Existentialism and why it is bad

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Existentialism and why it is bad

Postby Skept » Wed Dec 28, 2011 5:51 am

Although this is an atheist forum and the existentialism a la Sartre is atheistic I would still like to say that existentialism has more in common with idealism than with science.

Existentialism seems to be the most popular philosophy today, knowingly or unknowingly by most people. I might have to point out first that the idea of existence for existentialists has nothing to do with the fundamental substance we call matter, that is essence; existence is instead about human potential, choices and awareness.

Sartre (or was it Simone?) coined the phrase "existence precedes essence". This means that according to existentialists, humans can change their essence - what they are inherently - by choice or increased awareness.

New Age wich is a related doctrine says that humans have "infinite potential" and can "manifest their destinty" and "choose to be happy" and so on. What might not be apparent to some, New Age is simply existentialism in a different dressing. What also might not be as apparent to some is that existentialism and New Age holds a very strong influence in the market and in the marketting campaigns. And again what might not be known to some is that New Age and existentialism traces its roots back to Christianity.

The reason that existentialism and New Age has been so popular recently is because the ideas of taking control of your destiny is very seductive and thankful for the market to show off their products with hollow eyed skins or perfect toothpaste smiles of "self realized" specimens. Especially in dire circumstances, people dream about becoming gods, and existentialism and new age is preaching to them that this is something they can do. The basic idea is that you are 100% responsible for your life and your choices.

So why is this philosophy bad? Well, the reason is that when you are being told that you are fully responsible for everything in your life that means that everything that happends is also a personal message to you.
New Age (and also Buddhism) takes this a bit further and states that everything you see is a reflection or a projection of your own spiritual state. So if you see wars and misery that only means that it is your own spiritual development that has been swallowed by pessimistic attitudes.

If something goes wrong and under normal circumstances you wouldn't be blamed for it; New Age and existentialism still apply responsibility for what happened unto you, your awareness and your choices. The weight of guilt that this idea has would be unbearable for anyone. But what existentialism does therefore is to say that if you don't take responsibility then you fall into "bad faith" wich is a sort of existential or essential defect. And that leads again to another idea of sin basically. Because if you are 100% responsible and something goes wrong despite your very best wishes and efforts that means something must be wrong; and it is not uncommon that existentialists therefore believe that they have a "defect essence". Kirkegaard called it his "disease" and talked about "bad faith".

And concerning the control of your life, eventually this idea becomes ever more subjective and personal; if you find that you cannot control your life by your essence, like your looks, your biological constitution, then perhaps you can control it with your choices, with your awareness, with your mind. So if circumstances are bad this means that you could change them by simply using your mind or your willpower. Here New Age capitalizes on the "The Secret" franchise, wich uses a collection of magical "laws" like the law of attraction, so that you can imagine the life you want to have and it will be attracted to you.

This means that if circumstances are bad, it is because you and only you are not wanting good things for yourself. On the social scale this means that if bad things happends to people they have only themselves to blame, everyone can manifest their destiny of their choosing, the market is full of opportunities, you just have to "want" it. And if you can increase your awareness and your willpower to use it to create the world into your own like-ness what does that mean? It basically means that you become a god. And if you can become a god, couldnt you become immortal as well? If existence precedes essence doesnt that mean you can choose your essence? Why not choose an immortal essence? Certainly, you just have to "want it" bad enough.

The seduction of existentialism therefore is the age old dream of gaining that divine power over life and death. If you are in control of your essence, then that would imply that you could "choose" to become immortal. If you are in total control of your life then you are in control of everything that happends in your life as well, and that basically makes you a god.

From this it is not very far from getting a diagnose of schizophrenia actually; because if everything that happens is somehow of your own making or that it is a personal message to you; then we are talking schizoid personality disorder. The insanity where a song on the radio is playing just for you or that the radio is transmitting messages directly into your mind to gain control over your actions. Because it is "all about you".

We live today in the I-generation; we have I-Phone, I-Mac, YouTube and Facebook. People are giving out the most personal and private things as a universal spectacle and seeking approval; and perhaps also that there is a reward of looking sincere (and therefore responsible) by not wanting to hide anything. Everything is being exposed, analysed and commentated. People feel like its their duty to expose all about their lives, from the most insignificant aspects to the most dramatic or the most embaressing. And there is always a jury ready to send their comments or approval. The threat of isolation is always there; hence the success of Facebook. And if you dont have a computer you are severely cut off from society.

