Category Archives: Philosophy

Youthful Indiscretions

The following story, to the very best of my knowledge, is entirely true, based on information which has been made public over the past couple of months in hearings in the US Senate. The names have been changed, however, to protect the ignorant.


Somewhere between their fourth and fifth beers Ted turns to Bill and says, “Dude, face it: you’ve got a serious problem here. Yeah, you’re really good at writing my history essays for me. Yeah, you can hit hard and take hard hits on the football field. And yeah, you can almost keep up when it comes to drinking. But when it comes to girls you are a total dork.”

Bill is clearly hurt by his friend’s critique. He begins to slur out an answer: “Look, I get along fine with all the girls at St. Joe’s. They all hug me when I come in. They enjoy my company. They laugh at my jokes and they like having me around. I don’t want to f— that up by trying to get into their pants.”

Ted takes another swig and sympathetically goes on, “OK, but face it. Like when Roxy had her kissing booth thing going at the party last week. Everyone goes in for a hug and a kiss, and I admit, I slipped her a fair amount of tongue, I reached a bit low from her back in pulling her close, and she could definitely feel my hard-on. But like, she was totally into it, playing along and grinding right back against me. Then Moose had his turn and you could tell by the look in his eyes that it was all he could do not to come in his pants right there!”

Beer sprayed from Bill’s mouth, and nearly from his nose as he burst out laughing at the idea of the defensive lineman struggling to avoid orgasm. They roared together for a few minutes before Ted went on: “But when it’s your turn you go up and put your hands on her shoulders and kiss her about like I would kiss my grandmother. I mean, come on! What the f—‘s up with that?”

Bill went silent, chugged down the rest of the beer in his can, opened another and sat contemplating. “I don’t know,” he finally said, “It’s not as though I’m worried about offending her or any shit like that. I’ve heard her joke about ‘you can’t rape the willing’ and all. But like, if I tried to score with Roxy and she lets me just because it turns out she’s easy like that, I could never be friends with her again! And if I tried to go for it and she pushed me away it would be even worse! The same goes for all of the girls I hang out with.”

“Yeah, I understand, it’s tough being a clueless virgin. I remember when I was 13…” Ted said with mock sympathy.

“F—you!” Bill came back with a laugh.

They sat in silence for a while before Ted finally went on, “OK, so we’ve got to find a way of getting you laid. I’ve got an idea.”

“Look, hookers are out of the question!” Bill shot back.

“Yeah, I get that,” Ted said, “it just has to be someone other than the girls you hang around with. Young pussy is really the best, but you’ve got to hurry because after you turn 18 it’s off limits!” They exchanged wry smiles before he went on. “So here’s the idea: there’s some folks getting together at Jill’s house tonight. I’ll make some phone calls and see if we can get a girl or two from the club to come over. We’ll loosen one of them up with a few beers and then you can try out your moves to see how far you can get. If she shoots you down, no harm, no foul. You’ll probably never see her again, and she won’t be spreading rumors of what a clumsy dork you are. But if she lets you in, score!”

“Dude, I don’t know,” Bill whined, but they could both tell he was hoping such a thing really could happen.


Cindy was laying in the sun poolside after her regular laps. Her one-piece suit was dry already and some dry strands of her fine blonde hair were starting to pop free from the damp mass that she had pulled back in an unbound ponytail. At 15 her slim body was just starting to take on the sort of womanly curves that she wished to be admired for. The club had lots of good looking guys from rich families hanging around and while she wasn’t exactly hunting for a boyfriend, she certainly didn’t mind having them check her out and smile.

She was basically killing time at this point. Her parents were out for the evening and so she only had microwave food and cable TV to get home to. She had come by bus and she was also sort of hoping to bum a ride home from someone, but most of the other girls she usually swam laps with either didn’t show up today or they had done their workout earlier and left already. As she lay there on her back, with her eyes closed, thinking about what to do next she felt a shadow fall over her. She looked up to see Freddie, the pool boy, standing over her smiling. She smiled back and said, “Hi Freddie. Closing time already?”

“Hi Cindy. You’re looking lovely today,” Freddie began. “Getting close to closing time, but actually I just got a call from Ted Jones. Remember him?”

Cindy nodded, and gave a somewhat contemplative smile. Ted was one of the rich boys at the club who hit on her on occasion. He seemed like a mostly harmless stoner by nature, but she understood that he went to this private Catholic boys’ school, that apparently tried to keep him in line a bit, but ended up just increasing the pressure of his wildness by trying to restrain it; sort of like holding your thumb over the end of a garden hose. She sometimes wondered if all the rich Catholic boys at his school were like that.

Freddie went on, “Well apparently Ted is at this house party a couple miles from here, and he says that a bunch of the people who were supposed to come have bombed out, and so now they have too few people and too much beer. So he was wondering if I could find anyone here to join them. In his words, ‘the cuter, the better.’ He actually mentioned you as one to try to invite. What do you think?”

Cindy considered the idea for a moment. “Anyone else I know there?”

“I think Leah and Bob might be there, but mostly kids Ted knows from the Catholic schools. Anyway, just passing the message as requested, but if you’re interested I could give you a lift over there, and if it looks too stupid for you to be interested then I can bring you straight home from there.”

Another pause before Cindy said, “Yeah, why not? I’ll go have a look.”

“Cool,” said Freddie. “I do have to lock up now, but how about we meet at my car in about 15 minutes? You know, the green Subaru.”

“Sure, fine.” Cindy grabbed her towel and things and headed for the locker room. She spent some time brushing and blow-drying her hair before realizing that Freddie was probably waiting for her already. She quickly pulled her top and jeans on over her swimsuit, tossed her other things in a bag and rushed out to the parking lot.


The house was a non-descript upper middle-class suburban colonial — a cookie cutter design for particularly upwardly mobile cookies. Leah and Bob were indeed there, together with a little less than a dozen more vaguely familiar kids. Leah gave Cindy a big hug and handed her a beer as she arrived. Cindy took a sip and nodded to Freddie that this would be OK with her. He smiled and waved goodbye, and was on his way.

Maybe 10 minutes later Ted (literally) stumbled in from somewhere, with this other tall, handsome but even more drunk friend in tow. “Cindy!” Ted exclaimed. He rushed forward and grabbed her into a bear hug, rocking from right foot to left as he gave a satisfied, “Mmmmmm!” Cindy had to laugh.

Ted then broke the hug and turned to his comrade in inebriation: “Cindy, I want you to meet my dear friend Bill. Bill, this is Cindy from the country club.” He gave Bill a subtle wink before turning back to Cindy to say, “When he’s sober, Bill is the smartest and most Catholic guy at Georgetown!” Bill and Cindy smiled and shook hands. In a weak romantic gesture Bill pulled Cindy’s hand up and kissed her knuckles. That deepened Cindy’s smile and made her blush a bit.

Ted patted Bill on the back and excused himself to use the toilet. When he came back he found the two in the sort of innocent conversation he had sort expected. Bill was slurring a bit, but he seemingly had intelligent things to say still about Fleetwood Mac, Wizards basketball and movies starring members of the original cast of SNL. Time for a bit of coaching. Ted grabbed Bill by the arm and said to Cindy, “Excuse me. I need to borrow him for just a minute.” He then steered Bill out onto the back porch. They looked in through the sliding glass door as Cindy joined a group of kids dancing to some Michael Jackson tune.

“So what do you think?” Ted asked.

“She’s definitely cute, and she seems like she’s pretty smart too,” Bill answered.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s gonna win a Nobel Prize in something someday, but that’s not the point. Does she get you hard?”

“Do you have to be so crude about it?” Bill asked a bit defensively.

With the demeanor of a stern teacher Ted looked him in the eye and said, “If we’re ever going to get you laid, in a word, f— yeah!” That was two words, but Bill decided not to point it out. He said nothing, just looked at his de facto coach in depravity expectantly for his next round of instructions. Eventually they came: “It looks like if I set you up alone with her in a room here you’d just sit there and talk about music and shit with her until it’s time to go home. So, awkward as it might be, for this project to go anywhere I’m going to have to come along. I’m doing this all for your own good though, so try and stay with me and follow my hints.”

Cindy smiled as they came back in and walked up to her on the dance floor. Ted smiled, put his hand on her shoulder and said in her ear to be heard over the music, “Cin, there’s something Bill and I need to ask you about. Can you come upstairs for a moment, where it’s quiet enough to hear each other?” Cindy was a little apprehensive, but she smiled and nodded. The three of them went up the stairs together. There was one couple making out half way up the stairs that they needed to push past, but it didn’t break the couple’s concentration. They stepped into an empty bedroom across from the bathroom and Ted closed the door.

Bill was clearly nervous as he polished off yet another beer which he had in his hand. Cindy was not sure how scared she should be at this point. Then Ted spoke: “So Cindy here’s the thing: you’ve seen me at the country club with Mary and Sue and Anne and some of the other girls I’ve dated, so you know that I do pretty well for myself in those regards; but  poor Bill here has never actually had a girlfriend. And it’s not as though he’s gay or anything. He’s really interested in girls; he just doesn’t know how to make a girl interested in him. So first, as a girl, do you see anything obviously wrong with him that would explain his problem?”

