"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern." -William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Below is an essay explaining the worldview behind and motivation for The Loose Filter Project. (For convenience, the links below jump down to specific sections as indicated.) We take this perspective as our precepts, meaning exactly "principles intended especially as general rules of action."
We hope you find the ideas outlined below compelling. If so, please explore the rest of the website, which is simply content that reflects or manifests these ideas in some way—mainly through podcasts about ideas or music we love and text posts of original commentary, as well as links to great content from around the web.
- Introduction: About the Project
- Precepts 1: Some observations on how we are, and why
- Precepts 2: We surrender the ability to think for ourselves in some important ways
- Precepts 3: Often, we don't even know what we're missing
- Precepts 4: Do you want others to make these fundamental choices for you?
Introduction: About the Project
The Loose Filter Project is about the social importance of art—music in particular—and ideas. Our perspective is presented through words and sounds, here on the website as well as out in the world, through our podcast, writings, concert presentations, commissions, recordings, and any other medium we can think of to engage people in the artistic experience.
The reason we think this is important is that our culture encourages all of us, in so many ways, to neglect our quality of internal life. Many of us (in the United States specifically) have embraced values without examining them, have allowed influences we did not choose to have significant effect in our lives and choices, large and small. These influences are social in nature, in that they do their work by interacting with the actual people of a culture, and only have as much power as we are willing to allow them. We believe it is important to become as aware as possible of these influences, and to counter their negative effects.
So what are these influences, and how can their effects be so negative? We’re speaking of institutions, practices, and technologies that affect us all, like schooling, politics, or television, or ways of knowing the world like religion or science. These social forces, as they exist in the United States today, are major influences that condition many, many people to value and choose things without really examining and considering them, and those choices and values are often not healthy for the spirit, mind, and body.
The Loose Filter Project creates and curates content about creative work—mainly music—and ideas because we believe that engagement with art and ideas is liberating and enriching to the individual, in myriad ways, and can help counteract some of the negative influences of the social forces mentioned above by developing perspective and a measure of objectivity about them.
What follows here is an exposition of some of the aspects of our society that influence us into a kind of mindlessness, with some general comments as to how the experience of art and contemplation of ideas can counteract these unhealthy influences.
Some observations on how we are, and why
Think for a minute about how you receive and understand the world around you. All of our information about the world comes to us through our five physical senses, and is processed by our brains. This means two things: first, that our ability to conceive is limited by how we perceive. Our five physical senses, however wonderful and remarkable they are, place a frame around what we can sense, also placing a frame around what we can imagine.
Second, our brains actually receive far more information than we can reasonably be aware of, which is what consciousness is for—to make sense of all this input. To make sense of it all, we create from our perceptions concepts, abstract ideas drawn from experience.
Concepts are useful abstractions that let us recognize patterns in our lives and in the world, a kind of mental shorthand. The important thing to remember is that this process, of taking in sensory data and creating context and meaning from it, is constant throughout our entire lives—whether we’re aware of it or not. As a result, certain patterns of processing—ways of thinking, habits of mind—develop with experience: some we’ve chosen, some that we haven’t.
Significantly, our first experiences with any concept—be they positive or negative, joyous or painful—will influence all other experiences that involve that concept. Our first conception of love, for instance, colors all other subsequent experiences, whether we choose for it to or not, regardless of whether we’re even aware of it.
As we learn and grow into adults, most of us are not taught how to examine the roots of our most important ideas about the world, to be aware of exactly what those ideas are, where they came from, and what choices they lead us to make.
Things like tastes, lifestyle choices, religious worldview, values, behavior patterns become fixed early and lie fallow, unconsidered thereafter. Worse, many of our concepts about the world were simply received from an authority (parent, school, church), rather than discovered or decided upon by individuals for themselves, so not only are they unexamined, they were undecided upon in the first place.
This habit can create real problems, because one’s concepts, the ideas you have about the world, can become filters that prevent you from experiencing the world as it is—what more often results is that fixed conceptual filters cause you to experience the world as you think it should be.
Unfortunately, many of these influences can be profoundly negative, yet they regularly reach a large number of us, and are largely unconsidered and unexamined.
