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Friday, July 31, 2015

Mission Recall

"If its worth doing, its worth doing badly." GK Chesterton.

Now and then, usually then, but now now, I feel the need to review my mission in life. Ah! the insecurity of aging.

Social ethics is my game--another name for politics with a small "p." And ethics and politics are part of another small "p" word--philosophy. All philosophy, Wittgenstein said, is criticism of language. But more, it is criticism of all symbolic expressions of which language is but one. And most of all, philosophy is critical reflection on the activity of symbolic expression or thinking from the inside-out.

So philosophy of mind in dialogue with cognitive neuroscience becomes my way to understand and practice ethics and politics in my/our situation. That is my project. It involves acting where I can in the world to build community; it involves thinking and expressing my thoughts to clarify them; and its involves dialogue with others who are also acting, thinking, and expressing in order to keep transforming our thoughts. One symphony with different movements playing off one another.

Thus these reflections in "Rollie's Blog."

I said that I write to clarify my thoughts and transcend them.  But I cannot deny that I put them out to others as a way to clarify and transcend. Perhaps, in my own desire for recognition, I imagine that someone will take these writings, edit them, and put them together into a useful publication to be passed on to the next generation. Perhaps even I will try to do so though I am a terrible editor. But then I realize that is not what is important.

What is important, I feel, is the activity itself of which I am but a part. This activity of "critical reflection on the activity of symbolic expression or thinking from the inside-out" is the uncovering of what it means to be human and what it should mean in all our behaviors. It is perceiving the origins and meaning of the person, the conscious self, of the communion with other conscious selves, of our common world of time and space, and of our transcendence of the symbolic expressions that constitute our world and our selves. This activity seeks to reveal what is of nature (evolved into our embrained bodies) and what is of culture (created by our symbolic activity) while recognizing that culture itself, (including its myths, narratives, languages, religions, arts, and sciences) is of nature. And this activity not only works from the outside-in; but also from the inside-out. It works from the analysis of expressions that reveal the conscious brain or mind. It also works from the common experience of transcending consciousness as it unfolds into the world of others through symbolic expression.

That is quite an enterprise. And I acknowledge that I am inadequate to the task. But then even if I were the greatest writer, philosopher, poet, scientist, and artist alive, I could not adequately express the experience and meaning of the human project. Critical, creative, transcending consciousness can never be captured in words or any art form.

But what I can do in my action in the world, in my dialogue about it with you and others, and in all these expressions is point. All these words and diagrams and images point to the conscious activity in all of us while we earn a living, act politically, raise a family, and reflect on our lives. They point to the direct, pre-symbolic, pre-thematic experience of our communion with each other and with nature  before we get caught up in our own artifacts: our words, our concrete trails and buildings, our ideologies, our dogmas, our money, our institutions, our truths, our domestic and foreign policies, our religions and moralities.

So while I will never reach the end of my project, I hope to participate with you and all my fellow travelers in the reaching for the goal of our human project. It's worth doing. Even badly.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Contemplation in Action

The more I study philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience, the more I realize the brilliance of St. Ignatius Loyola's ideal for his Jesuits as "contemplatives in action."

When we think of the contemplative tradition, we think hermits in the desert or monks praying and working in monasteries isolated from "the world." Contemplation implies interiority in solitude and communion with the divine. Action implies exteriority, that is, life in the cities, their governments and academies and market places. Action focuses on dealing with worldly people and matters.

Ignatius wanted his Jesuits to bring contemplation and action together. He wasn't the first. The Benedictines though still in monasteries would go out to help the poor. Franciscans found the divine in nature. Dominicans preached in churches and taught in academies. Ignatius wanted his companions to have a deep spirituality nurtured by the imagination of walking with Jesus towards the summit of Christ consciousness. But he wanted therm to go into the cities of the world, to their palaces, universities, and market places to imbue that imagination and consciousness in their interaction with the princes, the teachers, the clerics, the citizens, and especially the youth.

Contemplation is in tension with, but not in opposition to action. As philosophy of mind teaches consciousness emerges in activity in and intentionality to the world. There is no subjective experience without objectivity. Indeed the more we are focused on and given to the world, the higher consciousness manifests itself. Neuroscience shows that self-perception is only achieved in activity with others in the world. The "I" does not exist except through the "We" in concert with the universe.

The self and the other are illusions when you isolate and reify them. They are real only as poles of the dynamic tension of existence. When we treat them as real in isolation from one another in that dynamic tension, bad action with bad consequences occur. Here is the root of conflict and war, of fear and hatred of the other, of the abuse of the earth and her creatures, of domination and slavery, of stripping persons of equality and dignity, of loss of soul and power.