Bill was blushing a bit, and had a confused air of not being sure whether to laugh or tell Ted to f—himself or both. Cindy answered honestly: “No, he’s actually a nice looking guy, and when he’s sober I’m sure he’s quite charming to talk with.”

“Well, to be honest with you I had to get him drunk to get him over his shyness,” Ted went on. “But maybe you could help me help him with that. Would you mind if he were to kiss you?”

Cindy looked at Bill somewhat apprehensively. Should she take a chance with such? He was obviously painfully shy and probably at least as innocent as she was. Maybe a quick kiss, with Ted sort of chaperoning them, and then back to the party downstairs, would be safe enough, and the best strategy overall. “Oh OK,” she said.

Bill walked up to her and put his left hand around her waist to pull her closer. She could smell both the extreme nervousness and drunkenness on his breath. At first his lips barely touched hers. Then as he built up his courage he began sucking on her upper lip slightly. Ted began laughing hysterically behind them. “Oh come on! I know you can do better than that!” he bellowed. Then suddenly Ted pushed Bill hard toward her and she fell backwards onto the bed with Bill on top of her. In that position Bill suddenly started going wild. He reached his right hand between them and grabbed her tender breast as he mashed his mouth against hers much more aggressively. Now she was seriously scared. She felt his erection grinding against her and she began to flail about trying to get free, but he was far bigger than her and she wasn’t nearly strong enough to push him off. When he finally came up for air she tried to scream, but before the alarm could properly be sounded his left hand was pushed up against her nostrils and covering her mouth. It was hard for her to breathe.

Ted’s laughter was all the while intensifying from the chair where he sat by the far wall. Bill joined into the laughter as he sat up on top of her, continuing to hold her mouth as he fiddled with the buttons of her top. After struggling with them for a while he managed to get enough of them open to see the nylon of her swimsuit. “Oh shit! This isn’t working,” he groaned before changing tactics and moving his free hand down to try to open her jeans. She was then sure he intended to rape her. Her mind was in complete panic mode.

“You f—ing klutz!” she heard Ted say as he rose from the chair and approached the bed. Were they both going to rape her? Yet before she realized what was happening though Ted made a leaping football blocking move to knock Bill off of her. Again the two boys began laughing hysterically as Cindy rolled off the bed onto the floor and raced for the door.

With their victim gone Bill turns to Ted and through tears of laughter says, “Look, I know you meant well, but you really are a total asshole!” This only brought them both into another fit of laughter, after which Bill went on, “The important thing is that you damn well better remember that none of this shit ever really happened!”


Somehow in a traumatized daze Cindy made it home that evening. Somehow she made it through the following school year, and the rest of high school. She continued to struggle with the trauma of that afternoon through her first years of university studies, but eventually she went on to get a degree in psychology and to establish herself as a respected intellectual in that field, all the while holding these deep traumatic scars inside. After her university years she moved to the other side of the country to escape the memories of being pinned under Bill that evening, but it wasn’t far enough.

Ted went on to write commercially successful novels about the depravity of his high school years. Then after his drinking and chemical recreation nearly killed him, he went on to have a religious conversion experience in which he entirely cleaned up his life, but not without some scars of his own from his previous lifestyle.

Bill continued to struggle with the stigma of his awkward virginity well into his university years, and he continued to make drunken, clumsy and at times outright abusive sexual approaches to women even after he finally managed to gain some sexual experience. For a while he became somewhat of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this regard, until he found a new outlet for his social insecurities and aggressions: politics. He became an aggressive prosecuting lawyer and then a legal advisor to promote the power interests of his peers within the more elite wing of a major political party. In this role his vicious aggression and intellectual pride were able to come together to help him build one of the nation’s most successful careers at the intersection of legal practice and politics. His boyhood interests in truth and integrity became casualties of this process, but if you have enough power and prestige who needs truth and integrity?

Though he never saw her again in person, Cindy’s ghost returned to haunt Bill many times over the years, however. At one point her exposure of his youthful aggressions nearly cost him a major career advancement. This brought him right to the brink of a complete nervous breakdown. His powerful friends have continuously done what they can to protect him from this darkness though, particularly since he has proven so adept at returning that sort of favor in terms of the exercise of power. The final ending of his story remains to be written.


So now, a generation later, what do you think should be done about this situation? Prosecuting “Bill” for sexual assault seems rather impractical and perhaps even unjust at this point, even if his powerful friends would allow it to happen. Ideally something resembling a “truth and reconciliation commission” would be healthiest for all involved, but that could also end up destroying “Bill’s” career. Then again, if “Bill’s” career is significantly based on finding ways to destroy political enemies by dishonest means, would it be such a great loss to  the world for it to come to an ignoble end?

The main thing is to honestly ask, how does that sort of “training” influence the sort of person one turns out to be, and what does it say about a society that such matters do not seriously bother people?

The real problem is not the end result of this political battle; the problem is that there are so many people that find the sort of character that develops by such a path morally acceptable.


1 Comment

Filed under Empathy, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Sexuality, Social identity

Another Finnish Word Needed in English?

The Finnish language is a legendary intellectual challenge. It is the with roughly six million speakers worldwide it has a relatively small base, but after Hungarian it is the second largest non-Indo-European language in the world to use the Latin alphabet. Yet even compared to Hungarian its vocabulary is notably idiosyncratic and its grammatical structure follows a logic that outsiders can never fully comprehend.


“Kalsarikännit”, American style.

Even so Finnish has its own rugged beauty to it. Last year it caught a significant part of the world’s attention with one of its finely descriptive words for a state that men of the Homer Simpson mold occasionally find themselves in: kalsarikännit – a state of solo drunkenness in which one doesn’t bother to get dressed, thus sitting around the house in one’s briefs. Yes, that is a common enough state of affairs in this country to need a word of its own, but in fairness it is probably more widespread in other cultures than their vocabularies would indicate. So while I am not an active campaigner for the movement, I would support bringing this term into more widespread use in English, particularly in Canada and Australia, but that’s another story.

This year there is a different untranslatable word from Finnish that might need to be adopted in other languages and cultures, though to be honest, I’m not sure that the phenomenon is widespread enough to warrant a word of its own in many other places. Its role in Finnish life even is becoming somewhat questionable. The word I am referring here to sivistys.

To get the pronunciation right think of the first two syllables as the same as those of “civi-lized.” (Finnish people often mistakenly assume that the words are related, but I’ll come to that later.) The letter Y in Finnish is pronounced sort of like the eu in “deuce”. The T in Finnish also has a somewhat softer, d-like pronunciation in Finnish, particularly in the middle of a word. So overall a close enough pronunciation would be “civis-deuce”.

The primary use of this word in everyday Finnish is in reference to non-vocational education. If you are studying to become a plumber, a carpenter, an electrician or a mechanic then you need to attend an “ammattikoulu,” or in short-hand slang, an “amis”. Schools in Finland which are not geared towards such practical considerations are referred to as “yleissivistävä” – in other words providing not so much practical skills, but a general sort of sivistys.

So what is this mysterious sivistys that young people are sent to school to acquire? This is a challenge to work out specifically, but if the rest of the world wants to learn about the wonders of the Finnish school system, frequently rated as the world’s best still, then the goal of sivistys is what they really have to work out.

snellman1It would be easy to assume that this concept is related to the Latin-based word civility, and for a long time working as a school teacher in Finland I assumed this to be the case. Much later I learned that the etymology for this term is based on the old Finnish adjective “siveellinen,” meaning pure, chaste, moral and/or decent. Sivistys as a word was coined by the nineteenth century Germanized Finnish intellectual J.V. Snellman, as a loose rendering of the German concept of bildung, based on what Wilhelm von Humboldt referred to as “a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without.”  This in turn refers broadly to the Hegelian concept of continuous improvement brought about through a dialectical process of continuously struggling with opposing viewpoints. This supposedly causes one to develop a certain sort of spirit, in the sense of the German word geist, which is rather different from what “spirituality” is taken to mean these days. It has more to do with rising above that which is crude, base and carnal, toward something more refined.

Introducing a concept along these lines into English has been attempted on a number of occasions, without any notable success. One particular example which comes to mind is the discussion between the characters in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice over what it might mean to refer to a young lady as particularly “accomplished.”

Perhaps the closest equivalent though would be cultural literacy – a movement in the 1980s started by a fellow name Hirsch who attempted to standardize what counted as core knowledge. The problems with that approach had a fair amount to do with timing: coming out just before the Internet, its laundry list of facts and phenomena that school children should be aware of was effectively out of date before the ink was dry on the first edition. Nor has the speed of change in society slowed down in any significant way since then; on the contrary, if anything the pace of change has been speeding up. Continuously updating this laundry lists in books like What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know doesn’t seem to be the key to understanding the fluidity that goes with the Finnish concept of sivistys.

ylioppilas 1914

100 years ago to wear the white cap symbolizing completion of secondary school was a sign that one was part of Finland’s aristocracy.

