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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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Part 8: Artful Thinking

When I watch the Alvin Ailey Dancers, I am totally in the dance. I feel myself encircling the earth, carving out space, defying gravity, entwined with other bodies, flying the notes of the music. Sometimes I realize my muscles are twitching in union with the dancers.

I recently attended the Wyatt exhibition at the National Art Museum. Viewing his paintings, I found myself withdraw to oversee the total composition, then moving in closely to examine each brush stroke, and backing up again with a feeling of aloneness, loneliness, and mystery.

Jazz and blues are my favorite music types. We loved going to the Monterey Jazz Festival; now and then we attend a session on U Street. But even when I am just listening to my digitalized music at home, I feel the guitarist fingers, I exhaust the trumpeters breath, I tap with the drummer. I am part of the tempo.

I read a lot and when I am fully engrossed, I know I have stepped on the roller coaster climbing and falling on tracks that the author has laid. I am no longer myself. I have taken on the author's style and intention and perspective. I am inventing with her and I am crying with him. I am in touch with her being--not as an object expressed, but as a person expressing.

Art shapes space, travels time, and acts with others. It plunges us into the world as it is and stretches us towards the new world becoming. The notion of "art" is connected to "artifice," "artifact," "artificial." In Greek, poetry (poesis) is making. The artist is a technician. And in the making of artifacts, the artist knows and presents a world.

All art is thinking. All thinking is art. Religion, science, technology, building construction, urban planning are conscious of the design and form and style of its presentation and product; they link themselves to or consider themselves as works of art. Some we judge better or worse for our time and taste. Some popular, some elitist, some vulgar. Some art portrays the ugly, the horrific, the evil; but all intends the beautiful.

It became a joke when I would ponder out loud in hiking Yosemite or driving a hilly Maryland countryside or viewing the Chicago skyline from Adler Planetarium "what makes all that so beautiful."

They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and define it as "that which experienced pleases" (quod videm placet). But why does it please? We are meaning seekers and pattern makers which evolved with our capacity to think. When we place and find a pattern in the disorder and confusion of our experience of our environment, we also experience our selves with meaning and beauty. Beauty is the fractal in chaos theory.

The self-patterning of the universe in our dance with it.


Part 7: Thinking Religiously

Karen Armstrong's new book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is a good place to start thinking about religious thinking.

Here she traces traditional religions of East and West to show their complex relationship to assassination, war, massacre, genocide, terror, revolution, suicide bombing and other forms of violence. Religion, she shows, does not cause violence and is frequently unconnected to violent acts. Yes, at times it is used to promote, even sanctify, violence. But it is more often used to promote peace and neighborly love.

She is especially critical of those who say that Islam or any religion is inherently violent and that the world would be better off without religion. Such an attitude might even promote the violence that the anti-religious are trying to minimize. She has plenty to say about how American and European interventions based on their quasi-religious concepts or their characterization of non-Christian religions have induced blow-back and other violent reactions in Islamic countries.

Instead of indicting religions, she shows that if you really want to know how violence happens, check out changes in the economy and the political supports and structures of that economy. In the change from hunting-gathering to an agricultural economy, bounded territory, land ownership, and surplus produce became prime movers of empires ruled by force with classes maintained by force. The industrial economy and the rise of big cities led to nation-states which are monopolies of the means of violence and to the violences we experience today.

Armstrong uses "religion" in various ways to make her points. Indeed as is often the case, the concept of religion is different for the pro and anti-religionist. Religion is a complex phenomenon and concept that we need to think about especially in relation to war and peace, violence and non-violence. I find five meanings to the concept and offer a fifth for consideration.

1. The traditional religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) are what a historian or anthropologist discovers by examining their institutions, writings, rituals, actions, and their development. This is mainly what Armstrong means when she denies that religion is the cause of violence.

2. Religion as a psychological phenomenon.  Belief in or sensing spirits or supernatural phenomenon have been studied by neuroscientists and psychologists. And there is also the idea of the holy, the feeling of ecstasy, the witness or hearing of a divine being, the sense of wholeness and meaningfulness that observers have described in themselves or in founders of religions or religious orders. Armstrong cites Chris Hedges, former war correspondent, who witnessed the ecstasy of the warrior martyr killing and dying for his mission, cause, and people.

3. Modern religion, after the Enlightenment, the rise of science and mechanistic technology, the rise of republicanism, and the new industrial state where the sacred is separate from the secular and Church is separate from State. Modernization movements occurred within and outside traditional religions and their churches to apply rational thought, to adjusts religious doctrine to new science, to accommodate secular society. But counter movements of the "old time religion" fought to retain orthodoxy, to maintain fundamentals, and to condemn secular humanism. Armstrong indicates that in a sense there was no "religion" before modern times, because what what we call religion today was simply an aspect of all human live, activity, and being.

