I’ve Got Oprah Winfrey On My Mind (to be sung to the old Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer jingle)

I’m not ashamed to admit that I adore Oprah. You don’t even have to say her last name, you just have to say “Oprah”, and everyone will know exactly to whom your voice refers. And of those souls around the world who have not yet heard of Oprah, they should — and they will. Earlier this year, Oprah hosted a series of programs called “Best Life Ever!”. An episode that aired January 5, 2009, was about weight. Oprah told us that weight isn’t just a physical issue. Our inability to contro our eating stems from a lack of love (bet you didn’t know that!). We must learn to love ourselves before we can shed the pounds (and as we all know, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all). I remember this quote, “The overweight you doesn’t stand before you craving food. It’s craving love”. The idea behind the episode is that what we think, in particular, what we feel about ourselves, influences how we act. This statement is a no-brainer. Oprah says that the cure for our food-induced self-destruction is this: You have to change your mind before you change your body. This, at first glance, seems like another duh statement. But, look at what she says. Immediately, several questions pop up. 1) what does the statement mean? 2) Does it mean that we must change what we believe about ourselves? 3) Is it possible to change beliefs in the way that Oprah suggests that we should? 4) Is she saying that we can make ourselves believe something? 5) So, for Oprah, is belief an act of will? I thought that, since I had no reason to assume that Oprah was insisting that changing one’s beliefs is an act of will, what she was suggesting was a tactic that is a little milder, like Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that we can acquire a belief in God by way of a “wager”. Pascal asks, what have we got to lose by believing in God? Pascal says, if we believe in God, and there is none, then no harm no foul. We don’t lose anything. But, if we believe in God and he does exist, then all the better. We are rewarded with eternal salvation. The idea is that your belief in God is prudential — it is in our best interest to do so. This may be what Oprah means — not as it pertains to God — but in what we believe in/about ourselves. It is precisely ourselves that changing one’s mind is supposed to fix. This is why I suspect that Oprah’s edit is more forceful that Pascal’s wager. Many dieters and addiction specialists know that, to change or end an addiction, compulsive behavior, or bad habit, such as smoking, gambling or overeating, one must change one’s mindset (in addition to changing behavior). This may require throwing out our entire belief system or at least our beliefs that have to do with ourselves. This is the mechanism behind 12-step programs and rehab. As George Clinton famously said, “free your mind and your ass will follow”. Again, a bit of a duh. We can say that this is a rehash of the mind-body issue. Descartes said that the world (reality) appears to him as he perceives it. Which is why Descartes employed his method of doubt to discern what he could accept as true (what he believed) about himself and the world. So, it seems that Oprah is suggesting that I must change what I believe if I want to gain contro of myself and my life. Perfectly Cartesian. But, there’s a problem. It is this: If I believe or say that I think that I believe that I cannot lose weight, this is because I hold that I am helpless against my own lack of willpower. Therefore, I will not lose weight. My behavior confirms my belief. I cannot stop myself, so I will not lose weight. Oprah says that this cycle will continue so long as I do not change my mind. I must stop telling myself that I cannot lose weight. But how do I do that? She says that I must stop accepting that I cannot. This appears to be a true (using the term colloquially) statement. It’s certainly anecdotally true, and may even be psychologically true. It may even be empirically true. But there’s something dubious about Oprah’s claim. When you start looking deeper at many of Oprah’s claims, the stink of dubiosity begins to rise. The problem may be this: Oprah is simply guilty of using a poor choice of words or worse yet, she is guilty of non-specificity. When we say that we’ve changed or are going to change our mind, we’re talking about what we think, believe or feel. We tend to use these words interchangably, but they are not the same (at least not philosophically). I suspect that this is what is going on here. This kind of word-switching is what is creating the problem. On it’s face, Oprah’s sentiment sounds wonderful and better yet, actually practicable. But, when we look at what the statement means, it gives us no means for actually solving our