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Monday, January 26, 2015

Is ethics a useless pastime

I got hooked into a LinkedIn discussion group on "Applied Ethics." A lot of the postings I find a bit silly or not interesting. One I responded to discussed survival as the foundation of ethics. Yes, I agreed, according to updated Darwinian theory, our genes use our species like all others to survive  (See Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene.) So survival is indeed a fundamental drive written into our DNA.

But in humanity's case, to give us an edge on survival, we developed the special capacity we have been discussing over these past few blogs: the capacity for symbolic behavior or thinking. And with that came two (at least) more fundamental drives: for respect in community and for meaning. The three drives experienced as desires to live, to love, and to know correlate to three realms of human existence: economy, politics, and culture.

Furthermore, culture and the desire to know can be categorized in four or more desires for meaning: conventional wisdom and morality (common sense), beauty (art and aesthetics), transcendence (myth and religion), explanation (science). I would add the explanation for getting these meanings all together the job of philosophy of which the study of ethics is a part.

I wasn't going to respond to another question from the LinkedIn discussion group: Ethics is the pastime of the middle class. At first I thought the initiator of the discussion was saying that ethics was  the useless play of the bourgeoisie; but as the discussion progressed, it sort of settled on whether the wealthy concern themselves about ethics the way the middle class does.

The answer depends on what is meant by "ethics." It could mean conventional wisdom and morality which is how a lot of responders use the word. Or it could mean critical thinking about our conventional wisdom and morality which gets it in the realm of philosophy.

I prefer to use the word to mean critical thinking before, during, and after we act. That means that when businessmen, doctors, social activists, politicians, teachers, church ministers, artists, administrators, and other actors think before, during, and after their actions deciding how they fit with who they want to be and what kind of a world they want to create, they are being ethical. They may or may not describe their assessment of benefits and consequences in the discursive language of philosophy. But thinking about what they are doing, often conflicting with conventional morality, is practicing ethics. Certainly NOT a useless pastime.

I also argue that all we actors do have access to a "higher power" for weighing the good or bad of what we are doing. But that higher power is not outside in some belief system or divine revelation since those need to be critically assessed as well. The higher power is the awareness of our own existence as reaching for truth, beauty, and the good through our actions. That's how I define conscience (the word in many languages means self-awareness of the knowing as well as doing subject).

Religious people may call this awareness of our creativity, intentionality, and transcendence the "divine spark" or the "likeness of God in which we were created."And that is fine with me. But I see it philosophically in our evolved ability to behave symbolically, i.e. to think, which loops back upon itself in consciousness/conscience.

Symbolic behavior defines human existence as communal, spatial, temporal, and transcending. We think therefore we are--human. On that principle I build my ethics.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cousin Vinnie

The latest Scientific American ports a study of Neanderthals. It seems they were actually a homo sapiens having the capacity for symbolic action and expression that we connect with thinking.

So I can no longer call my Cousin Vinnie a Neanderthal. I never did, of course. Except in my own head.

I have used Cousin Vinnie as a foil in many of my essays to distinguish a progressive from a regressive way of thinking. Friends have asked me, "Does Cousin Vinnie really exist?" Well yes he does, but not by that name.

I suppose that we actually love and even like each other even though each of us sees the other as so misguided. We see the world and especially the political and economic world so very differently. What I find funny, he does not. What he does, I find pretty lame. Not all but a lot of it. My take is that different sets of values supported by different narratives of the meaning of our own experiences (and therefore the meaning of our life and our universe) shape not only our beliefs in religion and politics, but also our facts.

He is a conservative Catholic with a bad labor union experience even though he comes from a blue collar family. I left Roman Catholicism and do not even consider myself Christian--at least not any more than Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, or Muslim. I come from a white collar family in which my Dad was a auto company manager who had to negotiate regularly with the UAW. Vinnie joined the Marines and did not go to university. I was a Jesuit seminarian and received many post graduate degrees. He has a gun to defend his home and wife against the feared intruder and enemy. I am afraid of no one but a gun ever since I almost shot my brother's eye out with a BB rifle. He gets most of his opinions from Fox News which he reveres. I read the Nation, the Economist, Mother Jones, and watch only BBC, PBS, and Al Jazeera for news.

