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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Illusions of the Righteous Mind.

While awaiting Bernie shopping for a dress, I amused myself in one of my favorite pastimes: wandering the floors of Barnes and Noble. Guess which new books were prominently displayed during this time of political conventions. Here was a book demonstrating how Obama is ruining the nation next to another identifying all the lies they are telling about the President. There was one opening the doors of the White House to show all its detail and another discussing White House secrets. Here was one on Mitt Romney showing his great leadership in building fortunes for the rich and another portraying the real Romney. And the various books by economists and fortune hunters both supporting and attacking whatever policy you could think of.  Now step over to the religious and inspirational section!

Righteous minds, indeed!

"This class in archeology is about facts. If you want to deal with truth, go down the hall to Professor Dawson's philosophy class," (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). But we pick our facts and arrange and see them the way we want. Mostly based on our own interests, affiliations, and values. So I am afraid there is little truth even in Professor Dawson's philosophy class--much less in all the books, slogans, ads, speeches, and emailed slop in a political campaign. My cousin Vinnie says I am stupid in my liberal leanings, but of course I know that he is. And so we do not talk, much less listen.

One of the methods that science uses to at least approach truth is dispelling illusions. All these campaign-timed books think they are doing just that. Yet it is often easier, the Jesus saying goes, to see the sliver in your enemy's eye than the beam in your own.

A few blogs ago, I summarized the tensions in the human nature that we have become and said that each of these tensions carried its own illusions. Let me elaborate on this as a way of stepping back from the political fray to try to understand how Vinnie and me and all of us can be so stupid--especially in discussing and doing politics and religion.

The four tensions I considered, you might remember, were 1) sociality, the tension between self and other, 2) spatiality, the tension between inner awareness and outer things, 3) temporality, the tension between our memories and our projections, and 4) ideality, the tension between the world as we are living it and the world as we think or would like it to be.

I feel we are living in such an exciting age when evolutionary biology and psychology and neuroscience are dispelling the illusions we have in our human universe just as physics, astrology, and quantum mechanics have been doing in our physical universe.  And then, through a higher viewpoint, they inquire as to how these universes are the same multiverse.

So through science we have dispelled some illusions about the sun going around the earth, the place of the earth and us in relation to everything else, the age of the earth, universe, life and our species, and even what we are all made of and came to be. But now let's look at the illusions that are at the foundation of all these and other illusions because they arise from the very dynamics in the nature of humanity.

1) Sociality and the illusion of the Self.  As the baby feels, sees, and learns to imitate mother and other caregivers, both the self and the other are gradually distinguished. It is not long after and for sure as bodily and verbal gesture are being acquired that the child takes on three illusions that may last his lifetime. There is the illusion of an independent, permanent, self-directed, free-willed ("self-made" if he becomes a Libertarian) Self. An immortal soul that was created at conception or perhaps earlier and makes it murder and a mortal sin to have an abortion. Then with theory of mind and maybe mirror neurons, there is the illusion of other selves starting with parents and siblings which are also self-contained, permanent, changing only accidentally (e.g. by adding or removing stains), never substantially. And finally there is the illusion of invisible and supernatural agents that make things happen that are outside human control. Child psychologist Paul Bloom describes the process well in Descartes' Baby. The wholly constituted self (including the other as self, free will, and invisible free self-directed agents) is the illusion from which a sense of "righteousness" easily arises. What is there of course are emerging, growing, changing, interacting organisms with the developing capacity for self-awareness and symbolic expression.

2) Spatiality and the illusion of the Object.  The human capacity par excellence is that of symbolic expression which includes imagination--making images and using them to get hold of and deal with the environment. Language, art, myth, religion, science--our ways of forming, enjoying, knowing a world.  In expression through symbolic forms, e.g. artifacts, we confront objects and experience ourselves as subjects confronting objects.  But our focus is on objects, things out there, as if they are the whole of reality. It is what John Dewey described as the "objectivistic fallacy." We believe that the symbols that we have collectively, historically created to deal with our environment are the non-artifacted things in themselves. This is the source of our icons and idols and our corresponding and often warring ideologies and iconoclasms. Simply part of the human condition? Yes, but so also is the hope that we can pass beyond these illusions. We have been trying to do at least since the Axial Age (see Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong)--the age of Confucius and Buddha, Lao Tsu and Zarathustra, Moses and Jesus, Socrates and Zeno.