The balance seems to be between ego and the judge. From existentialism and its ego gospel being preached everywhere people are made into selfish narcissists, and then they are being "put on the spot" by an absolute jury while everyone cheers on. And this dynamic is played on heavily in television, especially in the "Idol" franchise, and all the cook programs or the inventor show with its "Dragons". It is all about maximizing your productivity while the jury solemnly looks on and never hesitates to give its sterile, insensitive decrees.

Existentialism therefore turns into a toxic individualism where everything revolves around you and yourself; Others may exist only to satisfy your needs and desires, or to be "your teachers" to become a more responsible person. And this message is latent in the market as well and it has produced a society that is superficial and self centered but also more paralyzed and fearful than ever. The financial crisis and how it puts people into absolute despair is a sign that people from this selfish mindset has become so misantropic that they cannot think that anyone else could be there and help them; and consequently they are all in the hands of those who dominates the market. And hence the "Occupy movement".

It is also interesting to note the popularity of conspiracy theories today. Because as I said, a person who is eager to believe that the radio plays a song just for him might just as well think that there is an agency out there trying to get control over his mind.

So it seems that the diagnosis of present society with its existentialism and New Age leanings is something like a paranoid schizophrenia.
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Postby JDoran » Wed Dec 28, 2011 10:08 pm

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I think you're assuming things about the concepts of existentialism and "New Age" that the people who hold to them largely do not agree with.

First off, "New Age" can't even really be said to be a coherent position of any sort. It's just the mishmash of spiritual beliefs that arise when people learn a couple of factoids about non-traditional religions and notice the religions seem to agree on the Golden Rule. Beyond the (usual) central tenets of not being a jerk, being accepting of everyone's spirituality, and often some belief in magic or wishful thinking, there really aren't any common beliefs.

To my knowledge, the majority of the branches of Existentialist thought make no claim that events that happen to a person are that person's fault. "Existence precedes essence" is simply the concept that a person is responsible for providing their own meaning to life by choosing their actions and taking responsibility for them, as opposed to there being a preset meaning to life. Existentialism doesn't say (nor imply) that you can do silly things like "choose" to be immortal, to possess of supernatural powers, or to be a dinosaur; it says that you're responsible for making yourself happy.

All in all, your post seems like a "slippery slope" argument. Skeptical atheists, almost by default, take on some of the primary tenets of existentialism. In the absence of good evidence for anything that would give human beings an automatic purpose or goal in life, we're pretty much free to decide what it is for ourselves.
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Postby Skept » Thu Dec 29, 2011 12:35 am

JDoran

I would never presume to think that they would agree with me. People with such persuasions would never agree on anyone who spoke against their beliefs. It is the same with religious people of any stripe.

It is true that New Age incorporates a lot of different ideas from various religions wich has to do with its belief in syncretism and that all beliefs hold a part of the truth. But the common trend in all of New Age is something called "new thought" wich puts all emphasis on how you think. It might be of what you call "wishful thinking", but it is actually a philosophical system; that the way you think determines your reality. New thought was brought into religious science and Unity Church and has now spread all over the world under various names.

It is also true that existentialism begins with saying that life has no meaning; and from that concludes therefore that meaning has to be created by the individual. But this is not all it says. With a concept like "existence precedes essence" you have a formulation that basically implies idealism; because if what you choose comes before what you are it means that you can choose to be anything. Everything essential is derived from the mind. I simply take existentialism on its word; if existence truly would precede essence then anything is possible to do or to be out of simple mental gymnastics ala Baron von Münchausen; like believing that you can fly by pulling your own hair.

That people try to keep that idea within limits is not something to make existentialism more credible; only that it is yet another doctrine that is so volatile that it cannot stand on its own. And the attitude to try to keep absurd ideas within the limits of reason is the same attitude that religious people has when they give exuses for their religious positions; "Oh but Jesus didn't actually mean that!", "Oh but it also says THIS!", "Oh, but that shouldnt be taken so literally!", "Oh but that is out of context!". And on and on and on. Just because people have one part of their minds influenced by existentialism, and another part of mind that can stabilise its absurd conclusions, only means that they have done a compartmentalization.

