History provides us with innumerable instances of individuals and even entire cultures fighting to preserve not just a way of life, but a way of thinking – beliefs. In addition to political units from tribes to empires, this analysis also applies to religious and scientific communities. In a prior section, we examined a famous example – the medieval scholarly and religious community attempting to defend the heliocentric Ptolemaic system from the geocentric Copernican system. The societal struggle was so intense that it is frequently called a ‘Revolution’ – a cultural revolution. Why did these seemingly intelligent people hold on so hard to their out-dated mental constructs? Why do we grasp so fervently to our beliefs that we will even sacrifice our lives for them?
Throughout the ages, many brilliant individuals, e.g. mystics, philosophers and scientists, have offered a variety of valid explanations for this enigmatic phenomenon. Rather than dispute these positions, we are going to provide another alternative – a different prism from which to examine why people self-destruct over ideas. This fresh perspective has widespread behavioral ramifications in that it examines the relationship between Beliefs, Self, Being and the logic behind abstract thought – Metaphorical Blends.
This series has also been examining the importance of metaphoric logic, i.e. employing the internal logic of a known system to better understand an unknown system. As an example of the significance of this form of logic, humans blend conceptual, not literary, metaphors to form the basis of abstract thought. Besides abstraction, it also informs our behavior, in that we mimic the logic of others.
What is the appeal of metaphoric logic? Why is this form of logic a significant root of abstraction and human behavior? Linear logical chains based in induction or deduction are fragile in that they are only as strong as their weakest link. In contrast, metaphoric systems, as a multi-dimensional logical matrix, can be antifragile in that stress either breaks them or makes them stronger.
Antifragile metaphoric systems are particularly appealing to humans for two reasons. First, the survivors, i.e. the metaphorical blends that got stronger, are associated with time-tested conclusions, i.e. less likely to lead to faulty decisions. Second, the longevity of the surviving metaphoric systems is additive, i.e. the longer they have been around, the longer they will continue to be around. In other words, the logical symmetries associated with surviving metaphorical blends continue to grow more stable and reliable over time. This nearly miraculous regenerative process certainly does not apply to my wife or my car.
It almost sounds to good to be true. And as my uncle used to say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is.” His maxim certainly applies in this case. While surviving metaphors become more reliable and durable over time, we humans impart reality to the metaphor. This process is called conflation. Conflation is a root cause of many if not most misunderstandings, including those that lead to angry words, disturbed emotions and war. This bit of expository writing examines why conflation is so dangerous.
We are taking as a starting point – a given – the seemingly obvious assumption that words can never be more than an approximation of reality. Symbols, whether verbal, mathematical, or otherwise, stand as representations of the real world, but are not the phenomenon they represent. In similar fashion, a painting, no matter how realistic the artist’s rendering of a face or a landscape, is nothing more than colorful dots of oil on a canvas.
Those that mistake the painting for the landscape are said to have lost touch with reality. Similarly it could be said that those who mistake symbol for the conscious experience it is meant to represent have also lost touch with reality. Mistaking metaphor for reality is the essence of conflation.
Disclaimer: These words are also only symbols that point to the concepts they are meant to represent. As such, there will also be discrepancies in the corners. For instance, the difference between metaphoric symbol and reality is not always clear-cut.
As an example, mathematical and verbal constructs can reveal an underlying structure of reality that is hidden by surface appearances. Mathematics: Everyday experience indicates that objects naturally roll to a stop, while Newton dynamics reveal that objects actually move with a constant velocity unless acted by an external force, friction in this case. Verbal: We can attribute the current (6-2-2020) rioting of black people throughout all major American cities to an unreasonable response to a single death or to the built-up rage of four centuries of injustice.
In these cases, it is a plausible and worthy claim that the symbol in these particular cases is a closer representation of reality than the superficial characteristics of phenomenon it describes. Yet, while those symbolic representations, the many articles written on a particular topic, reveal/reflect an aspect of reality that is hidden to the casual observer, they never encompass reality in its entirety. Articles or equations might provide a really good map of the territory, but are never the territory.
