Follow by Email

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Part 3: Thinking of Ethics

We left off asking if we need to appeal to a higher power in order to recognize the good and bad of our categories for thought and action. Judging seems to imply a separate capacity to stand outside our thinking and acting with objectivity carefully weighing evidence, e.g. a higher power.

But this higher power is not outside or beyond our capacity to categorize. Our capacity includes the capacity to think "outside the box" (i.e., category) and "beyond our beliefs" (i.e., categories). We need to appeal to no higher power than the power we have in ourselves personally and collectively to think. You may of course if you want; but in doing so you use and are within the limits (though expanding) of that same special power--whether you acknowledge it or not.

I suggest that this is the advantage of complementing Hofstadter's theory of thinking as categorizing and analogy-making with the theory of corporeal symbolic behavior. In other words, we found our psychology (theory of mind) on biology (theory of body).

Our species-evolved capacity to use our bodies to make symbols in order to come to terms with our world has both an inside and outside dimension. In our use of symbols, we perceive not only things that appear in categories, metaphors, or movable forms; but we also perceive our uncategorized selves in the world, starting with our own "I/we" consciousness. The act of symbolizing becomes transparent to itself. We have not only an experience of objects "out there," but an awareness of our corporeal selves "in here." The awareness of our living, breathing, sensing bodies is the background of all our thoughts even, or especially, when not focusing on that bodily awareness. The symbols (such as words or art forms) we use to objectify our world are found on a frequently unnoticed pallet of inter-subjectivity. The awareness of our bodies of flesh including our hungers and drives, our sense of fuzzy boundaries between our selves and objects in the world, our sexuality, our opening to new experience or intentionality, even our sense of mortality also appears with the models, words, formulas, or categories we are producing to encounter reality.

Our higher power to move "above" our categories or think "outside" of the boxes which imprison us is an element or dimension of the same power to engage our world. We are in direct, immediate contact with other selves with other styles and perspectives and with ourselves in constant motion, desire, tension, and transcendence. Transcendence is not a state of being. It is not a place, event, person, doctrine outside or above ourselves in communication. Transcendence is ourselves in communion critiquing, reorganizing, and striving beyond our categories (beliefs, truths, formulas, symbolic expressions).

With this pre-objective experience, the awareness of our bodies reaching out and beyond, we can turn the focus on ourselves. We can think and act about thinking and acting. But beware!  As soon as we do this we use categories (words and formulas) that we should constantly re-examine to see if they really fit our dynamic experience which is continually changing and transcending. Some call this a "secondary reflection," the first being thinking about realities in the world. And many believe this to be the role of philosophy as a discipline--to reflect and critique from the inside-out our formulations, ordinary linguistic, religious, artistic, scientific, and philosophic.

Experience, conceptualization, verification are not separate stages or levels of knowing, though in science they are often treated and drawn out in separate processes--especially between model making and verification. Sensation, categorization, judgment, acting, and transcendence are dimensions of the special human capacity and its exercise that we are. They are facets of our corporeal symbolic existence in the world.

And it is the inside-out experience of our corporeal dynamism, which we call "consciousness" when speaking of thinking and "conscience" when speaking of acting, where the "ought" arises from the "is." We are in tension and we are intentionality and so can ask what direction we are going in and who we want to become as persons, communities, and as a species. We can choose within the limits of our environment, our nature, and each other what is good for us and what is not.  We can choose to transcend our categories of ourselves and our world. Or we can choose to stop by hanging on to our categories to exclude new information, other people, different possibilities.


Next Part 4: some consequences of this thinking related to artificial intelligence and our "post-human" era.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Part 2: Ethics of Thinking

(This is Part 2 of my last blog on Thinking About Thinking.)

Because thinking and acting are not separate and are in fact two dimensions of the same behavior, our ethics and our politics, that is, our theories of personal and collective action, are outcomes of our theory of thinking. The theory of thinking that puts categorization and analogy-making (including metaphor and symbol) at its core demonstrates how our special capacity for thinking and its exercise is at the root of good and evil, vice and virtue, the seven deadly sins and their undoing.

