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Friday, June 29, 2012

Being Whole.

I have named my theory of ethics Integrity. Integral means "complete" or "whole." The term "whole" comes from the old English hāl (Greek holos) which is also the root for "holy," "heal," "health,"and "hale." And "hologram"?

Integrity is being whole.  Acting with integrity is the act of achieving wholeness.  But there are four kinds of wholeness.

1) Identity.  Something is whole if it is totally one with itself.  This is univocal (as opposed to anagogic or metaphorical) thinking of myth and pre-modern times.  Think "God" in medieval theology or "Absolute Being" in metaphysics.

2) Summation.  The whole is the sum of its parts.  This is the machine thinking of classical science and the industrial age.  Think of Newtonian Physics and Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

3) Organismic.  The whole consists of interacting elements that form a new dynamic organism that is more than the sum of its parts. Think the evolution of species, interacting cells, DNA and Gaia theory.

4) Complexity.  The whole is a system of relationships.  The universe is a hologram, a pattern of information sharing.  Think multi-dimensional string theory of contemporary science as well as the unified theory of everything.

Humanity is a complex system of interacting organisms with a capacity to adapt to the environment through artificial media, that is symbolic interaction which defines human being in and to the universe.    The four dimensions of symbolic interaction or human existence which humanity brings to the universe are: temporality, spatiality, communality, and reality. They are dimensions of a complex system or relationships perceived in tension within and among the dimensions. The tensions of symbolic interaction (previously explained) make possible both truths and fallacies and the achievement of truth through (or overcoming) fallacy in a never-ending process of achieving greater levels of wholeness.

Integrity is the ethics of engaging in the process of achieving truth overcoming fallacy by interacting with self and others, in time and space. "Engage," the command of Captain Kirk to his crew of the Enterprise, is an expression of the categorical imperative of human existence. Go forward, together, to discover ourselves and our universe.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Circles of Citizenship

Some say that voting is the first and most minimal step of being a citizen.  I say it may be the most minimal, but not the first, act of citizenship.

Here are the four steps of citizenship which I think make a continually reenforcing and enhancing circle or perhaps circle of circles of citizenship.

1.  Voluntary association.  People first exercise their citizenship by participating in civil society.  Girl scout troop leaders, soccer coaches, block or drama club members, neighborhood watchers, Rotary members, nonprofit organization, union, and PTA members are reenforcing the voluntary associations that constitute civility.  It means coming out of my private space, beyond my home and business, past my lonliness and individual self-interest.  De Tocqueville was clear about this character of democratic society in his Democracy in America.  Appearing in public is the Greek definition of courage according to Hannah Arendt.  

2.  Civil discussion.  Inquiring, acquiring more information and ideas, learning from others, presenting opinions for criticism, engaging and arguing regarding the benefits and shortfalls of policies is the most essential act of citizenship.  And then, as Socrates would have it, going home to think, to confront myself, to adjust and modify my opinions.  Voluntary association (#1) can be the occasion for this listening and learning process that builds the relationships of civil society.

3.  Judgment.  Casting a ballot is a decision in the here and now, based on what I know at this moment.  The option for which I cast my ballot is the best that can be achieved at this time in my judgment. Voting without thinking, without listening and speaking and testing my opinion, or simply because it reenforces my faction and is narrowly self-interested is a disservice to citizenship and to justice.  I think is that it would be better if people who did not inform themselves, wrestle with their opinions and choices, and engage with others did not vote.  The best condition is when all of us vote knowing our extended interests, having formed opinions through listening, discussion and thought.

4. Action.  Participating in the public arena to follow up on and even refine my judgment, to hold officials accountable, to act in concert to see that policies are implemented, is the fullest participation in civil society.  It is the very definition of power--to organize with others to act in concert.  It is also recognizing that I am not always right and that the opposition may see factors and consequences that I do not. That brings us back to #1.

And that is the Circle of Citizenship.  It is the fulfillment of the human capacity to shape my self by shaping the society in which the self takes shape.  It is the highest expression of the human capacity to interact with others and their world.  It is both traditional and progressive, learning from the past but innovating for the future.

But what if there is no civil society, no public space to engage with others to shape opinions and decide a common future? As in a dictatorship, an oligarchy, or a plutocracy, or even in a democracy that does not admit a public space for people with certain characteristics? That is the point of rebellion. The first act of citizenship here is the act of organizing with others to make a public space which carries the great risk of being violently suppressed by those in control.  Only then can the Circle of Citizenship be established.