Yes, we must sometimes withdraw to a quiet place to attend to our spirit in order to charge ourselves in our mission to the world. Yet it is only in our action with and for others that our consciousness intensifies and our soul expands. These are but moments in the one movement to both spirit and world. "Immerse yourself in matter!" taught a much later Jesuit. For in the messiness of matter you will find your spirit.

The I/other tension of existence is named by John Briggs the "primal paradox." The paradox is is that for personal individuality and creativity to be, the person must contain and be contained by the "all else." The primal paradox is also the temporal paradox, the tension between past and future. There is no past and no future except in the now, the present. The good paleontologist, archeologist, and historian considers the traces of the past earth and of the ancestors now; and she weaves them into a story that explains the present. The good prophet, visionary, philosopher, theoretician bases his conjectures and predictions on and in the present. The ego and the world are here. The past and present are now.

And the primal paradox is also the reality paradox in which the real and the virtual are two poles of existence. The real is the virtual and the virtual the real since all is information communicating itself. Thus sayeth the philosophers Harborg and Rose: It is only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea, But it wouldn't be make believe, If you believed in me.

Ray Kurzweil (How to Create a Mind) reflects that western thought generally considers primary the physical universe from which evolves life and consciousness; and eastern thought recognizing the constructive nature of mind makes consciousness fundamental. Kurzweil says that both perspectives are true.  "Evolution can be viewed as a spiritual process in that it creates spiritual beings, that is, entities that are conscious. Evolution also moves to greater complexity, great knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and the ability to express more transcendent emotions, such as love."

Liberation theologians taught that the means towards creating a socially just world, one that embodies the ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity, and public happiness is what they called "conscientization," or critical consciousness, an in depth critique of the structures of the social order that hold people people back from achieving their higher consciousness of union with each other and nature.  Community organizers, public educators, and religious leaders learn that this consciousness can only occur through concerted and reflective action; that is, through power, which is the stuff of politics.

Contemplation in action. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Courage to Faith

Metzinger (Ego Tunnel) discusses the courage to face facts. By facts he means what we are learning through science about the evolution of the mind including the human construction of the world, of the self, of society, and of God. Each of these are brain induced illusions; although illusion is probably not the right word because it implies something bad. In my way of thinking, an illusion is only bad when we do not recognize it as an illusion.

The reality of the World, the Self, and of God is what Descartes tried to prove through his methodic doubt. For Kant these are, like space and time, transcendental ideas which, like necessary categories of quantity and causality, are preconditions of thought. Therefore Kant provides a kind of proof for their existence through the direct experience of thinking. Cultural anthropologists, however, have discovered cultural belief systems, which do not contain some or all of these categories and transcendental ideas or which modify them quite drastically. And neuroscience, following up on Kant and his successors' constructivist philosophy, blurs the line between the virtual and the real, between the artificial and the genuine, in demonstrating that categories and transcendental ideas are also constructions of the human organism as it interacts with its environment radiating information in waves and particles which the brain patterns as subjects and objects in a social world.

This understanding challenges the belief system of the conventional wisdom of western modernity by calling into question its claim of objective, immutable, resolute truth. It actually challenges all belief systems rural and urban, ancient and modern, tribal and civilized of the west, east, south, and north.

This understanding is unsettling for us old-timers who have come to believe in certain fixed realities. We anguish that being dismissed are the truths of liberty, sexuality, family, capitalism, religion, nation, race, ethnicity, privacy, meaning, and humanity itself. And some of us want to desperately hold on to truths contained in divinely dictated tablets, scrolls, and books, in infallible church dogmas, in teachings of ancestors, in enlightened positions of parties, in the authority of business and government leaders, in ordinary language and common sense. No wonder that certain people in our society like older white christian males in the west and tribal muslim males in the east are angry to the point of violence. They sense that their family stability, their masculinity, their social cohesion, and their very meaning and dignity are being undermined and need to be defended against the facts concerning humans being uncovered by science. Ironically, it is often the technology engendered by the new science that is being used for their defense.

In this time of troubling transition, we need to not deny our constructive power nor its potential for destruction, but to develop its potential for good as we consciously, without illusion, choose to define it. This means, while appreciating the myths and meanings of diverse times, spaces, and cultures, we attempt to redefine them and create new myths and meanings that take the best of all of them for advancing in our new situation and environment.

Recently I participated in the Apache Caravan to save Oak Flat, the indigenous sacred site in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona. These public lands are slated to be sold to a foreign company for copper mining thanks to Senator John McCain. McCain reminds me of the general in the movie Avatar who will destroy the tree of life and sacred origins of the people of Pandora to obtain unobtanium a mineral to be used for the profit of Earth. Since the inhabitants won't sell it or allow it to be mined, the general will take it using violence against the people and Pandora. He cannot understand the values and meanings of the people; nor does he try to. He is focused on his mission which leads to a destroy or be destroyed, defeat or be defeated singular option.

