Follow by Email

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Passion and Pathos

In my daily jog,  I was meditating on compassion. Then I started reflecting on empathy and wondered what the difference is. And then sympathy which is the Greek form of compassion. And then impassion which is the Latin form of empathy.

Empathy is being used now as sort of a neuroscience term to describe how the brain mirrors the activities and feelings of another. This has been shown through brain scans that leads to the conjecture of "mirror neurons." It is used in studies of cognitive development in children. It is an explanation for the capacity for compassion which is more of a moral term.

The way we use these Greek and Latin derived terms, it seems to me, is that pathos is more passive, and passion is more active. I suffer pathos; I instill passion. To impassion means to stimulate passion in another. Compassion is a moral choice to feel another's pain. Sympathy is the receiving of a feeling from another. Empathy is stimulated by caregivers in the development of the brain.

But in any case, we are talking about the relationship of a person to other persons and the sharing of feelings and connection of minds.

What this jogging refection made me think about is the importance of what I shall call the "postmodern insight" that propels us beyond the dualities and dilemmas of the classical, theological, and modern eras. And hopefully it leads us away from their destructive conflicts: individualism vs. socialism, empiricism vs. idealism, spiritualism vs. materialism, the sacred vs. the secular, transcendence vs. immanence, conservative vs. progressive.

As our living organism evolves in its environment, the adaptation goes two ways. In other words, as our bodies interact in our world through symbolic behavior, there is a two-directional dialogue. Actually dialogue is a limiting metaphor (as are all metaphors). The symbolic interaction is more a collaboration in a joint product rather than separate stages of listening and speaking. It is both a discovery and a construction of things in the same moment, that is, at the same time and place. In fact, it is in this moment of construction and discovery of the world that the perception of time and space and others appears.

So there are not just two directions in the body-world relationship. We have identified eight, maybe ten, directions in the same moment. And perhaps an infinite number. Like the center of a circle that radiates out to the circumference, the number of radii and diameters are infinite--much as the number of angels dancing on the pin-head of a needle.

Action is passion from different viewpoints. Integrity is the view from the center where you and I, past and future, consciousness and universe, individuality and sociality, retrieval and creation, discovery and construction are all one.

I realize that this is a tough sell. It doesn't fit in our common sense world--our accepted culture, our everyday politics, and our conventional economy. It is hard to grasp that the center of the universe is in each one of us, that your center, my center, our center is in tension to every other center, and that this center exists only as a point in a relationship. It is the dynamic, developing, ever-changing relationship where you and I, the past and future, the ideal and the real, the personal and the social, the immanent and the transcendent reside.

We are at that point in our politics, our economics, and our culture. If we can get this intellectually and practically, we have a chance. If not, I pray that somewhere in this universe or multiverse, they will.





Sunday, October 25, 2015

Solidarity Forever

Solidarity is the word that uniting workers, abused servants, and those denied equal treatment use to articulate their dream. It implies union, cohesion, cooperation, harmony, agreement.  Solidarity is more than a means to higher wages, safer conditions, and better jobs. It is an end in itself: the respect for human dignity that comes from power. Concerted action.

Solidarity is achieved by sharing suffering and struggle. Philosophers and theologians teach the dignity of all men and women by saying that we are all children of God, we are all born with the divine spark of reason, we all share a common nature or ancestor or consciousness. Those are nice thoughts; but I don't think they lead to solidarity, much less to some universal community of God, Truth, and the Good Society.

At church today, Rob read a selection from Ta-Nahisi Coates' letter to his son where he said: I am sorry that I cannot protect you, but not so sorry--because you have to learn what it means to be vulnerable. Realizing that we are vulnerable, that is, subject to pain and suffering, is the path to solidarity. Vulnerability is accepted when we realize that we are contingent--radically contingent. Our thoughts, our language, our societies, and our selves are contingent. And the acknowledgement of contingency comes from the acceptance of our mortality.

To accept our death, without the pretense that we will go on somehow through reincarnation or by an afterlife in heaven, takes courage and honesty. When I fully accept that I will be no more, that my body and brain will dissolve., that there will be no mind or soul called Rollie Smith. Only then do I fully accept my contingency and my vulnerability--my ability to suffer.

Only then can I feel with the sufferings of others. Only then is there a possibility of compassion and solidarity. And yet, even here, compassion and solidarity will not happen unless I physically, emotionally, and spiritually connect with others in their vulnerability, suffering and their struggle to be recognized. This does not happen in a classroom course, a church sermon, a religious retreat, a meditation exercise, or a philosophy lesson. It only happens when I touch another who is also vulnerable and suffering. Where she or he is here and now.

That is the essence of organizing for solidarity. I share with another our stories of vulnerability and suffering. I grieve with them. I feel their pain of being dominated and abused and humiliated. And I struggle with them to stop the behaviors, the institutions, and the powers that are causing it.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Thinking Logically

Logic is considered the rules of valid inference--from the truth of one proposition to the truth of another. It is a great tool in discourse, mathematics, and debate. Logic assumes that there are universal rules of thought that all people who think can recognize. I learned Aristotelian and classical  logic, which had three laws: identity, contradiction, and excluded middle, but really came down to one: you can't affirm and negate the same thing or proposition. If it is, it is; if it isn't, it isn't. There were all kinds off subsidiary rules for applying the foundational rules in speech and science. Fallacies were propositions that violated these rules and ultimately the principle of non-contradiction. And the study of logic identified all these fallacies.

