Wednesday, 10 September 2014

How to overcome fear by overcoming prejudice

Self-inflicted blindness is a widespread sickness. Those who suffer from it become blind to opportunity, wallow in their misery, and become incapable of looking beyond the obvious. Unfortunately, as it can be ascertained by anyone who cares to examine the question, millions of people are suffering from this condition.

Despite the fact that these people could take action to improve their situation, they remain passive and inert, waiting for someone else to solve their problems. This sad situation is not circumscribed to the population of a certain age or nationality. On the contrary, we are talking about a phenomenon that can be observed in all age groups and countries of the world.

If you want to witness how self-inflicted blindness works, you can take for instance the question of unemployment. At the time of his writing, in September 2014, the unemployment rate in Spain has reached 20%, and in some Spanish provinces, whose economies are particularly depressed, unemployment is as high as 25%.

The ravages of self-inflicted blindness

The percentage of the population who cannot find a job in Greece and in some parts of Italy is not far behind. And some other countries only manage to report lower unemployment rates because their statistics are made differently. For instance, in United States, people who have been unemployed for longer than a year are removed from the statistics.

In any case, it is incontestable that unemployment remains high in many areas of the world. Millions of people are affected by this problem. Day after day, month after month, and all too often, yet after year, they continue to search for jobs that are simply not available.

Unemployment has dire consequences, not only economically, but also all psychologically. Individuals who have been unemployed for a long time tend to lose their ambitions, qualifications, and self-respect. These situations are regrettable, but in many cases, what really aggravates the problem is the victims' self-inflicted blindness.

As I said, unemployment in Spain affects 20% of the population. At the same time, the unemployment rate in Norway is only 4%. Such a low rate is almost equivalent to zero in practical terms, since 4% amounts just to those who are between jobs, those who have just graduated from university, and a few more. When a country has an unemployment rate as low as 4%, it means that anyone seriously looking for a job is going to succeed in finding one.

There is never a good reason for passivity

Now, everyone who has studied physics at school is familiar with the principle that communicating vases always tend to achieve an equilibrium level. If two communicating vases are each filled with water to a different level, the water will automatic pass from the higher-filled vase to the lower-filled vase until the water level has been equalised in both vases.

The principle of equilibrium between communicating vases, which is well-known in physics, also applies to communicating markets. If you have a country where oil is very expensive, and a neighbouring country where oil is very cheap, the oil price in both countries will tend towards an equilibrium level in the long term, since traders are going to take advantage of the situation, and export oil from the cheap to the expensive country, until the price difference vanishes from the market.

In my example about the different unemployment rates in Spain and Norway, one should ask the obvious question: Why are the unemployed people in Spain not moving to Norway? Why do millions of Spanish people continue to look for jobs where there aren't any, while at the same time, they overlook the thousands of open vacancies that are advertised in Norway? This is an interesting question that the media rarely address.

Of course, you could argue that there is a linguistic barrier between Norway and Spain, since anyone desiring to work in Norway would have to learn Norwegian. Fair enough, but this is only partially true, since knowledge of Norwegian is only needed for 30% of the jobs advertised in Norway.

On many occasions, a good command of English is sufficient to perform those jobs, provided that the applicant possesses the required educational qualifications. Norwegian companies are constantly hiring engineers, graphic designers, software programmers, cooks, and truck drivers who don't speak a word of Norwegian. Anyway, even if an unemployed Spaniard had to learn Norwegian to get a job in Norway, that would be an investment that he would be able to recoup in a few months.

In this sense, the self-inflicted blindness seems all-pervasive when you realise that, Spain, a country of 35 million people, does not even have language schools that teach Norwegian. An unemployed Spaniard who decided to look for a job in Norway would not be able to find a language school, public or private, where he could learn Norwegian to facilitate his job search. How is it possible that millions of people have become so blind to opportunity?

The low cost of high opportunity

Besides, the distance between Spain and Norway is not that large. A flight from Madrid to Oslo takes about four hours. For someone who wants to improve his career opportunities, a four-hour flight is nothing. You can buy a plane ticket from Madrid to Oslo for a few hundred dollars.