The general of corporatized earth, like John McCain, is an ego driven individualist who having  conquered earth wants to conquer the universe. One could argue, as did Max Weber, that this mentality which disenchanted the earth was promoted by modern cosmology that pulled earth out of the center of the solar system and even relegated the solar system to the edge of a galaxy among millions of others. And the crass understanding of evolution as the "survival of the fittest" put humanity at the summit with discretionary powers over all other creatures. But as even Pope Francis demonstrates, such anti-secularization was also promoted by a religious view that gives man the duty to multiply and dominate the earth and its creatures; and even further, certain religions support the elect the power to control the earth enter a heavenly paradise while leaving the infidels behind. The Pope counsels a return to the indigenous view of a sacred earth to rectify the excesses of an economy that damages the condition for human life and happiness.

Perhaps it is by demystifying the ego or the individualized self, as does neuroscience, that we can actually honor the earth and all its creatures large and small, while saving the dignity of humanity and all living, conscious beings.

Metzinger discusses the new ethics that we must build for the new age of the understanding through neuroscience of mind as brain with consciousness and of consciousness as subjective experience or the organism's experience of itself in the act of coming to terms with its environment. He indicates that while he would not go so far as to say as did Teilhard de Chardin that "in us, the physical universe becomes conscious of itself," certainly the universe must always have had the potential for self-organizing life and consciousness, because voilà here we are.

But perhaps we can rely on more than the anthropomorphic principle to demonstrate a universe tending to life and consciousness. Recently a new theory of life was conjectured that would have life and consciousness, not an unusual exception, but a natural outcome of the physical laws of thermodynamics and especially the second law of entropy. The second law portends a universe in which matter and energy are continually dissipating and reaching equilibrium which will ultimately end in uniform temperature and consistency. Life in which self-replication or reproduction seems to counter entropy through self-organization or what we might call "syntropy," are actually modes of increasing overall entropy in the universe. (Certainly we high energy consuming conscious organisms are proving that daily!)

This new theory which is yet to be tested indicates that the lines between physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology are not impermeable. Matter/energy, under its own laws, is tending to life and consciousness. This would give another reason to believe that life and consciousness is discoverable throughout the universe. And this urges us to look for a unified field theory by which the laws of physics found the laws of life which found the laws of consciousness which found the laws of social cohesion and culture, and so on.

Entropy is the "dismal law" (as is economics the dismal science) because it presages a ultimate state of dissipation without patterns and meaning into an eternal sameness; and yet it leads to. . .

Organic life that self-oganizes to counteract entropy, but which as it becomes dominant in humans begins to destroy the very conditions of life; and yet it leads to. . .

Creative consciousness that solves problems and plans a future to defend life which develops bulwarks of conscious organisms in conflict with others; and yet it leads to. . .

Social cohesion or collaboration that builds transhuman vehicles to colonize the universe and so destroys the human race; and yet it leads to. . .

I don't know what. A divine realm of universal transcending consciousness?

Geosphere with its four laws; biosphere with its law of natural selection; noosphere with its laws of pattern discernment and creation; polisphere with its laws of information communication; to theosphere.

The courage to face facts is also the courage to have faith, to act as if, to take a leap that there is meaning and that we can access it, to engage and enjoy the project.

Metzinger's final words are "the greatest theoretical challenge may consist in the questions of whether and how, given our new situation, intellectual honesty and spirituality can ever be reconciled. But that is another story."

It is certainly a story that I want to tell.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Asking the Right Question

Keith just sent me an excellent piece on "Strategic Questioning" by Fran Peavey.

How you utter the question makes all the difference in the world. It can open dialogue or end it. It can build ongoing relationships or destroy them. It can promote initiative and creativity or kill it?

I learned strategic questioning, as Peavey calls it, as an organizer (Alinsky always pushed Socratic method) and as a teacher ( Freire and Dewey counseled "liberating" rather than "banking' education). But I often forget it with my best friend and family, with my colleagues and employees, with fellow citizens and political opponents, and even with myself. So it is good to have this reminder.

Asking the question so that it is open, dynamic, empowering, relational, collaborative, and even self-questioning leads us to a world that is open, dynamic, empowering, relational, collaborative, and ever transcending. In both my family life and my work life, it promotes listening and cooperation. In politics and community action, it promotes free speech and social cohesion. In cultural endeavors of science, art, and religion, it promotes further inquiry and new insights.

The question starts the thinking process. The question frames the answer; the inquiry shapes the concepts and models of reality; the pursuit of personal and public happiness carries with it interpretations, along with assumptions. There are no "pure," neutral, or unbiased questions. Therefore the question itself needs to be questioned. "How," I must continually ask myself, "in my conversations and discussions can I state my question so it leads us both beyond where we are here and now and on to the next and better question?"

