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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Order of Thought

I continue to think about thinking. Just can't get it out of my head!

I just read in SA that Neanderthals made jewelry 130,000 years ago which shows they had developed symbolic thinking in Europe even before homo sapiens came in from Africa. So if they had art, they probably had language, raised questions, mapped out their areas and days, and communicated all that to each other. I guess they learned to communicate with the newcomer homo sapiens since there is evidence that they mated with the result that most of us with European ancestry have Neanderthal genes

Terry Pratchett who I earlier named my favorite theologian is also now my favorite philosopher of thought since I read his The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. Here he tells the story of how Maurice the cat and certain rats by ingesting some mysterious substance achieved the ability to think and speak together and with humans. This leads to all kinds of problems that have to be worked out. All of a sudden they have a sense of individuality and "I." Then they realize that they are part of a community of thinking speakers, a "We" that carries with it some responsibilities that they never had to deal with before. For example, they raise questions about their own existence and their purpose; they even wonder if they have gods like humans have. And they get a terrible sense of right and wrong. Maurice can still eat rats, but not rats who talk; and the same for the rats who used to eat dead rats. It just doesn't feel right. Kinda hard to get down! Linked with their ability to speak comes an ability, even duty, to respect each other, to plan and collaborate to achieve concerted action; and the struggle arises to achieve some respect from humans.

Thinking, as Eve and the Serpent taught us, is a terrible, wonderful responsibility.

Words, art forms, categories, symbols, maps, and models are not thinking; but using them is. So is designing, constructing, refining, and extending them. Memory (the ability to store and retrieve images) and sets of rules by which neurons and synapses work to process the symbols, categories, and models or what we commonly call ideas or thoughts are sine qua non conditions for thinking. But thinking is more than memory and algorithms, and therefore more than intelligence (as we discovered when dealing with artificial intelligence).

Is there any order to thinking by which we can understand its progression more? Let me briefly consider six kinds of order: Chronological, Psychological, Logical, Phenomenological, Pedagogical, and Developmental and then try to draw some conclusions.

Chronological: 

In Hebrew mythology the Name came first. Yahweh God created by naming including Adam (Man) and then gave Man the ability to name the animals thus giving Man domination over them. Until the Fall, that is. In Christian mythology in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and through the Word everything was made. In Greek mythology the Idea was primary. Though we are chained in a cave to look at shadows on the wall, the Sun outside casts its light on real ideas that make the shadows.

Cultural anthropologists find pictures before words and then pictures as words. Children studies observe meaningful gestures that are then vocalized in interaction with caregivers.

Psychological: The science of the brain and nervous system is still in its infancy and moving fast. It was previously believed that the evolution of the neocortex over the reptilian and limbic brain is the origin of thinking. Recently however the study of consciousness indicates its association with the total brain and nervous system and seems to be an integration of all parts and areas of the brain. Nevertheless there seems to be a progression from identification of threats and benefits to biological life, to appreciation of other persons who might protect and enhance life and create community, and then to communication by using artifacts or tools as symbols to warn, plan, collaborate, and understand.

This raises the question of analysis which is a major part of science and of all knowing. While atoms and even smaller particles in physics, elements in chemistry, cells in biology, neurons and synapsis in neuroscience can be seen, do they really exist? For it is only in the breaking down through analysis that they appear. And the same for genes and memes. There is no question that the analysis is useful and leads to explanations of physical, chemical, biological, neurological, and cultural (including religious, artistic, scientific) systems. And do these systems really exist? Or are all analyzed elements analogues within one Whole, like the strings in string theory or the notes of a great musical composition? If so, we explain, understand, and even exist by undoing, masking, and even destroying the whole truth. Our signs point the way but we never get there; or put positively, infinity is our destiny through the synthesis of all the parts interacting in an Integral Whole.