3) Temporality and the illusion of the Absolute. We always know ourselves in the now. We live between our memories and our hopes, short-term and long-term. But our sense of the past and the future is often expressed as though they are separate from us. We believe that the founders, the saints, the gods did it all right, but we have departed from their ways. We believe that if we live correctly, if we sacrifice, confess, become martyrs, follow the right path, say the right words, and join the right group, we will come to the promised land. We often express the past mythologically as a golden age, a paradise before the fall, or the future as heaven, a paradise after redemption. The illusion is of a past and future that is separate from our interpretation and anticipation, distant from who we are and what we do now.  It is an illusion of a time outside of time, without beginning and end, before and after we exist and the universe is. The illusion is of an absolute beyond ambiguity. This is an illusion that shows itself in the religion of condemnation and salvation and in the politics of restoration and revolution, the ancienne regime and the novo saeculum saeculorum, the righteous Right and the righteous Left.

4) Ideality and the illusion of the Real. The fourth is a really a composition of the first three. Just put the Self, the Object, and the Absolute all together. There they are in the convention speech and many a Sunday sermon. The notion of Reality as out-there-separate from what we are imagining it to be is  greatest obstacle to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.  And yet that illusion is part of our species greatest and defining power: our ability to express, communicate, imagine, symbolize which is also our ability to think and act together--the very definition of power.

On the one side, this illusion is confusing the real with the ideal, expecting the world as we live it to be the world as we think it should be.  On the other side, the illusion is separating the real and the ideal, forgetting that what we see as real is in fact the results of our imaging or idealizing.  As in most queries, the task is to distinguish but not separate.

So in conclusion:

These are the illusions behind those Barnes and Nobel books fueling our political and religious passion and intolerance, partisanship and exclusion.  It's okay.  We are all in the stretch, the pulling and pushing bands of the tension between self and other, inner and outer, past and future, real and ideal.  We may often believe so, but none of us are at the term or resolution of the tension.  The tension may be a problem, but it is also our solution--since we are the tension.

Our goal and our happiness is not to escape the ambiguity of existence, to step outside time and space and interdependence, to attain the "mind of God."  On the contrary, it is to fully engage in our time, space, and community in all its ambiguity, relativity, and messiness.  It is as I have often declared to transcend beliefs through faith.  Beliefs divide; faith unites.

If only we could recognize this, we could all get along with ourselves and each other, here and now.

And tone it down, right? And laugh!

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Conservative Advantage

#2.  But don't liberals value authority, loyalty, and purity as much as conservatives?

Let's define liberal and conservative.  That's difficult because of various uses of the words not only in America and Europe and US and Canada, but also within the US itself.  European and Canadian use of "liberal" generally focuses on free market without government regulations but also accountable government without class differences.  Even deeply conservative Americans promote liberalism in Eastern Europe, China, and the mid-East--in fact in every country but their own.  "Socialism"in Europe (as in the Labor Party of UK or the New Democratic Party of Canada) promotes the free market but also government programs to "level the playing field," i.e. promote greater economic equality in opportunity and results. Soviet and Chinese "communism" is the market in which the Party (controlling the State) has control of capital and profits and should not be confused with socialism as it has been defined in America or Europe.

One of my mentors, Saul Alinsky, much maligned by Newt Gingrich who clearly does not know who or what he is talking about, attacked liberals and liberalism in America as rhetoric without substance and talk without action.  He was no socialist however.  He decried the American welfare system for creating dependence as would any conservative.  But he strongly believed in political and economic justice that could only be attained through organizing, both at the work place and at the living place, to hold both industry and government accountable.

The Founders of the American Republic accepted and provided for "factions" (Hamilton's term), but not parties. They ensured accountability by structuring government as a balance of powers, local and national, legislative, executive, and judicial, with a clear distinction between cultures/religions and the political space wherein private self-interests (including industries) could be contained.

But in the transition from Republic to World Power (Empire?), two contesting parties have become predominant, both beholden to large donations by the private sector (especially wealthy individuals, large industries, and their lobbying arms).  So we are in the throws of polarization, competing but similar gangs and large monied players that control the political process.

Haidt would reduce the polarization in discourse and hopefully in policy not so much through "framing" political language by attention to ideas of child-rearing, cognitive therapy, and culture (a la George Lakoff), but by recognition of the six biological foundations of morality that influence politics.  Because conservatives use all six fairly equally and liberals mainly use only three, liberals are at a disadvantage and need to learn to appeal to the other three, i.e. authority, loyalty, and purity.  Haidt has used this understanding to critique and write political speeches for candidates that help them articulate their policies and make them more appealing.

Reflecting on this, I propose a diagram that may help in understanding the polarization of ideas that advance present policy towards overcoming that polarization by having people on either side appreciate  people on the other side.