In all honesty there have been times when I have had my doubts about sivistys actually having a legitimate meaning. I have often suspected that it was somewhat of a reification – a conceptually abstract word without a proper extra-linguistic object of reference in the material world, or anywhere else outside of the Finnish education system. My impression was that this conceptual abstraction was made up of a combination of leftover influences of German Romanticism mixed with antique justifications for class distinctions within society. Those with higher levels of general education had this something called “sivistys” which entitled them to more respect, higher political positions and better pay than everyone else. In a time when less than 20% of the population had access to a secondary school education “sivistys” provided a readily understandable justification for all of the division between the aristocracy and the peasantry.

This also explains why, when the education reform of the 1970s made general secondary education available to all young people, regardless of economic status or social background, there was a huge cultural push by Finnish mothers in particular to make sure that all of their children would take advantage of this new opportunity and get some of this “sivistys” for themselves. That sort of motivational background for the achievement of individual educational success over the past generation is, in my considered perspective, the single strongest factor in this nation’s educational success story. But now that the vast majority of the population between 20 and 50 years old officially have this “sivistys,” and it no longer provides an excuse for class divisions in what has become an admirably homogeneous and socially mobile society, the question is, what does sivistys stand for these days, and what value remains in the pursuit of such as a goal unto itself? What does sivistys mean to those young Finns who can now largely take an excellent standard of general education for granted? In some ways the appreciation for sivistys as such seems to be in decline; in other ways there is an established gut feeling in relation to this term that isn’t going anywhere.

This winter I attended a symposium held by the national philosophy society here, at which the subject of budget cuts for educational programs promoting philosophy and critical thinking inevitably came up. In the concluding question and answer time I made a public comment that the key to maintaining funding for such programs would seem to be keeping the public, and their elected representatives, convinced that sivistys continues to be something real and something worth paying for. That may or may not have been the impetus for a column written a few weeks later by University of Helsinki emeritus chancellor and professor of theoretical philosophy, Ilkka Niiniluoto, who was also in the audience that night. His essay in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (13.01.2018), In this piece entitled “Secondary schools must continue to protect general sivistys” Finland’s living philosopher of the highest status did an admirable job of defining and laying out the case for the importance of sivistys as such.


Emeritus Prof. Ilkka Niiniluoto

The subtitle of the column is, “As secondary schools develop, subjects must not be unfairly placed in opposition to each other.”  In particular he is making the point that the teaching of philosophy should not be discounted as “less useful” than that of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Professor Niiniluoto calculates that those currently in secondary school (or high school for Americans) will remain in the work force theoretically until around the year 2070. By that time developments in artificial intelligence and automation technology will certainly revolutionize the global economy many times over. Thus our students will have to be retrained for new jobs many times during the course of their working lives. So how do we train young people today to face those sorts of future prospects? The answer, Niiniluoto claims, is to be found in the concept of general sivistys:

Sivistys is the continuous renewal, development and refinement of human abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values. Citizens need general sivistys every day. For example literacy, language skills and IT skills are useful both at home and on the job. Though the content of general sivistys is constantly changing, there is still a significant continuity involved.”

He goes on to quote the classic Finnish poet Eino Kaila, who defined sivistys as, “that which you are left with when you have forgotten all that you learned,” but Professor Niiniluoto reinterprets this cynical witticism as implying that “rather than rapidly aging factual information, the most lasting and valuable thing is the ability to seek new information.” Thus a university focusing on sivistys, according to Snellman’s Finnish adaptation of Humbolt’s system, has the joint goals of “creative knowing (learning by following research developments and building a life-long love of knowledge), and then intellectual virtue (using expertise for the good of the fatherland).”

In the Internet age this ability/characteristic is particularly important: “Evaluating the validity and interpreting the relevance of information already freely available on line these days requires of the recipient a high degree of general sivistys.” For this reason it remains important to maintain a broad range of required subjects within the general education system: “Curriculum trials which have offered the option of leaving out history, philosophy or physics, for example, have served the goal of providing an understanding of the world poorly. A system of subject studies is a precondition for interaction between these subjects – just as in universities interdisciplinary studies must be based on interaction between established disciplines.”

The rest of Niiniluoto’s column focuses on the balance between national matriculation examination scores as university entrance criteria and university faculties’ freedom to set their own entrance criteria – pointing out along the way the wording of the law regulating Finnish secondary schools: they are to provide students with “necessary knowledge and skills for continuing education, working life, leisure activities and diversified personal development.” Important stuff for those young people trying to determine where they are going next in their education, and their families, but not so important to an international audience considering the value of the word I am proposing that they adopt. The main point remains, however, that an education which provides sivistys is not “teaching to the test” but rather equipping students to adapt to life under unpredictable and ever-changing conditions. For those purposes instruction in philosophy, even when students will not be taking national exams in the subject, remains crucial to the school’s overall educational task.

When it comes to convincing people of the value and importance of pre-college level philosophy teaching, I would still recommend including Dewey’s perspective on making democracies safe to live in; but enabling students to continuously renew, develop and refine their of abilities, skills, knowledge, attitudes and values so that they are equipped to study, work, play and personally improve as freely and productively as possible makes for a rather verbose but immanently worthy goal for school systems. Philosophy as a subject area is particularly important to the realization of such goals.

Crunching all that down to one word, the Finns call it “sivistys.” For lack of a better word in English maybe you could call it the same.


Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Philosophy, Social identity

Open letter regarding the “Village Drill” business

(This is an extremely long text, laying out the case for these organizations to stop providing publicity and endorsement for an American organization which has been a source of extensive problems for my Kenyan friends and I. It will not be a source of intellectual stimulation for many, but if any of you can help put pressure on these larger organizations to stop providing favorable publicity for the company which has conned us out of far more money than we could afford to lose, your help will be appreciated.)

Brigham Young University, community relations department
TED Talks
American Society of Mechanical Engineers

Greetings to the leaders of the respected organizations listed above. I would like to thank your people for publishing information which has enabled me to better piece together the story of exactly how the con which took me for over a year’s wages last year actually works. This involves an organization known as “WHOlives” which succeeded in convincing me to invest in their product known as “The Village Drill,” which your organizations have inadvertently helped to promote, and which has turned out to be completely unsuitable for operation in the area of western Kenya for which the unit was purchased.

I have no doubt that your organizations believed that WHOlives (hereafter WL) was an upstanding and morally praise-worthy organization when you decided to tacitly endorsed them, but on the basis of the evidence of dishonest marketing and misrepresentation of their charitable intent to be presented here, I hope that you might exercise due diligence in investigating the case against them and then annotating your publications (linked above) accordingly.

My intent here is merely to make you aware of “cognitively challenged” statements made by WL’s representatives on your respective web sites, and to compare those with this company’s other marketing materials, so that you are able to see what sort of product they are producing and what in turn it is being marketed as. Of course my own bitter experience colors the tone of my narrative somewhat, but even if you discount my perspective on that basis, if you still believe in such a phenomenon as objective truth, and you are willing to look for the truth of this matter through a critical analysis of the sources referenced here, I believe that you will find that you are somewhat morally obligated to stop promoting these WL deceptions.

Where to start…

Perhaps the most rational starting point would be to describe what, in essence, the Village Drill (hereafter VD) actually is. It is basically a reverse-engineered variation on the sort of rotary jetting, or rotary mudding, borehole drills that have been used in industrialized countries since internal combustion engines have been powering drills for water wells. (See this source from 1978 for details regarding the evolution of this technology.)

Old rotary jet

Asian manufactured variations on this technology, powered by a 10-15 hp. either diesel or electric motor, sell for between $2000 and $5000 brand new, with full technical support and a 1 year warranty included in the price.

The VD variation on this technology began as a BYU engineering class project, attempting to use these same basic operating principles, only replacing the small motor with human power. To accomplish this they effectively built a rather heavy “input wheel,” which would serve as a horizontal flywheel with a series of handles around its circumference for workers to grab onto and spin it in order to turn the drill assembly. This required reducing the length of the hollow drill rods used by the machine to roughly half the length found in equivalent fully motorized machines, but other than that the parts from the VD are largely interchangeable with those of any other standard rotary jetting borehole drill (as detailed on p. 5 of the ASME report).

NGO professionals in the field of drinking water supply whom I have spoken with, who are familiar with the VD, give it credit as far as saying that in its current iteration it is capable of drilling deeper than any other human-powered well drill on the market at present, but this needs to be qualified in three significant ways:

First of all, the VD is not capable of operation without a motorized pump and a water supply to be used for flushing the borehole while drilling. If the goal were to produce a machine capable of operating under conditions where fossil fuels are not available, the VD fails on the drawing board. This leaves us with the questions of what counts as fully “human powered,” in this context, and what advantages are we looking for in using human power to begin with. Eliminating this small motor does not in fact make the VD essentially any more transportable to remote off-road locations; any donkey cart capable of carrying a VD with its pump and input wheel assemblies could also carry the sort of diesel powered machine that the VD is modeled after to the same location.