Strategic thinking requires strategic questioning. But I have so much to learn about doing it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Original Thinking

I just read Glenn Aparicio Parry, Original Thinking: A Radical ReVisioning of Time, Humanity, and Nature. Bob Toth urged me to read it, as I urged him to read Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel. (See earlier reflection.)

It reminded me of a lot I've read before e.g. Fritjof Capra, Wendell Barry, and Paul Hawken; and in working with indigenous Hawaiian culture and working through Meister Eckhart with Sensei Tanoye in Hawaii. So it wasn't groundbreaking for me, but it did remind me of an aspect of thinking that I may have been neglecting lately in these blogs in my enthusiasm for neuroscience. I bet Bob felt the same way about The Ego Tunnel. We come at the same thought through different perspectives, emphases, foci. Bob is much more in tune with the style and message of Parry and I am with Metzinger. So that's why I look forward to our dialogue the next few days.

It is certainly not a matter of either-or, but both-and. I try to dialogue both these perspectives in discussing Original Thinking along with, what I am calling, Terrestrial Thinking. OT slips into aboriginal thought. TT slips towards extra-terrestrial thought. If human existence is a balance-in-tension (which I claim it is), OT stresses the balance side, TT the tension side. Transcendence for OT is going deep; for TT, it is going across. The goal of OT is to preserve ancient wisdom; TT is to develop new thought and new city--both hopefully in dialogue with nature. Each stresses different issues and are threatened by different illusions--which in the end are the same.

To help me think and think again, I put together this matrix which I know is inadequate, but hopefully suggests this yin and yang of thinking. See what you think.

I want to make clear that both of these styles of thinking are one. They both attempt a balance-in-tension between humanity and its environment, world, and nature. Both are attempting to transcend the modern rationalist, utilitarian, libertarian divide which is so divisive and destructive of our human condition, the earth which we share with all sentient beings. Both are trying to revise thinking and education and politics. We call upon different ancestors to help us, perhaps, but they are all wise.

No Time Like the Present

In seminary (philosophy/theology), a few of us experimented with cannabis and LSD. Once with the help of one of those substances (I can't remember which), I had an ecstatic vision.

I felt my body including heart and soul (wits and guts) as a whole pulsating I-don't-know-what stretching between some deep inner space and an outside living world, between a big bang point of creation to a spiraling, expanding universe, between my self here and every other self everywhere, between this very moment and every other moment in the past and yet to come.

I was studying Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger at the time. So after the moment passed I called it my Hegelian dialectical experience or M-P's pre-thematic consciousness or Heidegger's Dasein. It is an experience that I cannot put in words or design although I still try. (See below.)

I did not experience a God or another thing out there or in here. It was not a memory or ambition. I was with friends with whom I was very aware but went through them to some larger community which was somehow me. I know that neuroscience can stimulate that experience with chemicals or electric charges to the brain. But I also know that that experience is here right now as I write these words even though I am not attending to it.

The vision or experience still guides me and appears to me now and then when I hike in wilderness, or reach a runner's high, or float in Hawaii's ocean, or reach Half Dome, or sometimes just nothing. I still have clear memories, more erotic than cerebral, of those specific times and places.

It is a very simple thought that calls itself "presence" to which I can only point using complex words, formulas, and designs. Presence--being here, being now, being with, being in touch--so simple, so complex, so profound is this consciousness that drives poetry and art, science and philosophy, faith and hope, and love. Presence is the sense of unity we feel with each other, with every living being from the great minds who care for us to the slime mold that cleans our forests, with the universe from the quantum fluctuation of the big bang to the voyage of New Horizons past Pluto and into the space beyond our solar system.

Psychologists tell us that the present--the moment we feel right here now--is actually an event which has just passed. Presence is an illusion of the brain in which our adapting-to-environment organism with all its sensations, memories, and intentions are integrated into this whole body experience we call self, ego, or consciousness. Presence is an illusion. And it is our destiny, our calling to achieve and make it a reality.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Facing Facts

When I start a science or philosophy book that looks interesting, I first read the introductory chapters and then the concluding chapters. Sometimes I even read backwards--paragraph by paragraph. This gives me an overview, tells me if the work fits in with my own life's project, and helps me decide if I want to read the whole book.

Thus I just read The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, by Thomas Metzinger. I kick myself for not discovering and reading this book earlier. It's already 5 years old! And yes, even though much of the work in the middle Part Two "Ideas and Discoveries" I have already discovered, I am reading the whole book because of the frame he sets in the introductory chapters and because of the lessons in ethics and further inquiry he establishes in the conclusion.

