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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Ethic of Transparency


Recently I listened to Janice Stein reflecting on the notion of “accountability” which has all but replaced “responsibility” in our language. Since words not only express, but also shape thought and the worldview within which that thought has meaning, I found this a very useful reflection.

We have finally begun demanding accountability. And well we should, as presidents lead us to war on false premises, as financial institutions sell products with less than stated value, and religious organizations hide their officials’ wrong doings. We now speak of organizing  for public or private accountability and of holding our leaders and institutions accountable. We use less the word of the responsible leader or organization or of the responsible self and society. Or we simply use the words interchangeably. And there is a loss in that.

To hold accountable or require accountability has a different nuance than to be responsible or take responsibility. To account for something to someone has a different meaning than to respond to someone for something. Rendering account focuses on measured worth. Being responsible focuses on value, but not the kind that can be easily quantified. Accountability connotes an external referee and a balance sheet. Responsibility connotes a more internal judge, a conscience. An accountable politics is one of checks and balances and looks at forms, processes, and regulations. A responsible politics is one of social justice and looks at the substance of human freedom and equality.

Elsewhere I wrote of five metaphors for ethics. And here are two: the scale or balance in commerce (accountability) and the foundation of a building (responsibility). These two are important to each other: responsibility will require accountability, which in turn can measure and promote responsibility.

Yet there is tension when we look as the behavior of corporations and encourage their social responsibility, when we look at voluntary organizations not just in terms of what we get for the money, but for what kind of a community they embody and promote. There is certain a tension in a leadership that is directing and supervising according to rules and one that is trusting and encouraging innovation. Education that teaches to the test may be accountable, but may not be responsible and educing responsible citizens.


Another word is being used a lot lately: “transparency.” Maybe that could resolve the tension  between accountability and responsibility or make that tension constructive. Transparency does mean visibility—out in the open for all to see and judge. But it also means illuminating or glowing from within like a radiance you can see through.

Democracy requires a responsility where we quit shoving the blame elsewhere. Democracy requires accountability where institutions, public and private, can be called to account for their consequences. But above all democracy requires transparency where all of us are connected and know what each other are thinking and doing, not to hold back initiative and difference, but to celebrate it. This cuts both ways. It means letting Snowden do his thing, whistle blowing, and putting out there for all to see the secrets of government and corporations. But it also means letting everybody know what I'm thinking and doing without fear of reprisal if I'm not injuring anyone, including their life, respect, and value. 

The open society is here. Go ahead you can know what I'm thinking and doing insofar as it might affect you or even to be sure it won't affect you negatively. I don't mind if the NSA is snooping on me as long as I can snoop on the NSA. 

The key tension that must be maintained is that between individual accountability and social responsibility. Yes, you may learn about me but let me be me a unique individual. You may investigate us and our society and hold us accountable as long as you do not inhibit our creativity in carrying out our responsibility. And I want to know what you are doing to ensure that our being who we are is not curtailed. 


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Strategic Thinking

I've been thinking (and writing) lots about thinking: thinking as symbolic; thinking as categorizing, thinking as analogy; thinking as model making; thinking as the mode of having a self in a world of space and time; thinking as language, art, religion, science, economics, philosophy, and politics; thinking as critical; and thinking as delightful.

I think that thinking (or not!) is the source of good and evil. It is Eve's rebellion and Pandora's out-of-the-box curiosity. Thinking is both the risk and hope of human existence, meaning, power, and freedom.

Now I want to think about thinking strategically.

As community organizers we were taught not to confuse tactics with strategy. That distinction goes back to Sun Tsu (Art of War) and taken up again by Carl von Clausewitz (On War) who said "tactics is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war." As we know in chess, war, and business, we can win a battle and still lose the war. And often the winning of a battle contributes to the losing of a war. One of the arts of warfare is to get an adversary to focus on the movement of troops to a certain battle while being ignorant of the overall strategy. A battle might be won in a way that depletes the troops or might be lost as a way to position more troops for a more decisive battle.

