Category Archives: Philosophy

Post-Election Perspectives

Though it is not a subject that I relish, I feel a certain obligation to say something about my personal perspectives on the US presidential election this past week. I actually started to write an essay on this last Thursday, but as if the week wasn’t going bad enough already I lost three pages worth of text on the matter when my computer crashed on me. (Jesus saves. Sometimes I forget to.) In any case maybe that is for the best; maybe another few of days’ worth of calm reflection on the matter has given me a clearer head. We’ll see here.

I don’t believe that I have anything to say which is more insightful or profound than the comments of those who actually get paid to prognosticate and pontificate about such matters, but because I have been fairly public about my perspectives on the matter I believe that I owe it to my friends and those who follow my texts to state for the record how I think and feel about the events of the past week.

To start with I really wish to thank all of my friends “on this side of the pond” who have been supportive in recognizing this event for what it is: a tragedy on par with 9/11, destined to have profound negative consequences all around the world. The primary differences are that this tragedy will take many months before people start dying because of it and it has happened because of millions of Americans chose for it to happen. Even so, my friends and colleagues here have, if anything, been in a deeper state of shock than I have, and thus they have been particularly sympathetic and supportive in this difficult time.

And in fair exchange for the moral support that they have been offering me, it is somewhat my duty to try to answer the question that keeps getting directed to me: “How the ______ did this happen?” The short answer is that the US education system is fundamentally broken, people there have not learned basic critical thinking skills, they are easily manipulated and taken advantage of, and Trump demonstrated a mastery at taking advantage of this situation. But obviously it’s more complicated than that, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. In light of a few days’ intense public consideration of the matter I think we can point out a few guilty parties in particular:

  1. Hillary’s enablers: After the 2008 Democratic primary, won by Obama, there seems to have been a major de facto deal between at least the Clintons and Obamas, and the other major players in the Democratic Party, saying that first it would be Barack’s turn to try to run the country; Bill and Hillary would help raise support for him and he would give Hillary responsibilities within his administration to help her look good. Then, when his turn was over, he and Michelle would do everything they could to help Hillary get the job. Along these lines there seems to have been a core group who were operating on the assumption that she was simply entitled to the position, grossly underestimating just how repulsive this idea was to millions of Americans. Nor is it fair to say that the repulsiveness of this idea was, for most of her opponents, based on her femininity, such as it is.

    It may or may not have been part of that plan to enable Hillary for Bill to have reportedly spoken with Trump about his idea of seeking the Republican nomination weeks before Trump announced his candidacy, but it would have strategically made sense. Trump could be the loose cannon on the Republicans’ deck that could knock out their more capable candidates and eventually sink their ship. And if he actually got the nomination he could make such a monster of himself that any sane person (which obviously would not include the hard-core Republican base) would naturally vote for his old friend Hillary.

    But somewhere along the line the Donald started thinking he could actually win and he was going to play this reality TV game using whatever brutal strategy he could find. Thus, as in all good horror stories, the monster escaped the control of his creators, eventually leading to their doom. But now this monster –– with no particular diplomatic skills, self-restraint or moral compass –– is going to be in charge of most of the world’s military equipment –– together with an economic system that, far more thoroughly than any other on earth, is based on mindless unsustainable consumption. Hillary is far from the only loser here, and those who assumed that she was entitled to be president must accept a significant amount of the blame for this situation.

  2. The GOP hate-mongering machine: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happened, but sometime within my lifetime, before I was old enough to vote, Republican strategy shifted from working to maintain the privileges of “old order” industrialists to fueling resentment of those who “didn’t deserve” to have their basic human rights defended –– the sort of rights that Democrats were (again, in theory) championing. Suffice to say, a major part of Reagan’s appeal was in terms of “dog whistle” racism: sending messages at a frequency where only racists could hear them, telling people that government needed to be made smaller, because government programs were enabling “welfare queens” and “lazy bucks” to take unfair advantage of “honest, hard-working folk”, with certain unstated skin-color assumptions being inherent in each category. And if those forms of resentment against the “others” weren’t motivation enough, a new religiously oriented branch of the party, going by the name The Moral Majority back then, worked to stir people up to fear abortion-promoting feminists, “homosexual culture” and those were preventing prayer in schools.

    Over the past three decades the strategy of fueling resentment for all of those things has remained a constant in Republican identity, but never has it been so explicit as with Donald Trump. Trump did not invent anything new in this regard. He merely approached the system like any strategic psychopath would approach a game he intended to win on reality TV. Trump realized early on that the active base of the GOP was old white guys who don’t like the way the world is changing, with more and more power going to women, “perverts” and various sorts of brown people. In order to win, Trump merely needed to embody their resentments and make them believe that he alone could put them back in charge of things. Alienating pretty much everyone else –– women, darker-skinned folks, those of other religions, those with minority identities in terms of their sexuality –– was an acceptable risk as part of his overall game strategy.

    To get the end game to work he needed to stoke up the public hatred for his opponent with a creative combination of lies, rumors, innuendoes and exposure of embarrassing secrets (with a little bit of help from his friends in the FBI and the former KGB) so that a large enough minority would consider her to be a bigger danger to the country than him, and then broaden his appeal to those with religious justifications for their hatred through reaching out to the heirs of the Moral Majority system. It was a high risk strategic gamble, but in the end it worked for him.
    Republicans are pretending to be happy with this situation because in theory he’s now their monster, but they pretty much know that they can’t control him and they’re actually not doing a very good job of pretending that they’re happy about things.

  3. And of course, the dysfunctional American education system: As I pointed out in my last blog entry here, Dilbert creator Scott Adams pointed out early on in the race that Trump’s “complete disregard for facts and reality” gave him a significant strategic advantage over those who, through their previous work as lawyers, were more restricted by these troublesome limitations. There is actually plenty of supporting evidence for Adams’ analysis, but it points in turn to one of two uncomfortable conclusions: either vast numbers of Trump supporters cannot tell the difference between reality and its opposite, or they don’t care about the whole idea of truth. Either way this indicates that the American system of public primary and secondary education has not been doing its job properly.

    I’m not sure if I as to whether or not I would agree with the late George Carlin about this being part of a conspiracy to keep the workers/consumers under the control of those who own the system: “They want obedient workers […] people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs…” But it might be.

    Is that why so many couldn’t tell that Trump’s campaign had nothing to do with facts and reality, or why they didn’t consider facts and reality to be particularly important things for a US president to have a clear grasp of? Whatever the case regarding factors of racism, sexism, hate-mongering and bigotry of all sorts that Trump used to appeal to the GOP base, to me the problem that the election of Trump as President most disturbingly demonstrates is that over the past 60 years there has not been an education system in place that would equip people to critically listen to truth-challenged people like politicians and salesmen, and determine whether or not their speech is constrained by “facts and reality”.

    I find it mildly encouraging that the younger and more highly educated voters were, the less likely they were to vote for Trump this time around, but that doesn’t solve the basic problem that so many of all age groups still can’t draw these sorts of distinctions. But, I must admit, part of that is the school teacher in me talking.

It’s hard to say which of the above groups, if any, will learn anything from their mistakes in this process. This is where the steps of grieving need to come into play for all of them: All of them are in some level or another of denial still at this point, at least when it comes to their own culpability for what is about to happen. Anger is being thoroughly expressed by protesters who presumably voted for Democrats already; Republican anger at not being able to control their monster and watching him destroy their country will probably show up sometime next spring. Bargaining, the stage where they will begin to accept part of their culpability and start making promises to be better if the new reality is undone, will be seen in the mid-term elections at the latest. Depression, feeling as though there’s no point in even trying to fix things, won’t be far behind. Constructive acceptance of the mistakes collective mistakes which led to this tragedy, and the need to correct them and move beyond them, might come rather soon thereafter, or it might take many years for the US. That far ahead I don’t think anyone can see yet.

But are things really that bad? With all of the constitutional checks and balances and the bureaucratic momentum of Washington being harder to turn than the Titanic, how much damage can one reality TV character do as president? Obama wasn’t able to get very much of his agenda through. Why should we be afraid that Trump, a total political novice, will be able to make bad changes where Obama was not able to make good ones?

I respect the optimism of many of my friends who take such a position, and in many regards I share their hope for a less dismal future than how things now look. I also believe that, regardless of how this plays out, most of the world’s population, and most people in the United States for that matter, will survive and keep going with life as usual regardless. I also recognize that some sorts of damage that Trump will inevitably do will not be easily quantifiable for many years to come. So while his administration’s contribution to the increase of greenhouse gasses globally, for instance, may be the final straw in the death of the Great Barrier Reef, or the cause of storms that finally make Florida unlivable, directly proving the case against his administration will not be possible for the current generation of researchers; it will fall to his victims in generations to come. But while some things will be fine, and others will appear to be fine for quite a while, I believe that Trump’s presidency, even in the most optimistic scenario, will lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of unnecessary deaths around the world in the short term, together with an intensified denial of basic human rights for many of those whose lives are impacted by American military and economic power. Lest I be justly accused of melodramatic exaggeration (what Trump likes to call “hyperbole”), let me unpack the ways in which I see this happening.

  1. The end of the ACA: It is fairly self-evident that “Obamacare” will be repealed by a Republican president, senate and House of Representatives within hours of their coming together. If they don’t they will be political toast. It is equally obvious that replacing this program with some adequate means of ensuring that poor and even middle class people have regular access to health care, regardless of “pre-existing conditions” won’t be happening under any Republican administration. It is a fantasy at best; an outright intelligence-insulting piece of absurd propaganda at worst. Exactly how many lives the Affordable Care Act has been saving annually is uncertain, but it is clearly in the 5-digit range. Therefore it is somewhat inevitable that in cancelling this program a Trump presidency will cost hundreds of thousands of American lives in the area of healthcare alone.
  2. Escalating the War on Terror: Trump’s rhetorical tactic for addressing the challenges of dealing with ISIS, Libya, Al Qaeda and the like has basically been to get people excited about “bombing the shit out of them” and then torturing suspected militants and their family members. For those terrorist leaders trying to motivate young people to sacrifice their lives for the cause of fighting against “the great Satan” represented by the United States this is music to their ears! It reinforces everything they’ve been telling kids about the US being an inherently warlike people who are out to destroy Islam –– a threat worthy of sacrificing their lives to stop! In other words (David Bowie’s words, to be precise) intensified military attacks based on de-humanizing Muslims globally amount to “putting out the fire with gasoline.” If there was any way for Americans to help motivate Muslim young people to join radical extremist movements, it was electing Trump as president. If he actually starts following through on his anti-Muslim campaign promises it will throw still more gasoline on the flames.

    In truth this is an area where Obama and Clinton don’t exactly have clean hands. During the time of the Obama presidency drone strikes have actually killed more people than died in the 9/11 attacks. The difference is that if Trump were then to stick with his campaign rhetoric by scaling these programs up, rather than scaling them down as the Democrats have been suggesting –– no longer being so “surgical” about it –– we might be talking about mere hundreds of extra deaths per year to start with. But once again the US would be (in the words of David Petraeus this time) “making new enemies faster than we can kill them off”. It wouldn’t take long for the death rates from this sort of conflict to snowball into the thousands, or higher. Nor will escalating the conflict bring down the number of people being continuously killed and displaced in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and the surrounding territory, if anyone is still under that sort of illusion.

  3. Freeing Putin (and other non-Muslim global aggressors) from fear of retaliation: It should no longer be a secret that Vladimir Putin would like to see himself as the restorer of Russian greatness to what it was during the peak of Soviet power during the Cold War era. The idea of being the new Stalin doesn’t seem to bother him one bit; in fact he seems to relish it. Nor does Donald Trump seem to be bothered by this prospect. In fact he seems rather eager to compare himself with Putin, whom he sees (or claims to see) as a better, stronger leader than Obama. And for Trump from there to call into question how far the US, under his leadership, would be ready to honor its obligations to NATO certainly didn’t help matters.

    So how far will Putin be able to get in trying to rebuild the Soviet empire before NATO, with or without the United States, starts to react? Once he is done chewing what he’s already bitten off –– making sure that Russian influence is secure in Syria –– Ukraine and Georgia are likely to be the next items on Putin’s shopping list. For those of us farther north along the border this is good news: it is likely to take longer than four years before we have a serious risk of a shooting war with Russia around the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile it remains to be seen how many in former Soviet republics end up dying because of Putin’s emboldened aggression on account of having his would-be soul mate in the White House.

    It also remains to be seen how many other right-wing nationalist strongman wannabes will start popping up around the world in this sort of atmosphere. If they are Muslims, if they have strategic assets that American businesses want, or if they smell too socialist for the American right then Trump might spontaneously decide send in the Marines a few times. But as long as they are lighter-skinned non-Muslims, saying that they just need to expand their “room to live” into neighboring countries (Hitler’s term, but with echoes in 19th century American history), perhaps killing off or pushing aside a local tribe or two which they consider to be in the way, the US will probably have little to say about it.  Not that the US should always be the world’s self-declared global police force, but when it comes to working for peace in the world there’s a lot to be said for standing for principles and honoring treaties. Then again, Trump never promised to work for peace –– quite to the contrary in fact.

  4. Upending the global economic order: Besides the directly military industrial stuff Trump could try to escalate, his brash talk about re-negotiating trade deals in itself could get massive numbers of people killed. Unlike all of the private sector bankruptcies that he has been through, when you gamble with a nation’s financial management and lose it’s not just a matter of the bank coming and taking away some of your favorite gold-plated toys. He doesn’t seem to realize this.

    The worst case scenario is that the smell of protectionism and Trump’s refusal to honor standing international agreements could lead to a breakdown in the way international trade is monetized. Uncertainty over if they will ever get paid for the stuff they are making for Americans could make our current trading partners simply stop making that stuff, and/or boycotting the US Dollar as the contract currency of international business. That could easily snowball into a full blown global recession, if not a catastrophic depression. If that happens it doesn’t take long before vulnerable people stop getting necessary food and medicine. Guess what starts happening from there. Massive numbers of people start dying, with no news cameras there to capture it.

Is Trump the new Hitler? In terms of the ultimate war and destruction that he is likely to cause, probably not. The historical situation is considerably different now, and as has been pointed out by some considerably more leftist than me, no one does Hitler like Hitler. But that being said, I believe the similarities between Trump’s campaign and the rise of the Nazis share enough similarities where any scholarly analysis of the dynamics of the latter will inevitably be quite applicable to the former; and no one who has been involved in the former has any grounds left morally critiquing those who were involved in the latter.

But as I was saying, even if Trump’s presidency does result in millions of unnecessary deaths around the world, most of us should be able to survive this troubling time in relatively good shape. I am hopeful that, all things being relative, the human cost of Americans’ disturbing choice will still be minimal. There is also a fairly strong hope that all of the policy ideas that he floated to get the support of the GOP base actually, like his boasts of having committed gross sexual harassment, have no truth value to them whatsoever. The KKK plans to do everything in their power to hold him to his campaign promises, but they are unlikely to succeed at it. Trump’s word of honor has never been particularly binding in any of his other ventures, so why should he suddenly start worrying about it now? Maybe he will turn his back on all his supporters, get some serious professional help, and try to actually govern sensibly. I’m not counting on it, but it is a possibility. And so long as that remains a possibility I’m not panicking.

What bothers me most is the number of white professing Evangelical Christians who ignored the warnings of leaders like Russell Moore and Albert Mohler and dived into supporting Trump’s hateful message anyway. This was especially disturbing when some who I really want to respect went as far as posting things that they knew were out and out falsehoods or blatant expressions of racism, but they posted them anyway out of blind enthusiastic support for “their team”. (The clipping that this link exposes in particular kept showing up on the home pages of acquaintances that I would have thought were more intelligent or would have more integrity than that.) While it has been pointed out that, besides being perhaps the biggest electoral upset of all time, this election will go down in history as the one time when the results of a US election were influenced through the combined efforts of the FBI, the (former) KGB, the KKK and the NRA. Yet the acronymed group which may have had the greatest influence in this matter, and the one most likely to go through a crisis of legitimacy if/when things start going south for the Trump presidency, is the NRB: America’s National Religious Broadcasters’ association. After this debacle it will be hard for them to claim that they stand for any other principles than staying as much in power as possible at any cost, finding “sinful” scapegoats as a simple approach to complex problems, and believing that Jesus can magically fix things for them when they mess them up.

Does that mean then that I consider all Trump voters to be “deplorable” people? No. I’m quite sure that my own mother, who I still love very dearly, voted for Trump this time around, and as grieved as that makes me, I certainly don’t deplore her for it. What I would say is that anyone who voted for Trump this time is necessarily suffering from some combination of hopelessness, willful ignorance, a lack of basic critical thinking skills, a lack of moral commitment to the concept of truth, a tendency towards naïve nostalgia, some form of old fashioned bigotry and/or a tendency towards scapegoating. How many of those they are suffering from, and to what degree with each of these disturbances is obviously an individual question. But whatever the individual case may be, I don’t believe that anyone could have voted for Trump without suffering from more than one of these disorders, and I consider all of them to be deeply problematic as matters of political judgement.

isaiah-trumpettesBut rather than labeling them all as monsters the point is to consider how they got that way, how widespread these problems are in the rest of the world, and what can be done to fix them. Maybe they can’t be fixed, but those of us who still want to leave a better world for our children and grand-children, and other members of future generations that we care about, are duty bound to try at least.

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Guacamole substitute choices



One night last week, as I was leaving from meeting with some old friends at a bar (while staying entirely sober myself, so as to drive legally) I realized that I didn’t have any milk at home for having with breakfast. As it happened there was a little convenience store of Finland’s K-Market chain just down the street from the bar, so I took a quick buzz over there to pick up a few basics.

By way of cultural background, Finland has two major domestic retailers for foodstuffs and basic household supplies: the K-shop chain and the S-shop chain. In many small towns you have just two competing grocery stores, one representing each conglomerate. In both of the shopping malls close to my apartment there is a section for groceries with a large S-chain supermarket (named Prisma) on one side of the main aisle and a large K-chain supermarket (named Citymarket) on the other side. Between them they don’t quite have a monopoly, but they pretty much dominate the market. For various historical reasons if I have to choose between the two I tend to go with S-shops, but I don’t religiously shop at either, and I don’t hold a “preferred customer card” for either as a matter of principle: When it comes to groceries I’m a registered independent.

In any case, as happens once in a while, I found myself in a little K-Market. I found the milk and sundries that I was looking for easily enough but when it came to addressing the munchies I had developed while sitting in the bar most of what I might have found tempting was either out of stock or way over-priced. That’s when I happened to notice a jar labelled in Finnish simply as “Green Dip Sauce”…

The style of the jar was of the sort which K-markets and S-markets, and all of their smaller competitors, use to sell different varieties of generic imitation Mexican chip dip. Such products tend to come in three basic varieties: tomato-based, cheese substitute-based and imitation avocado-based. In bigger shops you can also find the tomato variety at least in the further variations of mild, medium and hot, though those designations are very relative to the Finnish palate. In fact there’s nothing especially authentic or Mexican about any of them, but as something to dip cheap corn chips in to keep your mouth and fingers busy while studying, driving or watching TV, they sort of work… most of the time.

With that in mind this “Green Dip Sauce” sparked my curiosity. It was clear what it was imitating, but nowhere on the front label did it contain the words “Mexican”, “avocado” or “guacamole,” even with the qualifier of “-style”. As it was moderately priced as such things go, and as I had a pretty bad case of munchies to deal, with I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Let me further confess here that such things are something of a guilty pleasure for me –– though in fact I don’t feel all that guilty about them and I actually don’t get that much pleasure out of them. Even so, I know that they aren’t really “good for me” or all that sustainable as consumer choices. At best they help me procrastinate eating “real food” and perhaps reduce the amount of “real food” I need to consume as part of my daily routines. It’s sort of a “for what it’s worth” question, which for me isn’t that much.

Real guacamole, on the other hand, is a fine “real food” for me to indulge in every now and again. Real guacamole –– the sort “so authentic that Donald Trump would build a wall around it” as that Mexican restaurant in Norway advertises –– should be made up of about half avocado mass, with the rest of its composition being a combination of tomato, onion, dairy products and spices. As long as the things you dip in it or season with it are relatively healthy (i.e. not corn chips) guacamole can be a valuable part of a healthy, balanced diet. Once in a great while I take the trouble to mix up a batch of it for myself at home. You can also buy some pricier gourmet varieties of pre-mixed guacamole here, which are pretty close to authentic, but to be honest with you I’m rarely ready to dish out the premium price for such. If I was stricter about eating healthy I would avoid such guacamole substitutes entirely, but I yam what I yam.

Yet the dip that I picked up that evening wasn’t even overtly pretending to be guacamole. Later reading the fine print on the label and comparing it to that on a jar of “Tex Mex Guacamole” from the S-market, I found that whereas the latter had only 6% avocado, this “green dip sauce… containing peppers, onions, cheese and avocado” had an actual avocado percentage of 0.7! At that level my ex-girlfriend, who is mildly allergic to avocado, could probably eat it without having any adverse reactions whatsoever!

At that point I effectively realized, this product was like the Donald Trump of snack foods. Its artificial color came from a completely different side of the spectrum, but other than that, the more I thought about it the stronger the analogy seemed to be. I guess I need to unpack that for you.

The Donald has become one of two products for people to choose between within his particular product group. The fact that there aren’t more choices available is a significant problem unto itself. In both American politics and the Finnish grocery distribution system both of competing operators seem to show little concert for product quality, assuming (for the most part rightly) that consumers can’t really tell the difference between authentic ingredients and cheap by-products used as fillers. But things have now come to the point where the choice is between a product that pretends to be somewhat authentic (Hillary, or the S-markets’ “guacamole”) and a product that is honest enough not even to pretend to be authentic (Donald, or the K-markets’ “green dip sauce”).

What, in terms of this analogy, would the real “avocado” be? In short, the democratic ideal. Democracy is theoretically designed to prevent those who own the most stuff from using their advantage to determine how the less economically advantaged are going to live. When it comes to how the government is run and how the basic rules of society are determined, in theory the rich man’s interests are no more important than the poor man’s interests: everyone’s vote counts equally, and thus no aristocratic minority can tell the less advantaged majority how they are going to live. The concept of a republic in turn stipulates that no royalty or oligarchy ––traditional or newly self-appointed –– is entitled to dominance over their country’s government affairs. Regardless of which word you use, in theory the principle is the same: it is the interest of the majority, organized within constitutional principles of “justice for all”, that determines how a government is to be run.

Well, fairly obviously in the case of American politics these days, neither presidential candidate has much of that sort of “avocado” in them. Ms. Clinton has got richer and built a stronger personal power base through insider favoritism and using the status quo power structures to her personal advantage than any other “public servant” in living memory. No matter how you feel about the good and/or harm she has done during her political career, and how much personal remuneration you feel she is justly entitled to, I don’t think the way she has played the system to her own personal advantage can be denied. It takes far more faith in femininity, or in humanity in general, than I have to believe that she honestly stands for the good of the people above and beyond promoting her own prejudices and selfish interests. If the generic “guacamole” from S-Markets here contains approximately 6% actual avocado, I’d say that could be a fairly accurate estimation of how much authentic public interest Ms. Clinton contains in matters that don’t serve her own personal interests.

It’s easy to see why many would be so passionately opposed to such a person leading the nation that they would choose whatever candidate most powerfully embodies their resentments in this regard. So it should come as no surprise that so many have gravitated towards a candidate whose campaign has been based more on hate-mongering, alpha-male posturing and naked personal ambition than any potential world leader since World War II. (A close second to Trump by those standards would be his soul mate, Vladimir Putin, but that’s beside the point.) Thus the mentality that anything must be better than Clinton has led to her political rivals marketing of a product that contains less than a quarter the minuscule amount of authentic public interest that Ms. Clinton has!

Representing Trump as the “lesser evil” in this election is, to me, as absurd as buying “green dip sauce” because you believe that it is “healthier” and “less artificial” than the competing “guacamole”! There is little credible evidence that he contains more than the smallest possible trace amounts of the sort of public interest we should be looking for in a president. Those who would attribute such interest to him are demonstrating but one thing: Trump is more intelligent than they are.

However the bigger issue is for us to consider is how, in terms of this analogy, we might get the United States onto something which more closely resembles a healthy diet. Given the woeful state of American education in social sciences and basic thinking skills in particular, maybe the country deserves such a completely junk food choice –– though tragically the rest of the world will have to live with this choice as well. Is there something we can do about this?

Going back to matter of green dips, in taking care of my own health it would be better for me not to dip my chips in either of the artificial alternatives available. Neither one offers the health benefits of consuming the “good fats” contained in avocados. If people here were to stop buying both forms of commonly available guacamole substitute, the conglomerates might simply reach the conclusion that people don’t really care for avocado flavored things in general, and they might pull all products representing themselves as avocado-based off of their shelves. But like, so what? I might actually be healthier for it. Likewise when it comes to the choice before American voters, though there is a clear difference between the products, the still greater discrepancy is still between either candidate and the standards that we should ideally be holding our politicians to. In those terms voting for either of the given alternatives seems to do more to condone a system that gives us such pathetic choices than it does to claim responsibility for our health and our future. Maybe we need to refuse to vote for either.

But here the analogy starts to break down a bit. It is pretty much self-evident that we will be force fed one of these two artificial alternatives. Furthermore, if the major political parties see that people aren’t voting in elections the equivalent to “taking the product off the market” for them is not to stop wielding authority, but to stop even pretending to care about the will of the people; pursuing their naked power interests with even greater impunity. Dismissing all pretense that a nation is governed according to the will of its people is the exact recipe for a shift to overt Fascism. We really do not want to see the United States go there!

What if we, by analogy, show the conglomerates that we are willing to defy their power by buying higher quality products from other distributors? In other words what if we vote for third party candidates as a way of sending a message to the big two? Could that work? Perhaps, though this year I’m having my doubts. The closer you look, the harder it is to take either the Libertarian or Green Party candidates as anything resembling healthy alternatives. Yet even so, the more votes which are actually cast this year for those other than the two-party alternatives, the greater the chance is that one or both of these major parties will wake up enough to start adding more genuine public interest into their products. No, I don’t consider that chance to be particularly strong in any case, but perhaps it is worth trying at least.

Given the trace amounts of arsenic that Trump as a candidate has been recently shown to contain (figuratively speaking), in terms of boasting of practicing criminal sexual harassment, it seems more likely that we’ll be faced with Ms. Clinton as part of our political diet for the next few years, though I don’t want to underestimate the stupidity of my countrymen enough to dismiss the risk that Trump could still win. That leaves many of us with a difficult decision: Is it more important to make sure that, in spite of ignorant prejudices of many of our countrymen, a toxic candidate with no redeeming moral values does not inadvertently become president; or is it more important to send a message to the establishment parties that these sorts of candidates with their near complete lack of concern for people’s best interests and the good of the nation, are unacceptable to us as citizens? I don’t really have a good answer on that one.

All that being said, there are three public statements about the race by American jesters of different sorts that I particularly appreciate:

Scott Adams:
“Keep in mind that a big part of Trump’s persuasive genius is a complete disregard for facts and reality.”

Penn Jilette:
“There are two things that I always believed about modern politics:
1. Everyone who had ever run for major office was smarter than me.
2. There was no one worse than Hillary Clinton.
Both of those things have been disproven by Donald Trump.”

Andy Borowitz:
“Stopping Trump is a short-term solution. The long-term solution, and it will be more difficult, is fixing the educational system that has created so many people ignorant enough to vote for Trump.”

So, my dear American friends, please follow your conscience in voting next month, trying to do what you can to help the country, without being entirely stupid about it. And may God save us from what, largely through the influence of my fellow Evangelical Christians, the United States seems to have become.


Post Script: The empty jar of “guacamole style” dip, containing just 3.7% avocado, that I had at home, which I used for comparison when I started writing this actually did not come from an S-market, but from the Lidl chain. For purpose of the operative analogy  here that would make it something like the Gary Johnson of guacamole substitutes. On more careful examination I found that the S-chain of grocery stores sells a generic product which claims to be actual guacamole, containing 6%  real (Peruvian) avocado according to its content specifications. I have now corrected the above text accordingly. I wish to formally apologize to any representatives of Prisma and/or associated business for exaggerating the artificiality of their product in the previous version of this article.