Then I learned symbolic logic which gave me insight into the formalism of language and mathematics. Here I saw that logic and mathematics rested on undefined terms and given rules that ultimately could not be proved through inference. This was because as soon as you tried to prove the terms and rules on which logic or mathematics were built, you had to develop another logic or math with undefined terms and given rules. The mathematician, Kurt Gödel, actually proved that the validity of a statement always rests on something outside the formalism of language, logic, mathematics. It cannot be proved in the symbolic system in which it is uttered.

That was a big deal. It actually knocked out the notion that truths were based in some objective realm of ideas out there. Good-bye Platonic heaven in tune with our souls. It also knocked out the notion that we who think through symbols can achieve some absolute truths by the workings of our minds.

Into-European languages are built and operate on the rule of non-contradiction. And this seems to be the rule of our common sense dealings in the world. But do all languages and mathematics need to assume this rule? Wonder if we create a logic with undefined terms and rules that do not include the rule of non-contradiction? Suppose we have a rule where something can be negative and positive at the same time. That's hard to imagine in our day to day Western world. Or is it?

Are there rules of thought that are natural; that is, built into the very structure of our organisms and brain? Since we think symbolically (and that does seem to be natural) and that does seem to be a universal factor for homo sapiens, that would seem to imply that there are invariable laws of thought. Indeed when we think we posit (i.e., affirm) a word or proposition that structures our environment. If it works, we affirm it. If it doesn't we negate it and try another. Discursive thought works that way including common sense, science, and philosophy.

But we have seen that there are other way of symbolically engaging our environment. In myth, religion, and art, the law of non-contradiction is not so important. We use words, propositions, symbols that seem to negate and affirm at the same time or at least very ambiguously. We use metaphors, figures of speech, suggestive metaphors to engage with our environment and structure our worlds. Mystics and artists have a certain insight into being as nothing and nothing as being.

Digital thinking is a matter of 0s and 1s--electric charge and withholding of charge, negatives and positives. And we know that the brain is electric. But analogical thinking is a bit "fuzzier." it is a matter of suggestion between images. Digital thinking can be expressed in the formalism of logic. But anagogic thinking is considered more  "intuitive" or "evocative." Analogy is not a matter of clear, distinct ideas validly inferred. It is more a sense of "yes, that feels right."

So do we have a digital or analogical world? Another way to ask the question: Is engaging the world a digital or analogical enterprise? Well the answer seems to be both. Yet, we better recognize which mode of thinking we are engaging our world in.

Myth, religion, and art confuse and mislead us when they pretend to be science or vie with the conclusions of valid science. And science and the philosophy in tune with science are not the answer to life or the arbiter of absolute meaning.There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In the evolved structure of symbolic behavior and thinking, we do discern the inward direction of the environment to the organism and the outward direction of the organism to the environment through symbols in the same moment. And so there is both a focal or conscious experience of objects in the world and a background or pre-conscious experience of the thinking body. We call one experience objective which we know is the pattern we give to our environment by commonly agreed upon symbols such as words or formulas. We call the other experience subjective or consciousness. The dual direction or experience of symbolic activity gives rise to the illusions of the individual self and the real thing.

Perhaps, I conjecture, in the domain of the objective where we consider things out-there and real is the place for formal and linear logic built on the principle of non-contradiction. In positing symbols we are affirming that these symbols apply or work. But we are also putting limits on them by saying that they work for these phenomena but not for those others. Saying no is what categorization, definition, distinction is all about. "This" implies "not-that." "Yes" implies "no." In science we even argue that a proposition or formula makes no sense if it cannot be falsified and then to work must be verified by peer reviewed evidence.

But as existential phenomenologists and pragmatists point out, the very act of positing aware of itself in consciousness, i.e. the subjective domain, has different rules. In fact the act of positing symbols in the world is a tension between the poles of the pre-symbolic lived world and the symbolically structured world, non-conscious and conscious, nothing and thing. The thing (symbolized and conscious object) comes from nothing (unformed and pre-conscious subjectivity). Science as a product is in the formal or objective domain. But science, and every mode of thinking, as an activity, a subjective thrust to the world, belongs to the informal, non-objective domain.

It is in the domain of non-objective background experience, which we might call the realm of the pre-conscious because it is not yet focalized through symbols, that the undefined terms, the assumptions, and given rules come from. It is in this domain that the "rules" of myth, religion, and aesthetics operate. It is the totality of the embrained organism prior to its being objectified with all the resources of pre-objective (un-formalized, unfocalized) consciousness in body and in memory, in genes and memes. Because this is the non-objective domain scoping, from the inside out, the whole of symbolic activity in its tension between nothing and something, it is not the place of clear and distinct ideas. It is the realm of the ambiguous.

So is there a logic of ambiguity? Perhaps, but unlike the ideal for logic, that's not quite clear.

_______
Note on the Unconscious.

I guess because I am pointing to the non-objective and ambiguous realm of thinking, I am using the word consciousness to contain both the background non-conscious whole body/mind experience and the conscious focal experience defined by the symbol. I prefer not to use the word "Unconscious" because it evokes an additional mysterious realm to be explored by psycho-analysis. The information is there in our genes and memes and dreams, in our bodies, culture, and intentions, even when that information is not conscious, i.e. symbolized. It's already there in the nothing "before" the something.

Note on philosophy.