A Post-script:  I've been reading The Gardens of Democracy and realize that there is an even further first step to citizenship and that is courtesy.  Courtesy means acknowledging another as a person with dignity.  It means saying hello when walking or jogging, giving up a seat on the train to someone who needs it, holding the door, saying "please" and "thank you," and just smiling to the other person.  A synonym for courtesy is civility.  Courtesy: the first step of citizenship.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Doing Good


So we considered evil and how to avoid it.  But what about doing good?  Our notion of good comes from the same place as our notion of evil--the self perceiving structure of our moral consciousness or conscience.  If conscience makes cowards of us all, i.e. fearful to do bad things, does it also make heroes of us all overcoming fear with courage?

Conscience and consciousness are translations of the same word in French--conscience.  The Latin derivation means "with knowledge."  It is the knowing that accompanies knowledge.  When humans engage with the environment, they do so symbolically, i.e. through physical media, verbal and visual images or words and ideas by which they "know" things and the world to which these things belong and are connected.

But along with that mediated knowledge of things in the world is a more direct sense of one's self in connection with other selves knowing things in the world.  This co-knowledge appears in every conscious symbolic act.  In every moment we are present to ourselves and others, past and future, the real world and the ideal world.  When we act consciously, we are in touch with the structure of our existence.  In English we name the co-knowing that accompanies interior thinking "consciousness."  We name the co-knowing that accompanies our acting, exteriorly oriented self "conscience." 

Therefore conscience is moral consciousness.  It is the structure of our moral existence aware of itself in every conscious act.

Evolutionary psychology can speculate on the origins of this moral sense and how it functions to bind humans together to act socially.  Neuroscience can try to explain the moral sense in terms of the capacity of the brain to infer, feel, and relive another's actions through mirror neurons. 

Socrates, Plato, Arendt explain the phenomenon as the "two in one," the sense of the self in the market place in dialogue with the self in solitude.  I am co-knowing the self who acts in relation to the self I am--all the tensions of my existence and the responsibilities and obligations those tensions imply.  Am I to act in accordance with my sense of what it means to be fully human if I am to maintain and fulfill my humanity?

In attempting to integrate my market place self with my solitude self I discover the golden rule and the categorical imperative to treat others as ends in themselves.  But integration is not identity.  The tension or two-in-one remains; the examined life is a never-ending process.  If the tension were dissolved and identity achieved, my self would be extinguished and I die as a human being; for the human self is tension, in tension, and intentional. 

Conscience tells us what is bad, that which will destroy the tensional relationships with ourselves, with others, with the world.  But an examination of conscience can also lead us to what is good.  The structure of moral consciousness guides us to structure our relationships with our selves, others, and the world.  It instructs us as to the meaning and purpose of our life and how we must act to achieve our humanity. 

And here arises the story of human progress and decline. 

The structure of human existence present in my every conscious act reveals me as temporal, not only in time but also making time.  I emerge from a past and so have a tradition.  I thrust forward to a future and so facing change.  My conscience tells me then to respect tradition, listen to the ancestors, appreciate their achievements.  So great jazz artists study classical music.  Great political actors learn from history.  Great philosophers return to the sources.  Great scientists study the methods and successes of earlier science.

But at the same time, conscience instructs us to innovate, to search for new evidence and new theories, to "push the envelope" and use imagination to envision other more comprehensive ways of encountering the world.  That old time religion is not good enough for me.  I should experiment, risk change, and above all keep learning.

Conscience also directs me to be true to my self and to treat others as innovating selves in their own right and to create a society and world in which all selves can survive and thrive, can achieve what they can become.  

Doing good is having integrity, being integral, acting for integrity in oneself, in others, in our society, in our world.  It means unifying our behaving self with the self that is present in our action.  It means working towards a world in which all others are treated with integrity and our world and our social order is integral.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pleasure, Joy, Happiness

Synonyms as the dictionary might have it?  Or three words for different realities or distinct states of reality?  And what is their relevance to our ethics?


Pleasure is intense, but fleeting.  An orgasm is probably the best example: the peak at the point of release of an expanding, building, consuming tension of the whole body focused at the genetals and dominating a totally subservient mind as it lets go and receives in a moment of utter abandonment and elation.  Then the wind down, perhaps sleep, and back to daily living.  We can thank evolution for the sake of species survival for this most overpowering of human pleasures.

But there are so many other examples of pleasure:  the thrill of a ride on bike or horse or coaster, the excitement of a dive from a plane or into the ocean, the rush in the beauty of a panorama or person or play.  Even the sense of the cessation of pain.

And what makes pleasure greater for humans is our ability to anticipate, imagine, portray, and remember--though sometimes that ability causes or intensifies our pain as well.


