Liber AL means nothing (and no, I don’t mean Nothing in the sense of “O! For it is Not, Naught, Nuit, the zero raised to the zero power when all cancels out and conflicting interpretations unite in my mind!”).
People have a lot of problems with some of the passages in the Book. Specifically, they seem to take issue with parts of Chapter II and pretty much all of Chapter III. Over the years, I have seen people go to great lengths to twist the words of Liber AL to say basically anything that the interpreter wants.

“Oh, when it says compassion is the vice of kings, it means that we should be compassionate!”
“Oh, when it talks about WAR, it’s really talking about LIGHT (the inner light, doncha know?) because if I use the Hebrew letters that correspond to the English letters that comprise ‘war’ and rearrange them, I get the Hebrew word for “light.”

“Stamping down the wretched and the weak? That just means to stamp down those mean ol’ nasty thoughts in the mind!”

Etc., etc.
Look, Liber AL may be enigmatic in a lot of ways. There may be many mysteries hidden therein, and it rewards repeat readings, study, and application of its wisdom to life. But it’s pretty hard to get away from the fact that the Book plainly states that the world is not a nice place, that conflict is a fact of life, and that the strong of will have the ability (given to them by nature) to stamp down the weak and that “right” and “wrong” simply don’t enter the picture.

If one decides to twist these supposedly “problematic” verses to mean something more pleasing to the moral ideas of the interpreter, then what is the point of having the Book in the first place?
If one simply reads one’s own morality into a text, then the text is irrelevant.

If “we decide what we need Liber Legis to say to us,” as the poster quoted above put it, then we can just skip Liber Legis altogether.
The bottom line here is that The Book of the Law is a real book with a real message and with verses that can only be read in a limited number of ways: it expresses a philosophy that is consistent and relatively clear (though presented in an obscure way). One person’s “opinion” of what a verse means isn’t necessarily as “correct” as someone else’s, particularly if that someone else can support his interpretation by appealing to what the verse actually says.

In a similar way, reality is right there in front of your eyes, and one person’s “opinion” of that reality isn’t necessarily as “correct” as someone else’s.
Though these politically-correct, egalitarian ideas may win you plenty of friends in New Age circles, where everyone just wants to have a big group hug and feel good about the values they already hold, this platitude is the quickest way to stop progress dead in its tracks.

If your “opinions” are so “correct” from the get-go, why do you even need to study a subject like Thelema? People generally turn to “spirituality” because they feel that something is missing from their lives, that their typical methods of conducting themselves aren’t working for them. If it were remotely true that “everyone’s opinion is equally correct,” then no one would ever change their opinion or seek for the self-knowledge that comes from discovering the limitations of one’s opinions.
All things considered, this platitude is the root of so many poisonous errors that it is not an exaggeration to say that anyone who accepts it cannot have an accurate perception of reality and cannot achieve Thelemic attainment.

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