But as far as you define existentialism that its simply about choosing a particular meaning in life; that is to create a problem out of nothing. Who can say wether life has meaning or not? If you say that life has meaning you must say what it is; and if you say life has no meaning, then from where have you gotten this information? If I feel meaning in my life, should I then just take your word for it and believe that my life has no meaning? And if someone says what the meaning would be, should I then drop everything Im doing and accept that? If it could be demonstrated that life has no meaning, why would that be a problem if people still feel meaning in life? It doesnt make any sense.

And certainly the "solution" of existentialists to "freely choose" 'meaning' and to accept 100% individual responsibility does not help in solving any problems. Because existentialists does not care much for "determinism" or materialism; wich means they dont care for science. They believe in free will, free choice, and even that you can choose what you want to "be". As far as I have been told from science, free will does not exist. And you cannot change your essence; your material constitution, by any choice. In fact free will is a religious concept. Very popular among protestant Christians; with the exception of Calvinists. So what the "solution" that existentialism offers is that you have to accept unscientific ideas. If you think that you can change your mind and that will change reality, that is 'new thought' doctrine and that is why I say that it is related to existentialism. That is the true slippery slope JDoran.

EDIT: I also disagree that we can choose meaning in life. I think that meaning is something that comes automatically, without any conscious volition. The idea of choosing meaning is pretty arrogant because you might never know what your life will be like; let's say for the sake of argument that you would be locked in a concentration camp. Can you say now with absolute certainity that you know what will keep you alive in there? When I read about Viktor Frankls experiences in the nazi camps it seems to me that people found meaning in things that they would previously just take for granted.
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Postby JDoran » Thu Dec 29, 2011 3:01 pm

Skept wrote:I would never presume to think that they would agree with me. People with such persuasions would never agree on anyone who spoke against their beliefs. It is the same with religious people of any stripe.

Incorrect. It's the same as when a theist tries to tell an atheist what it means to be an atheist and gets it wrong. You've created a parody of existentialism and argued against it. This is pretty much the exact same thing as what happened in the previous discussion about "to be an atheist" and "to have atheism"; you've made up your own special positions on the beliefs of "existentialism" and "new age" that do not match the actual positions taken by existentialists and new agers, then proceeded to make a straw man argument.

It is also true that existentialism begins with saying that life has no meaning; and from that concludes therefore that meaning has to be created by the individual. But this is not all it says. With a concept like "existence precedes essence" you have a formulation that basically implies idealism; because if what you choose comes before what you are it means that you can choose to be anything. Everything essential is derived from the mind. I simply take existentialism on its word; if existence truly would precede essence then anything is possible to do or to be out of simple mental gymnastics ala Baron von Münchausen; like believing that you can fly by pulling your own hair.

You've taken a three-word slogan out of context and gotten it completely wrong. "Existence" and "essence" do not mean what you think they mean in this quote; in fact, you've nearly got their meanings reversed.

EDIT: I also disagree that we can choose meaning in life. I think that meaning is something that comes automatically, without any conscious volition. The idea of choosing meaning is pretty arrogant because you might never know what your life will be like; let's say for the sake of argument that you would be locked in a concentration camp. Can you say now with absolute certainity that you know what will keep you alive in there? When I read about Viktor Frankls experiences in the nazi camps it seems to me that people found meaning in things that they would previously just take for granted.

You've missed an important tenet of existentialism: meaning is not unchanging once chosen, it is mutable.
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Postby Lausten » Thu Dec 29, 2011 3:07 pm

I think that meaning is something that comes automatically, without any conscious volition.

So is "conscious volition" something that exists, but can't provide meaning, or does it not exist? It might help to define it first.
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Postby Skept » Thu Dec 29, 2011 7:16 pm

JDoran wrote:You've taken a three-word slogan out of context and gotten it completely wrong. "Existence" and "essence" do not mean what you think they mean in this quote; in fact, you've nearly got their meanings reversed.


Did I? This is from wikipedia:

In his text, Sartre says that the key defining point of Existentialism is that the existence of a person comes before his or her essence. In simple terms, this means that, although that person exists, there is nothing to dictate that person's character, goals in life, and so on. Only the person themselves can define their essence:

Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards.


