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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Blasphemy

We listened to an interview on NPR with Nick Tosches on his new novel Under Tiberius.

"A work of dangerous and haunting beauty by America's last real literary outlaw. Under Tiberius is a thrilling story of crime and deceit involving the man who came to be called Jesus Christ. Deep in the recesses of the Vatican, Nick Tosches unearths a first-century memoir by Gaius Fulvius Falconius, foremost speechwriter for Emperor Tiberius. The codex is profound, proof of the existence of a Messiah who was anything but the one we've known -- a shabby and licentious thief."

We ordered it of course. I don't think I'll send it out as a Christmas present to my Christian family and friends. They would be scandalized. If this were about Mohammed, there would be a fatwa against the author (which proves to me that most Christians are not idolaters).
In the interview Tosches said he was exploring which came first--good and evil or the gods. It's another way of asking my question of the relation between morality and religion. My sense from the interview is that Tosches believes that religion brings evil into the world without which there would be no awareness of good. The interviewer asked, "but I have seen nuns and priests who have given up their lives for others." Oh yes, said Tosches, but that's the way they are. They did that not because of religion, but because of their goodness. 
The interviewer asked Tosches about the darkness of his vision of humanity. "Isn't there a place for hope?" Yes, of course, he responded. Hope is an illusion of our evolved brain. But it is an important illusion for the survival of humanity and perhaps of spirit.
I was reminded of the story of Pandora who opened the box manufactured by the gods and let out all the evils that were placed within by the gods. What was left however was hope. Perhaps an illusion. But one it is in our power to make a reality.




Tu penses donc je suis.

You think therefore I am. Cogitas ego sum. Tu penses doc je suis.

The three parts (Plato) or functions (Aristotle) of the soul are epithymia (appetite), logos (reason), and thymos (spirit) which correspond  into the desire to live (food, money and sex), desire to know (science, philosophy), and the desire to be recognized (courage, character). The capacities for life, thought, and action.

Recognition is a public acknowledgment of a person's merits and status. Courage, for the Greeks, is the willingness to step out of one's private space where life's needs are taken care of and appear in public. That might be on the battlefield or in the forum risking the slings and arrows of others. This is why Arendt says that power, the ability to act in concert, is the highest of human capacities though of course linked to the abilities to live and to think.

Ego, Freud says, cannot be without id and superego. Mind or what we call conscious self or "I" is an iceberg tip resting on a 98% underwater base of unconsciousness--a mixture of emotion, narrative, frames, and thoughts. And the superego is society and culture with its morality that shapes my self-image and behavior.  Philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience demonstrates that what I experience as me is really a nub of relationships with others past, present, and to come. I do not exist without being seen and recognized and remembered by others.

No wonder that celebrities hunger for recognition and often die when they no longer experience it. Think Marilyn, Nixon, and Trump. These are often people who have no real friends, families, colleagues, and lovers who appreciate them. The more desperate, the more self promoting and louder they become. Maybe that is the genius of Facebook and Linked-In which markets meaning for those addicted ones who fear that they are nobodies. Contemporary narcissism is not just seeing one's own reflection in the pond or mirror; it is assessing ourselves by how many "hits" we get. It is not tu, but vous. Not thou, but you-all that the celebrity-addicted mind needs.

But not the friend, lover, and colleague. She needs only another friend, lover, and colleague to exist. And I need only thou--my friend, my lover, my companion in life. I exist because you think of me.

Tu penses donc je suis.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission Recall

"If its worth doing, its worth doing badly." GK Chesterton.

Now and then, usually then, but now now, I feel the need to review my mission in life. Ah! the insecurity of aging.

Social ethics is my game--another name for politics with a small "p." And ethics and politics are part of another small "p" word--philosophy. All philosophy, Wittgenstein said, is criticism of language. But more, it is criticism of all symbolic expressions of which language is but one. And most of all, philosophy is critical reflection on the activity of symbolic expression or thinking from the inside-out.