It is especially those lessons in ethics that tie into my life's project as I stated in the Introduction to this blog: Is there an ethic with standards to which all humans can appeal in a culturally pluralistic, politically fractious, economically indeterminate, philosophically postmodern/post-enlightenment world? International institutions presume it. World peace and prosperity demand it. The future of humanity depends on it. Yes, it is a matter of cooperation, choice, and consensus. But how do we get there?

We are in the third phase of a Consciousness Revolution, according to Metzinger: the first was understanding the conscious experience itself. Philosophy, from ancient Greece on, through the Cartesian turn to nineteenth century empiricism and idealism and on to twentieth century pragmatism and phenomenology, is indicative of this phase. The second, being driven by neuroscience, is the understanding of the Ego, the first-person perspective, the "tunnel" from the organism to its environment in which we come to understand the workings of the brain that makes us conscious.  The third phase is deciding what we want to do with this knowledge. This is the normative phase; and as Metzinger shows it is a dangerous one for our species.

In the development of human consciousness we might discern (in dialogue with Metzinger and others) stages with a caution that these are not stages in the sense of distinct and bounded grades but rather points in a continuum:

1) Embodiment: this is where the embrained organism achieves a whole body image and so a sense of inwardness as it takes signals from the environment in relation to feeling of pain and pleasure. This stage is shared with most sentient animals but more so with higher mammals.

2) Subjectivity: this is where the embrained body attends, is directed to objects in the environment, and achieves a perspective. A PSM (phenomenal self model) is constructed, a sense of Ego that is a tunnel to a world, an integration and ownership of feeling with the ability to suffer and enjoy. Certain higher mammals share this stage with humans.

3) Reflectivity: the organism with a self-model recognizes other selves; through symbolic interactivity the body chooses and manipulates objects and creates culture. On the base of body-image and self-model, the brain develops the thinking model. Whereas the second stage is that of naïve realism where the behavior of encountering the world and others is totally transparent or invisible, in reflection there is awareness not only of body and self, but also of symbolic activity through which humans come to terms with their encultured world. This consciousness seems to be solely available to modern humans or homo sapiens sapiens.

4) Transcendence: Does the continuum of consciousness go further where the consciousness model itself is achieved: a sense of universal empathy and cognitive infinity? Does this connect to the Consciousness Revolution we are now undergoing? 

Metzinger's corrects me. I now understand that while consciousness is necessary for thinking (e.g. symbolic activity), thinking is not necessary for consciousness--except of course for mature and healthy human consciousness. I began my own study of consciousness with an examination of symbolic activity, which begins with embrained body gestures in interaction with caregivers, siblings, friends, and teachers.  Metzinger marshals the evidence for the continuum of consciousness and for a pre-symbolic consciousness and world through his analysis of out-of-body experience, phantom limbs, and dreams and in the studies of mammals and earlier humans who do not use symbols to think or are only in very early use of symbols. Nevertheless, I would argue that in human communication, evolution achieves a new level of consciousness.

But I agree that the newest stage of consciousness emerging through the new science and philosophy creates a dilemma for the human prospect--which I have tried to capture in my project for a New Ethics. Many of us now realize that there really is no Santa Clause. The previous explanations of religion and philosophy are myths conjured by humans struggling for meaning in an uncertain, random world.

But now more than that, we realize that we ourselves are not clear and distinct entities but rather images and models shaped by our brains to protect our organisms. Consciousness, including the Self or Soul, is not an entity. We delude ourselves by separating or reifying consciousness as an object. And the world and its objects with all their qualities are real only insofar as they are useful fictions of the brain dealing with the signals of its environment. All our experiences have neural correlates (which we can manipulate). There are no purposes in life or ways to happiness except those that we decide.

This knowledge leaves us with a void, a “disenchantment of world” through rationalism and capitalism as described by Max Weber and a “disenchantment of the self” and perhaps of other selves as described by Metzinger, so that we might fall into a profound sense of nihilism and depression which is more than clinically psychological, but also social and political.

Moreover there is a growing gap in the consciousness of world residents that rivals and even connects to the gaps we are noting in wealth, education, technology access, and economic and political development. For cnly a relatively few are in touch with the latest discoveries of neuroscience and have time and inclination to think about them. And they are mostly the people with higher education, access to technology, and in more economically developed nations with dwindling populations. Nevertheless, the word is getting out to the many through newspaper op-eds, journal articles, movies, blogs, TED Talks, high school and college courses, and books, lots of books and their reviews.