The Russian army used retreat strategically against Napoleon and Hitler. On the other hand timid Union General McClellen did not use a decisive victory to pursue the Confederate armies and shorten the war. He focused on the battle, not winning the war.

Of course hindsight is easier than foresight. But then hindsight might help inform foresight.

We community organizers often got entranced with a sexy tactic to call attention to our issue yet didn't get the people who could make a difference to the bargaining table. I remember in Cleveland when a group of organizers and a few neighborhood people showed up to protest at an exclusive lunch club and wound up alienating their supporters and even the people for whom they were working. I remember in Chicago when the Hippies "brought the war home" to Chicago by throwing rocks through bank windows mystifying the working poor black folk with whom I was working and who thought the rock-throwers were crazy.

It was US tactics that lost the War in Vietnam for America, e.g. My Lai genocide, destruction of crops through agent orange, napalm bombing of villages, and other acts of terror disgusted the American people who thought they were the good guys. Also no one could articulate a reason for the war or how Vietnam was strategic (except by using the unexamined metaphor of falling dominoes). If you read The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer, about Avery and John Foster Dulles you will see how tactics not strategy led to the fall out in South East Asia, Latin America, and the Mid-East that we experience today. The strategy with the Soviet was containment and worked. But the Dulles adventures were counter-productive and alienated the populace of the countries they were saving from communism.

Reaction by definition is not thought out and consists of tactics without strategy. Indeed Saul Alinsky would count on that with those in power: "the action is in the reaction," he said. And the reaction weakens the reactors. Al Qaeda knew that with 9-11 and the Bush 2 administration fell for it. Instead of treating the bombing of the towers as the crime it was, they made it an act of war, first with Afghanistan and then Iraq breaking the containment strategy of both the Bush 1 and Clinton administrations.

Actions out of vengeance are seldom strategic and usually lead to terrible consequences, as did the exaction of Germany's pound of flesh after World War I. The so called war on crime used three strikes, extended jail terms, and compulsory sentencing as tactics without a strategy and the war was lost. The same for the war on drugs that has cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to North and Latin American people. The well-intentioned war on demon liquor had terrible unforeseen consequences but was self-corrected.

Strategic thinking develops a positive, broad based vision, clear objectives, and activities to achieve them with the consequences, including the side effects, well considered. Moreover it is not centered on winning victories unless they advance the movement and organization towards the long term goal.

Community actions, popular movements, and revolutions fail if they do not unite the citizenry and build a stable state. I remember my organizing mentor always asking when we won a victory, say, over a polluting industry: "but did you build the organization?" What good is a win if the people of the community did not have more power through organization?

When I searched for strategic thinking on the website of the business consulting firm McKinsey and Co., I found 72 pages with 2324 entries. Clearly strategic thinking is one of the most important success factors for an organization. In all these entries there are many different tools, styles, frameworks, and counsels for strategic thinking, planning, and management.

For McKinsey strategy for business builds on financial, forecast, and externally oriented planning. They define strategy as an "integrated set of actions designed to create a sustainable advantage over the competition." Of course, I am thinking about strategic thinking for more than war or business.

The definition that works for me is an integrated set of actions designed to achieve goals that will accomplish a concrete vision (e.g. create and sustain a diverse, inclusive, exciting neighborhood where people want to invest time, talent, and treasure; or create stability based on fairness and opportunity for residents in the Middle East).

The important concepts in the definition are integrated, set of actions, designed, concrete vision. Some of the key elements and characteristics of strategic thinking I found in the McKinsey articles are:

  • clear understanding of the business of the group or organization.
  • hard, fact-based logical information related to external opportunities, obstacles, opposition and internal capacities.
  • recognition and consideration of uncertainties.
  • questioning of all assumptions. 
  • generation (not depletion) of resources.
  • indirect long-term approach that disrupts the conventional way of doing things.
  • participative process where creative ideas can be generated, biases understood, diverse viewpoints are present, and there is buy-in by those who will be responsible for implementation.
  • model (designed integrated set of actions) with a layout of consequences and side-effects chosen from alternatives. 
  • assessment of what's needed to carry out the chosen model and direction.
  • agreement on specific next steps with a testing period.