Joy is less intense and fleeting.  It can be defined as a string or accumulation of pleasures, but not accurately I think.  Joy is the friendship between lovemaking.  It is the comradeship, planning, and memories of the thrills, excitement, and rushes.  Joy goes beyond and sometime in spite of pleasure or pain.

A pleasure can be solitary.  Joy is shared, a sense of being engaged in life with others.  Joy, not necessarily pleasure, to the world!

A pleasure is immediate sensation.  Joy is intellectual, involving imagination, thought, and memory.  Enjoy your time at college even without the binges, the casual sex, the sleeping in, the gourmet dining!

Pleasures are singular and unrelated.  Joy has continuity and is the experience of relationship.  Pleasures are parts of and events in a joyful life, but not the essence of it.


Happiness seems to be the most abstract, mysterious, and elusive of them all.  It is the word thinkers use to describe the goal of human existence.  Most of these thinkers would counsel us not to confuse it, much less confine it, to pleasure and joy.  Some say that we can be happy even in pain and in unenjoyable times and circumstances.

I do not think, as do some ascetics, that it is opposed to pleasure and joy.  I do think that we find it  difficult to be happy without experiencing pleasures and joy in life.  But I also think that it is difficult to be happy if pleasures and even joy dominate my life.  Happiness seems neither transitory like pleasure, nor continuous like joy, but a sense of the eternal or glimpse of infinity in every now.

Frankel and other psychologists would equate happiness with the sense of Meaning which can be found even in a Nazi concentration camp.  Arendt and other political thinkers would define happiness and its pursuit as a public thing and find it in thoughtful action in concert with others.  Teilhard de Chardin an other evolutionary thinkers would find happiness in the sense of transcendence as humans together journey towards greater understanding of and unity with the universe.  Tillich and other theologians would define happiness as the pursuit and experience of the Ground of our Being or God.


What are the ethical implications of this meditation?  Is our behavior to be measured by the amount of pleasure or pain it brings to us, whether individually or accumulatively?  Is the joyful life, especially the life of friendship and intellectual accomplishment, more important than the pleasures of immediate gratification.  Is there indeed a happiness that somehow includes, but transcends and transforms the pleasure of and the joy in life and that is the ultimate goal and measure for human being?

Once again, I propose the metaphor and model of Integrity.  In this model all the tensions, contradictions, paradoxes among the inner and outer, past and future selves and worlds are recognized and accepted while at the same time discovering a center in which they are all united in the here and now and with.  When I am integral, when I act with integrity, when I allow myself to experience the many and the all in one, I am happy, I am leading a joyful life, I can have abundant pleasures.  When.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Faith and Belief Again

(Note: this should be read in sync with yesterday's blog.)


Mark Randall "Mack" Wolford, pastor of House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, was passionate about handling snakes during worship services.  Wolford, 44, died May 27, about eight hours after being bitten by one of his poisonous yellow timber rattlesnakes during an outdoor Sunday service at a wildlife park about 60 miles from the House of the Lord Jesus church, where his funeral was held this past Saturday.

Despite his agonizing death – Wolford had refused medical help, choosing to battle the venomous attack from home as he had done many times before – and the similar death of his serpent-handling father nearly 30 years ago. Wolford's mother indicated to The Washington Post that her faith had not been shaken.  "It's still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says," Vicie Hicks Haywood told the publication days after witnessing her son's death.  --Washington Post
__________________________
Do you admire such staunch belief?  I do not.  I consider it the height of pride and/or greed to maintain a belief without question.
Those in America today who are anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-climate change consensus, anti-stem cell research, anti-neuroscience, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-government because they are stuck in their firm, rigid religious or political beliefs are exemplars of faithlessness.  
Those religionists or politicos who believe in the divinity or infallibility of images, words, doctrines, organizations, books, formula, theories are exemplars of faithlessness.  
Faith is the desire to subject one's beliefs to critique.  It is the willingness to be swayed by evidence and ongoing inquiry. It is the readiness to transcend oneself and one's products. It is openness to the infinite.  
Faith is active and requires no deus-ex-machina drop from the heavens to solve our problems.  Those who think we can waste the earth and its resources without consequences because someone else or God will help us, are faithless.  But so are those who believe in inevitable progress without limits and the ultimate perfectability of humankind waiting at the end of the rainbow.   
Faith is engagement with others to know as much as possible about a problem, to test projected solutions, to eventually solve the problem though the application of reasonable and reason-filled human labor, and to consider the new problems that have emerged with the solution.
While faith requires no miracles, it makes them happen.  Since imagination, inquiry, insight, and judgment invites new possibilities never before imagined and so break the predictable patterns of nature.  Hope requires faith as does love.
Being faithful requires seeing the inadequacy of these very words.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The End is Near.