We respond to the dilemma of our new knowledge and consciousness in diverse ways:

1. We deny what science is telling us and we sequester those who enlighten us. We reject the facts of evolution and neuroscience which contradict the beliefs we have been given. We fight those who by teaching this heresy are corrupting our youth and should be eliminated. We reassert the beliefs that we consider absolute and inviolable. We hang on to the consciousness of naive realism and fundamentalism. Or

2. We flee from the depressive effects of the new science through the manipulation of our experience by drugs or by electronic stimulation or by expansive distractions. We use the new knowledge and its technologies to alleviate the pain and suffering of our loss of faith. Or

3. We accept the implications of the new science. We accept that we are here now with others without purpose, that all we have is the pleasure and enjoyment of the moment without further meaning. We take what we can get often by using the illusions of those who believe in higher meanings or those who flee from the pain of further knowledge. Or

4. We celebrate the opportunities of the new consciousness and work with others to probe it further. We create new self-critical expressions of faith and derive meaning in the process and fellowship of inquiry. We foster our evolved desires to be, to be with, and to know despite or even because of their risks and our limitations. We acknowledge our personal and collective limits, illusions, and self-deceptions. We take responsibility and assume the power to re-create ourselves and our society here and now in order to reduce suffering by reducing cruelty and enhance our species by fostering empathy.

Often in past  reflections that express my own quest for faith that transcends our limitations, illusions, and self-deceptions, I have referred to Pascal's wager. I rejected his wager as a game theory by which we bet to believe in God and follow His commandments as contained in His revelations in Scripture and his Church because the consequences of non-belief (eternal damnation) are far worse. I saw the wager as weakness, as rejection of the courage to be and to know by rejecting the facts of our existence.

I don't believe that there is a universal Cosmic Consciousness, an independent and personal Mind or Spirit to which all evolution is intending, e,g Teilhard de Chardin's Omega Point. I don't believe it because it contradicts the evidence of evolution and of scientific experimentation. I admire T de C's writings as poetry that illuminates the desire that evolution has created in our brain and our own "unrestricted desire to know" (Lonergan) or "beginning of infinity" (Deutsch). My awe of this capacity and desire can only be expressed in poetry. My own experience of this desire and capacity, my own transcending consciousness, is best described as "religious." It is at certain moments ecstatic or transcendent in which I feel myself at one with every one and every thing that is. I don't believe in this transcending experience of consciousness. It just is. Although my expressions of it, whether poetic and religious, my scientific explanations for it through evolution and brain research, and my own interpretive philosophy of mind, are surely part of my contemporary belief system.

This belief system is capturing our culture. And it is under attack by those who want to hold firm to their own belief systems with their doctrines and rituals, with their  ethics and laws and especially by the belief systems that preserve naïve realism in thinking and fundamentalism in religion. We who are trying to advance the new science and its conclusions and culture are in the minority, have higher education, and live predominantly in economically developed regions of the world. We are considered elitists, progressives, infidels, and corrupters of youth, sometimes threatened by pre-modern domestic and foreign reactionary terrorists. Despite these misguided attacks, we too need to criticize our belief system and its postmodern culture. We need to be aware of unintended consequences of a "progress" in science and technology that is truly destroying our earth, our neighbors, and ourselves and bringing unnecessary suffering into the world. I know that if I am faithful to the human experiment, I will continue to critique and modify that belief system without being defensive or reactionary.

But back to the wager. Suppose there were a universal Cosmic Personal Self-contained Consciousness, the Alpha and Omega of all being, initiator of the Big Bang and Fulfillment of the Multiverse. But since I see such a belief as a new Creation Myth and reject it’s reality based on my understanding of and willingness to face the facts, will She be disappointed in me? Would She reject me when I am simply trying to be as honest and open to reality as I can be?

I continue to try to learn without prejudice and without uncriticized beliefs. I do not believe in unembodied consciousnesses outside of time and space. I act not for some eternal reward or to avoid some terrible pain. I realize that there is no permanent Rollie Smith who is in touch with Universal, Infinite Being.

But I do act with faith in the unknown. I do know that if I give up my faith, I give up my quest, my consciousness, and my existence--as well as yours and the consciousness of all my loved ones and of all those whom I would like to love and whose love I want to enjoy. So that is my wager of faith beyond belief. I realize that my faith may be unwarranted; and it is in fact not guaranteed (that's why it's faith). I realize that my faith is perhaps a brain-induced self-deception to keep the species going. But I also make it my decision.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Passing On

Another friend of mine just passed on. That's happening a lot these days.

These happenings make me think about when and what I am passing on. As does starting my 78th year in a Continuing Care Retirement Community where I am reminded of aging and dying each day. That is now my vocation: thinking about not so much when, but what I am passing on.

What I can best pass on is some critical thinking regarding my culture and my world. And I pass them on to next generations, to my children and theirs and maybe to theirs. Since I believe that critical thinking is what will best serve them, it is not so much the content, the ideas, the words, the knowledge that I hope they get. Rather, I hope to inspire them to do their own critical thinking. An open mind and an open heart is what humanity needs, it seems to me. Curiosity and the desire to know more and more along with empathy in sharing that desire with all globally.