Is philosophy in the objective domain? Mostly, I would argue. And arguing is in the objective domain subject to the laws of formal logic. But then, what philosophy is trying to get a hold of is the act of symbolic thinking itself from the inside-out or, better, in its tension from nothingness to something. When the scientist reflects on his doing of science and inquires as to how it happens and how it relates to other modes of doing, he is engaging in philosophy. And so does the artist, the religionist, the mathematician, the economist. That's why philosophy is sometimes called "second reflection" or even "literary criticism." And because the philosopher is trying to catch human symbolic behavior or thinking in the act, prior to and in critique of his own formalization, he often has to resort to the ambiguous language of the informal, non objective, aesthetic domain of not so clear and distinct ideas. So if that's not clear, you try it.

Note on spirituality.

Earlier I discussed the relation of mindfulness to thinking. Mindfulness, I find, is a preparation for, component of, and even reflection on the act of thinking. Mindfulness can be assisted through exercises of meditation or contemplation where persons let their thoughts go to notice the flow of consciousness our of which thoughts come. This is not religion, just as it is not science or philosophy although many religious, scientific, and philosophic traditions recognize the inner flow or "nothingness" from which religious, scientific, and philosophical thoughts are constructed and emerge (e.g. mysticism in religion, psychology in science, phenomenology in philosophy). Since mindfulness is a letting go of thoughts, I suppose you could call spirituality "thought-less." But since the letting go of thoughts prepares the way for new, original, critical thinking, I find spirituality quite thoughtful and being in the mode of thoughtfulness.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mindfulness Thinking

Prince Gautama snuck out of his palace unseen by the guards who at his Father’s orders protected him within the walls. Though he was provided all manner of entertainment and all delights of his senses, the prince was dissatisfied, unhappy, and curious.

Once outside the gates he stole through the streets and alleys of the grand city that he had only seen once in a royal carriage traveling a selected route along bowing finely suited men and ladies curtsying in gilded gowns in front of pompous homes.  But now he saw skimpily clad old men, grimy children begging for bread with their wailing mothers, men who had no legs or with a patch on an eye and dirty cloths bandaging their heads. He saw pain, but even more experienced suffering. How can this be, he thought. Why are people hurting and why am I? How did all this pain from war and want come about?

He wandered out beyond the walls of the city into the farmlands where he saw families toiling the land, but unable to grow enough for their needs and those of the landowners. And he saw that even farmers, smiths, and merchants who could eat or enjoy this day were uncertain about the next. He felt their unhappiness, their grief, their loneliness, and their lowliness.

Why is there such suffering in life? No matter how much he studied, no matter how many wise men he asked, no matter how many journeys he took, no matter how many leagues he wandered, he could not come up with an answer.

Grieving, he came upon a beautiful tree alone in a meadow and resolved to sit there until he had the answer or died. He sat for hours, then days, and weeks, and maybe eons when came a sudden flash. The answer was that there was no answer; and indeed the answer itself is the source of suffering. He realized that all answers must pass.

And thus he became the Buddha.


The Buddha Story is not unlike the stories of Eve and Pandora and the beginning of thinking and its quest. But it adds an important element: the emptiness of the products of thinking, e.g. thoughts, answers, and truths. The Buddha and many great spiritual leaders had an insight into insight as a way to see through thoughts and transcend answers that kept thinking animals in the bondage of suffering.

And so the Buddha is in Rorty’s terms an “ironist” accepting the contingency of language, selfhood, and community dispelling the illusion of a final vocabulary, a deep-seated self, and a utopian community. Words are empty, the self a deception, and the perfect community a fantasy. But that does not mean in Ivan’s words in the Brothers Karamazov “all things are permitted.”

There are currently two ways to respond to the postmodern realization that neither the will of the gods nor the dictates of reason provide the answer to suffering and the meaning to life. The first is action or politics to liberate our selves from the behaviors and institutions of humiliation, which is based on nothing more than a decision against cruelty and for solidarity.  The second is contemplation and its dissemination through exercises of meditation—which today is called “mindfulness.” This tension between contemplation and action can be discovered throughout the history of religion and politics, private spirituality and public organizing.

Mindfulness is achieving critical mass in the contemporary world. Corporations are employing mindfulness facilitators, as are agencies of government and sport teams. Many therapists, especially cognitive therapists, are adopting the technology of mindfulness to fight depression, anxiety, and even physical pain. Recently I attended a mindfulness summit in which Sam Harris, neuroscientist, philosopher, and atheism proclaimer, urged it as a way to promote spirituality over religion, which he judges harmful to human health. Other teachers of mindfulness discussed the discipline and practiced it with the participants.

So what is mindfulness? Most of its teachers say that it is not a doctrine, although they teach it--primarily through meditation, attentiveness, and breathing. But they mean that mindfulness is not fixed doctrine or dogma.

Here are some of its usual characteristics: attentiveness to the sensations of the body, inner experience in contrast to the experience of objects, a flow of images and sensations without stopping on any one thing, an absence of self as an author or subject, letting go the figure of the gestalt in order to sense the ground, calmness and centeredness releasing stress and anxiety, stopping the chatter of the mind, reducing or changing the self-talk, being here-now-with in all its tension in time, space, and community, freeing the mind of things, of thoughts, of names, of forms, of problems and solutions, an “emptiness” of mind, heightened consciousness, a being in touch with consciousness, which being beyond or behind thoughts is a mystery, ineffable, unable to be studied or explained.

Some critical questions:

1. Is mindfulness a substitute of “spirituality” for “religion”? Or is it a new religion?
2. Is mindfulness a substitute or a preparation for action? Does it reduce the need for action and politics? 
3.  Is mindfulness a preparation or alternative for thinking? By eliminating thoughts is mindfulness in fact thoughtlessness?


