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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Some Rules for Better Thinking

To mark the two-year anniversary of WWW, I want to say more directly something I’ve mostly just implied in these monthly posts. If we want to change how things are going, we ourselves are going to have to change. “Be the change you want to see” is a Ghandism, and a good one, but also a lot harder than it sounds. How do people change?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself contemplating this question more and more, perhaps because of the well-recorded drift toward conservatism that accompanies aging, and also because of a paradox I’ve noticed: everyone talks about wanting change of some kind, but no one seems to change very much on an individual basis. And I’ve noticed that institutional change is even slower than personal change. Personality persists. Power persists. These may be laws of nature.

When people do change their views and behaviors, I’ve observed that it’s usually in response to a risk or threat. But the problem with that is, well, the risks and threats. We make progress only, it seems, to avoid pain, or, often, to reduce suffering that’s already been visited on us.

But what if we could change through other, less injurious, motivations? What if we could change through the process of emulation? Was there ever a time in America when emulation was taught as acceptable, normal and healthy? Nowadays it’s taboo to admit that you want to become like someone else (no matter who that someone else is).

I wonder if it violates the cult of individuality that so defines western culture. Or is it because we’ve seen so many once-esteemed leaders fall from grace, and no longer trust the idea that humans (with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama), can achieve a state of grace? Whatever the reason, it isn’t normal to practice emulation publicly, or admit to it even privately.

Well, this planet and we humans are in some pretty deep shit now, so it’s time to bust up the norms. And I say we should all learn to think more like Wendell Berry.

That’s what I want to be explicit about now. And having said it, the compunction is of course, to qualify it.

I know that he is merely a human being, certainly flawed like the rest of us, and that he has enjoyed the privileges accorded to a white, well-educated, heterosexual, property-owning, male, Christian, non-immigrant. In any era of American history, he would have had the franchise, and the esteem of leaders in every corner of society. Even in his long, lonely fight on behalf of small farmers and rural people, he has not had to fight for the dignity of his personhood, nor has his voice been silenced or muzzled, and of course he has never been bodily threatened or harmed for his unpopular views. In our contemporary moment, Wendell Berry can easily be confused for the problem, because the world is infected by the white patrician’s long-held power. Only now are many of us beginning to grasp the extent of the abuse.

But I am going to stand up for my claim. We should learn to think more like Wendell Berry because the habits of thought necessary to see what’s happening to ourselves and our world, and to become informed about how to act so to further the principles of human health and community – these habits have nothing to do with race and gender and privilege. They are available to all of us, and are desperately needed by all of us. Empowering our minds, in fact, is the only chance we have to discern how we’ve arrived where we are, and to backtrack through the labyrinth of our collective past in the hopes of correcting our mistakes. Some people have had the front of the bus to themselves, yes. But this doesn’t mean the view from the front is unimportant.

So why qualify my declaration at all? Is it because I don’t want to be perceived as a sycophant? Yes. Is it because I’m loathe to have anyone think I don’t value pluralism and the wisdom of diversity? Yes. Though neither are great reasons to hedge, this is what I mean when I say it’s taboo to revere anyone any more. It’s just not acceptable to venerate any one person. Ideas, groups, traditions – these can be venerable. Men? No. White men? Hell no.

But two years into this project, I’ve already cast my lot, obviously. And having finished the final essay from this year’s book, Imagination in Place, (“God, Science and Imagination”), I thought I would try writing down Some Wendell Berry Rules for Better Thinking.

Much as I know this kind of thing would be anathema to Wendell, the more pressing fact is that we already need to learn a new way of getting along and of getting by, and fast. (See For if threats are what cause people to change, and a common enemy is the great unifier, then all of us -- brown, black and white – should be learning how to confront the mind of the avaricious, the mind of the extractor, and yes, the mind of the rapist. Many can teach us how to empower our thinking and many are worth emulating, including Wendell Berry, if we are willing to forgive him his privilege.

The following is drawn from one short essay, “God, Science and Imagination” -- a fine piece on which to end the electoral year and the book, and to glean a few important rules for bettering the world by better thinking.

1. Learn to Recognize STEM-based Fundamentalism. We tend to associate fundamentalism with religion, but it shows up in Science and Tech as well. (Some would argue Technology is now itself a religion). Fundamentalists, whether scientific or religious, use language that presents belief as knowledge, for the sake of convincing or converting those who disagree. Fundamentalist opinions are always charged with power, masquerading as fact. That’s how you can make them out. They are not even-toned. They seek victory, and never acknowledge the possibility of error. Rule No. 1 is to be wary of fundamentalist language, even when spoken by so-called “experts” in STEM fields. This is especially important when experts begin predicting the future. The scientific rigor that applies to scientific methods cannot be applied to future-casting, but that doesn’t stop technologists from using their platforms to speak authoritatively about what’s ahead for us. Look no farther than the climate change debate, such as one exists any longer. Compare the tone and evidence of the climate change scientists and that of the climate change deniers. The deniers are strident, absolutist, and leave no margin for disagreement. They are the fundamentalists.