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Filed under Change, Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion

Recovering from the Fall

Returning after a long time away from this blog, I have decided to take up a particularly religious theme that I have been discussing with friends, but which I want to make a more complete statement about. Those looking for easily accessible teenage level philosophical ideas may want to skip this one. My point in this essay is to get those who believe in the Devil to be careful how they apply that belief in their politics.


Most of my friends on the east side of the Atlantic know me as something of a political moderate. Most of those on the west side seem to think of me as more of a political liberal. This would have to do with the fact that I consider the priority of politics to be for people to find ways to work together –– across tribal, religious, economic and other cultural barriers –– to insure respect for all people as people. The basic term for this priority is “human rights”. It further classifies me as a “liberal” in American terms that I don’t happen to believe that the right to equip oneself to kill other people is a higher priority than the right to education, basic medical care and public service protection from prejudicial abuse for instance, but that is another essay.

I say all that as basic background to why I am not disposed to begin with to support American right wing causes in general, and the current GOP identity in particular. That being said, I have many acquaintances, and even a few friends, who remain existentially committed to a Republican political identity as something they consider to be part and parcel of their Christian faith. Previously I considered such people to be merely deceived by those who came to power together with Ronald Reagan’s struggle against the principles of human rights in the name of “Judeo-Christian morality” back in the 80s. Most of those who bought into this thereafter became victims of cognitive dissonance in terms of their party identity. This year, however, the absurdity of believing that to be a good Christian is to be a Republican has become so overwhelming obvious that I believe any genuinely sincere person of at least semi-normal intelligence should at least be aware of profoundly disturbing problems with attempts to harmonize their party standard-bearer’s positions with anything resembling the teachings of Jesus. Again though, another essay.

Under these circumstances I have recently been confronted by a particularly novel excuse for supporting the US Republican party: “Hillary Clinton is literally demonic, and in order to fight against the forces of Satan one must vote Republican!” As absurd as that may sound, former candidate Ben Carson has made this the focus of his justification for supporting Donald Trump. To make it clear to those defending Carson why I fundamentally disagree with this justification for the attack on Democrats it is necessary to go into some theological detail.

The key to that position is to associate Ms. Clinton with the 1960s social activist Saul Alinsky, who close to the end of his life included an epigram with reference to Lucifer in Rules for Radicals, a book about subverting status quo political power structures. Alinsky was a cultural Jew who didn’t believe very strongly in any supernatural powers whatsoever, but he believed that subverting status quo powers in general was a good thing, and he considered Lucifer to be the ultimate mythological symbol of that principle. As it happens, Hillary Rodham, towards the end of her “Goldwater girl” phase, wrote a respectful academic research paper about Alinsky’s strategic thinking (which holds hints that operatives from many different political persuasions have found useful in their attempts to bring about change through protest, but that too is another essay). From there the argument goes that everything that Hillary has stood for since is a matter of devil worship inspired by Alinsky.

Trying to reason with someone who has accepted this sort of argument might well be a fool’s errand. I don’t expect it is possible to change the minds of many who are existentially committed to a sub-cultural assumption that Democrats are inherently demonized, but in the interest of showing respect for the intelligence of some that I know who are entertaining such ideas (even though I think they should know better), I want to take the trouble here to explore the theological assumptions this entails and what I see as the misconceptions behind such an approach. There are a few basic questions we need to consider here:

  • Who is the devil and what are his basic strategic goals?
  • What is the essence of human sinfulness and how should we be fighting against such?
  • How does the pursuit of knowledge as such figure into this dilemma?

I have been trying to discuss this matter with a friend of mine who is fairly closely associated with the “Democrats are demonic” position in ways that I am not at liberty to discuss publically. I will continue here by trying to fairly summarize his perspectives on the above questions, and from there I will offer my own rather different perspectives on the matter. For purposes of protecting my friend’s privacy I will refer to him here as Vic.

When it comes to the basic identity of the devil, Vic follows the standard medieval reinterpretations of the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14 (which is the only place the name “Lucifer” is actually used in the Bible), together with the references to the Prince of Persia as a supernatural adversary in Daniel 10, and description of the dragon/serpent in Revelation 12 as the basis for understanding the origin of the devil. From there he follows the standard reinterpretation of Genesis 3 saying that the snake there was literally the devil in animal form, and from there all mankind’s troubles begin. In other words, based on rather sketchy Bible evidence, Vic, like most evangelicals, believes that the devil is a former chief angel who rebelled against God and got a number of other angels to join him, causing them to become demons, which God then cast into hell; but God hasn’t definitively locked hell down yet so we still have to fight against its forces. The chief goal of the devil –– also known as Satan and/or Beelzebub –– as Vic sees it, is to bring death, in a rather broad sense.  This is based on one interpretation of the binary opposition between the two great trees in the Garden of Eden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The latter, from which mankind eventually chose to eat from in the narrative in question, Vic sees primarily as the horticultural embodiment of the power of death that the devil wishes to bring mankind under. In his view we need to fight against the powers of death by challenging the devil’s destructive work in all its forms. Human sinfulness, according to this view, is primarily a matter of alienation from God caused by inadvertently joining into the devil’s rebellion against God. This is easily simplified to God’s work vs. the devil’s work and from there the point is to stay on God’s side rather than drifting to the devil’s side.

In order to explain how, in his thinking, this relates to the actual name given for the “bad tree” in the garden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Vic referred me to some of the writings of the pre-Maoist Chinese Christian theologian Watchman Nee. Nee’s perspective on the matter has some interesting Buddhism flavored aspects to it: he sees the question as one of mankind being separated from God through building the power of the human ego in terms of strengthening the soul through knowledge. In order to explicate a state that would be preferable to this soul empowerment through knowledge, Nee postulates that the human being should ideally be a three-part entity: body, soul and spirit. The spirit, in this view, would be the aspect of the person’s identity that forms the contact point with the divine. The human spirit ideally should govern the soul, but in the non-believing person it sits dormant or functionally dead, and in the “less spiritual” believer it remains overshadowed by the egotistical power of the soul. Thus the “death” of sin is first of all a matter of the human spirit, as distinct from the soul, ceasing to function in its original created capacity, and salvation and redemption are matters of resuscitating that spirit within the person. Thereby the Buddhist teaching of “awakening” through overcoming the ego is realized by postulating a “divine spark” that must master the ego within each of us, but in order to remain Christian in this perspective Nee held that the human spirit can only be brought to life through properly orthodox Christian faith.

This opens up an interesting can of worms. As I blogged last year, for those scientifically debating the nature of human consciousness there is an open question of whether the phenomenon can be explained in purely material terms of “the soul” being simply “software” running in the machinery of our bodies, or if the soul has its own ontological essence distinct from the body, beyond the realm of atoms and molecules even. As an argument within that field, however, the idea of postulating split within the non-material essence of human beings to include a third aspect called “spirit,” that only functions operationally in those which subscribe to the proper sort of Christian minority dogma, would be a bit of a non-starter. There is no “scientific” justification for such a teaching, so the only justification for Christians believing in such would be if it was so clearly stated in the Bible that, for the believer, no other evidence would be necessary. In short, that isn’t the case.

What does the Bible have to say about the human spirit as distinct from the soul? If we start out with the Old Testament teaching on the subject, the Hebrew word in question is ruach, which is variously translated into English as spirit, wind, breath, heart, mind, motives, temper, breeze, etc. As an internal characteristic of humanity, as opposed to a divine action temporarily effecting a person (“…the spirit of God came upon him and he prophesied…”) there are relatively few references to a human ruach as such. Among those we do find a person’s ruach can be understood quite literally as his or her breath –– as in that which smells bad when he/she eats too much garlic –– not necessarily having anything to do with an inherent capacity for the divine. When Joseph, of technicolor dream coat fame, was sent for by the pharaoh to interpret a dream it was because the pharaoh’s “spirit was troubled”. (Later in the same chapter (Genesis 41) that pharaoh hired Joseph because he had a “divine spirit” to him.) In 1 Samuel 30, David’s little freelance army found an Egyptian army slave who had been left behind because he was too weak to keep up, and through feeding him some high fructose snack foods “his spirit revived”. Then in 1 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba was left breathless by the splendor of Solomon’s accomplishments, or in some translations, “there was no spirit left in her.” In all of these cases references to the human spirit relate largely to aspects of experience that effect our rate of breathing, quite literally.

The action of God breathing is a different matter entirely. God’s breath is said to be the source of life as such, and for man to become “a living soul” (nephesh in Hebrew) was the result of God blowing into him. Many miracles were based on God blowing, not the least of which was the parting of the Red Sea for the Exodus. God blowing on waters to overcome the destruction they entail can also be seen in Genesis 1:2 and 8:1. Fundamentalist Protestants in particular also tend to make a big deal of the idea of God blowing into the scriptures according to 2 Timothy 3:16, but that too is a whole different essay.

There is also a collection of references to ruach which are connected with neither God nor any particular human doing the blowing. This is a continuous theme of the book of Ecclesiastes in particular, where it is associated with vanity, emptiness, futility and meaninglessness. In this regard the Jewish understanding of “spiritual” was more like the way we use the word “mythical” these days: something with essentially nothing to it. If you’re talking about God doing the blowing then there’s some serious power involved, basically because it’s God we’re talking about, but the idea of blowing in general is anything but a big or important deal. The Old Testament therefore cannot be said to support Nee’s idea of a human spirit as a significant “spiritual” entity (in our modern sense of the word) distinct from the soul.

The Greek word used to translate the Hebrew idea of ruach, when Greek became the common language among Jesus’ followers, was pneuma –– the root word for “pneumatic” to describe the kind of drill a dentist uses, and for “pneumonia” as the sort of lung infection that was particularly deadly before antibiotics came along. Besides its simple meaning as “air” or “breath” in different contexts though, pneuma had its own connotations from the writings of Greek philosophers that stretched it a bit beyond just a literal or poetic reference to one’s breath. This was a subject of heated debate among Jewish intellectuals of New Testament times, and in Acts 23 Paul used the disagreements over this very topic to draw attention away from the less orthodoxly Jewish teachings about Jesus that he was on trial for proclaiming.

The main point to emerge in Paul’s own teaching regarding philosophical anthropology as such was that people, regardless of how many parts you break them down into, have a life after death, and that life does not necessarily entail occupying a physical body (2 Corinthians 5). In his day and age that in itself was a pretty radically Hellenistic sort of thing for someone of a pharisaical background to say! It further seems rather likely that this perspective came to him as the result of having his own out-of-body experience. In the subsequently talking about the possibility of non-embodied life, Paul does not speak of a spirit/soul distinction that showed up in his earlier writings. Time to back up a bit here.

The non-material essence of the person is variably referred to by different New Testament authors as either the pneuma (spirit, breath) or the psyche (soul, life), but whereas other New Testament writers use these terms rather randomly and interchangeably, early on Paul tries to draw somewhat of a distinction between them. His most direct teaching on the matter is found in the end of 1 Corinthians 15, as part of the discourse on his expectation of seeing Jesus’ return within his own lifetime. His perspective there is based on the premise (typical for Jewish thinkers of his time) that any form of human experience, whether in this life or the life to come, requires some sort of body to have the experience. The background assumption is that our bodies are essential to who we are as individuals. But in this regard Paul is already stretching standard assumptions by speaking of his expectation that our afterlife bodies will be of a radically different sort than the ones which characterize who we are now. In verse 45 he associates the natural body with the historical character of Adam and the anticipated supernatural body with the resurrected Jesus. In further distinguishing between these sorts of bodies, Paul speaks of the soul (psyche) as the operating principle of our current bodies, with the spirit (pneuma) as the operating principle of the type of afterlife body he anticipated. From there he goes on to explain to the Corinthians what he expected to see when “the final trumpet sounds” (vv. 50-53): First those who had died would get their bodies changed into spiritual ones, and after that “we who remain” will have our bodies transformed into the better sort. Life without a body was too strange a concept for him to talk about at that phase of his thinking on the subject. Thus his point was to say that our after-life bodies will be radically different from our present ones, and the soul/spirit distinction was part of his way of trying to explain the difference.

By the time he got around to writing 2 Corinthians, however, Paul’s perspectives on these matters seem to have undergone some significant adjustments, probably as the result of a personal near death out-of-body experience of the sort alluded to in the beginning of chapter 12. Thus he no longer speaks of the human body as what makes the person who he/she is, which is eventually destined to take on a more glorified form; Paul sees his body rather as a mere “tent” or “garment” that he was temporarily living in or wearing. Furthermore Paul seems resigned to the idea that, though he still believed that Jesus would come back again someday, he probably wouldn’t live to see it, and in fact that was just fine with him.

While these perspectives are not impossible to harmonize with each other, the contrast between them is quite clear. If from there we take the possibility of a non-embodied afterlife to represent Paul’s more mature thought on the matter, and if we recognize that he was mistaken in his expectation that he would live to see Jesus’ Second Coming, that throws somewhat of a shadow over the discourse in which he comes closest to speaking directly about a contrast between the human soul and the human spirit.

Moving on from there we find just two more Bible verses in which the words soul and spirit appear side by side in a way that would imply a distinction between them: 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and Hebrews 4:12. The former again has to do with Paul’s early expectation of living to see Jesus’ return. With that in mind he tells those in Thessalonica that he wants to present them in good shape to Jesus when he comes –– in completely good shape: “spirit, soul and body.” In the latter reference the anonymous author of the book of Hebrews gives a series of poetic expressions describing how deeply scripture, in the analogy of a sword, can/should cut into us: going so deep into the heart as to cut between our thoughts and intentions; going so deep into our physical being as to cut our very bones apart; going so deep into our non-material selves as to cut between our souls and spirits. For some reason Watchman Nee took this latter reference quite literally, saying that spirit and soul are separate entities that God’s Word needs to cut apart from each other so that the spirit can remain in charge of the soul. The Amplified Bible, on the other hand, places a footnote on this passage which directly contradicts such an interpretation:  “‘soul and spirit’ used here to emphasize the whole person, not two separate entities.”

A more common literary expression for referring to the whole person being involved in some matter or another is “heart and soul,” which as a pair is found over 30 times in the Bible. Distinguishing between the respective functions of the heart and those of the soul, however, is not seen as a particularly productive theological exercise. Even less then would I be inclined to distinguish between a person’s breath (spirit) and soul on the basis of a far more limited number of Biblical references to such a pair. Thus I am inclined to disagree with my friend Vic’s perspective taking Watchman Nee’s concept of man being an inherently tripartite being –– body, soul and spirit, with the last of these becoming disabled through the fall in Genesis 3 –– as a basis for understanding the essence of the devil’s work. Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I don’t see a particularly good reason for postulating that there is an extra part of the non-material part of each of us that we need to bring to life with the proper religious confessions and rituals. This strikes me as a pseudo-scientific distinction, related to many different failed efforts to categorize human cognitive capacities in common-sensical ways –– ranging from the study of phrenology (built on the assumption that our cognitive capacities can be determined based on the shape of our heads), to the more dogmatic variations on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory (that Gardner himself has categorically rejected).

So if Watchman Nee’s theory that the devil is out to kill the spirit and replace it with extra soul energy in the form of knowledge doesn’t hold water, how are we to conceptualize the relationship between the devil, human evil and knowledge as they seem to be mystically tied to each other in Genesis 3?

Let’s start by looking at what the Bible has to say directly about Satan. The first real reference we have to such a character is where he is blamed for the census David decided to take in 1 Chronicles 21. That’s sort of an interesting stand-alone reference to a new character, quite certainly inserted into the story after this character had been introduced to the Jewish people in the first two chapters of the book of Job. There we have a rather odd back-story to explain Job’s suffering, with it being caused by a rather childish sounding challenge in heaven between God and this Satan character, in which God lets Satan screw up Job’s life and kill his children just to settle a random bet (with nothing actually wagered).  This depiction of disputes in heaven, with the mischievous gods messing up the lives of mortals on a whim, seems more in keeping with Greco-Roman mythology than with the rest of the Bible, but we’ll leave that for the time being. The main point is that Satan first appears as an incidental side character whose job is to challenge the worthiness of God’s people to be acceptable before Him. He plays this same role one last time in the Old Testament in Zechariah 3.

In the New Testament we have Satan first of all as spiritual force which tries to keep Jesus from completing his life’s work. In this regard it makes perfect sense for Jesus to address Peter as Satan when Peter stated his intention to prevent Jesus from being crucified (Matthew 16:23). Fighting against a spiritual enemy force organized by Satan then becomes more of a running theme in Paul’s epistles and especially in the book of Revelation. At times Paul implies that Satan has a legitimate positive role to play in the Church, as God’s “district attorney” prosecuting those who stand deserving of judgement (1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:20). Most of those attacked by Satan, however, are merely weak and in need of God’s mercy and strength, and Paul suggests a number of strategies for not falling prey to these attacks (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:11). Paul also refers to the various things which limited his own effectiveness in his work spreading the Gospel as being “from Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Thessalonians 2:18). So while Satan’s role is diversified to a fair degree in the New Testament as compared with the Old, his primary stock and trade remains accusation and prosecution against those who wish to be accepted by God. The devil’s primary task then is to insult, accuse, slander and belittle those to whom God wants to reveal His love. Satan is out to prevent people from loving God and each other, primarily by making them feel unworthy of God’s love, and perhaps even unworthy of human contact. The picture painted in the New Testament is more diverse than that, but the core element from the Old Testament remains the same.

The essence of human sinfulness, in turn, is whatever separates us from loving contact with God and each other. So then how does this relate to knowledge, as in the name of that bad tree? There are a number of ways of explaining it, but I would attempt to do so following two models in particular. First we have the factor that knowledge is inevitably based on comparison, which in turn requires separations and distinctions in order for comparisons to be drawn. Comparison is thus in many ways the opposite of connection, and love is all about connecting. This makes the pursuit of knowledge, especially of the good-and-evil-evaluating sort, directly opposed to love.

The other, rather related, way of looking at the knowledge question is that knowing good and evil is a matter of forensic accounting: keeping track of who morally owes what sort of debts and how those debts need to be paid. That is the essence of Satan’s job. The essence of Jesus’ mission and message, on the other hand, is to reveal the priority of compassion over vengeance; or as one radical Lutheran pastor these days puts it, Jesus is God saying to mankind, “I would rather die than remain in this sin accounting business that you’ve put me in!”

In order to avoid separation from God and our fellow human beings we need to recognize that all of us are rather uniformly distant from the divine ideal, and trying to find ways of justifying claims that some are less deserving of God’s favor than others is the primary thing that puts people on Satan’s side.

So how does all this come back around to the current state of American politics? I realize that I’ll probably be labelled as a radical leftist by some for saying so, but I believe the only truly Christian perspective on the matter is that followers of Jesus within a representative democracy should be using the degree of power God has given them in that regard to express their love for Him by using the government, to the extent they have any genuine control in that matter, as a means of caring for their neighbors in every possible way. The point is not to force others to live according to our moral ideals, but to try to organize things so that people respect each other and work together to insure care and respect for all. Just how paternalistic we can get about this process is going to be a complicated question at times, but the overall goal of caring for and respecting others based on the belief that all people are made in God’s image should clearly be our most basic political priority.

The amount of power we actually have may be far more limited than we think, however. In the event that the forces controlling a corrupt empire are beyond what we can control democratically, or by any other means that our Christian integrity leave open to us, we can simply trust God and know that there are greater powers out there than those determining the course of any given empire. (This certainly includes the United States.) On the other hand chasing after power or trying to cling to power for power’s own sake, regardless of how many victims this process may entail, is the polar opposite of the teachings of Jesus!

What then are the most dangerously satanic things to be avoided in this regard? Quite simply the urge to attack others as a means of gaining power. Hate-mongering, fear-mongering and continuous accusations against “the others” are what make the devil who he is. If your politics depend on these strategies you can be quite sure you are on the wrong side. Ironically, labeling others as being “of the devil” can be a strong means of doing the devil’s work!

To avoid being hypocritical I will not take the liberty to say that one party or the other is of the devil, but I would caution all of those participating in any political organization which claims to be doing “the Lord’s work” to be careful about what sort of kingdom their actions represent. This is a far more important evil to avoid than rumored associations with the devil based on bad jokes in the epigrams to non-fiction books which particular candidates have studied.

And when His disciples James and John saw this [a village rejecting Jesus], they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.”
Luke 9:54-55 (NKJV)

(Opening picture: The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens)



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Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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Filed under Ethics, Happiness, Holidays, Individualism, Parenting, Philosophy, Respectability

Robots, Drones or Holographs?

This past week I’ve had the privilege to attend the twenty-first annual “Toward a Science of Consciousness” conference here in Helsinki. It was a brilliant opportunity to meet with leading intellects from around the world in fields of physics, psychology, neurology, philosophy, social sciences, etc. Part of the organizers’ strategy was to keep building on the popularity of David Chalmers’ “Hard Problem” approach, while making room for Deepak Chopra’s brand of mysticism, Susan Blackmore’s post-parapsychological perspectives, various quantum physics possibilities, the latest in neuro-science research, and plenty of philosophical speculations in between. I guess the coolest part has been just having the chance to hang around chatting with all sorts of respected thinkers who are really into this sort of thing.DSCF0039

Last year’s conference in Arizona, as I understand it, featured an interesting intellectual show-down between Chalmers and Daniel Dennett. I would have loved to sit in on that one, but I was pretty sure from the start that it was beyond what I could indulge myself with. Hearing that they would have the conference in Helsinki this year though, I made a point of getting myself signed up as a volunteer worker for the project as soon as possible. I’m very glad I did.

Dennett was not involved this time around, and taking his place this year in terms of providing scientific skepticism regarding the concept of an explanatory gap in conventional scientific research regarding the phenomenon of consciousness were noted neuro-scientist Patricia Churchland and philosophy professor David Papineau. Like Dennett, their perspectives were effectively that, on the basis of something like Occam’s razor, there is really no reason to assume that a non-physically based phenomenon of consciousness exists. Physics, and the sciences derived therefrom, have yet to convincingly explain why we have sensations at all –– why life should feel like anything; why our self-preservation mechanisms involve emotional aspects, empathetic responses and the broad phenomenal world of self-conscious reflection –– but it is still theoretically possible to dismiss those sensations as irrelevant abstractions or as abstract illusions produced by our “selfish genes”.

DSCF0013The primary defender of the perspective that phenomena of conscious experience need to be considered as part of the basic data that scientists and other academics need to find explanations for was Philip Goff, who argues for a metaphysical theory known as panpsychism. Chalmers has previously voiced some sympathy for Goff’s perspective on things, but this time he showed no particularly strong commitment in that direction. In fact in his keynote address to the conference this year Chalmers offered up another perspective on things which, he readily admitted, would effectively necessitate a rejection of panpsychism: consciousness as the “m-factor” in quantum physics.

Without going into too many technical details (especially since Chalmers himself did not go into too many technical details), the idea relates to the fate of Schrodinger’s poor little cat. According to the most basic understanding of quantum theory, in the random situation where this cat might or might not be killed as the result of random sub-atomic forces, until a measurement is taken that “freezes” the situation, we have to think of the cat as being both alive and dead. Something about taking measurements –– properly investigating the situation –– however, creates a more definitive state of affairs. Once we have somehow looked into the cat’s box we can either say that the cat is alive or the cat is dead; it can no longer be both. In this sense the investigative process–– the measurement, m-function, or whatever you want to call it –– “collapses the quantum wave function,” giving us a precise set of points of reference rather than a field of non-specifically localized energy vibrations.


David Chalmers offering his basic perspective on quatum physics

That much is pretty much generally accepted among physicists who are into this sort of thing. The unknown is what it is about the measuring process which causes this wave collapse. Is there something about the energy of consciousness itself which causes physical entities to take on perceived solid form? Is conscious energy then its own force within the quantum universe that brings about specific points of reference in the physical world? Or is the cause and effect the other way around: Is consciousness a form of energy which is released at the point when a quantum wave collapses and particular particle locations come about? What would the ramifications for this sort of theory of quantum dynamic be?

20150613_134849[1]Meanwhile, on the level of macro-physics, there are all sorts of things related to neurological function worth exploring, which various conference participants were playing with in various ways. One of the most interesting was the use of ultrasound projection into the brain as a means of mood regulation. Apparently the new thing among those who are fascinated with various means of self-medicating to alter their states of consciousness is to project various forms of energy into their brains, ranging from electric current to magnetic fields to various frequencies of radiant energy above and below the x-ray range. All of these forms of energy are commonly used as means of diagnostic imaging; they are projected into the brain and other parts of the body as means of looking at the hidden structures and activities going on in there without cutting the patient open for the doctor to see directly. As side effects these energies can alter the operation of the tissue they pass through, increasing or decreasing metabolism there. The very newest thing here is ultrasound. As it happens, when it comes to ultrasound, there are devices which have already been approved for experimental use among those who are trying to improve their mental function in military situations, or in gaming simulations of military situations. Within the range of what that same experimental permit allows, the University of Arizona is now experimenting with the use of ultrasound machines to alter people’s moods and eventually try to treat monopolar depressive illnesses. In practice this involved voluntary participants putting a little speaker up against their right temple, having pulses of sound that only dogs can hear blasted into their brain for less than a minute, and seeing how that effected their mental processes. I didn’t try it myself, but for the different volunteers there were different drugs that the experience brought to mind. Private experimentation, dangerous as it may be, seems rather likely to follow on this matter.

So speculation remains open, not only about what the underlying principles are for our conscious experiences, but as to whether the various forms of research being done in the field at this point in history are really even asking the right questions. One thing that seems rather obvious is that the brain plays a key role in the whole process, but there are different models regarding the ultimate metaphysical principles involved in brain function. I would summarize the alternatives that were being bounced around last week as falling into three categories; those given in the title of this essay.

DSCF0019The first would postulate that people are essentially physical machines, or in a sense robots, with the human brain as a particularly powerful self-programming computer which operates the body according to certain basic principles that are “hard-wired” in, and others which it picks up as it goes. The old analogy of a clockwork mechanism explaining things is rather outdated, but the sort of robots that sci-fi authors like Philip K. Dick wrote about could still be used as an explanation for the idea. According to this way of thinking, conscious experience is just a side effect of the ways in which our genetic programing realizes itself through our bodily functions. “Free will” is just an illusory sensation that goes along with these bodily functions as they develop through the ways in which our genetic programming adapts to and is realized within our material environment(s). Even so, from this perspective it is speculated that as Google’s self-driving cars and other such technologies are further developed, as a by-product of their increasing complexity they will start to have their own subjective experiences of something like emotional satisfaction or frustration with the ways in which they are able to carry out their given tasks. From there they may eventually begin doing something akin to our own processes of moral decision making. This is the sort of belief which characterizes the physicalist approach to consciousness. As unlikely as it may seem in many respects, this is the clear majority perspective in the field at this point.

A rather different approach, but holding many common features with physicalism, would be to recognize all of the self-regulating physical functions of these bodies –– with all of the genetic, bio-chemical, semi-automated environmental adaptation mechanisms, etc. which they include –– but based on what it feels like to operate within one of these units, to believe that there’s more to it than that. In other words there could still be a non-material dynamic or force of some sort which is effectively operating the controls for our bodies. Think of this in terms of drones –– the unmanned aircraft that are continuously being flown over the Middle East by the one branch or another of the U.S. government these days. Semi-secretly, somewhere in North Dakota (probably), tomorrow morning a man will have breakfast with his family, maybe drop off his kids at school, and then go to “the office”… to sit there for the day piloting a little unmanned aircraft called an MQ-9 over on the other side of the world, searching for “enemies of freedom” on which to unleash its hellfire missiles and other implements of destruction.

dronestrikes630x420As with a self-driving car, everything about the operating capacity, guidance systems and automatic responses to environmental conditions in an MQ-9 predator drone can be explained purely in terms of its internal equipment and the programming of its on-board computer systems. Yet unlike the purely robotic vehicle, the drone actually does not “decide for itself” where it will go, what it will deliver and who it will kill on any given day. There is some conscious agent controlling this mechanism, external to the mechanism, who ultimately decides what it does, and who is ultimately morally responsible for its actions.