Anyone determined to find a job in Norway would be certainly able to borrow sufficient money from his family and friends to pay for his flight, accommodation, and meals during his initial weeks in Norway. And anyone willing to make the effort would certainly succeed in learning Norwegian, with or without teachers.
I could give you dozens of similar examples that show that self-inflicted blindness is affecting large numbers of individuals all over the world. More often than not, those people have fallen prey to the human tendency to remain immobile, for instance:

  • People fail to change their lifestyle even if the change could cure their sickness.
  • They fail to get away from destructive relationships, even after it has become clear that those relationships have no future.
  • They also fail to move abroad even when there are unmistakable signs that a war is about to break out in their home country.

Self-inflicted blindness constitutes one of the main sources of human misery. It makes people poor, tired, and psychologically vulnerable. It deprives them of their opportunities and motivation, and renders them unable to find solutions to their problems. The nightmares caused by self-inflicted blindness are everywhere, but unfortunately, there are no signs that the situation is going to improve in the near future.

The problem is more serious and deeper than it seems at first sight. Since the beginning of civilisation, since human beings began to live in tribes, the cases of psychological passivity have increased exponentially. While individuals living alone cannot ignore that problems cannot be solved without taking action, people who become members of a tribe tend to replace their initiative by group thinking.

This process of psychological decay can be observed in any country, culture, or ethnic group. Its outcome is always lethal, even if the process can take thousands of years to unfold. Those who suffer from self-inflicted blindness will end out losing everything they have, despair, and starve.

A simple, but difficult solution

Luckily, there is a solution to this problem, even if it's difficult to implement. The solution has been tested and confirmed thousands of times during the last century. On every occasion where it has been tried, it has delivered good results. People who have adopted it have been able to solve their problems, and those who have ignored it have wasted their opportunities.

The first complete formulation of the solution was made at the beginning of the 17th century by the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). As we will see, Bacon was able to overcome different forms of self-inflicted blindness, figure out solutions to his problems, and implement them successfully in his professional and private life.

The three principal sources for understanding Bacon's philosophy are his “Essays” (whose first edition was published in 1597), his treatise “On the Advancement of Learning” (1605), and his manifesto “Novum Organum Scientiarum” (1620). The latter was subsequently expanded and republished under the title “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (1623).

Bacon wrote those three books during his busy professional life as a lawyer, public prosecutor, and member of the English Parliament. It was usual for him to spend ten hours working in his job, and then write for another two hours in the evening.

It was by exerting himself in this fashion that Bacon managed to write each of his books in only a few months. He was a man of action who took his time to consign his thoughts to paper in the hope of becoming a major philosopher, a goal that he deservedly achieved.

Inconsistency with reality

One of the central points of Bacon's philosophy is the theory of the idols. The best presentation of this theory can be found in the “Novum Organum Scientiarum,” which Bacon composed when he was at the top of his career as a lawyer and public administrator. Bacon defines the idols as “products of the human imagination that are inconsistent with reality.”

In this sense, you could very well replace the word “idol” by the words prejudice, delusion, or wishful thinking. When an individual falls prey to those idols, he does stupid things, and fails to take action to improve his situation.

Bacon classified the idols in four categories, namely, the idols of the tribe, the idols of the cave, the idols of the marketplace, and the idols of the theatre. This classification is largely irrelevant, since the different types of prejudice and delusion overlap each other. Nonetheless, it's interesting to pass review to Bacon's four categories because they typify the mistakes that are preventing millions of people from thinking logically.

By “idols of the tribe,” Bacon refers to forms of prejudice that affect almost every human being at some point in his life. In this category, Bacon includes all forms of false perception, wishful thinking, and illogical conclusions. The victims thereof tend to pay more attention to the delusions inside their minds than to the facts of reality.

People who suffer from this form of self-inflicted blindness are going to create imaginary worlds, where they can take refuge from reality. As a result, their delusions are going to prevent them from taking action, while their problems get increasingly worse.

In our example of the unemployed Spaniards, it seems clear that millions of them actually believe that the Spanish economy is going to recover in the near future, and create large numbers of jobs, even if this belief is so manifestly unrealistic that one could not find any credible argument to support it.

Nonetheless, millions of unemployed Spaniards remain convinced that a solution can be found in the near future: a solution coming from nowhere, based on nothing, and requiring no effort to implement. Sadly, the consequences of such unrealistic beliefs tends to be catastrophic: the victims become paralysed, and by the time they realize their mistake, they will have become too weak to recover.

The adherence to old-fashioned patterns

Under the category “idols of the cave,” Bacon groups the prejudices and logical errors that are unique to each individual. The term “cave” used by Bacon refers to Plato's myth of the cave, where Plato compares the human mind to a man living in a cave who only perceives the outside world through the shadows reflected on the cave wall.