In other words; man is what he says he is; there is NOTHING that dictates a persons character, goals in life, etc. Is that true? Ofcource it isn't true. A persons character is defined by others and we all know that somewhere in our minds. How people grow up to be in France is very different from how people grow up to be in Japan. Human character is very much in the hands of others; circumstances, genetics, parents, religions, books, television, music, you name it. Human awareness that is given so much credit is nothing but a parasite on the ideas and behaviours of previous generations. Studies has been done and they demonstrate that not even choice is in the hands of the conscious individual because the brain is allready making the choice - unconsciously - before we think we carry it out.
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Postby Lausten » Thu Dec 29, 2011 10:36 pm

I just watched this YouTube about the tricks of applied kinesiology. To dress it up, they went to a woman with a PhD in a lab and put some sciencey sounding words in a hat then drew out three. Using them, they said their trick was now based on "radiometric electron waves". This is basically what Skept is doing, finding words on Wikipedia and without fully understanding them, making up a complete thesis about them. This is why pseudo-science works, because people are quite willing to fool themselves.
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Postby JDoran » Thu Dec 29, 2011 11:22 pm

Skept wrote:Did I?

Yes.
In other words; man is what he says he is; there is NOTHING that dictates a persons character, goals in life, etc. Is that true? Ofcource it isn't true. A persons character is defined by others and we all know that somewhere in our minds. How people grow up to be in France is very different from how people grow up to be in Japan. Human character is very much in the hands of others; circumstances, genetics, parents, religions, books, television, music, you name it. Human awareness that is given so much credit is nothing but a parasite on the ideas and behaviours of previous generations. Studies has been done and they demonstrate that not even choice is in the hands of the conscious individual because the brain is allready making the choice - unconsciously - before we think we carry it out.

You've entirely missed the "encounters himself, surges up in the world" portion of the quote. "Mind" is part of "existence" in the "existence precedes essence" slogan (not part of "essence") and existence is where/what/who you are right now. Existence (including mind) is constantly being updated as we exist. "Essence" is a person's meaning in life; you are free to define or redefine your meaning in life. Just because you are (for example) a Christian and find meaning in "giving glory to God" doesn't mean you have to continue as such in the future.

The view that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive is called compatibalism. Daniel Dennett advocates compatibalism far more eloquently than I could.
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Postby Skept » Thu Dec 29, 2011 11:58 pm

JDoran wrote:"Mind" is part of "existence" in the "existence precedes essence" slogan (not part of "essence") and existence is where/what/who you are right now.


But that is what I have been saying all along; this is what makes existentialism to lean towards idealism. Because if the mind comes before essence then you define your essence with your mind. So how far is the step to idealism? To Buddhism? To Solipsism? Buddhism says that 'mind' forms reality; New Age says that mind forms reality; New Thought says that mind forms reality; solipsists think that the world is a product of their minds; and now we have existentialism saying that they can change their "essence" or "what they are" with their minds. Its ridicolous.

I read that Dennett in a book from 1981 argued for compatibilism. According to Standford Encyclopedia; "Dennett argues for the legitimacy of folk psychological notions in the explanation of intentional action."

This was a shocker to read actually. It is outrageous. If Dennett still holds to this view I must wonder how come he can see himself as an eliminativist.

But that matters little to me personally. There is no such thing as freedom, choice, or even mind and consciousness. The mind is an illusion. You must understand that; since we know that the brain is made up of billions of synapses working together. There is simply no room for a "mind" in there when these things are working together. It could perhaps be likened to a computer screen. There is no image on the screen; instead there are only thousands of pixels each projecting one single color. Combined they produce the illusion of an image. It is the same thing with the so called "mind" and concepts like "choice" and "freedom".

In other words, there is no such thing as essence either. Humans does not have any essence. What does human essence look like? Where do you find Christian essence? We are a combination of particles providing the illusion that we are people. So I agree that there is no such thing as essence, in the sense of "human nature" to begin with; but there is no essence afterwards either. You are still you whatever you prefer to call yourself. Btw there isnt even a "you" :). The "self" is another of those "folk psychology" terms that we use for conveniences sake. Dennett should understand that! He must have changed his mind since 1981.
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Postby JDoran » Fri Dec 30, 2011 2:44 pm

Dennett is still an atheist, compatibalist, and eliminativist. He's also written some books in the thirty years since 1981 (and yet again, you've extrapolated an erroneous conclusion from an extremely brief summary of a position).

