The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Learning to Understand the World

I’m Canadian, but my father often worked overseas. My earliest memories are not of Vancouver, where I was born, but of Malaysia, where I spent my first five years. The person who took care of me then was not my mother, but Anna, the housekeeper.

She was a Chinese Malay and I spent most of my time with her. I ate the same food as her and thought that was great: The western fare my parents ate was not half so tasty as the fried noodles and soups that were her mainstay.

She had a son, maybe twenty or so, though it’s hard to say. He had a motorcycle and seemed to me the epitome of cool (though I didn’t know that word) and kindness. One of my clearest early memories is of him teaching me how to catch butterflies in the little net I had.

The secret is to not chase them, let them settle in the grass and put the net over them. It takes the challenge out of it, but it works.

My favorite person in the world was Dee, my father’s secretary, also Chinese Malay. She was wild, and young, and had a sports car and would seat me in her lap while she drove. When my grandmother came to visit, I steadfastly refused to call her Grandma or any such thing, until someone hit on the name of “Grand-Dee”. So she was ever after.

We moved back to Canada when I was six or so, after stays in Jakarta, Indonesia and in Singapore and I didn’t travel overseas again till I was twelve, when my father got a job running a project in Bangladesh.

We traveled extensively through the Indian subcontinent in those years: Kashmir before the troubles, Nepal before the troubles. Delhi. Calcutta where I had a great-aunt who had not left after partition.  Darjeeling, where my grandfather had been police chief under the Raj. Many other places. My mother, having spent much of her childhood in India, spoke fluent Hindi. This always surprised Indians, often to hilarious effect, as she would putter along like a typical white woman, letting them say whatever they wanted, then break into Hindi herself.

I remember someone cursing out our driver, and my Mother listening for quite some time before she leaned over, a round, little white matron and said, “That’s not very nice,” in Hindi.

The reaction was both funny and touching.

My father worked for Food and Agriculture, a United Nations organization. He often had guests over to the house, and if he went to someone else’s house, I usually went along. His compatriots were other aid workers: foresters, geologists, economists, agronomists, and so on. They’d sit and discuss trying to help the Third world; what worked and what didn’t.

The “what didn’t” list was a lot longer than the “what did,” but of more interest was why. Between them they had hundreds of years of experience.

I sat, listened, and learned.

Because I spent so much time around people with different beliefs, I became fascinated with how people could believe such different things. The Christians. The Hindus. The Moslems. The Secularists.

My father had a weird mix of white paternalism and deep respect for the locals and they generally seemed to like him. He was an asshole, but he was a fair asshole–and that was a vast improvement over the people they were used to working for and dealing with. He didn’t assume they didn’t know their own lives and he gave respect where respect was due.

I remember, back in Canada, being approached by Christian evangalists and my father telling them where to shove their beliefs. “You tell me that these good people I know who aren’t Christian are going to hell because they don’t follow Jesus?! Get off my property, or I’ll throw you off.”

He was a large, red-faced man who radiated anger and menace.

They got off his property.

People believe all sorts of weirdness. They believe contradictory weirdness, which doesn’t stop many of them from being good people, even though their beliefs are different.

It doesn’t stop them from being bad people, either.

Western scientific knowledge clearly mattered, but our ideological beliefs always struck me as as dubious as any theology. I remember, in grade eleven, reading an economics textbook which talked about rational man and utility optimization.

This was theology. Moral beliefs about how people should act and about how the universe must be, little different from Medieval Church scholasticism. Later I was to discover that the more a social “science” tried to pretend it was a science, the more dubious its insights, the greater the corruption, and the more massive the harm it did–and had done.

Economics, being the most “scientific” had done the most harm. Psychology was close behind.

I was a reader. From the time I was seven, until perhaps age thirty-two or so, I read more than a book a day on average. Often I would read as many as twenty in a week–two or three in a day.

Most of it was fiction, but amongst that was a fair bit of non-fiction. It’s not clear to me that I learned more from the non-fiction.

My main interests were in questions of knowledge: epistemology, cultural anthropology, comparative religion.  What did humans believe and why?

I didn’t really become interested in economics and political science (in the broadest sense) until the recession of the early 90s. It was so clear that those leading society, and most economists, had no idea what was going on that I turned my attention to learning how the economy worked.

They couldn’t fix it, so I’d see if I could figure out how.

I did not lack intellectual confidence.