Such different experiences and narratives certainly inhibit communication. Yet I am grateful that he hangs in there with me--at least up to now. Since I like him and also because he represents probably the majority of the population of America and the world, I want to be hearing him honestly. I want to understand his fears (of which he has many) and his blames (democrats and RINOs, elites, liberal media and universities, illegal immigrants, people of color getting public aid, Muslims, and government workers who aren't in the military). But because of my own experience and narrative, I probably am not hearing and understanding him well. Are we doomed to be just two opposing bumper stickers facing each other as we take off in different directions.

An email search through my computer hard drive produces many sayings from Cousin Vinnie, probably enough for a small book. So I think I will try to write it. Should be fun.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Four Types of Thinking

Is science the pinnacle of knowing? If Culture is the realm of finding and making meaning, is a scientific culture, e.g. liberally educated, secular, evidence based, empirical, rational, enlightened, the best of cultures?

I think so. But...

There are different kinds of meaning, knowing, thinking besides science that make for a wholesome culture.

Experience or perception is our interaction with our environment from birth to death. Let's start there with what William James called "pure experience"--a stream and flux of impressions, images, floating, mass of confusion in and out of our awareness. (James knew that there was no pure experience in the sense that it happened apart from what we were already putting into it--e.g. categories or thoughts; but he bracketed those to converge on experience as such.)

There is experience that is questionable, that is calling for explanation, for causes. The "because" is the answer to the question why and is expressed in laws of nature that can claim universality. That is science thinking.

There is experience that is enticing, enjoyable even when discomforting, brimming with patterns that we appreciate, that is, beautiful which is expressed in works of art. That is aesthetic thinking.

There is experience that fills us with wonder and makes us reach beyond ourselves; it is a sense of mystery and transcendence, expressed in stories and rituals. That is mythic and religious thinking.

There is experience that is commonplace, day-to day, parochial and concrete, which is expressed in our ordinary language of commerce and survival.

Each of these meanings enrich our culture and our persons: meaning as explanation; meaning as beauty, meaning as transcendence, meaning as common sense.

Before the scientific revolution and the age of reason, and still in many parts of the world and of individual counties, including America, the drive for meaning was confused in the general population. Critical thought was demeaned and sometime punished. Religious and mythic concepts were used as explanations. Common parochial practices were made into universal laws. Arts were technologies subservient to economic or political interests. We see remnants of that culture in many rural enclaves, fundamentalist churches, nativist movements, and right-wing populist politics.

Freeing science freed art and religion and even common sense and led to a more scientifically informed philosophy that opened critical thinking in science, art, religion, and common sense. The emancipation of thinking in all its forms also leads to or perhaps is assisted by a free and open society, democratic republics through which ideas could be tried within a framework of respect for all and for the earth which is the condition of our living, thinking, and acting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Conclusion: The End of Thinking

The End? Hardly. We are just at the beginning of our path to Infinity, Universality, Integrity--or what Spinoza called Divine Love.

We are so fortunate to have lived beyond the moment of the scientific revolution in the age of reason, harbingered by Socrates and his successors, when we have, as David Deutsch puts it, "jumped to the universal" to experience "the beginning of infinity" in our physical universe. We can only hope that we will do the same in our moral universe by transcending our clan, class, and tribal ways of thinking in a "jump to integrity" to experience the "beginning of universal love."

We are a species "in via." We can be proud of our great accomplishments in religion, in art, in science, and, yes. in morality and politics.  But problems remain to be solved. We decide whether they are opportunities or obstacles to our progress by how and whether we think.

We think through categories, analogy, symbols. But the category of category itself may need to be modified. And analogy! Do we live in an analogue or digital universe? A good case can be made for both. But in the case of our physical universe, our digitalized science and technology has advanced our knowledge immensely. How wonderful that we evolved hands with fingers (digits) to count and conceived a zero!