Accepting Haidt's framework, I think that Liberals use all six foundations as much as Conservatives.  They too appeal to authority (just a different one than Conservatives).  They too value loyalty--but they choose a different group with whom they most want a good reputation.  And they too suffer from "political correctness" and see themselves as pure (e.g. in eating, in conservation, in language).  Certainly it would help civil discourse if the various players understood their own interests and values and how these related to persons they see in the other camp.


But frankly, as much as I hold to the importance of language and other forms of symbolic behavior, I do not think that framing arguments or writing speeches will make much of a difference.  Our words and worldviews are captive of the institutions we have built and take their meanings within the structures to which we have uncritically committed ourselves.  The parties now dominate our politics including all its governmental and nongovernmental agencies; our economics are controlled in a corporate hegemony consisting of Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, and wealthy private interest lobbying associations and foundations; an American religion of economic growth structures our culture, contained in churches led by mega-church populist preachers, denominational bishops, and media moguls.

Discourse and language alone will not influence the American civil religion as Robert Bellah has long understood.  Nor will it influence our political-economy.  Only independent, self-determining organizations will challenge the institutions and structures of our society.  Voluntary associations that start with personal self-interests, shared values, and community affiliations through which people learn and fight for their long-ranged common interests and values will not only hold present institutions accountable, but restructure them to be more inclusive and just.  But of course that takes a lot of nitty-gritty work in the work place, in the churches, and on in the streets.

So as much as I appreciate Haidt's project, without the restoration of true politics and rescuing it from partisan political, economic, and cultural institutions, I do think it will not solve the American dilemma. Thoughtful inquiry in academia can assist, but is hardly sufficient.

Many of us voted for Obama as a change we could believe in.  I do not regret my vote, my financial support, or my canvassing.  But I know that unless the institutions, including the parties and government agencies change, American democracy and republicanism will not achieve its potential and will continue to sink into the plutocracy it has become.

Having fought government for over 30 years and then worked for government for over 14 years, I can see the changes that must be made and I believe I see how they might happen. But that is for another blog later.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Integrity and the Foundations of Morality

#3.  Is Haidt's theory compatible with mine?

I've already applauded Jonathan Haidt on his score of the six foundations of morality. Let me summarize my Integrity Theory of Ethics and see how it might improvise with his.

I identify four dynamics in human nature and behavior--sociality, spatiality, temporality, ideality--each of which has an experimental scientific base. I do not mean to be exclusive nor dogmatic about these; they could be increased or expressed differently. However, I think they are falsifiable; I think they are useful for further inquiry; and I think they can be related to Haidt's six foundations. Another question is whether we are talking about one or many principles for ethics with which I will deal at the end.

I start with sociality which is the tension in our existence (human nature as dynamic) between individual self and social collective. I adopt Wilson and his study of ants as my prime authority. But I also liked Paul Seabright's The Company of Strangers and Marco Iacoboni Mirroring People. And of course the whole tradition of social psychology from Kurt Goldstein on. Wilson finds that in our evolutionary adaptation is the acquisition of traits for both selection as individual and as group. He also claims that this is a tension that will never be resolved as long as our species is around.

Then there is spatiality which is a dynamic tension between inner and outer space that is part and parcel with our symbolic behavior, our adaptation to our environment and knowledge of our world through artificial forms or images (language, art, religion, science). There are lots of good authorities on this especially in psychology and philosophy and more recently in neuroscience.  A new favorite for me is Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain.

Thirdly, there is temporality which is the dynamic tension between memory and projection. Memory of course, both unconscious and conscious, has been a prevalent focus of study for neuroscience especially using fMRI, as well as the use of memory in producing and projecting images whether on the wall of a cave or in an urban general plan. Intuition (direct experience) has always found the past and the future in the now stretching backwards and forwards at the same time. Memory is directly related to language, learning, cognition, imaging, and of course the recognition of self and others and of inner and outer space.

Fourthly, I propose ideality which is the dynamic tension between the real and the ideal or the virtual or the dreamt. (Though elsewhere I point out how one can say with Hegel that the Real is the Ideal, and with quantum theorists that the Real is the Virtual, and with Eastern religions that the Real is the Dream.) Politically this is the tension between the world as we find it and the world as we want it to be.  I think this dynamic tension cuts across and is a synthesis of the other three. I think it also connects to the dynamic tension between the universal and the particular, science and technology, transcendence and immanence.

I also think that consciousness (and here I take as my authorities Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained and Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject) is a function and product of human existence with these (and maybe more than) four dimensions. But David Deutsch is my mentor (after Merleau-Ponty) of human existence and consciousness as transcending, as the "beginning of infinity." For in our activity of dealing with the world in the company of others in the present, we open ourselves to an unlimited future.