So philosophy of mind in dialogue with cognitive neuroscience becomes my way to understand and practice ethics and politics in my/our situation. That is my project. It involves acting where I can in the world to build community; it involves thinking and expressing my thoughts to clarify them; and its involves dialogue with others who are also acting, thinking, and expressing in order to keep transforming our thoughts. One symphony with different movements playing off one another.

Thus these reflections in "Rollie's Blog."

I said that I write to clarify my thoughts and transcend them.  But I cannot deny that I put them out to others as a way to clarify and transcend. Perhaps, in my own desire for recognition, I imagine that someone will take these writings, edit them, and put them together into a useful publication to be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps even I will try to do so though I am a terrible editor. But then I realize that is not what is important.

What is important, I feel, is the activity itself of which I am but a part. This activity of "critical reflection on the activity of symbolic expression or thinking from the inside-out" is the uncovering of what it means to be human and what it should mean in all our behaviors. It is perceiving the origins and meaning of the person, the conscious self, of the communion with other conscious selves, of our common world of time and space, and of our transcendence of the symbolic expressions that constitute our world and our selves. This activity seeks to reveal what is of nature (evolved into our embrained bodies) and what is of culture (created by our symbolic activity) while recognizing that culture itself, (including its myths, narratives, languages, religions, arts, and sciences) is of nature. And this activity not only works from the outside-in; but also from the inside-out. It works from the analysis of expressions that reveal the conscious brain or mind. It also works from the common experience of transcending consciousness as it unfolds into the world of others through symbolic expression.

That is quite an enterprise. And I acknowledge that I am inadequate to the task. But then even if I were the greatest writer, philosopher, poet, scientist, and artist alive, I could not adequately express the experience and meaning of the human project. Critical, creative, transcending consciousness can never be captured in words or any art form.

But what I can do in my action in the world, in my dialogue about it with you and others, and in all these expressions is point. All these words and diagrams and images point to the conscious activity in all of us while we earn a living, act politically, raise a family, and reflect on our lives. They point to the direct, pre-symbolic, pre-thematic experience of our communion with each other and with nature  before we get caught up in our own artifacts: our words, our concrete trails and buildings, our ideologies, our dogmas, our money, our institutions, our truths, our domestic and foreign policies, our religions and moralities.

So while I will never reach the end of my project, I hope to participate with you and all my fellow travelers in the reaching for the goal of our human project. It's worth doing. Even badly.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Contemplation in Action

The more I study philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience, the more I realize the brilliance of St. Ignatius Loyola's ideal for his Jesuits as "contemplatives in action."

When we think of the contemplative tradition, we think hermits in the desert or monks praying and working in monasteries isolated from "the world." Contemplation implies interiority in solitude and communion with the divine. Action implies exteriority, that is, life in the cities, their governments and academies and market places. Action focuses on dealing with worldly people and matters.

Ignatius wanted his Jesuits to bring contemplation and action together. He wasn't the first. The Benedictines though still in monasteries would go out to help the poor. Franciscans found the divine in nature. Dominicans preached in churches and taught in academies. Ignatius wanted his companions to have a deep spirituality nurtured by the imagination of walking with Jesus towards the summit of Christ consciousness. But he wanted therm to go into the cities of the world, to their palaces, universities, and market places to imbue that imagination and consciousness in their interaction with the princes, the teachers, the clerics, the citizens, and especially the youth.

Contemplation is in tension with, but not in opposition to action. As philosophy of mind teaches consciousness emerges in activity in and intentionality to the world. There is no subjective experience without objectivity. Indeed the more we are focused on and given to the world, the higher consciousness manifests itself. Neuroscience shows that self-perception is only achieved in activity with others in the world. The "I" does not exist except through the "We" in concert with the universe.

The self and the other are illusions when you isolate and reify them. They are real only as poles of the dynamic tension of existence. When we treat them as real in isolation from one another in that dynamic tension, bad action with bad consequences occur. Here is the root of conflict and war, of fear and hatred of the other, of the abuse of the earth and her creatures, of domination and slavery, of stripping persons of equality and dignity, of loss of soul and power.