And so I read the economists, trying to winnow some gems out of the trash and hoping to find the occasional economist who knew his (they were all men) discipline was an ideological garbage heap and thus was able to say something useful.

I went back to university, before illness and poverty drove me out, and while there I studied (and read) mostly philosophy, linguistics, and sociology. In sociology, I found a discipline which had a broad enough focus of view that amidst the crap (and there was plenty) were real insights into how society, power, and economics actually work.

This was because no one took sociology seriously and most had contempt for it. Freed from interest by those with wealth and power, some sociologists were actually able to do useful work.

Anthropology and cultural historians remained the best people to read to remind oneself that “It was not always thus,” “It is not always thus,” and, “People are really plastic and can believe all sorts of amazing stuff.”

Cultural anthropology remains the best antidote to the sort of fools who try and pronounce that everything a human does is because of selfishness, or utility, or any other one thing.

No one who is well read can believe such a thing without engaging in the sort of mental gymnastics which make a circus contortionist’s physical antics look like those of a gross amateur.

Sociology, anthropology, and the better parts of psychology and history are also excellent reminders that humans are only slightly rational, and that when they do manage to be more than slightly rational it is the irrational parts of their belief systems which determine whether or not the rationality will lead to anything good.

Any rationality which tries to rest itself entirely in rationality becomes monstrous, precisely because it fails to recognize its monstrous non-rational roots, or that rationality can never provide ethical ends, only means.

In the 2000s, I fell into the blog world. As I have said before, I started out writing about policy and war, often nerdy, weedy stuff. Twenty-seven mistakes made during the Iraq occupation (nine months in), and so on.

I should have remembered what Ian, at twenty-one, knew.

People can believe essentially anything. People are not rational. Knowledge systems are pre-rational, even if a huge mound of rationality has been piled up to bury the non-rational roots.

You can’t convince anybody of anything they don’t want to believe, and most people’s real need to believe is to believe in their tribe and the Gods of their tribe, whether those Gods are supernatural ones like YHVH and Zeus, or merely metaphysical entities like utility or pure reason shorn of ideology.

I came back, first, to try to explain the first principles of morality and ethics to people. Stuff like “killing less people is better than killing more people.”

That didn’t stick. Most people can’t get it. They believe what their tribe does is right and if a moral symbol has been violated, their anger and outrage is too high to do the math involved in “this ‘terrorist’ is far less of a criminal than George Bush or Barack Obama.”

Fine. Ethics and morality don’t work, shorn of tribalism.

This is where the great Axial reformers wound up, by the way. They tried to create universal religions which made everyone a brother (sadly leaving women largely out, with a few partial exceptions). They tried to extend the tribe to everyone.

Instead, they created super-tribes which spent the next 2,000 years fighting it out in bloody and spectacular fashion.

Then, we raised up national ideology as tribes and did the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because I promised in my fundraiser that I’d do twelve reviews of foundational books, I have spent the past three weeks re-reading some of them. To date, I have read mostly sociology, with a side of theories of justice and charisma.

I have been brought back to my early concerns with knowledge and belief: People can believe virtually anything, and they will do so well past the point where it kills them, or their entire society.

I have been hammering, for the last six months, the issue of the logic of capitalism: How it has destroyed the environment and will thus lead to the deaths of at least a billion people or more.

We knew it was doing so, and we kept on keeping on. We knew planned obsolesence was wasteful and we kept on keeping on. Lately, we’ve been engaged in economic austerity despite the fact is has worked for, maybe, one nation in the world (Germany).


We are barely sentient.

We live inside knowledge systems in which we have created the world as very concrete (often literally–buildings are instantiated ideas). We are so enmeshed in them we are barely able to question their assumptions or where they are leading us. We will not stop till they lead to catastrophe, and, often enough, not even then.

Forget the present day; go read how the Reformation and Counter-Reformation went down.

So, I find myself today sifting through the books I have read before; the thoughts I have thought before. I look back at different Ians and each of their understandings of the world.

These grains have fallen through my fingers before, and I have stared at the sand looking to weave a pattern that explains the order humans create.

Leaving aside natural processes we mostly don’t control, what changes the human world in the most far-reaching way are ideas. Those ideas may be technological ideas, or scientific, or ethical. They may be religions or ideologies (little difference, really). But the change comes from ideas.

So many, many ideas. So many we could not even ennumerate them, though the encyclopedists and editors of dictionaries have tried.