Similarly, Bacon argued that individuals who adhere to dogmas and old-fashioned patterns tend to become victims of the idols of the cave. These victims can be recognized by their blind respect of authority, their narrow-mindedness, and their conviction that they can only succeed in life by imitating other people.

The blindness and passivity inflicted by the idols of the cave are almost incurable. When someone becomes firmly convinced that his only choice in life is to remain loyal to worthless ideals, no matter how crazy they are, it's extremely difficult to reverse his condition. Narrow-minded people rarely change their views, even after it has become obvious that those views are wrong. The idols of the cave tend to deprive their victims of the capacity to recognize mistakes.

In our example of the unemployed Spaniards, it seems that many of those are being victims of the belief that they would be worse off if they moved abroad to find a job. Such a belief is deeply irrational, since many countries in the world possess higher living standards than Spain. Regrettably, this prejudice continues to prevent millions of unemployed Spaniards from finding a job.

The prejudice is so ingrained that, even if you could convince these individuals to find a job in Norway, their narrow-mindedness would not allow them to adapt to the Norwegian lifestyle, language, and environment, with the result that, after a few weeks, these people would be quitting their job and returning to Spain. Unless they rid themselves of the idols of the cave, they are never going to be able to summon the determination they need to solve their problems.

Creating fear for the sake of fear

The third category of faulty ideas identified by Bacon are what he called “idols of the marketplace,” by which he meant the falsehoods that people pick up from their social and professional environments. In particular, Bacon stressed the danger of using words and concepts that have no existence in reality.

This phenomenon is known in philosophy as “the reification of the zero.” When a concept that has no connection to reality is invented, it only serves to confuse people, lead them to error, and waste their opportunities.

The reification of the zero is a problem that also affects unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians. It is only during the last hundred years that people have become obsessed with the concept of social integration, without realizing that such concept was virtually unknown in previous centuries.

Even as late in history as in the 1910s, it was possible to travel from country to country without a passport, settle down in the city of your choice, find a job, or start a business without having to meet any particular requirements, and without having to bother about your social integration.

Regrettably, social integration is a recently-created idol of the marketplace that is discouraging large numbers of people from moving from one country to another. As a result, the discomfort associated with emigration has been magnified to such an extent that many individuals have become paralysed.

In the case of our unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians, who should have been actively looking for work in countries such as Norway, the idol of the marketplace called “social integration” (or fear of social isolation) has created a psychological barrier that is preventing them from moving abroad to look for a job.

Such exaggerated fear constitutes a good example of an idol of the marketplace. While its victims are blowing the potential difficulties out of proportion, the truth is that it's neither too difficult nor too expensive to adapt yourself to living in a new country.

In the case of unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians considering to emigrate to Norway, the difference in salaries between Norway and those three countries is so large that the discomfort associated with emigration should prove an excellent investment for anyone seriously interested in finding a job.

Discarding prejudices and misconceptions

The last group of false beliefs identified by Bacon are “the idols of the theatre.” Bacon uses this term to refer to prejudices and misconceptions generated by culture and civilisation. This category includes superstitions, social myths, and erroneous generalisations.

Idols of the theatre typically prevent people from taking action in areas that could dramatically improve their lives. Superstitions tend to restrain people's initiative because they support the belief that it's practically impossible to venture beyond certain limits.

In the case of our unemployed Spaniards, part of the problem is that many of them are convinced that Spain is the best country in the world. If you believe this kind of superstition with respect to your country, it's no wonder that you'll feel reluctant to look for a job abroad.

The idols of the theatre come in many variations, but they all have the effect of instilling fear into people. The exaggerated concern generated by the idols of the theatre renders people passive, and blind to opportunity.

The best thing about Francis Bacon is that, in addition to providing theoretical solutions to self-inflicted blindness, he also put them into practice. On one occasion, he defined philosophy as the commerce of the mind with the facts of reality with the purpose of bringing into sight what is hidden. Truth is what reveals itself after false opinions have vanished into smoke.

Let false opinions vanish into smoke

Bacon had acquired in his infancy the habit of thinking for himself, since he only started to attend school after his 12th birthday. Before that time, he had been learning at home by reading books, listening to his tutor, and taking lessons from his mother, who was fluent in Latin and Greek.