To the outside observer it might be impossible to determine which vehicle being actively remotely controlled and which is robotically self-directed. If an enemy (or commercial competitor) would capture either sort of unit, it would be a rather challenging and uncertain process to determine whether it is self-controlled or remote controlled based solely on evidence gained from the machine itself (especially if they were not able to monitor the various sorts of radio signals that the machine in question would give off and receive as it operates). They might easily mistake a drone for a robot, or a robot for a drone. If you fire a bazooka at either, destroying significant parts of its on-board electronics or mechanical controls, the resulting reduction in its operational capacities will be pretty much the same for both. So in terms of this analogy, how can we say whether or bodies are entirely self-controlled units, or whether we have conscious “souls” which somehow operate our bodies?

In any case, those who assume, on the basis of the conscious experiences we have of our bodies and what lies beyond them, that each of us is essentially a conscious entity of some sort, with an essence distinct from the our bodies and brains, and that this conscious essence is that which (under normal circumstances) ultimately controls the body and experiences the sensations generated by the body’s sensing apparatus, are classified as functional dualists. This position entails the possibility that there could also be some bodies around us that operate without any sense of conscious experience, famously referred to by Chalmers as zombies. Dualism as such is generally seen as a respected minority position among consciousness researchers. It is still subject to critique from some strict atheists for being a little too close to a religious world view for their taste. Even so, this is how I would currently classify myself, with a fair amount of acknowledgement given to the possibility of error of course.

There is a third alternative view as to how our conscious selves and our bodies relate to each other though: the body and its brain can be seen as a projection generated by either individual or collective consciousness, analogous in many ways to a holographic image. From this perspective, while the body and its environment can be experienced on all sorts of different levels, none of these experiences prove beyond doubt that the reality of what is being experienced is essentially material. This way of conceptualizing things is best known in the history of western philosophy as Berkeley’s radical idealism. It also has strong connections with the “Christian Science” religious orientation, and it is quite strongly associated with the sort of Hindu mysticism currently being popularized by Deepak Chopra and his fans who were present at this week’s conference. According to this view the primary focus in the study of consciousness should be on self-awareness and meditative focus as means of projecting a healthier identity into the bodies and brains which our consciousness is continuously creating through its capacity to project such things. I’m not really sure what to say about this, other than that it remains an interesting though counter-intuitive possibility for explaining life as we know it.

Ultimately, however, from my perspective, the important issue is still the Kirkegaardian one: rather than determining with absolute certainty how our conscious selves and our physical selves relate to each other, what we really need to determine is what is worth doing with ourselves, whatever we happen to be. Needless to say, our starting assumptions regarding what ultimately makes each of us who we are have a significant impact on what sort of meaning we try to find for our lives; but if these speculations don’t have any impact on how we live our lives, from my own perspective at least they have extremely limited value.

20150610_173457[1]On the other hand, however, I must admit that my view in this regard as well is probably a minority position; and given the number of people who have demonstrated a fascination with the subject by gathering in Helsinki to talk about it last week, there seem to be plenty of people who find other reasons for exploring the subject of consciousness and seeing it as valuable. And regardless of the differences in viewpoint I have with some of the positions presented last week, it was a truly fascinating experience unto itself. I certainly hope this isn’t the last time I will be able to take part in such a conference.

Cheers to all of my new friends from the occasion.


Filed under Education, Metaphysics, Philosophy

Mac’s Obituary

I’ve been rather lax about posting here lately, but I have far better excuses than usual this month. Besides the usual difficulties and distractions that go with end of school year routines, I’ve been confronted with the death of my best friend over the past 14 years: a Springer Spaniel by the name of Mac. Given the role that Mac played in my life –– and the role he played in other people’s lives, both directly and through me –– it is appropriate that I take a moment here to commemorate the value that his life had.

Mac was an accidental puppy which came to a new breeder of spaniels and retrievers from just outside of the Helsinki commuting region. His mother was only 11 months old when she had her first litter, including the little fellow my sons and I ended up with. This was in the summer of 2001. During the previous winter our pet rabbit, Whiskers, had died rather tragically of an accident caused by blindness, brought on by diabetes we didn’t know it had. I promised my sons that after we returned from our long-planned trip to the United States that summer, to celebrate my father’s sixtieth birthday with the rest of the family there, we would get a dog as our next pet. True to my word, as soon as we returned from that trip I started scouring the classified ads for mid-sized dogs which cost less than a small car. The ad for this litter of spaniels without papers fit our requirements perfectly. I called the breeder and she happened to be bringing another of the puppies from the litter into the city that Saturday, and so she agreed to bring along a few of the puppies which hadn’t been reserved yet and meet us at a parking lot not far from my apartment. So we encountered these little bundles of cuteness there outside the local gas station that morning, and after playing with them for a bit my younger son, Kris, picked out one of them from among his brothers. It’s fair to say he made a very good choice.

My older son, Robert, in particular had the idea that the movie Beethoven showed the best way to name a puppy: by seeing what sort of music he responded to. Obviously in real life it doesn’t quite work like that, but with that starting point in mind we began a family project of searching for an appropriate dog name within my record collection. After tossing around various possibilities, Mac… as in Fleetwood… just seemed like the name which suited him best.

I should back up to say that at that time I was a divorced “weekend father,” and due to the absurdities of Finnish divorce law at the time, in spite of their mother’s conspicuous mental illness, she had been given sole legal custody over my sons. In practice it was my ex-mother-in-law who got to make all of the legal decisions regarding them, and it’s best if I don’t say anything about what I think of her. Suffice to say, she had nearly prevented them from attending the American get-together that summer and there was plenty of bitter tension left over from that struggle. On top of that I had just had a subsequent marriage collapse on me, in part due to the stresses related to my sons’ custody that I brought into that relationship. It was a very tense time in my life indeed. Under these circumstances the puppy was an instant bonding agent and source of healing for all of us, a role he fell into completely naturally, as though he was made for it.

From the moment he sat on my lap as we drove to an ATM to get the money to pay the breeder for him, he seemed to consider himself fully part of our family. The first time I heard him cry was when we had to leave my sons off at their grandmother’s house the next evening.

To refer to Mac as the bastard son of royalty was true on a number of levels. He never had any official pedigree, but a few years later his mother and his presumed father were brought together again, intentionally this time, to produce another batch of puppies, this time with pedigrees, with hopes that they would be just as handsome and good-natured as Mac. Many of his cousins and partial siblings went on to become champion show dogs. Mac himself once appeared on the cover of Finland’s spaniel association’s magazine, in a picture taken at a dog-and-child camp that he and Robert went to. There was no denying that Mac was particularly handsome, and that he carried himself with an elite air of self-confidence at all times.

Mac was the easiest dog in the world to house-train, at least as far as his droppings were concerned. He would mischievously get into various things that weren’t intended for him, and chew on various things that I didn’t want toothmarks on, but from his first week with us onward, never when he was healthy and properly attended to did he have any “accidents” on the carpets. After the first time I saw him squatting and moved him onto the newspaper he was like, “Oh, OK, not in here then. Fine. I’ll wait until we can go out.”

In other ways as well Mac proved himself to be exceptionally intelligent and an eager problem-solver. On one particularly memorable occasion when Mac was still quite young I took him along on a date. As the puppy, the lady and I were walking in the woods together we came to a bird watching platform overlooking a pond where migratory birds would stop on their way in and out of town. The lady and I proceeded to climb up to look around. The puppy sat at the bottom of the steep stairs and began to whine a bit. I then called him to come on up and his response thoroughly impressed me: He stretched his little legs to work his way up the first three steps and from there stopped to look at me. Then he looked back at the ground. After a few glances in both directions he turned around and tried climbing back down. He succeeded at that with no serious difficulty, and so, satisfied that he wasn’t getting himself into something he couldn’t get out of, he then proceeded from there to climb the rest of the way up to the observation platform. That made me think, if only more young people would have that much foresight in their learning adventures…

Mac would follow me anywhere he could, and he would bark up a storm if we weren’t together and he believed I could possibly hear him. In visiting a seashore cottage we used to regularly go to, it was impossible for me to get into a rowboat without either taking him along or locking him into the cottage. If someone accidentally opened the cottage door he would be out like a shot, swimming after the boat in seconds. He also became very adept at working basic door handles under such circumstances, and he could also climb remarkably steep stairs and ladders. Pretty much anything I could climb without using my hands –– stairs, ladders, rocks, mountain paths –– Mac could climb after me. Some friends who liked Mac a lot did not want to mind him for the afternoon when I asked mostly for fear of how he tended to complain if I wasn’t there. Robert perhaps summed it up best with his joke, after reading Dilbert and Dogbert cartoons, that perhaps we should call Mac “Dog-vid”.

For the most part he was also quite at home in all of the various cars that I drove during his life, though in his own funny way: On the motorway he could sit quietly for hours, but when we got onto country roads he always got restless, as if trying to say, “Hey this spot looks really interesting. Can’t we stop and check it out for a bit?” As he became too large to safely sit in my lap as I drove it was difficult for him to adjust to the idea of not being allowed there any more. For a long time he kept up a habit of trying to slowly creep into my lap as I drove, first sitting as close to me as the car’s seats would allow, then putting is left front paw on my leg to check my response, then resting his chin on my leg, then slowly trying to inch his way further across… until I finally had to pull him back by the scruff of his neck for safety reasons.

But though he was particularly attached to me personally, from Mac’s perspective there was was always room for new members in our pack. This was seen in particular in his relationship with the kids at the school where I taught. Whenever possible, when the temperatures were neither dangerously hot nor cold for him, I took Mac to school with me and let him sleep in the car during my lessons, then took him out for walks around the paths surrounding the school when I had breaks or skip lessons. At times I snuck him into the playground, the teachers’ lounge, and even some of the classrooms to play with my students and colleagues. If there was anyone with a fobia or an allergy, it was understood that he would not be allowed into the area, but when no one had that sort of problem… rules tended to get bent. In that way students came to appreciate his presence just as a matter of principle. Thus Mac became very much the unofficial mascot of Espoo International School during pretty much its entire time at the Louhentie building. He also became a very familiar face to the students of Etelä Tapiolan lukio over the years.

In all of my romantic involvements over those years Mac also played a significant role. One ex-girlfriend from that time, who became very attached to Mac, commented that “if only I could find a man with his personality…” Another long-term relationship I had essentially began with the friendship between Mac and that lady’s Labrador. Essentially it became something of a precondition for dating with me: I learned that it was best not to bother with any woman who had a problem with either my sons or my dog.

From an early age, however, Mac began having problems with his eyes and ears. These sense limitations as he got older never seemed to limit his general good nature or interest in meeting new people (and dogs) and making new friends, especially among children. They were sad to witness though.

I don’t think his vision was ever particularly strong: Playing in a park together, it was always easy to hide from him behind bushes and the like, and he always seemed to play fetch primarily on the basis of smell. But it was when he was six years old that glaucoma struck, painfully blinding him in one eye. There were fears that he might lose the other eye’s vision as well, or that the blind eye would have to be surgically removed, but neither fear ever ended up being realized. The condition was managed surprisingly well with some basic eye drops.

His ears were another matter. As a puppy he had very acute hearing. It was six months after he came into our family that I finished my master’s degree, and during those months of studying intensively for my very last exams he would be sleeping on my feet most of the time while I was on my computer. But whenever he heard the click of either my computer or my television shutting off he would instantly jump up, ready to go for a walk or for some other form of action together. But over the years, in spite of rigorous cleaning routines and careful diet regulations, bacterial and yeast infections under those big furry ears of his became chronic. By the time he was five he had notably reduced hearing, and by nine years old he was stone deaf.

The major crisis in my relationship with Mac came when he was 10 years old. Kris, my younger son, had officially become an adult, so I didn’t have children to care for in Finland any more. Another romance in my life had come and gone. Due to curriculum changes in the schools where I taught some of my favorite classes to teach were being discontinued, and overall I was starting to feel burned out with Finnish school teacher’s life as I knew it. At this time an opportunity arose to spend some time in South Africa, and to look into the possibilities of carving out a more permanent niche for myself there. But what about my half-blind and deaf old spaniel?

I searched around among connections from the breeder, among friends and neighbors, former students and anyone else I could think of, but didn’t find anyone willing to adopt him. I looked into the possibility of taking him with me, and even went as far as having a microchip implanted in his shoulder and buying an airline carrying cage for him… but those logistics weren’t going to work. I was starting to get desperate. Eventually I started placing announcements in every on-line advertising medium I could find, and finally a promising reply came: a family about an hour’s drive away, with two school-aged girls, had an old female terrier that they wanted an older four-legged companion for. It had to be an older dog, not particularly large, who was particularly good with children.

They had a lovely little lake shore home out in the countryside where the dogs could run free much of the time, and it seemed like the perfect ideal for an old dog’s retirement living. We arranged for Mac to go over and visit with them for a couple days to see if it would work, and after that they were fully convinced that they wanted to keep him. That brought me very close to crying for joy.

My South African adventure turned out not to be anything permanent, but when I returned to Finland the following year I decided that it would be fairest for all concerned if I would not ask to have Mac back. I was free to stop over and visit him whenever I chose (and whenever I could find the transportation to do so) and I got to have Mac stay with me when the family went on a vacation to the south seas over Christmas the year before last. Mac was always happy to see me, but things were different of course. He was clearly at home there and very much part of their family as well now; always “supervising” when their girls went swimming, always anxiously awaiting when their father would return home from work. Those were good years for him.

This month those years came to an end. It was last summer when the family’s old terrier had passed on, and though the two dogs didn’t seem particularly close, Mac’s health had taken a turn for the worse since losing this companion/competitor. When I had last visited him at Christmas time the most recent (presumably benign) tumor to show up on his back was getting rather large, he was having a hard time climbing basic porch steps, and though he didn’t appear to be in any pain the mother of the family said that he had been doing a lot more whimpering as he lay around the house lately. There was an unspoken understanding that the end was starting to come into view.

As I was leaving, Mika, Mac’s new man, promised to call me if/when any major changes would occur. That call came a couple weeks ago.

It turned out to be relatively short notice, but it was probably best that way. On that Wednesday Mika had called the vet to check on a time for Mac’s final visit and he was told that the best time for them would be already the following afternoon. So he called right away to let me know. It was sudden, but I could accept that it was time.

I skipped the university seminar I was supposed to go to between the lessons I had to teach that Thursday, and while Mika was still at work and no one but Mac was home, following his instructions, I let myself in to have one last visit with my old friend. Mac was sleeping soundly on the dining room floor when I arrived and didn’t sense me coming in. I took off my shoes and jacket and lay down on the floor in front of him. I gently stroked his head and he immediately woke up and struggled to his feet to come give me a kiss. He sniffed around my backpack to see if there was anything special there for him, which sadly there wasn’t, but he was cool with that. We then went out together for a walk down to his lake shore. He took a few sips from the lake, had a rather belabored bowel movement in the bushes, and basically seemed to say, “Let’s not bother with anything particularly strenuous, OK?”

I took him over to my old van then. He sniffed inside the door and moved in such a way that he clearly would have jumped in right away… if his legs would still have worked that well. I lifted him up to the bench seat, got in and we set off to drive into town together. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and though my appetite wasn’t all that great at the moment, I needed something to balance my blood sugar. In his youth one of Mac’s favorite foods to share with the boys and I had been pizza; any pizza really. For most of his life since this had been forbidden for him though: both dairy and wheat products brought on worse ear problems for him. That day, however, we didn’t need to worry about his ears any more, so I decided to take him out for pizza. Even eating pizza had become a laborious process for him though. It was an experience that reminded me of what my father had said about spending time “on the other end of the spoon” from his mother in her final days.

From there it was back to the house to meet Mika, for the men to have a sad cup of coffee together, for final goodbyes, and for me to return to work as Mac continued on his final journey in Mika’s van.


Even though he hasn’t been so much part of my day-to-day life for the past few years, of course I miss Mac strongly. In some ways the world is that much of a poorer and crueler place without him in it.

I’m not ready to toss out anything trite about animal souls and after-life expectations for them, or us, or the like. All I can really say to myself is something along the lines of what I said to my son Robert as he stood crying next to the fresh grave of our rabbit, nearly 15 years ago: One thing you learn in the theology business is that people will never be able to properly come to grips with the whole idea of death; we have no means of properly making sense of the experience. What we can know is that the most important part of life before dying though is loving and feeling loved. This furry friend of ours was certainly loved. In the rabbit’s case I’m not entirely sure, but in Mac’s case I know beyond doubt that he very much loved us back.

There’s a line from The Unbearable Lightness of Being where, as the couple at the center of the tale are putting down their old dog, Karenin, the wife says to her husband, “I loved her better than you; not more, but better.” It is beyond my literary skill to unpack that in a way that non-dog people would get it, but my feelings now are something close to that. For all the people that I have loved and been loved by during the course of my life, none have really appreciated me for who I am as a person –– without expectations regarding what they can get out of me or what they can train me to do for them –– nearly so thoroughly and purely as Mac did. And I in turn could appreciate him entirely as he was, without him having to help me hunt birds or attack my enemies or anything else he was bred for, besides just being part of the family and showing that he cared.

Someday I hope I will be able to experience that quality of love again. Someday it would be nice to relate to other people as purely and as satisfyingly as I could relate to Mac. For now though I just savor the memory of my most beautiful friendship ever, and I thank all of you who have cared enough to share this pain with me this month.

Rest in peace, dearest friend.

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Muhimu Matata

Having returned from my second trip to Kenya this week, I owe it to my friends, readers and spiritual supporters to give some sort of report on the matter. So what should I say? It was a wonderful time, full of contact with warm and sincere people who are looking for ways to be better Christians and to make their country a better place, yet there came many new perspectives on things there in need of repair. Both aspects were expected before I went; both were reinforced in surprising ways.

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language...

Some Kenyans have a charming way with the English language…

On my first visit to Kenya 8 months earlier I was somewhat surprised by the language situation I discovered. I was not surprised to find a variety of tribal languages with none of them having particular dominance, but I was surprised to learn that the public education system there operates in just two languages, neither of which either teachers or students tend to have native proficiency in: English and Kiswahili. Staying in predominantly Luo-speaking areas on my first visit, I got the impression that Kiswahili was nothing but an African version of Esperanto: an artificial language designed to be equally easy or hard for all of its second-language speakers, native for no one, serving as a lingua franca among those who speak it as a hobby but of little use outside of clubs for those who have such a hobby. Pidgin English seemed to serve as a more practical lingua franca for those who didn’t share a tribal language with each other, and who do not find each other’s tribal languages to be mutually understandable (on the level of potential interaction between speakers of Danish and Norwegian).

Being in the central part of the country this time around, however, I got a much more sympathetic perspective on the role of the Kiswahili language in Kenyan society. Particularly for older people with moderate levels of education, who neither want to stand for their particular tribe’s identity nor accept the heritage of British colonialism as their linguistic norm, Kiswahili is a very functional and living language. It plays a valuable role in many levels of social interaction in rural but inter-tribal areas of Kenya in particular. English still seems to be the language of choice among urbanized, well-educated and internationally traveled Kenyans of all tribes, and those rural people whose social interactions are only within their own tribe still tend to speak neither English nor Kiswahili with any proficiency, but in between those at the highest and lowest levels of integration there is in fact a broad band of people who function primarily in Kiswahili on a day-to-day basis. This was an interesting discovery for me.

DSCF2862So this time around my hosts were making a point of trying to help me pick up a smattering of polite social expressions in Kiswahili: “Asante sana” (thank you very much), “karibu” (you’re welcome), “sawa sawa” (OK, fine), and off course “hakuna matata” (no problems). This last phrase though, I must confess, started to bother me a bit, in that it seemed to always relate to papering over some sort of cultural misunderstanding. I usually heard it in contexts like, “By the way, we didn’t say anything before because we didn’t want to get you upset, but we need another 10,000 shillings from you to cover the cost of the afternoon tea service we ordered for the group… but hakuna matata.” Thus when it came to financial matters in particular I had to learn the opposite to this expression in their language: “Muhimu matata” –– there’s actually a significant problem here!

There is a difficult balance question in terms of how far to go in pointing out such problems for those of us wishing to make ourselves useful in post-colonial Africa these days. The message that colonial powers struggled to drill into the indigenous peoples there –– “You can’t get by with out us, so you need to thankfully cooperate with us and do whatever we tell you to do” –– has left all sorts of scars on modern Kenyan society. Some go to extremes in pre-colonial nostalgia, claiming everything was wonderful there before Europeans screwed things up; others still subconsciously believe the colonial propaganda and wallow in a consequent sense of helplessness. Both are thoroughly wrong. Both are conspicuously evident in various aspects of Kenyan society. So of course there are significant problems there. If there weren’t significant problems there I wouldn’t be involved in matters Kenyan to begin with.

DSCF2903Constructive paths for the future can be rather hard to build under such circumstances, but there is a certain human and especially Christian obligation to at least try to help build such paths forward. Expressing compassion while avoiding condescension towards those we are trying to help is easier said than done, but it is very much worth trying to do. Balancing an acknowledgement of Europeans’ collective historical guilt with an awareness of African traditional cultural dysfunctions that predate colonization –– and then putting all of that background information aside when it comes to helping individuals in critical need –– can be a very tiring process, but still very much worth doing.

The purpose of my previous trip to Kenya was to look into ways of providing help to those in the greatest need which could do long-term sustainable good. It was also a time for building initial contacts with those on the ground there attempting to help orphans in particular. Many of those who could provide the best assistance it seemed (and it still seems) are those who are motivated by a sense of Christian responsibility in the matter: church people. Kenyan church people in general, however, are a fascinating mixed bag, with plenty of problems of their own. They’re trusted more than politicians and government officials, but just barely.

The most financially and numerically successful churches tent to be those which preach a Christian version of something very close to the message of African traditional religions: “If you follow the proper beliefs and rituals, and believe in the spiritual powers we tell you about, you will get supernatural help in gaining the sort of material blessings you most desire.” Not surprisingly, this message has little credibility with more educated Kenyans, and it creates its fair share of crises of faith for those who sincerely believe in such. But worst of all, it actually does damage not only to the credibility of the Christian message, but to churches’ capacities to express God’s love by helping those in need.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

A typical rural independent church in Kenya.

Yet scattered among those who are preaching a magical Christian route to material success are many sincere and devoted pastors and Christian leaders who believe in the love of God as expressed through the person of Jesus, and who want to share that message with those around them and order their lives accordingly. What many of them lack is a thorough understanding of what they are doing, and how the message of the Bible can be related to the industrialized, commercialized and digitalized world that we live in.

Among those I met last June, the average level of education among preachers in independent churches seemed to be about 7 or 8 years worth of compulsory public schooling followed by 3 to 6 months worth of some sort of Bible School in Nairobi or some other relatively close by African city. That’s it.  All of them wished they could get more education, but they generally cannot afford the luxury. I had the idea of trying to arrange to provide such teaching for them as freely and ecumenically as possible. With that in mind I sketched out a rough proposal for what has now become the “Kenya Christian Leadership Development Mission”.

Driving with David and Wilfred

Driving with David and Wilfred

Bringing this project together were a couple of young men, David and Wilfred, whom I had never met in person prior to their picking me up at the airport on Valentine’s Day. Somehow they had got their hands on the proposal I wrote in June. As far as I understand both of these young men work as freelance chauffeurs to keep their families fed, but they both have strong interests in preaching, evangelizing and in building relations between churches. They managed to bring together a group of pastors from 5 or 6 different families of independent churches in central Kenya to organize this seminar, with hopes of building a continuous movement around such seminars. They proceeded to establish an official organization, open a bank account for the project, and reserve a rural public education center to rent for the occasion. It seemed like a good start.

There were some clear cultural misunderstandings between my Kenyan friends and I when it came to the groundwork for this seminar though. My understanding was that they would collect enough money among participants and their churches there to rent a classroom and provide a place for the participants from out of town to stay, and to pay for whatever catering would be necessary to make things work. I would pay my own expenses and I would further ask around here in Europe for sponsors for pastors who could not afford to participate otherwise. Their understanding, on the other hand, was that they could make all of the logistical arrangements there and get the pastors together for the event, and I would find European churches willing to pay for the whole project.

Their cultural frame of reference, it seems, related to American church organizations which have come to Kenya in the past with plans of establishing a foothold for their own denominational brands in that expanding market. With their significant denominational or mega-church funding, such groups could painlessly pay for food, lodging and entertainment for a week for as many future representatives for their brand as could be recruited. Such seminars, I now understand, have traditionally included free distribution plenty of professionally published teaching materials free of charge, and at times as a parting gift each participant has even been given a bicycle courtesy of the organizers to help him spread their message and thus increase their market share. It seems that David and Wilfred and their local helpers there didn’t really understand the concept of me coming as a solitary volunteer, without any sort of financial backing to pay for such things.

DSCN9973There was also a bit of a challenge in terms of finding the optimal target participants for such a seminar. My idea had been to make it available for anyone who was interested enough to take the time out of their other work to be there, and who could either pay their own basic expenses or find sponsorship for their participation for the week. As the organizers there never conceived of a seminar budget based on the participants’ own contributions though, their cultural premise was somehow to select those who were most deserving of such teaching being provided by foreign benefactors. Rather than everyone who was interested enough and who could afford to come being welcome on that basis, the operational principle became one participants being chosen on the basis of relationship factors. This led to some “important” pastors taking part, on whom much of the teaching seemed to be lost, with many others not having the possibility to join in.

As it came to be realized, the seminar ended up being a series of difficult logistical compromises, with lots of last minute practical support coming from the participating Kenyan churches, and with a bit of financial sponsorship coming from two of the churches in the Helsinki area which have a significant number of African members, but with the majority of the downsized budget ending up being paid for in the end on my personal credit cards.

Rather than pitying myself for my vulnerability on this one though, I have to say that many of the others involved also contributed everything they possibly could and then some. It would also be fair to say that this is not the first time I’ve been taken advantage of in trying to “do the right thing”, and over the years I’ve had plenty of “learning experiences” that have been more expensive than this one even. And when all is said and done I still have every confidence that David and Wilfred and their colleagues, given their own understanding of how such things are supposed to work, did everything they knew how to do to bring this seminar together in the best way possible.

DSCF2824So now the big question is, what good did it do? What did the participants in this seminar actually learn from it, if anything? What did the take home with them besides copies of my PowerPoint slides and a 25 cent participation certificate?

It is rather impossible for me to make any properly objective claims in this regard. I must admit that if my task would have been to prepare them to succeed in a standardized examination on the fundamentals of philosophy of religion, I would be more than a little bit nervous about their chances. As it was, however, my goal was just to provide them with a valuable learning experience which would at least marginally increase their capacity to interact with intellectuals, skeptics and/or non-believers in a fruitful manner. I don’t think many of them became ace apologists for the faith last week, but I do believe they all stopped to think about some of the basic issues involved a bit more carefully, and that especially for the younger ones this could have a very positive effect on their work as they go forward.

The week’s lessons were in practice squeezed down to three days of classroom work. In the first day’s talks I provided a crash overview of the field of philosophy: the focal issues of epistemology, metaphysics and ethics; and the broad outline of how academic philosophy relates to the history of western thought. It would be fair to say that the vast majority of this material went straight over the heads of even the youngest and sharpest participants there, but it gave them at least some sort of introduction to what philosophers do, and how it relates to matters of faith. Some participants strongly stated that this gave them a new interest in looking into such matters further in the future. That’s as much as I could have realistically expected.