Let's consider some of the issues we face today and see the connection to our thinking. There are modern slavery, crime and punishment, poverty and the disparity of wealth and demise of the middle class. There are racism, abortion and women's rights, general welfare and personal responsibility, central government overreach and gun-proliferation, torture and terrorism. There is defilement of the earth as the condition for life. There is technology's benefit and threat to humanity.

In Terry Pratchett's and Neil Geiman's Good Omens, the four horsemen (Death, Famine, Pollution, War) are riding their Hell's Angels bikes looking for the Anti-Christ to bring in the Apocalypse. Well, it seems they are already here and can be traced to our own special capacity to think which was one of the consequences (along with work, death, and mother-in-laws) of Adam and Eve's garden choice to be like gods in knowing good and evil. All the issues cited above can be related to the way we categorize ourselves, each other, the world and often deny or neglect that we are doing so.

A horrific killing of school children by the Taliban just took place in Pakistan (reminding us of Sandy Hook on its 2 year anniversary and 9-11) and we ask why. What are those people thinking?

They are probably thinking, if we would care to listen, that they are right and we are wrong. They think they are exceptional, called by Allah to bring order to the world, an order defined by the images  of their clan and their beliefs in a narrow tradition of Islamic Jihadism. It is in this order that they experience personal meaning and a reason to live. After reading The Brothers I find such thinking very similar to the thinking of John Foster Dulles, the founder of modern lobbying and patron of contemporary neo-conservative/neo-liberalism with a mission to Americanize and Christianize the world and speed the blessings of capitalism.

We use categories (analogies, metaphors, symbols) to think and act. But while those categories open us to the world, they also imprison us. Evil stems from 1) absolutizing our categories by confusing them as realities themselves (stereotypes), rather than tools to achieve reality,  2) neglecting or denying the fact that we are using categories and therefore refusing to reexamine and critique them (conforming ignorance), 3) recognizing their power, manipulating categories for profit or control by discouraging people from inquiring and transforming them (patriotic jingoism, marketing, punditry). Good stems from critiquing our categories, continually expanding and verifying them, and refashioning them to be ever more inclusive. That is what I call transcendence. We can also call it "empowering," "educating," "liberating."

It is easy to see the demonic symbols of Fascist Germany or Bolshevist Communism. It is easy to appreciate how arts and sciences regress when they do not explore new forms and more inclusive models for understanding. It is easy to recognize stereotypes in others when they put us in a uniform group. But it is so much more difficult to see the mis-use of categories in ourselves. We deny the racism and clanism that are nourished in us by our nature and our culture. We neglect our narrow self-interest when pursuing what we consider is noble. We refuse to see ourselves as indoctrinated by our religion and our country. We only affirm the evidence that makes us good guys against the bad guys.

Earlier in these blogs I referred to four kinds of evil--my own four horsemen--banality, purity, triviality, and sincerity of evil. All these can be connected to our thinking/acting.

Banality. I started with the banality of evil in deference to Hannah Arendt who used this category to best understand Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was an efficient manager.  He did not design the Nazi doctrine. He may not have been an anti-Semite or believed in the thousand year Reich to be ruled by Aryan warriors. But he went along with it with gusto, carried out orders, and efficiently exterminated hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. He accepted the categories of Nazism without critical thinking. Banality neglects or denies that we are indeed using categories. It accepts categories as real without verification.

Purity. Hitler and his immediate circle designed the categories of Nazism and fixed them into an overarching narrative that rationalized their control of the nation and the peoples they conquered. He was the controlling instigator. He represents the purity which creates strict boundaries between the good and the evil ones, between the righteous loyal and undermining traitors, between we and them, our way and their way. This purity, because it is right, has the responsibility or mission to spread it and defend it by force if needs be. Other doctrines and ways are threats to be feared and defeated. Purity manipulates categories to control others.

Triviality. There were many Nazi leaders (generals and bureaucrats and bishops) who may not have believed the doctrine but used it to win for themselves. These are the gamers who see the world not so much as good and evil, but winners and losers. And they like to play the game in a way that they will win. Triviality uses categories in a game for self-agrandizment.