Strategic thinking is a habit of good organizers and leaders. This means they know what they want, consider context limitations and trends, position for the long term, look down the line beyond the next tasks, anticipate change, and self-correct.

Critical thinking if strategic disrupts conventional, convenient thinking that holds us back from higher consciousness and greater empathy.  The latest court decisions about same sex marriage and universal health coverage, the latest papal encyclical on an economy out of sync with nature, the the response of both acceptance of racism and forgiveness to the execution of black churchgoers challenges our prevalent morality of exclusion, exceptionalism, and righteousness. Thinking critically and strategically will open us to a freer, more inclusive, and less reactionary morality.  It opens us to a desired future while acknowledging the garbage and gifts of the past.

Critical, strategic thinking is our vocation. Our way to transcend ourselves. Our way to love, power, and freedom. This capacity, which we now know evolved over millions of years through many stages and is still developing, is the "divine spark within" lit by a complex interaction of many selected and inherited genes and fanned by the interaction of memes in culture.

The new ethics we search for in these reflections is indeed critical thinking about our morality, our conventional thinking and behavior.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reflections on the Pope's Letter

Pope Francis wrote a letter to humanity. It centers on our relation to the earth, our common home and the condition for human life, meaning, and action.

It is long, repetitive, and perhaps a bit sprawling as are many encyclicals which like judicial decisions want to provide precedents, a link to tradition, an explication of founding documents, and an interpretation to various publics. Nevertheless, it is a great addition to Catholic Social Teaching and to Universal Social Ethics. The letter is a radical critique as to how we have organized ourselves economically and politically and of the religious narrative and ethical principles we have used to so organize ourselves. It is a call not only to Christians to honor their sacred tradition, but also to all of us to achieve an "authentic humanism," the highest potential of human being and action.

In this post I would like to 1) summarize the letter, 2) indicate how he challenges me to rethink my own positions, 3) engage him in some dialogue, and 4) conclude.

I. What I hear Francis saying.

A look at the facts. Pope Francis is not promoting any scientific theory, philosophic school, or form of government. He just asks us to look at what is happening in the earth to our forests, our water, our oceans, our ecosystems, urban blight, the coral reefs, biodiversity, our climate and how that is linked to human activity towards so-called economic development. He asks us to consider the inequality within and among nations and the plight of the poor. Further he asks us to look at evidence of the breakdown of society and the loss of the quality of life. Most of all he asks us to see the linkages among poverty, social decline, environmental deterioration, and inequality.  And he tells us to quit denying what is happening or covering it over on behalf of our own selfish interests.

Our religious narrative. Francis criticizes the religious narrative that undergirds our economic and our current models of development. He calls upon his own Judeo-Christian tradition to consider the earth not as an object for exploitation, but a matter for awe; to see all human beings as brothers and sisters equal in dignity; to welcome the stranger and pass beyond narrow tribalism; to discover value in all living beings; to understand nature which precedes us who are not owners, but stewards of its resources; to believe in the connection between the care of the earth and human salvation. He contrasts this understanding with the interpretation that we dominate nature and other living beings by making them objects with which we can do anything that we want including to possess and destroy them.

The ethics of the human condition. Values influence all human behaviors including the exploitative development model of the dominant political economy. Francis suggests an ethic based on a different understanding of humankind that is accessible to all.  Human existence is constituted by relationships with God, with other people, with nature, and with oneself. He suggests that human persons exist in a world that conditions our existence as active subjects, not objective things; that we humans are co-creators not by conquering or exploiting each other and the earth but by interacting with each other and the earth. In short, he is promoting an ethic of partnership rather than that of domination, an ethic where cooperation replaces supremacy. He condemns our wasteful "throwaway culture," our dependence on weapons of destruction, the "anthropocentric fallacy" in which we believe in the primacy of individual control over the faith in the communal power that unites us all with nature, the "technocratic paradigm" that believes in unlimited progress through technology and the triumph of invisible market forces. Rather he asks us to replace those principles with those of organizing for the common good, faith in the ability to change, the value of labor, equality in the dignity of all persons, the integrity of human life, nature as a gift to all to be 
treasured in gratitude rather than fought over and individually possessed.