We surrender the ability to think for ourselves in some important ways
As illustration, consider just three primary contemporary cultural influences: dogma, technology, and schooling. These influences teach us many of our concepts about the world, or frame how we react to new experiences and information. More than most of us realize, they teach us how to live, what to value, how to feel about ourselves; how to think about anything that matters, really (and lots of stuff that doesn’t). Their influence is so profound, and so pervasive, that it can—ironically—be hard to perceive. So, we begin from the ground up, not by discussing specific religious worldviews, or specific products of technology, or specific subjects taught in schools, but by presenting the foundational things themselves, the ideas from which specifics are constructed.
When talking about the world’s great mythologies, the late American scholar Joseph Campbell—who impishly but accurately defined mythology as “other people’s religion” and religion as “misunderstood mythology”—identifies three different mythological archetypes, each with its own approach to dealing with reality. Identifying mythologies as metaphorical systems is a crucial insight for anyone wishing to understand the psychology of the human being, most especially those of us who are human beings.
Campbell includes religion in his definition of mythology not to devalue or contradict religious belief, but rather to make the fundamental point that those who understand the traditions and writings of their religious faith as literal are missing the point: religion is about the spirit, the spirit is ineffable, and—crucially—that which is ineffable must be approached tangentially. Metaphor is an extremely effective way of doing that, which is why our own consciousness uses it, and it’s why spiritual teachers throughout human history have employed it as well.
Campbell asserts that there are three broad conceptual metaphors in human spiritual traditions. Each is fundamentally different, and each has different things to offer those who choose it. Each is a metaphor for life.
- One view sees our world and our existence in it as a cosmic battle between good versus evil, and is determined to help good prevail.
- A second view takes a look at this same world, sees nothing but suffering, and wants out (think yogis, monks, or hermits).
- A third view gazes upon this very same world with all its squalid, glorious contradictions, smiles, and accepts it as perfect.
It’s safe to say that most people view the world using some form of the first view (us v. them). Though this isn’t negative in and of itself, a huge problem is that, over the centuries, different forms of this metaphor—Christianity, Judaism, Islam—have hardened into “facts”. In other words, they ceased to be metaphors (things regarded as symbolic of something else) and became dogma (principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true). This, it turns out, is quite common. A passage from Campbell’s Myths to Live By:
Now the peoples of all the great civilizations everywhere have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally, and so to regard themselves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the Absolute.
Before this reification, these metaphors were 1) localized to a certain time and location and 2) required some thought on the part of the individual: you had to apply the metaphor to your own life and find your own way.
But we as individuals too often surrender this fundamental, deeply personal task to authority, seeking to receive answers unquestioned from an institution, deity, or book. Instead of deciding for ourselves what we believe, we are told what to believe, and that these are the ultimate truths of the universe. As time passes and the world moves forward, our dogmas—once metaphor, now taken literally—do not. Instead, they hold fast to their increasingly archaic worldviews, and problems continue to ensue. Campbell, again in Myths to Live By, spells it out:
However, today such claims [the claims of dogma] can no longer be taken seriously . . . And in this there is serious danger. For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been—and still are, in fact—the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. With the loss of them there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium....
Just like the proverbial house built on sand, any dogma that’s centuries or millennia old is going to have its foundation undermined in an ever-changing world. Since biology, geography, philosophy, physics, and other disciplines that ask empirical questions threaten most religious dogma, for instance, they are often off limits to the faithful, and attempts at reconciliation are farcical.
Because of this, those caught in the middle (most of us) lose the wisdom and moral guidance of our religious metaphors as well as important empirical truths about our selves and our universe. D. T. Suzuki articulated the schism as only a Buddhist monk could:
God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature—very funny religion!
We abdicate to the dogma of authority in ways other than spiritual as well: the dogma of the free market has certainly had significant influence, especially in the U.S. Our lifestyle choices are increasingly dictated to us by profit-seeking corporations; our criteria for self-worth is largely communicated via advertising; we have been convinced that having things (not just any things—specific, nice things) will make us happy and give us meaning; and so forth.
That people choose dogma in aspects of their lives, spiritual or otherwise, is of course entirely up to each individual, and many find great value in doing so. Our assertion is that the real problem is most people don’t choose. We typically follow traditions in which we were raised, adapt to the social norms of our immediate environment, believe in the religion of our parents, all without consciously deciding to.