20150218_090551Our second day was focused on the philosophical arguments for and against religion and the existence of God in general. I chose three on each side that I hoped would be most interesting and relevant for them. As arguments against religion I tried to explain the Theodicy issue, Occam’s Razor and the issue of evils committed in the name of God. As arguments in defense of the faith I offered the most convincing variation on the Cosmological Argument I could give, a Kierkegaardian argument from existential purpose, and Pascal’s Wager. All of this was very new territory to all of them and I did my best to make such matters at least somewhat accessible to them. Here too, however, I think the best I can hope is that they have a new awareness that such debates exist, and that these debates are relevant to their work as Christian leaders. Hopefully those with an interest in such things now have a basis for moving forward in investigating such matters.

Our third day was for many the most important. I confessed to them that, as important as many of the tools and understandings we had talked about thus far were, they were in many regards rather abstract concepts –– to the point that all of the defenses of faith I had offered could just as easily be used to defend Islam as Christianity. So the task remained to define in clear, somewhat philosophical terms, what precisely we as Christians believe.

I started by introducing the term “canon” in relation to scripture and comparing it to the term “benchmark”. We then explored together the question of what certainties we as believers are looking for in life; and how believers’ hopes, desires and certainties in life are the same and how they are different from unbelievers’. I then proposed a “mind map” regarding the key factors that identify Christian believers as such:

  • A sense of being forgiven and accepted by God’s grace
  • The interactive dynamics of faith, hope and love; particularly expressed in an ethic of kindness rather than cruelty
  • A mission to be “salt and light” to the world we live in
  • Rejecting the temptation to continuously compare ourselves with others
  • Following the moral teachings of the Bible in day-to-day life as an expression of our thankfulness to God.

Things got really interesting when we came to discussing questions of “spiritual warfare”. I proposed two premises on the matter as a basis for discussion: 1) The devil probably gets more credit than he deserves for the problems we have, and 2) The area of “evil” is broader than the work of the devil, per se.

20150218_112756As it happened, God had conveniently “blessed me” with a very troublesome sore throat over the course of the week, and this made a very apt illustration: My throat problems could have come from any combination of three factors: environmental stress (dust, weather changes, bicycling in freezing conditions the previous week, etc.), bacteria, and/or a virus. The warm concoction of lemon, honey, garlic, etc. that one dear sister there made for me, and menthol drops which they were watching me sucking on the whole time in an effort to keep my voice working, were going to be at least marginally helpful regardless of the cause, but a decision as to whether or not to take antibiotics was another matter. If it was a virus causing me to cough so much then taking antibiotics would do far more harm than good! The same principle, I proposed, is relevant to any decision they might make to try to cast out demons for example.

From there I opened the floor to a discussion of why it can be important to preach against the devil. It was clear that some of the older and more experienced pastors disagreed with each other about these matters, but there were some very useful and constructive debates on the matter without any trace of animosity between the participants. That in itself was a very useful result.

I tried to keep clear the whole time that I was not coming in as any spiritual father figure for these men and women, and that within their churches there are leaders to whom they should properly address more specific doctrinal questions. I was there merely as a teacher, not a pastor, to offer them more tools for thinking things through more thoroughly and communicating them more effectively.

DSCF2749I did have one piece of advice to offer regarding building their churches though, which I told them they were unlikely to hear in any Bible school: There are two methods of building a group of followers which are extremely effective, but which you should still always avoid because, because the success they bring to the organization is not worth the damage they cause to individuals: dogmatism and hate-mongering.

Many large churches have been built on the principle that you find on a humor sign that hangs in some offices: “Office rules: 1. The boss is always right. 2. When the boss is wrong, see rule #1.” As effective as it may be to insist on such absolute and unquestioning obedience to human authorities and even doctrinal standards though, in the long run it is neither honest nor constructive. I strongly encourage leaders not to make unquestionable certainty for its own sake the operational principle of their churches.

Beyond that one of the most effective ways of getting people to work together is by giving them a shared object of hatred. Hitler did that. Racist organizations around the world still do that. Too many churches also still do that. Don’t make yours one of them.

From there my message was, don’t be intimidated by large churches whose “fruit” is the result of operating according to such principles. If your church is worth building, its worth will be based on offering people faith, hope and especially love. Don’t ever lose sight of those priorities.

Needless to say, there were plenty of other important questions that we talked about over the course of the week, but these are the things I hope the participants remember, and which I hope stimulate further intellectual and spiritual growth in their lives. If this experience proves to have been important for them, if the senior pastors who were involved want more of their protégés to receive the same sort of teaching, and if the financial issues are properly settled –– if this message proves to be more important than the problems we had in getting it out –– this work will continue.

DSCF2840For myself, I’m just extremely curious to see what will happen next.

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

So now we reach the final entry in Aristotle’s deliberations on the soul –– on what makes living things live, and what makes us human. In book three he continues on with all of the lines of thought begun in the previous two books, exploring areas that we would call neurology, psychology, epistemology and metaphysics –– in such a way, actually, where it is unlikely that he would have any defenders these days who would stand by all of his final conclusions in any of these four fields. Even so, he makes his mistakes in such a way as to open up all four subject areas in interesting ways for further speculation and development.

Regarding what we would call neurological phenomena, his basic conclusions are that there logically cannot be any more than five senses, and that the purpose of each of these senses is to help us identify “the good”, which, in each case, is in fact good by virtue of its concord, pleasing ratio, or overall balance. “That is also why the objects of sense are pleasant when the sensible extremes such as acid or sweet or salt being pure and unmixed are brought into proper ratio; then they are pleasant” (part 2, 6th paragraph).

He rather leaves open the question of whether this balanced goodness is something inherently good of itself, of if it is good as a means of preserving human life as such. It is possible that he sees the value in human life in its connection with some greater good beyond itself, revealed in such inherently virtuous things as harmony and balance; it is possible that he would see harmony and balance as instrumental goods which we take to be good because they preserve human life. These days we’re more prone to accept the latter way of looking at things: we have developed preferences as a species which are conducive to our continuation as a species, including the Goldilocks factors of not too hot, not too cold / not too hard, not too soft; and on that basis we are prone to see such things as good. It might be overly charitable though to assume that is what Aristotle had in mind. His medieval interpreters at least were more likely to read into his work an understanding that getting close to Godliness, in the form of the ultimate form of forms, is what makes human life valuable, and that a natural attraction to harmony and balance is part of God’s way of drawing us unto himself through the senses he has given us. It would seem then that Aristotle’s own perspective would be closer to that of the Thomists that of the Darwinians.

Was Baby Bear's bed the best  for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear's bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the Platonic ideal for such things?

Was Baby Bear’s bed the best for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear’s bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the divine “Platonic ideal” for such things?

Beyond that, when it comes to the function of the empirical senses, Aristotle sticks to the old “it takes one to know one” concept –– only like can know like. In other words just as only women can really understand women (and to the extent that men can understand women it is by way of getting in touch with their own “feminine side”) and only Greeks can really understand Greeks, so only that which has sound within it can perceive sound, only that which has color within it can perceived color, only that which has sweetness within it can perceive sweetness, and so on. Thus, “error is contact with the unlike; for that is the opposite of the knowing of like by like.” This presupposition that there must be some common element between the perceived and the perceiver, which functions as the basic means of perception, leads to some other interesting conclusions later on. Suffice to say, on a neurological level there is no particularly good reason to continue to hold to such a belief with reference to our senses. Appreciating the smell of roses does not imply that one is a partial rose, or that one’s nose bears particular similarity to a rose, anecdotal evidence not withstanding.

From a psychological perspective Aristotle comes to some interesting if mistaken conclusions regarding the interrelation of different cognitive functions in both humans and simpler-brained creatures. How do sense perception, imagination, desire, opinion, speculation, strategizing, practical judgment, moral conviction, argumentation and strength of will all relate to each other? Which of these can we identify in the behavior and interaction of other animals, and which are uniquely human capacities (perhaps also exercised by the gods we bear resemblance to)? Suffice to say, Aristotle’s speculations about where the border lies between human cognitive function and cognitive functions common to other animals –– like his speculations on many topics related to the natural sciences –– demonstrate a lack of experimental data on the matter. In particular on this question it seems clear that if he ever had a dog he would have seen many of his mistakes readily through the human/canine interaction. Me being very much a dog person, I find it hard to trust the psychological perspectives of those who aren’t, but I’ll set aside my biases on that one for the time being.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this speculation on animal versus human psychological function though is his assertion that animals cannot have opinions, because opinions inherently involve beliefs, beliefs inherently involve convictions and convictions inherently involve reasoned arguments (part 3, 7th paragraph). Besides a lack of familiarity with animals, this also clearly shows the early stage in the evolution of democratic government that Aristotle was exposed to in his day as well. In modern party politics throughout the western world we regularly find that opinion formation as a cognitive function, far from depending on rational argument, tends to be the polar opposite to rational argument! The two phenomena come very close to being mutually exclusive in many cases. If you don’t believe it, attend any rally of “social conservatives” anywhere in the world and try to identify any factors which are both rationally argued and strongly held matters of opinion within their rhetoric…

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense rational...

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense based on rational argument…

But let’s set that aside and move on to the question of epistemology as such –– Aristotle’s perspective on the soul’s capacity for knowledge and what in general counts as knowledge. Here things start to get chewy. Besides the “like knowing like” premise mentioned above, another basic factor in Aristotle’s theory of knowledge is that the empirical perception “is never in error, or admits the least possible amount of falsehood” (part 3, 10th paragraph). In other words you should always trust your eyes more than your imagination. That is not to say that we always correctly process the data that our senses give us, but we should trust that sense data as a reliable starting point for access to a world beyond ourselves. Yet this leaves an important issue hanging: where does sensing end and interpretation begin? Clearly Aristotle was unaware of blind spot phenomenon and so many other forms of scientific evidence which now tell us that our sense experience is far more actively constructed within our brains than what we realize as we go about our day-to-day routines. Would he have remained as firmly epistemologically committed to empiricism had he known? Perhaps not. It’s hard to say.

In fact for all his naïve trust in his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, and especially in his sense of touch, Aristotle considered there to be more to life, the universe and everything than just the physical. One of the areas in which he remained a committed disciple of Plato was in terms of the doctrine of forms. And here his teaching on one aspect of the human soul –– the nous or mind –– becomes rather intensively metaphysical and mystical.

The mind, as Aristotle sees it, has an analogous function to the physical senses. Whereas the sense of vision provides a sense of connection in the soul’s experience between the light that is “out there” and the light that is within the eye, and the sense of touch provides a sense of connection between the textures and temperatures of the external world and those within the body in the soul’s experience; so the mind provides the soul with a sense of connection with the world of ideas, or Platonic forms. “As the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms” (part 8, 3rd paragraph).

The difference between the mind and the senses, however, is that the senses, in order to function, are dependent on the physical presence of the stimuli they are designed to detect; the mind can connect with things that are not at all physically present. And since it can have a sense of things that are not physically present, it follows for Aristotle that the mind would itself be inherently non-physical. In order to function as a bridge between like and like in the experience of the soul, mind needs to have the same non-material, spiritual, perhaps even eternal essence as the forms themselves. This “spiritual sense,” if we can call it that (not Aristotle’s or his translators’ term, but my synopsis of his treatment of the nous), is then intermixed with the living physical aspects of the soul, but it is ultimately something greater than the physical.

Part 5 of book 3 is one of the shortest and most central to the argument on this point. It comes back to the hylomorphism idea of “matter” and “cause”, or what we today would tend to think of as “hardware” and “software” as necessary elements within the soul, but it gets a bit deeper and more mysterious than that: “[M]ind as we have described it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things. This is a sort of positive state like light… Mind in this sense of it is separable, impassible, unmixed, since it is in its essential nature activity… When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal.”

Mind as such is only regarded to be a part or a function of the human soul. Humans, like lower animals, also have appetites. When we suffer from “weakness of will” those appetites overpower our “form of forms” minds, but when we overcome our moral weaknesses and live according to the ideal form for human dignity we become more than mere animals. We hook into something unmovable and everlasting. While imagination and appetites may be misguided, “mind is always right” (part 10, 3rd paragraph). While physical needs and empirical senses involve constant motion, “the faculty of knowing is never moved but remains at rest” (part 11, 4th paragraph). This makes the moral law within a matter of still greater magnificence than the starry heavens above: Whereas the heavenly bodies (from the standard ancient perspective) are in constant aesthetically pleasing circular motion, mind as such is inherently and essentially at rest within us. It is an element of “unmoved mover” within each of us that makes us at one with the deepest principles of the universe. Such a bold metaphysical claim about the most rational part of the human soul is fascinating, to say at the least.

From Aristotle's perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

From Aristotle’s perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

Aristotle concludes his discourse on souls as such with a discussion of the ways in which empirical senses improve the quality of life for all animals. This again provides an interesting mix biological folk wisdom and non-systematic zoological analysis. It concludes by saying that for animals touch is the minimum sense which makes life possible, whereas the other senses are necessary “not for their being, but for their well-being.”

For further investigation as to what makes humans human from Aristotle’s perspective, there is also book 7 of his “History of Animals” to be considered, with its extensive misinformation regarding human sexuality and reproduction –– and I mean serious misinformation, like saying that for a woman’s labia to be moist and swollen reduces the possibility of conception, so to increase the chance of making babies the man should avoid letting the woman get too wet! He furthermore suggests that for recreational sex where conception is not desired rubbing in some extra lubricant like cedar or olive oil should do the trick!

It is from within this same highly scientific chapter (3) of this work that medieval thinkers arrived at their formula of male embryos developing into human beings capable of thought and action faster than female embryos –– “ensoulment” happening at roughly 40 and 90 days into pregnancy for male and female fetuses respectively. A careful reading, however shows Aristotle actually presents this as a rule of thumb at best, with many exceptions and variations admitted.

With all this funky speculation and blatant misinformation regarding what souls are, where they come from, how they interact with the human body and so on, it becomes a little embarrassing to have so much of Christian doctrine and Western tradition based on such teachings, but there we have it. So what should we do with this pile of speculations now that we see them for what they are?

In closing here it’s worth going back to the beginning of the books on the soul to remind ourselves what the main point of the exercise was to begin with –– the thing that Aristotle set out to promote as inherently valuable in writing about the soul.  We find that from the very first pages of book 1 through with his mystical discussion of the mind in book 3, Aristotle promotes rational thought as the greatest source of human value: Genius must be promoted and preserved; people who are somewhat lacking in rational skills aren’t all that significant unless they play a significant role in enabling genius to flourish. Other forms of soul clearly exist, but the important part of one’s soul is that which facilitates the greatest experiences of the mind. That part he sees as important and eternal; the rest, fleeting and disposable.

It’s worth further backing up to consider the pre-Aristotelian ancient Jewish understanding of the basis of life and life after death, which forms the other particularly deep root for our western concept of the soul. This was less based on the concept of a disembodied soul having fellowship with God than on a glorious final day when the bodies of the faithful will be reassembled according to the requirements of their souls so that there can be a wonderful extended life on that basis. The “resurrection of the body” was thus a very key part of the earliest church teaching about the afterlife, because the idea of any other type of afterlife didn’t really make sense from their cultural perspective. The idea of being “present with the Lord” without any body to be present in was a rather later development in St. Paul’s teaching, reflecting his progressive interaction more with Greek ideas and less and less with Rabbinical Jewish ideas.

Even so, Aristotle’s world view seems to have been closer to the ancient Jewish perspective than to the modern western concept of individual immaterial souls going on to face reward or punishment after death in some disembodied state. For him the substance of the individual soul is the body that houses it, without which it is essentially meaningless in most senses. The part of the soul that he sees as not dying with the body is the “mind,” which as such is not tied to the ego of the person in whom it functioned. This “mind” is the unmoved, unmovable, non-material spirit substance which is uncomfortably attached to one’s restless, hungering, lusting and aching human soul and body. It might be compared to a quantity of precious metal suspended within a lump of ore. Once the lump of ore has been broken down and that precious metal has been liberated, the continued existence of that metal, mixed together with the metal from other lumps of ore, would not necessarily imply the continued existence of the pattern for the lump of ore it came from. So it would seem to be with Aristotle’s teaching on mind and soul: The everlasting, ethereal mind we each have within us will continue on after the body which houses it and the dimensions of soul it is mixed with have broken down, but there is no reason to believe that this mind will continue to be identifiable as “my mind” in its “liberated” state. Adjusting Aristotle’s teaching on the soul so as to reinforce the church’s teaching on the soul which evolved thereafter thus seems to have required a fair amount of Thomist creativity.

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

It could be argued that the last philosopher to unsentimentally follow something resembling an originally Aristotelian perspective on the soul –– considering all other parts of it than the capacity for intellectual greatness to be relatively disposable –– would have been Nietzsche. From a bastardization of his teachings then came the somewhat ignorant and arrogant spectacle of Fascism, treating particular people as outright disposable because they lacked the sort of soul elements that those in power considered to be worth advancing. This shocked the world enough so that for the last few generations at least we’ve been looking for a broader basis for human value than just gratification of the egos of some self-appointed master race.

But if we set aside Aristotle’s concept of the nous/mind –– a rational capacity to connect with all of the transcendent truths of the universe –– as the one eternal and valuable thing about the human soul, his style of reasoning gives us little reason to believe in an eternal soul in any other sense either.

So this leaves us with three rather complex unsolved puzzles:
– What should we make of the “eternal soul” concept once we stop basing it on a misunderstanding of Aristotle?
– What non-Greek basis might there be for considering human life to have some universal value to begin with?
– And in this state of uncertainty, how to we go about setting ethical standards concerning practical issues related to the beginning and ending of human lives?

It has also been said that the essential difference between philosophers and scholars of other fields is that, whereas at the end of the day scientists, theologians, historians and the like are uncomfortable to leave a question unanswered, philosophers are more uncomfortable if at the end of the day they leave an answer unquestioned. With that in mind perhaps I should just be philosophical about this matter and leave those three questions standing for now. I leave it to you, dear reader, to suggest the next answers to be questioned in this journey of soul discovery. Meanwhile, if you can help it, try not to lose too much sleep worrying about what sort of soul you may or may not have.

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 2)

aristotle1Continuing on with my efforts to grasp the basic principles of ensoulment that religious thinkers over the years have borrowed from Aristotle, I now move on to Book 2 of the man’s work on the subject. It starts out with Aristotle basically saying, “enough on those other old farts; let’s get down to business on analyzing the subject itself.” This dives pretty directly into what the professionals in the field these days call “Hylomorphism”: how the essence of what something is relates to how its form or shape is determined.

To put it in Aristotle’s terms, there are three ways in which what we might call “things” can exist: 1) they can exist as entirely physical objects (like the pillow I am using for back support); 2) they can exist as formal patterns (like this blog itself, which you are probably reading without any physical object having been transferred between you and I); or 3) they can exist as a combination of the physical and the formal (like my computer, and actually most other things around me to one extent or another). In these terms every living being is a category 3 thing –– a composite –– a combination of material substance and formal, functional (we would say genetic) design. So the soul, as Aristotle conceptualizes it, is more or less identical with a living being’s functional genetic design –– the category 2 aspect of our basic being. Thus Aristotle’s summary definition for the soul is, “substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive form of a thing’s essence,” or in simpler terms (in Smith’s translation), it is “‘the essential whatness’ of a [living] body.”

From there the distinction comes up between the realized and potential function of a given composite (category 3) item. Can we refer to an apple seed, for example, as having a soul –– as a living thing? Well… potentially. But how is that seed being a potential apple tree different from a pile of snow being an actual snowman which just needs assembly?

ikea snowmanThe difference of course is that the apple seed contains within itself all of the pattern information necessary to produce an apple tree. It still needs lots of soil and rain and sun and time, but the “whatness” in terms of the basic model and all that is already there. The snow, on the other hand, does not contain the information within itself of how it could be packed together to form an abstract representation of a human being; that has to imparted to it by some crazy individual like myself.snowman karhusuo

In this regard Aristotle considers seeds to have soul in a sense that corpses and porridges do not. From our modern perspective we could say that the DNA is still there, (and thus cloning might still be possible), but it no longer either actually or potentially meets the two classical Greek standards for being alive that Aristotle subscribes to: independent movement and sensation.

Aristotle concludes his sketch of the basic nature of the soul in general in the first chapter of book 2 by once again concluding that, at least in its most basic sense, the soul cannot exist in any disembodied form: “[T]he soul is inseperable from its body, or at any rate […] certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of them is nothing but the actualities of their body parts.”  Yet within that sentence we see him hedging his bet a bit, which he actually continues on with as the work progresses. Some aspects of soul, he speculates, might not be “actualities of any body at all. Further, we have no light on the problem of whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.”

(These days we would use the driver and automobile analogy for soul and body in that sense, but back in Aristotle’s day sailors and ships was the best he could do.)

He goes on to expand on this by saying that in plants, lower animals, more intelligent animals and humans alike we find “soul” in a sense of some combination of “the powers of self-nutrition, sensation, thinking and movement.”  Can these be distinguished from one another? A problematic endeavor, yet right away Aristotle comes back to his basic reason for studying the soul to begin with: considering what it is that makes the glories of thinking possible for us. “We have no evidence as yet about mind [nous] or the power to think. It seems to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable. It alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other [soul-based] powers.

Aristotle is thus, while trying to remain as “scientific” as possible, starting to explore two different meanings for “soul” in the human context: the design of the body and the driver of the body, and trying to figure out how the two essentially relate to each other. Regarding both, however, he reaches the conclusion that they are not physical substances like air (breath) or blood per se, but rather the “formulable essence of something that possesses a potentiality of being besouled.”

He goes on to build something of a hierarchy of biological of soul functions. He basically concludes that plant souls are capable of little more than the “nutritive” functions of self-perpetuation through acquiring nutrients from their environment, growing, reproducing and dying. Other, slightly more advanced life-forms are also capable of sensing or feeling things. It would seem, however, that sensing and feeling are only revealed and relevant when the organism in question also wants things; thus what Aristotle calls the sensory and the appetitive aspects of the soul tend to go together with each other. At their most primitive even the simplest of animals (and though Aristotle didn’t recognize them as “wanting” in such a way, perhaps many plants as well) manifest desires for food, suitable temperature and moisture conditions, avoidance of pain and sexual opportunities. The next level of soul activity Aristotle recognizes then is the ability to physically chase after the objects of our desires through physical motion or locomotion. Above that though, in a category limited to mankind and “possibly another order like man or superior to him” is the power of thinking proper: mind. The extent to which this property of mind is a separate matter from the rest of the soul, and the extent to which it is universal even among humans, are questions regarding which Aristotle’s answers seem to be tentative at best.

Aristotle soul functionsTo state again what is obvious to all who have studied the subject even superficially, in Aristotle’s day, and for the next 2000 years thereafter, there was no distinction made between “science” and “philosophy” in the way we now distinguish between them. So it would be a gross anachronism to say that Aristotle goes back and forth between “playing scientist” and “playing philosopher”; he didn’t see any sort of distinction between the two. These days we tend to take such a distinction as self-evident, perhaps creating more problems than we solve in doing so, but that’s another long story unto itself.

In any case, given our contemporary way of looking at such things, we can say that from our perspective Aristotle goes back and forth between the scientific, biological view of soul, considering it as both the “life-principle” –– sort of like what we’re hoping to find on Mars –– and the philosophical view of soul as “the miracle of consciousness” and cognition, enabling us to somehow connect with the world around us in ways that, near as we can tell, no animal is capable of –– formulating, theorizing, exercising artistic imagination, etc. This leads to a fair amount of ambiguity and inconsistency; sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that the miracle of consciousness is merely a manifestation of biological processes, and sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that consciousness has to be a spiritual phenomenon that must have its origins in something beyond the material.  He doesn’t really seem to be sure. My sense is that for this reason his modern interpreters are all able to find ideological reflections of themselves in his text.

There is also a third sense of soul that Aristotle tosses into the mix: that of purpose or end for the life of the individual organism. Why do plants and animals and us “higher life forms” keep struggling to go on with this process called life? Because our souls make us do so. This “natural law within us” (a term used by Medieval philosophers, not Aristotle himself in this context at least) in this sense operates as follows: “[F]or any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated […] the most natural act is the production of another like itself […] in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive” (ch. 4, 2nd paragraph). In other words the continuity of life is something of a spiritual principle that all living creatures instinctively attempt to take part in, giving their own lives meaning in the process.

Thus we can say that the soul is the cause and source of the body in at least three distinct senses: it is the design principle behind the body, it is the driving force in the body, and it is the teleological destination giver for the body. In this last sense, “Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. To that something corresponds in the case of animals the soul and in this it follows the order of nature; all natural bodies are organs of the soul. This is true of those that enter into the constitution of plants as well as of those which enter into that of animals. This shows that the sake for which they are is soul” (ch. 4, 5th paragraph).

From there Aristotle goes into a long “scientific” rather than “philosophical” discussion of the functions of “lower” aspects of the soul in terms of its nutritive and sensory aspects. Much of this amounts to a historical curiosity in terms of early theories regarding aspects of neurology that Oliver Sachs has marvelously popularized the current scientific understanding of in recent years. This includes, among other things, Aristotle’s speculation as to how vision works given his premise (which I quoted last time) that there is no credible reason to believe that light actually travels. Another classically mistaken “scientific” premise which he states here is that the soul within animals in general “is due to the action of the male parent” (ch. 5, 9th paragraph). This corresponds with his acceptance in Book I (end of chapter 2) of Hippo’s argument that the soul as such cannot be contained in the blood, since “the primordial soul” comes from the father’s seminal fluid, which is a non-bloody liquid.

Another would-be scientific statement here, which has fascinating poetic potential in spite of its failure in scientific terms, is, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (ch. 8, 12th paragraph). He goes on to say that to speak of the “voice” of musical instruments is a metaphorical use of the term, and to speculate about the multiple natural functions of the respiratory system, before further expanding on this idea: “Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body. […] What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with meaning […] not merely the result of any impact of the breath, as in coughing.”

So, from Aristotle’s perspective, if you are looking for some core physical location for the soul within the body, don’t search between the ears or in the heart, but rather look down the throat.

Most of the more “philosophically interesting” questions relating to the “higher levels” of the soul are reserved for book III, but one last matter worth considering in book II here is the starting comparison between sensation and knowledge. Both are soul functions that can exist either actively or passively/potentially. Thus being a seeing being can either mean that the brain is actively registering incoming light at given moment in question (Aristotle had the technical aspects of this all screwed up, but that’s beside the point), or it can be the opposite to blindness, indicating a fully developed capacity for such function. The same with hearing; it can be an active process of “using your ears” or it can be merely the opposite of deafness. So what about thinking? Well, as Aristotle puts it, “We can speak of someone as a ‘knower’ either (a) …meaning [she/he] falls within the class of beings that know or have knowledge, or (b) when we speak of [her/him] who possesses a knowledge of grammar,” thereby having a capacity to absorb knowledge of other sorts. The former has what we might call a neurological potential to develop knowledge; the latter has what we might call a culturally adapted potential. These in turn then imply a third category for those who actually know stuff that is somehow worth knowing, like math, biology, politics, etc.

So from there Aristotle wishes to consider what the proper role of the teacher is. “What in the case of knowing or understanding leads from potentiality to actuality ought not to be called teaching, but something else.” I take it for granted that there are semantic aspects of the question of choice of terms here that are going to get lost in translation, and which probably weren’t particularly clear to Aristotle’s own students in the original Greek either. The point though is to stop and consider what sort of change the teacher is attempting to bring about in the student. Is he trying to do something analogous to farming –– burning off or ripping out what is naturally growing in the field and replacing it with the sort of seed that he has in mind; then helping those seeds to grow in order to yield the desired crops? Or is the teacher’s work more a matter of nurturing and coaching the student to develop and more efficiently use what he already has within? Aristotle seems to be leaning towards the latter option. He also seems to be resisting the idea of educational interaction in the sense that the teacher and student would learn from each other, or that the teacher would himself learn in the process of teaching: “[I]t is wrong to speak of a wise man as being ‘altered’ when he uses his wisdom, just as it would be absurd to speak of a builder as being altered when he is using his skills in building a house.”