These ideas were all created by us. Some are very close to the natural world; some are far removed, but they are our ideas.

And they control us. The hand of dead philosophers, scientists, and technologists rules us.

We thought Reason would free us. The Enlightenment project was to dispel illusions and hobgoblins and myths. But reason has not freed us, and by giving us great power without giving us that cliched great wisdom, it has led to a great extinction that may even claim us.


I have a few. They seem to me inadequate against our vast will to believe in garbage and our unwillingness to admit that the garbage is all created by us, and corresponds little to effectiveness, let alone reality.

But I will write them. There will be the book reviews I promised. There will be the booklet on the Creation of Reality.

Perhaps we can point towards a way of becoming self-aware creators of our own reality. Because we already create our own reality, we simply do it like the blind men in the parable of the Elephant, save not describing what we feel but creating it with no mind to how it all fits together and what the consequences of adopting each idea will be.

Marx posited that we create our own chains, but denigrated the role of ideas. Nothing but our biology binds humans more than ideas, because, beyond the basics given us by nature, everything–including the power of the gun, comes from ideas.

Let us see whether my forty-eight-year journey has taught me anything useful about those ideas, and whether I can impart what I have learned to others.

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  1. Lisa

    “Rational? We are barely sentient.”

    So very true, most people live in what is called Type #1 thinking mode. Quick, uses shortcuts, memories and simple heuristics. As Einstein said ‘common sense is a set of prejudices learned before 16’.

    People act then become conscious about it afterwards.

    Type #2 is intellectual mode, where you think through things. Much more slow, depends a lot on training (if you don’t know logic and probability you are always at a disadvantage).

    You are conscious through the whole process.

    You can improve both, more thinking skills and knowledge improve Type #2. You can then train yourself so that you can improve Type #1. Just like practice improves motor based skills.

    The number of people that do is minute.

    Most people are so dumb they cannot even do a 30 sec Google search to check their facts before posting on the internet, just to check things..
    Time after time on facebook my comment is “next time do a quick google search before you post something that is factually incorrect and avoid embarrassing yourself”.

    Take one of the most basic intellectual skills..reading ..most people can barely read. And their reading methodologies are very restricted, they cannot read a manual, or a scientific paper or anything technical. They simply don’t know how. That applies to many who think they can read well (social sciences…cough).

    We won’t go into writing…lol.

    Then you can add in all the things like cognitive dissonance…and you come to the conclusion that it is amazing we have gotten so far and we are all still not sitting in a cave picking fleas off each other.

    My 10 laws describe human behaviour:
    (1) Never underestimate human stupidity – humans are more stupid than you can possibly believe. Never underestimate the power of stupidity in large groups or when fuelled by greed.

    (2) Humans will always do the right thing – after they have tried every possible alternative – usually repeatedly. When they finally do the right things …then they will immediately change.

    (3) If a human is faced with 2 pieces of information:
    (1) Good scientific data based on rigorous research.
    (2) A complete fantasy based on a scurrilous rumour.

    They will invariably believe the rumour

    (4) It is better to spectacularly fail in a socially acceptable manner than to succeed in a socially unacceptable manner. (This is pinched from John Maynard Keynes).

    (5) It takes nine months to create a human. For the rest of their life no human can reliably remember further back than 9 months ago, or think further ahead than 9 months into the future.

    (6) There are 3 options for getting something done effectively. These are, in descending order of effectiveness:

    • A good plan well implemented.
    • A poorer plan well implemented.
    • A good plan poorly implemented.

    No normal human will normally pick any of these options.
    (Note: By sheer chance, or extraordinary endeavour, or by a mutant, when option 1 occasionally happens, it is remembered in the history books forever, though the credit is always stolen by someone else ).

    (7) Humans prefer to live in total rubbish fantasising about perfection than simply making things a bit better.
    The concept of improving one bit at a time is way, way too complex for them.

    (8) Unfounded optimism and hope (combined with Law 6) are responsible for more disasters, deaths and suffering than anything else in the world, as they are the most dangerous ways of denying reality – and reality is always right.

    (9) Humans hate:
    (1) Someone who is realistic when they are panicking.
    (2) The exact same person, who is realistic when they are dangerously optimistic.

    Logical conclusion? Humans hate reality and detest anyone who mentions it, even accidentally. (“Don’t mention reality, I did it once, but I think I got away with it”)

    (10) If humans ever found another species that destroyed itself and its environment as much as they do – they would ruthlessly exterminate it, as humans are really, really competitive (“we’re the best”).