Logical: The formal part of every symbolic system (i.e. language, mathematics, artistic composition, religious doctrine) has its own logic as philosophic positivism and symbolic logic has shown. But what Kurt Gödel has proven is that the formal system cannot be internally proven but rests on an informal ground or context of unproven rules and assumptions. This would mean that the logic of any proof or theory rests on a self-evident or given truth "underneath" or "behind" or "beyond" or "before" the formula.

Phenomenological: Therefore we try to reveal the experience not of the thing in the world or of the symbols by which it is expressed, but the lived act of symbolic perception and action as it unfolds "before" or in process of uttering or constructing the symbol. To do this the phenomenologist uses both scientific studies as well as philosophical inquiry to point to or lift up the experience of engaging  others in the world in the thinking act. But any language or model we use to describe the lived experience of perceiving, singing, and understanding bodies in the world become formulations that can be critiqued and refined by a return to the act which utters them.

Pedagogical: Since all the other orders of thinking are limited, we resort to the pedagogical order of thinking by turning to the great teachers from Plato and the classical philosophers to modern times. In modern times, there is Kant followed by Hegel, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, who turned to the thinking mind by Descartes, use a phenomenological method to understand the thinking mind. There is DeSaussure followed by many psychologists who observe and describe the beginning of language in children. There is Ernst Cassirer and the students of mythic and artistic symbols. There is Karl Popper, Bernard Lonergan who analyze the scientific method. And here I am I suppose trying my own brand of pedagogy by highlighting the masters.

Developmental: And so I present my own developmental model for the order and progress of thinking. I see us moving from specific images, concrete analogues, simple concepts, immediate forms towards greater and greater abstraction (vertical line of complexification), towards more and more universality (horizontal line of inclusion), and towards a synthesis into a larger and larger whole (the vector line of transcendence), all striving for the infinite.





Friday, March 20, 2015

Political Thinking 3

Political Order and Decay by Francis Fukuyama is an excellent, illustrative exercise and demonstration of political thinking. I do not pretend to criticize the thesis and conclusions of his book though I find them quite convincing. My own purpose in these essays is not to think about the political order, but about thinking itself and argue to my own thesis and conclusions regarding this singular human capacity by which we engage with each other in the world and continually transcend our limitations on our way to Infinity, Universality, and Integrity.

What Fukuyama gives me in this book, in its precursor The Origins of Political Order, and others that I have read (Trust, End of History and the Last Man, America at the Crossroads) is what political thinkers Max Weber and Hannah Arendt gave me before him. These are categories developed by interacting with historical records and other thinkers that you and I can use to understand where we have come from, where we are today, and what we might do to advance a better future for humankind. These are categories that can be worked into a complex model for political thought and action that can be tested, refined, and transcended into new categories and models.

Max Weber gave us the way to think about the modern bureaucratization or rationalization process following its moments of charisma and tradition that give rise to different kinds of authority and power in social organization. He also indicated the role of culture, including religion and ideology. Hannah Arendt distinguished the economic and the political realms, the economic centering on the means of biological life and the political centering on the human desire for recognition through power and the quandary of subordinating the latter to the former.

Fukuyama has articulated three elements of the political order: the bureaucratic state, the rule of law, and accountability to the governed. And he shows their relationships with economic growth and social mobilization creating a model by which we can understand the development and decay of nations and international relations. He uses those five categories and the differing relationships among them to interpret the history of nations and other political entities, to gain insight on where they stand today and the troubles that plague international and global relations, and to point possible paths to the future.

All these political thinkers and many others (whether left wing liberal or right wing conservative oriented) are "progressive" in that they assume the possibility of progress and decline based on standards of "better" or "worse" that are consistent with their notion of human good. But none of them assume the inevitability of progress. None of them are simplistic or reductionist in that they articulate many variables and determinants in the development and decline of modern, desirable states and civilizations. These include geography and climate, geology and material resources, presence and rate of industrialization, available technologies, nationalization, experiences of wars, colonization, inherited class structures, and, perhaps above all, ideas.