Second, because the power source (humans) driving the circular motion of the drill rods and bit in the VD has less than a third of the power of the simple internal combustion motors used in its exemplars, the motorized pump used in the “jetting” or “mudding” aspect of the operation needs to run for much longer periods of time on each job, making the overall difference in fuel consumed and environmental impact rather negligible. Furthermore, because of this power difference, any  rock formations which a motorized rotary jetting drill cannot penetrate will be, a fortiori, far more impenetrable for a VD.

And third, the VD is currently being sold for between 3 and 10 times the cost of a comparable machine with an electric or diesel power source. Nor does this price include any equipment warranty or on-going technical support for VD buyers. Then adding to the cost of operating this machine, but not stated in advance promotional literature, is its continuous need for bearing replacement. The primary moving part engineered specifically for the VD is the “input wheel” with its handles for workers to spin it by. The engineering success of this innovation, however, is called into question by the fact that its bearings must be replaced after every job; after every attempt to drill a borehole.

VD basic

So given these technical limitations and pricing policy issues, who would the potential customers be for such a device? For what would seem to be obvious reasons, WL has been extremely guarded about releasing such information, but some fairly reliable conclusions can be drawn based on the combined information available.

The primary market for VDs, according to the ASME report, has been NGOs, particularly those which provide volunteers with tactile experiences of helping people in developing countries, in many cases reinforcing a “white savior complex” for them. It must be said that , no other borehole drilling machine on the market today enables western volunteers, literally working side-by-side with native laborers, to use their own muscle strength to help provide local people with access to a water table 100-200 feet down. The feeling for these volunteers of getting some dirt under their fingernails and building up a bit of a sweat while “doing good” for the community and with the community by helping turn a drill is something that operating a more reliable and cost-efficient motorized drilling rig just cannot do for them. Thus for some NGOs the VD is the ideal tool to put a small group of (paying) volunteers to work on.

Learning to operate such a system can also be a very valuable experience for junior students of engineering, providing them with practical experience relating to cumulative pressure, hydraulic forces, accounting for geological structures and other aspects of the work they are trying to eventually qualify for. Educational organizations which specialize in “hands on learning” might find that the simple operational structure of the VD could make it an ideal teaching tool in these regards. In other words a VD could have the same sort of value as the old bicycles I taught myself how to take apart and reassemble during my middle school years, or the old mechanical alarm clock that I took apart and reassembled while I was in high school: while there may be other cheaper equipment out there which can still do the same job more reliably, having a machine that is simple enough so that someone disassemble it and discover the basic functions of all of its moving parts can have a value unto itself. In fact there is some evidence that WL is starting to break into that market as part of their NGO market segment.

The third market segment worth mentioning is what the WL spokespersons referred to in their ASME report as “wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated [VDs] for use in developing communities.” This clause is extremely misleading in a number of senses. First of all it assumes that there is some standard form of community organization in place within African nations that could function as a recipient for such a donation. Second, it implies that a VD donated in such a manner would be available to various community members to come and use when they happen to need it.  Most disturbingly, however, it implies that none of those who have invested in VDs for the use of third parties in Africa ever expected to see any return on their investment, and that they (we) could easily afford to lose the amount of money in question. I can emphatically state from personal experience that none of these assumptions or implications holds true!

In this context it is worth pointing out that in his BYU TEDx presentation Christopher Mattson, the primary engineering instructor involved in the VD project, refers to John Renouard having brought in, not “wealthy donors,” but “venture capitalists” (12:10 into the presentation), who, according to his narrative, came to watch their early experimental digs in Africa. Suspending disbelief for the moment on that one, if we take a moment to compare these two narratives, where would these “venture capitalists” have gone by the time of the ASME report?

In short, all of the local business attempts financed by these venture capitalists (which is what venture capitalists do, as a basic matter of definition) in turn failed, after which the VD machines which these investors bought either sat idle or were sold, by way of WL, at a major loss for the investor. The second-hand drill customers were apparently either the type of NGO referred to above, or perhaps WL themselves, accounting for the collection of 4 VDs currently in their stable. (This part, I must admit, is partially speculative, as WL are not particularly forthcoming with information regarding their business history in such matters.) Thus these “venture capitalists” have since then been involuntarily re-categorized as “wealthy donors.”  This enables WL to paper over the fact that the model they are marketing of enabling local entrepreneurs has a 0% success rate, in spite of well-meaning western investors repeatedly losing their (our) money in trying to help in this way.

These business failures for VD operators are in fact something of an economic inevitability. It is easiest to see why this is by looking at some of the material I received from John Renouard, the primary operator of this con, while I was still on the fence as to whether or not to invest. During this period Renouard sent me a document  refer to as a “Memorandum of Understanding,” or MOU, which I take to be a Mormon idiom for a form of legally non-binding business contract. Renouard told me that this form of quasi-contract is something they had “used before,” though I never found out where. The figures given in the MOU presuppose that in normal operation a VD should be capable of putting in drinking water wells at a rate of approximately one per week, and that a 30 wells per year should be the minimum acceptable productivity rate. It further states that if the operator is so lazy as to put in less than 20 wells per year the “lender” is entitled to repossess the VD. Each well –– paid for by land owners, local government agencies, residential water cooperatives or western donors –– is projected to cost the customer approximately $4000 (USD). Of that money, from the profit earned on each job, the VD operator would pay back $200 to the “lender” who by rights still owns the rig. At that rate the VD should pay for itself within two years! Except that in practice this has never happened and never will, regarding which Renouard had no plausible excuse of ignorance when he sent me this “sample” document.

As of the time of the ASME report, WL was operating 4 of their own VDs. With the all of the technical, financial, expert advisory and logistical support that the parent company could pull together to support its own operations, these 4 machines still drilled a combined total of just 5 holes in the ground during the month when the sample data for that study in question were collected; and of those 5 holes 3 actually successfully tapped into ground water. They then claimed that such results should be typical for all VDs currently operation. Assuming that this reflects a typical productivity and success rate for VDs, which the study methodology seems to assume, a normal operator with one VD might optimistically be expected to put in 15 boreholes per year, of which perhaps 10 will actually provide water. This means that the VDs operated corporately by WL themselves are functioning at less than a third of the productivity rate projected by WL as necessary for running a profitable business!

This, however, is just the start of the challenges involved. This part still concerns only the process of “putting holes in the earth,” which,  as Mattson admits 11 minutes into his TEDx talk,  is a very small part of the “grand challenge” of providing access to clean water; his pie chart would indicate that the drilling amounts to 20-23% of the total process to be considered in meeting this grand challenge. When the other necessary factors are accounted for, and when they are deducted from the profit margin that the VD operator can expect to earn from a $4000 job, the potential for an entrepreneur to lose money in this sort of business grows exponentially.

This is particularly true in places where financing is secure enough to create a market for a drinking water well-drilling businesses. These markets have already been penetrated by businesses using more powerful, dependable, efficient and inexpensive machines than the VD, making job pricing highly competitive. This then increases the risk of unprofessional “fly-by-night” operators, in turn creating an atmosphere of limited trust within this industry in general. Customers are skeptical about actually getting what they pay for from any new operators in this field. Under these circumstances every failed attempt to put a suitable hole in the ground using the VD, due to the technical limitations of the device itself, further decreases the possibility of its operator being able to generate the level of business needed to even start paying for the machine.

This brings us to the matter of what sort of geological conditions the VD is suitable for operating in. The ASME report makes no reference to this factor. It does, however, go so far as saying that the VD was designed to improve on systems which are not “well-suited for medium to hard rocks formations.” News flash: the VD itself is anything but suitable for cutting through medium to hard rock formations!

Setting aside VD promotional material for the moment, one needs to keep in mind the basic facts of the matter: that the VD is essentially a less powerful and less dependable version of a basic light weight rotary jetting borehole drill. When it comes to professional recommendations for what type of drilling machine is suitable for what types of geological conditions, no professionals recommend lightweight rotary jetting drills for going through medium to hard rock formations. Some low budget operators do it anyway; slapping special “coring bits” onto their drill rods and pushing their 15 hp. motors to their limit for days at a time. But trying to do the same with a VD is the equivalent of trying to compete in a motorcycle race with a bicycle. Nowhere within WL’s marketing and promotional materials is this basic limitation recognized. On the contrary, it is consistently denied.

My own unfortunate experience with this system began when an old acquaintance of mine, Joel Freeman, began doing marketing work for WL in 2012. I knew Freeman when he was a young pastor of an independent evangelical church on the US East Coast back in the 1970s. He went on from there to do career-defining work as a chaplain in the NBA, and to use those connections to become a “serial entrepreneur” within the “self-help” and “motivational speaking” fields. Due to his sporting connections, not coincidentally, Freeman’s work has focused strongly to “successful people of color” in particular. So it seemed to fit in well with his personal marketing focus area to involve himself in nominally helping Africans –– something he could easily sell to his primary clients as a means of feeling better about themselves.