Yes, we must sometimes withdraw to a quiet place to attend to our spirit in order to charge ourselves in our mission to the world. Yet it is only in our action with and for others that our consciousness intensifies and our soul expands. These are but moments in the one movement to both spirit and world. "Immerse yourself in matter!" taught a much later Jesuit. For in the messiness of matter you will find your spirit.

The I/other tension of existence is named by John Briggs the "primal paradox." The paradox is is that for personal individuality and creativity to be, the person must contain and be contained by the "all else." The primal paradox is also the temporal paradox, the tension between past and future. There is no past and no future except in the now, the present. The good paleontologist, archeologist, and historian considers the traces of the past earth and of the ancestors now; and she weaves them into a story that explains the present. The good prophet, visionary, philosopher, theoretician bases his conjectures and predictions on and in the present. The ego and the world are here. The past and present are now.

And the primal paradox is also the reality paradox in which the real and the virtual are two poles of existence. The real is the virtual and the virtual the real since all is information communicating itself. Thus sayeth the philosophers Harborg and Rose: It is only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea, But it wouldn't be make believe, If you believed in me.

Ray Kurzweil (How to Create a Mind) reflects that western thought generally considers primary the physical universe from which evolves life and consciousness; and eastern thought recognizing the constructive nature of mind makes consciousness fundamental. Kurzweil says that both perspectives are true.  "Evolution can be viewed as a spiritual process in that it creates spiritual beings, that is, entities that are conscious. Evolution also moves to greater complexity, great knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and the ability to express more transcendent emotions, such as love."

Liberation theologians taught that the means towards creating a socially just world, one that embodies the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and public happiness is what they called "conscientization," or critical consciousness, an in depth critique of the structures of the social order that hold people people back from achieving their higher consciousness of union with each other and nature.  Community organizers, public educators, and religious leaders learn that this consciousness can only occur through concerted and reflective action; that is, through power, which is the stuff of politics.

Contemplation in action. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Courage to Faith

Metzinger (Ego Tunnel) discusses the courage to face facts. By facts he means what we are learning through science about the evolution of the mind including the human construction of the world, of the self, of society, and of God. Each of these are brain induced illusions; although illusion is probably not the right word because it implies something bad. In my way of thinking, an illusion is only bad when we do not recognize it as an illusion.

The reality of the World, the Self, and of God is what Descartes tried to prove through his methodic doubt. For Kant these are, like space and time, transcendental ideas which, like necessary categories of quantity and causality, are preconditions of thought. Therefore Kant provides a kind of proof for their existence through the direct experience of thinking. Cultural anthropologists, however, have discovered cultural belief systems, which do not contain some or all of these categories and transcendental ideas or which modify them quite drastically. And neuroscience, following up on Kant and his successors' constructivist philosophy, blurs the line between the virtual and the real, between the artificial and the genuine, in demonstrating that categories and transcendental ideas are also constructions of the human organism as it interacts with its environment radiating information in waves and particles which the brain patterns as subjects and objects in a social world.

This understanding challenges the belief system of the conventional wisdom of western modernity by calling into question its claim of objective, immutable, resolute truth. It actually challenges all belief systems rural and urban, ancient and modern, tribal and civilized of the west, east, south, and north.

This understanding is unsettling for us old-timers who have come to believe in certain fixed realities. We anguish that being dismissed are the truths of liberty, sexuality, family, capitalism, religion, nation, race, ethnicity, privacy, meaning, and humanity itself. And some of us want to desperately hold on to truths contained in divinely dictated tablets, scrolls, and books, in infallible church dogmas, in teachings of ancestors, in enlightened positions of parties, in the authority of business and government leaders, in ordinary language and common sense. No wonder that certain people in our society like older white christian males in the west and tribal muslim males in the east are angry to the point of violence. They sense that their family stability, their masculinity, their social cohesion, and their very meaning and dignity are being undermined and need to be defended against the facts concerning humans being uncovered by science. Ironically, it is often the technology engendered by the new science that is being used for their defense.