I only wish that politicians and pundits, journalists and opinionators, would wrestle with Fukuyama's and other original thinkers categories and their applications to avoid the useless stereotyping, sloganeering, and polarizing name-calling and fear-mongering that is a mark of thoughtless speech and action, which is destroying our political space and possibilities. I also wish that social workers, philanthropists, and well-meaning activists would also struggle with these concepts and their applications in their understanding of when and where and how to intervene to help people and to learn from the mistakes that have been made in political and economic development and peacemaking.  (I want to say more about this in a future essay as we create an organization in and for Haiti, i.e. Community Empowerment Network.)

Francis Fukuyama himself is a model for me of political thoughtfulness. He was accused of being a simple believer in free-market, capitalist liberalism and progressivist determinism in his End of History writings (wrongly, I believe). He was also accused of being a neoconservative advocate for war in the mid-East and missionary of the American religion. And indeed he was a signer of the Neoconservative Principles of the Project for the New American Century from which he distanced himself by repudiating the war on Iraq in America at the Crossroads; Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. He is hardly a simplistic or reductionist thinker, i.e. a simpleton.

But, again, I am not defending all his theses and conclusions. I am finding in him an illustrious model of political thinking which I offer to all elements of the political ideological spectrum including my communty organizing colleagues and cynical Cousin Willies.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do you believe in God?

"Do you believe in God?" I am sometimes asked.

No, probably not the god the asker is talking about. I do not believe in some separate supernatural entity out there beyond. Certainly not a superhuman person, a Big Daddy or Mom in the sky, someone who answers my requests if I pray to Him or Her, someone who punishes bad guys and rewards good guys, someone who gives rulers authority, someone or something who starts and ends everything that is. I understand those images and where they come from; but I no longer find them useful or even worthy.

I accept that I am being heretical in Christian, Hebrew, Muslim, and probably most other religious teachings. But I am not writing this for persons with religious beliefs. I am writing this for myself and for others who like me reject most religions and their beliefs. I write this for fellow skeptics, atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, infidels, postmodernists, and nonbelievers. I write this to affirm that you and I are people of great faith, love, and hope and that in our thinking and acting we are as devout as religious people. And maybe more so because we criticize and transcend our myths and doctrines, our moralities and institutions, our communities and nations. And we would never sacrifice a person to a belief.

Nor do I mean to disparage religious persons or their religions or their religious practices. Indeed many of them also have great faith that surpasses their own myths, rites, and doctrines and that drives them to the same infinity of meaning which we all experience in our thoughtful action with each other beyond belief in God.

Asking if I believe in God is like asking me if I believe in my Self, other Selves, and the World. I have discovered that my Self, Others, the World, and God are all constructions of my/our thinking and acting or, better, are in process of being constructed through our interactions with each other, the world, and the infinite. I affirm them. However, they/we are not fixed, final, or absolute constructs, but are discovered becoming in the awareness of our thinking and acting in space and time and community thrusting to infinity.

Let me say what I mean by "becoming constructions" starting with my Self.

I was born a body with a genotype. That genotype equips my body with capacities and proclivities evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. And over the years of my body's life, despite my body aging and changing almost every molecule, I pretty much retain the same structure of genes. But I am not my genotype.

My body becomes a self with the awareness of individuality or an "I" only when it exercises its capacity to think. And though my genes provide me a nervous system with this capacity, it is only realized when it is exercised in interaction with others who are using symbols and categories to communicate. First my mother, then my father, siblings, friends, teachers, colleagues, communities, and, most of all, the person with whom I choose to spend my life. Without them I would not be able to think. I would have no "I." They are contributing to my character or soul, that is, who I am choosing to be; and I am contributing to theirs. We are constructing ourselves over the whole period of our lives; and we die unfinished.

And at the same time we are co-creating our world through our language and symbols. I am not saying that there is nothing outside our minds prior to our ideas and constructs. Matter aside from mind is real. But we are creating and finding the patterns and forms of matter by constructing categories and applying them so that they work for us to live and get along.