My own career, meanwhile, has been as a teacher in Finland’s international public schools, particularly in the Nokia Corporation’s home town of Espoo. Some years back I began reconsidering my level of motivation in this field, and as part of that, for the 2011-2012 school year, I took advantage of the possibility to take a sabbatical year off, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa. When I returned to Finland after that adventure I resumed my teaching on a part-time basis, and began my doctoral studies in the University of Helsinki on the side. This put me in a very tight position financially, but I could live very simply and the chance to participate in top level stimulating intellectual discussions meant more to me than material comfort anyway. And though travelling there was now largely outside of my budget, I remained deeply interested in the African continent.

A year into this part-time teaching / part-time grad student life I met a half-Finnish / half-Kenyan family which was starting to try to start a new NGO to raise money for AIDS orphans in their father’s old home town near Kisumu (the focal point for Kenya’s current political unrest). I became still more interested in their project when I learned that the aid they collected was being distributed by way of an independent church in that village, and that there was a certain missionary dimension to their work. At the same time, however, I knew better than throwing my own money, and trying to encourage others to throw their money, into the operations of anonymous independent church. So to cut to the chase, in the summer of 2014 I made my first visit to western Kenya, to see for myself how this system operated and what I might be able to do to help them.

Drinking water was one of the significant issues we talked about. Freeman’s promotion of the VD system was in the back of my mind during this entire visit, and having paid some of the local boys about $0.50 an hour to taxi me around town on their bicycles while I was there, I saw how there was plenty of cheap labor and a need for employment. If the VD could live up to the billing Freeman gave it, and if the financing of customer payments could be arranged, this seemed like an ideal fit. Thus over the next year I began contacting WL to learn more about their system and to investigate the possibilities of helping my new friends in Kenya to get ahold of a VD and set up a new drinking water providing business. During my next two visits to Kenya in 2015 I spoke with construction workers, business people, local government officials, church folk of all sorts, and even some legal advisors there, about this potential project. Many people got quite enthusiastic about the idea, and I began carefully considering who I might be able to trust there as partners in such a venture. My main concern, however, remained the issue of financing for local customers.  After discussing this matter with Renouard he acknowledged risks and advised caution, in this regard, but he also tried to show how those obstacles could be overcome, sending me the MOU mentioned above as part of this sales pitch. He certainly made no mention of their 0% business success rate, or of the limits their drill faced in dealing with the sort of rock formations that would be encountered on the north side of the Rift Valley, which this VD was being considered for.

My personal economic situation was indeed very hand-to-mouth, but I had access to funds that my father, a far more economically successful man than myself, had set up as a series of trust funds for the care of my family. Did I dare to borrow from these funds for a project in Africa, even if I did expect to get the money back?

I was wavering on this issue until a major crisis struck: During one of my trips to Kenya I started to experience acute asthma-like symptoms, making it hard to breath and causing me to feel rather faint at times. After returning to Finland doctors here still couldn’t tell why I was so out of breath and dizzy all the time… until over a month later they discovered that the aortic valve in my heart was frozen in place. At that point I was immediately rushed to the university hospital for emergency life-or-death heart surgery.

It was during my time in the hospital following that surgery, wondering just how much of a recovery I would make (which was uncertain at times), that I decided I would take a risk of the VD investment. It wasn’t the result of any stereotypical “deal with God,” but rather a decision that after this brush with my own mortality it made sense to me to make helping others a greater priority for however much turned out to be left of my life. Sadly this existential crisis, quite clearly in retrospect, seriously clouded my judgement regarding Renouard’s and Freeman’s trustworthiness.

Upon my return home from the hospital I started working on financial arrangements to move some of the funds which were at my discretion in the US to Utah for a down-payment on a VD. From WL’s receipt of the down-payment for the VD until the unit was ready for shipping took just under 2 months. The actual delivery took another month after that to arrange, on account of my borrowers in Kenya having bought a rather defective vehicle for that purpose. In any case, it was another few weeks after that, in February of 2016, when WL’s trainer arrived in Kisumu to help set things up, and when the real troubles began.

The machine had not been packed into a sealed crate for shipping, as section 2.7 of the ASME report claims that it should have been, and consequently some of its basic parts went missing in transit. Right away there was a dispute over who should be responsible to pay for replacement of these parts. From there the trainer took them through the process of drilling a borehole, but for lack of funds to finish the job it was left as a hole in the ground with a plastic sheeting cover over it. The technical support from WHOlives ended there. The next attempted job, for which this new company was expecting to be paid, ended in technical failure: the crew hit a very hard layer of rock a few dozen meters down before encountering any useable amount of water, and it soon became apparent that this layer of hard subterranean rock  extended all the way across the customer’s property.

Operating on the north side of Kenya’s Rift Valley, these sort of rock formations turned out to be far more the rule than the exception, and the VD simply was not the right sort of machine for breaking through them. Over the next year the team I had finance the VD for drilled a total of 9 holes, 3 of which were successful in finding a useable amount of water.

Most of these jobs were paid for and enabled by a different businessman from Utah, who remained interested in personally helping with Africa’s water situation after having had his own reasons for parting of ways with Renouard. Overall this American sponsor, the Kenyan operator and myself all lost more than we could properly afford in this venture, with little hope of my ever getting even a penny’s worth of return on my investment.

My attempts to discuss the failings of this product with Freeman and Renouard have become increasingly confrontational.  In Renouard’s case this didn’t surprise me at all; in Freeman’s case, slightly more so, though in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have. Both still, in a remarkable feat of imagination based on alternative facts, claim that the VD has the potential to be a “game changer” and any problem with the VD must be the fault of the operator, not the machine itself. Confronted with the fact that believing his sales pitch has cost me more than a year’s wages, Freeman has made extended efforts to justify his belief in WL, without saying so much as “oops” in terms of acknowledging his own culpability in this matter.

Mattson also deserves credit for imagination at least. It takes an incredible amount of imagination to put forward an operationally inferior version of older existing technology, with a 0% success rate at its intended application, as the primary success story of his career as an engineering instructor! This makes me seriously wonder how bad the other “successes” of his career must have been for the VD to jump to the front of the queue as it has.

The primary question that I would put to him is, what happened to the other 76% of the area in his pie chart, labelled “other disciplines” needed to provide water in Africa? Given a 28% well failure rate among their successful boreholes within their first 5 years, a 20% out-of-service rate for these very expensive machines, and an overall productivity rate of less than one working water source per month per operational drill, it would seem that these other disciplines are being rather seriously neglected. Or does that not matter after some sucker like me has been bought and paid for a VD?

But I must say overall that the final 6 minutes of his TEDx presentation, focusing on the VD case, was rather disturbingly dependent on “alternative truths,” ranging from praising Renouard’s “inspired leadership” to claiming that the local manufacturers of VDs in Kenya had produced 8 new drills within “a few months” in 2012; whereas table 3 of the ASME report shows that in no 4 month period over the past 5 years have more than 7 VDs been produced, and over the course of no 2-year period has there been an average production rate of more than one drill per month.

Some of WL’s claims should still need to be directly debunked here:

  • On the video regarding the VD on the BYU website, after claiming a very original design evolution process for their system, at 1:20 Renouard says, “There’s just nothing like it in the world.”
    However section 2.3 of the ASME article repeatedly emphasizes how most of the operational features of the VD were “strategically chosen from existing well-drilling technology.” There are plenty of things like it, and there have been for generations, just using two internal combustion motors instead of one.
  • In talking about drilling their first successful hole in Tanzania, at approximately 2:15 Renouard claims that the VD “far surpasses any manual drill, and in a lot of respects even the huge motorized drills. […] This drill works everywhere.”
    Let me point out again that both of these claims are simply false. There are many types of geological conditions that the VD simply is not suited for. It is like any other rotary jetting drill of the sort that it borrows most of its technology from, only more than twice as expensive and weaker in terms of penetrating capacity.
  • At 2:30: “Here we are 5-6 years into development and we’re in 23 different countries, they have drilled over 1100 boreholes…”
    The video editor appears to have cut him off here before he could make any further disprovable statements, but on that we may never know. Suffice to say the restraints of the peer review process in the ASME less than a year earlier had moderated their claims down to 15 countries and 761 boreholes (VD ASME stats). It seems far more likely that the video’s claim is optimistically exaggerated than that they expanded their operations by 50% within one year. Let the reader judge.
  • At 3:53: “There might be a million people out there that are drinking clean water today because of the work of these engineers at BYU 6 years ago.”
    Hold on. That stretches the colloquial limits of “might” a bit beyond the breaking point; as in, somewhere in the world their might be flying cows.
    The only way to get into 7-digit figures is to talk about “person-months of water,” calculated in terms of the number of people within “walking distance” of a VD-drilled well from the time it went into operation to present day, or until its pump broke down. The way Renouard tosses around 7-digit estimates here clearly demonstrates that emotional impact is more important than factuality in this project.
  • Moving to WL’s own web site, it’s hard to distinguish between intentional deception and just a weak grasp of written English, but let’s try.
    The starting heading of “Creating Economic Independence for Individuals and Communities” is directly in conflict with their batting average of zero at successful entrepreneurship enablement. So far the VD has yet to make a single individual, (other than possibly Renouard himself) economically independent. On the contrary, it has put many of us into very deep economic trouble!
  • It is hard to say anything more about the heading “The Big Lie” than, hmmm, how ironic.
  • “There is only one proven way to reduce and eliminate scarce and contaminated water…”
    Why would anyone want to reduce or eliminate scarce water? Just because water is scarce doesn’t mean you want to eliminate it! Even contaminated water has its uses, as in using rather disease contaminated water for irrigating rice fields in western Kenya.
    Perhaps they are thinking of trying to deal with problems of water scarcity and contamination, but they are hiding their unsustainable claims behind bad grammar.
  • “…a drill strong enough to penetrate nearly all substrates… The Village Drill does just that.”
    Once again, wrong. The word “nearly” is not nearly sufficient as a fig leaf for this blatant lie.
  • “The big lie that most NGO’s fell victim to is the notion that we could solve the scarce and contaminated water crisis by simply having big trucks drill more wells.”
    Besides the vagueness of “most NGO’s” here (the percentage of NGOs in the world which are trying to provide clean water to people exclusively by using large well-drilling trucks is far below 50), there is the false assumption that those who have been in the business of providing people in developing countries with access to clean water for generations already still don’t know what they’re doing!
    In short, again, while certain types of NGOs – due to the structure of their volunteer programs – can seriously benefit from having a VD or two on hand; those which are seriously interested in providing adequate amounts of potable water for the greatest possible number of clients, expending the smallest amount of resources possible in the process, will try to flexibly match the solution to the situation. There is no one size fits all solution, especially the VD!
    Once again the ASME report (2.1) provides an element of contrasting honesty here: “The Village Drill was created to compete in between the well drilling rig and hand auguring/sludging space.” Translating that idea into practical wisdom, if there is a job where very inexpensive traditional hand-drilling systems won’t work anymore, but where a 10 ton rig is not yet necessary, a lightweight rotary jetting rig – something like a VD, only cheaper – might be the proper solution. Most NGOs in specialized in this field have actually been aware of these types of choices and alternatives since before the Peace Corps was founded.
  • “The Leading Piece of Technology in the Fight against Poverty. […] By creating access to clean water to literally millions of people we enable prosperity to take hold.”
    OK, leaving grammar issues aside for now, this combines two previous prevarications in a way that leaves me uncertain what the intent of the section is. First of all that “might be a million” has here been expanded to “literally millions,” demonstrating that whoever wrote this knows the meaning of neither “literally” nor “millions.” Sad.
    Then there’s the implication that communities automatically become richer when they have a VD, running counter to the fact that there is “literally” no community in the world which has a measurably higher income today because of access to one of these rigs. The one true sentence in this paragraph, “Water makes every other humanitarian project better,” is not enough to save it.
  • “The Village Drill creates significant social and economic impact; empowering individuals and communities by providing a cost effective method of accessing clean water reserves.”
    A more honest claim here would be to say that the VD is particularly useful to certain types of NGOs, selling access to a white savior complex as their primary function, and providing water to those who are there for the photo op as a side product. Again I stress the fact that the VD has yet to empower its first African entrepreneur or cooperative water society. For those who wish to make a business of providing water in Africa, there are far more cost-effective ways for them to do so.
  • “Perhaps the Village Drills [sic] greatest feature is its ability to be owned, managed and maintained by local entrepreneurs.”
    The only thing which keeps this from being a bold faced lie is the strategic fig leaf of “perhaps”. Again, some of us have been foolish enough to try, but no one has ever established a successful business using a VD, and it is quite close to an economic inevitability that no one ever will.

Trying to identify all of the factual discrepancies and blatant deceptions in WL’s promotional videos and literature is a more extensive task than fact-checking the speeches of any politician you care to mention. Suffice to say, all of the claims I have made above condemning WL are readily confirmable in WL’s own materials. If, beyond that, anyone here would like to have a copy of to the promotional and/or instructional material which they sent to me as customer, I will be happy to share.

Given this bulk of evidence, I can think of no reason why an organization interested in maintaining its own credibility would continue to promote WL products and services, other than willful ignorance grounded in deep and painful cognitive dissonance. Thus, while I respect the sincere intentions of all 3 of the organizations this letter is addressed to, I would be quite disappointed if any of you would not, with due diligence, investigate WL’s dishonest product claims and business practices, and thereafter make a public statement distancing yourselves from this shameful operation.

For the ASME in particular, however, I would ask that you not remove the article in question; merely annotate it to the effect that the credibility of this organization has come under serious question and thus readers should beware of the likely deceptive intent entailed in some of the authors’ claims.

If any of the others who have been involuntarily re-categorized from “venture capitalists” to “wealthy donors” by Renouard & company happen to read this, and would wish to contact me regarding the possibility of joint legal action, please do so.

If anyone reading this is interested in participating in charitable ventures in Africa that genuinely do save lives, without the funds being siphoned off for corporate overhead or false technological claims, feel free to contact me in that regard and I can direct you to small organizations that have earned my personal trust in their approach to such work. And I swear by all that is holy that I will make no attempt to financially benefit from or support myself through any of your charitable donations for Africa.

Whatever your situation, please spread the word that contributing to the Village Drill project is not a credible means of “doing good” in Africa, or presumably anywhere else in the world. The sooner this system is closed down, the better it will be for the credibility of start-up charitable ventures in general.

Sincerely, David Huisjen, Jr.



Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy

Racism, Hegemony and Transition

Setting aside my more personal philosophical concerns for a moment, I need to address an issue which many of my American friends and acquaintances in particular are struggling with, and which many more are struggling to avoid dealing with: How do we define the term racism, and what needs to be done about the problem of racism today, particularly in the American context?

It has now been over 150 years since holding black people as slaves became illegal in the United States ––since those determined to hold onto those slaves lost a brutal war regarding the matter –– yet in many ways the US is still struggling to come to terms with that legacy of shame. For some it remains a matter of principle to keep believing that the federal government never should have taken away their right to own other human beings whom they considered to be their natural inferiors.  Thus they consider it a matter of justifiable civic pride to hold onto flags, monuments and other symbols of their struggle to keep blacks enslaved.


For others the issue is a matter of ignoring the continuous efforts to keep darker skinned people in a position of fear and subservience, saying that since slavery has been over for so long black people should not be allowed to use the problems stemming from that institution as an excuse for the position they find themselves in; they should work harder, avoid drugs and violence more thoroughly, be more committed to family values and save money more carefully, and if they do that they can have the same opportunities as any white people have. It is rather difficult to determine to what extent the ignorance and assumptions of moral inferiority inherent in this argument are simply the result of poor education among those who hold such beliefs, and to what extent they are a matter of certain white people struggling to maintain the assumption that black people are naturally inferior and thus need to be kept in submission to their lighter skinned masters.

Others, it must be admitted don’t really care so much about the position of darker skinned people in society, but they wish to make a political football of the subject, trying to blame problems related to slavery on the other political party: either emphasizing or denying the extent to which the major parties swapped roles regarding the civil rights struggle between the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan.  As tempting as it is to get distracted by proving historical points in this regard though, let me simply say that there are still manipulative con men in both parties trying to accuse the other of being racist purely as a cynical political tactic, but for poorer blacks there is little question in their mind as to which party they can expect to take an interest in their situation; and for whites who are resentful of government putting black people’s needs and interests ahead of their own, it is equally clear in their minds which party to turn to in order to try to correct this situation. Both may be mistaken in whom they have decided to trust in these matters, but the alliances which the parties have established in terms of racial interests are quite clear these days.

But this is largely a distraction from the main point I want to get to here: what will happen when white men are no longer in the position to say what sort of rules everyone else needs to live and play by? Such a day is fast approaching for the United States. It is more or less demographically certain that within the next generation, for the first time in the nation’s history, white people will make up less than half of the United States’ citizens. If something resembling a functional, honest democracy remains in place, that will mean that the various brown and black people of the country will have the possibility of bonding together and setting the rules that white people will have to live and play by. This has many white racists loading both their britches and their rifles.

This is where the word hegemony comes in. Originally an ancient Greek term for international domination, hegemony was largely re-defined by the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist that died in prison for taking a stand against Mussolini. Gramsci was trying to find a way of describing what enabled Mussolini to convince people to follow his orders and support his regime, even though they were seriously screwing up their own lives in doing so. Basically Gramsci theorized that the secret behind Mussolini’s power, and many other such self-appointed dictators, was that he was able to make people believe that his authority was simply part of the natural order of things. So according to this understanding of the terms, if you can convince people that you are somehow naturally entitled to be in charge, and that things will work best for everyone involved if they would just settle down and do what you tell them to, then you are in a position of hegemony. Sound familiar?

