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Rational Self-Defence

A Legacy


(VANCOUVER ISLAND) My regular readers probably know that I am, to all intents and purposes, a single father of a seven-year-old boy. As such, I spend virtually my entire waking life trying to make sure that my son has a safe and happy childhood. Under our unique circumstances, that proposition is even more challenging than it is for most parents. For one thing, I am 60 and JJ is 7; as well, I am fighting a 128cancer that keeps popping up in unexpected places; JJ also has a classic case of ADHD and is being assessed for placement on the autism spectrum; JJ is of a visible minority and as such is bully bait; our financial situation is precarious as a result of my having had to withdraw from the world of full employment for several years. and because of the over $250,000.00 I spent (mostly on bribes) to acquire the paperwork necessary to get him out of Indonesia and to confirm his status as my son. Nevertheless, my main concern every single day is that I am providing JJ with a good role model and a safe and happy life.

            All that having been said, I am starting to develop a counterintuitive hypothesis: that a happy childhood can have a negative impact on one’s adult life.

mental-health            Having offered that hypothesis, it’s only fair to state at the outset that I cannot claim to have had a particularly happy childhood. My mother was, for most of my childhood, an undiagnosed and untreated manic depressive, and my father, being a narcissist, was a  a control freak. I loved them both very much and acknowledge that they both heroically struggled with their mental illnesses, and that they did the very best they could as parents. I was their sole caregiver in their final years and watched them both succumb to Alzheimer’s; I was there when they each breathed their last. I learned during that stressful period just how tough their own lives had been. Nevertheless, my childhood was not exactly idyllic.

My soon-to-be ex-wife, Yolanda, on the other hand, had a very happy childhood. Her parents are extraordinarily kind people and devoted parents. She has two brothers and a sister who all love one another and consider each other to be their best friends. She was tropical-villagebrought up in a village in a tropical paradise where childhood activities included swimming in the Indian Ocean, a pristine beach being just a short walk from their home, playing in the clove and nutmeg orchards, coaxing monkeys to eat from their hands, and visiting extended family and neighbours who populated the village. Moreover, the Indonesian child rearing paradigm is extremely attentive to the desires and autonomy of children; their wishes and desires are taken into consideration in every decision that might have an impact on them.

But here’s the thing. Adults with memories of nothing but happy times and positive relationships when they were growing up seem to have no reason to question what they accepted as truth when they were children. For those people, lessons learned in lessonschildhood are eternal truths. What their parents did or said while bringing them up is rarely contested, as there is rarely a sense that they may have been less than perfect.

On the other hand, I have said many times, only half jokingly, that my surest guideline for parenting is to ask myself what my parents would have done in a similar situation, then do the exact opposite. Because, even from a very early age, I was aware that my parents were simply wrong about many things, I was never tempted to believe that simply because they asserted or believed something, it must be true. The result of that was that I was always sceptical when I was asked to accept something simply upon someone’s authority. I learned early on to look for evidence in support of claims. I learned to recognise that an expert’s opinion on a matter within his field is evidence but an uninformed and unsupported opinion is just that. I went so far as to major in and then to do graduate work in philosophy because it is founded upon critical thinking and rational analysis of propositions.

I contrast that with those people who had perfect childhoods and would never think of old-wives-talesrejecting their parents’ wisdom. Yolanda, for example, is convinced that the worst thing you can do if you have the flu or even a cold is to drink any cold or iced drink. Her parents taught her that and other Indonesian old wives’ tales as fact when she was a child. Why they did, or where that idea came from is a mystery to me, but it is unquestionably true to her. I often self-prescribe ice cold lemonade when I have a flu; my thinking is that I need liquids, the cold will keep my temperature down, and the vitamin C can’t hurt. Yolanda’s mum tells me that cold would be a shock to the afflicted throat. And that’s the end of it.

There are countless examples of other more or less harmless beliefs that Yolanda and her siblings accept unquestioningly; from their marvellously kind and decent parents, for instance, they learned that eating beer-and-duriandurian (my favourite fruit in the world) with beer is sure to kill you. Having consumed the two in great quantities on many occasions, I’m happy to report that it’s all bullshit. The problem is that some of the well-meant but utterly false notions that children pick up from their parents are not entirely harmless. And the inclination to accept those notions isn’t balanced by any inclination to apply critical thinking to them.

In Indonesia, everyone has a religion; 90% of the people are Muslims and the majority of the rest are Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus. If an Indonesian were to ask you what your religion is, answering that religious_map_of_indonesiayou have none would make no sense. It would be like telling them you have no name, or that you were not born anywhere; one’s religion is a defining characteristic of every person. Consequently, people from wonderful childhoods generally accept their parents’ religion completely uncritically. And that acceptance of the religious beliefs of good parents is not only an Indonesian phenomenon; most people here in the West who claim to have a religion, have the religion of their parents. And among those who share their parents’ religion and feel comfortable enough with it not to spend a lot of time agonising over their faith, my observation is that most will cop to having had great childhoods and to having great respect for their parents.

There are lots of things I would like my son to accept unquestioningly. I’d like him to believe, for one-raceexample, that violence is wrong, that being kind to others should be at the very foundation of his character, that there is only one race, the human race, and all members should be accorded the same respect, that knowledge, understanding, and curiosity are preferable to ignorance and intellectual complacency. However, most of all, I want him to learn to apply critical thinking skills to anything he is asked to accept as dogma.