I constitute my world using words, symbols, ideas--constructs which have been given to me and which I extend, expand, and reshape to form my world. I have many worlds--an artistic world patterned by images, a common world of ordinary language, a scientific world of mathematical formulas, a mystic world of religious myths. I try to integrate them into one world which I call my world. I try to integrate my world with yours so that we can learn from each other and so we can build one integrated world where we can all live and thrive, grow and know together. The creating of our world, one of integrity, justice, and love is not a useless enterprise; but it is an endless one.

Together we construct more than our world; we create the Future. Together in this human experiment we are intending the Infinite of which we have an inkling in pi, the infinite number for understanding the perfect circle, in the vastness of the expanding universe, and in our eternal desire to understand. Future, Infinity, Universality, Eternity is known by us only in our personal and collective in-tension to it.

Spinoza and St. John called it Divine Love. And this myth is connected to the Stoic image of the divine spark in the soul that comes from and returns to the Universal Fire, the neo-platonic image of the idea that receives from and points to the Eternal Mind of ideas, the rationalist image of Reason working its way through History, the Christian image of a Beatific Vision seen through a dark glass. Spirit of life, truth, and love are some of its other names in poetry and mythology. And God.

But does that Infinity, Eternity. Universality, and Future exist now is what you are asking. No. I would rather say that it exists in the now, in our tension towards the Infinity, Universality, Eternity, the Future. Poetically the Future beckons to us. It calls us. It guides us to itself. But the Future is truly future--not now. Infinity, Universality, Eternity--like when pi runs out of numbers, like when we know everything there is to know, like when when we achieve an end where there is no end--are also truly and forever Future. And like the gods of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, they exist only if and to the extent that we believe in them.

By that I mean only if we have the faith to commit ourselves to construct the Future, to know the Infinite, and reach towards Eternity by continuing to think and act humanly now with each other in the world to construct the Universal Community. And that means holding this faith in the manifest absurdity of war, of destruction of the earth, of death of self and loved ones, of selfish fear and hate of others, of millions of refugees living in tents and children traumatized by abuse and slavery, and of a broken world. There is as much reason to succumb to nihilism with the conviction that nothing matters as there is to grasp meaning in the creativity and loving kindness of greathearted men and women affirming the Future in which everything matters. It is our choice, our conviction, our faith, our wager that will tip the pendulum.

Fellow skeptics and seekers, let's help each other keep the faith.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Old White Males of America Unite!

Do we just dismiss the angry old white men?

The recent Washington Post article on Fox News weirdo Bill O'Reilly (click here) first made me smug and then made me think.

O'Reilly gets lots of viewers and he represents the views of the management of Robert Murdock and Roger Ailes.  "The central theme of The O’Reilly Factor is that the true America, represented by the elderly whites who make up his audience (the median age of his viewers is 72) is in an unending war with the forces of liberalism, secularism, and any number of other isms."

O'Reilly may be a proven liar but that doesn't matter. The viewers "loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments." 

O'Reilly is one of my Cousin Vinnie’s heroes. To the Cousin Vinnies of America, O'Reilly speaks the truthy truth. He is an oracle. Even Politico says that 22% of American's trust Fox News. That’s why it seems useless to talk with them. O’Reilly’s old white male followers only hear what they want to hear.

On the other hand, (my thinking opposed to my smug brain says) their anger and resentments are real and have a basis. It is just so misdirected because the real sources are covered up by Fox and much of the mainstream media servicing Wall Street and big oil. 

How would good organizing engage these folks and refocus their anger? It won’t happen through political parties—especially not the Dems. Or any organization they consider liberal, secular, or unpatriotic. Neither Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton could rally these folks. Maybe Sam Adams or Thomas Payne could.

Should we try to engage evangelical churches? Veterans groups? Gun clubs? Retirement homes? I remember in Chicago on the South West side, we didn't talk or push integration--but quality schools, clean air, and neighborhood safety. Even when we organized in San Jose, we didn't push Farmworker Rights but better schools, better development, maintaining open space. We engaged conservative taxpayer groups who saw that the Chambers of Commerce were pushing an agenda that supported huge real estate development, big sports companies, large company malls, and big banks that would destroy small businesses, neighborhoods, and affordable housing using taxpayer supported policies.