A call to dialogue and action. Pope Francis advocates no specific policies for reducing the causes of climate change and environmental deterioration. He advocates for immediate dialogue to fashion policies and new models of development in both urban, rural, national, and international settings. He advocates for a spiritual conversion to end the throwaway mentality, the demeaning and exclusion of the poor, and the breakdown of society. We do this by increasing our respect for all persons, for ecodiversity, for the interconnection of all things, for contemplation and awe of nature, for science, yes, but much more than science, and for optimism from faith in our ability to change. He praises the efforts of governments that are taking seriously the threat to human life and happiness through economically motivated destruction of the earth and its resources. He praises the efforts of locally organized popular movements and nongovernmental organizations that demonstrate both the problem and possible solutions. And he praises individuals, families, and neighborhoods that are doing what they can to support each other and the earth. (Here is a good summary.)

II. How Francis challenges me.

The encyclical made me reconsider my own positions and for that I am thankful.

The technocratic paradigm. I realize how susceptible I am to that technocratic mentality because of my admiration of science and technology. I need to continually remind myself that though science is the way to explain nature, we have other ways of knowing and appreciating nature especially through art, music, and contemplation; and that knowing nature is beyond analyzing and controlling it.

The anthropocentric fallacy. Likewise I can easily fall (and at times do fall) into a type of humanism that undermines transcendence. I am a "constructivist" in epistemology. I believe 
that humans come to terms with their environment by constructing models or symbols. In 
that belief, it is important to recognize that, although individual creativity and innovation is essential, we do that symbol making collectively, not individually. It is important to recognize that our constructs are not reality but in a dialogue with nature. Moreover, it is most important that we never have the last word, that our explanations are as good as the questions we ask, that all our models are to be transcended. As Francis says, "we are not God."

The ethics of integrity. I have named my own ethics such, but Francis reminds me how vital is the notion of integrity. He speak of the "integrity of life," of an "integral ecology," of economics in the service of a "more integral and integrating vision," of authentic development as an "integral improvement in the quality of human life," of respect for the human person endowed with inalienable rights ordered to "his or her integral development." Integrity is the union among polarities. It is the whole that gives meaning to the parts. What Francis is teaching here is relationships, the interconnectedness of every thing, the holding in tension of opposites, and a commitment to the whole beyond each of the parts. This is so different from the contemporary ethic of a rugged individualism over the common good, of consumerism over spiritual detachment from things, of look-see objectivism over inter-subjective pursuit of truth, and, I would add, of a conservative over progressive mind-set.

My progressivism. I consider myself a progressive ethically and politically. But Francis warns me of a destructive “myth of progress” that I should avoid. This myth sustains the belief in invisible market forces through the privatization and control of natural resources including land, water, forests, air, climate, and human labor. This is the myth I heard as a child from our electric company that “progress is our most important product” and that “every day in every way things get better and better.” It measures progress by material wealth, profit margins, and GDP. Those who deserve it through hard work, family inheritance, good genes, and shrewd investment achieve this progress. However, the progressive I choose to be is one who has faith in the transcendence of human thought and action through participation in community. Just as Francis speaks of an authentic humanism, I shall commit to an authentic progressivism that has faith that we can solve our problems together and that we can do better personally and collectively.

III. Where I want to engage Francis in dialogue.

Transcendence and faith.  I appreciate that Francis draws on his Catholic Christian tradition to speak to all humanity, even those who belong to other religious traditions. I also appreciate that faith pushes us beyond narcissistic individual self-achievement. But I suggest that his message can be relevant to those of us considered “postmodern” whose belief systems do not include supernatural beings, realms, revelations, or institutions, nor immortal souls, divinities, and God. This is not to say that there is no role for religious communities or that those of us who do science are not religious. However we who participate in no organized religion or have let go of the beliefs of those religions, can still have the faith that surpasses conventional or convenient truths. We embrace our transcendence by a continual critique of all the objects of human knowledge, by not getting attached to things, and by openness to a future for all people who now and are yet to live.