Well if the Singularity is near (see 6/7/12 blog), what about the End? A friend once told me, "someday one of those prophets with the signs 'Repent, the End of the World is Coming!' will be right."

There are some very disquieting predictions from some very smart and cautious scientists that humankind is about to do itself in.  A few days ago, a study by 21 scientists was published in Nature that indicated that Earth is pretty close to the tipping point when you measure its energy budget, its extreme shift in weather patterns, its lost biodiversity.  Approaching a state-shift in Earth's Biosphere demonstrates through scientific theories, paleontologic data, and ecosystem modeling that the planet's ecosystems are nearing an immanent, irreversible collapse.  The landscape of Cormack McCarthy's The Road comes to mind.

This is not new.  The World3 Computer Model developed over 30 years ago and updated in 2004 shows how, based on present trends in population, energy use, loss of arable land, industrialization, and pollution, there will be a sharp free fall in food, arable land, industrial output, and population beginning around 2040 (depending where you put the policy year, technology development, and initial non-renewable resources).

What does our ethical and political theory say about this?

I think it says: question the science, improve the models through new models, check and dispute the outcomes through evidence, but take it seriously.  Don't just reject the science out of hand because you don't want to hear it.  (See my next blog about the anti-science, anti-faith true believers.) A lot of politically disinterested and highly educated scientists, enough to indicate a consensus are providing us with a warning.  It would be stupid or insane to simply dismiss this warning as it would be for the warning of a hurricane or tornado.

It also says: know our own interests and how they may muddle the clarity of our hearing.  If you are a conservationist dedicated to the preservation of the earth, good for you--but know that this may influence you to accept the conclusion of the earth in danger without question.  If you are a business person dedicated to creating jobs for people, good for you--but know that this may influence you to miss the conclusion that calls for a shift to cover the true costs of doing business.  You may be a Republican in league with the oil companies and find it hard to accept that we have surpassed peak oil.  You may be a Democrat in league with the alternate energy companies and find it hard to question that we have surpassed peak oil.  Try to listen and see from a more disinterested point of view.

It says learn from the past, but engage yourself in the future.  Learn from the pioneers in conservation like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Wendell Barry, even Richard Nixon who created the EPA.  But also learn from the industrial engineers who have been able to solve many problems in food supply and energy.  But that doesn't mean be stuck in the past and its conventional wisdom that somehow everything will work out or conjure up fantasy--like my friend 40 years ago who worked with GE and countered my caution about nuclear energy with "not to worry; in ten years we will have found a solution to nuclear waste."

It says: recognize that we are all in this together including past, present, and future generations.  The flippancy of saying "don't worry, it will affect some but not me" or "by the time this becomes a problem we will have transited to other planets" is an act of anti-love against present generations, an act of un-faith in the generations before us, but more an act of despair and disdain for our grandchildren and theirs.

It says: reorder our values.  Economic growth with increasing production and consumption is important, but not as important as preserving the earth as the very condition of our existence, not as important as improving our capacity to know, love, and create beauty.

Our multi-tensioned theory for ethics and politics also indicates that we should stop blaming and take responsibility for the integrity of our relations to our selves, our communities, our world, our history and our future.

In specific, the responsibility that arises from my understanding of the moral structure of humanity in our present situation impels me to foster conservation, support the investment in renewable energy, advocate for new urbanism and the preservation of arable land, rain forests, and the seas, promote responsible child bearing and birth control, advance polices to contain the emission of carbons and other pollutants, and encourage the science and technology of producing food, water, energy in sync with the present ways of the earth.

Whether we dismiss or humor or accept the doomsday sayers, let's at least let them recall us to think about the fragile limits and the wondrous capacities of human existence and its enterprise.  And act.

My Cousin Vinnie

My cousin Vinnie has a beam in his eye. yet he is always telling others to get the splinters out of theirs.

He lives pretty comfortably in retirement mainly with rents from or sales of his many houses and with savings and his VA Health Care. He worked hard and spent 2 years inactive service in the military. And he attacks those who need a hand from food stamps or rent subsidy or unemployment insurance or income supplement. He feels he is paying for these freeloaders out of his high taxes and that isn't fair. It doesn't help that so many of them are black or Hispanic, even illegal.

