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Monday, March 2, 2015

Evil as Ignorance

Yesterday's Post carried an article that might serve as a parable for international relations. It told of the slaughter of a pastor, health workers, and educators in the small village of Womey, Guinea. They had come to warn and teach the villagers about Ebola. But because they were strangers, the rumor ran that they were coming to bring Ebola and kill the villagers. "What do you do when they come to kill you?" The villagers asked. "You kill them first." So a mob of villagers hacked the strangers to death with machetes and dumped them in ditches filled with human waste. As a result, many villagers have been chased from the village to languish and die in the bush. While none of them have died from Ebola, the author of the article considers them victims of the disease as victims of fear.

It is not the first time that the messenger or teacher or prophet was killed bringing the information that would dispel ignorance. It raises the question of the link between ignorance and evil.

Evil has been classically defined as a negative, an absence of good, just as dark is an absence of light. In classical philosophy, evil is an absence of Being or reality. In contemporary science all things, the total multiverse of beings, all matter and energy, from the smallest particles to the largest galaxies, consist of information. So if Evil is the absence or negation of Being, it is the absence or negation of information--in other words, ignorance.

For ignorance to have moral character, i.e. to be culpable, it would need to be chosen: willful ignorance or the refusal to pursue knowledge. It is good for us to know that we do not know, in other words, to acknowledge our ignorance as a requisite to pursuing knowledge or truth. It is when we think we know better that we are most in danger of denying, avoiding, or refusing information. As did the villagers.

I see this as a parable for those calling themselves neoconservatives who promote a "muscular" policy towards Iran, ISIS, and Moscow. They want us to bomb, invade, arm, go to war rather than contain, negotiate, and co-exist. They use, I would say mis-use, categories like "appeasement," "leadership of the free world," and "resolute decision-making" adopted from other times and circumstances to hype up belligerence.

There are definitely times when you need to defend your boundaries even with force. There are times when you need to intervene even with force to stop the stronger from overpowering the weaker. But those defenses and interventions must be well thought out--deliberative and limited. Never out of hatred and the desire for revenge.

The fight or flight instinct, emotionalized in fear and hatred, will probably always be with us. We can discern much fear and hatred in the response of ordinary people reacting to the fear and hatred of other ordinary people. Only thinking, the attempt to seek knowledge and question your conclusions, and law, formed in thoughtful deliberation to limit activity the reacts without thought, are the ways beyond the ignorance which is evil and the evil which is ignorance.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Political Thinking (2)


Categories really screw us up in politics when they reinforce a partisanship that retards a functioning government. Right vs. Left, Liberal vs. Conservative, Extreme vs. Moderate. Then there are the tags of Libertarian, Communist, Socialist, Reactionary, Atheist, Secularist, Islamist, Fundamentalist which we us to disparage the “other side.” Indeed political categories often set up an adversarial relationship. Partisan thinking adopts the narrative of a war between two sides: the virtuous and the wicked—which of course is “my side” against “your side.”

Such categorization is a refusal to think “out of the box” and ultimately a refusal to think at all. We see a lot of that on the slogans or characterizations on the Internet where often the argument is ad hominem (e.g. attacking the depravity of the individual) which is no argument at all. There is no way to have a conversation if one is immediately dismissed as alien or dumb or wrong or unpatriotic.

I have tried conversing with my Cousin Vinnie. But even when I spend time discussing certain points, send him “fact-checks” that show the errors of an accusation he just passed on, or accept his points while arguing for others, he dismisses “my side” with a “you are wrong.” Discussing climate change responses, of which and to whom we admittedly could argue the benefits and drawbacks of each, is simply dismissed with a rejection of the evidence. Or simply uses anecdotal evidence: e.g. the planet is not warming which is proved by the cold in the North East this winter.

I admire those who are trying to foster an open democratic politics by attending to the “frame” of the thinking and discussion (eg., cognitive linguist George Lackoff). A frame is a structure of categories and often an implied narrative that is already in place. I admire Evolutionary Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s effort in identifying six moral foundations of human behavior as a way to understand both the commonalities and differences in thinking and acting politically and so making possible understanding and collaboration among opposing points of view.