  2. highrpm

    seems to me hillary operates in the type #1 thinking mode [much] more than in type #2. dangerous as one who touts to the world her detailed grasp of policy.

  3. Dan Lynch

    I enjoyed Ian’s rambling thoughts.
    As a young boy, it was obvious to me that most people were crazy, and by “crazy” I mean detached from reality. Particularly with regard to religion, but people who are comfortable being detached from reality in their religion usually end up being detached from reality in other ways, too.
    So we live in a world where most people are detached from reality, and the few who embrace reality may be considered crazy.
    Most people are “followers,” they accept what they are told to believe and do not rock the boat. I suppose human DNA has to be that way or else humans would not be able to form cohesive societies.
    So this is what we have to work with.

  4. Ian,

    I am also 48 and spend hours on trying to understand the same important issues that compel you to dig ever further for “truth”.

    If you ever are in Vancouver, I would love the opportunity to have lunch or dinner with you.

    “What Middle-Class Canadians Need To Know – A Must-Watch, One Hour Economics Seminar – Keynes”

    “You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know”

  5. Shh

    Truly one of your better columns. “Perspicacious” comes to mind.

    “Perhaps we can point a way to becoming self-aware creators of our own reality.” – aye, there’s the rub. How do we get the ego to acknowledge its own temporal prejudices?

    Without true awareness, we cannot overcome these challenges (I don’t think we can empirically anyway…what with catastrophic system destabilization having already occurred in the Thermal-halide cycle). Paradoxically enough, awareness is self creating and there is no such thing as true awareness. Such is the suchness of things.

  6. Zozimus69

    Very interesting post as always. Regarding thinking, I would highly recommend a Youtube lecture by Wes Cecil – An Introduction to thinking – “A reflection on some of the factors that form our thought processes and why, on average, we find thinking so difficult.”

    Mr Cecil has wonderful lectures on philosophers, the arts, language, forgotten thinkers among others and are always educational, thoughtful and funny.

  7. Synoia

    Capitalism…and will thus lead to the deaths of at least a billion people or more.

    It might leave 500 Million alive. Few in North America, because the climate is generally hostile.

    Mediterranean Europe, the African Plateau and China look like the best locales. Humans past success in a survivable clime is probably the best predictor for future tribal survival.

  8. Among your best posts – people should donate for this post alone.

  9. realitychecker

    Excellent and thoughtful post, Ian. Thank you for it.

    I’m not disposed to pen a long discourse laying out my take on some of your points, but I will just say this:

    It has been my observation that nothing is resented by the marginally sentient masses more than a competent “reality checker”–meaning one who perceives the logical contradictions or other misreading of the data supposedly supporting a given position, and is ruthless and disciplined enough to commit to an unvarying approach of responding to such by rejecting the entire position, in favor of waiting to commit his belief until he/she finds a position that has logical and factual integrity from the ground up.

    IOW, that is to be a patient and humble and unapologetic agnostic in preference to the risk of being an impatient egoist who chooses to be certain about an uncertainty. It is easier, and more tools are available, to detect inaccuracy and falseness, than to ever be sure that one holds Truth in one’s grasp.

    I think that there is much wisdom to be discovered by that strategy, and much folly to be avoided by it.

    Aside from that, I would just add that it will never be the case that we can have equality of consciousness among all society’s members, as much as we might wish it were otherwise—high levels of consciousness will always be achievable only by a tiny elite, who will have to work very long and very hard to get there.

  10. Hugh

    I never quite got around to writing a comment to your last post, but the one I was thinking of writing works equally well here. Hannah Arendt in the context of Nazism and Stalinism described what she called “totalitarian fictions”. These were the stories, the narratives which drove and directed the actions and policies of the insiders and true believers. They were wrapped up in very scientific sounding terminology, what Arendt called “scientificality”, but were in fact pseudoscience. Arendt was trying to answer the question of why these ideologies were so powerful, on the one hand, and why they were so erratic, illogical, and mindlessly self-destructive, on the other. She argued our error was in measuring them in terms of the normal world most of us live in, instead of in their own terms. When we do this, we come to realize that Nazism and Stalinism could only act and play out as they did.