4. Religion as culture. Armstrong's treatise suggests to me a more inclusive and probably more abstract model for understanding religion. Three desires of humanity are to survive, to act, and to know. These make up the drives to life, to power, and to meaning and are associated with the three realms of human existence: economy, the realm of production and consumption to fulfill life's needs; politics, the realm of communal action where persons achieve respect as doers; and culture, the realm in which meaning is sought, discovered, and experienced. The desire to know and the search for meaning is built into our ability to think. We make and find that meaning in organizing the environment through symbols--through language, through science, through art, and through religion with its narratives and rituals and teachings that give to all of us the reason to keep on searching, expressing, and relating to others in the process.

Using this model of culture, religion is not an option unless we would cease to be human. Religion is the story, vision, or model that unites and relates all there is. It is what gives meaning to our personal lives and our political economy. That is why there are both household gods and devotions and public gods and ceremonies. That is why the divine right of kings moved civilization from feudalism to nation-states. That is why Max Weber could connect Calvinism to Capitalism. Art expresses that meaning and science refines it. And philosophy critiques artistic, scientific, and religious expression so that it becomes more inclusive and is also adapted to changing material and social environments. As Armstrong points out, even atheists and secularists, capitalists and socialists, peacemakers and warriors have narratives of meaning that "sanctify" their actions. And an important element in changing behavior and institutions is rewriting the narratives that give them meaning.

5. Religion as transcendence.  In thinking, there is the objective focal experience of the environment as it is being patterned by categories/symbols; and there is the immediate background experience of consciousness in tune with other consciousnesses. Consciousness is the awareness of our bodies in symbolic activities, engaging in the world with others. Consciousness is intentional, that is, in process in space, time, and community, between the world as I find it and the world as I think it should be. The "should" comes from the intentional and directional dynamism of my thinking existence. In other words since I select, refine, and use the categories to make my world and with others to make our world, I/we are able to respond. That is, I/we are responsible.

This responsibility requires that we not get caught in our categories (e.g. stereotypes). It requires that we constantly renew and revise or refine our categories with the help of other thinkers. It requires that we do not use our categories to hold back or oppress others, but rather to challenge them and ourselves to do better, to solve the problems that our old categories are causing, to reach for the patterns that will put all of us together within our common world through science, art, and philosophy, The climbing across boundaries and moving beyond the obstacles that we have created is the definition of "transcendence." It can be encountered and experienced in our thinking selves.

Indicating and articulating the transcendence of every person, facilitating transcendence in ourselves and in others, joining with others in their acts of transcendence in art, science, speech, and social action, respecting the particular ways that they do the dance of life by letting ourselves undergo their style of celebrating their world is religious thinking in our postmodern world.

Violence may be necessary in the world as it is, but it excised from the world as we would like it to be. Violence, as Karen Armstrong demonstrates, is a fixture in human history. Violence is rooted in human nature and nurture. We are a violent species. But through thinking we are also a species that can change itself,

Thinking religiously is thinking about thinking as passing beyond and going across the limits of the artifacts that we use to be in the world. Thinking religiously is recognizing that every human artifact, including symbols, rituals, beliefs, doctrines, words, books, and institutions are transitory and must never be considered ultimate or absolute. Thinking religiously is neither demonizing or deifying religion and its expressions but accepting religious thinking as the drive for meaning that supports human life and community.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Part 9. The Delight of Thinking

(Postscript: I assign this essay as part 9 of my "thinking on thinking" series; part 7 will be "thinking religiously" and part 8 "thinking sexually.")

I came across a quote by one of my favorite philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche. It was in the forward to a book he was writing called the Will to Power. He said (my translation): "This is a book for thinking, nothing more. It's for those for whom thinking is a delight, nothing more."

That quote sums up what I am doing here. I don't expect to be widely read. Nor do I expect to save the world. And it seems my expectations are being met. But I do delight in thinking. And in a sense there is nothing more.

From my study of thinking from Kant to Hoffstatter, I draw these provisional conclusions:

