Monday, December 8, 2014

Thomas Jefferson and Immanuel Kant on reason, analysis, and mind control

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

While we're on the subject of the vital importance of critical analysis as an antidote to mind control, it is difficult to pass up the opportunity to cite a rather famous quotation from Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) in which it can be argued that he stresses this very point.  

In letter dated March 13, 1789 addressed to Mr. Francis Hopkinson, Jefferson responds to earlier correspondence from Hopkinson who apparently noted that Jefferson had been "dished up [. . .] as an anti-federalist" and wrote to ask Jefferson if such a characterization "be just" (as in, "is such a label justified?"). Thomas Jefferson responds:
My opinion was never worthy enough of notice to merit citing; but since you ask it I will tell it you. I am not a Federalist, because I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
He then goes on to discuss the relative merits or demerits of the federalist and anti-federalist camps, which is interesting but not part of the scope of this discussion, which will focus on the sentiment expressed in the declaration: "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself," that such "outsourcing" of the duty of thinking for one's self is "the last degradation of a free and moral agent," and that he would go so far as to proclaim that if he "could not go to heaven but with a party," he would not go there at all.

This ringing endorsement of the importance of thinking for one's self as "a free and moral agent" rather than submitting one's opinions on the important matters of religion, philosophy, politics and indeed every single subject in which it is possible to examine evidence and form one's own opinions is unfortunately absent from the teachings about Thomas Jefferson in the conventional schools (I personally managed to get through thirteen years of K-12 education in the US school system, plus four more years of undergraduate education at the US Military Academy [founded in 1802, while Jefferson was president], plus another two years of post-graduate study sufficient to earn a masters degree, without ever once encountering it or hearing it discussed by any teacher or professor), and it is probably safe to say that it is a far cry from the way most adults in the country of Thomas Jefferson form their opinions on important political matters (and some of the other areas he mentions) in many cases today.

Note that I do not exclude myself from that criticism: I can think back with chagrin at many times in my life in which I was as guilty of "submitting my opinions to the creed of some party" as anyone else.

Many reasons could perhaps be offered for the tendency to allow others to dictate our responses to important subjects such as those Jefferson mentions and the many others that he does not mention by name but alludes to with his reference to anything else in which we should be capable of thinking for ourselves. 

It is evidently not simply a "modern" or "post-industrial" problem, since Jefferson is writing about it as early as 1789, although the level to which we tend to "specialize" and develop expertise in one specific area and rely on others to be "experts" in everything else on our behalf may well be exacerbated in "modern" or "post-industrial" society. But it was very much a subject of the 1780s as well: it is in fact a subject that was addressed specifically by the "enlightenment" writers of the very same decade, including Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) in his famous 1784 essay "An answer to the question: what is enlightenment?

There, Kant gives an answer which is very much in keeping with Jefferson's answer to the question, "Are you an anti-federalist?" In his own answer to the question of "What is enlightenment?" Kant writes:
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude). "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment. 
The word "nonage" is literally the state of being "underage" (of "non-legal-age"), or being a "dependent." Kant's phrase "self-imposed nonage" is sometimes translated as "self-imposed immaturity," which is the way I am accustomed to seeing it. Either way, it is quite clear that Jefferson is expressing much the same opinion when he states that looking to the opinions endorsed by some party or another on any subject in which one is capable of investigating and making up one's own mind is a form of surrender of the responsibility to act as an independent agent and that it is a sort of self-imposed "degradation" or reduction in rank from the status of free actor to the status of a dependent.

This temptation, which Kant bluntly labels as a product of "laziness and cowardice," leads directly to being controlled and led about like (in Kant's own words) "stupid domestic cattle." In other words, failure to analyze for one's self leads directly to mind control. It can also be said from the tenor of their writings that Kant and Jefferson would both agree that critical analysis in which the individual spends the energy to examine, evaluate and decide for herself or himself forms a powerful antidote to such mind control. 

And yet we can all (probably) think of several recent events in which we formed an opinion (perhaps we should say "subscribed to an opinion") without taking the time to fully examine the available evidence for ourselves, to ask ourselves "what are all the possible explanations for this evidence" and then go looking for the additional "data points" (or "clues," in a mystery story) that would help us determine which hypotheses seem to best explain the evidence, without initially rejecting any of them outright simply because "the authorities" had already told us how we should decide. 

This tendency makes us very easy for others to lead around (by manipulating our minds and our opinions), just like Kant's "stupid domestic cattle."

And it is not just through our reactions to current events that we can be manipulated like cattle, even though immediate events are the most emotionally charged and the most demanding of our attention: I would argue that this tendency to, as Jefferson put it, "submit the whole system of our opinions" to others can and does operate in the realm of history, of past events, events of recent decades and even of history going back hundreds and even thousands of years. 