By the time Bacon was sent to college in Cambridge (1573), he had already read dozens of books in English and Latin. This achievement, which seems incredible by today's educational standards, is not to be regarded as so extraordinary if you take into account that, by being educated at home, a child does not need to waste time every day commuting.

Nowadays, children often have to spend an hour a day commuting to school. This daily travel time represents a substantial amount of waste, which could have been put to better use, for instance, by allowing the children to read dozens of books at home.

When Bacon turned fifteen, his parents sent him to London to start training as a lawyer. Fifteen is a young age indeed, but that measure of youth was not unusual in the 16th century. Bacon was admitted as a student at the Grey's Inn, and began to learn about torts, contracts, civil and criminal procedures.

Despite his talent for legal studies, it took him six years to qualify as a barrister, since he interrupted his training to take up a succession of jobs in England and abroad. He eventually passed his exams, was admitted to the Bar, and started to look for a suitable job.

Tough beginnings due to inexperience

The beginnings of Bacon's career were tough, since he made all kinds of mistakes due to his inexperience. At that time in history, all high administrative positions in England were appointed by Queen Elizabeth. Bacon should have been aware of this, but he made the Queen mad at him by publicly opposing her plan for a tax increase. Of course, Bacon was right on the principle, but since he was still trying to establish himself, it was not clever of him to take the leadership of the resistance against the Queen.

The Queen did not forget Bacon's opposition, and effectively banned him from high public office. The employment ban brought Bacon into financial difficulties to such an extent that, in 1598, he was arrested for debts, taken to prison, and incarcerated for a short period of time.

During the next years, Bacon did everything possible to ingratiate himself with Queen Elizabeth. To his shame, he went as far as leading the prosecution for high treason against his former friend the Earl of Essex, who ended up sentenced to the maximum penalty.

After the fall of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth was somewhat indebted to Bacon's legal expertise, but she did nothing to remove the ban that excluded Bacon from occupying high offices in England. As a result, Bacon had to wait until Queen Elizabeth's death to obtain a suitable job.

It was only in 1603, after the coronation of the new king, James I, that Bacon began to obtain appointments in line with his capabilities. During the next twenty years, he would be appointed Solicitor General, Attorney General, member of different high tribunals, and Chancellor of England. He became King James' close friend, trusted counsellor, and primary policy executor.

The metaphor of the bee

During those years, the busiest of Bacon's career, he continued to write about theoretical philosophy and practical wisdom. “A philosopher,” he formulated, “must not be like an ant that takes material from the ground and uses it without transformation. Nor should he resemble a spider that makes cobwebs out of its own substance. A philosopher should be like a bee that gathers material from flowers, and transforms it into something better.”

Bacon wrote hundreds of pages to record his philosophical reflections because he was convinced that “a man who reads can gain knowledge, a man who debates can gain clarity, but only a man who writes can gain precision.” If his essays, he passed review to the theories he had learned in Cambridge, and to the books he had read on his own, criticizing ancient dogmas, and proposing a new methodology to ascertain truth.

Bacon's love of philosophy, which consumed his evenings, did not prevent him from handling a heavy workload of legal cases during the day. As a judge, he passed many sentences, and prepared the way for reforming the English legal system. However, in his work, he not only made friends, but also accumulated enemies, some of them, like the Duke of Buckingham, extremely powerful.

Eventually, in 1621, the Duke of Buckingham pushed a faction of the English Parliament to bring charges of bribery against Bacon. The accusers were claiming that Bacon, in his position as judge of a high court, had accepted presents from litigants.

The destruction of a lifetime reputation

When Bacon was confronted with the accusations, he reacted calmly and cleverly. He assessed his chances of winning and losing, and discussed his conclusions with his friend King James. The result of that discussion is that Bacon became convinced that, even if he was convicted, King James would protect him from the consequences.

And that was precisely what happened. Parliament found Bacon guilty of bribery, and condemned him to imprisonment in the Tower of London, and to pay a £40,000 fine, a sum that exceeded Bacon's lifetime savings. The jail sentence was immediately executed, but just as Bacon expected, King James set him free after only a few days, and exempted him from paying the fine.

During the trial, Bacon admitted that he had accepted presents from litigants, as it was the custom in English courts, and that those presents should not be regarded as bribes. In civil cases, he argued, judges were often acting as arbitrators without receiving any fee for hearing the case, and any presents made by the litigants should be regarded as a legitimate source of income for the judge.