I have discussed each of the four dimensions more at length earlier. I have also shown that each of them can explain the illusions that we must overcome in our progressive dance to infinity. The dimension of sociality gives rise to the illusion of supernatural agency (see Paul Bloom, "Is God an Accident?" in the Atlantic and also Descartes' Baby). The dimension of spatiality gives rise to the "illusion of the absolute" (Merleau-Ponty) or the "objectivistic fallacy" (Dewey) in our failure to distinguished the expressed from the expressing, the parlĂ©e from the parole. The dimension of temporality has us denying ambiguity and hoping for the "golden age" or for "utopia." And ideality combines all these in the confusion of the world as it is with the world as we want it to be, the idolatry of the particular as universal, eternity out there instead of in the now.

It is the integration of these dynamics in our action here, now, with others where we find the foundation of this-worldly ethics and politics. Human existence (the dynamic nature of human nature with its fourfold tension) is the principle of ethics and politics. The categorical imperative is the striving for integrity: the holding and dealing with the many tensions of our existence.

So how does this relate to Haidt's six foundations?

Here is an attempt.

What I am trying to show is that Haidt's six foundations of morality are not antithetical with my four tensions of human nature, and indeed confirm them. Loyalty and authority pertain to our groupishness.  Care and Fairness pertain to the empathic aspect of our interaction with others in expression. Liberation  from oppression pertain to our progression advance in time. And sanctity/purity to ideality and the world without evil.

Both the Theory of Moral Foundations and the Ethical Theory of Integrity can be useful to our politics as I will show in the next blog.

Finally I want to deal with Haidt's assertion that there is no one principle, but many for human morality.  I do agree with this. But at the same time I think there is one principle for ethics which is human existence, in all its dynamic complexity, itself. I also think it is important to distinguish between principles as expressions, e.g. moral maxims, and principles as the unexpressed source of human behavior in human existence.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sources of Morality and its Study

#1 The question has to do with the role of "reason" in morality and its study.

Haidt, Tancredi ("Hardwired Behavior"), Gazzaniga ("The Ethical Brain") and others have demonstrated the subordinate role that reason plays in moral decision making and behavior. But what Haidt seems to mean by "reason" is what Gazaniga ("Who's in Charge") calls the "interpreter module."

The point is that there is morality: genetic and culturally determined values and principles that shape ideas on how to behave and that influence behavior itself in a specific situation, history, and association. And there is the study of morality or ethics: a critical inquiry into the antecedents, sources, and foundations of morality and moralities.

The sources of morality can be found in genes, memes (culture), and direct experience through science, especially evolutionary biology and neurscience, anthropology/sociology, psychology/phenomenology.

Here is how I diagram it with the notion of "reason" at the different levels of inquiry.

All students of human behavior question the notion of "free will" which many neuroscientists call an illusion, though a necessary one selected for human functioning.  For sure most of our decisions are made for "subliminal" reasons (see Leonard Mlodinow, "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior") or wired responses to situations (Haidt, etc).

We might discern three types of unconsciousness before things rise to open consciousness: 1) the "wired" or evolutionary adaptive responses like fight or flight, 2) the "unconscious" e.g. Freud's id or Jungian archetypes or Haidt's evolutionary adaptive ideas, and 3) the "subliminal" e.g. Freud's superego, marketing ploys to our adaptive ideas. Personally, I prefer Merleau-Ponty's notion of the pre-conscious which does not deny the unconscious, but puts it in the context of our adaptation and expression to the world through symbolic forms. For M-P neither the conscious expressed nor the pre-conscious expressing are secondary; but one is ground to the other.

At any rate, our conscious argument for a certain course of action is subsequent--an interpretation or justification of a behavior that comes out of the unconscious.  So we are not in charge of our behaviors.  Or are we?

Gazzaniga also holds that conscious awareness arises and belongs not to any one module, but is found throughout the brain and maybe consists of the very complexity of the diverse modules.  (This I think fits more with M-P's notion.) And while individual free will may be an illusion, responsibility is nevertheless an important factor of social functioning.

Moreover, I would argue in a long tradition from Socrates, that freedom and responsibility (not "free will") are acquired progressively over the course of our lifetime and over the course of our species existence through thinking in a social context about what we are doing and where we are going and what we want to be, on acting based on that thinking, and then on thinking about that, and so forth for as long as we exist.  And also by holding each other accountable for the consequences of our thinking and action--which is where politics comes in; because there must be a space where we can think and act together and hold ourselves accountable.  My own freedom (again not "free will") is dependent on that shared space, time, and sociality.

Which leads us to #3 question to Haidt and more to myself: how does his Theory of Moral Foundations jive with my Ethical Theory of Integrity?  Next Blog.  (I'll save #2 for the last one.)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Moral Foundations Theory

Questions to Haidt on his Moral Foundations Theory. (See previous blog.)