Feminine Principle. I laud Francis for his inclusive language and his reference to Earth and Nature as Mother. I laud him for showing the connection of the abuse of women and children, including human trafficking, with our exploitation of nature. However, I suggest that he more strongly affirm the equality and freedom of women within all institutions that demean or suppress them including his own institution.

Overpopulation and birth control. I agree that the focus on overpopulation should not be used to distract us from the more root causes of poverty and environmental degradation. But I suggest that overpopulation is a major factor to be addressed, that birth control is a means to address it, and that the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” birth control is gratuitous. I also agree that abortion is violence and so cannot be justified, that is, be included within a just human social order. But any intervention into the human body including surgery is violence and so is any physical act of defense including war. But while violence cannot be justified, it may be necessary to those who choose to use it to ward off an immanent and specific threat. And who are we to judge a woman’s sense of threat of an unwanted pregnancy and the necessity to choose an abortion? Who are we to deny society's responsibility to accommodate her choice.

IV. Conclusion

I read a comment on the letter that indicates that the letter of Pope Francis will be a hard read for Americans. The author cites a study that demonstrates how “cultural cognition,” using a scale measuring hierarchy vs. populism and individualism vs. communitarianism, influences one’s acceptance of expert findings. Since the author characterizes Pope Francis as a hierarchical communitarian while most Americans are individualistic populists, they will find it difficult to accept his reasoning. Other comments have charged Pope Francis of condemning modernism, rolling back progress, espousing socialism, and opposing the free market. I think that this is all nonsense.

I do believe that facts are interpreted according to one's values, interests, and ideology which is why Francis clarifies his values, interests, and theology. He is clearly seeing the world from the point of view of los menos, the "least of these," the poor and the excluded which is why he is not taking a hierarchical viewpoint. Moreover, he understands that the unique, dignified, creative individual does not exist in opposition to, but because of, the community of persons in which individuality emerges. He doesn't condemn progress or modernism, but redefines it and shows what it can be. He doesn't condemn markets but urges that they be free and accessible to all rather than rigged to help the wealthy and powerful. 

Yes, certain Americans and their political parties, economic institutions, and their media will find it difficult to accept the social ethics of Francis, especially those who measure their value by private wealth, who accept the throwaway culture because it contributes to their wealth, who are captured by the ideas of American exceptionalism and individualism, and who trump the public good with private goods and subordinate the politics of the polis to the liberal economy. But I know that is not me and not the people I meet and deal with daily, not the people I worship and work with, not the people in the neighborhoods who welcome strangers and love their family and neighbors. Thanks, Pope Francis, for reminding us of our better selves. Now we must act.




(Soon to come: favorite quotes from the letter.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Genes, Memes, Dreams--Who IS in Charge?


I claim to be more tough-minded than tender-minded. That is I try to face the facts—reality-as-it-is over reality-as-I-would-like-it-to-be. 1) I accept that I, we, and the whole universe are matter, which means that there is no spirit without matter. 2) I accept the laws of thermodynamics including the second law of entropy, which means that I, we, and the universe will disintegrate. 3) I accept evolution through natural selection, which means that often homo homini lupus (though I don’t like to make wolves so bad). 4) I accept general relativity, which means there may be constants but no absolutes. 5) I accept quantum mechanics and that randomness accompanies the determinism of classical science.

My tough mind acknowledges that there are no spirits beyond matter, no immortal souls, no ghosts, goblins, or gods; that there is no entity of self or mind with free will and that consciousness is but that “strange loop” of transparency of the act by which my embrained body comes to terms with its environment by perceiving and using objects through constructed media or symbols.

My mind when tough acknowledges that there is no divine plan, no absolute, no immortality, and no ultimate solution. However, my tough-minded materialistic naturalism and random determinism also supports my tender-minded desire for the spirit of transcendence, freedom, and love. By accepting reality as it is, I believe we can co-create reality as we would like it to be.