I diagram my own takeaway from his thoughtful analysis. But the diagram itself is misleading because it seems to identify two camps or sides rather than a continuum of shared values.


While I do not think that my Cousin Vinnie will want to spend the energy dealing with such analysis and break out of his own categories by considering some mega-categories, perhaps some citizens, politicians, and political analysts might.

Recently retiring John Dingell, the longest serving US Congressman, said that prior to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the majority party would always try to take in the viewpoint and values of the minority party in developing legislation. But Gingrich changed all that by establishing the concept of two enemy camps with a winner take all mentality and centralizing all power in the Speaker’s Office.

To restore Congress as the great deliberative body representing all viewpoints and resolving clashing opinions would mean a rethinking of present categories so that people will understand that opponents do not mean enemies, that there are many ways of singing the world, and that we need to transcend a win-lose or no-yes mentality. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Out of the Garden

(continued)

Here’s the gist of the myth.

Adam (Man) created by God and Eve (cloned from Adam’s rib) wake up in a beautiful Garden without a worry in the world. Lots to eat and drink. No worries, no pain, no need for clothes so I guess no mosquitoes and perfect weather. Totally taken care of and so I suppose plenty of servants to clean house, prepare food, and wash clothes (oops! No need for them). Only one thing they have to do or really NOT do; and that’s eat the fruit of this one tree mysteriously called the Tree of Good and Evil.

In steps Serpent. Serpent talks with Eve and Eve listens. “Eve, want some excitement? Don’t you want to be like God? Aren’t you a bit curious why you shouldn’t eat the fruit of that one tree? C’mon try it.” And she does. And then she gets Adam to try it too.

God booms out: “What have you done?” They hide, are ashamed and blame each other. They realize their nakedness and put on clothes. Then, in steps Angel with a fiery sword and kicks them out of the Garden and tells them that now they have to work, bear children, have pain, and die.

Interpretation 1: Fathers of the Church.

This disobedience of the divine commandment is the Sin of Man with which every person who is born is cursed. This Original Sin will plague all mankind and keep them from Paradise.

Serpent is Satan, the disobedient Lucifer who had led the angels in a revolution against God and was cast down to Hell. Satan takes it out on Man who is God’s creation and whom God put in charge of all the Earth. Eve, Woman, was the tool of Satan to seduce Man into sin and thus separate him from God.

This Sin brings Evil into the world and explains why bad things happen to even good men (and women) including droughts and famines, anger and murder, sins of the flesh and bodily sickness, wars and death. And because Women seduced Man into this sin, she will suffer both bondage and the pain of childbirth.

But there is a happy ending. Angry Father God sends down his Son to be tortured and killed as a sacrifice to make up for this Sin. For only someone equal to Father God could balance the scales. That’s why Jesus, the new Adam, was born, suffered, and died for all mankind. And the Sin is removed from all those who are born again with the resurrected Jesus through baptism of water or the fire of martyrdom and who turn themselves over to the obedience of God’s commandments within His Church. Felix culpa, O happy fault, that made it possible for God’s Son to walk the Earth and lead men to salvation, the Church sings at Eastertime.

Many fathers have gone on to speak of the New Eve, which is Mary the Mother of Jesus/God, who was born without Sin and without pain. And she didn’t have sex to get pregnant with Jesus—semper virgo. Her birthing pain would come when she watched and so joined Jesus, the New Adam, in his sacrifice on the cross to appease Father God for the injury done by the First Adam.

Order is restored. God rules with Jesus the Christ His Son by His side; and all in unison sing His praise. Paradise regained.

Interpretation 2. Mothers of the Church

(There were mothers back then like Magdalene, Phoebe, Priscilla, Julia, Lucia, Mary; but they didn’t get    published. Today there are many who are getting published like Elaine, Rosemary, Corita, Elizabeth, Jane, Joan, Dorothy; but most are not really recognized by the fathers.)