But once the learning has taken place, the difference between sensing and knowing is that “what actual sensation apprehends is individuals, while what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are in a sense within the soul. That is why a man can exercise his knowledge when he wishes, but his sensation does not depend on himself; a sensible object must be there.”

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for further speculation regarding the inherent connection between the knower and the known. Does it really “take one to know one” in a definitive sense? Can only Greeks understand Greeks; only men understand men; only dogs understand dogs, etc.? If so, does that mean that for everything we are able to understand, there is necessarily some part of that object of understanding within ourselves? Does this make some degree of pantheism a prerequisite for epistemology?

For the answers to these and other fascinating questions, tune in next week…

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In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 1)

This time I’m going to use this space for thinking allowed about some ideas I need to unpack for my doctoral studies. Please excuse my calloused selfishness in dumping such abstraction on you here, and feel free to skip over this one if you’re bored by theoretical matters of religious philosophy. But before you go, stop for a minute to think about one basic question: When we refer to a soul, what the hell are we actually talking about?

I’m not going to provide any complete survey of the religious or philosophical consideration of that question here, obviously, but in the process of opening up my thinking on this question I believe it is important to go back to one of the earliest extant consideration of the subject: Aristotle’s On the Soul (Greek: Psyche / Latin: De Anima). I’m not going to pretend to be a scholar of the ancient text in terms of deep nuance of the original language and all that, but I feel as though a careful consideration of its translation is a necessary task for me to take on this spring. I don’t think we can really intelligently discuss the basic concepts of human rights and social ethics without considering the basis of the value of human life; I don’t believe the basis of the value of human life can be discussed without at least some reference to the concept of the soul as it is used in western philosophy; and I don’t believe the concept of the soul can be intelligently discussed in much detail without an awareness of the ancient understandings and presuppositions related to the term that trace back to the writings of Aristotle. So with the goal of building a workable foundation for discussions of human rights and human value in this regard, I’ve set myself the task for this week of reading through and intellectually digesting the text in question.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Anthony Hopkins as a rather believable Aristotle.

Interested? Keep reading. (And if philosophy students start finding this to be a valuable cheater’s resource, I’ll be flattered.) Bored? Bye for now.

The soul, in all of the various senses in which Aristotle uses the term (psyche) in his study of the subject, is what makes living things fundamentally different from non-living things: it is the basic life principle in the broadest sense of the word. In a basic Greek way of thinking, if it is alive, it has soul. Aristotle’s starting point in investigating this phenomenon is the premise that knowledge itself is a wonderful thing, and knowing is something that, near as we can tell, only living things can do. In fact it seems that it is a tiny minority of living things that are capable of knowing anything, at least in the sense we like to think of knowledge. So how does the capacity for knowing relate to what makes living things… live? That is the essential matter that Aristotle sets out to explore here.

It should go without saying, but it needs to be said right from the start anyway: this text was written at a time when the Ptolomean view of the universe –– everything “out there” just spinning around a completely unmoving earth –– was accepted as self-evident truth; long before neurology, genetics, cosmology, nuclear physics, behavioral psychology or medicine developed into sciences as we know them today. But even without what we would now consider to be a proper scientific understanding about these matters, in the process of trying to work out the essence of what makes living things live Aristotle speculates a bit about all of these fields, basing his conclusions about the human soul on what we must now consider largely mistaken observations and conclusions. One particularly interesting example of this is the following:

“Empedocles… was wrong in speaking of light as ‘travelling’ or being at a given moment between the earth and its envelope, its movement being unobservable by us; …where the distance is from extreme East to extreme West, the draught upon our powers of belief is too great.” (book II, 7)

Thus the task of sorting through all of the mistaken observations and erroneous speculations here to find concepts that have had strong seminal influence on Western thought, and especially those which remain potentially viable, is actually a rather daunting one.  Still, for reasons already stated, I believe this is a project worth tackling.

Among the starting questions Aristotle tosses out are whether soul, in the broader life-principle sense, is a homogeneous general category or not. Is livingness somehow the same in all living things? For that matter how reliably can we divide such livingness into useful sub-categories? And can such “livingness” properly exist outside of a particular sort of living body?

Aristotle’s starting point in all of this is surprisingly conservative in a materialistic sense: “Soul,” in the sense in which it is definitive of all living things, is analogous with “straightness” –– it means nothing unless there is some material embodiment of the principle. You can’t find “straightness” floating around in some mystical unembodied form; only in rulers and plumb lines and arrows and the like. For the same reason it is rather problematic to talk about souls outside of bodies. Beyond that, every manifestation of the soul in the sense of human personality –– anger, courage, desire, love, fear, pity, etc. –– has a certain biological component to it, which is, as the man says, “precisely why the study of the soul must fall within the science of Nature.” The one possible exception to this principle, he notes from the start, is thinking, but if thinking inevitably involves the processing of input received through our five senses, it’s sort of hard to imagine it not being body-based at least in some senses.

Not that this speculative materialist perspective was particularly more reliable than a more “spiritual” speculations of the time. The physical explanation given for anger for instance, would be a build-up of particularly hot liquid around the heart (book I, 1).

So how do we go about distinguishing between living and non-living things –– between things with soul and things without? The established state of the art in addressing this question in ancient Greece came back to two primary characteristics: independent movement and sensation. By these standards a vast variety of man-made devices these days could be said to have “soul”: production robots, security cameras, vending machines, etc. Whether Aristotle would be naïve enough to consider such things to be truly “alive” is another question. Actually he probably wouldn’t. Aristotle dismisses Thales’ speculation that magnets are alive, or have souls, because of their capability to sense and move iron, so intuitively he knows that there has to be a more precise definition for soul in terms of livingness. But as he pursues these arguments they become thoroughly entangled with speculation about which of the four primordial elements –– earth, air, fire or water –– the soul’s function should be associated with. Suffice to say in this regard that the ancient Hebrew theories of breath (Genesis 2:7) and blood (Leviticus 17:11) alternatively being seen as the primary physical manifestations of soul were well represented within the Greek world as well.

Another interesting aspect of these speculations is the idea that the motion of living beings would somehow reflect something divine, seen especially in the motion of the sun, moon and planets above. Aristotle cites Plato’s Timaeus dialog as an example of belief in the soul reflecting the pattern of the movements of these heavenly bodies –– these tracing back to the Demiurge bending the primordial straight line into a circle, bringing about various sub-divisions of that circle from there, and on that basis setting important spiritual forces in pleasing circular motions. Thus the motions of the planets would be inherently related to the actions of our souls, providing what passed for a rational justification for astrology for the next couple thousand years, even among Christian theologians as it turns out.

There are many things about this understanding of soul that Aristotle finds dissatisfying however. To start with, the motions of plant and simple animal souls are not really circular in any meaningful sense. The only justification he finds for speculating that the highest part of the soul of man is in circular motion is that it obviously is not entirely at rest, and if complete rest is not possible then circular motion is the next best thing. It is in this context that Aristotle begins to speculate about the possibility that the mind –– the highest functioning part of the soul –– might be happier if it could escape from the continuous restless motions of the body. He goes on from there to reject the premise the soul having a circular motion and to theorize about thought, motivation, anger, fear, pleasure and pain as the proper movements of the soul –– or at least movements originating in the soul.

Mind (nous) is a separate matter for Aristotle: “It seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed. […] Thinking, loving and hating are affections not of mind, but of that which has mind, so far as it has. That is why, when this vehicle decays, memory and love cease; they were activities not of mind, but of the composite which has perished; mind is, no doubt, something more divine and impassible.” Thus in many respects it would be this “mind” aspect of the soul which is uniquely valuable in human beings, and which from a traditional Christian dogmatic perspective would be “absent from the body, present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) at the moment of death.

Going back to Aristotle’s speculation on the essence of soul though, at the end of the first of the three books within this work he lays out four essential functions of the soul:

–          Cognitive functions: knowing, perceiving, opining

–          Emotional functions: desiring, wishing, appreciating, longing

–          Movement functions: animal body motions

–          Lifespan functions: growing, maturing, reproducing, decaying

From there he leaves two relevant questions about the soul somewhat hanging: Can the soul –– the life principle in plants, animals and humans alike –– be meaningfully and usefully divided into sub-sections? Then secondly, does the function of knowing require a sort of affinity between the knower and the known which would in turn imply that there must be some sort of soul imbedded in everything in the universe that we are capable of knowing?

Book 1 is the part of this investigation where Aristotle allows himself to get bogged down with the critical consideration of all earlier Greek studies and speculations about his topic. He attempts to critique them in ways that his students can learn something from these old masters in spite of their mistakes. He clearly would not like it to discover that his own ideas would someday be considered among learned men and women with the same assumption of pervasive error throughout, and effort to locate useable lessons regardless, with which he considers the works of Thales and Empedocles, but such is life. (I, on the other hand, hardly expect to be read in any other way than with a presumption that I am by and large wrong about things, but that there might be something useful within my perspectives regardless, so…) In books 2 and 3 he proceeds to lay out his own scholarly perspective on the matter from scratch, so to speak.

The analysis above is based just on book 1, and that’s probably quite enough text for any blog reader to deal with in one go of it. It would be most fair then for me to give my analyses of books 2 and 3 as separate posts then. Meanwhile corrections and feedback here are more than welcome.


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The Balance of Solidarity

This weekend’s entry is sort of a stream of consciousness follow-up on one of the afternoon sessions I attended at the university this week regarding a phrase that carries a very positive connotation in Finnish, but translated into English, especially in with reference to the US political scene, it comes off more as something of a curse these days: “The Welfare State”.

The afternoon in question featured a PR event for a research project jointly sponsored by an insurance company and the university itself, basically looking at the theme of how the societal values that are of deep cultural importance to the Finns can be protected from the draconian “invisible hand of the market” which, taken from an Americanized perspective, would seem to point to the law of the economic jungle inevitably leading to the ever greater polarization of developed societies into a “financial class” and a separate “service class”. Ironically perhaps, the name of the research initiative is “Masterclass”.

I won’t go into the details of the theories that were being tossed about this week by the business interests, Green Party politicians, left-of-center social theory researchers and professors representing the “ivory tower” academic establishment. Suffice to say, the main topics of discussion related to theories regarding how the private, public and tertiary sectors of the economy should ideally relate to each other. For me this simply led to my mind wandering in a number of interesting directions. Interesting to me at least; it remains to be seen whether anyone else finds the paths my mind started to wander down interesting or not.

The core thought that struck my mind that afternoon was that I would agree with one point that Pope John Paul II kept coming back to throughout his papacy, even though he drifted further and further from it the older he got. It was the motto he chose for himself: “Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity” (from his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 39). I’m firmly convinced that he was right about this: the only way for us to have peace is if we find ways to build solidarity with those around us.

Solidarity4The essence of the hope that Finns have in the welfare state is in the idea of the state serving as a mechanism by means of which all citizens come together, in solidarity, to confront the challenges faced by vulnerable individuals or smaller groups within society –– whether it be in terms of the harsh climate and likelihood of famine when dependent on Finnish domestic agriculture for the nation’s basic food supply, or the risks posed by having a long border with a massive country historically governed by unstable megalomaniacs to the east, or the human tragedies of personal and family breakdowns caused by people self-medicating in various ways in reaction to the stresses of day-to-day life. With all these factors taken into consideration, if life is going to work at all in this country it has to work on the basis of people coming together in a sense of solidarity –– no one gets left behind; everyone counts. Nor is this strictly a Finnish dilemma or solution; more and more the same lesson is being seen in other parts of the world as well, even those where life is not as naturally stressful as it is in this little corner of Europe: we either build solidarity or we build internal conflicts that will inevitably destroy us.

Building this kind of solidarity, however, is no simple matter. It involves a number of forms of delicate balance in order to function. The key to a viable society, which is not on its way to becoming a failed state, is for the people to sense that they have a stake in the system of government, which in turn is able to bring people together, in spite of their differences, with the conviction that they have greater enemies to face than each other. This doesn’t mean that all of the people of the country need to feel like one big happy family together, but it does mean that they have a sense of mutual respect in their interactions, and an awareness of their dependence on each other.

I would define requirement this as finding a workable balance between dynamics of competition and cooperation. If people lose all of their competitive drive in the process of performing traditional tasks and coming up with valuable new ideas, their societies will inevitably drift down through mediocrity into irrelevance. But if the competition becomes so cut-throat that they are no longer able to work together to achieve important shared goals, the competitive instinct starts to do far more harm than good. Thus, as I have written earlier here, I’m inclined to consider competitive comparison, when it serves as an end unto itself, to be the lowest basic form of human motivation. Throw it away entirely though and you’re also in very deep trouble. Like I said, balance.

bmp_republicans_support_corporate_greed_bumper_sticker-rf99478b65c83442898c1641ecfe6dab2_v9wht_8byvr_324Related to this is the process of establishing a healthy level of ambition within the society as a whole. To state the matter in negative terms, when it comes to ambition there are two extremes that can destroy the potential for solidarity within a society: greed and laziness. Those who are driven to get every possible form of reward for themselves, hell-bent on domination of all human and material obstacles in their path, cannot learn to treat other people as anything else than stepping stones on their path to ultimate domination. Solidarity will never be possible with such people. Likewise those who cannot be bothered to do make any effort beyond the minimum needed to avoid acute personal pain, who have no interest in improving life for themselves and those they care about in the long run, lazy-democratscan never be trusted or respected as valuable partners within a communal spirit of solidarity. Thus when others are seen as either too greedy or too lazy, solidarity inevitably begins to break down. So in order for solidarity to function, we need to have some sort of limits on the amount of greed and the amount of laziness that we consider to be socially acceptable, and we need to have means by which we limit extreme behavior on either end of the spectrum.

More importantly in this regard though, we need to avoid falling prey to hate-mongering regarding others who wish to demonize those at a different point than they are on the continuum from least ambitious to most ambitious. The extreme of laziness at which a person becomes useless to society is actually quite rare. Likewise the prevalence of abusive psychopaths among the most greedily ambitious leaders in the worlds of politics and business management is probably quite exaggerated. When we find excuses to think of other people as less than human, and either toss them aside by blaming all of their misfortunes on their inherent laziness or demonize all good fortune as a sign of psychopathic greed, solidarity ceases to function no matter how hard those at the bottom and those at the top try to work together with those in the middle. In order to build solidarity we need to resist the temptation to demonize each other in such ways.

This leads to yet another balance factor that needs to be considered in the process of building solidarity: the balance between trust and incentivizing. Solidarity cannot function in a police state where the only form of personal motivation people experience is the fear of getting caught doing less good or more harm than what they are officially allowed. There needs to be a certain level of trust between people for anything resembling solidarity to function. Yet at the same time there need to be some sort of mechanisms in place by which appreciation is regularly shown to those who make significant efforts to accomplish things for the good of all, and sanctions are regularly given to those whose behavior damages the sense of solidarity within the group. Neither complete absence of official control nor dependence on absolute authoritarian control is functional in this regard. There are, however, countless variables regarding cultural norms, individual emotional maturity factors, social adjustment processes, etc. which play roles in determining how much trust and how much incentivizing is needed to enable solidarity to grow within any given society. There are many cases where we just need to take chances on other people, hoping for the best in terms of future solidarity.

expl no smThat leads to one final balance factor required for the solidary society: risk management. For any society to grow and flourish there need to be chances taken with new and different ways of doing things, many of which “break the rules” of traditional ways of doing things; yet at the same time we as a society have strong vested interests in preventing people from taking particular types of risks such as drunk driving, smoking in places where explosives are stored, and (sorry Second Amendment fundamentalists) carrying loaded firearms in crowded public places. Thus, while we need to both allow and encourage some risk taking, we also need to restrict and penalize other risk taking. The best guide we have to go on in terms of which risks should be encouraged and which risks should be prevented is our collective historical experience, but that will never provide us with a completely reliable guideline as to which risks are worth taking and which risks are unjustifiable. And beyond all the risks that are taken on purpose, some of the most fortuitous new discoveries in human history have happened because of risks people never intended to take. What else can we say about such things beyond reciting back to ourselves Alexander Graham Bell’s famous panicked words, “Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!”

In calling attention to all of these balance factors I am quite aware that all I am really doing is offering a contemporary application of the principle of the “Golden Mean” that Aristotle articulated in his Nicomachean Ethic. His primary examples, for individual life, were that in order to flourish as a person, every man needs the proper amount of three things in particular: food, wine and sex. Too much or too little of any of those could prevent him from properly flourishing as a satisfied and virtuous person, but the precise optimal amount of any of them is rather impossible to determine by some basic generalized formula. The same balance principle, writ larger, is then in many ways the best starting point for enabling solidarity within a healthy society.

If we are able to work out these factors of solidarity in practice we really have relatively little else to worry about in life these days. When it comes down to it, the greatest risks that each of us face on a day-to-day basis are not those of natural disaster, attack by wild animals or a complete unavailability of the material resources needed to maintain human life. The greatest risks we face are those brought about by conflicts with other human beings and the long-term effects on our environment being caused by other human beings. If we find ways to work those things out, the rest is a piece of cake. But saying that this is our only serious concern is, as an old classmate of mine once said, “like saying that the Titanic’s only problem was ‘too much ice.’” People’s instinctive drive towards solidarity is rather limited at best. Finding ways of building solidarity as a means of enabling peace and sustainability is indeed far easier said than done.

One thing that needs to be remembered in this process, however, is that “laws of economics” are not to be taken overly seriously in this process. Such laws are not “God-given precepts” regarding how human labor and cooperation need to function; they are human inventions and evolving social conventions that we as humans are entirely free to change if and when we find more functional means of incentivizing solidarity on all different levels. If economic structures do more harm than good in terms of enabling solidarity, there is no transcendent natural law out there to prevent us from changing things. The problem is merely that the people who currently have the most power within the system would of course have a vested interest in preventing change, even if it would be massively better for humanity as a whole.

Thus the excuse that “we don’t have enough money” as an excuse not to build greater solidarity within our societies is actually rather abstract at best. Money is nothing more than a means of keeping score of who is willing to do what for whom. Wealth, in concrete terms, is ultimately not based on such value calculating games, but on people’s willingness to work together and contribute to each other’s well-being through their various constructive and cooperative efforts. (While in most matters I strongly disagree with the philosophies of Karl Marx and Joseph Ratzinger, and while they too have very limited areas of ideological agreement, on this point they entirely agree with each other and I agree with both of them.) So when we so that so-and-so has this much money, and that this-and-that is this far in debt, what that actually means is that according to the current mechanisms for enabling cooperation between people, the wealth holder is in the position of justifiably expecting more to be done for her by others in the future and the debtor is in the position of being expected to do more for others in the future in exchange for favors he has already received. That’s really all there is to it. As long as such understandings provide the most reliable means of maintaining and improving human solidarity, we should accept their continuation. When it is clear that they are doing more harm than good, we should start some sort of revolution to change them… before those currently holding the reins of power destroy the possibility of peaceful and sustainable human life on this planet entirely.

There are many other theological, philosophical, psychological, sociological and political arguments I could try to toss out in favor of the points made above, but it’s probably best to leave my rambling thoughts at that for now. As a means of summarizing all of this and tying it all together though, let me just say that in order to protect all that is dear to us we really need to improve out means of building solidarity with each other, and to do that we need to achieve a sense of balance in four basic areas: integration, ambition, trust and risk-taking. Perhaps someday I can arrange those into a catchy acronym that will help people remember them and build on those principle in order to help us save the world from ourselves. For now I’ll just keep doing the best I can to build on the solidarity I’m already experiencing in life.

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Filed under Change, Control, Economics, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Risk taking, Social identity, Sustainability

On Hobbies, Lobbying and Religious Freedoms

Those of you who are following the major American ideological debates have probably heard of the “Hobby Lobby” case coming up this month before the US Supreme Court. For those that haven’t, it basically comes down to this: The new Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” by any other name) basically gives bureaucrats the right to decide what form of “preventative health care” insurance companies should be required to provide for all patients. The current bureaucrats in charge of these things have decided to make pretty much all birth control measures short of surgical abortion part of that category. This first and foremost has got various Catholic employers of all sorts upset because, they claim, that this is requiring them to participate in “anti-life” activities which go against their religious convictions. But in addition to that, other anti-promiscuity-enablement oriented Protestant owned businesses as well are saying that they don’t want to be forced to have a hand in paying for the prevention of pregnancies for their employees. One such business is a chain of “artsy-fartsy” hobby supply shops called Hobby Lobby. They are now suing the government for making them pay for health insurance coverage for their employees when enables those employees to get free birth control pills and which covers “getting their tubes tied” if they so choose. This is what the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about this month.

hobbylobby003This, dear friends, is the sort of controversy that can only happen in America, for two reasons: 1) Though the United States has been making steady progress of late towards joining the civilized world in terms of recognizing health care as a basic human right, it still remains culturally addicted to allowing corporations’ obscene profit-taking off of health care provision as a higher political priority than patients’ rights to receive basic care regardless of their capacity to pay. This is the factor that prevented “single payer” or even “government sponsored alternatives” to the highly profitable health insurance industry from being enacted in the recent rounds of reform. This means that what would in any other country be paid for by the government –– covered by taxation or a publicly managed insurance scheme –– in the US is still being paid for by employers and private citizens (with a little bit of government backing where private citizens can’t afford the payments that insurance companies demand). And 2) religious organizations in the US are closer to being able to control the political process in the US than in any other traditionally Christian majority democratic country in the world, and in the interest of proving their continued relevance in the process these religious organizations have a certain need to take opportunities like this to try to prove to the world how bad ass they are. Go figure.

It is in cases like this where I am prone to agree with Pope Francis’ famous October homily where he referred to those whose Christianity has become a political ideology as “a serious illness” within the Church.

The argument being put forward by Catholic intellectuals on the matter is that they’re really not out to make sure that other people conform to their church’s religious teachings prohibiting all “artificial” forms of birth control (saying that any form of birth control, other than women crossing their legs to keep men from getting in to impregnate them, is immoral); they’re really just trying to prevent good Catholics from having even a semi-active role in the process. But if that’s true –– if all that Catholics and their fellow anti-recreational sex Christians really want is plausible deniability in the process of actively participating in a culture that approves of such practices, that’s really not all that hard to arrange. There are plenty of ways for them to (figuratively) close their eyes, or to make blindfolds available for them. But effectively, when they’ve been offered such blindfolds to enable deniability, their objection has been, “No, we’ll still know what’s going on, and we just can’t have that.” From there the question becomes, are they really sincere about allowing others not to share their religious convictions and prohibitions or not? Is the point really to maintain deniability, or is it more to make this “sin” that much more inconvenient and thus less frequently practiced among others who don’t happen to share their beliefs? If the deniability argument is really just an excuse for a strategy aiming to reduce the sexual sins of others, freedom of religion should not provide them with an excuse for pursuing such a strategy, even in America.

RS824_MartinEdstrom-SE-130521-5619-960x640I am reminded of the story I heard, about 20 years ago, regarding Muslims in the Swedish higher education system. One provision of the Swedish system for enabling young people to complete university studies in state universities was to provide government guarantees for student loans from commercial banks. This was a problem for Muslim students because their religion strictly forbids them from taking out loans on which they would pay interest. Attempts to set up a properly Islamic shadow student loan organization fell apart, for all sorts of logistical reasons. It was starting to look like self-segregation into a more permanent lower class for lack of higher educational opportunities would be the fate of Sweden’s devout Muslims, but then one imam came up with a solution: He issued a fatwa declaring that, because a non-Islamic government had made the loan system the only available means of attending state universities, as a minority group living within that country without means of decisively changing the situation, young Muslims could take such loans anyway by not thinking of the interest as interest. Because it was money that the government told them they had to pay, after the fact, in order to get an education, it could either be conceptualized as a form of taxation, which sharia law has no problem with. Thought of in this way, a good Muslim could participate in the student loan system and make these interest payments to “corrupt institutions” without being guilty of contributing to an unholy private financial system in their host country, even while nominally participating in such, because in doing so they were really just “paying their taxes”.

Again, assuming that their motivations are purely a matter of seeking deniability in terms of supporting the sins of others, the worst hardship that the Hobby Lobby people and their co-plaintiffs could be forced to endure in terms of a loss of religious liberty is actually a milder version of the crisis of conscience that the Swedish Muslim students went through in the late 20th century. In fact the moral provision is already in place in this regard: in upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in the first legal challenges against it, the Supreme Court already ruled that, while the federal government does not have the constitutional authority to tell insurance companies how to run their business, it does have the authority to decree forms of taxation which it deems necessary for promoting public health, and in that regard what the whole “Obamacare” system comes down to at the end of the day is an elaborate form of taxation to promote public health. The question from there is whether or not religiously oriented businesses can be required to pay this sort of tax. After that the primary question becomes whether or not the US court system feels justified in telling religiously oriented businesses to “suck it up”.

surpreme-courtRefusing to pay such a tax –– or such a set of insurance premiums –– from there becomes the same sort of civil disobedience as a pacifist refusing to pay federal income tax because she does not want to financially support the United States’ drone bomber program in Pakistan. It is true that tax money from every tax-paying citizen and business in the United States is being used for very immoral purposes according to a pacifist perspective. It is true that pacifists have the moral right to protest against this practice by any means at their disposal, and that no one has a right to attempt to silence them politically. It is true that in choosing the path of civil disobedience –– not paying what the government tells them they have to pay as a matter of placing their moral conscience ahead of government decrees –– they may end up legally suffering in support of a higher moral and political purpose. It is somewhat unimaginable, however, that any US court would make them exempt from paying income taxes on such a basis. Yet this is effectively what Hobby Lobby and company are asking the court to do for them.

It should be obvious that the evangelical fundamentalists at Hobby Lobby are at least as free to practice their faith, in every possible sense, as Swedish Muslim students are to practice theirs. The government is not stopping them from displaying anti-sexual materials in their shops, requiring them in any way to promote sex within their shops, requiring them to remain open on Sundays rather than going to listen to anti-sexual sermons on that day, or in any other way forcing them to accept America’s sexually promiscuous culture. What the government is effectively saying to them is that we need to recognize that sex, for purposes other than making babies, is something that the vast majority of Americans wish to practice, potentially including many of their employees. As part of taking care of the health of such people then, the government of the United States has chosen to join every other democratic government in the Western world other than Ireland in declaring that preventing people from experiencing unwanted consequences of recreational (i.e., non-procreative) sex whenever we are safely and reliably able to do so needs to be part of “health care”. And just as all tax payers are required to contribute to the drone bomber program, all employers are required to cover health care costs for their employees, including forms of health care which enable these employees to have sex without making babies if they so choose. Just as pacifists do not have the right not to pay taxes just because they don’t believe in supporting war, employers do not have the right not to pay for broad health insurance coverage for their employees just because they don’t believe in enabling recreational sex.

ReligiousFreedomRally1_wide-5ef89e31d8b4bb636bcf5f59083eb7f0873704a1-s6-c30From there this is no longer a question of freedom of religion; it becomes a question of the perpetual hobby of the religious right to flex their lobbying muscles. Unlike Sweden’s Muslim students, joint Catholic-Evangelical right wing political pressure groups in the US don’t feel like they are in a position where they must helplessly accept the government’s decrees on such matters. They have been fighting tooth and nail against everything they believe President Obama stands for for more than 6 years already (ever since he began actively campaigning for the office), and the goal of finding excuses to tear holes in his health care legacy appears to be much more important to them than working to strategically reduce the sinfulness of their fellow citizens even. This makes their illness, as Pope Francis defines it, all the more acute. We’re not talking about any manifestation of Christ’s compassion here, but its polar opposite: a power struggle based on purely on hate of the “other”.

obamacare_1_590_396Being as I see the Pope as being on the same side of this issue as I am, I hope it is clear that I’m not in some paranoid way anti-Catholic, but there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in claiming “freedom of religion” as a defense for traditional Catholic beliefs in this matter. It is easily forgotten by those who insist on this ancient tradition’s right to respect that it was not until two years after the Catholic president John F. Kennedy’s assassination that the Catholic Church issued its first statement nominally accepting the whole idea of freedom of religion as part of its official teaching. This went directly against centuries of Catholic teaching explicitly rejecting such a principle, and there are still Catholics today who consider the Second Vatican Council to have committed heresy in making such a statement. This group is a rather small minority within the Catholic Church, but then again so are those who strictly adhere to the church’s official teachings on sex and birth control. The difference is that the anti-religious liberty faction no longer has official status within the Catholic Church; the anti-birth control faction does have such status.

