Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Premature Closure: Some Thoughts

Originally posted on March 2, 2011

In a book I’ve recently begun to read, Exploring Happiness: from Aristotle to Brain Science, by  Sissela Bok (2010, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), I was struck by the author’s use of the idea of premature closure. That term is also used by Erik H. Erikson as a pitfall of adolescence. It means that one comes to some conclusions and tends to identify with those conclusions before all possibilities are explored. I tend to think that this happens in many ways to varying degrees.

Premature closure seems to be a form of stupidity, one that can be exercised by otherwise very clever persons. (I define stupidity as the illusion that what one knows is sufficient.) The ground for understanding this is the uncomfortable insight of one of my favorite philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead, who observed, “All truths are half truths; it’s treating them as whole truths that plays the devil.”

Analyzing this dynamic a bit more, premature closure seems to me to rest on a common underlying assumption that it is possible to grasp the truth. From that, when one grasps what seems like a truth, especially as it stands out from or contrasts with other ideas that seem far from truth, there’s a tendency to fall into the illusion that what was discovered was it, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth! (As might be said in the cliche in asking for legal testimony from witnesses.)

In contrast, I’m inclined to think that it is never, ever, possible to get the whole truth; this is because our horizon about what should be included in the “whole” continues to expand in many directions. We are increasingly finding that everything is larger, more complex, composed of smaller elements, more subtle, and operates in conjunction with yet more other dynamics or within other frames of reference than we had imagined. Because of this, every claim to truth should be re-framed as “within the bounds of what we know” or in other ways phrased as provisional.

Returning to the consideration of the topic of the book: The author notes that many forms of happiness can be experienced in more narrow contexts. A very young child may experience happiness by taking away another child’s toy. The pleasure may even be enhanced if, in addition to “getting” your toy, the first child also makes the other child cry. Too young for a mature ethical sense, it may feel, “My, what power I have!” However, at an older age or with some gentle guidance, the first child may also be led into empathizing and expanding his boundaries to include the other child’s feelings, at which point triumph is converted into into guilt and repentance. The point is that happiness is not an ultimate value, but rather should be evaluated as it operates in balance with many other elements, among which is morality.

I like this point very much: No truth exists apart from operating or being employed in balance with one or often several other truths or values. The cultural search for qualities or experiences that are free of this inter-related conditioned-ness is misleading and likely to become wicked. People who deeply derive happiness from their own autistic or sub-group enjoyment, even if the behavior operates at the expense of others who are beyond the boundaries of “us,” end up experiencing a type of happiness that is far from the optimal value.

Even the greatest good for the greatest number may need to be weighed with wisdom, because sometimes what is adjudged good is merely a pandering to the lower consciousness need to remain undisturbed in their illusions. Minority rights also has a part to play in the overall situation? Should a whim by 30 people outrank a desperate need by 1 person? At what point should the convenience of 1 person be able to require extensive efforts by many people to accommodate? These are not silly questions—they have to do with many problems of persons with disability and public policy.

In Ms Bok’s book, she reports near the end of the book—pg. 177—, “Examples abound of how accepting a particular vision of happiness can lead to practical choices that either adhere to or violate fundamental moral values; and of how such choices can ennoble or degrade those who make them.” I agree that wisdom involves the balancing of sub-choices, and I’d throw in also a plug for the recognition of semantics. Words can be tyrants that oppress the mind, generate repression of rational evaluation that asks, “But what if…” about the edges of the way people are thinking about or using the word.

There’s a form of psychodrama called “axiodrama” that extends to exploring the different ways people interpret general concepts—goodness, motherhood, Americanism, God, help, strength, and so forth—because these definitions are deep forces. (Axioms are basic assumptions.) They are not factual definitions, but whole complexes of associated assumptions about other values, biases, unspoken associations, examples, past experiences, trauma, family beliefs, religions and political allegiances, and so forth.

This kind of analysis is courageous because it fights against an invisible devil that supports stupidity: “I have the right not to be bothered by being explicitly aware of the inconsistency of my thought” and its cousins, the imps that say, “I don’t want to hear about that, it bothers me,” “Things should be simple,” “There should be easy answers, like, let’s just kill those who disagree,” or “Don’t get all intellectual on me!” I’m sorry if this offends people, but the point is that, if bumper stickers are to be believed,  many people find this line of thinking entirely plausible: “God said it; I believe it; that’s all there is to it.”

The terrors of the Nazi’s imposition of the Holocaust on the Jews and other undesirables was morally okay within the circle of value only for the Master Race. The idea that such as circle should be drawn was not questioned. They didn’t think they were doing bad. What’s the problem, here? So may we ask, what other circles of caring do we create arbitrarily?

The Jain religion suggests that all life is sacred, even insects. Their orthodox practitioners go to some lengths to not hurt the tiny beasties of the world. Alas, this tradition was developed before a whole ‘nother level of smallness and prevalence was discovered—the microbial world. I don’t know if Jain theologians find they are forced to draw the line between what forms of life we should not disturb and which types can we not avoid disturbing. Morality is itself not a simple criterion and also needs to be balanced in a world of pragmatics and other values.

Please do not take this mini-essay as a claim by me that I have the wisdom to know what to do about any number of current conundrums—I don’t. The best I can do is to relinquish the tendency to complacent self-numbing and recognize that hard choices are being made based on less-than-fully-thought-out grounds, and sometimes perhaps this may be necessary. I do invite people to come to the edge, like this, and wrestle a bit with the assumptions they tend to accept.

Finally, this is by no means a review of a complex book. So far, Ms Bok’s book looks pretty good and I may have some other reactions, too, as I read it. This is just more a commentary on the idea of “premature closure.”

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