Sincerity. And there were those who were great compromisers. They had an uneasy conscience about the doctrines and policies of Nazism, but they supported, administered, and even encouraged it for what they considered a greater good, a higher category. I think of General Rommel who finally saw the futility, of Marechal Pétain of Vichy France, and of Pius XIII who worked closely with Fascist Italy and Spain. The Fascist categories were accepted by being incorporated in their own.  Sincerity is categorical appeasement.

Other examples. In the Afghanistan/Iraq fiasco I see Cheney and Rumsfeld playing the purity role, though Rumsfeld may have been more a "gamer" as was Allen Dulles in relation to his righteous missionary brother John Foster. Bush, like Eisenhower, were compromisers who gave their instigators full reins. Secretary Rice went along and carried out her orders and General Powell was the good soldier with an uneasy conscience. And in relation to the recently revealed Cheney torture policy, CIA and military operatives managed without questioning--though we find out that there were many who risked and lost their careers by refusing. CIA's John Brennan refused to use "torture," instead using the Orwellion language of "enhanced interrogation techniques." And Cheney refused to admit that torture was used; but said that he would do it again for the sake of the fatherland. Johnson, the great compromiser, went along with Rusk and McNamara although he knew the Vietnam War should be stopped. Obama the compromiser defends his bail out of Wall Street and his drone policy with sincerity though I am sure with an uneasy conscience.

My foil, Cousin Vinnie, always gets caught in "my side/your side" language and refuses to see the pervasive racism that is behind so many of our policies and his views. He does not recognize the categories by which he is operating, including the stereotypes and over-generalizations that put people in a box.  He allows himself to accept the categories of Fox News without question. Banality personified.

And me? I must question constantly the categories by which I am seeing the world. I find myself often using categories without reflection. And I sometimes do not even realize how my analogies mislead as well as illustrate. Even the four categories I use to illustrate kinds of evil are overlapping and without clear boundaries. Who am I to judge?

We must use metaphors, categories, and symbols to think and act in our world. They mislead as well as illustrate. So how do we ascertain their adequacy, how do we understand their ability to do good as well as evil, how do we judge them, transcend them, and change them? Is there some higher power that we can call on which is beyond our ability to think?

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Part 1: Thinking About Thinking

Douglas Hofstadter, Surfaces and Essences, is a good read for anyone concerned with, well, anything.

It's about what makes us human and what we humans make: like science, art, religion, language; like worlds, cultures, nations, economies, cities; like history and our future. It's about thinking--the core of which, demonstrates Hofstadter, is categorization and analogy-making, which are the same thing.

Anybody (those two or three of you) who has read any of my stuff will know that I consider myself a radical constructivist when it comes to having a theory of knowing and that I consider the defining capacity of homo sapiens sapiens the capacity for symbolic behavior. For me human existence (and transcendence) is the activity, the process, the progress, and the intentionality of symbolic behavior. It is through symbols that we construct and know the world and ourselves.

So how does that jibe with Hofstadter's conceptions of categorization and analogy-making? Very well, I believe.

But I wouldn't dare try to demonstrate that here in this short space. The only way to do this would be to rely on my interlocutors reading and understanding Hofstadter on categorization and analogy-making, reading and understanding Ernst von Glasersfeld on radical constructivism, and reading and understanding Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Terrence Deacon on symbolic behavior.  However I will make some assertions that show the relationships. And then speak to some of the consequences of this understanding.

We realize commonalities as we interact with our environment by giving those commonalities a category which can be remembered, extended, and applied to new situations. This is our way of  patterning the chaos of our experience and creating a world. The category is formed in a word, an image, a model, a diagram, a formula that links similarities in our perception and perceptions to perceptions into higher orders of generality, in other words, analogies in and of our experience of the world. We learn category formation (or analogy making) as we interact with our parents, families, communities, and society in a culture abounding in language, art, religion, and science. In our interaction we contribute in our own style to the extension of categories (and analogies) to new situations and the development of new and flexible ones to be tried and handed down to our heirs. Another way of saying the same thing is that we think and encounter our world through metaphor. That's Hofstadter.