Here is an interpretation by Mothers taking Eve’s point of view.

Eve is dissatisfied and bored. She is like Prince Rasselas in Happy Valley as told by Samuel Johnson’s Tale. If Rasselas leaves Happy Valley where all his needs are met, he can never go back. Nevertheless Rasselas and his sister sneak out to find some adventure and, if not total happiness, at least the satisfaction of new understanding of themselves and the world.

No wonder Eve talks with Serpent! Adam is hardly a good conversationalist because he hasn’t explored anything anywhere. And obviously there is not much of a sex life since the two do not even notice their genitals or how to have children until after they leave the Garden.

Serpent is clearly another face of God. In some mystical traditions of India, the rising Serpent is symbolic of rising kundalini energy, which is a Spiritual awakening that can bring forth healing, empowerment, knowledge and wisdom. Throughout the Near East the serpent was considered a symbol of wisdom, health and even immortality. This was usually connected with snakes shedding their skins, which made a semblance of rebirth into eternity. In some representations the goddess of fertility is entwined by the serpent as a phallic symbol to bring forth new life.

So who is this Serpent God enticing Eve to become a goddess of fertility and bring forth new life by disobeying the commandment of Monarch God by eating fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil? The Serpent is telling Eve to think for herself, to adventure out into the unknown by breaking the rules and transcending the boundaries, to become as a god by taking on the divine activity of creation.

Felix culpa—O happy fault! Original sin is really the original blessing by which humanity is truly made in the image of God. This is the moment of divine infusion, the divine spark, in which humanity knows good and evil, in which humanity risks pain and death for hope and life, in which humanity wakes up to its responsibility by thinking, by questioning, and by going outside the box. Adam and Eve become progenitors of homo sapiens only after getting out of the Garden of stifling innocence and ignorance.

Thanks to the wise Serpent’s agitation, Eve becomes as a goddess to seduce Man into the light of reason by discovering the capacity for curiosity and care, the cogito. And other gods and goddesses will rise up to continue to indicate the way, as did the Serpent to Eve and Eve to Adam. There will be Vishnu/Shiva, Buddha, Socrates, Aphrodite, Jesus, Magdalene, Francis, Martin, Joan, Dan, Jane and many more down to our own day.

And so the story of Adam and Eve is really the creation story when homo became sapiens. It points to that moment when humankind began to think and when thinking brought good and evil and so freedom and responsibility into the world. The moment of transcendence. Across the boundaries. Outside the Box. The Big Bang of the Moral Universe.




Thursday, February 19, 2015

To think or not to think, that is the question.

Is thinking a moral act?

Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. In other words, a thoughtless life is a worthless life. Since thinking is the way we have knowledge, can evil consist, or at least be due to, a lack of knowledge?

Or is the culpable act the decision not to think and therefore not to know? That is, evil is choosing to act without thinking. Thinking we have seen involves a sense of direction towards greater truth and good, an openness to transcend our beliefs when they are obstacles to human fulfillment, and a relation to other persons as other selves.

So thinking is what casts a moral character on our acts, our lives, our persons, and our communities. To think or not to think, that is the question of human existence.

Is an act without thinking a human, i.e. moral, act at all? I breathe, I smell, I defecate, I blink, I scratch, my heart pumps, my blood runs, my saliva flows, I feel aches, all without thinking. These are not human acts and do not have a moral character unless I think about changing or stopping them. Nor am I culpable if I cannot think, e.g. if I am forced to do something or if I do not have the time or opportunity to think about it. Many a trial centers around whether the crime a human act. And many a penalty for a crime is lessened if diminished thinking occurred.

What about Dresden, Hiroshima, The Twin Towers, Slavery and Jim Crow, Wounded Knee, KKK lynchings, ISIS beheadings, the Final Solution, Guantanamo, My Lai, Armenian genocide, Rape of China? Were these thoughtless acts? Hardly. They were planned and executed with full weighing of their consequences. Thinking casts a moral character on these decisions. And they are good or evil based on the nature, value, and standards of thinking itself which are present in every human act.