    Modern economics and political science are not “totalitarian fictions” in Arendt’s sense. But this is only because the thinking of our ruling kleptocratic classes does not rise to the level of ideology or indeed beyond their own immediate interests. The whole of it can be encapsulated and expressed in just two words: “Mine” and “more”. Rather economics and political science provide them with useful and convenient “scientifical” fictions which legitimize their depredations morphing them into natural political and economic “laws”. What our ruling classes do share with totalitarianism is its total disregard for norms and limits. We can understand them stealing the golden eggs but remain in total disbelief that they will not only steal them but eat the goose that laid them, without a second thought, indeed with no thought at all. Once we understand this one simple fact, we can grasp that there can be no reining in of this class, no compromise with it, –the concept simply doesn’t exist among them. We can only remove its wealth and power from it or it will destroy us.

  11. Jill

    What I notice is that religion is overtly connected to powerful, totalitarian “capitalists”. I am referring to “The Family” as outlined by Jeff Sharlot. The Family is an apocalyptic religion where members long for the return of Christ which naturally involves the destruction of this beautiful planet. Apocalyptic believers usually try to hasten the day of glory (destruction of our beautiful, living earth) by setting off one large event or several sets of events to bring on the apocalyse. I believe we are seeing this happen right now.

    While many powerful people just want more and more, there are true believers among them who want souls along with money and power. After all, when Jesus returns they will be powerful, right beside him. Not to mention that they will have extinguished their enemies in the lake of fire through the wrath of God! They will get to watch them suffer, eternally!! YEAH TEAM JESUS! BTW-one doesn’t have to be a Christian to belong to The Family, one just swears supreme allegiance to Jesus.

    Pretty obviously to many mind, this scenario builds on extreme cruelty that people suffered as children. Most societies aren’t very kind to children. They make them suffer and ask all of us to believe tons of things that don’t make any sense. I think we would be a lot further along as a people if we weren’t so cruel to children and didn’t try to indoctrinate them all the time into one form of stupidity or another.

    Suppose we worked on nurturing the compassion that children so often show? Suppose we starting nurturing it in ourselves? I think we could get somewhere. Compassion causes us to question formerly unquestioned cruelties. It’s a very dangerous emotion in any type of totalitarian system.
    If I could pick one thing that might help us to see our own society and beliefs more clearly and give them a true evaluation, I would pick compassion.

  12. Steeleweed

    I have a huge library, much now in storage pending relocating. My books span most of the Dewey categories, but the common theme in fiction and non-fiction is that they all shed some light on who we are and how we go this way.

    As wee tyke, I was seriously puzzled by why people behaved as they did, and I’ve been studying that for the last 70+ years. The older I get the more I’m inclined to rephrase the “Think global. Act local” mantra as “Get your own head straight. Be your brother’s keeper”.

  13. highrpm

    shackled by a heavy burden,
    ‘neath a load of sin and shame
    oh, he touched me,
    and oh, the joy that floods my soul…

    adults sing this utter nonsense…belief…irrational.

  14. V. Arnold

    “Know thyself”.
    It would seem the first step in understanding our world.

  15. nihil obstet

    Like most lefties, emotionally I regard tribalism as an abdication of reason and an evil. However, if each of our ancestors 40,000 years ago had acted on their individual perceptions rather than following along with the sheeple (a slur on those who do not agree with us that I doubt is new) in their band of roughly 100 humans, our line would have ended as a lucky saber-toothed tiger tucked into the last of that genre of cat food. We are social animals. I suspect that our altruism, our empathy, our generosity, all spring from the same basic genetic wiring as our tribalism — let us join with one another.

    We can and sometimes do change our sense of who our tribe is. The challenge is figuring out how to channel our identifications with others into appropriate groups. Understanding how that works for ourselves and others is part of learning to understand the world.

  16. Some Guy

    Interesting that depsite backgrounds that could hardly be more different, we ended up in similar places, intellectually.

    You are too hard on your early blogging self, it takes time to find what you want to say, and you do that by saying it, and even then you knew you were tilting at windmills.

  17. jump

    One of my philosophical loci has been the connection between language and ideas.
    Heidegger said we are in language. Not that we have language but that language is an existentialia, part and parcel of how we are in this world.
    Wittgenstein described language as the banks of the river of consciousness. Its constructs and words limit how we can think (what we have words for and how the words can be put together).
    Chomsky, beyond universal grammar which I find sketchy, and Giroux argue that to change the dialogue you have to change the language/words.
    I am sure there is a thesis topic in all of this.

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