Surrounded by a certain set of conceptual metaphors about the world, we adhere to them and it never really occurs to most of us to question them. There is certainly nothing wrong with choosing as your family and community do; there is everything wrong in falling into those choices by default, simply because that’s ‘how things are’.
Dogma is most pervasive when the stakes are highest (as with one’s immortal soul, for instance); therefore it behooves each of us to choose wisely. To surrender this fundamental responsibility is to leave our world, and the quality of our individual experience of it, in the hands of those who have other motivations than our best interests.
“The medium is the message.” -Marshall McLuhan
Another fundamental human tendency is particularly dangerous when paired with our natural susceptibility to dogma: our seemingly endless capacity for distraction and amusement. It seems that each new advance in communications technology, from writing to moveable type to the internet, can be used in some way to take advantage of our love of entertainment, often with dubious results. Neil Postman, in the foreword of his excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death says it best:
We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.
But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
The technology is shaping us as much as the other way around: these devices and services actually change the ways we habitually think and feel. Consider how often we use technology—and I mean all technologies. A short list of technologies I interact with every day:
- Written language
- Music reproduction devices
- Machine manufacturing (all of the clothes I’m currently wearing were made by a machine, in fact)
- Factory farming (went to the grocery store today)
If each of these technologies affects me only a little bit, the exponentially cumulative effect is staggering. And they affect us more than a little—more from Postman:
Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying the medium is the message.
[Our media] are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality. Whether we are experiencing the world through the lens of speech or the printed word or the television camera, our media-metaphors classify the world for us, sequence it, frame it, enlarge it, reduce it, color it, argue a case for what the world is like. As Ernst Cassirer remarked:
Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves, man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of [an] artificial medium.
What is peculiar about such interpositions of media is that their role in directing what we will see or know is so rarely noticed. A person who reads a book or who watches television or who glances at his watch is not usually interested in how his mind is organized and controlled by these events, still less in what idea of the world is suggested by a book, television, or a watch.
We do not see nature or intelligence or human motivation or ideology as “it” is but only as our languages are. And our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.
Consider television again. Its medium is entertainment, thus everything from FOX to CNN to PBS is first designed to capture the eye, hold attention, and entertain. But this, says Postman, is not the problem. Television has actually changed the ways we think about the world in some fundamental ways:
Of course, to say that television is entertaining is merely banal . . . what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience. Our television set keeps us in constant communion with the world, but it does so with a face whose smiling countenance is unalterable. The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue all together.
Moreover, what is seen on TV is assumed to represent real life. Television programs become our myths, their characters our guides.
Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore—and this is the critical point—how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off screen the same metaphor prevails.
This learned behavior has been carried over into internet culture, as well, because our culture now has an even bigger stage and we can all watch each other perform.
This conditioning is insidious, so much so that we are mostly unaware it is happening. Technology can have the same effect as dogma—you can surrender your individuality and autonomy to it while remaining ignorant of the loss. This is not an argument against technology—far from it, because technology is enabling the dissemination of ideas that you are currently experiencing. But, like dogma and schooling, our technologies create fundamental concepts in our minds that influence everything else in them, and habitual behaviors that can dominate our lives. Awareness of which aspects are harmful or undesirable is enormously important.
We assert that the experience of art, most especially of music, can clear some of these deep biases from our conceptions of the world. Daniel Boorstin, in his seminal 1961 work The Image, gave some pretty good reasons for cleansing these particular doors of perception:
To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world. But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems. To dispel the ghosts which populate the world of our making will not give us the power to conquer the real enemies of the real world or to remake the real world. But it may help us discover that we cannot make the world in our image. It will liberate us and sharpen our vision. It will clear away the fog so we can face the world we share with all mankind.
“The profession has a great and honorable tradition, extending from the dawn of history until recent times, but any teacher in the modern world who allows himself to be inspired by the ideals of his predecessors is likely to be made sharply aware that it is not his function to teach what he thinks, but to instill such beliefs and prejudices as are thought useful by his employers.” -Bertrand Russell, “The Functions of a Teacher” (1950)
Though dogma and technology are ubiquitous and wield considerable influence in our lives, they are not systems; that is to say, their causes and effects are haphazard, being the result of multitudes acting from multitudinous agendas. But our most widely pervasive and influential social force is a system, and it’s one nearly all of us have participated in to a great degree: schooling.