My Cousin Vinnie sent me a note from Mexico saying he is enjoying the sun and refuses to think about the poor slobs freezing in the Northeast who believe the earth is warming or about poor people in general, just glad he has the means to travel. But of course he is thinking about others or he wouldn’t have mentioned them. He is just having fun piquing me. His refusal to think is culpable only when he really refuses to consider other ways of looking at the world and feeling how other people feel because that might make him change his ideas. And the same for me.


A meditation on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve is helpful here. TBC.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cogito

 Cogito Ergo Sum

The cogito ergo sum (“I think therefore I am”) is one of the most important ideas in the history of ideas--almost as important as the idea of “idea” itself. The mathematician Rene Descartes, as a post Enlightenment philosopher, questioned all authority that of the State, the Church, or the Academy. All science, policies, and dogmas can be doubted. Mathematics can prove how truths are derived from truths; but those truths are only as valid as the truth from which they are derived. That means that there must be a foundational truth—one that cannot be doubted from which all other truths can be derived.

The only truth that I cannot doubt, says Descartes, is my doubt itself. I can question every thought I have or which has been given to me from the Church, the State, and the Academy (if these exist at all).  But I cannot doubt myself doubting. I can questions all my thoughts, but I cannot question myself thinking. That is the absolute. The undoubtable, unquestionable, solid, fixed truth from which everything else can be derived. I think therefore I am.

On this fundamental truth Descartes proves the existence of the Self, of God, and of the World. It was a great idea because it led to the awareness of human consciousness and opened to the question of human thinking itself. But all great ideas it seems advance human understanding, but at the same time put forth obstacles. They reveal and obfuscate. They raise further questions. And with Descartes’ idea emerges the split, indeed the chasm, between Spirit and Matter, Self and Others, Mind and Body, the Objective and the Subjective.

Cultural historians have traced from this idea the divergent philosophies of empiricism and idealism, materialism and spiritualism, the notion of god in the machine, deism and determinism, the mind apart from the body, the market and the invisible hand, behaviorism without consciousness. It certainly reenforced ideas from earlier religions: separable immortal souls, divine spirits, ghosts, absolute ideas in some Absolute Mind, Great Spirit, God.

But this great idea also led to experiments and concepts that brought together what had been divided. The biggest turn came when thinkers reflected on thinking itself—the cogito. Continental European thinkers like Kant and Hegel examined the way that humans think, the structure of their thinking or the ideas they developed over time, i.e. the  categories of mind or the development of ideas in history. Continental thought culminated in “existential phenomenology,” the notion that human existence is already in and to the world interacting with others and the environment through symbols. The cogito cannot be thought of without its connection through symbols with the self, the others, and the world in time and space. There is no such thing as a detached cogito. And the parallel development in North America was the pragmatism of William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Pierce.

The most important idea to emerge was “natural selection” expressed by Charles Darwin in his Origin of the Species and complemented by Richard Dawkins for explaining how genes and memes evolve to perpetuate themselves in adapting to changing environments. The cogito, thinking, existence, symbolic activity, is the interaction of the human embrained organism and its environment in which genes and memes are naturally selected.

And so in the history of ideas, we go from word (ancient mythology) to idea (Socrates and Plato) to form (Aristotle to Aquinas) to thought (Descartes to Hegel) to symbol (De Saussure to Dewey) to formula (Newton to Einstein) to meme (Darwin to Dawkins) to algorithm (Turing to Denning). Each stage could be identified differently with different principals named. But what is important is to recognize the progression and the growth in understanding of human behavior and being. Each idea was a solution to a problem and an advance for the human enterprise. But each idea also led to new problems and was an obstacle to progress. And so I ask myself today which dominant idea is holding us back and what is the emerging idea that will lead us forward.




Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Talk Story

When we lived in Hawaii, we were introduced to the art of kuka kuka, translated as "talk story." When you wanted to do business with someone, you wouldn't get right down to what you had in mind. You would first take some time, as much as it took, to connect with that person by finding a relationship; for example, a common ancestor or friend or maybe a similar experience, a school or neighborhood you both connected with. You did this by telling your stories. That developed a bond and led to trust.