1.  If reason comes after intuition and is just a rationalization of what one already believes and how one already behaves, why write your book?

In dealing with Cousin Vinnie (see June 12 blog), I have no doubt that intellectual argument with evidence will play no role in his political stance and choices. But while reason may indeed follow sentiment in morality, I do think that ethics can influence morality and a politics based on morality. I think Haidt also thinks this is so or he would not have carried out his inquiry into his Foundations of Morality.

Ethics in my parlance is the critique of moralities based on an understanding of human existence. I use human existence as a synonym of human nature to stress human nature's dynamism including its drives, intentionality, and tensions. Evolutionary biology and psychology and neuroscience have contributed greatly to our understanding of human existence.

Moralities are diverse, the products of culture, the expressions of human existence in history, location, and association.  While reason, as Haidt and Gazzinaga and others point out, is often, maybe almost always, used as a justification or rationalization of a moral stance, it has the capacity to become thought or what some have called "secondary reflection." Ethics is critical thinking about moralities and is what Haidt is engaging in with the hope of modifying American moralities and their politics. (See more on this in #1 next blog.)

2.  But don't liberals also appeal to loyalty, authority, and purity?

Having grown up politically in the 60s and helping to organize actions to support civil rights and to oppose the Vietnam War and voting for Democrats most (not all) the time, I suppose I qualify as a "liberal" (though I do not like the word and prefer "progressive"). Yet I grew up Catholic in a Republican household and learned to appreciate classical conservatism (from Edmund Burke to Alexander Hamilton, Russell Kirk, John Kekes and, yes, Saul Alinsky).

I contend that loyalty, authority, and the sacred definitely matter to progressives. It is just what group, author, and institution or practice we are talking about.  In community organizing training, I always pointed to three interacting drivers of human behavior: interests, affiliations, values. Each has its realm.  Interests relate to economy (the affairs of household and of biological well-being). Affiliations relate to politics (community and public affairs). Values to culture (symbolic expressions including myth, religion, art, science, education). Each also has its institutions or habits and structures of behavior, such as household and corporation, social agency and government, church and university.

Liberals/progressive and conservatives/libertarians have different referent groups and "moral matrices" as Haidt has pointed out rather than different foundations. That is, it is not whether you care or not, or are loyal or not, or accept authority or not. It is whom do you care about, whom are you loyal to, and whom do you accept as authority. Or in my terms: with whose interests do you identify, with whom do you care to be affiliated, and what values do you want yourself and others to judge you by?  (more on this in #2 next blog).

3.  Does your Foundations of Morality Theory relate to my Ethical Theory of Integrity?

I very much like your six foundations of morality, the connection they have to evolutionary adaptive behaviors, the types of triggers for these behaviors, and the corresponding virtues for these foundations. You do not claim that these are exclusive or deny that they might be categorized differently. I like that you do not try to reduce your theory to one principle--as do some other theories. I think your theory admits of falsification and modification through observation and so is scientific. Thus I think it provides a scientific foundation or critique to other theories--such as virtue theory, deontological ethics, contract theory, and utilitarianism. Most of all I think it is useful for understanding our contemporary political situation and making decisions to change it.

It is precisely because of this that I am challenged to review my own theory of ethics to see how it corresponds. And I will try this in #3 of my next blog (without hopefully just being the unwitting rider of my own elephant).


More thoughts: (Next Blog)

1.  Sources of Morality and Sources of the Study of Morality (Ethics).

2.  Changing ideas and changing structures. Innately prepared ideas, archetypes, and mythical forms.   Politics as organizing institutional change.

3.  Ethical theories. Six foundations for morality and four tensions of human existence.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Righteous Mind and The Great Divide

Just finished Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Good read with a purpose to civilize our political discourse and behavior--which is one of my purposes in my Ethics of Integrity.

The Great Divide in American politics is now Right and Left represented by the two parties.  In earlier days, we had checks and balances among the various branches of government and even within the parties themselves. Now, even within the branches of government, it is Liberals and Progressives represented by the Democratic Party against Conservatives and Libertarians represented by the Republican Party. While factions were accepted and provided for by the Founders of the Republic, parties as separate and separating clubs were not. Politics was identified as public space where various factions interact to come up through negotiation with common policies for the common welfare, not where two enemies square off for one to win and the other to lose.

Haidt explains the divide through evolutionary psychology as a step to solving the problem that the divide causes to our body politic. He, like all thinkers since Plato and Aristotle, indicates the link between ethics and politics and how our political activity is shaped by our morality.