Constructivism, starting with the child-learning studies of Jean Piaget, emphasizes the human mind's creativity in the process. It affirms that reality isn't just "out there" absolute already in state, but is a dialogue between humanity and the universe. It denies the existence of ideas in some Platonic heaven or the mind of God. Ideas or concepts are formed in our interaction with the world and universe that we are experiencing all the time. Radical constructivism asserts that humans labor together in the achieving and creating of not only our culture and our world, but of reality itself. (My naive realist friend, Pat, "a rock is a rock is a rock," would not approve this perspective at all. Nor would my politically righteous Cousin Vinnie, who believes black is black and white is white.)

What the theory of symbolic behavior adds for me is the body's role in making analogies and forming categories to think and act in the world. Symbolic behavior is the human body with legs that can run, with arms that can gesture, with hands that can grasp a brush or pen, with fingers that can point, with lungs and vocal chords that can utter sounds, with flesh that can feel matter and flesh, with nose and pallet that can smell and taste, with ears that can hear noises and utterances, with eyes to see events, writings, and paintings, all organized in a nervous system centered in a brain that has a special capacity to recognize, link, and remember similarities in perception by giving those similarities a name, a tag, a design.

That is, the human animal uses its body to make a symbol--e.g. a gesture, a word, an image, a construction, a diagram, a model--which is a metaphor or analogy that points out things, beings, realities in the environment and so patterns a world through similes and distinctions. That ability and that behavior makes it possible for humans to anticipate and plan ahead. It also makes it possible for humans to be aware of "selves" apart from things in the world.

Symbolic behavior is not only bodily; it is also fundamentally social. Symbols are developed in interaction with other bodies. They are inherited by the interactions of the past and developed for the future by the interactions of the present. Categories, metaphors, symbols are not the product of a separable or incorporeal Mind but of fleshy, touchy, material, and, yes, sexual bodies interacting with one another and their environment.

Hofstadter's understanding of thinking (which I find compatible with constructivist epistemology and the theory of symbolic behavior) has major consequences for ethics and politics. I will discuss this in my next blog.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pope Francis and the Kochs.

To put Pope Francis along side the Koch Brothers, extolling them all in the same breath, is in my mind obscene. But that's what John and Carol Saeman, seemingly good Mass-going Catholics, did in the Washington Post Article (11/30/2014) "Following the Pope and the Kochs." My biggest complaint is that they misunderstand both the Koch Brothers and Catholic Social Teaching to do so.

When they see the Kochs opposing cronyism, corporate welfarism (e.g. tax subsidies to oil and big agriculture), corrupt capitalism (e.g. the richest opposing higher taxes on themselves), and excessive lobbying ($86 million to oppose ACA and climate change legislation), I know they are not seeing the same people I am. But then I know that values shape how we look at "facts."

The values cited are Catholic Social Teaching which the Saemans rightly say are focused on three principles, dignity of all humans, solidarity, and subsidiarity--principles I find they distort. They are right not to identify government with the public or with the common good. But they are wrong in not seeing the government as an instrument of the public for the common good. I suggest that they read the American Bishops letter on "Economic Justice for All" as the best explication of Catholic Social Teaching for the US.

They refuse to see Pope Francis's attack on the libertarian economy, a Kochian dogma, which sanctifies the "free market," which of course is much freer for some than others. I too attack over-centralization in Washington or in State Government when there are not active labor unions and local communities, especially those of the working poor, holding accountable those governments because they are basically bought through election campaigns by the Kochs and their like.

And most of all they extort charity over justice. In a just world, people have a right to work, to survive with housing and health care, to have education, and to have enough income to innovate without being dependent on charity and the disposable income of the rich. Yes, as Director of Catholic Charities in Two States, I was grateful to people like the Saemans for our food, immigration, and housing programs. But I preferred to see donations to help people organize themselves in solidarity to get their government on their side and to provide the assurances that all people had the necessities of life so that they could make the contributions to society that they all wanted to make.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Mike Montague taught us "Philosophy of Man." (By "man" of course he meant humanity, i.e. women too.)

Once he had us shout out together: "I am my body!" He wanted us to recognize that the body isn't some appendage to the real self. He was urging us to reject the Cartesian dualism that is wrecking havoc on so much of our psychology, religion, and politics. He did not take any stand on the eternity of the soul or life after death. But the implications were ominous for true believing Christians--or, for that matter, many other religionists.

"I am my body" helped us to appreciate both the magnificence of the human body as well as its defects, transience, and limitations. And it helped us to value matter and understand its convertibility into energy, not just physically but also spiritually.