He calls himself a conservative, but he isn't. Conservatives start with history and respect tradition and human values. He forgets how much his ancestors paid to subsidize the railroads and the robber barons in the 19th century who were granted land that belonged to the Indians to both build their tracks and to sell for commerce that helped open the West for the real estate investment from which he profited. He forgets how much we all paid for FHA and other housing programs that he used to buy and sell homes. He forgets how much we all paid for the roadways and waterways that made his land and housing valuable. Much less fire, police, and public health. He also forgets the GI Bill and VA that allowed a whole generation including him to get an education and prosper so they could get the homes he bought and sold. He also forgets the sacrifice of working men who organized to get a sustenance wage, end child labor, and ensure safe working conditions.  He only knows the "freeloaders" responsible for a pittance of the national budget compared to the billions for subsidies, insurances, and tax breaks for large farmers and for corporations, their CEOs and investors.

Cousin Vinnie is a self made man. He really thinks he did it all by himself.

But then again maybe he doesn't. Maybe he really knows how much he has been given by society through government programs and feels guilty.  Often what people protest too much about in someone else's character trait or perceived failing, they are seeing in themselves.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Metamorphosis

This morning I woke up and discovered myself to be a Conservative.  I tried going back to sleep to see if things would be back to normal when I woke again.  But no, just like Gregor in Kafka's Metamorphosis, I was hopelessly changed--or perhaps like the bug that Gregor became, I just saw what I already was.

How could this student of Saul Alinsky and Michael Harrington, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr for Civil Rights and with Jane Fonda against the War in Vietnam, devotee of the economics of Galbraith, Stiglitz, and Krugman possibly be a conservative.  But I have been reading the Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk (see note below) and What is a Conservative by John Kekes, both classical works by conservatives, for conservatives, about conservatives mostly.

And generally in their definition, with few exceptions, I classify myself a conservative.  I hold dear a respect for tradition to avoid hasty and imprudent innovation, an acknowledgment of a transcendent in humanity to avoid relativism in human affairs, an acceptance of the necessity of the State to protect and to support people against evil, an acceptance of the need for mores, laws, and rules to limit the human propensity to evil, an affirmation of the importance of personal property in extending the human individual, a respect for diversity and differences in humans and the importance of groups or even factions, including associations and publics.

I would argue that while I am a conservative in the tradition of a Burke, Kirk, and Kekes, I am NOT a conservative in the tradition of the so-called "neo-conservatives" like Cheney and Rumsfeld nor of those who ran as "radical conservatives" in the Republican presidential primary election.  Bachmann, Santorum, Gigrinch, Romney, and Paul, would be disowned by Kirk and Kekes.

Kekes certainly separates himself from libertarian, absolutist, fideist conservatives.  "Moderate skepticism about general theories in politics; pluralism about traditions, values, and conceptions of a good life; traditionalism; and pessimism about human perfectibility and the eradication of evil jointly define the version of conservatism that is the best alternative to its chief contemporary rivals: liberalism and socialism."

Liberalism is classically a faith in the unrestricted free market; and in the US a liberal is often identified as a defender of dependence on government.  Socialism is often defined as government ownership and control of property and/or democracy as mass rule (under a party or faction).  In no way, will I classify myself as a liberal or socialist under those definitions.

The ethics and politics, for which I have been articulating a theory, I suppose could be classified as liberal or progressive in that it affirms that evil can be overcome, that humanity can progress and even achieve a glimpse of infinity through the use of inquiry, insight, and reason, that true belief is an evil to be overcome including a religion or politics that holds any words, formula, document, image, or organization as divine or infallible, that humans are individuals in association and create publics and states to foster human development, that all humans have dignity that should be protected by the community, and that the future is always calling to rebellion, innovation, and transformation.

But my ethics and politics should also be classified as conservative in that it affirms the human propensity to evil as well as to good, that society can be oppressive to human differences and individuality, that individuals often have to rebel against society's oppression, that the past is always with us and must be respected and its understandings and values restored, that a mass society absorbs individuals and destroys human creativity and ingenuity, that beliefs and prescriptions while always to be questioned are to be respected for how they developed and for their function in assisting human preservation, that there is no freedom without limits, boundaries, regulations, and most of all that there is in human existence a transcendent or invariable structure on which to base a universal ethic and one's personal conscience.

As for me personally I do tend to the progressive optimistic side of life as well as having a sense of irony in all human affairs.  I have always worked for democratic social change against racism, sexism, nationalism and will not let the value of human diversity be a rationalization for exploitation or for needless suffering.  Also I have never met a Conservative with a sense of humor, the likes of Stewart and Colbert, or Woody Allen and George Carlin, or Mark Twain and Will Rogers.  Conservatives seem oh so serious and while they constantly poke fun at "liberals," hardly ever poke fun at themselves.  It is the "true believer" aspect, the "righteousness" in them, as well as in some liberals too, that I can't stand.

So what kind of insect did I awake as this morning?  Like Gregor I hope to enjoy it for a time even though others may not.

