What a Fringe Theorist Taught Me about Intuition Pumps

What a Fringe Theorist Taught Me about Intuition Pumps November 1, 2020

Image of a beige globe set on a white shelf, against a beige and white interior. Andrew Neel, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with another update. As I write this, Hallowe’en parties — yes, parties — amid COVID continue in other units in my apartment building. I’m home in Medellín, Colombia, after being out of country for a week to rectify my legal status, and these reckless people are just part of the package, alack.

But I’m still ever-so-relieved to be back on this side of the border.

I’m now on sabbatical, too: a forced sabbatical, seeing as I cannot so much as apply for a new visa until April 14, and am here instead on a “tourist permit” for three months (which will be followed by a second permit for three more) before I can re-start my path to residency. I’ve decided to see this as a step forward in a different way, though, inasmuch as this state of affairs pretty much compels me to focus on my writing goals, and the expansion of my career therein. Thanks to my Patreon account, and a couple other creative-income outlets, I can cover all basic monthly expenses, so I’m in an astonishingly fortunate position at present. I intend to make full use of it.

(Today is Day 6, and I’m still mainly working on getting the second novel, a work of moral philosophy inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, but in a far-flung science-fiction setting, ready to pitch to agents soon.)

While I was in Panamá, though, I had a set of encounters I’ve been eager to write about, both here and elsewhere. One slice of these encounters, I’m saving up for a different sort of article, an essay on belonging that I’m going to try to publish in another venue… but another… well, another is as germane to this column’s themes as it comes.

So, today, let me tell you about my multiple run-ins with the fringe evangelist, “Daniel,” who was staying at my hostel, and whose argumentation taught me a lot about some easy ways that we can mismanage our intuition pumps.

The Panamá Connection

Who travels during pandemic? I certainly had no interest in doing so. It was only the need to rectify my legal status in Colombia, after five months of being undocumented and exploited by my employer the whole while, that saw me flying out to Ciudad de Panamá for six days before attempting to return to my home in Medellín. The hostel I was staying at, a massive old wooden house in the muggy local climate, had been shuttered for many months due to COVID. Only recently reopened, it was still profoundly musty and, ah, little-insect-friend-ridden while the hard-working Colombian and Venezuelan owners set about translating new guest income into vital repairs.

I was homesick from the start, and terribly anxious about how long I’d be away from Colombia, but the two other guests were quite content to be travelling. One, a late-20s woman from Germany, was in the middle of a “last hurrah” that she had planned for herself last year, and was not content to wait out the pandemic to complete it. At first I thought this meant that she had paid for a slew of tickets and was tired of losing money, but no: She’s with a wealthy man in his mid-40s, who’s funding her last burst of freedom before marriage while she randomly and at the last minute picks new places to hop about to, based on which borders are open. To each their own, I guess?

The other, though… the other was perfectly content to be travelling, because he doesn’t believe in COVID-19. Or viruses in general. He acknowledges that something that looks like COVID-19 might well exist in the body, and could well be ejected from the body to be inhaled into others’ bodies… but it doesn’t trigger illness, apparently. Illness is just the body ridding itself of intrinsic toxins, you see.

Now, when I first arrived at this hostel, my ex-employer was still acting like I could continue teaching with them — which I absolutely could not, not even on a transitional basis due to the spotty internet coverage — but I did still have other work I wanted to focus on, while waiting out the rough upheaval from my home. So, when Daniel approached me to talk in one of the common areas with better coverage, I didn’t engage. Headphones were on, work was being done. And when he saw that I was busy, to his immense credit he left me the heck alone.

Later, though, he asked a question to another in the common area, something about the local lay of the land, to which I knew the answer and she did not. So, I answered — and suddenly found myself in conversation with a fringe conspiracy theorist, while the other guest slipped away.

Daniel, I would learn both quickly and over the course of a few days, is many things: an early-fifties Scottish born-again Christian who travels the world baptising and exorcising others; a Flat-Earther who believes we do not live in an old cosmos but rather a square-based pyramid wherein we’ve been reincarnated thousands of times; a denier of most modern medicine, along with plate tectonics and gravity; a “taxation-is-theft” libertarian who would never pick up a gun himself (because of Jesus) but strongly believes that the only just society is one in which there is no government and all are free to amass firearms in preparation for a land-based invasion from China; a man who believes that rape can be avoided if women just “play girlfriend”; and a man who believes that all of life’s ills can be explained by an elite, George-Soros-ian group of leaders involved in a massive demonic battle that involves each side trying to slaughter the most babies so as to win the war.