1. A sociologist studies religions as social systems, organized by a language and symbolic system that is shaped by a special revelation contained in writing and/or tradition. Religions are social systems with rules and rituals, governed by office holders whose authority is determined by revelation, rules, and rituals. Religion, while an element of almost all cultures, provides both the coherence and distinction of those cultures, usually determining who is in and who is out of the culture. 

For Sam Harris mindfulness is indeed a substitution of spirituality for religion. For religions with their own belief systems, which often contradict both science and common sense, become the occasions for exclusion, regression, violence, and even the dehumanization of the “others” outside their circles. Contemporary religion in particular is a perversion of the human prospect and therefore needs to be rejected.

Yet at times, mindfulness adherents speak of the mystery of consciousness as having an almost divine quality; it is the “within” side of nature or pure consciousness with an almost independent status. Like a World Soul. Or it is the Spirit of Life and Love. Even atheist Harris speaks of "pure consciousness" and the desirability for building organized communities within which people who do not believe in religion can have support in developing their spirituality.

2. Some mindfulness teachers speak as though mindfulness is the answer to all life’s problems; and in saying so they seem to promote a quietism that opposes political action to change the institutions that keep people in submission. The mindfulness summit leader affirms mindfulness changes the world "from the inside out." In this it coincides with the religions of personal salvation to achieve social change. This could lead to the unwitting acceptance of the status quo.  It thus becomes a sort of “opium of the people,” relieving their anger, their passion, and their determination for social justice. It employs personal conversion and neglects or diminishes political action. 

But most do not. They see mindfulness as a way of putting attention and intention in action so that it is less frenetic and scattered and therefore more strategic, critical, and effective. In my own tradition, we speak of “contemplation in action.” Meditation may be useful, as are workshops and retreats, quiet times of wonder, and certainly physical exercise. But what is most important is action that is thoughtful.

3. But doesn’t mindfulness diminish and reject our thoughts? Isn’t the objective to get rid of thoughts or at least pass beyond them to the stream of consciousness itself? Isn’t mindfulness the cessation of thinking? Isn’t thinking the obstacle to and opposite of mindfulness? Shouldn’t mindfulness be considered thoughtlessness? The unexamined life? An immersion into the world and reality before it is cut up and categorized by our inadequate, illusory thoughts?

Perhaps some mindfulness gurus would assert that in their quest for perfection. But most I think would see mindfulness as a training for or even quality of clearer thinking. By manifesting through direct experience the transiency, contingency, and symbolic make-up of thoughts, mindfulness supports thinking beyond its thoughts. These teachers would urge that we not get caught in the thoughts we inherited or even made-up yesterday. Always be ready to criticize your culture’s common sense through thinking and, yes, through acting thoughtfully. The transcendence you experience, even alone sitting on the mountaintop, is that of you thinking in the company of other thinkers where thoughts, even those of your self, your morality, the utopian community, perfect gods, and the absolute truth, are called into question and surpassed.


As many thinkers have declared, in order to think we construct categories (analogies, metaphors, symbols, words, and formulas). We adjust, combine, reconstruct them as we receive more experience and as we acknowledge the stream of conversation and consciousness from which they come. Mindfulness can help, as long as it doesn’t become another rigid practice or truth, a scientific or progressive religion, another new age fad, that all should join in order to achieve the perfect world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Postmodern Thinking

I've designed a course and a text on thinking. It's my vocation. Thinking, that is. And a fun pastime.

Recently I began re-reading one of my mentors, Richard Rorty, Contingency, irony, and solidarity (Cambridge, 1989). And that is pushing me to review what I have written on thinking.

Most philosophers would label him a "postmodern." The modern age (though "ages" we acknowledge are fictions) began in the West with the Enlightenment and culminated in the Scientific Revolution, which has not yet ended. It is also called the Age of Reason, which probably has. Ended, that is.

(PS: this essay is also occasioned by the class we are teaching on Armstrong's Religion and Violence.)

The pre-modern age can be divided into the hunter gatherer's tribal Age of Myth, agriculture's civilizational Age of Religion, and the medieval Age of Theology. Myth had it's stories of gods and heroes to guide the tribe (think Homer's Iliad). The great religions gave coherence to the civilization by gathering tribal stories into one sacred scripture (think the Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and Vedantic Scriptures). Empires and nation states developed big theories which combined the revelations of scripture with the knowledge and technologies they were meeting on the trade routes (think the summa theologicas of Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Calvin). In all these pre-modern ages, there is an inter-weaving of the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane.

In the modern age we see the holy (religion) separating from the profane (political economy). In some cases we see in the culture a diminishing of the sacred, which often reemerges in interesting and bizarre ways. Another way to think of these ages is to consider the symbol that represents their axis mundi (center of culture): from totem pole, to obelisk (temple), cathedral (mosque), university, corporate tower. The modern age supplants or identifies God (Ultimate Truth, Ground of Being, the Alpha and Omega, Holy of Holies) with Reason as the Foundation of culture, economics, and politics, working its way through the history of we humans understanding our world and ourselves. Think Spinoza, Leibniz, Newton, Hegel. 

The postmodern age, well represented philosophically by Derrida and Rorty, Dawkins and Dennett, is characterized by the rejection of not only a supernatural, but also a natural, foundation or principle or essence or law. I think you could point to the first phase of postmodernism in the later Wittgenstein, the Constructionists (Piaget, Goldstein), the Pragmatists (Dewey), and the Existential Phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty), all "deconstructing" modern thought.