But from an American constitutional perspective all that is beside the point. The point is that, in principle, no one should be telling these most ideologically conservative Catholics what they are and are not allowed to believe, even if they have been historically prone to try to tell others what they are and are not allowed to believe. We cannot tell them what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith, even if their goal is still to tell others what they are or are not allowed to believe and how they must practice their faith.

From here it must be acknowledged that the specific combined case coming before the Supreme Court this month involves strictly Protestant plaintiffs. Does that make it unfair to specifically critique the Catholic position on this one? I don’t think so. As any of the evangelical Protestant opinion leaders on this issue will tell you, when it comes to “pro-life” political activism such as this, thanks largely to the influence of Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop in the late 70s and early 80s, Protestants have been progressively “catching up” with Catholic positions on these matters over the course of the past generation. They share a political goal of restoring Christian ideologies to a position of dominance within the political process and in other cultural arenas. In efforts such as the Manhattan Declaration they have set aside their doctrinal differences for the time being, until the cultural dominance “Judeo-Christian values,” as they loosely define them, is restored.

IX-PiusIt would be fair to say that the Protestant partners in this effort haven’t really thought this matter through yet in philosophical terms. The Catholic position on the question is based on cultural norms predating the American Civil War and other scientific discoveries and cultural crises of the period of the industrial revolution. Catholic teaching against birth control goes back in practice to the teachings of Pope Pius IX, whose long and dysfunctional reign left many cultural scars on Western society in general. Pius’ understanding of sexual reproduction was still based on the Aristotelian understanding of the subject adopted by Thomas Aquinas: the basic soul of the baby was contained in the father’s sperm, and the material for building a body to house that soul was to be found in the mother. It was thus a wife’s job to provide as many bodies as possible for millions of little souls contained in her husband’s sperm, and for a man to never intentionally ejaculate in any that did not give these little souls the possibility of finding bodies for themselves within a woman’s uterus. Obviously most of these souls would never find bodies, but that was beside the point; masturbation was still tantamount to murder.

Later scientific discoveries of 23 chromosomes coming from each parent and all that made little difference in the matter doctrinally: the main issue remained enabling the Church to exercise as much control as possible over people’s sex lives and encouraging Catholic families to procreate as much as possible.

The mandate to maximize procreation made a lot of strategic sense in an era when most poor families would lose as many children to childhood diseases as they would see through to adulthood, and when many young men would die in battle, fighting “for God and country” and many young women would die giving birth to their first or second child. So of course it was only natural that you wouldn’t want to reduce your odds of your bloodline’s survival by limiting the number of children you had. These days, however, the effort to make strategic sense of a mandate to raise large families is a much more abstract process. Our instinctive desires have evolved more in the direction of taking better care of every individual child we chose to have, and not accepting the routine loss of two or three of them in each family as “the will of God” and part of the proper order of things. This largely eliminates the need to have as many children as possible to increase one’s odds of evolutionary survival, with women regularly dying in childbirth being seen as “acceptable collateral damage” and also part of “God’s will” for them.  We have become completely comfortable with “playing God” in matters of limiting childhood and maternal deaths, so it should follow from there that we are also ready to “play God” more in terms of how many babies we keep making.

benedict-2010Now in his last encyclical letter Pope Benedict XVI did have an argument to offer in favor of the socio-economic benefits of continuing to make as many babies as possible: Basically, the more kids you have, the more human resources we will have in the global society as a whole. And as long as we don’t waste any of these human resources, their efforts and ingenuity will translate into greater technical innovations and greater expanded wealth for everyone in the future. To make that work all we have to do is to insure that every kid has enough to eat, adequate medical care and optimal educational opportunities to realize his/her potential. Towards that end we just need to establish a major international organization –– sort of like the United Nations, only “with teeth,” as Benedict says (§ 67) –– for the massive global redistribution of wealth to make sure these kids are provided for. As long as we can establish the sort of global socialist mega-bureaucracy necessary, there’s really no reason to have any form of “artificial birth control” in the world… or so Benedict believes… or at least so he claims… but somehow I don’t see that happening.

So until the social structures Benedict envisions globally are in place, enabling couples to freely decide how often they want to make babies in the process of sexually satisfying each other seems to make an abundance of sense –– for reasons of defending social stability, domestic economics, and yes, for women’s health even. If that involves allowing and even enabling people to have sex without making babies –– thus taking a bit more control over how many babies are born and over how many woman die making them –– more than some religious folk are comfortable with, I think we can live with the idea of limiting the realization of their religious ideals in that regard. Not that this will do much to limit their lobbying hobby, but hopefully it won’t affect the court decision this time around.


Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, News, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)


Filed under Education, Empathy, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Spirituality

The God Abstraction

Like most who claim to be theists, an important part of my religious experience is my sense of a “personal relationship with God”. I have a sense of personal security in the idea that there is “someone listening to my prayers,” in being cared about by forces bigger than my human community, etc. In talking about meta-ethics, however, I readily recognize that this sort of faith does not in itself entail objective evidence of a shared foundation for debating practical moral issues with those who do not share my faith. For purposes of discussing that matter we need to turn, not to personal experiences as such, but to consideration of abstract principles which work for a broader spectrum of individuals prone to think in terms of abstract principles.

Old Man PraysIn fact there are probably far more people in this world who can personally relate to my “believer’s testimony” than who can relate to my meta-ethical arguments as such. The global community of those who share this latter hobby is actually painfully small –– a tiny academic priesthood dutifully preaching to their own choirs with very vague hopes of their message spilling out into the broader world. Even so, while the process of “doing ethics” based on debate over abstract principles will never be a matter of consensus with the broader spectrum of society, there is good reason to believe that many of those who are paid to figure out basic principles of human cooperation at least –– diplomats, constitutional lawyers, bishops, social service administrators, etc. –– tend to take such rational processes seriously, providing such arguments with greater practical value than the number of participants in such would otherwise imply.

Thus, though it is rather abstract from the meaning faith in the divine has to those who share it, I recognize the importance of being ready to discuss God, or the spiritual realm, as an abstract concept for ethical purposes. Doing so has the same sort of utility and limitations as speaking of “marriage” in very general terms. In practice every marriage is unique, involving its own dynamics of competition and cooperation between the partners in question, with varying levels of legal, logistical, cultural and hormonal ties binding the couple together.  When we speak of “marriage equality” or “the defense of marriage”, underneath all of the abstractly simplified polemics we basically recognize that we’re speaking in very generalized terms about constantly evolving cultural standards in terms of which to relate to literally billions of very different and very complex personal relationships. The same qualification applies to ethical discussions of “religion” as such.  The point isn’t to capture the essence of each individual spiritual experience, or even spiritual experiences in general, but rather to find a way of categorically defining these experiences as some sort of collective phenomenon, and to see how this phenomenon relates to our cultural processes of understanding what we are entitled to expect from ourselves and each other in moral terms.

So setting aside personal experiences of faith I wish to now fulfill a promise I made last month in on-line dialog and consider, in rather abstract terms, why I consider it to be useful to include concepts of God in meta-ethical debates. There are, I believe, effectively three arguments to be considered here: the Platonic tradition in deontology, Dostoevsky’s dilemma, and what I will call the Challenge of Connectivity. In considering these arguments, let me one more time remind you of the marriage analogy: I do not claim that these capture the most essential aspects of any given religion, or that they prove that all religions are right or even valuable; any more than speaking of the need to preserve the institution of marriage in some form or another implies that all traditional marriages involve healthy interpersonal dynamics. These are merely abstract reasons why I believe that the debate over defining moral absolutes is most constructive when religious perspectives are respected within the process. So with no further disclaimers, let’s move into the arguments themselves:

The Platonic Tradition

Jean-François-Pierre_Peyron_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_WGA17398Nowhere is Whitehead’s playful claim about Western philosophy being nothing more than a footnote on the works of Plato more true than in the field of meta-ethics. The questions of what it means to be morally good and why bother with such a project are the core issues debated in Plato’s best known work: The Republic. His perspective in approaching these questions is clearly colored by one intensive practical consideration: true moral goodness cannot be left as a matter of rational self-interest, or as a matter of personal taste, and especially not as a matter of social agreement within society. We need to find some “higher standard” for moral goodness than the sort of social contract mechanism that ended up condemning Socrates to death. In Plato’s mind this more or less automatically implied looking for standards “outside of the cave”, particularly in the realm of the gods. That is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of his own polytheistic culture as such, or of any other given religious system, but in looking for answers to the question of a basis morality beyond the material advantage, existential preference and social contract levels, Plato’s reasoning has more or less continuously been interpreted as pointing to an other-worldly basis for ethics. From there, painting in very broad brush strokes, it can be claimed that St. Augustine “Christianized” Plato’s perspective, Kant “rationalized” Augustine’s perspective, and the rest of the deontological tradition since then has been attempting to “enlighten” Kant’s perspective by looking for ways around the other-worldly premises it is built on… with rather limited success.

Basically, if you’re going to keep “writing footnotes on Plato” you sort of have to confront the issue of how he relates virtue to something greater than human experience, and it’s hard to do that without stumbling into religious territory. Deontology –– defining principles of right and wrong as important objects unto themselves rather than means of getting other stuff you want –– can be pretty abstract stuff under any circumstances, but it becomes ever more so when you try to deliver it without the religious element. It gets to be like decaffeinated energy drink, or alcohol-free vodka; you start to wonder what the point is. It intuitively makes more sense to more people if you postulate that there is some spiritual principle involved –– some god who is pleased when you do things the right way, or some mechanism like karma that rewards those who respect the rights of others.

Dostoevsky’s dilemma

“If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This famous quote from The Brothers Karamazov is frequently used by those on all sides of the issue outside of its narrative context. The novel in question is the third of the three great work by this hero of Russian literature, following Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. All of these are epic tragedies with mildly consoling endings. Crime and Punishment is the tragedy of anarchistic idealism, The Idiot is the tragedy of religious idealism (sometimes referred to as agapism), and The Brothers is the tragedy of hedonism and the idealism of following one’s passions. Within this context the most intellectual of the Karamazov brothers had written philosophical articles largely to the same effect of the advertising campaign that British atheists put onto London busses a few years back: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

theres-probably-no-godw500h283A personal adaptation of this advice, however, leads directly to his illegitimate brother murdering their father, with his other half-brother ending up taking the fall for it. As in Crime and Punishment and less directly in The Idiot as well, we’re left with the questions of “What’s wrong with murder, if it’s done for noble reasons?” and “Are there principles which are more important than the sacredness of human life as such?” The famous quote above is then essentially used, in functional terms, as a means of contemplating the various justifications for murder in just these terms. If “enjoying life” requires the elimination of someone else’s life, someone who has a direct role in limiting your own enjoyment of life, what’s to stop you from doing so? The norms of a rather dysfunctional society and its semi-functional legal system? Perhaps in some cases, but certainly not in others. Evolutionary pressures of some sort? Highly unlikely. Without the restraint of believing in some higher power which enforces rules against such, killing becomes a lot more excusable in such cases.

I am not trying to set aside all of the horrible deeds, including murder, which have been carried out in the name of various god-concepts over the centuries. I am merely saying that Dostoevsky has a very legitimate point in saying, through his characters and plot lines, that by removing the “fear of God” from those who are struggling with passionate desires to do what is not socially acceptable, risks become substantially increased. From there we can come back to considering the potential literal truth value of Ivan Karamazov’s dictum. On one level he is obviously wrong: There will be many things that any sustainable society will forbid as matters of expedience, regardless of whether there is a God there to enforce them or not. Thus, in the strictest sense, some things will certainly not be permitted, at least in terms of societal norms, regardless of whether or not there is a God involved. Is that enough in terms of providing us with principles to live by though? Like Plato, most philosophers these days would tend to think not. The question is whether they can do any better than that without postulating some “higher” source of justice beyond the material realm, a.k.a. (in the vast majority of cases) “God”.

The Challenge of Connectivity

Somewhat, though not entirely, interrelated with the above arguments is what might be called the non-forensic aspect of spirituality and spiritual experience: the sense that, regardless of legal and moral justification factors, on some level we are all (or we all want to be) part of something significant, virtuous and bigger than ourselves. This has been conceptualized in thousands of different ways, in both religious and secular terms, none of which are completely flawless regardless of what their fundamentalist defenders have to say about the matter. Yet regardless of the formulation challenges involved, I would propose that the most viable basic premise and source of motivation for ethics must stem from this drive to be part of something greater than ourselves.

community-e1287223431337There are two major challenges involved in this search for connectivity that we are hard-wired to participate in: the problem of maintaining personal integrity and thus avoiding schizophrenia, and the problem of avoiding things we see as evil. We need to have some functional sense of the borders between “self” and “other” on many different practical levels; and we want to avoid connecting ourselves too directly with genocidal dictators, mass-murdering psychopaths and child abusers of various sorts. In short, we need to find ways of not only conceptualizing our “star dust” connection with things beyond ourselves; we also need to find ways of conceptualizing limits in our associations with things we would choose not to be part of. Religion in general is a collection of systems progressively being worked out to meet that dual need. “God”, in abstract analytical terms here, is a personalized form associated with the ultimate power(s) that connect(s) the virtues, circles of empathy and harmonious elements of life we feel the need to connect with, while excluding the evils we wish to distance ourselves from. There are good reasons to question the ways in which particular religions draw these lines, but there are also good reasons for respecting the process of considering these broader connectivity questions in religious terms. Ultimately happiness and misery, reward and punishment, heaven and hell, have a lot more to do with these factors than with naïvely conceptualized matters of hedonistic calculus.


I present these perspectives not as a means of attempting to prove that those who do not share my faith must necessarily be irrational, dishonest or morally corrupt. I believe that many who reject religious beliefs do so because they have “issues” with matters of connectivity in general, but I also believe that many religious people also struggle with similar “issues”. If I can help some on either side learn to relate constructively to those on the other side I find that personally gratifying, but I’ve no illusions of being able to solve all such problems. Likewise I see belief in a purely subjective or genetically and socially conditioned set of moral principles, for all their foibles, as the best we can do, as a fundamentally honest and consistent approach on the matter, and something that can lead to many practical moral principles that I can strongly align myself with, regardless of my differences in premises. I am with the majority of professional thinkers on these matters, however, in daring to believe in and pursue an understanding of something greater than that. Yet unlike the slight majority of those who take part in such a pursuit, I dare to continue to conceptualize this “something greater” in non-materialistic, spiritual terms. I find that efforts to do “moral realism” on any substitutionary basis –– replacing the supernatural realm, in one form or another, as the primary locus for moral absolutes as they have been primarily conceptualized since the time of Plato, with some vague concept intended to harmonize better with a reductionist materialist world popularized by the natural sciences –– tend to lack persuasive power in terms of finding viable alternative foundations to point to. I’m not writing them off as stupid, but I do question the thoroughness with which they have thought things through in this regard. And if they wish to challenge the thoroughness of my own thought in turn, I’m entirely cool with that.

So let the dialog continue from here.


Filed under Ethics, Love, Philosophy, Religion, Social identity, Spirituality

That Old Time Religion

In looking into philosophical perspectives on the “proper” role of religion in politics, a few weeks ago I stumbled over the work of Brian Leiter on the subject. This was a fortuitous discovery in terms of providing me with a quality example of the sort of discourse which is respected in the field in which I am doing my dissertation. For other purposes it seems to be an example of how painfully wrong-headed thinking can be presented in excellent style.

leiter coverThe book of Leiter’s that I have out of the library at present is entitled Why Tolerate Religion?, published last year by Princeton University Press. Its approach is primarily that of judicial philosophy: considering the subject of what sort of approach to the subject would be most just from an international law perspective. The practical case that he focuses on is one of a Sikh boy in Canada who considers it to be his religious duty to carry a small but deadly bladed weapon –– his ceremonial kirpan –– to school with him each day, in spite of the school’s blanket prohibition on students carrying weapons to school with them. For the Canadian court this was actually a bit of a no-brainer: the rule was established to insure student safety, and never in the history of Canada has a Sikh used his kirpan offensively against any fellow student or citizen, thus allowing a devout Sikh student to carry one poses no significant threat to the safety the rule was established to protect. Beyond that it was unanimously recognized by the high court judges as a healthy part of the young man’s social, moral and religious identity, which Canadian and international law goes to great length to protect.

kirpan permission

Leiter, however, has a bit of a problem with the principle of the matter. Why is it that such provisions are made just for religious folk? What makes religion so special as a legal and political factor? Why can’t any kid who has a major existential and traditional commitment to his blade carry one to school?

His way of further exploring the issue gets more and more problematic as he goes along. The decisive wrong turn he takes in chapter 2 is, setting aside Durkheim and the rest of the sociological tradition which follows, to define religion in general in a particularly hostile manner: Religion is the field where things are taken as “matters of faith”, which, siting legal philosopher Timothy Macklem, Leiter takes to be things, “where the quest for reasons is impossible but commitment [even without reasons] is potentially valuable” (pp. 31-2, bracketed phrase Leiter’s). On this basis Leiter’s essential definition for religion (p. 34) is essentially anything which 1) issues categorical demands for action, and 2) does not answer to evidence or reason. Given that essential definition for the entity he stands in opposition to, it is hardly surprising that he comes to the conclusion that legal provisions for the toleration of such are philosophically not justified.

Leiter’s negative perspective becomes somewhat more understandable when it is placed in the context of his personal negative experiences in Texas, which he states outright in the preface: “My interest in the topic of religious toleration arose when teaching at the University of Texas–Austin and witnessing in the years 2001 to 2008 the pernicious influence of reactionary Christians on both politics and public education in the state.” (p. ix) In exploring the realm of religious culpability in political matters he goes as far as saying, “religious believers overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, widely considered one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States, whom many think ought to be held morally culpable for the illegal war of aggression against Iraq as well as the casualties resulting from domestic mismanagement.”

It is not hard to see where his negative perspective on the matter comes from then. Jeffrey Stout comments that his difference of perspective on religion in politics with his fellow Princetonian philosopher of the subject, Richard Rorty, primarily stemmed from the fact that Stout viewed religious influences in politics through the lens of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu, while Rorty viewed them through the lens of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. I would thus agree with Leiter in one particular unstated premise of his work: many politicians who have used Christianity as a demagogic tool in the political process, and many of the rank and file of the “religious right” who follow them, have a distinct tendency to make asses out of themselves.

Setting aside this particular cultural problem for the time being, however, let’s go back to the basic matter of what makes religion religion, particularly in legal terms. The obvious, and obviously outdated, definitions on the subject have to do with belief in God or gods. In de facto legal matters questions of religious rights and requirements for religious tolerance always essentially come back to what people understand as, in James Madison’s words, “duties that we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging them.” We all know that Buddhism officially counts as a religion without believing in the relevance of a creator to our day-to-day moral lives, but that doesn’t really change the essence of the issue in legal or philosophical terms: karma provides an essential philosophical place-holder for God in this given system, thus implying a certain requirement of respect for that traditional understanding of the universe on much the same grounds as for those who believe in more active divinities. The primary point is that there are transcendent bases for our particular moral actions, based on factors that really can’t be reduced down to a strictly materialist perspective.

Another aspect of religion as religion that is particularly relevant here is that it is a communal phenomenon, never merely a manner of personal spiritual experiences. St. Paul speaks of the community of Christian believers as analogously forming a “body” which takes on the role of being “the bride of Christ”. Refusal to associate with others in that same “body” makes one’s Christian identity as such somewhat subject to question. And in this respect it should be pointed out that Christianity is quite certainly the most individualistic of all significant world religions; if Christianity has this communal aspect built into its very fiber, a fortiori other religions certainly do as well. No system which does not equip people to relate constructively not only to their understanding of God, or whatever else is “out there”, but also to their fellow man –– “brothers and sisters in faith” or otherwise –– deserves the title of “religion”.

A third factor which, especially in sociological terms, is essential to the definition of religion, is a multi-generational tradition. Some group which is just starting out, worshipping someone, or worshipping according to the principles laid out by someone who is still alive or who has died less than a generation or two ago, doesn’t technically get to call itself a religion; they are still just a “cult”. That doesn’t have to be a pejorative term, other than in indicating the fact that the belief in question has yet to stand the test of time and enable its community of believers to thrive within their given social environments. Questions of what legal rights cults should be entitled to as such are, strictly speaking, matters of freedom of conscience more than freedom of religion. That may not make a great difference in terms of moral philosophy, but in terms of judicial decision making it can have some rather important implications.

If we change around this fundamental definition of what counts as religion in this way it essentially screws up Leiter’s whole argument against taking religious toleration as a foundational principle in moral and legal philosophy, but it combines with some of his other arguments in ways that lead to interesting conclusions that Leiter hasn’t really taken into account. Primary among these is the virtue of tolerance as tolerance. Tolerance as a virtue is, by definition, a matter of respecting compromise for its own sake. If I am entirely indifferent towards some particular practice, such as my Muslim friends’ religious practice of always putting on their right shoe first in the morning, then there is no justification for speaking of “toleration” in that context. Likewise if I compromise with someone merely because I am not in a secure position from which to overpower and completely subdue them, then that is not exercising any essential social virtue; it is merely a matter of calculating the maximum realization of my selfish personal interest in what I see as non-ideal situations.

Leiter effectively lays out three essential arguments for what he calls “principled toleration” in this sense: toleration as an ideal state of affairs rather than as a matter of indifference or as a strategic position taken for lack of capacity to completely dominate the other. The first is taken from John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, essentially assuming that religious and moral values are things we are socialized into, with little choice in the matter, thus becoming an involuntary aspect of who each of us is as a person to the same extent as skin color, handedness and raw athletic capacities. On this basis it would make sense for someone entering into the “game” of human life without knowing what “cards they will be dealt” in this regard, to agree ahead of time to a rule according to which rejection of the other person based on religious identity would not be allowed. This would also include a provision that religious majorities should grant certain basic rights to religious minorities. To do otherwise would be just as unjust as penalizing “lefties” or red-heads or tall people for having those characteristics.

Rawls’ argument is a deontological one –– based on understandings of moral principle for its own sake. The other arguments (or broad categories of argument) that Leiter lays out are more utilitarian: based on providing the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of people in practice. First among these is the assertion that freedom is an important aspect of satisfaction in human life unto itself. In some ways, as applied to religious or other moral convictions, this runs contrary to the essential deontological argument given above: if people really are able to choose what they believe to be right or wrong on transcendent bases, then there is no point in making provisions for acceptance of what were assumed to be involuntary matters of personal and social identity. But given the uncertainty we are left with in regard to the extent to which we are able to choose anything in practice, and given the extent to which at least an illusion of being able to determine our own destinies remains an important motivational factor in human psychology, it is not unreasonable to leave both justifications in play without them cancelling each other out.

Leiter’s third potential argument for principled toleration of religious difference is based on John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which he labels as the epistemic argument for toleration. It basically says that 1) processes of moral learning serve to increase overall human happiness, and 2) proper moral learning can only take place in an atmosphere of some accepted diversity –– where there are possibilities of choosing between what we come to see as better and worse options, none of which are strictly excluded. Thus leaving the door open to various “experiments in living” is an essential aspect of increasing human happiness by way of enabling people to discover the sorts of “moral truth” that cannot be arrived at merely by means of authoritative instruction.

Leiter’s negative attitude towards the value of religion as such keeps him from accepting the idea that religious beliefs are worthy of special toleration on the above grounds, but again, that comes as no serious surprise. The practical issues in question essentially fall into two categories: 1) Under what circumstances should people be granted exceptions from otherwise universally applicable rules based on their religious beliefs? And 2) Under what circumstances can we consider particular laws to be unjustifiable based on their intent to violate the religious convictions of particular groups? Setting aside the sensitive issues of Leiter’s resentments towards Bush fans, the go-to practical examples here are, respectively, Canada’s acceptance of Sikh kirpans in schools and France’s ban of Islamic headscarves in schools. Without going through the details of his arguments against religion as a basis for judicial decision-making on these matters, let me close here by giving my own semi-religious perspective on such matters.

gurbaj-singh-mutali-kirpanExceptions to rules need to be granted all the time, and not merely on religious grounds, but religious grounds provide some of the strongest grounds for making such exceptions. I teach teenagers in a public school, so I here imaginative pleas for exceptions to established rules based on all sorts of premises pretty much daily. There are rules requiring students to be present (and on time) for all basic lesson periods. There are rules regarding the level of work students should be expected to do at home between lessons. There are rules regarding when students are allowed off of school premises during the school day. There are rules regarding when students are allowed within school buildings for purposes other than attending classes (mandatory outside recess periods). Rarely does a working day go by for me without some student appealing to me to allow an exception to one or another of these rules. All of these pleas, when they go beyond the level of “Pleeeaase Mr. Huisjen!” have a certain common structure of 1) acknowledging the essential purpose of the rule, 2) presenting some factor of greater personal or moral importance than the factor which the rule is intended to safeguard, and 3) making a case for the exception being small enough so as not to endanger the principle which the rule has been instituted to protect. In these regards the level of discretion that I must exercise as part of my work is not essentially any different from that which any policeman or judge must exercise. Our own human psychological limitations will always come into play, but as matters of principle we can generally tell when those three bases for a valid excuse are being met and when they are not. Given the nature of religion as I see it, I have no problem with students having time off to observe religious festivals that are not built into our school calendar because they concern small minorities within the school community, or with Muslim kids staying inside to do their salat together on part of their outside recess break, or any other minor infringement of school rules based on their families’ religious practices. In terms of their role in enforcing respect for tradition transcendent standards for morality and social participation, I see religious observations as doing far more good than harm. If, like Leiter, I saw them merely as irrational cultural practices childishly demanding to have their own way, I might be less charitable, but in this matter I believe he is just categorically wrong.

When it comes to rules being instituted with specific prejudice against given religious groups, I believe the case is more complex, involving the balance between religious identity and broader social solidarity on the one hand, and between the utility associated with given religious practices according to religious teachings themselves and the harm that comes about through their practice on the other. Thus I strongly support laws against female genital cutting of any sort, regardless of religious justifications for such; in part because it is a matter of physically altering the girl for purpose of keeping her within the religious/tribal community, in part because the physical harm caused far outweighs any purported benefits brought about by such an operation. Just because some claim that it is a religious procedure does not, in my considered opinion, justify its tolerance or continuation. If laws against it seem to target some particular religious group, so be it.

4headscarves_Said_TzarnaevYet when it comes to the famous headscarf ban, I find this rule clearly unjustified. The religious motivation at issue is admittedly somewhat questionable: an assumption that for a woman to reveal her hair in public is a means of drawing masculine attention, in ways that may cause problematic responses from the men in question. I don’t believe there is any justification for men making unwanted sexual advances towards women based on their hair being exposed. The very thought strikes me as absurd, regardless of its having been dignified by various Islamic mullahs over the centuries. But that does not mean that I accept a prohibition on women modestly covering their hair, based in part on their sense of religious identity, to be justifiable either.

Along the same lines, I believe that if women wish to dress in such a way that the outlines of their nipples are visible through their clothing, that may reflect a particularly edgy intent on their part, and there may be good reasons to institute dress codes against that level of exposure in some cases, but their choice to dress that way is not a justification for any masculine lack of restraint in approaching them. I fully support the ethic behind “slut walks” to shame those who would blame women for violence against them based on how they choose to dress. But that being said, even though I do not see many of the religious arguments mandating the wearing of padded bras and/or thicker sweaters to be rationally justifiable, I would certainly not support a dress code which forces girls to make keep their nipples visible regardless of any religiously instituted cultural modesty requirements they might wish to observe to the contrary! To me the headscarf ban really makes no more sense than that.