So I think about my generations. There are five with which I am acquainted--my own and the two before (my parents and theirs) and two now following (my children and theirs). Since I believe that humor, and especially satire, is the main sign of critical thinking, I will label them by whom I consider to be representative or iconic humorists of those generations.

And so I call my own generation that passed adolescence in the 60s (I should add that though I was a pre-boomer, I was also a late bloomer) the George Carlin generation. My parents who passed adolescence in the Great Depression and lived through WWII were the Charlie Chaplin generation. Their parents--the Will Rogers generation. My children are the Jon Stewart generation. And my grandchildren who are just now reaching adolescence are in the I-don't-know-yet-what generation.

At this point I should present an elaborate treatment of the ironic, iconic humor of these generations. But let me here just offer a few reflections on my own. My generation grew up in the age of "American Exceptionalism" bequeathed to us by our "greatest generation" parents which our humor, to the chagrin of our parents, loudly criticized as tragic hubris. (And unfortunately to which many fools today even in my generation are trying to return.)

There were other great humorists besides George Carlin who could typify my generation e.g. Dick Gregory, the SNL originals, Robin Williams, Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut. But Carlin best expressed our wavering between idealism and cynicism.  He made us laugh at the culture we were trying to change and at ourselves in trying to fit in. He identified the silly beliefs and rituals, the holy texts of our fathers, the taboos and sacred cows, the symbols and myths of our exceptionalism. Carlin passed on awhile back. His stand up performances and quotes that he passed on are still worth experiencing.

But now as many of my contemporaries pass on, I take stock of what we are passing on to the next generations.

1. A warming earth whose oceans and lands, water and air, have become a dumping ground for our vast wastes threatening a sixth great extinction which could include us this time.

2. Nation-state groupings with disparities in and among them though very interconnected in global networks of communications and commerce.

3. Nations armed with weapons of mass and targeted destruction ready to fall in the hands of tribal bands.

4. Terrorism, drug wars, refugee flight, crime arising from the growing disparities and uncontrolled weaponry.

5. Economies and politics that are free and work for some, but not for many others, based in a morality with diverse, diversifying, and deficient understandings of humanity.

6. Exponentially growing technologies including weaponry, artificial intelligence, robotics, biological interventions that challenge our understanding of what it means to be human.

For these issues, even though rooted in 4 million years of evolution into the anthropocene age, I take responsibility. I do not presume that little old me caused these problem; but we, including me, did not solve them because we often sacrificed social issues to private gain.

By taking responsibility for these and admitting my complicity, I now choose and declare my freedom to do something about them.

So what I am also passing on, thanks to 4+m years of evolution, 40+k years of symbolic thinking, 4+k years of culture, 4+c years of science, and 4+d years of action and reflection is the capacity to think and act. And I hope I pass on the faith and desire to continue the human experiment and struggle for greater empathy and freedom in our globally connected world.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Thinking Emotionally

In all my past posts on thinking, did I imply that there is a big gap between homo sapiens and all the other hominids? Or that thinking is peculiar to modern humans? Or that premodern humans (e.g. 40k years ago) and all other animals do not use symbols in thinking? Did I seem to say anywhere that language is only found in modern humans and probably is due to a naturally selected language gene?

And did I give you the impression that emotion is separate from thinking? Like, there is an emotional part of the brain (e.g. limbic system) and a rational part of the brain (e.g. prefrontal cortex)? Or that left brain, right brain stuff--one for being logical, the other artsy? And that humans become more rational by transcending their emotions? Or at least keeping them subordinated?

Well if I did, then I was wrong. I want to stand corrected.

And Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker, The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans, provides that correction. They add a lot to my thinking about thinking. And in fact push me beyond to thinking about thinking about thinking or what I shall call T3  (T x T x T) or even Tn. But I'll come back to that.

One author is a long time neurologist and child psychologist, the other a philosopher of language and anthropologist with studies in anthropoid apes; and both are students of evolutionary psychology. The model they advance (f/e or the functional/emotional theory) to correct earlier deterministic, mechanistic models for understanding symbolic thinking and language has two main theses: 1) development through culturally influenced child rearing within society explains symbolic thinking more than genetics; and 2) affect or emotion provides the central thrust in the development of symbolic thinking, language, and human intelligence. The developmental model complements the observations and theory of Jean Piaget but provides further explanation by demonstrating the affect aspect or the integration of emotions into the construct of symbols and the symbolic world. 

