Sashin here, I hope you're all doing well. I haven't written to you all for a while, since partway through last December. We're now well into the first month of a New Year, have a new president of the United States and have begun rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. It is my hope that we can now forget about Trump and that by the end of the year the pandemic will be on the way out as well.
I spontaneously decided I ought to write a little something, but I feel like too busy to give you the usual essay.
I spent the first two weeks of the year staying at the Thai Forest Monastery that I wrote about here.
I completely failed to make good on my deadline and publish the piece "How we know what we know", I will put it on the backburner again.
I have been making steady progress learning Japanese Kanji, and I've been sporadically learning the programming language Rust. Two of my longer-term goals are to read all of the manga One Piece in Japanese and to get into writing Linux Desktop apps. These are the skills I need for that.
I have a few pieces in the works, including ones on the efficacy of meditation, why anti-theism matters and a guide to clearer writing
I have been attending a book club online discussing Karl Popper's Objective Knowledge chapter-by-chapter. I've been consistently failing to read the chapter each week. Still, I have been learning a lot, no doubt this will help me finally write that piece how we know what we know.
I don't want to add this to the above list for some reason, but there is another major project I have been working on...
I have been thinking of why it can be so hard to have conversations on contentious topics, and if there is anything, we can do to change this. The problem of disagreement is typically addressed by viewing the "other" as an enemy and fighting them, or by pussyfooting around important matters walking this earth forever biting our tongues. Both of these extremes are failures. Speaking honestly and adversarially or keeping quiet to maintain social cohesion and harmony are both completely unacceptable. There has to be a way to speak with honesty, clarity and kindness. We must have all of the good things!
Our beliefs should be impersonal, yet when they are criticised, we feel personally attacked and tighten to defend ourselves. Whether or not there is a god is a question of cosmology. Whether socialism or capitalism is a better way of arranging our society is a matter of sociology and economics. Whichever were true or false, it wouldn't make a difference to what we are (for we are already that) and no matter how much we fight for them it wouldn't make them true. The issues we find contentious, we should in principle be able to speak about with the matter-of-factness and the precision that we talk about the weather.
I believe that here and now in 2021, we still have not figured out how to have a conversation. All of us collectively have been guessing and failing to communicate. The culture war itself and the division of society between political lines is evidence of this. When we engage in a fight with an "other", we have already conceded and given up on the promise of conversation. Many of us walk around believing that people rarely or never change their minds and that therefore it isn't worth trying, but this simply isn't true. All of us have changed our minds time and time again, and will undoubtedly continue to do so (this is what it means to be a growing person, after all).
I remember watching the Intelligence Squared debate: Is the Catholic Church a force for good in the world?
For the motion were Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Anne Widdecombe, and against were the brilliant Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. The debate's results astounded me; at the time, I had subscribed to the idea that people rarely if ever changed their minds and that it was a fruitless enterprise to try.
Before the debate, they polled the audience asking what their positions were.
This is what they were:
- (For the motion) The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world: 678
- (Against the motion) It is not a force for good in the world: 1102
- Undecided: 346
Naturally, after the debate, the audience was polled once more:
This is what happened:
- (For the motion) The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world: 268
- (Against the motion) It is not a force for good in the world: 1876
- Undecided: 34
Within the course of the two hours, hundreds of audience members had changed their position in real-time. The idea that words cannot change minds, that we hopelessly cling to our views no matter what the critique is false. In fact, it is worse than false; it is a coping mechanism and an excuse not even to attempt to make progress in conversation.
Underpinning why it is so difficult to make progress in conversations across religious, political and philosophical divides is the heartfelt belief that it isn't. We are afraid to expose ourselves to critique and view it as fruitless to engage with others. This does not need to be the case.
The project that has occupied my time as of late is called Conversation Culture. The purpose is to improve the quality of our conversations, and our core belief is that through conversations, we can improve our ideas and even culture-at-large. We will host discussions on philosophy, science, politics, religion, spirituality and everything under the sun, but the deeper purpose of these is to discover how to have better conversations. To decipher what the barriers are to fun and productivity in otherwise contentious discussion.
My plan is to launch it formally in a few days. I want you, dear readers, to receive a sneak peek.
Any feedback on it would be much appreciated.
One final update
In November last year, I sent out a letter called: A Change of Plans. I announced that it was the end of my reliable weekly letters. I would rather be free to write whenever I wanted rather than constrained to doing so regularly. I have done many other interesting things with the time, but I feel like it hasn't worked out. I've decided to go back to sending you all weekly letters.
I won't jump into it right away. I will focus the next week or two of my time on the launch of Conversation Culture and work on getting it up and running, but by February's end will return to writing to you all every week.
That will be all for this letter, I meant to write up a quite update but ended up typing over a thousand two hundred words... this always happens!
As always, thank you for being interested in my work, none of this would have any meaning without you.