Most successful competitors and even enlightened opponents try to get to common ground on which to build a win-win relationship for the present and on to the future. When I read President Obama's books prior to him running for President I felt sure that he could do this, that he could understand where even those with whom he disagreed were coming from and the values they were affirming that he could also. When he became President he regularly took Republican ideas and tried to sell them to his own party. That was certainly so in his approach to the banks, industry, and Wall Street to stabilize the markets and save capitalism. And for Health Care, he dropped the public alternative that many of us wanted and took on the solution that the Republican standard bearer Romney used in Massachusetts.

But of course, his opponents were not for making him a winner even if they won themselves. Their sole intent as spoken by the ranking Republican in the Senate was to make him fail. To them Obama seemed a highly educated, smooth-talking, arrogant elitist. And there are certain people, especially from the South, who don't like to see an arrogant black man.

Conversing with Cousin Vinnie, I realize that, despite a family relationship, knowing many of the same people, being of the same age, and lots of kuka kuka, we have no common ground on which to have the civil discourse that is required for the politics of a democratic republic. We see the facts so differently even when we actually consider them.  I have a Howard Zinn, Frederick Douglas, Eugene Debs history of the USA while he has a Walt Disney, John Wayne, Davy Crockett history of our country. Look at how Obama was so roundly condemned as a traitor to Christian America in his effort at the National Prayer breakfast to show the commonality of all religions by pointing out the distortions in Christendom as well as Islam. It was an expression of humility through shared history that was understood as arrogance.

I believe that there is a common ground in our shared human race which I have said elsewhere is our ability to think, to transcend our culture and even our nature, to reach beyond ourselves to new horizons. That is the dignity, some would say divine spark, in each of us. But even there Cousin Vinnie would express that very differently because we have such a different language. We would not agree on what that common ground is. We have different myths and narratives to interpret "facts."

And so I have come to the tentative conclusion that, if we want to achieve a new transcending politics, we need to look primarily to what we want, rather than at what we have accepted as true. Instead of common ground, we need to intend a common future. I don't think this can be done in the political parties and their true believing bases; or by radio-TV pundits who make their living demonizing "the other side" and their faithful "ditto heads." It can only happen in true publics where people in neighborhoods, congregations, and associations focus on what they want for their families, neighborhoods, schools, board rooms, congregations, and cities and how they might get there by avoiding all the politically loaded names and name-calling.

We have to be optimists, that is, hopeful that we can solve our problems. We must not dwell on the evils of humanity and its past and present, nor judge that the world and humanity are going to hell. We must not be waiting for the perfect leader or the right politician or party to be in control. If we have hope, we believe that we have in us the ability to come together and make a difference.

We talk story, kuka-kuka, to rise beyond our old tapes and categories, to envision and build a common future, rather than a common ground. "Everything that rises must converge" said the poet-scientist.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thinking and Learning

One of the biggest ethical issues of the 21st century is the crisis in education. Usually that is captured in the US as the failing of the public school system to produce productive (defined in many different ways) producers and consumers. But it also reflects the deeper crisis in our culture and our political economy.

Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, speaking at the Aspen Institute on his new book Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools put this crisis in focus at a seminar I attended. Also recently I listened to an expert panel on ISIS and terrorist violence which attested to the crisis in education that separates two very different civilizations and cultures among nations and within them.

I generally agreed with Klein's fixes. The principal of the school is key and needs to be a strong leader of education, free to pick his/her own team, and held accountable for leadership of the school as a community of excellence more than as an administrator. The principal has to be committed, visionary, and optimistic, a real leader of the school teachers; and also be provided all the tools and support of the school administration.

I learned how much the principal makes the difference when we moved to Hawaii. I wanted to use the public schools and so moved into the district of one noted for its excellent. All that changed in three years when another principal was appointed by the statewide department of education bureaucracy. Teachers were no longer motivated and the school became mediocre. The parents mobilized, but the bureaucracy was intractable. At considerable sacrifice, we put our children into private schools. I said, as much as we wanted to support public education, we would not sacrifice our children to a principle or a principal.