Yet we are far from achieving universal integrity and love in our moral universe where our categories and symbols imprison us in narrow, parochial behavior. Our religious traditions often divide by sanctifying tribal symbols of intolerance. Our science is put to the use of special group interests. Even some of our most advanced and progressive thinkers judge success by the very narrow measure of money. They rightly advocate a mentality of abundance over that of scarcity, boldness to the future over fear of loss of the past; but they still use very narrow and individualistic economic measures to evaluate progress.

I am struck by how many pessimists see national and global degeneration and claim that their progeny is worse off by the narrow measure of money. I personally am grateful to Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, Aquinas, Luther, Newton, Jefferson, Beethoven, Lincoln, Einstein and all my ancestors because of all my ancestors. I revere them not for the financial wealth I enjoy, but for the knowledge that makes me better off than they were. My children and their children will be better than I. And I trust that is my small way I contributed even by the mistakes I made that they had to overcome. I will be contributing if in any way I encouraged them to think beyond my categories and symbols and question my assumptions and answers.

At the same time, I realize that our species could think itself into oblivion. It would do that most by curtaining thinking. When thinking ends so does humanity. If humanity ends by stopping thinking, by imprisoning itself in the parochial mind of clan and tribe, I hope that thinking will not end. Even if our species is subsumed or transformed into a higher, more inclusive species on this planet or another, the thinking we have done including the mistakes we have made will continue towards Infinity, Integrity, and Universal Love.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Part 10: Thinking Social Change

It is MLK Day. We are taking our grandkids to see Selma and then on to the MLK monument. 

Today there was an article in the Post "Majority of US students in Public Education are in Poverty," and the Brookings sent out a study Five Bleak Facts on Black Opportunity. And Mitt Romney, the Post says today, is going to center his presidential campaign on Poverty. The works of Piketty and Siglitz are recalling Michael Harrington's The Other America. Pope Francis is bringing back a sort of "liberation theology," which is really Catholic Social Teaching, and leading the leaders of all major religions to consider within their own traditions the issue of equality of opportunity that is limited by inequality of results of our economy, our politics, and our culture.

What the study of thinking tells me that often to solve a problem we have to graduate to a whole new level of thinking. I am suggesting with my colleagues who are also passionate about the issue of poverty and race in the US that we can’t just keep doing the same thing without results. We must go to a higher level of thinking trying to explain the why and how of this problem. I propose doing this without assigning blame or shame because that removes our general responsibility to solve e the problem.  I would love to get a group together, meet with lots of people thinking about the issue of race and poverty in the US from different perspectives, get others from our churches, neighborhoods, clubs, study groups to do the same towards suggesting other approaches for public policy and community action. 

I believe that we would have to really examine our assumptions even the ones I am making here, namely: 

  • It is untenable that we have a society where persons are for whatever reason denied opportunity.
  • We have such a society in the US. 
  • We can think and solve problems often at a higher level of thinking.
  • To do that it is useful to consider historical and other causes scientifically without blame or guilt.
  • The solution will come from thinking about the issue from many perspectives and so objectively and experimentally.
  • The solution will be a matter of public polity and community action. 

This is not a "purely intellectual" pursuit because all thinking is practical and shapes the categories and models for action. 

Yes, I would urge this group-think movement to be both distinct from and critical of our religions, our political parties and their factions, our economic interest groups, and all our institutions including our media, but at the same time be interacting and entwined with them. It would be a group-think at the service of no one and every one, cognizant of and questioning all authorities and all ideologies, focused only on coming upon a solution to the problem of racism and poverty in our social order. 

Let's think about it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Part 8.5: Science Thinking

Much of the science of thinking or epistemology comes from the study of thinking in science. That is, scientists reflecting on their method.

My introduction to the science of thinking about science came from Bernard Lonergan's Insight: A Study of Understanding followed by Karl Popper Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge and Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Lonergan laid out the process of thinking scientifically in stages, which while not exactly accurate in fact*, is great pedagogically for understanding elements of the thinking act not only in science but in all thinking. Experience, Understanding, Judgment. He describes the experiential moment that sparks the question. The question that promotes the finding of relationships and relationships of relationships in the experience. The Insight that puts forth a theory or formula by which the relationships are understood as an explanation. And then putting forth that explanation into the public forum where it can be tested through further experiments and judged as a verified theory or a scientific law or submitted for a better explanation.