And reader, I have to tell you, I took the vast majority of this in perfect stride — because I’m not an atheist first and foremost: I’m a humanist first and foremost. And so, I took him as he was: as a human being eager to share his urgent truths with me; the things that mattered most because they had supposedly changed his life, and instilled in him the desire to change others’ lives, too.

The Greatest “Fringe” of All: Compassionate Humanism

My response surprised him, though, and I only made him even more confused, as the days went on, when I’d answer his provocative theories with historical touchstones to illustrate where and how his views resonated with those that others held over the centuries. I’d show no outsized emotion, that is, and focus on pointing out the similarity of certain views to those of, say, specific medieval thinkers, or 19th-century mystics — and then contextualize where those people fit into the broader conversation of their respective times. I told him about da Vinci’s micro/macrocosmic world-view (and how the bivalve fossils in the mountaintops changed his Biblical thinking — thank you, Gould!); and Paracelsus’s approach to not taking received wisdom from elders for granted, while also having some wild and untestable theories of his own; and Ibn al-Haytham and the 11th-century Islamic discourse about whether cause and effect existed or a god forged the universe in every instant; and the mid-19th-century Whewell-Brewster debate about life on other worlds, along with the spiritual beliefs shaping each side’s interpretation of the evidence; and Marie Corelli’s repudiation of both astronomy and traditional Christianity after electromagnetic theory’s emergence; and some of the competing geologies that emerged from James Hutton’s 18th-century uniformitarianism; as well as plenty of immoral gospel incidents that Daniel had never heard of, and had difficulty accounting for within his views.*

(*Except, of course, to say that Christ being a god meant that Christ could do whatever he liked. “Might makes right” is a common defense for a lot of that awfulness, and he freely admitted that this defense was his, whether or not he liked what his god did. He had once been vegan, he’d said, but then decided that he didn’t want to act as though he were “better than Christ”.)

Daniel was quite surprised by all of this. “How can you know so much about so many of these topics, and still not be convinced?” he asked me over and over, during the (polite!) conversations we had over the next few days. He was surprisingly gracious in his delivery, sitting by and listening without interrupting others; he just also had some truly “out there” beliefs when it was his turn to speak. And he had no idea, as time went on, why I had different points of view at the end of all my own studies of history — and of histories of science, in particular.

When it came to his beliefs in demon possession, too, he was frustrated (in a helpless sort of way, admitting that he was discouraged) by my willingness to accept that he had seen things that made demons feel true for him, without accepting the truth of it beyond himself. When I told him that he was by no means my first experience with an exorcist, and that I had zero experiences to give me the same conclusions — and when, of course, Russell and Sagan came up, too — we got into a long philosophical conversation about inner and outer, knowable and unknowable truths.

“Everyone really seems to love Kant,” he grumbled at the close of that section, before switching gears to ask my thoughts on “social justice”… another very big can of fascinatingly squirmy ideological worms.

Lousy Intuition Pumps

Now, I could wander from anecdote to anecdote when it comes to this fellow’s beliefs, but it would be fairer to acknowledge that he was openly struggling to surmount his preoccupation with the vast majority of it. His “pre-Christ” life seemed to me steeped in Americanized-libertarian dogma, and all related online-forum fixations around U.S. politics (for a European Scot, at that!); and he himself admitted that he was still trying to break from the nasty habit of debating such things, so that he could just focus on the mission of baptism and exorcism.

Moreover, what I really want to do is outline three key pitfalls that plagued this highly stimulated fellow, and opened him to so many fringe beliefs — because even though our own beliefs might not be nearly as “out there”, we are still all susceptible to similar.

In the title, you might have noticed, I’ve used the term “intuition pumps”–but I don’t quite mean it in the manner that Daniel Dennett did, when he first coined the phrase and wrote a book on the subject. Other thinkers have also used the term interchangeably with “thought experiments,” but one of the best shapings of this term seems to me to make full use of that second word: the idea of a “pump”, an active, transformative, guiding force in our thinking that thereafter gives us to feel that certain conclusions are “obvious.”