First, he demonstrates as did many before him that intuition (e.g. emotion, passion) comes first and then reason (logic, argument) comes after. Pretty much the same as Michael Gazzaniga demonstrates in his books on the modular brain. Reason justifies a position already taken as prepared by one's genetic and cultural orientation. In Haidt's metaphor, reason is just the rider on the elephant which takes its own route.

Second, he demonstrates (mainly to liberals) that morality is a lot more than care over harm and fairness over cheating. Here I think is his most creative and challenging (to me) contribution on the six foundations of morality: 1) care over harm, 2) fairness over cheating, 3) liberation over oppression, 4) loyalty over betrayal, 5) authority over subversion, 6) purity over degradation. These foundations are testable evolutionary adaptations with characteristic pre-reasonable emotions and identifiable relevant virtues. He calls this Moral Foundations Theory and associates it less with the mathematical model of Bentham utilitarianism (pleasure principle) and the logic model of Kantian deontology (reason principle) than the sentiment model of Hume's empiricism (no one principle). He also claims that while liberals use the first three foundations for their politics, conservatives use all six which gives them an advantage in presenting their political narrative and gaining adherents.

Third, he pretty much covers the ground that Edward Wilson (The Social Conquest of the Earth) covered in demonstrating multi level natural selection, i.e. individual and group selection. Many of our evolutionary traits are because of the advantage they give us individually (e.g. selfish genes and memes) and many are because of the advantage they give us a members of a group or society (e.g. groupish genes and memes).  His metaphor is that we are 90% chimp and 10% bee. So our genetic predisposition and then our adoption into a moral matrix pretty much shapes the way we think, act, and vote. This makes it pretty difficult  to win people from the other gang into ours and so the fight is for people who do not identify with either gang (e.g. independents).

Okay, good stuff, Jonathan.  But I want to take you on a bit and also deal with the challenge you present to me and my ethical theory. Next time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Black Knight

Before we saw the Black Knight Rises at the Silver Spring IMAX theater, I said to Bernie "now let's watch it the way that Joseph Campbell would."

It was a fun film which I watched chuckling all the way through.

Here are some of the great mythic themes and I am sure that Professor Campbell would have found many more.

  • Good and Evil as cosmic or absolute and as personal between and within the hero and antihero.
  • The City as both holy and degenerate place (Babylon and Jerusalem)
  • The Woman as creator and destroyer.
  • The Hero of a thousand faces (Prophet, Christ, God)
  • Rite of passage, the heroic trial, struggle
  • The Mask--revealing and hiding truth.
  • Redemption, Resurrection, Re-Creation

And some of the lessons of the Myth:

  • Rule of law over the Mob.
  • Liberation from within (not from outside) the city/community.
  • Freedom with and from the state (political institution).
  • Importance of non-governmental organization.
  • Wealth as destructive and useful, wealth as secondary.
  • The individual as ultimate moral being.  
  • Responsibility to the City/Public over self-preservation.

Black is beautiful!  Black Power!  And don't piss off a woman.  

Monad or Node?

The present political campaign illustrates two different world views and their ethical approaches.

No, not liberal and conservative, not capitalist and socialist, not religious and secular, not smart and dumb, not logical and illogical, not good and bad. It relates to earlier posts I made between a univocal vs. analogical perspective and the two fairness doctrines. But now I call it node vs. monad.

The monadical point of view sees the person as a self-contained entity or monad responsible for itself first and foremost but interacting with other monads. Cooperation and team work is a good thing among monads because each can profit by it. But finally a social order and the universe itself is the totality of the individuals each doing what it must do to survive and thrive.

The nodal point of view sees the person as a point or node of relationships within a larger totality that is greater than the sum of individuals. Relationships constitute not only what one does, but who one is. The universe is understood as emerging and merging, surging and ebbing dynamic relationships in which all beings, including human ones, are ephemeral centers.

A modadical point of view is generally single centered and hierarchical. It is the point of view of classical, mechanical science. A nodal point of view is generally multi-centered and holographic. It is the point of view of quantum theory. Both can be defended because both are ways to understand things.

I just finished Edward O Wilson's The Social Conquest of Reality and am now reading Jonathan Heidt's The Righteous Mind. These books by an evolutionary biologist and an evolutionary psychologist gather the evidence for the multi-level evolution of homo sapiens. Through the history and longer pre-history of humanity, natural selection worked at both the individual and the group level. Traits have been selected through the adaptation process for those that would benefit the individual organism within a group and those that would benefit the group organization in relation to other groups and the total environment. Self-interest and public interest (selfishness and altruism) are both part of the human genotype.