_____

Note:  Kirk in the tradition of Edmund Burke identifies six elements of the Conservative's belief:

1) There is a transcendent order, a body of divine or natural law, that is invariable and accessible to conscience.  This opposes relativity in the moral order and the notion that the State is not ordained by God or Nature.
2) There are a variety of humans with different capacities.  This opposes radical egalitarianism--or economic leveling.
3) There are traditional orders or classes in human society.  This argues against a mass society where everybody has the same due or political leveling and contempt for tradition.
4) Property is connected to freedom and is the extension of the individual.  Without private property Leviathan rules.  This argues against all property held in common.
5) Prescription, e.g. specific and concrete laws, rules, commandments are important.  This argues against the abstract sophistry of academic economists.
6) Change is often destructive.  Prudence is the statesman's chief virtue. This argues against hasty innovation and revolution and the perfectibility of man or unlimited progress.



Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Singularity

Stephen Hawking introduced me to the Singularity in his Brief History of Time.  The Big Bang when the universe began and a Black Hole when a star collapses totally into its own gravity are moments when the curvature of space-time and density is infinite and the laws of physics no longer apply.  They are instances of a Singularity.  If the universe were to reverse its expansion and under the force of gravity begin to pull itself together, it would end in a Singularity, the event of the Big Crunch where the density of space-time is infinite and space-time is no longer.

Ray Kurzweil takes the notion of the Singularity, the event that transcends any limitations, and applies it to human development.  The acceleration of knowledge and technology, including genetic and neuronic mapping and modification, is moving the species to a new evolutionary stage beyond biology.  Just as physics is coming to the realization that the universe itself is simply an organization and projection of information, so knowledge is a selection that information for the purpose of finding or fashioning patterns of information with and upon which we can act.  In other words, we are extending intelligence into the universe and can keep doing this indefinitely through the creation of self-replicating, non biological intelligence.

This Singularity in human development transcends biology through the use of human-made computing devices first implanted into and then possibly replacing organic brains and so extending human life itself indefinitely.  But Kurzweil insists that while this artificial intelligence transcends biology, it does not transcend humanity.  What we are becoming is more fully, more perfectly human.  He quotes philosopher Max More as describing the goal of humanity as a transcendence to be "achieved through science and technology steered by human values" and cautions against a passivity which neglects current issues relating to human culture, economy, society, and politics.

Well, that indeed is the question, isn't it?  What is this constant called "humanity" that is not transcended while biology is?  What are the "human values" that will steer the advancement of science and technology into the Singularity?  What makes the human life that will be extended indefinitely "human"?

Another way of putting the question is:  Just as the Singularity in physics is the point where physical laws no longer apply, is the Singularity of human evolution beyond biology the point where the laws of human nature no longer apply?

I have posed a model of human existence which consists of an embodied intelligence that achieves knowledge through models.  In science (and one could argue in art, religion, language, love, politics, and other cultural forms), models are increasingly abstract but are rooted in symbols, metaphors, intermediating images that select information and pattern it for its use in dealing with the environment. Symbolic interaction is a definition of human existence and has some general, universal characteristics which I have described in the four tensions of temporality, spatiality, sociality, and transcendence which are akin to Kant's a priori categories.

Since the imagination, the symbol producing capacity of the human body, and consciousness, the awareness of the body projecting itself through symbolic interaction, are so fundamental to human existence, it is difficult for me to understand how human nature can exist beyond biology.  Descartes, of course, launched a philosophical tradition of a disembodied mind (ghost in a machine) and a split between idealism and empiricism which Kant, French phenomenology, and American pragmatism attempted to close.  And religious spiritualists have throughout history proposed a pure soul that needs to free itself from impure flesh.

This of course is not what the Singularitarians are proposing.  Perhaps uploading a neuronic diagram into an indestructible or at least repairable bionic machine with enhanced DNA might do since mind is not then disembodied.  But I have doubts.

To me the question is: Would the tensions, with all their limitations of space, time, other persons, and concrete objectivity, still be in play.  Would the newly evolved/manufactured species still be in struggle between tradition and innovation, between interiority and exteriority, between individualism and community, between the world/universe as it is and the way it might be?  Another way of putting it:  Would it still be necessary to learn from the ignorance of understanding and the fallacies of judgment?  Would it still be necessary to overcome the unthinking reaction of idolatry and the dazzling blindness of iconoclasm, the despair of reality and the fantasy of utopia?  Would it still be important to wrestle with self-actualization while including all other selves?  Would it still be advantageous to accept our limits so that we could use them for continually achieving our humanity in all its finitude.