And that’s the interpretation I’m leaning on here.

Understood this way, after all, “intuition pumps” needn’t be formal thought experiments; rather, they’re with us all the time, inasmuch as we’re constantly feeding our “intuition” with the worldly inputs on which we choose to focus. Choose to read the news from a specific info silo, with a specific rhetorical style? You’re “pumping” your mind to see both that tonal register and the conclusions on those sites as “only natural.” Use certain terminology over and over in your life, to the point of forgetting that others might use it differently — or use other words for the same thing you’re thinking of? You’re “pumping” your mind to frame issues in narrowly prescriptivist and tribalist ways.

And we all do this. Even I, in emphatically identifying as a humanist, have to remind myself that the signifier is insufficient for conveying the signified: how I use “humanist” requires relentless definition, that is, because plenty of people who call themselves humanists do not resemble what I see as humanism at all.

What a gift the fellow I came to know at hostel was, though, because when it came to his own intuition pumps, Daniel was about as open as they come. In so doing, he taught me a thing or two indeed — no, not about the “truth” of most of his theorizing; but about how fringe theorizing is formed and reinforced over time.

“Don’t You Think Her Being Upset With My Theories Means I’m Right?”

At one point, Daniel and I were having a gentle conversation about how his whole approach with strangers — by very quickly dumping as many of his wildest theories on them at the get-go — might not be the best way for him to serve, say, his stated function as a Christian. And he not only agreed with me, but actively changed his approach with a new guest that arrived in hostel during my stay there. I wasn’t in the room, and he had no way of knowing that I was listening through the door, but I was mightily impressed with the difference in his approach to striking up conversation with this average human being just trying to make breakfast.

He very kindly told me later that our conversations had given him a lot of food for thought with respect to how he engages with people — but he still then manifested his hurt, when I noted that this would lead to fewer “upset” people like the German girl (who’d told me that her conversation with him had depressed her for the rest of the day), by asking me the aforementioned question. He further told me that he felt like people on “my side” were more likely to be upset with him for having different views than he to be was upset for them being “sheep buying into NASA.” He then tried to argue that the very fact of their outsized discomfort had to mean there was more truth in his views.

This was a striking self-admission (and one I got him to reconsider, by offering a thought-experiment to rule out the idea that one person “being upset” was an instant win for the truth of someone else’s words), because it spoke to the deep emotionalism at the root of many of his conspiracy theories. Just as most evangelists are not expected to convert others when evangelizing, so much as to reinforce themselves in their own beliefs through exposure to relentless rejection by others, so too was Daniel training himself up every day in the idea of being righteous and superior in his different points of view. If others didn’t connect with him, if they didn’t accept him, that was on them for their unwillingness to see the truth.

And this was also, I’d wager, why my more humanist approach from the outset deeply stymied him — which is why he then switched up his strategy, twice, to try to save my soul from the demons he is convinced have got my ear.


“Don’t You Get Exhausted by All the Stupid People in the World?”

This is a familiar gambit: an attempt to try to coax people into different ways of seeing by promising that this way of seeing is the one that All The Really Smart People ChooseI had a couple simple deflections for this gambit, though — in part, because Daniel was speaking through his pre-conversion, Americanized libertarianism whenever he used this rhetoric. All I had to do, then, was Socratically lead him to wonder about his comfort as a Christian in calling other people “stupid”, and what echoes of his former life’s philosophy might be creeping in when he did.

Still, in general, this remain a fascinating “pump”, because it works so well. Who doesn’t love a bit of flattery, a tribe that makes one feel more “in the know” than all the rest of the heaving, ignorant masses?

Amusingly, then, I also managed to dismiss this rhetoric by talking to Daniel about… atheism. About how many online atheists, still enamoured by the New Atheist school of thought, love nothing more than to use that same rhetoric of intellectual superiority. I told him, too, about how growing up in a household with a subscription to Mensa’s magazine (wherein members can see their opinions printed about all sorts of social issues) had quickly dispelled in me the idea that IQ said anything about a person having intrinsically superior reasoning, let alone the “correct” views on any given topic.