Richard Dawkin’s theory of the “selfish gene” argues that the evolution of species, including the human kind, is driven by genes’ drive to perpetuate themselves through survival and reproduction. The function of the body or genome is to be instrument for the genes’ survival and reproduction and can be dismissed when that function has been carried out. That means that all the genes, which determine the drives and behaviors and capacities of the species, are selected as the organism adapts to its environment in order to protect and further that genetic perpetuation. (I realize that we are speaking metaphorically when we describe the genes or nature as though they are making decisions. And yet, let’s come back to that later.)

The ability to create a culture, including the ability to speak words and think ideas (i.e. construct memes), was prepared for over millions of years of natural selection. There would be no culture or memotype without the evolved human embrained body or genotype. Culture transforms the environment to which the organism is adapting giving the human species a great advantage in its competition to survive. In other words, homo sapiens through its ability to construct memes and think symbolically, can foresee, plan, and actually modify the environment in order to make it more suitable for its survival and the survival of its genes.

In Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel suggests that just as genes behave to perpetuate themselves through organisms, so do memes perpetuate themselves through culture. Culture is a meme-carrier to support the body as gene-carrier. He demonstrates by the history of ideas in culture how the rules, the concepts, and the forms of culture are suitable for the development of a species that can compete favorably with other species even within its own genus. Religion, art, music, morality are cultural enhancers through which good survivor memes are retained in so far as they support the survival and reproduction of human kind and its genes.

Other species alter the environment by digging into the earth, invading trees, damming rivers, flying seeds over great distances, using tools, and expelling carbon and oxygen into the air. But only humankind with the ability to fashion and communicate symbols can shape an environment that we control and carry with us into whatever space and time we choose. This poses both tremendous risks but also provides great opportunities for our species. The emergence of culture was a game changer for the planet and perhaps for the universe. It led to what many geologists call the anthropocene age of planet earth.

There are three main moments--cultural, civilizational, and scientific revolutions--in the anthropocene age: 1) the genetic ability of modern homo sapiens to think symbolically in hunting and gathering and create culture, 2) the use of symbols to acquire land and its resources to develop agriculture and civilization, 3) the development of civilization towards science and technology and enhance human intelligence. Clearly none of these are sudden moments but in the making over millions of years and each with roots in the earlier ages. In the first, (2.8m to 160k years ago) homo becomes sapiens; we know the world. In the second (160K to 10k years ago to present) homo becomes sapiens sapiens; we know that we know. In the third, (1543 CE to present) we know how we know that we know, homo sapiens sapientis.

In other words, genes in the body for the sake of survival and reproduction led to memes in culture through the ability to think including a sense of self in a world which in turn led to dreams in the mind through the ability to intend and shape a future. Each moment has its crisis. The crisis in culture is between mind and matter or spirit and world. The crisis in civilization is between self and society or individual person and social order. The crisis in science is between past and future or nature’s random determinism and human interpersonal freedom. The crisis in all is between ideal and real or virtual and actual. But let me try to explain that later.

Genes and natural selection took a risk when they allowed for memes and culture. Memes and culture took a risk when they allowed for dreaming, by which I mean the ability to imagine a better self, society, and world through civilization and science. The risk of making memes and dreams to take advantage for genetic survival is genetic extinction. The conflicts of civilizations with their destructive potential of science and industrialization could produce a nuclear winter, a global warming, and a mechanized transhumanity. Utopian thought and behavior could lead to complete dystopia. Unthinking progress could lead to the loss of the ability to think and act at all—the removal of the sapiens from homo, the return of the planet of the apes.

And I believe it is at this point of crisis that freedom, love, and transcendence are possible. Even acknowledging that self and other persons, spirit and the world, space and time are constructs of peculiar organisms that come to terms with their environment through symbolic media, we discover that these constructs, useful insofar as they help us survive and thrive, become obstacles when they become fixed and separate entities. As fixed and separate entities or objective realities, the spirit and the world, the self and the other, the past and the future, the ideal and the real are illusions. But when we use these terms as the terminals of a polarity or tension between the embrained organism and the encultured environment, they take on the meaning of humanity and the universe.