Existentialism is not a "gateway drug" to idealism/solipsism/etc. If you want to make that claim, you're going to have to provide evidence for it.

A computer image is created by a person (or a program created by a person) who knows a viewing person will see the image as an image and not a collection of pixels.

Lastly, you're still misunderstanding "essence" as Sartre defines it. Given that this and your other two recent threads have pretty much consisted of people telling you "no, you've gotten it wrong", I don't find it likely that you're going to be able to understand it; looking up a book in an encyclopedia and reading wikipedia articles are not good substitutes for actually taking some time to learn about the position you're attempting to refute, particularly when you then assume things about it that you appear to have just made up.
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Postby Skept » Fri Dec 30, 2011 7:03 pm

JDoran

Simply saying "No, you're wrong!" or "You don't understand" doesn't really explain anything and it certainly doesn't persuade. If a philosophy is so difficult to explain or understand then I wonder what the point of it is.

Right now we are only arguing back and forth you and I, and it doesn't seem to move us anywhere. If you think I have misunderstood "essence" then why don't you explain it?
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Postby Lausten » Fri Dec 30, 2011 7:38 pm

Skept wrote:Right now we are only arguing back and forth you and I, and it doesn't seem to move us anywhere. If you think I have misunderstood "essence" then why don't you explain it?


This is from the very first response. You barely acknowledged this and mostly just dismissed it.

JDoran wrote:To my knowledge, the majority of the branches of Existentialist thought make no claim that events that happen to a person are that person's fault. "Existence precedes essence" is simply the concept that a person is responsible for providing their own meaning to life by choosing their actions and taking responsibility for them, as opposed to there being a preset meaning to life. Existentialism doesn't say (nor imply) that you can do silly things like "choose" to be immortal, to possess of supernatural powers, or to be a dinosaur; it says that you're responsible for making yourself happy.


I would add that you are evaluating the work of Sarte from the middle of the last century using very recent scientific work. I would hope that we could critique Sarte's work and find some flaws with it. I would also hope that we would acknowledge his contributions and see how we have built on them. It is unfortunate that some people take outdated material and try to claim it has wisdom that was never there, or add meaning to it that was not intended.

I can at least understand what the people who wrote "The Secret" are up to when they do it. You do it, then immediately debunk the meaning that you claim to have uncovered. So, either you're a troll, and I am wasting my time, which is fine, I have it to waste, or you think you are smarter than you actually are and/or that you are above responding to the above comment by JDoran.
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Postby Skept » Fri Dec 30, 2011 8:17 pm

Lausten (& JDoran)

Wow..

Guys; is it possible for you to have a conversation without being insulting? I mean do you think that insults makes your arguments more clear or valid? I have not insulted your intelligence or your ability to understand things, so you have no cause to insult me. If you think that its fine to insult people who you have never met just because you sit anonymously behind a computer screen you are mistaken.

If you would please confine yourself to listen to what I'm saying I would be happy to explain my point.

To my knowledge, the majority of the branches of Existentialist thought make no claim that events that happen to a person are that person's fault. "Existence precedes essence" is simply the concept that a person is responsible for providing their own meaning to life by choosing their actions and taking responsibility for them, as opposed to there being a preset meaning to life. Existentialism doesn't say (nor imply) that you can do silly things like "choose" to be immortal, to possess of supernatural powers, or to be a dinosaur; it says that you're responsible for making yourself happy.


According to existentialism a la Sartre we are not just free, we are "thrown into the world"; We are so free that when we see this freedom we shudder away in fear and agony of what the responsibility would entail; because we are not just responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for everyone else, the whole world. To not accept that responsibility is to fall into "bad faith".

First of all, that is a ridicolous idea. We are not free at all. Everything is squarely deterministic. The only reason that we get the illusion of freedom is because everything is constantly changing. The body is changing all the time. The atoms and molecules are changing. The synapses and neurons are changing. The muscles are changing. This is not freedom; it is just movement of particles from one place to another.

In that view "choosing your own actions" is nonsensical. You can't choose your actions. Everything is predetermined.