Despite these ambiguities, the purpose of this paper is not to debate the philosophical nuances of the ongoing controversy regarding the relationship between symbol/metaphor and reality. Instead we want to discuss a phenomenon that permeates human existence. While frequently a benign energy and time saver, the conflationary process sometimes has destructive or even disastrous consequences that can be avoided.
Hence, this discussion could be considered cautionary. Cuiado! Beware! Conflation is a dangerous shortcut. Proceed with caution. Ground rules established, let us proceed forth.
Metaphoric Logic is the process of employing the internal logic of a known system to better understand the logic of an unknown system. Rather than exact, the two systems have a metaphoric relationship, i.e. many logical symmetries. As a metaphor, there are always some logical inconsistencies. The map is never the territory. While the Metaphor might be a great approximation of Reality, it is never Reality. For instance, mathematics might provide a great map of material behavior, but it is not material behavior.
However, humans have a tendency to mistake the map for the territory – conflate the metaphor with reality. Rather than a way of understanding our complex world, the metaphor becomes real. The conflationary process is shown in the following diagram. Conflation transforms the approximate sign ‘≈’ into the equal sign ‘=’.
For example, Ptolemy generated a mathematical system (the metaphor) that did a pretty good job of predicting planetary position (the reality). His math metaphor approximated (≈) the movement of planets throughout the nighttime sky. Succession generations came to believe that Ptolemy’s model actually revealed how the planets move, i.e. circles about circles at a constant velocity. They conflated (equated) his math metaphor with the reality of celestial behavior.
This same conflationary process applies to the metaphoric relationship between Self and Being. Despite significant differences, we humans tend to conflate the two. Many of us from time to time, others more permanently. It certainly simplifies things to treat them as one, rather than two. But there is a downside to this simplification, as we shall see.
Being is our direct experience of Reality, unfiltered by words. As linguistic evidence of her importance, we call ourselves human beings. Being is associated with pure non-verbal experience that many mystic traditions, e.g. Buddhism and Taoism, point to as ultimate reality.
Self, a feature of our verbal side, evolved to protect Being. With the metaphorical abstraction of words, Self is able to better understand natural patterns and thereby assist Being in her quest for survival. He must have done a pretty good job of serving her needs, as Being has kept him around for perhaps a million some years.
Yet it is important to always remember, or at least as much as possible, that they are two codependent, but fully separable states. While conscious (probably not while sleeping), Being and Self exist in a constant state of mutual inter-penetration, as the diagram illustrates. Their relationship consists of interactive feedback loops (as symbolized by the black and white fish eyes).
Sometimes one or the other comes to the fore, as circumstances dictate. For instance Being shines in the Flow experience of artists and athletes, while Self takes care of business by paying the bills on time and worrying about the future. Being never worries about the future. She is too busy having fun.
Yet a sane person can move seamlessly back and forth between the two – so effortlessly that two appears to be one. Sanity can almost be defined as a balanced relation between the duality, not just momentary, but over time. Balancing fun and responsibility. Right now my Being is in the flow of writing. Other times I must go shopping. Otherwise Being won’t survive to fulfill her innate nature.
Only the insane get stuck in one state or another. Unfortunately, there are many lunatics touring the premises. And most of us are crazy from time to time, sometimes forgetting to take care of business and other times forgetting to smell the roses.
Self is a late arrival compared with Being, who has been here from the beginning. Being is a feature of all life forms, cells on up, while Self is exclusive to humans. Why did this sense of self evolve? Living systems survived for hundreds of millions of years without a discrete sense of self. For instance, cells have done just fine in the survival department even though there is no evidence that they have a sense that they unique and separate from other cells.
This situation changed with human evolution. The homo species developed a neural collection in the brain that identified with the organism as separate from the environment. While more than occasionally problematic, this evolutionary design facilitated survival.