In this time of troubling transition, we need to not deny our constructive power nor its potential for destruction, but to develop its potential for good as we consciously, without illusion, choose to define it. This means, while appreciating the myths and meanings of diverse times, spaces, and cultures, we attempt to redefine them and create new myths and meanings that take the best of all of them for advancing in our new situation and environment.

Recently I participated in the Apache Caravan to save Oak Flat, the indigenous sacred site in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona. These public lands are slated to be sold to a foreign company for copper mining thanks to Senator John McCain. McCain reminds me of the general in the movie Avatar who will destroy the tree of life and sacred origins of the people of Pandora to obtain unobtanium a mineral to be used for the profit of Earth. Since the inhabitants won't sell it or allow it to be mined, the general will take it using violence against the people and Pandora. He cannot understand the values and meanings of the people; nor does he try to. He is focused on his mission which leads to a destroy or be destroyed, defeat or be defeated singular option.

The general of corporatized earth, like John McCain, is an ego driven individualist who having  conquered earth wants to conquer the universe. One could argue, as did Max Weber, that this mentality which disenchanted the earth was promoted by modern cosmology that pulled earth out of the center of the solar system and even relegated the solar system to the edge of a galaxy among millions of others. And the crass understanding of evolution as the "survival of the fittest" put humanity at the summit with discretionary powers over all other creatures. But as even Pope Francis demonstrates, such anti-secularization was also promoted by a religious view that gives man the duty to multiply and dominate the earth and its creatures; and even further, certain religions support the elect the power to control the earth enter a heavenly paradise while leaving the infidels behind. The Pope counsels a return to the indigenous view of a sacred earth to rectify the excesses of an economy that damages the condition for human life and happiness.

Perhaps it is by demystifying the ego or the individualized self, as does neuroscience, that we can actually honor the earth and all its creatures large and small, while saving the dignity of humanity and all living, conscious beings.

Metzinger discusses the new ethics that we must build for the new age of the understanding through neuroscience of mind as brain with consciousness and of consciousness as subjective experience or the organism's experience of itself in the act of coming to terms with its environment. He indicates that while he would not go so far as to say as did Teilhard de Chardin that "in us, the physical universe becomes conscious of itself," certainly the universe must always have had the potential for self-organizing life and consciousness, because voilĂ  here we are.

But perhaps we can rely on more than the anthropomorphic principle to demonstrate a universe tending to life and consciousness. Recently a new theory of life was conjectured that would have life and consciousness, not an unusual exception, but a natural outcome of the physical laws of thermodynamics and especially the second law of entropy. The second law portends a universe in which matter and energy are continually dissipating and reaching equilibrium which will ultimately end in uniform temperature and consistency. Life in which self-replication or reproduction seems to counter entropy through self-organization or what we might call "syntropy," are actually modes of increasing overall entropy in the universe. (Certainly we high energy consuming conscious organisms are proving that daily!)

This new theory which is yet to be tested indicates that the lines between physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology are not impermeable. Matter/energy, under its own laws, is tending to life and consciousness. This would give another reason to believe that life and consciousness is discoverable throughout the universe. And this urges us to look for a unified field theory by which the laws of physics found the laws of life which found the laws of consciousness which found the laws of social cohesion and culture, and so on.

Entropy is the "dismal law" (as is economics the dismal science) because it presages a ultimate state of dissipation without patterns and meaning into an eternal sameness; and yet it leads to. . .

Organic life that self-oganizes to counteract entropy, but which as it becomes dominant in humans begins to destroy the very conditions of life; and yet it leads to. . .

Creative consciousness that solves problems and plans a future to defend life which develops bulwarks of conscious organisms in conflict with others; and yet it leads to. . .