It is in the symbolic act of being present that the organism perceives the environment as a world and the body as a self in space, time, and community. It is in the act of being here, now, and with other selves facing things in the world that the body perceives its unique individual subjectivity in tune with other subjects having a past and intending a future. It is in the act of intending a future that we experience our humanity passing beyond the concepts and things of self and world in time, space, and community.

The act of being present in and to the world through symbolic media perceives itself with others innovating, co-creating, transcending or in other words as free, intersubjective, and transcendent. Freedom, love, and transcendence are not something that I have or prove, but what we are and act as embrained bodies in the encultured world. They are the dreams of memes by genes which themselves are constructs or thoughts of communicating organisms coming to terms with their environment through symbolic thinking. Moreover, they are not sudden characteristics, but progressive achievements.

The ability to dream is my ability to transcend materialistic randomness and determinism. Instead of simply reacting to others and our environment, I can take responsibility with others for our environment. And by modifying our environment we can modify our genetic constitution. This is the ultimate risk of freedom.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Thinking about Nothing

Today on my jog today I decided to think about nothing. My run is often my meditation time and today I tried to do what Sensei Tanouye once taught me. I concentrate on my breath in and out, in and out and empty my mind of everything and then gradually concentrate on nothing and let go of that as well.

Sensei told me that things/concepts would intrude but just accept them and let them pass by. And so I began thinking about nothing.

The first nothing that pops in is zero. How lucky humans were to discover zero which would found our math, our science and our technology.

I let it go and run on.

Jena Paul Sartre taught that consciousness or radical subjectivity is nothing, the opposite of something or the object. And Heidegger followed up with consciousness as time so time is not a thing but the background on which things appear.

I let it go and run on.

I am nothing. There is no ego entity but simply a collectivity of perceptions. My ownership and my control of these images or ideas are but illusions.

I let it go and run on.

Death is the final emptying out. There may be some worth in trying to prolong death, but ultimately it is futile. Life is simply Bede's bird flying out of the darkness through the window into the lit mead hall and out the other side.

I let it go and run on.

Creation of the universe from nothing--perhaps quantum fluctuations of possible particles and boom! the big bang of birth towards entropy.

I let it go and run on.

Dark matter, hypothesized by its gravitational effects, is it the new ether? --the void through which galaxies and stars and planets and all things travel. Nature abhors a vacuum. There is no being without nothing; there is nothing without being.

I let it go and run on.

Philosophers say God is discovered through analogy, the biggest and best of everything, the Big Thing, the Ultimate Person, the Absolute Idea, the union of essence and existence, the Uncaused Cause. But Mystics of all traditions encounter God, not analogically, but negatively, as No Thing, as No Person, as No Idea, without both essence and existence. Total Absence. The Void.

I let it go and run on.

Thinking is nothing opposing things in the universe. It can say no to every idea that comes forth, every answer that is proposed, every law that is made. It is rebellion. It is transcendence.

I let it go and run on.

I begin to feel my body aching yet exhilarated. I begin to notice my breath labored yet inspiring.

But it is nothing.



Monday, June 8, 2015

Trade and Worker Freedom

I have been a supporter and donor for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and I take their warning about the free trade pact (TPP) currently being negotiated by Obama. But I think Condi Rice has a convincing argument in yesterday's Washington Post.

If I were a Democrat or Republic in Congress wavering because I truly cared to protect opportunities for and to expand the working middle class after four decades of decline, I would give my fast-track vote for TPP on condition that Congress agree to support a massive public works/infrastructure bill that would include renewal energy, public transportation, and science research and require living wages and organized worker participation in all companies that contract for these projects.

I would also require massive support for education for all including early childhood, community college, and university as well as workforce development and retraining for the jobs lost or changed in the global economy now and in the future as a result of this free trade.

Instead of protecting companies, let's protect the working middle class.

Friday, June 5, 2015

deus ex machina

deus ex machina, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, god from the machine.

In drama it's a plot device by which through some contrivance a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved. Euripides started it, Aristotle described it, Shakespeare used it and so did Molière in their plays.