Rorty and the others push us beyond grand theory, beyond both theology and metaphysics. There is no "deepest level of the self" and no 'human nature." Only socialization and history, nothing below or above or outside, define what we mean by "being human." He describes himself as a "liberal ironist" which I can accept in his definitions, but will not work in my circles. For him "liberals" are persons who think that cruelty, including the humiliation of others, is the worst thing we can do. An "ironist" is one "who faces up to the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires" or that they "refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance."

The reason those words would not work in my circles is that "liberal" calls up the image of an ideology, party, or faction over against conservatives, republicans, libertarians, and activists--concepts I value and want to use. And "irony" is a literary term that lots of people who have not studied literature and especially the great satirists do not understand. So what label would I substitute? Progressive skeptic? Freedom activist? Political radical? Well that's not so important, is it? 

But what is important for Rorty is the acceptance of the contingency of our language, our selfhood, and our community. No final vocabulary, no real self, no ultimate principle for community!

And yet—am I faltering?  Isn’t there a nature in our genotype naturally selected as our organism developed in adaptation with our environment with some common capacities like thinking, consciousness, and empathy? Doesn’t our genotype give us a basic structure at least in this time and place?

And when we attend to our consciousness interacting with our world, isn’t there a lived experience of our existence or presence not as an essence but as a dynamic tension in time, space, and community? Have I not argued in former essays that conscious thinking and thoughtfulness do provide a principle for knowing and a guide for behavior?

So does evolutionary biology and psychology and does phenomenology contradict the contingencies of symbolization (language), selfhood, and community? And are we pushed back into the modern age of natures, essences, truths, ultimate purposes, and immutable laws? I don’t think so. We are still becoming through the contingencies, chances, and choices of evolution and history.

And the principle for knowing and the guide for behavior is a sorta (to use Dennett’s designation) guide and behavior. It is in no way fixed or necessary and is in fact continually evolving.  Nor does it provide a grand theory to ground or unify all science and morality. And it does not resolve the tension between the private and public, the personal and the social, the past and the future, the real and the ideal, subject and object, freedom and determinism and all those other great dilemma’s in the history of thought and action. It is that tension in all its specificity and contingency.  That tension just is what we are in right here and now and with each other.

But I do agree. It is easy to fall back into a metaphysical or theological way of thinking. And I see why philosophy for Rorty is literary criticism, not grand theory. The symbolic behavior through which thoughts emerge in and between conscious organisms, i.e. thinking, while a general capacity is not a universal principle. It is not a form or transcendental of mind, a category beyond all categories.

Thinking for us postmoderns is not discovering the truth. Or maybe, better put, discovering truth is not finding the substance behind appearances, the essence in existence, the meaning to life, order in chaos, the law for the universe, a theory of everything, it is constructing them to build a world in which to live and act.

Thinking is playing with these ideas, forms, beliefs, objects, and theories. 

See if they can amuse, entertain, please, fulfill, provoke, agitate, evolve, and transcend. In other words, see if they work for you. You wont know until you design and formulate them. “Work for what?” you ask.  Well that is just the point, isn’t it? What do you want them to work for?

See if they work for others too. Again, you won’t know until you put them out there. Work for what? What do we want them to work for?

I find it fun to consider the musings and writings of thinkers and especially those in touch with science, the arts, religion, philosophy, and politics. I love to play with their ideas and see if they work for me with my own unique and developing style, questions, and vocabulary. I don’t pretend to get to the essence of their thoughts. But in playing with good players I get better at my own game, which begins by figuring out the objective. I design better equipment, change the rules, craft new plays, and try to draw others into my game. This is the delight of thinking that Nietzsche speaks of. 

(Here I can’t help recalling the very funny Monty Python sketch of the great Greek and German thinkers playing for the World Cup in philosophy. The Germans score one goal at the end of a long game in which nothing was happening because of all the thinking going on until one of them got the insight of putting the ball into the goal while the others kept thinking about it without seemingly having much fun.)

But why reject the theological or metaphysical quest to find the ultimate purpose, the real nature, the really real, Aquinas’s or Spinoza’s God? These are to be rejected because the belief in beliefs or real essences or absolute natures holds us back from self-creation and from alleviating unnecessary suffering in ourselves and others. There is no grand theory that puts together the private activity of self-creation or self-definition, i.e. who I want to be (e.g. artist, thinker, therapist) along with the public activity of widening the circle of compassion (so that the “them” or “others” become part of us). There is no great synthesis that relieves the tension we are. There is no underlying reason or explanation for abhorring cruelty. But what occasions it is my direct experience of suffering in others and myself which Rorty finds especially in literature. 

Hence solidarity is a contingent choice, not an end of Nature or the Reason of History somehow beyond us. It is the product of accepting our total contingency even in respect any ultimate or final answer and of our experience of the suffering of others so much that we care about them. We want solidarity because we choose it, because this is the world we want to live in and the person we want to be. Again, no ultimate purpose or reason out there beyond the contingencies of history.

Solidarity, should we choose it, will mean actualizing and further developing the capacity for empathy, which is a dimension of our evolved capacity to think.  Solidarity is seeing people, not only in, but also out of our circle as fellow sufferers, which is why Rorty turns to literature, especially the novel, over theology and philosophy.