Humanity, the biological form that has achieved the ability to know itself and the universe through symbolic interaction, ceases to be when there are no limits, no finiteness, no matter, no body.  If the Singularity so transcends biology that human existence with all its tensions no longer exists, it is indeed the passing of humanity.  And while I trust that the new life form will at least remember us by subsuming while surpassing all the knowledge that led to its being, I cannot help from grieving.

Tomorrow: the New Totalitarianism

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Momentous Decisions


What do I hope to get out of my thinking about ethics and my proposal of a universal ethical model?  Some guidance, some ways of asking the right questions as we go forward.  Yes, there are still important concerns about birth control, euthanasia, crime and punishment, homosexual unions, racial and sexual equality, role of government and taxation, hypocrisy in religion and politics, which are both personal and policy issues that we need to think about.  But these are trivial when compared to some of the momentous decisions that we as a life form face.

1. Neuroscientists have been able to draw the diagram of brain wiring in mice and will soon do so in humans just as biologists have with DNA.  Neuro-implants are being designed not only to make up for deficiencies, but to magnify capacities.  Shall we march toward the “Singularity” in which we extend life and power indefinitely through biological engineering and mechanical technology as described by Ray Kurzweil? 

2. How do we respond to the new “totalitarianism” which, unlike governmental controlled 20th century fascism, bolshevism, and populism, is established in our centralizing systems of finance and commerce and our culture of economic and technological growth as described by Morris Berman and the stark, growing division between rich and poor as described by Joseph Stiglitz? 

3. How shall we deal with (or prevent) the economic and ecological collapse predicted by the World3 modelers?  

4. How do we structure our living spaces to promote what is best in us while preserving the very conditions of our survival as told by Jeb Brugmann?  

5. How do we prevent the decline of stagnant political institutions (which we are now witnessing in our polarized politics and weakened governance structures) as analyzed by Francis Fukuyama?  

6. And is there any room for transcendence or openness to spirit in our fast-expanding entropic, informational, holographic universe?  

Tomorrow I start with #1, the approaching Singularity.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Meditation on Evil

Evil is an adjective or predicate used to describe an action, event, belief, or person.  When describing an action (or practice, behavior, policy) that we disapprove of, we usually use the word "bad" comparing it to other actions. When describing an event (or situation, happening, accident), we might use "harmful" focussing on its effects on us or others. When describing a belief (or thought, doctrine, philosophy), evil is usually equivalent to "mistaken" and is relative to other beliefs. When it describes a person or group, evil is usually interchangeable with "wicked." Just think of the wicked witch of the west.

When we name a person or a society as "evil," that is much stronger than "wicked." Describing people, groups of people, actions, and doctrines as "evil" takes on a more absolute "in itself" meaning. Indeed, calling a person (e.g. an executive or politician) "evil," just because we disagree with that person or her policies and judge them harmful to ourselves and others trivializes the meaning and reality of evil. (E.g. calling George Bush "evil" because he started unnecessary wars or calling the USSR "the evil empire" or naming capitalism as an evil economic system.)

With the advent of monotheism, evil became a mystery, i.e. unexplainable.  A whole branch of theology arose to articulate this mystery.  Theodicy inquires how an all-good God can allow evil in the world, especially if He is all-powerful.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How could God command his chosen people to commit holy wars, genocide, human sacrifice, capital punishment?  How can he allow slavery, oppression, child abuse, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes that wipe out thousands of men, women, and especially children?

Many stories were developed to account for, if not explain, evil in the world. Before monotheism, evil was simply a part of nature and attributed to how the world was formed including the cutting of Tiamat (chaos) by Marduk, the battles of gods, the tricks of Coyote.   Dualism, e.g. Manichaeism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, responded with an absolute evil principle in contention with an absolute good principle Light and Darkness, Matter and Spirit, or the shadow or dark side of the Force, the feminine and masculine dimension of God.

The main myth in monotheism is that of the Fall of angels and of men through disobedience and rebellion.  This is the story of free will that God gave to the highest creatures in His creation to make them more like Him.  It is they, not God, that brings evil into the world. Evil is not something at all.  It is the absence of Being.  [We saw earlier how monotheism supports a hierarchically organized State, which can brook no disobedience or rebellion, in opposition to tribal societies or feudal chieftains each with their own mythic ancestors and gods.]

There is also the philosophic/scientific myth of a developing or process God in or identified with an evolving Nature and of the contention established by the three laws of thermodynamics, entropy in an expanding, self-contained Universe.

The best treatment of evil is found in literature, even beyond the religious and philosophic myths. Think of Jago in Othello, Judge Holden in Blood Meridian, Anton Chigurth in No Country for Old Men, Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Satan in Paradise Lost, Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs, Francis Urquhart in House of Cards. Master Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Villains without parallel. So unlike "sinners" as in Graham Green novels the flawed characters in John Updike, Elmore Leonard, Saul Bellow, none of which are beyond redemption.