And what about spirit or mind? Am I my mind? Neuroscience demonstrates that the mind is the body with reflective consciousness thanks to its neural system centered in the brain.  But we know that the mind is also the unconscious or preconsciousness of the brain. No body? Then no self consciousness with its unconscious foundation and its preconscious background. So if I am my body, I am also my mind. There is no more a duality of body and spirit. No more than there is for matter and energy or space and time.

But isn't the mind more than the body at least at any given time or place because we are influenced by memory and anticipation all born of imagination. Yes. The spirit is the body in connection with other body/minds throughout space and time.

Now humanity is in the process of creating an artificial intelligence (AI) that is greater than any one person's intelligence. Perhaps even greater than the intelligence of all humanity past, present, and future. Perhaps. But knowledge is much more than intelligence. Will the post-human be human? Will AI have a mind capable of spirituality, that is, of transcendence, constantly aware consciously or not, of being in transition towards eternity, infinity, and universality? Without a flesh and blood body with a neuronic brain evolved to extend and use one's body to create images (gestures, symbols, formulas) that communicate with other bodies? And without a body that is nourished to nourish and born to die?

Will AI have the knowledge of good and evil sprung from its sexuality, its intercourse with others, its interaction with the earth, its pursuit of the gods, and its sense of transience (as the biblical myth of The Garden so intuited)?

The joke is that when the final Master Computer was asked if there was a God, it checked all its connections and made sure that it could control them without any technical help before answering: "There is now."

But a god without a human body and its sexuality, its earthiness, its particularity because of limits, its sense of wanting more is quite a lacking god it seems to me. Lacking in the sense of flesh upon flesh, lacking in innovation and novelty, and above all lacking in the satisfaction of continually trying to push beyond its lacking. Can infinity be known without a sense of finitude?

And perhaps that is the meaning of the myth of the Incarnation and Christmas. To achieve the fullness of spirit we must be fully body. Mind becomes in matter and matter becomes mind in my body which extends itself to others through symbolic communication. AI is just another tool we use like words, formulas, models, and other symbols. Universal Spirit, the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Love, becomes in our body-minds in communication.

So God became man so man could become God. It's in the becoming that both realities exist.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trust but Verify

The comments today in the WSJ in reaction to the Obama's administration desire to continue talks with Iran were quite horrible. They demonstrate that so many American patriots are indeed righteous neocons. Many said to just go in and bomb Iran--because we are right and they are wrong. Others said that what we are doing by negotiating is "appeasement and appeasement never works and never has done."

Despite what the resurrected Jesus is to have said to Thomas, faith is not to believe something is true without evidence. That to me is the definition of ignorance. I don't mean to say that ignorance is bad. I'm with Socrates in that it is wise to know that we do not know for sure.

Faith is the choice to keep seeking to know by being open to new evidence. It's what drives science and it should also drive our politics. Faith is the willingness to keep engaging with others and the world even when others are hostile and the world seems absurd.

Blessed are we when we have enough faith to question our beliefs and to keep trying to find new and better ones that will make us all and our world better. Blessed are we who question even what we believe we have seen.

It is that faith that drives humanity to be and do better, to transcend our boundaries, to keep learning, and to keep loving despite, or maybe because of, the doubt in ourselves, others, and the world. Such faith is also a hope in an unknown and even fragile future. Such faith is also the love of participating with all others who will participate and with an openness to others who will not.

Yes, it is important to doubt what we think is true, to verify by evidence scientific laws, moral principles, and political treaties.  But first it is important to be open to learn new things about oneself and others, even those who seem to be our enemies. Verify, of course, but also trust.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Fifth Dimension

Last week Bernie and I went to see Interstellar in IMAX. Great trip! Especially after watching live the landing of the European Space Agency's Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko now circling the sun.

Interstellar is both an action thriller and a science fiction head trip raising questions without settling them on the primacy of individual, family, or species, on the vulnerability of Earth and the desolation of worlds without life, on the meaning of time, on self-sacrifice, on loneliness, on the origins and constitution of the universe. And who are the "They" out there? Or are They We?  But the biggest question: is there a fifth dimension in addition to space and time called "love" related to our capacity for empathy?