How so? Self frequently gets us in trouble when confuses himself and his agenda with Being. Rather than her Servant, he seizes control as Master. He conflates the verbal metaphors that he employs to characterize his own survival with Being’s direct experience of Reality. This is where the trouble begins.
Under normal circumstances, there are no problems. However, when the random nature of existence inevitably introduces some extreme events, the fused system (Self-Being) explodes – falls apart – is unable to effectively adapt. For instance, Self believes himself to be too busy and productive with important tasks to experience or give love. Suddenly relationships that are essential to his well being fall apart - explode.
Let us be more specific. Self develops Beliefs as a Metaphor for coping with Reality. These presumably somewhat antifragile abstractions enable us to develop strategies with which we can adapt more effectively to a dynamic, ever changing environment.
Self tends to inevitably conflate these beliefs with reality. Rather than a verbal approximation, Self believes his abstractions to be real. Associated with direct non-verbal experience, Being does not enter these equations
For instance, the nation state is very useful as a collective metaphor. This group association is a great way for organizing and motivating large numbers of humans to act in a coordinated way. However, people regularly impart reality to this very useful nation metaphor. They take this imagined reality so very seriously that they get angry, lose control, go on automatic and are easily manipulated.
The next conflationary step occurs when Self equates his beliefs, in this case the nation, with his Self.
Many identify so heavily with their country that its manufactured fortunes, whether positive or negative, generate radical mood swings that exert a negative impact upon day-to-day life, in that they are unable to appreciate the small pleasures of just Being, e.g. tasting food or taking a deep breath. Sometimes their self-identification is so complete that they will sacrifice their Being along with its simple joys for this imagined reality in war against others who have likewise equated Self with Country.
This common example consists of a triple conflation. Let us start with the conceptual metaphors. Beliefs are an approximation of Reality. The Self generates this metaphorical approximation as an effective means of serving Being. He employs these constructs to manipulate circumstances so that Being is better able to experience her simple joys.
For instance, a collection of humans frequently joins as a nation with the intention of passing laws that will protect the rights of the citizenry. These laws presumably establish the boundaries of acceptable behavior. In such a way, the nation metaphor exists to protect Being from abuse by violent or powerful people. We are very grateful for our nation.
However, many people conflate these three metaphors into one unified Reality. Beliefs are conflated with Reality; and Self is conflated with Being. These two conflated packages are then fused in an unholy union. The three approximation signs ‘≈’ are transformed into ‘=’ signs. Close but no cigar.
While adequate in times of tranquility, this intellectual shortcut can be downright destructive in times of turbulence. Why? Higher stakes require precision and flexibility. Correctly identifying when the metaphor is appropriate and when it is not can be the difference between prosperity and ruin, even survival and death.
The function of Self is to ensure that Being can fulfill her innate nature, which includes survival. Attributing reality to his metaphorical abstractions, Self begins thinking that his function is ensure his Self-ish survival. His agenda supplants her agenda in importance. This inappropriate conflation can sometimes result in disastrous circumstances for the organism.
Just as he has conflated with Being, Self identifies with groups and their beliefs. When Self perceives that these group ideas are under attack, he becomes emotionally aroused in order to defend these imaginary entities. Why are group beliefs so important that they warrant emotional arousal? Self believes himself to be the group along with their beliefs.
He doesn’t realize that the group and their beliefs are useful metaphors for serving Being, not reality. Being is not the Self-Beliefs fusion. Being just wants to appreciate the simple joys of existence. She does not generally want to fight, unless it is to defend the peace that is a prerequisite for joy.
Further defense of the Self-Beliefs conflation can harm Being. For example, many are those who will die for their convictions. Verbal constructs, while helpful, should be very carefully evaluated before risking one’s very Being. Many times this decision is based upon a simple conflationary misunderstanding.
Being’s Death is the most extreme and unnecessary consequence of Self’s defense of his beliefs. While Self-identification with Ideas can harm us physically, it can also harm Being’s potential for Pure Experience of Reality. How? Self’s conflationary process can easily disturb Being’s peace by arousing unnecessary emotions.