  1. Thinking is a constructive activity by which humans, personally and socially, adapt to their environments by creating their world.
  2. In human development, thinking evolved in the nervous system centered in the neocortex brain as a life-advantaging capacity to anticipate danger and plan for changing environments.
  3. Thinking is corporeal by which human bodies use sounds, images, lines, and motions to impose and find patterns in their experiences of the environment. 
  4. The artifacts or constructs of thinking are categories, analogies, models, ideas, names, words, concepts, forms, beliefs, formulas, reasons, conclusions, mind-maps, or, as I prefer to call them all, symbols.
  5. Thinking is spatial. In thinking there is the focal experience of the environment as it is patterned; and there is the background experience of the body that is patterning the environment through symbols. Consciousness is the name we give to the sense of inner existence (the body experiencing itself in symbolic activity) apart from outer reality (the body or things being experienced through symbols). This two-pronged experience gives rise to the illusion of mind or spirit as separate or separable from the body or matter.
  6. Thinking is social. Symbolic behavior is interactive, i.e. between and among human bodies. We need each other to think. Symbols are learned and formed in a social milieu, in communication. In communication through symbols, there is dual experience; the inner sense of the self in sync with other selves and the outer experience of things in the world that appear in the symbolic interaction. The appearance of others as both acting selves and as objective bodies in the world gives rise to the illusion of the individual detached from others or a society without individuality.
  7. Thinking is temporal. Symbols are remembered to be used again, that is, refined, expanded, and offered for future use. In thinking there is a sense of transience of both the constructed symbols and the body symbolizing. In the immediate present with the evidence as structured, the symbol is confirmed as the reality, the thing-in-itself, the answer to the question for all times and places. This give rise to the illusion of the absolute.
  8. Thinking is intentional. It is consciousness directed outwards to the world and inwards to mind, backwards to the past and forwards to the future, detached as individual and relating to others. To think is to continually push beyond the boundaries of space, time, and community by questioning the previous answers, redesigning the previous models, redefining the previous words; and thus experiences its transcendence. 
  9. Thinking is acting. Humans come to terms with their environment through symbols; humans engage with each other to form their environments into the world they live, act, and have meaning through symbols. The categories humans use to know the world are the categories they use to act in the world. 
  10. The self-awareness of symbolic activity as thinking is consciousness; the self-awareness of symbolic activity as acting is conscience. Conscience is symbolic activity aware of its intentionality, that is, its tension between past and future, inner and outer, self and others and so the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. Thinking implies personal morality and social action. A theory of thinking implies an ethics and politics. Humans choose what is good and what is bad, what is to be done and what is to be avoided, based on their sense of direction. 
  11. The illusions of thinking are obstacles to knowing truth and avoiding fallacy and to doing good and avoiding evil. Thinking has within itself (in its ability to loop back upon itself) the ability to dispel the illusions and overcome the obstacles to transcendence.
  12. Since the world is the product of human thinking and action, humans should take responsibility for the world they are creating and not shift blame or power outside themselves. The "should" or "ought" comes from the intentionality of human existence through thinking aware of itself.
  13. There are three intentions in human existence: the desire to live, to act, and to know; or in other words, the drives to life, power, and meaning. These drives correspond to three realms of human existence: economy, the realm of production and consumption; politics, the realm of constituting community by acting in concert; and culture, the realm of religious, artistic, and scientific expression and knowledge. For each of these drives and their realms to transcend and achieve goodness they must be thoughtful; that is objective, self-critiquing, problem-solving, inclusive of others, acknowledging limits, and oriented to future possibilities. 
  14. Thinking is a moral imperative. The real and the ideal is what we think it to be.
I know I will be going back to this list. I will add references to the studies that produced these statements. I will try to explain them in more common usage language. I will correct them with more precision. I will respond to questions concerning each of them. I will try to clear up the misapprehensions, deal with the apparent inconsistencies, and defend the violations of conventional thinking and common sense that I seem to be guilty of. After all, in my thinking of thinking, I am using categories, metaphors, analogies, and symbols that need to be continually questioned and revised.

To end this reflection I return to Nietzsche. I delight in thinking and in getting others to delight in thinking with me. Thinking is the activity by which we become human, by which we create ourselves and our world. It is the way to transform our economy, our politics, and our culture so that they promote our existence which is also our transcendence. There is nothing more.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Part 6: Thinking politically

Cousin Vinnie has helped me understand that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who think that there are two kinds of people in the world and those who do not.

He likes to put people on the sides of some sort of Apocalyptic football game: good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, the righteous and progressives, his people and my people. It's natural to use categories to think. In fact, we've seen that it is downright necessary. The problem occurs when we get stuck in our categories.

Scientists use models which are sophisticated categories and analogies to understand the universe. When those categories stop being useful to further explanation or to resolve inconsistencies among formerly useful models, scientists seek to fashion other more inclusive models. Some of these models may have implications that seem to violate common sense, like the earth going around the sun or waves being particles. But we eventually incorporate these models into our common worldview. That is the fruit of education--remaking our models.

It is also the fruit of politics--free assemblies of folk entertaining other world views, those that stress tradition and those that push innovation, those that are more aggressive and those that are more cautionary, those that protect individual choice and those that promote common good, those that see the state as a necessary evil that must be controlled by "the best" (or the richest) and those that see the state as an instrument of an unfettered, uncontrolled people. And so on and so on in various combinations. Politics is an ongoing examining and refashioning of models for living, working, and thinking together.

A condition for politics, or at least democratic or republican styles of politics, is a desacralizing of political ideas (and I would argue all ideas). That practically, if not theoretically, denies a metaphysical realism that makes some of us right and some of us wrong because we have achieved, whether by enlightened education or religious revelation or national exceptionalism, the real truth as it really is if we just look at it in an unbiased, trans-perspective way. Politics requires that we all have biases and perspectives and that ideas are human constructs, tools by which we try to adapt to each other in our environment.

There is no politics if we get stuck in our categories in a winner take all game with absolute, unchanging rules. There is no politics when we dismiss thought by naming someone as evil, or communist, or alien. There is no politics when we let professional pundits and politicians and parties determine policy. There is no politics when we blame them thus shifting responsibility outside ourselves. There is no politics when we are not open to analyzing how things got this way, how our categories keep us stuck in old problems, and how new models might solve them.

Thanks, Cousin Vinnie, for helping me see that.

Would that you and the people on your side could! (Oops, just kidding!)