Social cohesion or collaboration that builds transhuman vehicles to colonize the universe and so destroys the human race; and yet it leads to. . .

I don't know what. A divine realm of universal transcending consciousness?

Geosphere with its four laws; biosphere with its law of natural selection; noosphere with its laws of pattern discernment and creation; polisphere with its laws of information communication; to theosphere.

The courage to face facts is also the courage to have faith, to act as if, to take a leap that there is meaning and that we can access it, to engage and enjoy the project.

Metzinger's final words are "the greatest theoretical challenge may consist in the questions of whether and how, given our new situation, intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled. But that is another story."

It is certainly a story that I want to tell.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Asking the Right Question

Keith just sent me an excellent piece on "Strategic Questioning" by Fran Peavey.

How you utter the question makes all the difference in the world. It can open dialogue or end it. It can build ongoing relationships or destroy them. It can promote initiative and creativity or kill it?

I learned strategic questioning, as Peavey calls it, as an organizer (Alinsky always pushed Socratic method) and as a teacher ( Freire and Dewey counseled "liberating" rather than "banking' education). But I often forget it with my best friend and family, with my colleagues and employees, with fellow citizens and political opponents, and even with myself. So it is good to have this reminder.

Asking the question so that it is open, dynamic, empowering, relational, collaborative, and even self-questioning leads us to a world that is open, dynamic, empowering, relational, collaborative, and ever transcending. In both my family life and my work life, it promotes listening and cooperation. In politics and community action, it promotes free speech and social cohesion. In cultural endeavors of science, art, and religion, it promotes further inquiry and new insights.

The question starts the thinking process. The question frames the answer; the inquiry shapes the concepts and models of reality; the pursuit of personal and public happiness carries with it interpretations, along with assumptions. There are no "pure," neutral, or unbiased questions. Therefore the question itself needs to be questioned. "How," I must continually ask myself, "in my conversations and discussions can I state my question so it leads us both beyond where we are here and now and on to the next and better question?"

Strategic thinking requires strategic questioning. But I have so much to learn about doing it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Original Thinking

I just read Glenn Aparicio Parry, Original Thinking: A Radical ReVisioning of Time, Humanity, and Nature. Bob Toth urged me to read it, as I urged him to read Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel. (See earlier reflection.)

It reminded me of a lot I've read before e.g. Fritjof Capra, Wendell Barry, and Paul Hawken; and in working with indigenous Hawaiian culture and working through Meister Eckhart with Sensei Tanoye in Hawaii. So it wasn't groundbreaking for me, but it did remind me of an aspect of thinking that I may have been neglecting lately in these blogs in my enthusiasm for neuroscience. I bet Bob felt the same way about The Ego Tunnel. We come at the same thought through different perspectives, emphases, foci. Bob is much more in tune with the style and message of Parry and I am with Metzinger. So that's why I look forward to our dialogue the next few days.

It is certainly not a matter of either-or, but both-and. I try to dialogue both these perspectives in discussing Original Thinking along with, what I am calling, Terrestrial Thinking. OT slips into aboriginal thought. TT slips towards extra-terrestrial thought. If human existence is a balance-in-tension (which I claim it is), OT stresses the balance side, TT the tension side. Transcendence for OT is going deep; for TT, it is going across. The goal of OT is to preserve ancient wisdom; TT is to develop new thought and new city--both hopefully in dialogue with nature. Each stresses different issues and are threatened by different illusions--which in the end are the same.

To help me think and think again, I put together this matrix which I know is inadequate, but hopefully suggests this yin and yang of thinking. See what you think.

I want to make clear that both of these styles of thinking are one. They both attempt a balance-in-tension between humanity and its environment, world, and nature. Both are attempting to transcend the modern rationalist, utilitarian, libertarian divide which is so divisive and destructive of our human condition, the earth which we share with all sentient beings. Both are trying to revise thinking and education and politics. We call upon different ancestors to help us, perhaps, but they are all wise.