It seems to me that the things I want him to weave into the fabric of his personality, the decency, kindness, and tolerance, are more attitudes than factual propositions; they can be modelled rather than taught. I therefore have the responsibility of living my life with those ideals in mind, and I must be in a position to articulate them without hypocrisy if their suitability as values ever needs to be discussed. But critical thinking can be taught.

conspiracy-theoristsI need to teach JJ to respect people even if he can’t accept their beliefs. He doesn’t need to respect erroneous claims of fact, but he has to understand that people have a right to be wrong. I also need to ensure that, if people try to proselytise some crackpot notion like young earth creationism, or a denial of anthropogenic climate change, or chemtrails, or Barrack Obama’s Kenyan citizenship, he has the critical skills to see through the bullshit. He needs to know that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, not just extraordinary conviction.

In short, I’m hoping that I can give JJ both a happy childhood and the intellectual ammunition even to dispute my claims when I am in error. And crucially, I want my son to have the intellectual firepower trump-fibscombined with the strength of character to survive in a post-truth world in the event that Donald Trump’s message of evil and hatred prevails this November. Since Donald Trump announced his intention of running for the presidency, truth, facts, reason, and human decency have been under assault; everyone is going to need the skills of intellectual self-defence. Being able to separate the truth from hyperbolic fact-free statements will be more important than it has ever been. I will not have the person I love the most in the world succumb to the coarsening and dumbing down that Trump spearheads.


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  1. Pat, I’m sorry to hear about you and Yolanda, and that your cancer is popping up in unexpected places. You and I have had similar tastes and concerns in certain areas.

    Do you remember when we were listening to Beethoven’s 5th – at at time when classical music was decidedly uncool for kids our age – trying to figure out when the third movement ended and the fourth began?

    Also, you went into philosophy and I into math, and I also have a lifelong love for chess. Your rationale is given above. As for mine, the second world champion, Emanuel Lasker, gave a quote that resonated with me: “On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in the checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.” ( A picture of the great player and his quote are given here: )

    I always figured that in math or chess, we’re less prone to being bullshitted. Lasker goes on, “Our little Chess is one of the sanctuaries … ” (from the BS, of course).

    Must be the “Grampa” gene. He had a friend in school who kept getting much lower grades than him, even on papers that grampa saw little wrong with. One day, they switched papers and signed the other’s paper. Grampa still got the higher mark! Grampa undoubtedly deserved his high marks, but here he benefited from bias, or else his friend suffered from it.

    Anyway, to get back to your post, on my return from India in 1998, I decided to prove to myself those things that I took for granted, that were simply truths that I somehow possessed. Holy Cow, the received canon failed muster on so many occasions. I could not disprove many of the so-called truths, but I also could not prove many of them. This makes me a conspiracy theorist as Neil deGrasse Tyson [NdT] describes it: I tacitly admit that I have insufficient data to prove, and I part ways here, either side of the argument. Not only tacitly, but overtly.

    So, when a fellow regular bar patron tells me, “I hope you’re not one of those climate change deniers; if you are, I’ll never talk to you again”, my answer that while what I have observed is consistent with global warming and I’m confident that humans influence the climate, I have no idea – i.e., I DON’T KNOW – how much of an influence they have and how much and how relevant a solution carbon taxes and credits might be. I simply don’t know, and not for want of trying. And yes, I looked into the claims of a 97% consensus. This brands me as a climate change denier and conspiracy theorist and the patron greatly reduced his interactions with me.

    If NdT does not think this way, for example, if he’s certain that we have never been visited by aliens, then he’s not being strictly scientific. He can doubt that we’ve been visited, but there’s no such thing as absolute proof in science. We ALL have insufficient information and our opinions should lie on a spectrum between the absolute certainties at either end without ever reaching certainty.

    There are conspiracy theorists who are certain the established truth on some issue is false, just as people can have absolute faith in the established canon. Those who stand between those extremes, though also labeled conspiracy theorists, are the only ones whose position can be consistent with the information they possess.

    Anyway, I hope all [else] is well, that your relationship with JJ is good, and that your separation from Yolanda is amiable. You’re a dear cousin and I wish you good health and longevity. I certainly hope to see you again.

  2. First of all, I certainly remember that time when we were young. Wow. Long time ago, man.

    As to the business of sufficient evidence etc.. Once again, I think we’re on the same page, but expressing it differently.

    I agree that it’s unscientific to dismiss all conspiracy theories as simply false (something I routinely do). I take the view that, in scientific terms, NOTHING is ever known absolutely or with absolute certainty. And NdT’s suggestion that subscription to a conspiracy theory is an admission (tacit or overt) of lacking evidence is only true if no evidence is offered but the theory is still held to be true.

    I, and probably you, hold that many propositions are true while we also acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence to state them as categorically true. My neighbour, for example, is an eccentric who avoids people and tinkers with electronics. I offer the proposition that he is human, and reject the proposition that he is an alien from a distant planet living among us. I admit that I DON’T KNOW, but nevertheless I will carry on as though my proposition is true and the counter-proposition false.

    So, I stand between the two propositions, but, based upon the preponderance of available evidence, I act on what I perceive to be persuasive rather than on the proposition with little or no supporting evidence.

    The only real difference is that most people will claim to know something when, in reality, they are just acting on the evidence they find most persuasive. In the case of truly crackpot theories, it’s merely a case of being a poor judge of the quality of the evidence available. An example might be believing Obama to be a Muslim born in Kenya on the evidence that I don’t like him or the idea of a black man being president.

    And thank you for your concern. JJ and I are doing fine and he will stay with me; I’ve been his primary caregiver since he was learning to walk. As for me and Yolanda, it was just a matter of two people being so different and then living apart for more than a year. Shit happens.

    Thanks for your feedback, John. I love to hear your views as they always challenge me. All the best, cuz!

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