Bacon also argued during his defence in Parliament that, in his judicial decisions, he had never been influenced by any gifts received from litigants. To support this statement, he cited several instances where he had actually decided the case against the party that had given him a present. Nonetheless, Parliament did not stop until they had destroyed Bacon's reputation, and forced him out of his official appointments.

A new goal for a new life

At the time of his release from prison, Bacon was sixty one years old. Even after the £40,000 fine imposed by Parliament had been pardoned by King James, all that Bacon had left was a small estate in St Albans, where he retired to a life of reflection.

As a result, he was able to devote the last five years of his life almost exclusively to writing. He set himself the goal of formulating a manifesto that would refute the mistakes of ancient philosophers, and provide the basis of a new way of thinking, but the five years proved insufficient to accomplish such an ambitious project, and Bacon died of pneumonia in 1626.

His main contribution to philosophy is contained in his essay “On the Advancement of Learning,” published in 1605. I am talking about the method of induction, the practice of drawing conclusions from reality after having examined the facts, instead of basing those conclusions on preconceptions and second-hand sources.

A philosopher needs to overcome the apparent chaos of nature, and look for truth and order. A wise man learns to overcome his fears by looking at the facts, and discards the idols of the tribe, the cave, the theatre, and the marketplace.

It is only by focusing on reality that a man can overcome prejudice, falsehood, and superstition. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” wrote Bacon to indicate that, if you want to achieve your goals, you have to see what actually works in reality, so that you can use the right principles to guide your actions.

Historians love to recount that Bacon died of pneumonia as a result of his having performed a scientific experiment to preserve meat with snow. One afternoon, when he was travelling by coach in the middle of the winter, he had the idea of getting out of the coach, taking snow with his hands, and filling a dead chicken to see if its flesh would remain uncorrupted as long as the snow didn't melt.

For a sixty-six year old who had never enjoyed a strong health, the experiment was extremely foolish. As a result of his playing with snow, Bacon got a severe cold, which became worse when he was subsequently lodged by a friend in an unheated room. Two weeks later, an acute pneumonia put an end to his life.

The real solution to the problem

Not all of Bacon's ideas are equally practical for overcoming self-inflicted blindness. The theory of the idols, for instance, can provide interesting insights, but those are difficult to apply in real life, since human beings, even in the best circumstances, are rarely free of prejudices, inconsistencies, and misconceptions.

If you examine your ideas and convictions to see if you should regard them as idols of the tribe, cave, theatre, or marketplace, you'll have to spend a large amount of time, and probably never reach a definite conclusion. Bacon's theory of the idols is a valid philosophical tool, but not something that you can use effectively on a day-to-day basis.

Fortunately, his essays, which went through three editions in his lifetime, provide us the critical element for overcoming self-inflicted blindness. The antidote to psychological paralysis is called audacity, which Bacon defined as “a man's ability to create more opportunities that he finds.”

Bacon's prescription is essential for overcoming discouragement and fear, irrespective of your age or profession. “You'll always lose much more by not trying, than by trying and not succeeding,” he wrote. And he was perfectly right. This piece of advice is the most valuable in all of Bacon's writings.

It is time to take decisive action

The unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians, who wallow in their misery are wasting their opportunities. Similarly, people who stay in destructive relationships are refusing to face the truth. And patients who suffer from self-inflicted sickness are lacking the determination to change their lifestyle for the better.

Audacity, the willingness to take bold action to overcome obstacles, is the cure to a large part of human misery. And it doesn't require a long explanation to demonstrate that, if you want to improve your situation, you have to take decisive action. This is the only way to solve problems effectively and relatively quickly.

Bacon himself showed great audacity in his professional and personal life, even if it took him a while to recommend this course of action in his writings. You can see Bacon at this best when he was 36 years old, and proposed marriage to a 20-year old wealthy widow, who on top of that, was a renowned beauty.

The widow rejected Bacon's proposal, something that he lamented for years, but this did not prevent him, after his 45th birthday, to marry Alice Barnham, a pretty girl who at that time was 14 years old. Apparently, she got to love Bacon so deeply that she was still mourning him twenty years after his death.

Individuals who lack initiative are going to profess an exaggerated respect of traditions and superstitions. Audacity, the ability to challenge constrains and create opportunities, is the answer that they should be embracing.

Theoretical debates can never solve anyone's problems. This is why you can learn more from Francis Bacon by looking at what he actually did than by reading his books. You must discard prejudice and narrow-mindedness, and instead, create your own opportunities, and let audacity become your driving force.

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image by o palsson under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]

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