Existentialists like to say that humans fear freedom; I don't think that is the case. People despise determinism because it makes them feel trivial and locked up. Like Neo says "I dont like the idea I am not in control of my own life"; that is how most people think. Noone endorses determinism, most everyone wants that so called "freedom" wich simply does not exist.

So if freedom does not exist, how could anyone "choose" their meaning? What guarantees are there that life could feel more meaningful simply because you have chosen it? It means that if you can make such a choice - if you could do this, that has to imply that the world is totally free and entirely in your own hands; hence "you are responsible for everything". Because how could you be responsible for everything unless you were the author of everything? Existentialism makes the individual into his own god. Therefore with each passing choice and action, you "create yourself in your own image".

Existentialism basically says that man is absolutely free and walks around like a "tabula rasa" wich he has to fill with an essence he himself provides. And what was essence again? For some essence is the soul. So for them you can create your own soul. Now wait a minute. Who is it usually that creates souls? That's right; God.

For Kirkegaard essence was "nature". And oh boy, how are we gonna define "nature" again? If nature is the material world then this means that Kirkegaard thought that man could change the material world by choice. Sartre making essence into an attribute of existence doesn't really help in rescuing this mess from absolute self-determination. And if there is nothing else that determines a mans life or existence except for man himself, then we end up in an absurd universe where the laws of nature no longer apply.

Just because you want to read Sartre and Kirkegaard in the way they might have or could have intended; as if philosophy is some kind of art-form where you can freely express your opinions; doesn't remove the fact that existentialism is not realistic, and it leads to man becoming his own god. Whats worse is that it also leads to misantrophy; just like all other doctrines that have utopian premises like Christianity or Communism, the result will always be that when the philosophy breaks down, who get's the blame? Well; people ofcource. Because people are so irresponsible, so selfish, so vicious. When Christians were killing Mohammedans what was to blame? According to Christians it was neither God nor Christ or Christianity, but "human evil"; When communism became a totalitarian dictatorship what did the communists blame? Certainly not communism, but "human evil".

Misantrophy is really the biggest obstacle that we have today, because it paralyzes society. It makes everything seem impossible because noone can be trusted; humans are impossible troublemakers, irresponsible, stupid fiends who never understand what the philosophy is telling them they should do. And since humans are stupid idiots all of them, well the only thing you can do is to insult them and exploit them or contemplate suicide. Like a cruel merry go round these kinds of philosophical doctrines keep people in unrealistic expectations making things worse with each turn of the wheel.
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to be free

Postby dobbie » Fri Dec 30, 2011 8:57 pm

Skept wrote:
We are not free at all. Everything is squarely deterministic.
If we are not free at all, how do you expect anybody to change their minds about anything?
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Postby Skept » Fri Dec 30, 2011 9:36 pm

dobbie

Do you mean change their minds in general? Or here? Or somewhere else? I don't expect that arguments can change anyones mind into what I would say, but I think that a discussion can be a good thing nonetheless; it helps me to think at least.

If you mean in general; how do people change their minds? Well; When new information comes to their notice; When the mental process finally comes to the conclusion what some statement was about, or that the idea they held for so long no longer makes any sense or no longer seems relevant. When they have some particular interest in an issue or idea or study, etc. There is always something else that changes that makes people change their "minds". Small events, large events, information, writing, applying skepticism on ones own ideas, talking with others, listening to others talk, etc.

But how often do you think people actually change their minds? In our culture it seems to be a matter of pride to never change ones mind. It is a matter of dignity I think. You stick to what you believe even tho it runs contrary to everything around you. But that act is cultural, perhaps even genetic. You know what they say about an ass; if you try to make it move by pushing it in one direction, it will only push back. To actually change a persons mind is something that takes a lot of time. How long does it take to change a Christian into an atheist? Even a Christian that is not really sure about his or her faith... It can take years, and involve lots of study, reflection and conversations.

The reason the ass is pushing back is not because it is stubborn, but because it is trying to keep its balance. I think the human mind is similar in that regard. If you push it hard it will push back because it must maintain balance, structure, order, security and comfort. For some it is easy to change their minds; for some a book can do the trick; for others it might take a disaster, a war, a disease or misfortune in general; and still others will not change their minds despite all of the above, not even when they have their false beliefs held up for scrutiny.
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