If you can see the box, you can open the box

by ThePrussian 4 min read26th Feb 2015108 comments

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First post here, and I'm disagreeing with something in the main sequences.  Hubris acknowledged, here's what I've been thinking about.  It comes from the post "Are your enemies innately evil?":

On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America.  Now why do you suppose they might have done that?  Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?

Realistically, most people don't construct their life stories with themselves as the villains.  Everyone is the hero of their own story.  The Enemy's story, as seen by the Enemy, is not going to make the Enemy look bad.  If you try to construe motivations that would make the Enemy look bad, you'll end up flat wrong about what actually goes on in the Enemy's mind.

If I'm misreading this, please correct me, but the way I am reading this is:

1) People do not construct their stories so that they are the villains,

therefore

2) the idea that Al Qaeda is motivated by a hatred of American freedom is false.

Reading the Al Qaeda document released after the attacks called Why We Are Fighting You you find the following:

 

What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?

1.  The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.

A.  The religion of tahwid; of freedom from associating partners with Allah Most High , and rejection of such blasphemy; of complete love for Him, the Exalted; of complete submission to his sharia; and of the discarding of all the opinions, orders, theories, and religions that contradict with the religion He sent down to His Prophet Muhammad.  Islam is the religion of all the prophets and makes no distinction between them. 

It is to this religion that we call you …

2.  The second thing we call you to is to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery that has spread among you.

A.  We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honor and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling and usury.

We call you to all of this that you may be freed from the deceptive lies that you are a great nation, which your leaders spread among you in order to conceal from you the despicable state that you have obtained.

B.  It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed in the history of mankind:

i.  You are the nation who, rather than ruling through the sharia of Allah, chooses to invent your own laws as you will and desire.  You separate religion from you policies, contradicting the pure nature that affirms absolute authority to the Lord your Creator….

ii.  You are the nation that permits usury…

iii.   You are a nation that permits the production, spread, and use of intoxicants.  You also permit drugs, and only forbid the trade of them, even though your nation is the largest consumer of them.

iv.  You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom.  

"Freedom" is of course one of those words.  It's easy enough to imagine an SS officer saying indignantly: "Of course we are fighting for freedom!  For our people to be free of Jewish domination, free from the contamination of lesser races, free from the sham of democracy..."

If we substitute the symbol with the substance though, what we mean by freedom - "people to be left more or less alone, to follow whichever religion they want or none, to speak their minds, to try to shape society's laws so they serve the people" - then Al Qaeda is absolutely inspired by a hatred of freedom.  They wouldn't call it "freedom", mind you, they'd call it "decadence" or "blasphemy" or "shirk" - but the substance is what we call "freedom".

Returning to the syllogism at the top, it seems to be that there is an unstated premise.  The conclusion "Al Qaeda cannot possibly hate America for its freedom because everyone sees himself as the hero of his own story" only follows if you assume that What is heroic, what is good, is substantially the same for all humans, for a liberal Westerner and an Islamic fanatic.

(for Americans, by "liberal" here I mean the classical sense that includes just about everyone you are likely to meet, read or vote for.  US conservatives say they are defending the American revolution, which was broadly in line with liberal principles - slavery excepted, but since US conservatives don't support that, my point stands).

When you state the premise baldly like that, you can see the problem.  There's no contradiction in thinking that Muslim fanatics think of themselves as heroic precisely for being opposed to freedom, because they see their heroism as trying to extend the rule of Allah - Shariah - across the world.

Now to the point - we all know the phrase "thinking outside the box".  I submit that if you can recognize the box, you've already opened it.  Real bias isn't when you have a point of view you're defending, but when you cannot imagine that another point of view seriously exists.

That phrasing has a bit of negative baggage associated with it, that this is just a matter of pigheaded close-mindedness.  Try thinking about it another way.  Would you say to someone with dyscalculia "You can't get your head around the basics of calculus?  You are just being so close minded!"  No, that's obviously nuts.  We know that different peoples minds work in different ways, that some people can see things others cannot. 

Orwell once wrote about the British intellectuals inability to "get" fascism, in particular in his essay on H.G. Wells.  He wrote that the only people who really understood the nature and menace of fascism were either those who had felt the lash on their backs, or those who had a touch of the fascist mindset themselves.  I suggest that some people just cannot imagine, cannot really believe, the enormous power of faith, of the idea of serving and fighting and dying for your god and His prophet.  It is a kind of thinking that is just alien to many.

Perhaps this is resisted because people think that "Being able to think like a fascist makes you a bit of a fascist".  That's not really true in any way that matters - Orwell was one of the greatest anti-fascist writers of his time, and fought against it in Spain. 

So - if you can see the box you are in, you can open it, and already have half-opened it.  And if you are really in the box, you can't see the box.  So, how can you tell if you are in a box that you can't see versus not being in a box?  

The best answer I've been able to come up with is not to think of "box or no box" but rather "open or closed box".  We all work from a worldview, simply because we need some knowledge to get further knowledge.  If you know you come at an issue from a certain angle, you can always check yourself.  You're in a box, but boxes can be useful, and you have the option to go get some stuff from outside the box.

The second is to read people in other boxes.  I like steelmanning, it's an important intellectual exercise, but it shouldn't preclude finding actual Men of Steel - that is, people passionately committed to another point of view, another box, and taking a look at what they have to say.  

Now you might say: "But that's steelmanning!"  Not quite.  Steelmanning is "the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented."  That may, in some circumstances, lead you to make the mistake of assuming that what you think is the best argument for a position is the same as what the other guy thinks is the best argument for his position.  That's especially important if you are addressing a belief held by a large group of people.

Again, this isn't to run down steelmanning - the practice is sadly limited, and anyone who attempts it has gained a big advantage in figuring out how the world is.  It's just a reminder that the steelman you make may not be quite as strong as the steelman that is out to get you.  

[EDIT: Link included to the document that I did not know was available online before now]

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