problem. It’s nothing more than flowery self-affirmation claptrap dressed in a nicely tailored, but empty suit. Before we do anything, we have to figure out what we are working with. Figuring out whether we are dealing with thoughts, emotions, or beliefs is crucial to whether we can follow Oprah’s advice at all. Since feelings do us absolutely no good when things philosophically, we must throw that out. Let’s assume that Oprah feels the same way about emotions as philosophers do (it’s not that they don’t have their place — it’s just that they don’t here). Let’s assume that Oprah wants us to change either our beilefs or what we think. If I say that I think something, I realize first off, that I can think of nearly anything. I can think that the sky is orange, or that I am 5’1, or that I will find a unicorn that knows and can sing the entire Donovan songbook, or that I will get a Ph.D in philosophy (hey, it could happen). But my thoughts can be anything that comes to my mind. They need not be true or actualizable. My thoughts need not be “thought through”. Unfortunately, my thoughts can and are often wrong. They are merely whatever I can conceive of in my mind. I could change my mind, but there is no obligation that changing my mind has to changing my body. I think that what Oprah is going for is something stronger — that if I change my mind, it will necessarily lead me to change my body. If that is what she is asking us to do, then what we must change are our beliefs. What I think differs from what I believe in that my beliefs are the thinks (if you will) that I am entitled to. My beliefs are connected (necessarily) to the idea of Truth. My beliefs cannot be any old thing or some willy-nilly notion. I must be justified, or have a good reason, for believing (a think) before I can call any think a belief. Without adequate evidence or unless something is analytically true ( I suspect that some will claim that what Oprah says is), I am not entitled to believe anything. Ok, this is what Oprah wants us to do, but the question that confronts us here is can we actually do what she wants us to do? Maybe not. There is a problem with what she is saying. The problem is two-fold: 1) Oprah is being vague (although one might say that the problem is ambiguity). Because we don’t know what Oprah is saying, we must make alot of assumptions (the only thing that I took away from my logic 300 class is that we don’t assume anything unless we have to). Oprah’s directive lacks clarity and definitude. Even though we might assume the she wants us to change our beliefs (as opposed to changing thoughts), we don’t really know. We’re not clear on what we’re doing because we’re not clear on what we’re doing (this may sound like a confusing duh, but it is really a sailent point to our discussion). 2) it’s impossible. If we are merely changing thoughts, Oprah’s advice is easy. But, if we are changing beliefs, then we might run into a problem. Namely, beliefs are not so easy to change. We cannot force ourselves to believe something, even if believing so will be better for us in the long run. Beliefs cannot be willed. Unlike body movements or thoughts that I can change by deliberate action, I cannot do so with beliefs. Truth is a necessary element to belief. What is true must also reflect what is. I cannot will what is true or what is not true. My beliefs aren’t the product of decision-making. If I accept one belief as true, but I have an opposing belief, I cannot accept both as true (lest I dare contradict of the Law Of Non-Contradiction). If I take both as true, I am guilty of self-deception. Worse yet, if I take contradictory beliefs to be true, I may be delusional or endulging in the worst kind of bullshitting (I could make a pretty good argument that this is exactly what Oprah requires one to do to follow her advice in the first place). The problem is, is that she doesn’t tell us either way. Our solution is to close our eyes, hold our noses, pick one (thought or belief) and hope for the best. While I’m on the subject over whether we should be dealing with what we think or with what we believe, I just thought of the tons of advice out there urging people to “think”. I, myself, own a T-shirt bearing the quote, “Think: It’s not illegal yet” (come to think of it, I think George Clinton said that, too!). I recall that the commedianne Janeane Garofalo used to sport a tattoo bearing the word “Think” on her wrist. After thinking about all this Oprah, I think that our emphasis on thinking is a part of why we’re having so much trouble with what we’re doing. Perhaps the city of Baltimore had the better idea with its billboard campaign that urged the citizens of the city to “Believe”. I think, perhaps, that believing is better than thinking. I wonder what Oprah would say about that?
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