This is the biological basis for the tension between self and other which I described in my ethical theory of integrity. It is also the biological basis for the monadical and nodal viewpoint. Both are necessary to our human nature though different cultures emphasize one more than the other. Certainly our "western" culture, especially since the Enlightenment, pushes individual creativity, opportunity, and success as a criterion of group achievement. Individual rights and social justice is our vocation individually through personal activity and collectively through public action.

Taking one or the other to extremes will undo human existence turning us into a hive of altruistic bees (the collectivist Borg) or a bunch of self-preoccupied dandies (the narcissistic Dorian Gray). Both are considered psychological disorders, ethical corruptions, and political disasters.

Nevertheless, I think that we must still give priority to the public over private interest, to eusociality over libertarianism, to the nodal over the monadical perception because the public nodal viewpoint subsumes the private monadical viewpoint. You cannot maintain personal liberty without sociality including accountable government.

Even the most innovative and creative of individuals has acknowledged this in his "The World as I See It." Albert Einstein writes:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people -- first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving...

"I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed empty to me. The trite objects of human efforts -- possessions, outward success, luxury -- have always seemed to me contemptible.

"My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a 'lone traveler' and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude..."

There may be a path to individual prosperity in the libertarian Paul Ryan's plan; but it will be short term if the advantages to the wealthy that the plan provides leads to the continuing division among classes and factions. Tribalism (plutocracy, vigilantism, revolution) will emerge to overcome the conditions of political order as Fukuyama has noted: a strong state, accountable government, rule of law. Also, as I have noted in earlier blogs, by making economic growth ("the ideals of a pigsty") the primary goal of the election puts our nation on the path of the greatest immorality, the path to disintegration.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Am I responsible for you?

Yes and no.

Start with no. You are your own person. If I take responsibility for you, I take away your freedom, your dignity as a person. Woe to the "nanny state"! To food stamps, emergency aid, health insurance, social security, low income housing programs, regulation of commerce and harmful substances, welfare as we know it. These practices foster the game playing of dependency that in turn leads to addiction beyond personal initiative. The true left has always agreed with the true right on this: government aid programs can lead willy-nilly to the loss of individual freedom and responsibility and control by Leviathan.

But yes. We are social animals within expanding waves of relationships. I am who I am because of you, all of you, past, present, and future.  The language and other tools I use to advance myself are social products, i.e. from you. The neighborhood and nation I enjoy are you. There is nothing I can do or be without your contributions whether you realize them or not. When I see you drowning and say or do nothing, I am shirking my responsibility. When I see an institution holding you back, when I find out about a practice that has diminished your opportunity for growth, when I hear about conditions that hasten your demise and I say and do nothing, I am reducing my ability to respond. Conservatives and liberals have always known this when they use accountable government to advance social justice.

Why respond to my neighbor, why take responsibility for my community? Because the ability to respond is the essence of human freedom and power. When we diminish our ability to respond by willful ignorance or neglect, we diminish our freedom and power which can only accrue to persons collectively. The teaching on subsidiarity in which an action or a solution should be exercised at the most appropriate and closest level is not the social darwinism of individualistic survival and society be left to fend for itself.

So maybe the best answer to our question is: No, I am not responsible for you. But, yes, I am responsible to you. Only you can change your thinking and behavior.  Only I can change mine. I can with you, however, change the circumstances of our common life.

Here then is the ethical-political choice. It is not left or right, liberal or conservative, republican or democrat per se. It is the recognition that the individual and society cannot be separated. It is the responsible use of accountable government to foster personal and social freedom and power for all especially those who have been left behind whatever label we put on that in the here and now.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Two in One

I know there is a brain

I know there is a brain in my head.  But it's like someone else.

I seek the remembrance of someone.  It does not come.

Then I am jogging alone, fixing only on my goal.

And boom--the name appears.  I speak it.

I seek the solution to my problem.  I cannot find it.

Then I am sleeping quiet, well maybe a snore.

And boom--the answer arrives.  I have it.

Funny brain!  where did you find it?

Or was it there all the time and I just didn't see?

Neurons, synapses doing their divinity thing?

Who is my brain?  Me, but not.



I meet at town center park with friends and foes.

I question church and state, morality and policy.

I confront all patriotic and orthodox beliefs.

I flirt with actions to change the rules.

I expose my theories and join protests against them.

I return home to fight the greatest critic of them all.


Whom do I want to live with?

A swindler who will deceive for advantage?

A zealot who will sacrifice persons for principles?

A patriot encouraging murder, torture, domination?

A thug who can be cruel to get his way?

A functionary more interested in rules than people?

A zombie that cares not for history or the future?

A dullard who takes in media without thought?

A hustler who considers no consequences for others?

A believer without a sense of humor?

A politician for economic wealth over all?