Without tranquility, Being is unable to enjoy the exquisite taste experience of a good glass of well aged Napa Cabernet with some French cheese, e.g. Saint Augur. Rather the conflated Mind is disturbed by thoughts of the spreading Covid virus and the destructive civil uprisings due to the unnecessary death of a young black man at the hands of the police. While unfortunate and the second is certainly worthy of protest, dwelling in the indulgence Self protection at the expense of Just Being is an inexcusable waste of Living time.
Let us apply this analysis to our historical example. Medieval scholars conflated their collective selves with Ptolemy’s geocentric system. They became their beliefs.
Due to this self-identification, the older generation, i.e. the community of intellectuals who had attached to Ptolemy’s geocentric system, felt impelled to defend their perceived collective self from attacks by the younger generation of intellectuals who had attached to Copernicus’ heliocentric system. Without the conflationary process, this transition could have been peaceful rather than acrimonious and revolutionary.
This phenomenon is not unusual. Max Plank said that this conflationary tendency is so strong that scientific progress happens one death at a time. In other words, the self-identification with one’s intellectual life is so great that is impossible for incredibly intelligent scientists to change their minds, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. The death of their ideas comes with their personal death.
Plank was specifically referring to the older generation of scientists who resisted Einstein’s radical notions regarding space and time. Then Einstein resisted the radical notions regarding space and time generated by the next generation. Each subsequent generation self-identifies, i.e. conflates Self, with the current Ideas. First battling against the out-moded constructs of the older generation when young and then battling against the fresh constructs of the ensuing younger generation when old. And so on and so forth.
In present times, many in the older generation of intellectuals have conflated their perceived collective Self, not Being (she doesn’t care), with materialist determinism. They fight to defend this outmoded perspective/paradigm against the younger generation of intellectuals who have embraced living choice. Scientific progress comes one death at a time. (Of course, this is just a fantasy, as I am the only one that is currently lobbying for choice.)
This battle of ideas can be violent, even resulting in imprisonment, executions and such. However, frequently the damage from conflation is mostly intellectual. Conflating self with group beliefs frequently results in simple close-mindedness to fresh perspectives. What’s the downside? Having solidified (objectified) a fluid belief system into certainty, the closed mind is not curious. Lacking curiosity, the mind is rigid. While very secure, a rigid mind lacks flexibility, enthusiasm and wonder – more dead than alive.
How do we know when we are engaging in conflation? What are the signs of this dangerous state of mind? How do we detect and eradicate it?
Self-examination? Right?! Self does the conflating and the evaluation? It would be like asking a corrupt sheriff for justice.
While Self is fairly unreliable, emotions are real. Anger is a good indication of attachment to the Self/Belief complex. If we get angry or even emotionally aroused when our position is challenged, this is a clear-cut sign that we have taken our Self too seriously. In the terminology of the article, Self has conflated himself with his ideas. The scar tissue must be dismantled before it fossilizes. Or an operation might be necessary.
Conversely it is a good sign, when we can laugh at our Self when our ideas are challenged. Rather than being offended, we can break the conflation chain or prevent it from forming.
I am happy to say that my friends have avoided conflating Self with Being or Beliefs or Reality. Or should I instead say that we actively work to keep the Mirror of our Mind clean of these unfortunate accretions. Maybe this is one reason for our long lasting friendship.
How do we break the scar tissue of conflation? AA style, we first admit that there is a problem. Rather than holding onto, justifying and fueling our emotional turbulence, we acknowledge that ideas are secondary to a good relationship with friends.
After admitting that the problem is internal rather than external, we cultivate internal tranquility. We take a deep breath, have a glass of wine, take a puff of pot, enter into a deep mediation, go for a walk, anything to break this emotional attachment to our Self and his ideas. When the fever passes, we try to reside in the internal tranquility that is the prerequisite for Being’s Direct Experience of Reality.