Cousin Vinnie, only educated by FOX News, does not understand the causes of his anger and resentments. He blames minorities, immigrants, labor groups, and poverty advocates for his problems. He directs his anger at those who support the poor and lower middle class. How can we engage him so that he sees those who are really screwing him--those who are paying for the politicians and the policies of political parties--the same folk who are funding the Bill O'Reillys of the world?


Sunday, March 8, 2015

I Progressive

We have argued that categories and symbols are the stuff of thinking. They matter.

Laugh at "political correctness." I do. And yet the words we choose to use, define our character and our orientation to the world. e.g. "humankind" rather than "man," "African American" rather than "Nigra." "Christian terrorists" not "Christians," "gays" not "fags," "Japanese" not "Japs," "rural conservatives" not "ignorant rednecks," and so forth. Words that degrade or dehumanize are not fitting in civil conversation.

Satire is different than ridicule. Satire is inclusive and constructive in that it makes us laugh at and so transcend our categories. Ridicule (the mean, non satirical kind) is exclusive and destructive in that it reenforces and fixes categories.

There is a difference between bias and prejudice. Bias is endemic and natural. We all have different bodies, perspectives, histories, viewpoints that shape our categories of thought. Critical thinking accepts, recognizes, and accounts for these biases as shaping our thinking. Prejudice is bias unrecognized, uncriticized by which our categories become stereotypes

My main observation about my Fox News inspired Cousin Vinnie: Out of fear and hate (he is very pessimistic), he names, blames, and shames. His categories are fixed. There is no arguing with him because he is right and we are wrong. He consistently argues a bleak future for America. He falls back on that old time religion and cares more about his personal salvation than social justice. He passes on ridicules of persons, not thoughtful criticisms of policies. I do not want to be like him, nor can I talk with him on matters of importance. However, he teaches me what I do want to be.

All categories need to be questioned, criticized, expanded, and transcended if we value thinking. To grow in thinking and human development, our categories become more inclusive, complex, nuanced, and explained. Just as models do in science, forms in art, and doctrine in religion. And I think it is that which defines what it means to be a "Progressive" today.

Some equate "progressive" with liberal. I do not. I consider myself progressive because I do think I and we can do better, because I do criticize my religion, my country, my history, and myself in the hopes that I/we can do better. I am liberal culturally and for the most part want people to be free to choose their own lifestyle, partners, beliefs, control their own bodies, associate with whom they want, and publish whatever they want to whomever they want. But I am conservative politically in that I value and want to preserve institutions and the earth; and I value informed, interacting publics over mass society. And I am socialist, not liberal, economically in that I believe that all people should be guaranteed the same opportunities for income, wealth, and livelihood--and that means all the necessities of life.

Some equate "progressive" (as did George Will in today's Post) as favoring government expansion. That is simply not true. Neo-cons want to expand the American government so that it rules the waves and maintains stability. Progressives want quality government, not big government, and believe we can do better in reforming many government programs--including taxation, health care, public health and welfare, and defense.  Progressives see government as the most important tool because it belongs to all the people (if it is not bought and sold by elites), but hardly the only one. We are for community organizations of residents, voluntary associations, and political movements like we are celebrating today in Selma.

I think President Obama's speech in Selma was the greatest manifesto of the Progressive movement in the US that I have heard. I don't always agree with our President. But this speech said it all for me.

Yes, progressives criticize the status quo and the injustices our nation inflicts both at home and   abroad. But that doesn't make us less American or less patriotic. As he said it makes us more American and more patriotic because we believe we have it in us and in our institutions to keep doing so much better. We are the optimists who welcome the future through new thinking. We are the ones with faith in ourselves and our higher power, our family and friends, in strangers and neighbors, and in our nation and the human species. We are the ones who believe that we can transcend our narrow tribalism and our violent instincts and commit ourselves to that mission.




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.