While American schools have widely been perceived to be failing in many ways for the past few decades, the truth is more counter-intuitive: the problem with schooling in the United States is not that it is broken but that it is wildly successful. It's a system designed a long time ago for a world with social and educational needs quite unlike our own.
Schooling in the U.S. is not intended to do much of what we assume it should: it does not liberate students’ minds, or teach them about the world in a sincere and forthright way, or prepare them for being an adult human being in any holistic sense. It prepares our young for life out in the world, certainly, but it prepares them for work rather than for life. Schooling teaches children to stay in class (where they belong), to limit their attention spans, to surrender their will to a chain of command, to suspend their innate curiosity in any subject to a pre-determined curriculum, that their self-respect is determined (through grades) by the assessment of others, and that they are watched—all of their work is done under the direct observation of an adult.
These are the real lessons of our educational system, reinforced year after year through essentially all of childhood and adolesence, and none of these lessons are about the putative subjects or pedagogy of a given curriculum or method. It's not hard to see how prescriptive our schooling model is, with some reflection. Think back to your own school experience: was there really any sense of play, of joy, in learning? Any opportunities to follow your own initiative, to learn simply by figuring things out? To spend time alone, thinking about, observing, listening to yourself and to the world around you? These are all experiences critical to the development of a healthy human being, one with a strong sense of self and community, of identity and ideals, the ability to question authority critically, but they are all experiences largely denied young people in American public schools.
It's important to stress that this is not by contemporary intention--those actually teaching our young people, those involved in supervising and administering our schools and school systems—indeed, most involved in the profession of education--have in our experience mostly the best of intentions. They are victims of modern schooling and its conceptual bias as much as anyone.
By way of further explanation, a few thoughts from prominent American educationist John Taylor Gatto:
Let me speak to you about dumbness because that is what schools teach best. Old-fashioned dumbness used to be simple ignorance: you didn’t know something, but here were ways to find out if you wanted to. Compulsory schooling didn’t eliminate dumbness—in fact, we now know that people read more fluently before we had forced schooling—but dumbness was transformed.
Now dumb people aren’t just ignorant; they’re the victims of non-thought-of second-hand ideas. Dumb people are now well-informed about the opinions of Time magazine and CBS, The New York Times and the President; their job is to choose which pre-thought thoughts, which received opinions, they like best. The elite in this new empire of ignorance are those who know the most pre-thought thoughts.
Mass dumbness is vital to modern society. The dumb person is wonderfully flexible clay for psychological shaping by market research, government policymakers, public-opinion leaders, and any other interest group. The more pre-thought thoughts a person has memorized, the easier it is to predict what choices he or she will make. What dumb people cannot do is think for themselves or ever be alone for very long without feeling crazy. That is the whole point of national forced schooling; we aren’t supposed to be able to think for ourselves because independent thinking gets in the way of “professional” thinking…
This is the truth so obvious it is paradoxically difficult to perceive: schools are conditioning young people into a learned mindlessness, an inability to choose values and points-of-view for themselves, or to find value in their own curiosity and work (or, worse, to be incurious about these things). Our system of schooling, as currently conceived and practiced, actually discourages children’s ability to follow their own curiosity about themselves and the world.
The effect is vast, as anyone alive today in the U.S., reading this now, has suffered from this conditioning to a significant degree. Challenging it can be uncomfortable, emotionally and intellectually.
Finally, it's important to note that these elements of our system of schooling did not occur accidentally—this design was intentional. William Torrey Harris, the U.S. Commissioner of Education at the turn of the 20th century (when our modern schooling was being conceived and implemented), wrote in The Philosophy of Education: “Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom.”
This is not an accident, he goes on to explain, but the “result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” While morally repugnant when stated bluntly like that, the motivations for this view are easy to understand. As American society moved fully into the industrial age, a large workforce with a basic level of education was needed—but not enough education that this same mass of people would be unhappy in menial, repetitive work for most of their lives. Also, the profit motive requires regular consumption; an unquestioning, uncritical population is easiest to condition and manipulate into valuing consumption. But money is required for all of us to consume; that drives the workers to generate wealth, of which they receive a small portion in return for their labors, which they mostly turn around and spend in ways that perpetuate the cycle.