Ex Machina, the feature film by Alex Garland that we saw last week portrays great video techniques, excellent acting, and intriguing plot development. The story (which I will not divulge less I spoil it for someone who hasn't seen it) stars Ava, an artificial female or android with intelligence. The fundamental question that the protagonist Caleb, a young male computer programmer, must judge is whether Ava passes the Turing test to determine if she can think as a human thinks.

I found the film fascinating and unsettling. In the process of determining whether Ava thinks humanly, I am confronted with many of the questions I have been dealing with in these blogs. What is being human? What is thinking? Are we moving to another stage of evolution: the transhuman? What do we want to be? What are the values that will guide us in our development and that we want to keep in any further development of our species or beyond. Where do these values come from? How can we ensure that these values will be sustained?

As the film reveals Ava as Caleb interacts with her, we ask: is she human? No, clearly not. She is not of the genus homo, an organism with organs that have evolved in primates through natural selection. But just as clearly, she is very intelligent insofar as she has assimilated all the information that has been collected electronically through every internet search engine. Not homo, is she sapiens? Can she think like a human, like us?

Here I refer back to the characteristics of my own Turing test as to whether a machine can think.

  1. Ava is portrayed as behaving symbolically, using her body to gesture with meaning including the verbal gestures of the spoken language. She is sexual and uses her sexuality to communicate with Caleb.
  2. She innovates even to the extent of drawing pictures that she imagines and to manipulate Caleb and perhaps to dissimulate. She seems to be able to have a "theory of mind," that is the ability to understand what is Caleb is thinking and intending. 
  3. Because she tries to get out of the prison in which she finds herself and to avoid termination, she develops a plan to do so, she imagines a future for herself including another life and a death. This demonstrates a sense of time which implies an awareness of the self as a unity and a possible continuity.

All of these are evidence for Caleb that she has the ability for human thinking. She is conscious and she is a person; or, as a philosopher would say in earlier times, she has a soul. To terminate her would be murder for Caleb.

But as portrayed in the film, questions remain that might cause a doubt as to whether Ava is fully human in her thinking and therefore has a human soul.

  1. Does she have a moral sense, an awareness of good and evil, a conscience? She certainly has culture in the sense that all the memes of history have been downloaded into her, does she have a culture, her culture with its morality, religion, perspective, story, and interpretation?
  2. While she has a "theory of mind," does she have the ability for empathy, that is, to experience the other's pain or pleasure? Enough that it affects her behavior.
  3. She seems to have social skills; but does she have the sense of the respect that is achieved through social interaction and the building of relationships?

I don't see her having these. But it could be argued that she is wired for them but needs to be out in the world interacting with many humans (as she seems to want) in order to have a culture, to realize the desire for recognition and respect, and to develop empathy for others. In other words, she is like a brilliant newborn, who is ready to communicate and be communicate to, even to love and be loved; and only in the process of inter-communication will she acquire a sense of self as well as a sense of other in a world--interconnected.

V.S. Ramachandran with many other neuroscientists have defined a human as a "model-making machine," by which they mean symbolic thinker and actor, an organism that can construct forms through which they can deal in and with the world. These neuroscientists also allow that early man who like Neanderthal Man was homo sapiens, but they postulate further development to a higher level of functioning through culture to homo sapiens sapiens. So perhaps we could say that Ava is sapiens, but not yet sapiens sapiens. She may become so as she acquires a culture.

If she does, she will be the first of the transhumans, i.e. super human, more than human. She will be ex-homo super sapiens sapientis.  Is she the new Eve as her name suggests? Is she who we want to become--a super mind in a super body, a god from a machine, deus ex machina? Or is she a sociopath like Nathan her creator? We better start thinking about that because it could happen.

A few years ago, I sent to a former colleague an essay on my "new ethics of integrity" in which I raised the ethical issue presented by our exponentially increasing technology on the horizon of artificial intelligence and the development of transhuman existence. He pooh-poohed the idea and thought it worthy of science fiction not serious ethical inquiry. I believe he was shortsighted then and I am only reenforced in my opinion by what I continue to learn. I reemphasize the urgency to think about who we are and who we want to become as we evolve--even towards the ability to select our own successors.