But I go further—and I don’t think Rorty would object. I turn to radical politics, in its most basic sense of organizing local and global community, over theology, philosophy, and literature. Radical politics starts with the one-on-one listening of the story of the stranger to enter into the other’s feelings and concerns. The radical (Rorty says “liberal”), because she abhors cruelty, the needless suffering in herself and others, meets with individuals and groups outside her comfortable circles to actually share their sufferings and humiliations.

The radical exits her protected, defended boundaries of the gated community and walled city to risk encountering another way of experiencing life and the world. In that she is like the novelist or journalist, not the tourist who never really leaves his protected space even in other lands. But her intent is not merely to feel-with (compassion), but also to open her and her interlocutors’ boundaries by removing the obstacles, the fixed habits of thought and behavior, that hold them apart and keep them suffering, and then by co-constructing new ones that bring them together.

Because she is an “ironist” continually overcoming her own fixed boundaries, thoughts, institutions, she can invite others to overcome their own and to construct new more inclusive ones. This is the task of progressive freedom—the removing and rebuilding of the boundaries and walls of thought and action--over the search for the Truth .


It is not in any truth or system or doctrine, but in compassion, that common ground appears.


Next: Thinking and Mindfulness


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Absolute Values

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks in an excellent article in the WSJ on Religion and Violence, the subject of a class we are teaching, speaks about the "absolute values" embodied in the three great monotheistic religions. He is arguing that we don't need less religion to avoid violence, we need more of the best in religion.

I don't quarrel at all with what he is proposing. I agree with him and Karen Armstrong that religion per se does not cause violence and at its best embodies the ideas and behaviors that overcome violence and cruelty. But I do quarrel with the concept of "absolute values" (except in mathematics and vodka). Why? Because I think that the very illusion of the absolute is a, maybe the, source of violence and cruelty.

Are there absolute values, truths, beings, beliefs, beauties, goods, meanings? I think not and want to discourage them as dangerous illusions.

Rabbi Sacks is correct. We are animals searching for meaning. That desire comes with our ability to think, which is our ability to use images and symbols to act with each other in the world.

We search for Truth and Meaning. We want to know reality.
We search for Goodness and Value. We want to act rightly and have love.
We search for the Beautiful. We want to appreciate and produce beauty.
We search for Reality-- the unity, the goodness, the truth, the beauty of Being.

But truths (like the Standard Model in physics or evolution by natural selection in biology) are not absolute and unchanging. They are preliminary understandings. Values contained in religion and in ordinary common sense are not absolute and unchanging. They are signposts along the way. The beauties of the universe and of persons are not absolute and unchanging. They are images in anticipation. Beings come and go.

Now whether we believe that the One, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful exists, or is becoming, or is an unrealizable future ideal, I believe we can all meditate, pray to, and call on the spirit of life, meaning, and love in ourselves. I experience that spirit in myself and you when I am living, working, listening, speaking, and acting with others--even those who are taking the time to criticize or argue with what I am saying or doing. That spirit is not an entity separate from us in time and space, but it is at the core of our existence personally and collectively. It is our transcendence and engagement in transcendence. It is not our beliefs or truths or values or products. But it is the source and therefore core of our truths and values and beauties.

There are so many ways of saying this. And I suppose that all religions at certain times and places try to. But really the words and symbols are merely pointing for us to consider that source and core in ourselves. It is there that the unity of our religions and cultures and worlds can be discovered. But for humanity's sake, let's not absolutize it. For as soon as we do, we've lost it.

Or, worse, we try to isolate and defend it--often by violence.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Religion and Violence

Frank and I started teaching a new class for our local Keese School using Karen Armstrong's Book: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Excellent class, excellent participation, excellent questions. I expect to learn a lot.

Armstrong's immediate intent is to defend religion and especially the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) from the recent attacks on them as causing violence. She demonstrates that while religions have often been used to promote violence by justifying war and sacralizing terror, they are not the cause. The cause she finds in human nature and in the development of the political economy of the state. She demonstrates this through a very thorough and scientific reconstruction of the history of violence.

She above all wants to contradict Islamophobia in our post 9-11 and ISIS world. She had written an excellent historical study of Islam (Islam: A Short History, 2000), and in this new book she clearly demonstrates that those who attack Muslims because they are Muslims (e.g. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz) are woefully ignorant or malicious. She understands and presents the dark side of all religions that do not live up to their founding principles. But she attributes violence to the human competition for political and economic domination beginning with the turn to agriculture that developed civilizations with boundaries opposing outsiders and mechanisms to force the compliance of classes within.

There was violence among humans before the turn to agriculture and then the subsequent requirement for raw materials in the modern industrial state. But it was not the planned, institutionalized, total violence that came with the formation of the state, colonies, and empires.

But another view can be found in Bruce Wexler's study, The Brain and Culture. Using the experiments and conclusions of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, he shows the "close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual's sensory and interpersonal environment at the times of development and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself." And human beings alter their environment to fit their internal structures because of the distress they experience when their internal structures do not fit the external ones.

Culture is that environment structured through interpersonally created symbols. Culture is a weaving of expressions (memes) through language and other symbolic systems, including beliefs through religion, and attitudes in morality. An infant achieves a culture under the guidance of caregivers as the brain completes its development primarily in early childhood but becoming most established in the third decade of life.  Disparities in belief systems (including their expressions) create major distress that pushes those of one culture to make others act in ways that are consistent with their group.

Wexler argues that "differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental neurobiological imperative." He says: "people fight because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environments with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures."

Armstrong sees the origins of violence in the clash of political economies (not religions). Wexler finds the origins in the clash of cultures (including religions).  So are Armstrong using history and Wexler using neuroscience in disagreement? Not exactly I think.