Though there is no conspiratorial long-term plan (more like Pandora’s Box bursting open), the architects of American education knew what they were doing, and were so successful that we simply don't see what we're conditioned not to. The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell saw this clearly, halfway through the 20th century:
The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude toward education is that of the propagandist.
(“The Functions of a Teacher”)
A last word from Gatto, who warns of the real, personal consequences that can result from such lopsided conditioning:
The new dumbness is particularly deadly to middle and upper-middle class people, who have already been made shallow by the multiple requirements to conform. Too many people, uneasily convinced that they must know something because of a degree, diploma, or license, remain so convinced until a brutal divorce, alienation from their children, loss of employment, or periodic fits of meaninglessness manage to tip the precarious mental balance of their incomplete humanity.
Often, we don’t even know what we’re missing
“In other living creatures ignorance of self is nature; in man it is vice.” -Boethius
“Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.” -André Gide
If you relinquish this crucial task—thinking for yourself—to some other person or institution, you are letting them decide what is important, acceptable, and fulfilling for you, and as a result you will miss the experience of large chunks of the world, other ideas, and other parts of yourself. A conceptual filter is established when you accept ideas from authority without examining them; these filters act without control when you fail to examine yourself in any honest way.
Choosing the sources of authority and guidance in your life are personal decisions that each of us should be free to make—but what needs to happen first is some unlearning, a ‘cleansing of the doors of perception,’ so that you can mindfully build your own worldview. We believe that art, with its inherent empathic nature, can help to do that, in ways enjoyable and even profoundly moving. (Podcasts, writing, and other presentations on this website extend, explain, or demonstrate this conviction.)
The making and sharing of art is sharing the experience of being human—whether an artist wants to share beauty, sorrow, triumph, humor, human beings throughout history, from cave dwellers painting to celebrate the hunt all the way up through the ecstatic ego-dissolution of collective dancing at a rave, used art in its many forms to share what’s inside. In this way, art speaks to what binds us, to what makes us all first and foremost human beings.
We're asking you to loosen your filters a little bit, to reconsider something fundamental or to disagree with one of your deeply held beliefs, or to listen to really weird music you don't get at all, if only for the simple joy of intellectual play and the growth it provides. You may very well come to the same conclusions you held before, but you may not. Whether a new idea shakes your existing concepts to their foundations or buttresses them is beside the point. What’s important is that you are responding to new percepts and deciding upon your concepts…otherwise you may well end up leading someone else’s version of a “good life” without ever having consciously consented to.
Jung expressed this sentiment in The Undiscovered Self:
Unless [the individual] stands firmly on his own feet, the so-called objective values [of society, schooling, technology, dogma] profit him nothing, since they then only serve as a substitute for character and so help to suppress his individuality. Naturally, society has an indisputable right to protect itself against arrant subjectivisms, but, in so far as society itself is composed of de-individualized persons, it is completely at the mercy of ruthless individualists. Let it band together into groups and organization as much as it likes—it is just this banding together and the resultant extinction of the individual personality that makes it succumb so readily to a dictator. A million zeros joined together do not, unfortunately, add up to one.
Do you want others to make these fundamental choices for you?
“The majority of people are subjective toward themselves and objective toward all others . . . but the real task is, in fact, to be objective toward oneself and subjective toward all others.” -Soren Kierkegaard
So what can we actually do about this? Loosen our filters. Let more in, pay attention to it, and choose for yourself what to keep and what to toss out. You wouldn’t consider it wise to buy a new car or a house just because the first salesperson you found told you to, or immediately marry the first person you found attractive, or only ever listen to the first music you ever heard, yet we often accept such one-sided propositions without much reflection when it comes to living our lives and the choices we make about them.
At Loose Filter, we believe that the experience of creative work and the contemplation of ideas can help teach people how to truly think for themselves. Experiencing art in particular helps us experience empathy directly, and that teaches compassion. It allows us to know—to a degree—and feel what someone else’s experience of the world was like, to gain some small sense of the time and place in which they lived, what they valued and wished to share, or what ideas they found compelling; and such understanding easily flows back to the self.
But don’t expect to find the answers right away. Exploring the questions is most of the fun, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:
I beg you...to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
(We recommend starting with our excellent and interesting podcast.)