Popper demonstrates that if a scientific statement cannot be tested for verifiability and so cannot be falsified, then it is no scientific statement at all. To say gremlins are what is making my television work, but that they disappear when I look to find them, is a statement that cannot be falsified. To say that the gods started the universe, but you have to take it on faith and have no way of disproving it, is not only a bad explanation but a meaningless one.

Lonergan also discussed what he called "higher viewpoints" when we encounter a conflict in ideas at one level and go to a new level of abstraction in order to come up with a more fruitful model for explanation. David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity) has argued that science could not advance until there was developed a "culture of criticism" whereby a large population sought to expand knowledge through ongoing inquiry and critiquing the answers that were previously given to explain things as occurred in the Enlightenment.

Historian of science Thomas Kuhn has argued that scientific revolutions occur when incremental answers to problems become inadequate and inconsistent in explaining things so that a new broad idea rearranges the existing system of ideas to accommodate what we already know but solve some their problems. He called this a "paradigm shift"--itself a sort of paradigm that was not well understood, but is now almost a cliche.

"Model-based realism" is the philosophy of science that Steven Hawking proposes. Knowing reality means providing a model that is elegant, consistent, comprehensive and predictive, Elegance is simplifying complexities, consistency is having few adjustable elements, comprehensiveness is accounting for all known observations and theories, and predictive means that the model can predict outcomes that can be used to falsify the model.

Contrary to Hawking however, there is no end to the inquiry because every explanation at one level will create problems, e.g. complexities, inconsistencies, and new unknowables that need to be solved at a higher level of abstraction.** However, there does occur what David Deutsch calls "a jump to universality" when explanations develop the tools not just to solve a problem in the concrete now, but for everywhere and anytime. The creation of an alphabet based language and a mathematics based science are instances of this.

Lonergan attributes the progress in science to "the unrestricted desire to know" and Deutsche to the "beginning of infinity" which occurred when humanity developed the capacity to think and began exercising it.

Science aims to explain reality and thus provide the answer to the question "why" and "how" of all things. The desire to know reality and understand the world has been stimulated in us by our nature when our species evolved the ability to symbolize. It is also stimulated, if we are fortunate, by our nurture through a critical culture and open society that values knowing and the education that encourages knowing. We have a drive for meaning.

But we have seen that there are other ways of knowing that also provide meaning. Common sense, art, religion, and philosophy are ways of thinking that can be distinguished from science and each other in order to understand them better.

Our day to day living is guided by what we call "common sense." This is the knowledge contained in aphorisms, maxims, proverbs that apply to immediate and parochial situations. "Why reinvent the wheel," "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," "a stitch in time saves nine," "seize the day" are not, and are not intended to be, universal laws. Indeed they often contradiction each other, but are often useful for particular situations. They can be informed by science and often need to be challenged and adjudicated by science when they get in the way of advancing our knowledge.

Art I have argued is placing, arranging, exploring patterns in our experience. And the aesthetic sense is delighting in those patterns. Those patterns can be criticized, modified, supplanted by other forms though they are built upon the precedent ones as jazz builds on classical music while introducing Asian and as pop art builds on impressionism that builds on romanticism. Science requires the aesthetic imagination to develop new models of explanation and feeds back new experiences and ways to imagine the world.

Religion since the scientific revolution, including its use of myth, art, and ritual, has four functions in its relation to humanity's advance through thinking. It does not determine the laws of reality; it does not explain the origins of the universe, the world, life, and humanity. But it does:

1) Affirm that there is a meaning to life and human existence, even in the face of seeming absurdity, by helping in the creation of the overall narratives and belief systems that encourages our ongoing search, i.e. transcendence.

2) Counsel faith and optimism as we keep trying to solve our problems, moral, social, economic, political and to do so scientifically, i.e. with openness, critique, evidence, community.