Wexler in developing his explanation surveys the history of religious wars and evangelization, for example the link between the missionaries and the conquistadors in colonialism. And Armstrong assumes violence as a part of human nature. And while Wexler's analysis focuses on the potential for violence in the disparity between internal and external structures and Armstrong focuses on the potential for violence in changes in the political economy, Wexler assumes the relationship of culture to political economy and Armstrong assumes the relationship of the state to the culture it creates.

So their descriptions are compatible. As so are their prescriptions. Armstrong through her Charter of Compassion is working through the religions (cultures) to lift up their enlightened side and join together in a global spirituality (religion) that can be found in all world religions (cultures). Wexler is  suggesting the development of a global culture (linked with a global political economy) that admits of the diversity of cultures and states.

The big question for me for both of these experts is: can we humans transcend our history and our nature? Such transcendence seems to be the destination of both good science and good religion and, I would add, good politics. Perhaps this is a never-ending quest. But I think that it is possible through the fullness of thinking--which includes reflection, criticism, and mindfulness.  

Or another way of putting it is not getting stuck in our own negative bullshit.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Dear Cousin Vinnie

Dear Cousin Vinnie,

We have argued a lot about politics and the future of our country. But I write this to say that I am sorry if I have been reactive to you in any way. I now believe that I understand you and your position much better and I want to respect both.

I am actually very grateful to you. I talk with many who would call themselves conservative and I have read and respect the conservative tradition in Anglo-American politics. But because of you I am in touch with a different kind of conservative which identifies with the new right in American politics. While I read materials by people who associate themselves with the Tea Party, Fox News, and so-called conservative talk shows, and watch them compete for political office, I seldom have a chance to discuss with them.

You know that my lifelong vocation has been community organizing, that is, pulling together people especially those who have been left out of political and economic power. This means people take responsibility for each other which often means struggling together against government and corporation policies and practices that hold them back. We have fought for fair housing, better air and water, educational opportunities, full employment, living wages, community services, and fairer progressive taxation. Saul Alinsky, who was one of my mentors, claimed that community organizing is a conservative enterprise because it builds on and supports traditional organizations, like families, churches, voluntary associations, to achieve a free and open society. Admittedly that is a very different notion of "conservative" than that of the new right.

My avocation is social ethics as part of a philosophy of mind in dialogue with neuroscience. In order to inform my ethics and politics, I read, write, and teach about how our brains have evolved to adapt to our environment through thinking, language, arts, sciences and other symbolic behaviors.

Recently I have been reading and thinking a lot about the brain and culture. One book, Wired for Culture by Mark Pagel, shows the genetic basis and evolutionary advantage of culture in humans. He  teaches that just as genes construct and use the organism (the genotype) to perpetuate themselves, so "memes" (words, symbols, models, images, produced by the brain for survival) form and use culture to perpetuate themselves. Another book, Brain and Culture by Bruce Wexler, shows that our brains are not just wired for culture, but also by culture.

When a member of our race (homo sapiens) is born, the brain has not yet stopped growing; this is why the first months of birth are so important. An infant that is not held, loved, smiled at and talked to, directed to things in the world, or is otherwise isolated will be extremely developmentally disabled. And even after those first months, the brain is still forming by acquiring language. But those synapses of the brain get routinized; and this is why, after the age of seven or eight, it becomes increasingly difficult to acquire a new language. The plasticity of the brain goes on as long as there is life; but by the age of 25 or so the brain is pretty much stuck in its ways--including its mores, belief systems, symbolic forms, attitudes and habits of behavior.

With its language, religion, narratives, values, belief systems, the culture into which we are born and reared actually molds our brains in certain ways. And in our culture-wired brains, we see and appreciate our world, we decide good and evil, we choose behaviors that we think are appropriate, and we interpret "facts.". (I am talking about humans with "normal" development, not humans that have been brain injured or deprived from human contact and assistance.)

Another thing that Wexler points out is that in its interaction with culture, the brain achieves an internal structure that is adaptable to the patterns of the cultural environment. That internal-external comfort gets stressed when a person is pushed into a new environment, e.g. by migration, by abduction, by changing times, and by being confronted with new cultures. This is the source of tremendous friction that expresses itself non-violently through denial or separation, or violently through attack on the opposing culture including its belief systems, symbols, and language. The Taliban destroying the great ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan, the building of cathedrals on the site of former mosques or vice versa, mass deportations, and even genocide arise from this conflict of cultures.

You and I are the same age and so born during WWII and raised in the US in the Post War era--the 1940s and 50s. We were shaped by much of the same culture. I bet you played guns, just as I did in Detroit. We fought Japs and Nazis, watched cowboys shoot Indians, lived in all white neighborhoods, and went to Catholic schools where we knew the authority of priests and nuns. In the Eisenhower 50s, according to Will Herberg, there were three ways of being American: Catholic, Protestant, and Jew. This was different than the earlier part of the 20th century when Catholics and Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Ireland, were not considered real Americans by White Anglo Saxon Protestants and lived in their own ghettos. As many historians have documented, those immigrants at first were not white, but had to become so--no matter the complexion of their skin.

But WWII and its aftermath changed all that. The development of highways and suburbs opened to all upwardly mobile white people--some of them fleeing the African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Appalachians newly immigrating into the older parts of the city. I was raised in an all "white" (Jewish and Catholic with a few mainline Protestants) neighborhood and went to an all white school and church. (I never knew how that happened, and just accepted it as normal, until I went to school and work in Chicago.)