Questions of what is essential and what is incidental to any given religion will always be subject to debate, both within the religion in question and among its outsiders. A fortiori, what is essential and what is incidental to religion in general is also going to be somewhat contentious in many contexts. This does not justify making straw men out of religious values for attack as Leiter has done. I would agree that there are many times when tolerance should not be limited to religious matters, but it that does not follow from there that religion should not be a very specific basis for toleration.

For the rest, I’ll leave it between those who believe differently than I do and their God (or whatever else they believe in).


Filed under Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Tolerance

Life in the Interregnum

This week, at a sweet little academic event in Estonia, I got to meet the legendary European intellectual Zygmunt Bauman, arguably the greatest surviving theorist of the old postmodern movement. It was a great collection of moments, giving me among other things a chance to ask if I had properly interpreted his intent with the blogs I wrote about his ideas last summer. I didn’t get particularly direct answers on that, but I would have been rather shocked if I had. Not only does Bauman have better things to do in his late eighties than to contemplate my ideas, but he has a well established reputation for finding ways around talking about things he doesn’t wish to talk about.

058Bauman’s trademark term these days is “liquid modern”, which is broadly taken as a euphemism for the same vague collection of ideas as “postmodernism”: the loss of old certainties, borders being washed away, everything being in a state of flux and flow, etc. It remains somewhat of an open question whether this state of affairs should be considered more of a tragedy or an opportunity. That’s one of the things Bauman particularly wants to avoid being pinned down on. In his trademark self-irony regarding his advanced age he merely states that there’s no going back to the past, and the long-term future is really not his problem anymore.

Bauman’s focus in this week’s talks was his current theme of the contemporary Interregnum. This word, he tells us, was first used in dealing with the crisis following the “loss” of Rome’s first king, Romulus. Romulus had ruled for 38 years, which was longer than the average life expectancy in Rome at the time. Thus the vast majority of Romans had never known any form of life where King Romulus wasn’t “guiding their lives”. As far as we know this is also the first case of a legend being established for a ruler not dying but being swept up into heaven while still alive to rule among the gods. But this left the people with the question of now how were they going to turn for direction. Soon enough another king came along and commenced ruling in much the same style as Romulus, and there followed a string of kings of that model which continued until the aristocracy got tired of them and set about to form a republic. That transition involved a whole new form of interregnum. Thereafter history has tossed many other sorts of transitions at us that we can call “interregnums”, some more hectically dangerous than others; with the common feature, to paraphrase Gramsci, of the old ways no longer working, but the new ways having yet to be invented.

In this sense it seems entirely fair to say that we are in a particularly significant global interregnum at present, in terms of both power and ideology. It’s happened before, but not on this scale in quite a while. Bauman theorizes that what we are witnessing is nothing less than the collapse of the final remnants of the Peace of Westphalia. The privileged position of nation-states to determine the religious norms within their borders, to negotiate in a binding way for all of their citizens and to be the ultimate loci of diplomatic and economic authority is effectively gone. It could even be said that the primary role of nation-states had its last hurrah when the Berlin Wall fell. In place of all the grandiose monuments of competing republics from the Cold War era, Berlin is now the site of grandiose monuments of competing multi-national electronics corporations. The de facto ruling principle of the world for the last few decades has been not the state, but the all-powerful “invisible hand of the market,” with its little minions manipulating state governments as they see fit, with impunity.

083The market, however, has already proven itself to be an incompetent mechanism of social organization. The rampant inequality, continuous high tech war-mongering against non-state entities, the incoherent “culture wars” brought in as a distraction and the continuous scattered protest movements that characterize contemporary societies together provide ample testimony to the fact that the current crop of sociopaths at the top of the laissez faire economic pig-pile are unlikely to remain there for long. Nor is there any particular reason to defend this dying system other than perhaps out of a general fear of change. Bauman gave a glowing endorsement to South African novelist and intellectual J. M. Coetzee before quoting him as saying, “God did not make the market –– God, or the spirit of history. If we human beings made it, can we not unmake it and re-make it in another form? Why does the world have to be kill or be killed (gladiatorial amphitheater) rather than say a cooperative […] atrium?”

The relevant question, however, is less one of what needs to be done, but rather how we can go about empowering someone to do it. We’re not ready to hand this authority over to Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, David Koch, Vladimir Putin or Martti Ahtisaari, or anyone else you might imagine as a new global statesman. The closest think that Bauman suggests to an answer to this dilemma is to start looking to the pragmatic flow of life in cities in particular as the starting point for democratic solutions. Cities have a dual role in contemporary society: they are the dumping grounds for all forms of socially discarded individuals, and they are the experimental laboratories for developing new means of cross-cultural and inter-cultural cooperation and communication. On this basis Bauman is ready to tentatively endorse Benjamin Barber’s suggestion of letting mayors rule the world.

But this is endorsement is quite tentative. “The only certainty is uncertainty.” The analogy he uses is one of “primeval mountain climbing”: “When you’re climbing a steep slope you know one thing for sure: you can’t settle there, because there are gusts of wind blowing from all directions that can destroy your camp in no time. So you have to keep going, you have to keep climbing if you want to stay alive. But, and that’s a very big but, until you reach the mountain pass you have no idea what is on the other side of the mountain. …We can’t rely on any temporary traction settlement.”

Meanwhile, while we’re climbing, waiting to see what is on the other side of this historical mountain and hoping for the best in terms of whatever sort of reign comes next, there remains the question of “Which way is up?” How can we maintain some sort of climbing momentum? How do we act in a morally responsible and constructive way in terms of our political participation, in the broadest sense of the word?

huisjen bauman tallinnI put the proposal to Bauman that his take in On Education seems to imply that building active citizenship skills in the next generation might be a valid starting point. I didn’t get a direct answer. Here’s how he responded:

“I admit that I am here making virtue out of necessity, because the ability to dialog –– the ability to live profitably with others holding to different views, others holding to different predilections, different preferences, different values and so on –– that is effectively required. The problem with liquid modernity, since I’ve already used this term, is that it erodes the social or the foundation or morphology of solidarity.

“The choice state of modernity could be charged with very many crimes, very many mis-doings, but one advantage it had over the present time, and that was precisely that the massive industrial production created by the imperial side of modernity, whatever these factories produced, they also produced, in addition, also human solidarity. They were cast into the situation where spontaneously, automatically almost, created this feeling of being in the same boat, sharing faith, necessity to come together, solidarity and so on. It was a time of collective bargaining, and what’s important really, mutual dependency. If you take the typical Fordist factory, of course the workers working for Ford were dependent on Ford for their living, but Ford on his side was dependent on his workers for their work. They were mutually dependent. He couldn’t pack up his Detroit factories and transfer them to Bangladesh or to other places where there is more docile working class and where people are prepared to work like those …who were killed in the recent catastrophe in a Bangladesh factory, working for $38 per week. He wasn’t able to do that. He knew that his future, his work depended on his workers. When both sides know that they are doomed to live together, that they are bound to meet again tomorrow and next week and next month and next year, and for the next ten years, then they sit around the table and they quarrel and they go on strike or whatever, but they quarrel and fight in order to arrive at some sort of modus vivendi which is acceptable to both sides. So those factories were factories of solidarity, not by desire but by default. That was their nature.

“Today places of employment are factories of mutual suspicion. There is no collective bargaining. There is no ‘one for all, all for one.’ It is everyone for himself. When it comes to the next round of redundancies you have to prove that you are working better than the next person, and therefore the next person rather would be the victim of redundancy, not you. That’s a situation which puts you under a condition of enforced antagonism or suspicion. So we are losing our ability of spontaneous solidarity. We are also losing another ability. (I’m not a prophet. I’m only noting the present day tendencies. I am trying to bring them to your attention.) We are losing the skills of dialog.

Allegedly, and this is my great, great frustration, universal access to Internet is already happening. It should precisely do the opposite –– open the variety of the human species in front of everybody, expose them to different arguments, to variegation of the human condition, and so on. Ladies and gentlemen, we have replaced communities with networks. Networks have the one great advantage over communities that they are created and re-created constantly with two activities. One activity is connecting and the other is disconnecting. Internet gives you the perfect opportunity to connect with the world, while virtually all researchers of actual use of Internet by people document exactly the opposite: that it is a very powerful instrument of separating yourself from the differences in the world.

“It is so childishly easy on Internet to do what is tremendously difficult to do on any street of a big city. If you go to the street of a big city today and you cannot avoid the trial of coming face to face with different colors of skin, different views, different ways of behavior, different ways of dressing or whatever. When you are spending your average, according to the latest research, 7½ hours in front of a computer screen, not another human being. It is childishly easy to switch to another website and forget about all of the differences in the world. You are closing yourself into what can be called an echo chamber. The only sounds that you hear are the reflections of your own voice… You listen only to like-minded people. Therefore Internet, the network, is a trouble-free area. You don’t have any trouble. You don’t have to dialog. There’s no one to dialog with. You just go on through the rules of repeating the same views, the same slogans, the same ideas of what is interesting, and so on.

“Real dialog is confrontation with otherness, in which you are acting with a dual role. You must be some sort of a teacher, otherwise there would be no point for the other person to engage in dialog with you. You must bring some sort of a dowry, otherwise there’s no meaning. But also the role of a disciple, of a pupil. You must be prepared to learn from the other. You must assume from the start not that you are starting your speech at a university seminar, where the assumption is ‘I am right and I will prove that they are not.’ You have to be open to share your own experience and be prepared to be shown to be wrong –– to take the risk of being proved to be not as good as your other member of the dialog. So dialog is a confrontation, but because of being a confrontation it is also a non-zero-sum game. A real dialog does not divide the conversationalists into winners and losers. Everyone emerges from the dialog a winner. Everybody’s enriched by adding another experience to your whole and by getting rid of some mistakes you have made before. So you are richer than before. That’s the art of dialog, which is tremendously important in contemporary life and we all need that meta-task in a sense. Without learning the art of dialog and practicing it, I think we can’t really seriously, earnestly ever come towards resolving otherness.”

So yes, education is key to moving forward through the current interregnum, and philosophical education in particular is key to this process –– but perhaps not in the sense of pressing set facts and formulas into young minds, but rather teaching them to confront otherness without fear and to find ways to be enriched by it. This isn’t easy, because there are indeed many who have vested power interest in maintaining hatreds and tensions over areas of difference. That too is part of the challenge of the current interregnum. But another thing that can be both a prerequisite for dialog and the fruit of dialog is a “fusion of horizons”, according to which we realize that the other is a lot more like us than we thought, and that in order to get what we want out of life it seriously helps to enable the other to also get what he wants.

It would be more than a little naïve to assume that dialog will always work this way. Borrowing from folk wisdom in the field, Bauman allows himself the cynicism of admitting, “We never resolve an issue, we only get bored with them and take them off the agenda.” Nowhere is this more relevant than in regard to the uses and abuses of religion in the western world today, which another audience member asked the venerable old professor about. That question, however, he ducked even more thoroughly, stating the Europeanness as such is sociologically shown not to be that big a deal to anyone in particular, and that its relevance is not so much in terms of cultural heredity markers by rather in terms of the same “fusion of horizons” he spoke of earlier.


059Besides the thrill of meeting an important intellectual celebrity there was a lot to chew on from this lecture and the following formal and informal discussions. The interregnum theme applies in many different areas of life as I know it: old restrictions and certainties having crumbled to the point where we can neither restore them nor trust depend on them as a basis for cultural certainty; new rules and identifiers still taking shape, without any clear image yet of how they will work once they’ve properly taken hold. In the case of Finnish culture this relates quite directly to the transition out of the Nokia era, with its cultural emphasis on the whole PISA shtick, into God only knows what comes next. In African culture and post-colonial culture as a whole we have just come to the end of the Mandela era, with all that he symbolized for so many –– coming entirely expectedly and yet in a way that still felt sudden this winter. There is a distinct lack of a replacement moral hero for those who Madiba inspired in the world today. Then in the world of Christian influence on society we are arguably seeing the major implosion of the Fundamentalist reaction against modernism in general, seen in the US in particular in the way that the progression from the Moral Majority to the “Tea Party” has so thoroughly discredited itself with its moralistic lack of interest in anything that Jesus ever taught. People continue to need a sense of existentially significant shared identity as God’s people, and neither “New Atheist” nor Muslim fantasies about the demise of Christianity as the world’s largest religion in terms of meeting that need for people are likely to come true any time soon, but within Christianity we could easily now be facing the greatest era of re-definition of the faith since the time of Luther. That too may deserve to be called an interregnum.

So while we wait and watch to see what forms the new bosses take, I believe Bauman is entirely right that we need to keep building our dialog skills and keep actively involved in promoting the values of solidarity and sustainability. These exercises will have value regardless of what we happen to find on the other side of the mountain pass. Do I hear an Amen?

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Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, History, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture, Social identity, Sustainability

Open Letter to Daisy, Addendum

Dear Daisy,

I wrote to you here a few months ago to encourage you to reconsider the ways in which your crisis had rocked your faith in God and in society. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to read it through. It was sort of a long and dense text. Apparently a lot of people who care about you did read it anyway (some who strongly agreed, some who strongly disagreed), but that’s not the important thing right now. The important thing is that you find the sort of hope and faith that enables you to move forward.

Hearing about your recent setbacks and hospitalization really breaks my heart. I really wish I could find a way of comforting you and convincing you not to further increase the damage that’s been done to you. Setting all other issues of belief aside for the time being, I really hope that you, Daisy, start believing in Daisy again. I hope you stop in practice agreeing with all of the Maryville idiots who would like you to believe that your life is worthless. Thus I’m writing to you again. Humor me here as I take a shot at trying to convince you, without, I must confess, even really knowing you that well, that your life is important and worth somethingI would prefer to present my case in more personal and individually caring terms, but given how far I am from your situation I have to make my case rather philosophically instead. Forgive me for not having better to offer. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got.

Daisy hospitalizedAnyway, in philosophical terms we have to start out with the whole question of what makes anything or anyone valuable to begin with. The obvious answer that springs to mind for such things is how much someone is willing to pay, and how much competition there is to “get” that person or thing. That’s what we call “market value” and some would tell you that all other forms of value are just variations or sub-categories of that. Bovine excrement!

I’m not denying that market value is one very real form of value, but I’m very firmly convinced that it is not the only form of value, or even the most important kind. In fact I am firmly convinced that placing too much emphasis on market value, at the expense of all other sorts of values, is the fundamental reason why so many things are screwed up in our world today. I want to help you step back and look at the question of values from a somewhat broader perspective.

I propose that, to get an overview of all the different sorts of value in the world, we start with four general categories: material/instrumental value, personal/existential value, social/cultural value and spiritual/transcendent value. While I want to try to make this a bit less wordy and dense than my last letter to you, I still want to try to show you what I mean by each of those categories, and then show you how your crisis has probably rocked your believe in your own value in each of those four categories but how you –– as a human being, a young person, a lady and for many a symbol of courage –– continue to have value in each of those sorts of ways. Let’s see how I do.

Material/instrumental: Whatever else can be said about you, you are certainly a material, physical being. You may be more than that, but at the very minimum we can be pretty sure that you are a biological organism: You have a body, which happens to have been badly abused in the past few years. The important thing here is that, while I would encourage you to think of yourself as more than just a body, I want to remind you that your body is still a beautiful thing. Just because there’s an idiot who treated your body as a disposable form of amusement and pretty much got away with it does not mean that your body is without value. Nor is your body’s value based on its ability to stimulate male hormones. Every human body, like every snowflake, but infinitely more so, is an intricate marvel of design, deserving of respect and admiration for its own awesomeness. Not to “shove the Bible down your throat,” but this point is made as well in the Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament as anywhere: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)

I don’t want to minimize the pain and complication of this matter, but I strongly encourage you: please respect your body again; it really is a wonderful thing. Get comfortable in your own skin. There’s nothing wrong with who you are physically. You remain beautiful. Your body remains suitable and capable of performing all sorts of amazing tasks and experiencing all sorts of positive sensations, besides being a work of art unto itself. And again let me stress, your body’s capacity to get boys or men excited is not what makes it valuable. Probably best if I leave off on this one here, but I hope you get the point.

Personal/existential: In addition to your basic physical form, one of the beauties of who you are is your mind or soul: the part of you which is capable of experiencing sensations of meaning and purpose in life. This part of you too has been brutally belittled in Maryville, but don’t let the bastards there have the final word on the subject. I know it’s rather cheap and superficial, and perhaps even factually wrong at this point, to say that you can decide for yourself what your life is worth. At this point I recognize that in your young mind things might feel pretty hopeless and out of control. But they will and do get better. The mind is an amazing thing in terms of its resilience. You will find yourself capable of making good on your promise not to let the events of the past couple years define who you are. As long as you don’t give up at this difficult point you will be able to decide what it is that makes you important, and you will be able to build a sense of purpose from there.

If there is any aspect of your life that your trauma will have a lasting effect on in fact, I’d predict that it will be the extent to which it has forced you to look deeper into yourself. You might not like all of what you see there –– there’s a lot of broken and ugly bits inside of all of us, even the best of us –– but I hope and expect that you can also see the brave, poetic, tender parts of yourself that are worth developing. These are things that others can encourage you to love about yourself, but ultimately it’s up to you to recognize this beauty within. It’s up to you to, without shame, accept and celebrate who you are as a person, and to love yourself as such. Please, please, please… do not let anyone take that away from you.

Social/cultural: Perhaps the worst part of your experience has been discovering that the kids at school sided with your abusers rather than sympathizing with you as the victim. Teenagers can be vicious creatures at times. I know something about this from working with school anti-bullying campaigns.  So this makes it more difficult to recognize another key factor in what makes you valuable: Besides being comfortable within your skin, you can be confident in having importance beyond the limits of your skin. There really are people around you that love you and care about you as a person –– thousands of us actually.  No one can belittle your personal value without directly insulting all of us who care about you at the same time. Don’t ever forget that.

There’s an important word in African philosophy that perhaps you heard regarding the funeral celebrations for Nelson Mandela this winter: “Ubuntu”. Roughly translated, this is the principle that “I am what I am because we are what we are” –– that identity is never a completely individual matter. Or to quote the classic line from the English poet/theologian John Donne, “No man is an island.” This does not mean that you have to let the social environment of Maryville determine who you are, but it does mean that you cannot forget about the impact your life has on others. If you let the idiots belittle you, you let them belittle all of us.  If you let them insult you, you let them insult all of us.  I hope this gives you courage to stand up to your detractors, with and for all of us.

Spiritual/transcendent: There is always the question of what makes those who are on your side in this matter “better people” than the vicious little bastards that have used the “s-word” and the “w-word” at you at school. This is no easy matter to sort out philosophically. Suffice to say, most of us tend to believe that, to quote the opening sequence of the X-Files, “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE” when it comes to these things. There is something that goes beyond social and cultural norms that makes sexual abuse bad and compassion good. There are values that we should subscribe to that are more than just material expedients or means of personal meaning making, or cultural conventions. Again, without trying to “cram any religion down your throat,” believing that there are moral principles like this “out there” is, for me, part and parcel of believing in God. That is not to say that I believe that any particular religion has God’s message entirely right, but that is to say that I believe that the “something” out there which makes rape inherently wrong and compassion inherently good is best understood as a “someone”, and that that someone is on the side of those who suffer injustices, who want peace and who care about others. So from this perspective, Daisy, I am confident in saying that another reason for you to keep going is because God is on your side.

There’s a famous anecdote that might be applicable here, telling of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, who was said to keep a good luck horseshoe hung over the door of his home in the countryside. Someone asked him about this: How could such an intelligent man with such a scientific world view believe in a horseshoe over the door bringing better luck? His response was to say, with a twinkle in his eye, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but they say it works even if you don’t believe.”

Even if you don’t share my belief in God at this point, I hope you can still find means of accepting the basic principle that those who are on your side are part of something “better” and “more important” than those who would belittle your value. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

All of this is strictly a matter of “for what it’s worth” but I sincerely hope that this provides some sort of additional motivation for believing in yourself and moving forward in confronting the challenges you still face. We’re here hoping for you and praying for you, and we’re doing what we can to encourage you never to give up. Hang in there for us, but more importantly, hang in there for yourself!


Filed under Control, Education, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Love, Philosophy, Social identity, Spirituality

An Open Letter to the Arctic Polar Vortex

Dear Vort,

How have you been? I looked out my window this morning and for the second day in a row the reading on my little thermometer there was south of -20 C, so I said to myself, “Oh, looks like the vortex is back.”

We were looking forward to seeing a bit of you around Christmas time, but then we heard you decided to spend the holidays in America. How did that work out for you? Canada certainly has some beautiful spots to visit. I heard you particularly enjoyed Niagra and Montreal this winter. The Canadians are also on fairly good terms with you overall. They’re good folk.

Niagara Falls WinterFrom what I hear your visit to the US was somewhat more problematic. What can I say? My old countrymen aren’t exactly known for their hospitality to outsiders these days, no matter how white they are. Most of them had never heard of you before, and even after your visit, surprisingly many of them still think you’re a myth. Some there tend to think that as long as they regard the system of biblical interpretation that they’ve been socialized into as absolute fact, that’s as much abstract thinking as they can be expected to carry out. The rest of the more difficult process of understanding the world around them tends to go over their heads. They tend to consider those making such efforts as abstract leftist intellectuals. Go figure.

ARCTIC-WINTER-WEATHER-2013-570Very few realized that your visit was at the invitation of some of the country’s major business interests. Even the more educated ones, vaguely aware of why you decided to do some travelling this winter, seem to have the idea that the Chinese sent you. And all in all, in spite of their bravado and defiance against all natural phenomena like yourself, many of them found themselves entirely helpless to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate your visit. Whatever the case, I’d recommend not going back there any time soon if you can avoid it.

032Over in this part of the world, in the European countries on the Arctic Circle, we’ve sort of got used to having you around. Yes, we too tend to piss and moan about your work here, but even so, you’ve become a significant part of life as we know it, and even if we don’t admit it, we sort of miss you when you’re gone. I mean, pussy willows out at Christmas and New Year’s –– that’s just too strange for Finns and Swedes! Yes, some folks have enjoyed taking a break from having to clean up after you all the time, and those doing the bridge repairs just down the road from my house were able to get their work done much faster without you around; but then there are some folks who have been waiting for you to help them build their ice roads and the like, and it seriously screws up their system when you don’t show up.

002Beyond all that, we’ve come to realize that your work is important, not only in giving us the sort of rhythms we’ve got used to over the years and built our infrastructures around, but in keeping things in balance by holding back the flow of some significant water reserves. Even if they don’t believe in you, it remains true that if those from the U.S. succeed in killing you off, we’re all pretty much screwed. Going down to visit them really doesn’t help; it really only makes them all the more anxious to kill you off. So please, stay home and stay strong.

What else can I say? I’m sort of surprised that after crossing the ocean on your way back you haven’t brought more snow with you, but then again we had plenty of precipitation while we were waiting for you. It doesn’t really help to complain to you about it. Speaking for most of my adopted countrymen here (the Finns) we really just want to say welcome back. Please take it easy on us now, but stay cool.

Yours, DH

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Filed under Education, Holidays, Philosophy, Pop culture, Religion, Skepticism, Sustainability

In Search of Objective Morals without God

I’ll finish off the year here by addressing an issue that I promised some critics I’d eventually get back to back in October. My excuses for not writing about this matter sooner are a rambling tale unto themselves that I’ll leave aside for the time being. The question that I wish to consider though is what, if anything, outside of postulating the existence of the divine, can make a moral code “objective”?

While I don’t join such Christian apologists as William Lane Craig in using objective morality to prove that there has to be a God, I am a theist and I do believe that there are certain moral “facts” that are absolutely true, which have their root in what we might call, for lack of a better term, “the mind of God”. I don’t consider all morals to ultimately be objective matters and I freely acknowledge that religion is the source of much immorality in the world, but I still believe that those aspects of morality which are indeed timelessly and absolutely true can only be so if there are rooted in something beyond the contingencies of life as we know it and experience it on a day-to-day basis. I find myself part of a very respected and mainstream position in this regard, while at the same time finding that there are a vast number of ways in which relatively intelligent and well-informed people could reasonably disagree with me about such matters. But my point remains, search as I may, I can’t seem to find any convincing argument for morals being absolute without it coming back around to morals having their basis in the same transcendental realm as other principles of theology.

Discussing this in the autumn with my regular interlocutors on such matters, James and Aaron, I put it to them that I remain agnostic on the question of whether such an absolute but non-theological basis for ethics is “out there”, inviting them to give me reasons for believing in such. James’ style of writing about such things tends to be relatively dry and carefully structured. Aaron, on the other hand, tends to shoot from the hip, blasting away at the points he disagrees with in rapid fire mode, often missing, but making it perfectly clear what he has a distaste for.

Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” is often cited as the source of questions about what happens to ethics without God.

Let me make it clear from the start here that if either of these gentlemen have serious moral flaws in their day-to-day life and behavior (and I don’t know them well enough to be aware of any such problems), I would not blame them on their lack of belief in God; nor, I believe, would they blame my moral flaws on my religious inclinations. On political matters we are more likely to agree with each other than I am with many fellow theists, than Aaron is with many fellow agnostics and James is with many of his fellow atheists. For instance, while none of us are prone to respect papal authority as such, I believe we would all agree with the Pope Francis’ recent statements that promoting nutrition, education and health care for children is a significantly higher moral priority than protecting the wealthiest citizens’ rights to their private property. The question here is not one of serious disagreement about practical issues then; it’s one of looking for mutual understanding on why children’s well-being in these areas is a moral priority –– and has that always been a “moral fact” or is rather something that has been emerging as a fact over the past couple centuries or so?

The analogy can be drawn with the heliocentric understanding of our solar system. It is generally accepted these days that, regardless of its not having been generally accepted in the past, the earth has for millions of years rotated around the sun, not visa-versa. That is a fact that humans have discovered, not invented. Can we say something similar about the “fact” that enabling all citizens to have access to basic education and health care is a higher moral priority than protecting millionaires’ exclusive rights to determine how all of their money will be spent? Obviously that is part of the teaching of Jesus, but equally obviously as of two or three centuries ago such a moral position was broadly considered to be a utopian absurdity. In our own day and age we still have Ayn Rand disciples (some of whom also, mistakenly, consider themselves to be followers of Jesus) who fundamentally disagree with the concept of such positive human rights. Does that make them any less “morally factual”?

Overall, are we humans in the process of making these into facts or are we in the process of discovering them as facts? And if they are something pre-existent that we are in the process of discovering, where and how have they previously (always?) existed, if not in/with God?

It is that last question that I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to among my atheist and agnostic “moral objectivist” friends. They would like to believe that there are grounds for believing that foundational moral principles are “facts” analogous to those in physics and mathematics in some respects, but that this has nothing to do with religious understandings of such matters. I have seen many unworkable variations on this theme, but so far none that I find completely workable. When it comes to the existence of such a rationally consistent, epistemologically defensible and morally binding ethical theory, I remain an agnostic: such might exist, but I have yet to see one. My purpose here is to explain why the ones I’ve been presented with thus far don’t meet the standards I’m trying to elucidate here.

Let me start by recalling my own variation on Karl Popper’s famous “Three Worlds” perspective (I actually wrote my earliest version of that essay years before I first encountered Popper’s perspective, but that’s beside the point): I believe that a fourth “world” is quite necessary, and when it comes to their ethical implications I don’t believe these worlds can reliably be put in a fixed hierarchical order. The additional necessary world would be that of the divine, or transcendental absolutes, which to one extent or another atheists and strict materialists make a point of categorically denying. From a religious point of view this transcendent “world” would contain the first cause(s) for all and everything in the universe. From an atheistic point of view, if it is acknowledged at all, it is perhaps seen as something of a culmination point for “World 3” matters, and at the same time as a set of principles observable in “World 1”, as Popper calls them.