"The heart of this f/e approach to language development is that language skills emerge from a series of affective transformations that enable an infant, first, to self- regulate and take an interest in the world; and then, through a series of additional transformations, participate in complex social problem-solving interactions; engage in joint attention; perceive subtle social and communicative patterns; ‘read’ other people’s intentions; imitate increasingly sophisticated actions; develop a sense of ‘self’; and construct symbols." (Greenspan and Shanker, 2010)

They identify sixteen stages in normal or desired human development, six through infancy, three in later childhood, three in adolescence, four through middle to old age. They apply the f/e model of development to childhood and in fact all human behavior, to evolutionary theory, to the formation of groups, to history, and to international relations and a global future of humanity. They accommodate many diverse cultures with different affective signals leading to different symbols, languages, rituals, meanings, modes of being in the world (i.e. content) while affirming the unity and universality of human affective and rational development (i.e. structure).

In the process of development from infant to adult and from clan to civil society, symbolic constructs (ideas) are products of emotional signaling through bodily gestures in a social setting--starting with caregivers, proceeding to persons in authority, and significant others. The basic emotions that are being signaled are pleasure (e.g., feeling safe and comfortable) linked with smiling and holding and expressed in affection and attachment; and pain (e.g. feeling threatened and uncomfortable) linked to fear and withdrawal and expressed in fight or flight. These emotions become more complex and nuanced into a wider range as development progresses.

How these proceed into the advanced stages of development of skills and capacities, can be influenced by genetics or by organic disorders, but are largely influenced by caregiving and by succeeding social interaction in a cultural milieu. From emotional signaling comes a sense of self and others with varying degrees of security and insecurity. Emotional thinking with a secure sense of self and others leads to empathy and willingness to take the risk of others; while an insecure sense of self sees others as possible threats to be feared. The integration of emotions into words and symbols can lead to either inclusive, grey-area thinking over against all-or-nothing, polarized thinking. One opens more to critical, strategic thinking; the other to reactive, true-belief thinking.

The conclusions I draw from their theory that relate to my thinking about thinking include:

1. We neglect the emotional or affective dimension of human development at great risk of unintended and bad consequences. Therefore the body and bodily gesture are integral to human evolution.

2. Logical, multiple-cause, empathic, critical, and strategic thinking does not overcome or pass beyond emotions but consciously integrates emotion and affect into it. The sense of words or symbols derives primarily from the emotions with which they are associated.

3. In human development there is a growing separation or, better, distinction between idea and action (e.g. reaction without reflection), self and others (e.g. empathy with others as other selves), symbolic construction and reality (e.g. evidence and social assessment).

4. A developing sense of self, individually and communally, with internal standards and shared security is concomitant with a progressive organic model that allows for diversity and change with integrity as opposed to a polarized, fragmented, mechanistic approach.

5. Polarized, all-or-nothing, unintegrated, non-reflective, illogical, anti-social thinking is a result and sign of arrested or regressed development. The ability to accept and yet pass beyond preliminary meanings of concepts and to link concepts towards knowledge of the world requires a secure sense of the self and of belonging to social groups.

6. Human development is contingent on group development and the shaping of culture. Continuing human evolution will depend on how we come to terms with our new multi-cultural global community.

In the light of this development theory, I can't help but comment on George Lakoff's theory of framing language and one's symbolic world in respect to right wing and left wing political discourse. His notion is that liberals demonstrate a perspective from a "nourishing mother," while conservatives from a "strict parent." And there may be something to that theory in reflecting on the development model of human language and behavior. But its seems a bit oversimplified to me since both proponents of liberalism and conservatism can be caught in true-belief, ideological, all or nothing thinking. Progress and regress are historically woven together within families, communities, parties, and nations.

Nevertheless, developmental theory which stresses the role of caregiving and social interaction in culture is a corrective to a deterministic evolutionary model that makes genes and memes naturally selected beyond the capacities and choices of humankind. It demonstrates that we need not make a choice between personal choice (liberty) and socio-political choice (freedom) or between creative individuality and social responsibility.  Indeed it demonstrates that we achieve personal happiness as we pursue public happiness, that the limitations of others, cultures, and the worlds we inhabit are conditions for liberty and freedom, that personal innovation and creativity requires responsibility to others in our smallest to largest groupings.

It also shows that our individual choices do count, e.g. how we raise and educate our children, the political discourse we choose, the groups to whom we relate. But it also shows that we cannot achieve change and freedom alone or immediately. To change the culture of child rearing, political discourse, and global responsibility, we need each other.

Homo sapiens and the ability to think symbolically has risen to homo sapiens sapiens and the ability to think about thinking. That's T x T or T2. And these later works which are interdisciplinary experiments considering new models for thinking about thinking in a global multi-cultural context and what thinking about thinking says about continuing or the next stages of human evolution (homo sapiens sapiens sapientis) are, I think, instances of T3. This of course leads us to speculate that we may be caught in a mirror facing mirror infinite loop or Tn, meaning that we will never achieve the ultimate truth. While that may be frustrating to some, it is exhilarating to me. It indicates that we are achieving transcendence.