The movie recalled something I wrote many years ago when exploring the notion of God in our post-modern culture.

God is Love. When we love, God is in us and we are in God. 1John, 4,16.

That's pretty simple and very profound stuff. What John is saying to me is that to be with God, in God, for God, no particular beliefs are necessary. No laws. No rules. No morality. Just love. We don't even need a belief in God.

Love means a relationship to at least one other and a very special relationship at that. A loving relationship, a sort of identity with the other, not as other, but as self. Not a thee or an it, but a thou. Not an object of negotiations or affections or thought or sexuality, but an originator of negotiations, affections, thinking, sexuality.

When I have this kind of relationship with another, we are entwined in a creative act because you are treating me and I am treating you, not as an object, but as another you, a person. When I am in a loving relationship with you, as a friend, a neighbor, or even an opponent, I am treating you with dignity, as a person, as an initiator of your own experience and your world and as a co-creator of our experience and our world.

The more persons and creatures we include in this kind of relationship, the more God is in us and we are in God.

No matter what we are focusing on, plans for a house or the city, a business deal, political events and choices, education of our children, financial planning, the latest discoveries of science, a good movie, our hopes and beliefs--we have a background experience of ourselves in relation as co-directors, co-creators, co-subjects, self-actualizing persons (Mazlow), Thous (Buber). That background experience is the frame and context for our words, statements, drawings, plans, and accounts.

The focus-object, articulated in words and formulas, is contained in the four dimensions of space-time. The background experience of relationality is the 5th dimension. It is "behind" the categories of space and time. It is the presence to the other as subject, unmediated by words. It is the unspoken, hidden, unobserved, uncategorized relation to yous.

The 5th dimension is love, connectivity, and the relational aspect of all things in space and time. Is "God" the name we traditionally called that background experience, the 5th dimension to space-time, the connection of all beings? Or is there a Being outside and separate to which that experience points, the Singularity, the Source, the Culmination, the Ground of connectivity, relationality, inter-personality? Is there a Transcendent even to transcendence, the non-objective presence and interaction of persons in relation?

I suppose we could posit a Separate Being out there distinct from the relationality of beings, a sort of Generator for the energy, rather than the relationality or energy of interaction itself. But I am not sure why that is necessary or even what that would mean.

I would rather affirm the 5th dimension, the relational, unspoken, pre-thematic dimension of what is spoken and objectified. The love dimension. The dimension of syntropy that balances-in-tension the entropic force of material things. This dimension is what we call spirit, consciousness, presence, interpersonal co-subjectivity, transcendence, no-thing. It is the dimension out of which all things appear in space and time. It is the dimension through which all our words and formulas and laws and propositions and beliefs and expressions make sense.

The ground experience on which figures appear has been called in French "conscience". Conscience means in English both "Consciousness," a kind of intuitive or direct, unmediated cognitive experience, and "Conscience", a kind of intuitive or direct, unmediated moral experience.

When I am acting I perceive a certain inter-subjective space that grounds our objective world (consciousness). When I am acting I experience also a direction or an intentionality of my action with and to others (conscience). Conscience is inter-action with others as co-actors. Conscience is interaction present to itself (knowing itself). Conscience is intentionality present to itself (appreciating itself).

Conscience is the foundation of objective knowledge--con-science. Conscience is the foundation of action with others in the world, conscience. It is the "inner, quiet voice" or "silent companion" that accompanies all our actions in society and in the world. It is the sense of being related to all in all, the sense of being present to every space-time, the sense of the eternal and the absolute in this fleeting instant. It is the sense of Love.

Love is the 5th dimension, the connectivity, the relational aspect of all objects, the source of all things, humanity and the universe transcending. Love perdures throughout space and time

That's it. Simple. I am using too many words. Be silent. Experience. Let be. Listen to the synergy surrounding us. See the luminous fibers conjoining us and all that is.

Interstellar, like Star Wars, is offering a new creation narrative for our post-modern, new-science culture. Neither of these would be called a religious film because they are not proselytizing any existing religion. Yet they are raising the question of the religious in our, what some would call, "post-religious" society. They point at the transcendence in our existence and offer hope.