3) Connect us with others including strangers across all boundaries so that we see all persons as thinkers, full participants in our human endeavor, and creators of our community and our world.

4) Teach us to reject iconoclasm and idolatry--both the destruction of symbols and artifacts that helped humans in diverse situations look for higher meaning as well as reifying symbols, words, and doctrines as absolutes that cannot be criticized and surpassed.

Philosophy is the scientist, citizen, artist, and believer reflecting on his or her activity and its products, critiquing them to design them better, relating those activities to each other.  Philosophy centers more on the activity as it is being carried out and attempts to describe and explain human existence in general within all these activities. Philosophy also inquires into the expressions or products of these activities and their organization in culture as well as the political economy of that culture. It is the tool of human thinkers and actors, us, to reflect on and criticize ourselves as a way of choosing who we want to be and what kind of a world we want to inhabit.


*Lonergan's stages can give the mistaken impression of empiricism in the first stage (experience itself reveals the form in matter), instrumentalism in the second stage (what we come up with as an answer is totally relative and does not relate to objective reality, and positivism in the third stage (everything needs to be observed to be scientific reality). Recognizing experience, understanding (including question, insight, concept), and judgment (critique and verification) as dimensions or interacting moments or elements of science is more helpful for me.

**Hawking in his quest for the Unified Theory of Everything speaks in his Brief History of Time and Grand Design as though we will then come to the end of science. He says metaphorically that we will know the mind of God.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Part 4.5: Thinking Sexually

One of the criteria I offered for judging whether a machine was capable of human thinking in my expanded Turing test is sexuality. Sexuality I said is required for thinking.  Can a machine think like a human? Only with a self-conscious body that can be shared.

Thinking is corporeal. Thinking is using the self-aware body to fashion artifacts (words, drawings, images, symbols) to communicate with other conscious bodies. It is physical intercourse. And it is reproductive. The human body is inherently oriented to other bodies while aware of its sexuality--its masculinity and femininity or combination.

But I suggest that what we call in common usage "the sex act" is only one of the ways we exercise our sexuality and physical intercourse. By "sex act" we usually mean using penis, testicles, vagina, clitoris, and breasts of ourselves and of others to effect that wonderful feeling of tension and release called orgasm. But that act is hardly the fullness of sexuality as demonstrated by many who are very sexual even after they have lost or forgone the use of their "sexual organs." Indeed, most sex counselors insist that the primary sexual organ is not between the legs but in the skull.

When sexuality is reduced to the sex act it is trivialized and pornified. When we use another simply to  "get off," we dehumanize. Sex becomes diminished and "dirty." I do not mean to disparage the sex act, including "getting off," in any way. Nor do I want to condemn giving pleasure to oneself or to and with others. But to be truly sexual, that pleasure will be a communication, a sign of mutual giving and respect in which all who engage are free initiating conscious actors and no one an object of another.

In true communication, the boundaries between bodies fade as when I, though seated in the audience, allow my self to dance with the dancers on stage, participate in the unfolding drama by taking on the actor's persona, listen to the poet by traveling her style down the path of her words. I am conscious of those as sexual activities. It is just as when two lovers lie naked with one another and feel their bodies mingle and become as one, whether or not they perform "the act."

My writing, my photography, my sketching, my engaging in jazz or a great film, my acting on stage are bodily activities meant to communicate consciousness to consciousness with other bodies. So indeed are the hug, the handshake, the arm around the shoulder, the holding of hands, the personal words of comfort.  The distortion of sexuality is not its aggrandizement, i.e.. seeing sexuality in all things human and especially communication,  The distortion comes when the communication is forced and so violates another private space or when it is only oriented or reduced to "the act."

It has been noted that when we were fetuses we were a combination of male and female until the genes and hormones started sorting things out. And as we age we begin to go back to that union of male and female. As I age, my body changes in its ability to do "the act" with the frequency I had when younger. But that does not at all diminish my sexuality masculine and feminine, nor my need to give and get intimacy especially through friendship.

I do not need viagra to be sexual. I am sexual to my very soul.