It may be unusual to think that manipulating our opinions regarding the shape of ancient history could enable others to "lead us like cattle," but in fact our opinion of history has an enormous impact on our analysis of the present: an excellent metaphorical illustration of this concept can be seen in the classic 1968 original film version of The Planet of the Apes, in which the orangutans deliberately foisted an artificial version of "ancient ape history" which obscured the existence of technologically-advanced human societies -- a false version of history that was considered so important, the orangutans were willing to blow up evidence and even to kill in order to protect the historical illusion which formed an important part of the foundation of their power (and their system of mind control).

Thus, it may be that our understanding of history (whether history from twenty, thirty, fifty or seventy years ago, or history from many centuries ago) is one of those areas which Jefferson did not name specifically but which is included under the "anything" in which we are capable of thinking for ourself. This is not to say that we should not make use of the analysis of specialists in history, experts in one era or another, professional historians and researchers and academics. But it does argue that we should not simply submit our duty to use our own reason to the power of another, and that their valuable work should really be seen as helping to provide some of the possible hypotheses and helping to provide the "clues" and the "data points" of evidence, which we carefully consider as we weigh all of the possible hypotheses and analyze which hypotheses the multiple data points seem to best support.

Jefferson's final assertion in the quoted passage above raises one more very important aspect of this subject, and one that both Jefferson and Kant addressed directly in many of their writings, and that is the role of "religion" (broadly defined) in mind control. First, Jefferson specifically names it as one of the areas (along with philosophy and politics) in which every individual has an obligation as a free and moral agent to think for himself or herself, rather than simply submitting to the opinion of some group or some party. Then, Jefferson delivers a line which carries a considerable bit of shock-value: "If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."

While perhaps this is hyperbole, especially if Jefferson himself did not believe in a literal heaven or literal hell, it nevertheless frames his position in some of the strongest terms available. He is declaring that if getting into heaven required blind subscription to the opinions of a group, he would prefer not to go to heaven at all (which is to say, he'd rather be damned, although it is more polite the way he chose to phrase it).

By choosing to use such phrasing, and to put it this way, Jefferson implicitly seems to be bringing up the undeniable fact that the promised reward of heaven, and the threatened eternal punishment of an afterlife spent forever in hell, was often used in his day as a means of bringing others to submit their opinions to the opinions promoted by some group -- and although times have changed in the two hundred-plus years since Jefferson's letter was written, such tactics are in some cases still used to this day. 

If the imagined reward of heaven or threat of hell are sufficient to get men and women to submit "the whole system of their opinions to the creed" of another party (and hence to renounce their status as "free and moral agents," in the areas where they no longer perform their own analysis but instead submit to the opinions given to them by another), then they can be seen to be a way of controlling men and women through their minds, and thus can be categorized as tools of mind control. This previous post discusses the threat of eternal punishment in a literal hell as a form of mind control, as well as evidence that the scriptures which supposedly support the idea of a literal hell were never intended to be understood literally but that they are actually (like the rest of Biblical scripture and in fact like the rest of sacred myth the world over) describing celestial motions using celestial allegory.

Finally, it should probably be stated that, like everyone else, Thomas Jefferson had plenty of flaws and shortcomings and areas of his life which are open to justifiable criticism. I believe it would be a mistake, however, to use such aspects of his life to discredit the many important ideas which he expressed on behalf of human freedom, including the excellent statements regarding critical analysis vs. mind control that we have been exploring here. 

If there were a Sherlock Holmes story in which some character arrived to warn the people not to uncritically accept the story offered by any group, including the group known as "the authorities," but instead to look closely at the evidence, then it would be folly to reject that character's good advice simply because that character also exhibited human flaws and failings, no matter how egregious those might be. 

In fact, those who wanted to shut such a character up might even seize on those flaws in order to tell people to ignore the advice -- but the fact remains that this advice could be very good, even if coming from a flawed source (and, in this material realm, we cannot afford to reject a hypothesis from someone just because he or she has human flaws, because every person we meet will have human flaws of some sort).  

The full text of Jefferson's letter to Francis Hopkinson from March 13, 1789 can be viewed in Jefferson's own handwriting, in an image format online here (go to images 1168 through 1171). A type-formatted edition of the same can also be found here. Along with the essay published by Immanuel Kant five years earlier, these writings call out to us across the distance now of more than two centuries, urging us to act as fully-responsible free moral agents, and not to relinquish our duty to reason for ourselves, lest in doing so we suffer self-imposed degradation and remain in a state of self-imposed immaturity or nonage, and leave ourselves open to being led like domestic cattle.