This is a story about a friend from my youth. I’ll call her Indigo.
I met Indigo when we were both in the second year of university. I didn’t go to university immediately after high school, so I was a few years older than her when we met. We were in the same program, Cognitive Science, and we had similar interests in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. She was very intelligent and open to new ideas. We naturally became friends, and would often hang out between classes, talking about life, the universe and everything.
Indigo came from a sheltered, middle-class background. I came from a much grittier background, and my life experiences were a lot different from hers. There was also a political difference. She had left-wing, collectivist views, and I had more right-wing, individualist views. We would argue political philosophy sometimes, but in a friendly way.
When we finished our undergraduate degrees, we went our separate ways. She went somewhere to do a grad program in urban development. I went somewhere else to do a MS in Computing Science. So, we both left Cognitive Science in different directions: me toward the applied sciences, and her toward the applied humanities or social sciences. Over the next few years, we kept in touch by email. I’m going to tell you a bit about her life, because it’s an interesting glimpse into the life of a leftist.
One incident stands out in my mind as symbolic of the direction she was going, on a personal level. Not long after she started her grad program, she sent me an email talking about her life. She told me that she had met a guy in a coffee shop who was a PhD student in astrophysics, and that he asked her out. She didn’t say if she accepted or not. In my next email to her, I asked what happened with that guy. Did she go out with him? Her response was dismissive. He wasn’t her type.
That incident stands out in my mind, because I’m sure he was exactly her type. He was a nerdy guy, and she was a nerdy girl. She could have settled down with a guy like him. But she didn’t find him attractive.
At this point in my life, I was married with two kids. Indigo was still single in her mid-twenties.
Later on, she was doing research on temporary farm workers, and she fell in love with a farm worker from somewhere in the Caribbean. I don’t remember the exact details, except that he played the guitar, and she found him very sexy. They had a brief relationship, and then he had to go back home. She was so smitten that she flew down there to see him, on her own initiative. They spent a few days together, camping on the beach. Then he ditched her. I think he stole some of her money too. He probably had a girlfriend or a wife already, and was just using her for sex.
After that experience, she didn’t admit that she had been a fool. Instead, she said that he had “emotional issues”. She couldn’t admit that she fell in love with an asshole who fucked and chucked her.
She was intelligent and capable of abstract thought about other things, but when it came to relationships she relied on emotion and intuition, not thought. She just assumed that her emotions would lead her in the right direction, even if they never did. In an email, I told her “Figure out what you want, figure out how to get it, and then get it”. But she didn’t take my advice.
As an aside, I think the whole idea of romantic love is an illusion foisted on us by the media. There are no star-crossed lovers, just people who choose to be together. In movies, the right people just happen to be in the right place at the right time. The man says the right thing, and the woman responds in the right way. They go their separate ways, but fate brings them back together. There is some big obstacle to be overcome, but they end up together, and live happily ever after. That doesn’t happen in real life, because reality doesn’t have a script-writer. In real life, things are much more random. It’s very unlikely that you will end up in a good relationship just by coincidence. And yet, that is what most women expect to happen.
For a few years, we exchanged regular emails, about once a month. We would tell each other about our lives, and then, in a separate section, we carried on a long-standing political and philosophical debate. It was essentially about altruism versus selfishness. Indigo believed in altruism as a moral and social foundation. I argued that altruism is futile and destructive, and that we evolved to be selfish. I presented many of the ideas that I present in this book, and made the same arguments for them.
To make a long story short, I won the debate. Her initial position included strong positive claims about reality, which I refuted one by one. As I refuted her claims, she kept retreating to weaker and weaker positions, until she finally ended up just appealing to ignorance. Her final position was that we can’t know anything for sure, so she would continue to hope that altruism could work.
I’ve seen the same pattern in many online arguments. When I win an argument about a belief that someone holds deeply, they will not admit that they are wrong. Instead, they will try to come up with another argument. If I shoot that one down, they will come up with another, and so on. Eventually, they will arrive at tactical nihilism, which is the flip side of dogmatism.
If you are rational about a belief X, then you will make the strongest argument for X. If someone refutes that argument, then you will admit that your belief in X is not justified. But people seldom do that with political, moral or religious beliefs. Instead, they continue to assert X, while seeking a new justification for it, or even just an excuse to keep believing it. This shows that their belief in X is not rational. It is based on faith. The proposed justification was not the reason for the belief, so the refutation of the justification does not affect the belief.
When the debate ended, our friendship also fizzled out. We stopped sending each other personal emails. But I still received generic emails that she sent to a list of family and friends, and so I followed her story for a while. I’ll tell you a bit of it.
As part of her graduate research, she went to Africa and worked on rural development (with an NGO, I think). There were two funny things about her experiences there. One is that some of the Africans she met were really gung-ho about capitalism. She talked about one guy who wanted her to arrange a shipment of used refrigerators to his country, so he could sell them. He couldn’t understand why she wasn’t interested in that sort of enterprise, which was obviously more lucrative than whatever she was doing. She thought the Africans needed international charity, but many of them saw the value of trade and private enterprise.
Another funny thing was that the women in Africa perceived her as a tragic case, because she was unmarried at her age. They thought she had come to Africa to find a husband, because she couldn’t find one back home. Why else would a woman wander the world alone? They felt sorry for her, and tried to set her up with various men. Maybe a local chief would want a white woman for his harem. She found this funny, because in her view they were the ones who needed help, not her.
Later in her studies, she went to Afghanistan to do research and to work with an NGO. During her time there, she had to adopt the Muslim dress code for women, covering her face and body. The funny thing is that she really liked it. She liked being covered up, and she liked the separate world that the women had. She would have rejected those things if they were imposed on her by Western culture or society, but she embraced them when they were imposed on her by Islam in a foreign country.
Although I disagree with her worldview, I do respect Indigo for going out in the world and putting it to the test. She did not merely profess her beliefs. She lived them.
But when her worldview failed, she did not reject it or revise it. She had a deep commitment to certain values that she could not change. When her values clashed with reality, she just ignored reality.