In practice we find many examples of hegemony in our world today. One of the biggest challenges in doing charitable work in Africa, in fact, is to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic structures that have caused so many of that continent’s problems to begin with. Colonial racists spent centuries working on constructing a position of hegemony for themselves there, in many cases quite successfully. Consequently, though it isn’t part of the natural order of things that black people need white people to take care of them, tell them what to do and manage their economic structures for them, many Africans –– both black and white –– keep operating on an assumption that this would be the case. Part of the solution to this problem is simply to provide native Africans with the sort of education that has previously been available primarily just to white people; part of it is to help them overcome the scourge of tribal infighting which made them vulnerable to colonization to begin with; and part of it is to undo some of the remaining structural remnants of colonial governance intentionally designed to keep local people in helpless passive submission. But those actions involve cultural shifts which could take many generations to bring about. In the meantime we still need to take empathetic action to help those who are suffering in extreme poverty. We just have to do so without perpetuating the myth that the only way they can survive is with the help of white men –– easier said than done.

Back in America, meanwhile, the racial and cultural hegemony has its own implications, complexities and ugly aspects to be dealt with. Many southern white leaders in the mid-19th century, while trying to justifying themselves as slave-holders, theorized that God intended black men to be under the control of white men since the days of Noah, constructing a vast number of theological, anthropological, evolutionary and historical arguments to back up this claim. Losing the Civil War and the legal right to hold slaves did not eliminate their deep existential commitment to these arguments, and consequently many these arguments have been passed down through the 5 or 6 generations since slaves were set free. The core element of these arguments is an implicit belief that for a modern western society to continue to function in a stable and sustainable manner, white people need to be in charge, and the rules that everyone else as well needs to live by are those formulated by white people. Those who continue to believe in and perpetuate such a myth –– whether of white, black, mixed or other racial origin themselves –– are part of the American cultural problem of assumed white hegemony.

White hegemony has had a rather diverse history in the United States. In the time of the “founding fathers” it was quite explicitly part of the nation’s ideology. If you have any doubts about this look up the Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823): buying property from a native tribe doesn’t count as a legal transaction, because only white men could be party to binding legal contracts. In the time following the American Civil War there was a relatively brief period during which some former Confederate leaders recognized black people as partners in the process of democratic governance, but that was swiftly brought to an end in the 1890s by the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Those who took part in mixed race political parties, including such as former generals William Mahone, James Longstreet and even P.G.T. Beauregard, were labelled as traitors to their race and as much as possible systematically forgotten. Blacks who could not be trusted to support “respectable” white leaders were systematically prevented from voting.


Publicly murdering a black person or two every now and again helped keep them in a submissive mood. Beyond that, making sure that services for white people were kept separate from services for black people gave the former a certain sense of security and superiority over the next few generations. I won’t detail the extent of the racist crimes that extended from the Hayes presidency to the Truman era, but suffice to say, in those years there was never any question of black people being given equal rights and opportunities in American culture. It was only with desegregation rulings of the US Supreme Court in the 1950s, and the courageous civil rights protests of the 1960s, that black people’s rights to recognition as people, and the federal government’s responsibility to protect their rights as people, started to be taken seriously in US law.

Most southerners have gradually started to accept black people as teammates, co-workers and fellow citizens over the past couple of generations since then, but this has not been a smooth or painless process. For many the unspoken limit to their tolerance for their darker-skinned neighbors  has remained the principle of white hegemony: as long as black people are willing to abide by the basic rules set for everyone by the white people –– who need to remain in exclusive control of all mechanisms of legislation and administration in the nation –– then we can allow them to live and work in peace together with us. As long as things seemed to work smoothly on that basis many optimists even claimed that racism had ceased to be a problem in the United States… until that trouble-maker Obama came along.

Obama brought together the oratory flare of the black Protestant church tradition with the benefits he gained from a liberal white upbringing, an Ivy League education and an interracial late baby boomer’s sense of cool. This combination enabled him to win the hearts and minds of pretty much all black and brown people in the US, with a large enough minority of white people supporting him for him to handily become as the first non-white president of the nation. This sent a shock-wave through the racist community: it wasn’t so much that this dark-skinned president was initiating dangerous policies for the nation (though many would try to claim that this was the case), but he rather posed an existential threat to their basic belief that for things to operate properly in the nation white people need to remain in charge. All of a sudden the willingness of whites to peacefully coexist with their darker-skinned neighbors as long as they were willing to abide by basic white rules started to get a lot less clear. Coexisting under rules that a black man had helped put in place wasn’t something they were ready to sign off on!

Suffice to say the next US president succeeded in getting elected by bringing together all of those who shared these fears and resentments of the increasing status and influence of darker-skinned people in society, together with those who became economic losers because of automation that came with the IT revolution and because of increasingly internationalized trade. His core message was the dishonest claim that he could basically turn back the clock in terms of demographics, human rights and technology to a time when these formerly middle class whites’ incomes and positions in society were more secure. Probably few people were ignorant enough to believe this message at face value, but if this guy would push back against blacks, immigrants, global financial interests and “progress” in general, that would be close enough to satisfy the base he was building. From there having an opponent who was even easier for the heartland to hate than he was proved to be enough to put him this crooked rich boy from New York over the top in terms of the Electoral College vote.  Even so, it shocked many Americans, and pretty much all of the rest of the world, that an American national election could be won on the basis of such ugly sentiments and blatantly false claims. In the famous words of Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem!”

For all the international humiliation that this administration has brought on the United States in its first year, however, one thing remains clear: as long as the US maintains its current constitutional democratic structure, the reactionary defense of white hegemony which brought this president to power is destined to be defeated and eliminated over the course of the next generation. As hard as white Bible Belt Baptists, Amish, Mormons and other such groups try to encourage their women to have “quivers full” of kids, and as hard as they try to stop non-Europeans from being able to immigrate to America, within the next 40 years white people and self-identified Christians will make up less than half of the US population. The Obama presidency was merely the first shot across the white hegemonists’ bow, signaling the impending end of their era. The current crop of racists and reactionaries controlling the Republican Party now have to decide how they are going to deal with this.

I qualify this prediction, however, with an awareness that there are supporters of the current president who are so committed to the principle of white hegemony that they would rather destroy the American system of government than to allow white hegemony to come to an end. We have seen more and more of these people on the streets of America this summer, and as the likelihood of the current president being removed from office before the end of his first term increases, there is an ever increasing chance that his most blatantly racist and reactionary supporters will attempt to violently prevent the constitutional processes in question. So one of the serious questions to be asked is whether the US constitutional structure and civil society will be strong enough to hold these reactionaries in check. I hope and believe so, but I also hoped and believed that Americans would be intelligent enough not to elect the current president to begin with. Likewise in the early 1930s most people would have hoped and believed that such an advanced society as Germany would be able to prevent a violent reactionary racist group like the Nazis from winning an election and seizing power there. We’ll see what happens.

The main message for Americans today to recognize is that things will not remain the same, and they certainly will not go back to the way they were in the early 1950s. There will either be bloody chaos leading to the demise of the United States as a constitutional democracy and a global power, or their will be a tense yet peaceful transition out of white hegemony into a more genuinely multi-cultural and tolerant society. This latter alternative, however, will require that, rather than trying to unilaterally set all the rules which darker-skinned people must live by and beat them into submission to those rules, white Americans must, learn to listen more carefully and respectfully to the interests, concerns and yes, demands of non-whites. Preferably they should learn to do this sort of listening before they lose their majority status entirely. If there is one thing that the past decade has proven beyond doubt though, it is that a significant number of white Americans still have a lot to learn in that regard, and a high degree of resistance to the learning process. Even so, hope remains.

For other “developed” western countries the demographic shift is less inevitable, but the need to establish sincere and productive inter-ethnic dialogues is just as critical. Fortunately most countries can approach this new situation with a cleaner slate than the United States, but former colonial powers in particular still face some major challenges in learning to listen to their darker-skinned citizens. Yet I firmly believe that if this challenge is faced with sincere mutual respect and a desire to more sincerely live up to our ideals of respecting the value of every person as a person, there is good reason to hope for the best.

May God protect us from ourselves in any case.


Leave a comment

Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

Shoveling… it

I had an ironically beautiful day on Saturday with a bunch of my more religious friends. A friend from church has a hobby farm of sorts, leaning towards the basic ideals of more “sustainable living” and all, but him being about my age, in part due to the aches and pains that come with the aging process, he has been unable to keep up with all of the different spring cleaning issues that have to be dealt with there. As he has done a number of random favors for many of us, and as he has the sort of warm smile that everyone likes to help bring out, the church arranged for about 20 of us to spend the day at his place helping out with some basic chores.

evans farm view

Much of the work I did was, together with others, (carefully) moving old logs and scrap wood around into new piles, burning off some of it, and scything down the weeds that had been growing around where the old wood piles were. Eventually though it came time for me to join the proud teams doing the “real work”: cleaning out the mostly composted sheep manure, thoroughly intermingled with the sheep’s straw bedding, which in a few different sections of the barns and sheds had built up over the course of a couple of years to about waist-high. It had got to the point where that job couldn’t be procrastinated any further because the animals were starting to bang their heads on the ceiling rafters!