Teachers should be formed into a professional association that provides all teachers standards and encouragement, including continuing education and remediation, not a trade union that protects bad teachers. And teachers should be free to exercise creativity and initiative in their classroom and given excellent pay to match their excellence in education.

The interface of teaching and learning in the US needs to be examined. National standards and core curricula are neither the problem nor the answer. The answer is to provide every family, no matter their income, the choice and means to attend a school as a community of educational excellence. Public education does not necessarily mean government run. It does mean publicly provided and required using the best that science has to offer; and seen to that by government. Ideally, under the leadership of a visionary and committed principal who assembles his/her own team, teachers in dialogue with parents and local community leaders should establish their standards of excellence and goals and build scientifically based curricula that can truly engage students.

Here is where I disagree a bit with Klein. He stresses the passing-on-of-knowledge part of education and gives the example of a teacher supposedly teaching the Civil War who quickly goes to racism and asks students how they feel about racism rather than learning all the causes and effects of the Civil War. Klein pokes fun at the Google world where anyone can go to the internet to get answers without assimilating them. He supports core standards and curricula by which to judge the value of the educational endeavor.

But I who have taught and consider myself a perpetual student feel strongly that it is the teacher's responsibility to set up the situation where the students want to search for answers and solutions (both in the library and the internet) and where, as an elder teacher told me, the classroom is as exciting as student distractions. It is not enough to provide answers to questions that are not being asked.

Education is not only providing correct information. It is also stirring up curiosity, questions, and a desire for truth.  Even the great knowledge of the past can be best achieved by students who want to know it to solve a problem. Taking Klein's example: suppose a teacher said we are going to be dealing with the Civil Way in American History because of how it still affects us today. You are going to see two great movies, but we have to get ready to see them. We are going to visit some of the Civil War sites and monuments (actually or virtually). And we are going to play a game in which half of you will be rebels in grey and half of you will be unionists in blue. So we have to get ready to play our parts. And we are going to see which problems we have today can be understood by knowing the Civil War.

Education is both learning and thinking. And that duality seems to me to explain the conflict in our cultures and civilizations. It was the Enlightenment that began in the West, after the Protestant Reformation and after the decline of the Dark Ages, largely brought about by the rediscovery of classical thought saved and transmitted by the Muslim world, when it became advisable to question all authority, religious and political and scientific. The revolution in the heavens of an earth traveling around a star was matched by a revolution in religion and politics.

While thinking without learning is blind (and really impossible), learning without thinking is indoctrination (and ultimately self-defeating). Indoctrination unfortunately is still pushed by regressive forces in politics and religion in many parts of the world including our own country. Ideology as a system of ideas is a facet of every society and culture that should be acknowledged and understood. But ideology as an unquestioned or even absolute set of ideas should be defeated. But it cannot be defeated by force or through another absolute ideology, but only by an education that values and employs critical inquiry, which in turn values and encourages the initiative and creativity of all persons.

For many years the Church allowed education only to clerics and aristocrats and only as long as it was consistent with the "true doctrine." Slavers and segregationists in the South forbade or discouraged black people from learning to read much less having access to liberal education. The Taliban and ISIS punishes families and teachers for providing education to girls and liberal, critical thinking education to all. Denominational schools were often established to protect their members from heretical ideas. Stalinists and Fascists through their councils and Conservative Christians through their school boards try to control the school curriculum so it is consistent with the purity of their doctrines.  Parents often homeschool to protect their children from ideas that they consider dangerous or subversive.

Because education is more than doctrine. Because education is the stimulation of thinking, it is successful when teachers and students move outside the boxes of their previous categories and ideologies to create new more inclusive ones by which they will prepare for and begin their action to change their world. This is true public education as people like John Dewey and Paolo Freire taught it. This is education that comes out of and fosters democratic publics, free spaces where students can experiment in building their lives, their city, and their world.