My exposure to other groups of self-proclaimed elites, that is, had helped me recognize the tribalism common to them all.

(And Daniel, for his part, seemed surprised to learn that many atheists use this same tactic. I do so hope it gives him pause.)

The other appeal, though, was even more fascinating, because when trying to flatter me didn’t work, he switched to shame. Specifically:

“How Can Someone as Smart as You Let Yourself Be Tricked by Them?”

“Them,” in this particular case, was NASA — a U.S. organization that, despite being fairly recent, was apparently an evil foretold in ancient Sumerian writings: a great deceiving force that has been working its wickedness and deceit upon the world for millennia.

(The UN, too, is also the world’s greatest evil–just FYI.)

But Daniel used this turn of phrase a great deal in our conversations, and as he kept coming back to it, it became clear to me how much of a preoccupation he had with turning out to be wrong, to be seen as gullible if he believed in any mainstream science. Now, Daniel himself was very open to self-correction and admitting error in this whole conversation; he’d propose something, I’d have an easy counter, and he’d often agree with my counter and discard the thought. He struck me, then — quite honestly — as a very intelligent man who had long been seeking inclusion, or at least an explanation for his lifelong exclusion, in community; and who had found it in the “safety” of fringe beliefs.

Nevertheless, in our conversations he clung to this belief that prominent organizations were primarily out to trick, deceive, and control — and especially the governments, all run by people who partook in literal child sacrifice rituals. As wild as the demonic baby-killing part may seem, though, what matters is how much Daniel seemed captivated (pun intended) by the idea that someone was going to wield undue power and influence over him if he wasn’t careful, if he didn’t resist and deny everything he could.

And yet, ironically, for all that he accused me of being a slave to these devious masters, he himself readily admitted that as a Christian he had made himself a “slave” to Jesus — and wanted everyone else to become one, too.

Can you see the intuition pump here, that explains this seeming contradiction?

It’s in the vocabulary.

It’s in Daniel’s routine of reducing the world to masters and slaves, wolves and sheep, those with power and those without.

But we can, of course, coax ourselves to broaden the spectrum of possibilities. We can “pump” our minds with exposures to other frameworks for human interaction. And in so doing, we can alleviate many of the binary pressures that all-too-easily shape and constrict our worlds.

It just gets harder and harder to do so, the longer we invite our minds to go another way.

The Humanist Turn

So how did I respond to Daniel, when he first asked me how I could have read so much, and how I could know so much about different beliefs throughout human history and across human communities, without having come to the same conclusions that he had?

Well, as I explained to him, humanism is less interested in trying to change minds, and more in trying to understand human beings: their different foundational beliefs; their shared animal longings; and through a synthesis of both, the most effective ways of improving their agency in the world. Daniel told me, in turn, that he didn’t know anyone who’d found peace and agency in the world without Christ. He had no answer for my personal counterpoint — how leaving my social contract of birth, and allowing myself to see social contracts as something we can choose for ourselves, had given me plenty of both — but neither, to his credit, did he try to dismiss this truth of mine in turn.

Here, then, was a highly stimulated human being forging his sense of self through the expectation that his ideas, whenever aired in public, would be contested, dismissed, and disdained. And I had been replying to him all along by situating him within –welcoming him into, even — a far longer and more intricate human conversation: one that could contain multitudes, because it’s filled to the brim with people who ached and wondered and grappled with similar over the ages. Moreover, I was showing sincere happiness that, after a life of struggle, two years ago he had found the truth that worked for him: the truth that allowed him to have his first real long-term relationship, even; and to move with confidence and purpose through the world after a lifetime of struggling to connect with fellow human beings.

As I told him, then, in answer to his initial bafflement as to how I could not believe him:

To me, he was one of 7.8 billion people trying to make the most of their time alive in the cosmos; and although I didn’t believe in his demons or his flat earth, I thought it was wonderful that he felt he had at last found a place of mental rest, and so much strength of conviction.

To which he replied that there were probably only 3 billion people on Earth, 4 tops; and reminded me that the “cosmos” was a lie.

But he thanked me for the sentiment all the same.

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