2. Know and Say When You Don’t Know. This is a corollary to number 1, and is violated by pretty much everyone, pretty much all the time. In the same way that we aren’t supposed to emulate anyone, it’s somehow become abnormal to admit uncertainty or unknowing. Because we are shaped by the scientific epoch we’re living through, we’re conditioned to believe that minds are tools for knowing. Saying you don’t know, therefore, is akin to admitting you have a faulty mind. The opposite is closer to the truth. We are humans -- short-lived creatures of limited intelligence, bound to talk about things we can’t provably know. So Rule 2 is to know and say what you don’t know. This is, according to Wendell, the only way to honor the actual, unknowable truth, as well as your neighbors and fellow creatures. Want to “be the change?” Say “I don’t know what to think” aloud, the next time you’re confronted with your own ignorance. “Beginner’s mind” is the first step toward a more peaceable world.

3. Recognize the Limits of Facts. Facts matter, especially now that we’ve entered a “post-truth” era with “alternate facts” and fake news. But provable facts are limited too. They point to truths, but are not themselves the hardpan of truth. Facts can be (and are) argued ad nauseam, and forever shifting and slipping under new discoveries. But Mr. Berry wants us skeptical for another reason: “Mere self-interest obliges us to doubt the scientific faith that facts alone can assure the proper or safe use of facts.” This takes some pondering, but is critically important. For example, science figured out how to split the atom. But science can’t tell us what we should do with our power to exterminate life on earth. It’s a fact that food is produced cheaply now. But that fact alone has nothing to say about world hunger, which persists, or about how unborn generations will feed themselves on a planet full of desiccated, drenched or poisoned places. Rule 2 is to remember that facts can define the physical world, but they cannot adequately instruct the human enterprise. We need more than science, and we need minds that better comprehend why this is so.

4. Understand that Imagination is Knowledge. This flies in the face of what we’ve been taught to believe, which is that knowledge derives from scientific methods only. What derives from imaginative thought? Fancy. Story. Play. The stuff of childrens’ games. But anyone who’s studied Wendell, or hung in for these monthly walks, knows that for Berry, imagination is the most human, and therefore most important, faculty in the whole of our cognitive endowment. “It is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable.” The difference between people who are wise and those who are not is simply that the wise person sees more, and a more clearly. We’ve been taught, under the science regime, that our five senses determine what we perceive. But Berry says no: it isn’t only the senses that reveal the truth of the world – it’s this other thing that we have called imagination. Is King Lear true? Are origin myths? Is poetry? Indeed. Imaginative truths help us know things that science could never.

5. Remember that the Divided Mind Destroys the World. I can’t really describe what an undivided mind is like because I’ve never experienced that. But it’s easy to understand how dualisms of body and soul, heaven and earth – prominent among the religious – have made it too easy to withhold necessary protections of our natural world and fellow creatures. And the materialists have blood on their hands too, holding the physical world in contempt and damaging it as a matter of course. Rule 5 is of a piece with the earlier rules: we can know all kinds of things, but we will never know how that knowledge is going to be put to use. We are divided from our knowledge and the divided mind is destructive. The best way to guard against this is from Lao-Tzu: “Hesitant, as though crossing a stream in winter; Cautious, as though fearful of neighbors all around; Solemn, as though guests in someone else’s house.”

6. Know that Faith isn’t Belief, and Is More Important. Faith isn’t synonymous with “belief;” it’s etymologically closer to “abide” and has the sense, Wendell says, of “waiting, of patience, of endurance of hanging on and holding together.” It’s what we have in the absence of knowledge – and we live in that absence more than we’d like to admit. In the absence of knowledge, faith is better than belief. Belief professes to be knowledge without substantiation. Faith doesn’t pretend to know. It’s anti-STEM. A lot of what we take for granted – our human rights, for example, come from faith. As per the theme of this essay, there’s no empirical proof (i.e. evidence) that the truths that we take to be self-evident, actually are. Our founders, recognizing this, grounded our inalienable rights in a Creator (“…that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”) You don’t have to believe it. It isn’t science. It isn’t empirically true. If anything, it’s imaginatively true. And it has held this country together for 250 years.

Wendell Berry’s mind is worth emulating. He has exercised it every day of his life I bet, to understand that which can be known by watching, reading, writing, listening and imagining. So thoroughly has he done this that when his mind arrives at the border of human knowledge and the transcendent, he knows he’s there. He does not guess and he does not pretend. He does not fall back on “beliefs,” does not preach fundamentals. He is not taken in by the claims of others, regardless of pedigree or rhetoric or techno-scientific prowess. In the realm of the unknowable, he recognizes how faith substitutes for knowledge, and why it must.

His is a mind at home in the world. That’s the mind we should all want. Because a world where everyone feels at home is the change we want. It's the world we want. Change our minds, change the world.



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