Indeed do villains really exist?  In comic books there are personifications of absolute evil. But in real life, and in the best literature, even those cited above, it is much more ambiguous. The only unforgivable sin in Catholic teaching is despair, the sin against the Holy Ghost, the belief that one is beyond (including having no need of) redemption because of one or more of the seven deadly or mortal sins. Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus who finally gets punishment for his horrible deeds at the end says: "If one good Deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very Soule."


But even here evil is not absolute or inevitable.  Up through death itself, there is the possibility of a new event in which truth and good reveals itself.  And a society founded on slavery, even oppression and genocide, admits of redeeming qualities and can change as is evident by the existence and especially the victories of rebels and resisters to practices recognized almost universally as evil.


However, in reviewing Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil" as she witnessed the judgment of Adolf Eichmann and in considering Slobodan Milosovich's accusation and now Charles Taylor's conviction of "crimes against humanity" by the international court, we might understand how we can apply evil to a person and perhaps to a group or society without hyperbole and hypocrisy and thus look into evil's nature.


Because a person does bad things or even has a bad habit (i.e. vice), we do not accurately call that person evil.  It is only when that person's character is evil that we can say the person is evil; that is, like some of our villains above, his very way of being in the world is organized or constituted to do evil without compunction, without doubt, without thought. What made Eichmann so evil was not just the terrible system of actions in which he played such a leading bureaucratic role, but that he was satisfied, even comfortable, in his belief system and resulting actions because he really didn't think or care about what he was doing or the effects it had on others.


But to think, to doubt, to care about the moral quality of what one is doing implies that there is an objective standard that is universally accessible.  We have identified such a standard in the very structure of human existence of which we are aware in every conscious act unless we have suppressed, squeezed out, quieted that awareness.  We know that an act, a situation, a policy, a social order is evil if it oppresses, if it turns persons including us into things, objects, commodities to be means to other ends.  We know that an act, a situation, a policy, a social order is evil if it undermines our and others dignity, i.e. commits a crime against humanity.  But when we turn off the awareness of our act, policy, situation, and society by acting without making a responsible judgment because we refuse to think for whatever reason (greed, envy, pride, wrath, laziness), evil becomes irredeemable, unforgivable, even absolute.


Evil is the violation of our and others humanity.  It is the simplifying and reduction of the tensions of our existence so that we forget our past, are careless about our future, reduce the self to an object, and close ourselves to the world as it is, denying our capacity to question, think, and learn.


The story of the Fall along with the story of the two sides of God so well depicted by John Milton and George Lucas is a foundational myth for the American religion showing both the progressive perfectibility and conservative violent tensions in human existence.  It is expressed in many denominational religions as a struggle between sin and grace, yin and yang, angels and demons, light and shadow, destiny and freedom.  This tension can be explained through evolutionary psychology and neuroscience as a fundamental division and competition within thehuman brain.  Indeed the norm is for the tension to exist and the abnormal or psychotic state is the absence of the tension and its struggle.


And so is this the new myth as to how evil came into the world:


Human existence as we have evolved (or were created, if you will) is presence--being here, now, with. It is in the present, in every conscious act of engaging others in our world, that we are also present to who we are (our real) and who we would like to be (our ideal), that is, our fundamental humanity and the humanity of all with whom we are engaged in our evolved violent as well as our evolving empathic nature.  In every act of engaging others in the world we are also deciding our fundamental orientation, how we are wiring our brains, how we are organizing our existence.


It is not a question of having correct or incorrect answers or of having good or bad intentions. Rather it is a question of learning from mistakes and being intentional. The word for sin in Greek means "mistake": the arrow missing the mark. Humans make mistakes, all miss the mark,  intentions will probably never be totally pure, humans have and will hurt others and themselves. But when they are cruel, when they violate others' humanity, when they violate the earth and the very conditions of human existence, and at the same time they consciously choose unconsciousness, forego reflection, refuse to learn from mistakes, refuse to examine their intentions and actions, but instead hold on to beliefs despite evidence, claim righteousness and purity without doubt, deny responsibility, and never ask for forgiveness then humans are introducing evil into the world and into their very existence.


So do we look for the nature of evil in our very existence? The capacity to bring evil into the world is intertwined with the capacity to bring good. It is the same capacity to imagine, to think, to know, to judge, and to act--aware of itself. It is the capacity to use symbols. To eat of the tree of knowledge, i.e. to achieve self-consciousness, a rebellious act, is to bring evil and good into the world and know their difference.