By the time I picked up the pitchfork and started to help break up and remove this mass of …it, there was already a strong sense of gung-ho teamwork going among the guys who had spent the whole morning on that task. In fact there were two teams not so subtly trying to out-do each other in the poop scooping process. One team was using a fleet of wheelbarrows; the other, an old trailer of the sort my car can pull. Each team had a de facto self-appointed leader who was barking out instructions. (I was thankful to join into this particular task late especially so as not to slip into that sort of role!) And the leaders were each trying to psych up their teams over how they were doing better than those on the other side.

evans manure dump

Without going into any more personal detail regarding the social dynamics of the day than that, it was just fascinating to watch as religious people got more and more excited and competitive about their capacities to shovel… it.

As this was just a one day gig, with no particular pay or bonuses or long-term status factors riding on it, and as it therefore required a certain sort of odd sense of humor and non-standard set of motivational strategies to get the job done, it seemed that these guys were letting their most primitive competitive instincts, and at the same time their most basic male bonding instincts, run rather wild. I admit, this invites all sorts of comparison with what we religious people tend to do together and why under more “normal” circumstances as well, but I’ll leave that to the reader to contemplate.

In any case, this experience also brought to mind my discussions last week with my cousin in the agriculture industry, who in spite of being an otherwise very decent and respectable sort of guy, has happened to drift into the circles of rural white working class Trump supporters. Suffice to say, he’s spent his life surrounded by more manure than most people can imagine, both literally and figuratively, to the point where he seems to have lost his sensitivity to both. In some ways I can deeply respect him for that very reason, and I feel it would be rather crude and insensitive for me to even try to get him out of all that …it, but on the other hand I hope I can enable him to see the difference between it and non-it again, especially when it comes to the way …it piles up in politics.

Anyway, one huge part of the political mentality my dear cousin is part of is to say that socialism is wrong because it takes away the sense of satisfaction that people get by accomplishing things and thus earning things for themselves.  Or in my cousin’s own words, “Do you not feel better about achieving your own success on your own watch, rather than getting something just because you have a hot breath? I am free to fail and free to succeed every day. That is the beauty of this country.”

When I replied to that by saying that I don’t feel better about achieving things on “my own watch” rather than getting things as a matter of right because I happen to be a living, breathing human being, it seems that my cousin and I hit something of a cultural disconnect. I don’t think he was able to relate to what I was saying. But then watching, and taking part in, all of the …it shoveling on Saturday brought his perspectives to mind again, both in terms of the motivation/reward structure for work and in terms of the pride of accomplishment side of things. So I thought it might be worth writing something here to see if I can bring in some sense of mutual understanding on these issues.

Evans workers

One of the biggest questions in politics and economics is, how can you convince people to work together with each other for the common good – so that everyone comes out better through their cooperation with each other? There are two extremes which we can say really don’t work. One extreme is to split up all proceeds of every joint effort even-Steven, which then, in order to motivate people to do their fair share, requires finding ways to seriously threaten and punish those who don’t do what they’re told. At the other extreme we have radical competition where those who compete most ruthlessly and aggressively can hoard as much of the benefits of the system as they can grab for themselves, leaving both the lazy and those who are simply playing along and taking part on a basic level hurting, with little or nothing to show for it. The former is the risk involved in politics going too far to the left; the latter, when politics drift too far to the right.

Right-wing politicians tend to try to threaten people, like my cousin, with the idea that if those damned “leftists” take charge it will lead to a loss of choice in how much of what sort of work each person has to do. The argument goes that if people are otherwise guaranteed enough to get by on safely, the only way to get them to work harder and cooperate with others in general will be to beat them over the head with various things or throw them in jail if they don’t follow the rules set by some abstract, far away authority figures who are not to be trusted. Beyond that there are those lower class individuals who are not to be trusted because rather than working together with everyone else they’d probably just like to glean the benefits of the system without contributing anything. So we need to find ways of keeping them on a particularly short leash. Let’s just say that in terms of constructing pictures of Marxist monsters and lazy sleaze balls to scare people into voting for them, right-wing populists have proven themselves capable of shoveling an impressive amount of …it.

Left-wing politicians have been far less effective, particularly in the United States, at constructing a fear of imaginary “bad hombres” on the other side. The basic narrative is that those who get to a certain point of privilege — whether or not they got there by playing fair (and usually they haven’t got there by playing fair) — tend to lose track of how the cooperation has to work in practice among those down there picking up the poop with the pitchforks. In order to keep these characters at the top economically from becoming fat, lazy, disconnected and abusive, they need to be required to stay in contact with those on the lower end of society, and to give something back to the others, whose own hard work made their success possible, as well as to those who haven’t been able to properly participate in societal production systems (yet). Part of the government’s basic job is to keep people working together, and that requires keeping those bastards at the top from isolating themselves too far from the rest of society. The true bad guys, according to this narrative, are those who, once they are at the top, refuse to care about or have anything to do with those they “defeated” in the process of getting there. This type of …it can be piled just as high as the right-wing sort, but we haven’t seen that done in quite a while; in US politics probably not since the time of George McGovern.

Between these extremes though there is a broad range of ideological and practical alternatives to consider in terms of how to get the necessary piles of …it properly moved about: how can we positively motivate people to pick up the pitchforks, and how to negatively motivate them in terms of how much of their basic safety and well-being can/should be made contingent on the amount of …it they get shoveled? My cousin’s mileage may differ on these matters, but I strongly believe that in keeping with basic human dignity people should not threatened into shoveling …it, either as the consequence of extreme left or extreme right wing political structures. Human innovation and cooperation have progressed to the point where we can make enough for everyone to live relatively safely and securely, so there isn’t any valid reason to let people and/or their children suffer and die if they can’t prove that they’ve shoveled their fair share of …it.

How do we pay to keep people taken care of? That part can be negotiated, but the important thing is to remember that money is nothing but a complicated set of human agreements by which we find ways of continuing to work together. If monetary systems cease to serve that purpose, they inevitably collapse. So if we want to keep any particular kind of money worth anything, we have to make sure that it serves as a functional, responsible means of distributing the fruits of our collective labors, and that would include demonstrating a collective respect for the human dignity of other people in general. The rest is details.

evans grill

In terms of positive motivations, there’s a lot to be said for allowing people to compete with each other if that’s what they’re into. There’s also a lot to be said for giving people who accomplish more than others extra rewards in terms of finer food or nicer stuff to show off to their friends if they’re so inclined. That being said, going back to the example of our little pitchfork party on Saturday, the lunch, dinner and sauna time afterwards were available to everyone, regardless of how much of …it they forked out of the sheds as we went. Things could have been arranged in such a way that only those who had moved more than X number of barrow loads of …it would be entitled to the finer pieces of meat on the grill, or the nicer cakes for desert, or whatever. It could be argued that such a distribution system would have felt better and would have been more encouraging for those who got the most work done, and would have ensured that they would do an even better job next time. I would disagree. I think it just would have reduced the satisfaction we all experienced in working together and knowing we were doing something good for a dear friend. I don’t think the bratwurst and fruit salad would have tasted any better to me if they would have been a special prize for the amount of …it I shoveled, and frankly I think that those who would have wanted that sort of prize system are probably just a bit childish in that respect.

Evans house

I realize that there’s a difference between professional efforts and weekend volunteer work, but in terms of how we are motivated overall — and in terms of where, if anywhere, threats should figure into the process – I think this is more of a difference in degree rather than a difference in type. The political and economic structure which best enables freedom, which brings out the best in workers, and which most enables people to trust each other in working together is not likely to be the one which has the biggest stick to beat people with if they don’t do as they are told. How masters can get the most mechanical labor out of their slaves for the least investment is a different question, but shifting the form of the question in that direction should in itself show that there is something wrong with that form of thinking. Would you agree, Cuz?


Anyway, this also sort of brings me to the matter that, when it comes to this blog, I haven’t really bothered to shovel much …it here in the past couple years – maybe in part because no one pays me for it, maybe because I’m not so sure how much good my shoveling efforts here do for anyone, maybe because of the limits of my own capacities for shoveling such these days. Whatever the case, once in a while it feels good to get a barrow load or two of …it out into the blogosphere for everyone else to be able to enjoy the smell together with me. If anyone has anything to say about how it might be more effectively shifted or spread around, I’d be happy to hear from you.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Freedom, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Philosophy

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.

1 Comment

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)



1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy

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.

Leave a comment

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Purpose, Religion, Spirituality, Travel

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Sexuality

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…

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality

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.


Filed under Education, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Religion, Science

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.

Leave a comment

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