This world’s exact content is difficult to quantify since, unlike the other three, it is not directly observable in any empirical sense, nor is it subject to change based on human volition. It can be approached in both “left brained” and “right brained” manners –– both rationally and mystically (or intuitively) –– and the elimination of either approach leads to rather warped perspectives. The content of this transcendent realm would include much that has been rejected as being “unscientific” but also much which has been acknowledged as “a priori”. This would include such mathematical concepts as the ultimate value of pi and prime numbers, theoretical concepts used in physics such as the properties of objects travelling close to light speed, moral ideals such as justice and inter-connectedness, and many of the vast varieties of investigations conducted in the name of systematic theology.

In addition to postulating that there must be at least these four “worlds” –– the transcendent, the physical, the individual consciousness and the social/societal –– I would theorize that our ethical structures, to one extent or another, depend on all four. We have some moral matters which concern necessary means of preserving our material environment, but it would be somewhat absurd to reduce all ethics to questions of sustainability. We have some moral matters which are questions of reducing personal suffering in practical terms for major portions of our societies, but that too is in many regards a seriously insufficient standard for morality. We also have moral standards that we conform to in order to protect the social structures we are part of –– be they ethnic traditions, cultural artifacts, patriotic exercises or constitutional procedures –– but those too are insufficient as comprehensive bases for ethics, at least as ends unto themselves. All of those relative and variable factors must be included in the pie we call ethics, but beyond that I too believe that there are some things which we must recognize as absolute matters of moral principle, belonging to the transcendent realm. These would include prohibitions on things we recognize as inherently evil or destructive of things we recognize as inherently good. How broad a category this last one turns out to be is a matter to progressively be discovered, but given its rather sublime nature the discovery process will always be somewhat complicated and methodologically problematic. Sad to say for some, but I believe that much of this discovery process will necessarily continue to fall under the heading of “theology”.

That, in a nutshell, is what I see as the basis of ethics, involving a mix of variable, absolute, subjective and objective considerations. So from this perspective the operative questions are,
1) How much of the field properly belongs in the absolute, objective, “factual” arena?
2) Can the “factual”, objective side of ethics be based in any other realm (or “world”, as Popper calls them) than the transcendent? and
3) To what extent is the transcendent realm, as defined here, inherently related to the person of the supreme deity –– “the one true God”?

Rather than further expanding on my own understanding though, let me move on to explaining why all meta-ethical theories I have thus far encountered strike me as inconsistent, unconvincing, culturally conditioned, theologically based, or some combination of the above. This does not imply any problems in terms of reaching cross-cultural understandings on what norms should be observed and respected within any given context. It’s only a problem if you feel the need to convince me that morality is an inherently objective and non-theistic matter.

In response to my question of what standards they would appeal to, from a non-theistic perspective, in saying, e.g., that slavery has always been inherently evil, Aaron replied, “There are dozens. Hedonism. Egoism. Utilitarianism. Kantian Deontology. Rossian Deontology. Divine Command. Natural Law. Virtue. Social Contact. Intrinsic value. Take your pick. Any one of them could be the rational, objective basis of moral facts.”

Fine, let’s take those ones to start with, one at a time, and see if any of them lead to a good excuse for seeing ethics as an absolute matter without inadvertently falling back on the old theological presuppositions of Western Culture, without coming back to human subjectivity and without theoretically imploding. I’ll necessarily be painting with rather broad brush strokes here, so forgive me for not covering as many details as fans of these particular theories might like.

Hedonism in terms of ethical discussions is going to be largely synonymous with Utilitarianism here. Skip it for now.

Egoism here can be taken as sort of like Utilitarianism with a greater emphasis on the good of the subject than the good of society at large, so it has no particularly unique merits as a basis of moral theory, especially if we are looking for objectivity here.

Utilitarianism then is the first point worth looking at seriously here. In its simplest form: pleasure = good / pain = bad, evil. Its particular distinctive teaching as a meta-ethical theory: the only measure of moral goodness is end results, not means of accomplishment. This, in a nutshell, is also the basis of would-be philosopher Sam Harris’ up-coming challenge. My simplest rebuttal: In Buddhist terms there is truth to the matter that life inherently involves suffering, and Utilitarianism offers no objective answer to the question of what is worth suffering for or how factors like freedom or self-respect figure into the equation. If/once those factors are taken into consideration, it is no longer a factual or objective matter.

Kantian Deontology is in many regards the most basic paradigm for absolute, objective ethics and it highlights the essential difference between Kant’s first and second critiques: The idea of a transcendent metaphysical reality “out there” is something about which our scientific investigations can say very little, but it is precisely this realm which must form the basis for our moral justifications. As one course book I had memorably put it, “what Kant took away [from theology] with his right hand, he gave back with his left.” It’s a long debate, but in the end it’s clear that Kant himself saw “moral facts” as coming from God, and using his theories as a jumping off point for atheistic moral philosophy thus has its own inherent problems.

Rossian Deontology, based on the thinking of William David Ross, to quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia article about him, “presents a unique and compelling form of deontology, according to which there are a plurality of both moral requirements and intrinsic goods. There is no one master principle that explains why the particular things that we believe are wrong/right are in fact wrong/right. Instead, there are a number of basic moral requirements which cannot be reduced to some more fundamental principle.” That seems to me a valid starting point, with much in common with my own intuitive perspectives. This, however, is built not upon objective standards and transcendent moral laws so much as on what Ross saw as the “moral convictions of thoughtful and well-educated people.” While I’m sure those were very nice people, the resulting standards will, by definition, not be objective in the way that theorists here are hoping for.

Divine command obviously is going to provide a theocentric view on moral absolutes. Enough said.

Natural Law is a predominantly Catholic intellectual tradition based on Aquinas developing Christian interpretations of Aristotle. There is little point in looking further there for grounds for absolute ethics for atheists.

“Virtue Ethics” is the label generally given to the neo-Aristotelian position on the subject. This is closely tied to the logic that Aquinas drew from Aristotle in formulating his 5 proofs for the existence of God. The principles from the Nichomachean Ethics, while not inherently theistic, they contain a rather vague description of the virtue that a good man should develop and trade on. This would tend to be taken as some combination of what Popper would call “world 3” factors and what I would call transcendental factors. It won’t give you absolutes without God in any case. If you don’t believe me ask Alstair MacIntyre.

Social Contract ethics, a la Hobbes and followers, is certainly a suitably atheistic in structure, but likewise it is nowhere close to meeting the standard for objectivity that these guys are looking for. It’s based on what societies’ members theoretically want as part of their rationalized greed, not some eternal principle to which they must conform. It will be by definition variable according to the same subjective bases that Ross uses.

Intrinsic Value is generally used as a more neutral term for the moral principle originally formulated in Latin as Imago Dei: because people are “created in the image of God” they are inherently deserving of respect, just due to the value they have as people. There are any number of variations on this principle, and I believe it would be fair to say that any system of thought which does not grant a certain amount of intrinsic value to people as people –– both individually and collectively –– does not deserve to be called “ethics”. But that leaves the matter unresolved as to why people are to be considered intrinsically valuable. No offence, but the less theological those rationalizations have been, the less rational and convincing they are.

So none of Aaron’s off-the-top-of-his-head suggestions on the matter really bear any fruit in terms of providing non-theistic absolutes as ethical foundations. From there he suggested that I go read a book or two by Russ Shafer-Landau and get back to him when I know more. That is the equivalent of an evangelical telling an agnostic that they could continue their talk after the latter had read enough of William Lane Craig to meet the former’s standards, but such is the nature of chats with Aaron at times. Anyway…

I’ve since done a bit of digging into Shafer-Landau’s thoughts on the matter, though probably not enough to satisfy my interlocutors here, and here’s what I’ve found: “Russ” is in many respects sets the modern Platonic ideal for how professors would like to see their students structure their arguments –– an ideal blend of ordinary language and formal logic, tying together “ivory tower” and “Main Street” perspectives. He’s an atheist but not the sort of “new atheist” who sets for himself the task of convincing others to share his enlightened lack of faith. Rather he comes across as a seeker of wisdom in the old model: finding rational justifications for what he personally believes, and framing the discussion so that those who believe differently can come to some mutual understanding with him as to where they each are coming from and what is important to them. In this way he earns significant respect from all who read his stuff and listen to his lectures. Beyond that he is the heir apparent to G.E. Moore’s meta-ethical empire, whatever label you want to put on it. So it would fall to Russ, if anyone, to provide a palatable answer to Bertrand Russell’s post-Moorean dilemma of: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it” (volume 11 of Russell’s papers, 310-11).

As I understand it, Shafer-Landau’s justification for believing in the sorts of objective, external, intuitively accessed, factual moral principles that he does, without any reference to God being relevant to the subject, is that these facts are what he considers to be self-evident: “such that adequately understanding and attentively considering just p is sufficient to justify believing that p.” That standard is more than a little bit problematic in itself. It effectively supports its favorite propositions by moralizing against the studiousness and/or the attention span of all who would disagree. His primary point seems to be blocking any ideas which may “conflict with our most important moral convictions and platitudes.” (Quotes from here.) Thus, as a proof that there must be something morally absolute “out there,” I don’t think Russ’s findings would come anywhere near changing Russell’s mind about the matter.

In a video series covering one of his guest lecture he where discusses his ideas’ relationship with religious ideas, Shafer-Landau divides the issue up into two questions: 1) Does objective morality depend on God in order to be viable? (a question of dependence) and 2) Do arguments against the existence of God also work as arguments against the existence of objective morality? (a question of parity). Each of these questions he in turn divides up into two separate aspects to be considered. The dependence question he divides up into consideration of the “authorship argument” and the “reason argument” which might also be called the enforcement argument.  The parity question he divides up into consideration of metaphysical arguments and epistemological arguments.

Regarding the authorship argument –– Can we have “laws” without a “law giver”, which in order for the law to be “objective” could not be human or societal law giver? –– Shafer-Landau argues that, yes we can, since we have the “laws of thermodynamics” operating in just such a manner. This seems to involve a fair amount of equivocation, however, when it comes to the difference between prescriptive and descriptive laws which he introduces later in the same lecture. I’ll come back to that.

Regarding the reason argument –– Can moral laws really make any difference in terms of compelling action without a divine judge to back them up? –– Shafer-Landau confesses that there are some popular atheist arguments against the premise of a divine judge being necessary that he would actually not accept because they would undercut his understanding of the absoluteness of moral standards. His preferred tack on this one is to say that if moral laws are true/factual, then whoever violates them becomes “blameworthy”, and avoiding “blameworthiness” provides a compelling motivation to follow the laws in question. This gives rise to the obvious question, Blameworthy before whom? There would seem to be three basic alternatives here in terms of how the blameworthy thing could motivate people to stay on the straight and narrow, corresponding with Popper’s three worlds: It could be a matter of damaging the material order of things, it could be a matter of falling into a rut of self-rejection, or it could be a matter of facing social stigma. It is “self-evident” however that none of those negative reinforcements are limited to those who have broken objective moral laws, and many who have broken such laws are handily able to escape from all of those consequent forms of suffering. The explanation doesn’t seem to cut it.

On the parity side, when it comes to epistemological arguments against being able to know if there’s a God, Shafer-Landau essentially admits that the same arguments work just as well against being able to know that there are such things as objective moral standards. Challenges to the mechanisms of knowing, factors of historical contingency in the understanding of the matter, the lack of scientific methodology in investigating the issue and the level of disagreement between leading believers in the subject area, he admits, have just as much bite against moral realism as they do against theism. All of these can be argued back against, but only at the expense of alienating some fellow atheists. His honesty in this matter is to be commended.

On the metaphysical side of the parity question, however, he does see essential differences between arguments against religion and those against objective morality. These he sees the challenges essentially as two: the problem of why evil and suffering continue to exist in unjust ways, and the problem of “parsimony”, better known as the Occam’s Razor principle. His argument for differentiating between the degree to which these critiques discredit his program of moral objectivity and to which they discredit the concept of the divine is to be found in the prescriptive/descriptive distinction mentioned above. Moral laws are not required to say how things are; merely to set standards for how things should be done. Religion, he believes, has a greater self-inflicted requirement to describe given states of affairs.

The problem here is that this lower standard for “truth value” for morals than for religion then undercuts their autonomous status with regard to the “law giver” issue. If we are talking about an idealized norm as something distinct from actual states of affairs, the only way that “language game” has any functional currency is if there is some form of consciousness –– be it human, collective, digital or divine –– in which those norms find their origin. The character of the consciousness which effectively institutes and maintains those norms would in turn determine the essential characteristics of the norms in question. So if you can accept the idea of moral laws being just a function of an emergent collective human consciousness, contingent on the various drives and flaws characteristic of that consciousness and not fundamentally aspiring to any higher standard than that, you don’t need any God to get there from here. But if you’re hoping for more than that…

Stopping to consider my interlocutor James, I’m under the impression from his ample writings that he would not like to distance himself too far from Shafer-Landau’s position on these issues. They also both have a certain fascination with terminological distinctions between themselves and their relatively close associates in their field, which seem analogous to the distinctions between “Arminians” and “Neo-Pelagians” or “post-millennialists” and “a-millennialists” in Christian theology. You’ll have to forgive me for not sharing that particular fascination. But I’ll close here with reference to one factor both Russ and James wish to raise in the process of distancing themselves from religious folk: Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.

The dialog in question, starring Socrates as always, asks the basic question, “Is what is reverent reverent because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is reverent?” Reverence here is a sub-category of moral virtue in general, and thus the debate is taken as a classical investigation of the relationship between virtues and divine will, implying that the former cannot be dependent on the latter. There is one essential point of agreement between many theists and atheists on part of this matter: basing our moral decisions exclusively on what we take to be “God’s specific commands” is a highly problematic practice. Beyond that though, the relevance of this dialogue to the question of determining what is absolutely morally true and how that relates to the divine is somewhat limited and “challenged”.

First of all there is the matter of Plato’s presupposing a polytheistic world, in which part of the problem was dealing with the discrepancies between the various gods’ desires. This debate then would be more analogous to a modern discussion between two men regarding the proper way to show a woman that you love her, given that it works a bit differently for each of them. But it still relevant to ask the general question, Are particular signs of love and respect for women taken as such because they fulfill the woman’s basic desires, or do they desire such things because they are seen as signs of love and respect? Underlying this is the question of what is it in general that is essentially pleasing to women, thus setting standards that all men would benefit from operating according to with regard to all women? A tough and mysterious question indeed!

Following through with that analogy then, we might say that, yes, women desire evidence that they are loved and respected more than they want, for instance, the convenience of having doors opened for them, or the sight and smell of flowers in the room, or maybe even the taste of chocolates. But we cannot jump from there to a conclusion that the challenge of expressing love to a woman can be met by following some abstract standard which fails to consider the desires of the particular woman in question!

From there the analogy could be applicable to a theistic understanding of ethics. A transcendent moral law based on “pleasing God” should not be doing so as a matter of blindly following what we take to be his commandments, but nor would it be a matter of following some abstract pattern which shows no consideration for the essential character of the one we are attempting to please.  What Socrates’ discussion with Euthyphro does not prove in this regard is that the character of God would be irrelevant to ethical questions.

Beyond that it’s worth considering the debate in the context of the specific forms of “irreverence” that the Athenian democracy was, in this somewhat fictionalized account, punishing people for. In Socrates’ case his “irreverence” took the form of “corrupting the youth” in various ways. History leaves us insufficient evidence to determine whether or not pedophilia was one of the background factors in this charge being made, but that is a distinct possibility. Whatever the case, Plato’s opinion was clearly that the collective social conscience of the people, based in part on their religious inclinations, was an insufficient moral standard on the basis of which to condemn so great a man.

The character of Euthyphro, meanwhile, was using the same vague irreverence prohibition in Athenian law to prosecute his own father, raising quite a few eyebrows in the process. His father’s offence was nothing serious really; all he did was accidentally kill a slave. There was some question of whether or not the slave deserved to die anyway, and slaves were considered more or less disposable, so nothing was likely to be done about it otherwise. The only thing that gave the slave any form of protection was that particular forms of cruelty to slaves were considered to be punishable on the basis of being “irreverent”. So while from Plato’s and Socrates’ perspective this was a matter of some kid using a patently absurd provision in the judicial code disrespectfully condemn his own father, from Euthyphro’s perspective the issue was that the old bastard had killed another human being and no one else was going to do anything about it, so he felt that it was his moral duty to do so. The gods would not have it any other way.

Regardless of all his difficulty in arguing the meta-ethical foundations of his case with Socrates, in context of the crime in question I believe that any modern ethicist would have to say that Euthyphro was in fact morally in the right with what he was doing. The fact that Plato didn’t see it that way shows just how culturally conditioned his purportedly “objective” ethical standards really were.

I’m available to take this discussion further with any who are so inclined but the cultural standards I hold myself to say I should have found a way to finish this essay about 2000 words ago! So let me just summarize by saying:

–          I’m not arguing here that theists are inherently better people than atheists.

–          I personally believe that ethics needs to contain a mix of subjective, inter-subjective and objective factors to properly “work”.

–          In appealing to absolute and objective standards in ethics, philosophers need to be clear regarding how those standards fit into the rest of their meta-physical world view.

–          Thus far in western intellectual history I have yet to come across a workable absolute and objective ethical standard that does not end up leaning on theological premises or (other) subjective cultural perspectives in its basic formulation.

–          Thus, for the same reasons that Bertrand Russell abandoned G.E. Moore’s ethical system, I find it highly problematic for atheists to attempt to profile themselves as ethical absolutists.

–          Even so, I’m ready to let them pursue their seemingly irrational faith in this regard as far as they want to take it.

God bless all of you who have bothered to read this through, and may you all find ways to become “better people,” whatever that means to you, in this coming year.


Filed under Basic logic, History, Philosophy, Priorities, Religion, Tolerance

Opiates of the Peoples

I spent the end of last week and the weekend working on a seminar presentation for this week, speculating on who Pope Francis was referring to as an ideological illness in the church. It involved a lot of background reading, and there is much more I need to do on the subject, but so be it. So I’m writing my weekend blog on Monday again.

When it comes to use of time the perennial question come to mind: how much of my time am I actually wasting along the way? There’s two aspects to this: How hard should I be pushing myself (to accomplish what sort of goals), and then what non-goal-oriented activities –– stress relievers –– should I consider to be particularly dangerous or harmful? Let me explore that latter one for a bit here.

Those of you who are moderately well read in humanities subjects would obviously recognize my title here as a play on one of Marx’ dictums regarding religion in general: it numbs people to the painful realities of their otherwise unrewarding and essentially meaningless existence, and rightly so. If they have to have such an unrewarding and meaningless existence at least we can allow them to become comfortably numb by religious means. It was Lenin who gave this turn of the phrase its more condemning connotation: the religion of Rasputin and company as a vile addiction that keeps people from moving beyond their miserable, abused condition. Of course the issue that both polemic approaches are missing is whether religion has a particular value in and of itself beyond providing a means of escape from the mundane stresses of everyday life. Might there be some eternal value system that is more important than the implications of the “selfish gene” –– the drive to have as many offspring as possible and to keep them alive long enough to have offspring of their own?


But let’s set that aside for the time being. Let’s just assume that we all have goals in life that we spend a certain amount of our time working to achieve, that such work largely defines us as people, and that beyond our work we each have our own forms of “play” that are psychologically necessary for us in order to be able to continue on with our work. Let’s further assume that the balance between how important we consider our work to be for its own sake and how much we do in just to get other things that we “really want” will vary quite a bit from person to person, as will the things that we are ultimately trying to get as rewards for our work. So we have our goal-oriented behavior and we have our personal-amusement oriented behavior. How do we keep those in balance with each other? For that matter how important is it to draw a distinction between them?

Lots of different distracting directions those ideas could take us in. Given that I’m not actually being paid to write this, and I don’t have anyone reviewing this and telling me what is expected of me in this essay, I could easily chase off down one rabbit hole or another here just for the fun of exploring what’s in there, but I’m trying to stick to the job I’ve set for myself in the title here of talking about “opiates” in the figurative sense, and what is potentially wrong with them. The main thing that all such “opiates” would have in common is that they provide a form of distraction from our more goal-oriented behaviors which may end up preventing us from accomplishing our more goal-oriented behaviors. My basic theory here though is that all of the different forms of condemnation of such “opiates” are based on somewhat unquestioned assumptions regarding the value of different forms of work, defined in turn as focused goal-oriented behavior.  This would apply to everything from Marx’ and Engels’ condemnation of religion, to Neil Postman’s condemnation of electronic etertainment culture, to the Catholic Church’s strict limitations on forms of sexual satisfaction, to programs to keep people off of heroin and other actual opiates. All of these are trying to keep people from gaining some false or dangerous form of satisfaction that keeps them from working for more important “true” forms of satisfaction.

Amusing-Ourselves-headlessThere are a number of considerations that follow from this observation. First and foremost perhaps is the question of whether Marx’ observation deserves further analysis here: the idea that people turn to some “false” form of satisfaction because unjust and dehumanizing circumstances prevent them from being able to experience –– being able to reasonably hope for even –– “truer” forms of satisfaction.  Industrial workers of the 19th century drank heavily and then sometimes prayed heavily because those were the only forms of personal satisfaction in life that were open to them at that time. If they would have had some hope of gaining more control of their own destiny in terms of someday owning their own land and workshops, or even enabling their children to get an education and step onto the path of upward mobility, maybe they wouldn’t need to numb their pain so much. By the same token, if more people were able to properly enjoy genuinely satisfying and committed long-term romantic relationships maybe there wouldn’t be such a big market for porn. Are we numbing ourselves just because things around us don’t work well enough for us to be able to hope for better? Is there some way that we can trick ourselves into genuinely hoping for better so that we can achieve more in our goal-oriented behavior? Are there ways in which we can improve society to increase people’s hopes in more or less honest ways? And if we can’t “fix” the situation to allow people sincere hope for a better life through their efforts, are we actually justified in condemning their “opiates”?

In terms of where the rubber meets the road on this one, the breakdown of family structures in the western world has been blamed by moralists on increased mobility, and access to information about other possibilities than that of women staying home and making babies while men go out and push themselves to do whatever they can to provide for the needs of those back in the nest.  There’s some truth to the idea that many people these days don’t have the same sort of family lives their grandparents had simply because they don’t want them, or they aren’t willing to make the same sort of sacrifices their grandparents made to get them. But more to the point, breakdowns in the political systems protecting the basic rights of workers have led to a situation where no matter how hard a man would try to work at basic labor these days he can never make enough to keep a family provided for on his own; and no matter how submissive, loving, nurturing and “wifely” a girl is ready to be, she can’t expect to get the sort of deal her grandmother had as a stay-at-home mom. So why should they behave in a traditional manner designed to improve their odds of getting into such a situation? And can we really condemn behavior that decreases their chances at such a life? After spending much of the weekend reading papal encyclical letters from over the past 40 years, I’ve sort of realized that that is where Catholic moral teaching is really at these days.


Beyond that we have the question of whether there are certain types of goals to be pursued in life that should be “natural” for everyone, that our cultures must be designed to reinforce. This would include, but certainly wouldn’t be limited to, questions of reproduction and genetic continuation of family lines. Should people naturally want to have tribal identities reinforced? Should people’s lives be defined by whatever “competitive edge” they are able to find for themselves? Should ease for its own sake be a value worth relentlessly pursuing, and if so how do we deal with the inherent contradiction in such a proposition? Beyond that then, if none of these goals can be reasonably taken as moral imperatives for everyone, what argument is there for condemning behaviors which limit one’s possibilities of achieving them?

The tragedies we keep finding ourselves faced with are when someone we know –– personally or through their public image –– has the possibility to realize all the sort of things we think they should naturally want, or all of the sorts of things that they’ve seemingly dedicated their lives to attaining, and they “throw it all away” over the “uncontrollable” urge to “play” in some particularly dangerous way, or to numb themselves in some unacceptable fashion.  We sometimes feel sorry for them for not being able to master their inner demons. We sometimes condemn them for “setting a bad example for young people” and “contributing to the breakdown of society” –– defined as a group of people informally cooperating to realize the sort of goals we see them carelessly neglecting. Do I see them as evil? It depends.

injectionYes, I do get angry at the idea of predatory individuals selling drugs near a school yard. Getting kids who don’t understand the risks involved hooked on self-destructive forms of amusement purely in order to profit from their ignorance, without concern for the fact that it could lead to early and painful deaths, is something that I would consider to be objectively wrong… evil even. So how far do I want to take that principle? If I want to protect kids from drugs, what do I want to enable them to have that drugs would steal from them? What else might steal the same things from them just as effectively as drugs?

In my own ideological way I guess the most important thing I’d like to enable kids to have is the possibility of choosing for themselves what sort of goals they wish to pursue in life, be it the standard reproductive/tribal/competitive ones that most of our societies seem to be built around, or more individualized pursuits of their own choosing. Whether such a priority on personal freedom is sustainable in the long run or not is a complicated question unto itself. Suffice to say, things are rapidly changing regardless of whether or not we try to prevent change by maintaining traditional mindsets in our children. So if traditionalism for its own sake, and/or as a means of preventing uncontrollable change in society is a lost cause, why not let them have their freedom?

The limitations on this freedom in turn are of two sorts: there needs to be some form of justice to prevent people from carelessly or maliciously harming others, and there needs to be some possibility of forming connections of love with others which can in turn become more important to us than our own self-determinations. As I was saying to Daisy last month, those are what I consider the ideal essence of religion to be about.

So going back to the “opiate” issue, I’d hope that those who wish to keep people away from these “wrong” forms of satisfaction would really stop to think about why they consider them to be wrong, acknowledging that on more careful consideration sometimes they can be seen to do objective harm and other times they can’t. I would hope that the motivation for condemning such “opiates” would run deeper than just trying to get others to live according to the moralizers’ personal tastes. I would hope that it involves enabling the person in question to be genuinely free to choose what goals they want to work towards, and to seriously consider what forms of “play” could prevent them from realizing those goals. Then rather than considering those “opiates” as in themselves wrong, I would hope that those who condemn them would do so based on what greater forms of satisfaction might be chosen without them; and that from there they would work first and foremost to enable people to have hope of attaining those “better” forms of satisfaction rather than simply moralizing against the ones they don’t like.

And beyond that, no matter how important someone’s work is to them, they will also need to play sometimes. How much of their time, how riskily, involving what sort of extra rewards along the way… are all important questions to be considered. We can perhaps enable people to play in less addictive and time consuming ways, with greater safety for themselves and others, and offering greater opportunities for thrills in the process, but what we won’t be able to do is stop them from playing entirely.  Ideally one should find some form of work that is as much like play as possible –– serving as a continuous form of satisfaction unto itself rather than just being a form of suffering to endure as a means of reaching some goal outside of the process. If work has its own “play” element to it in that sort of way, the amount of play needed outside of work will be considerably less for it.

I must confess that blogging and online interaction are somewhere between work and play for me. I’m not getting paid for this, but it is something I do in a certain goal-oriented manner regardless, feeling ever so slightly guilty when I’m late like this. Yet it is also something I do mostly for the fun and challenge of it. It is a form of “opiate” for me in terms of enabling me to escape from my mundane routines of getting 14-year-olds to remember facts about faraway religions, processing paperwork to let others know how much this information has sunk in for them, and keeping my simple bachelor apartment in relatively livable condition. Does it work? Most of the time. Is it bringing me closer to the realization of other goals in life? Rather hard to say. Is there something more important I should be doing with my time? Not that I know of at this point, but systematic time management has never been my strong suit to begin with.  Are their parts of it I should be ashamed of? Some may be angry at me for spreading heresies here, but I can live with that. Do I have other, more problematic “opiates” in my life to get rid of? Perhaps… but at this point I’m not going to start stressing about playing too much and not working hard enough. Give me a new specific hope to work towards and I might change my mind about that.

So here’s hoping that all of you as well are more or less at peace with yourselves regarding what you’re working for and what play you allow yourselves along the way. Here’s hoping you’re able to live at peace with others in terms of the choices they make along the same lines. Enough for this week.


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