I don't know about your family life. My father was a Republican but more in the line of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Dewey, and Rockefeller--what many of your affiliates would call a RINO today. He was the first in his family to go to college (Marquette University) where he studied humanities and journalism. I like to think that that is why, even though he had his opinions which became stronger has he climbed to management in General Motors, he always encouraged dissent and other ways of thinking on my part. I felt appreciated and honored when he would deem to argue with me. Always respectfully.

He would playfully joke with my mother who grew up a Democrat and especially appreciated the New Deal with Social Security and government conservation job programs because she saw what the depression did to her family. (BTW way she got quite conservative in her old age, but mainly about churchy things.) My father respected the UAW with which he dealt with often and successfully. He also worked closely with government by first changing GM plants to make tanks and amphibians--and then changing back after the war to the tremendous boom that all that government spending caused in the economy, including the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, the Social Security Act, the Highway's Act, and FHA, Public Housing, and the GSAs.

He was the first plant manager to find and promote a black man to foreman taking some heat for that from his bosses in Detroit whom he did not warn because they would have thought that it was too soon for that. He was a member of the Catholic Council for Racial Justice and strongly supported the Civil Rights Act, Voters Rights, and affirmative action. I also like to think that was because he went to a Jesuit university where he learned Catholic Social Teaching. We lived in a Jesuit--university affiliated parish. I went to a Jesuit high school and entered the Jesuit seminary where I got my fill of the humanities, science, and critical thinking.

As I say, I do not know enough about your family upbringing, but I suppose that you and I were nurtured very differently. So our brains are wired quite differently. We have very different values, religions, belief systems by which we see the world, by which we ascertain our "facts," and by which we choose our politics. And even in later life our experiences tend to nail down our opinions. For instance, you have a much different experience of labor unions and government regulation than my Dad or I had. Different frames, narratives, metaphors, even questions are in our heads.

We totally disagree on the treatment of immigrants and refugees, on affirmative action in housing and education, on universal health insurance, on government jobs programs. And that disagreement is not bad. It is part of the democratic republican system of American politics. Thanks to you I recently read a Republican fundraising appeal that accuses Obama of creating division in America among races, classes, and parties. The same day I read a Democratic fundraising appeal accusing the Republican Congress of dividing the country. Well, my response to both is that division and confrontation are not necessarily bad. Lincoln was accused of dividing the nation. So were Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed, and Martin Luther King.

I know why you dislike unions, why you want to minimize government, and why you want to stop providing benefits to the working poor including housing and health care. You see your image of America crumbling. It is no longer the America of the 50s, of white Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, ready to stabilize the world militarily and fight the enemy that competes with our hegemony.

Traditional institutions like male mastery, sexual difference, Judeo-Christian ascendency, unregulated market economy, Caucasian majority, American exceptionalism, and military might are threatened.  Science and liberal education are undermining absolutes in religion and morality. This is frightening to you. And fear provokes anger at those threatening what you hold dear. Those include me who supports gay marriage, gun-control, limitation of American military reach, citizenship for new immigrants who desire it, multiculturalism, diverse religious expressions (including Islam and atheism), regulated markets, redistribution of wealth towards equity, women's control of their bodies, reparations to the descendants of slavery and Jim Crow through affirmative action, family leave and early childhood education, government accountability to the working poor instead of the super wealthy, collective action to limit the damage being done to the planet, and free education and health care.

I know you would vehemently oppose this "socialist" platform. This doesn't mean that either one of us is evil or stupid. I would hope that we can agree to disagree without name-calling or being disrespectful. I totally disagreed with George Bush on his decision to invade Iraq and on his taxation policy which did not pay for that war. I agreed with him on his immigration and prescription drug policies. I disagreed with Clinton on his welfare reform without full employment and his deregulation of the banks. But I reject the hate or disrespect that would make fun of pissing on a picture of any president or calling him Satan or traitor. Naming, blaming, and demonizing to me is a sign of weakness--but I see how it arises from the fear and anger of those old, white, men who see their nation and their ideals being destroyed.

I also realize that your fear, your discomfort with where our country and the world is going, and your expressed pessimism is grounded in a reality. It is your reality, not mine. But it makes me think. It cautions me to be less sure of myself and my own reality. I too am very disappointed by our elected leaders, including the president, who let partisan considerations trump effective action. But instead of blaming them, I want to take responsibility for what I can do in my own community to hold them accountable. I too want to limit government intrusion into privacy and I want government to support, not reduce, personal responsibility including work. My thoughts and positions are also born of my own way of seeing the world based on the frames, narratives, values, and beliefs which I have acquired. I need to challenge and constantly rethink them.

You are trying to hold on to something valuable. I need to acknowledge that and discover those values which I too share--like personal responsibility, local self-determination, freedom from government or corporate control. I truly believe that beyond our different cultures, we do share a common nature. That all persons have dignity and a "spark of the divine," a common cause and destiny that transcend all our formulations and positions. I think it is discovered in our capacity to think which involves listening, empathy, respect, mindfulness, and collaboration with one another and the recognition that we are all in this world together.

I also believe that while we are largely determined by our genes and memes, by nature and culture, we have the ability to progressively free ourselves from the determination of nature and culture by thinking, by questioning ourselves and our positions and by searching with others, especially those by whom we are most challenged, for a more universal viewpoint and shared positions. So the conversation among differing viewpoints and positions is vital. But when we stereotype, bad-name, and demonize persons the conversation ends. Relationships are broken.

So let's not do that. No more.