It's not a question of altruism over selfishness,

or even right and wrong.

It is a question of

Whom do I want to live with.

Polarized vs. Dialectical Thinking

I just read a beautiful piece by Alfred Einstein, The World as I See It. Here he talks about his great debt to his community, his passion for social justice, and his appreciation of solitude and the desire for Truth and Beauty.

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

Here is a wonderful example of dialectical or tensional thinking as opposed to polarized believing. It is also an example of the religious as opposed to the religions, as John Dewey taught.  

Human cognitive activity results in expression; indeed human cognition is the activity of expressing in interaction with others. Expressions are memes (Richard Dawkin's word) which shared and passed down create a culture. They are called thoughts, concepts, or beliefs or, in science, theories. When we fix those beliefs so that they are no long subject to inquiry and can no long change, we exhibit polarized  believing.  

(I know that we use "I think" and "I believe" as synonyms.  Just as we do "faith" and "belief." But I would prefer to distinguish "believing" from "thinking," and "faith" from "beliefs." I see Einstein as having a strong and perduring faith because he has a belief system that is always under question, thinking over believing, deeply religious while critiquing religion.)

Polarized believing ends in an ideology that retards further inquiry. Dialectical thinking is in continual tension between doctrine (acquired knowledge) and inquiry.  

The politics of a republic can work only with dialectical thinking. Partisanship, the existence of parties, interest groups, factions, and especially publics are a part of the process. And it is okay, even admirable, to die for one's beliefs, but not if it brings down the body politic which consists of engaged discussion, negotiation, compromise, getting to a win-win position. 

The polarization of political discourse therefore is deeply troubling especially if one does not even listen to or see the world from the other's point of view. Name calling, demonization, hate talk, the kind that one hears on talk-radio or sees on the internet undermine American politics.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Our search for Reality is our desire for understanding and truth, our hope towards goodness and happiness, our want of wholeness and health. Or, as philosophers might say, the connection of our beings with Being.  Or theologians, the union of us creatures with God.

So what is reality?  Often we define a word by contrasting it with its opposite.

In common speech, the real is often opposed to the rational. Indeed, studies of the brain indicate that the rational or interpretive part of the brain often follows the emotional or gut feeling part of the brain. So the latest statistics on employment mean one thing to Democrats (added jobs, yay!) and another to Republicans (still unemployment over 8%, yay!). And yet isn't it also so that the "real is the rational, the rational the real" as dialectical thinkers like Hegel discovered? Isn't our rationality, including our ability to interpret and to verify scientifically, our path to reality?

Also the real is opposed to the virtual. As we watched in The Matrix, take the blue pill (or was it the red one?) and you see the real reality as opposed to virtual reality. If, as some scientists postulate, the universe is a hologram, then is it real at all? Some say with Kant that the really real is the noumenal underlying the phenomenal. So does even what you see with the right pill lie above or beyond your sense perception?  Is there any way for humans to attain reality without some imagination? Isn't virtuality also reality?

And the real is often opposed to the artificial.  So is it kosher for an athlete to compete in the Olympics with artificial aids (prosthetics, chemicals, wind and water resistant clothes)? And is artificial intelligence real intelligence? So if they are able to upload my brain software into a robot, will I really be there?  But then again, is not the artificial merely the extension of the real?  Don't we use tools (words, machines, computers) to extend and prolong our bodies and minds? Aren't tools real?

Real is often opposed to fantasy or myth. The stories of the Grimm Brothers or the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita are not true history, that is, real.  Is what a photographer presents after she processes the picture in photoshop, or what an impressionist paints or dances, or what a playwriter directs real?  Does art and religion and even science get to reality? Yet who would say that these activities are not different ways of achieving reality?

Certainly most opposed to reality is delusion.  The beautiful mind of John Nash was delusional, the result of paranoid schizophrenia. Indeed don't we define mental illness by its separation from reality? Or as the white swan dancer in the Black Swan gets more in touch with her dark side and so is able to better portray the black swan, does she gain or lose touch with reality? Are the realists who see the world mainly or only in quantities of personal wealth and national power sane? Is mental illness (schizophrenia, depression, phobia) a way to or from reality? Is not "free will" a necessary illusion for our adaptation to our environment?

And dream is not reality. Even though some Indian philosophy teaches that reality is the dream of Brahma, Buddha was said to wake up through enlightenment under the Boddhi tree where he achieved Nervana.  Certainly I can tell the real world from my dreams. Yet we also know that dreams teach and are the way that the brain processes and prepares for the workaday world.  And are we not encouraged to have dreams and try to achieve them? To what extent was Ghandi an unrealistic visionary or a shrewd and pragmatic politician? At the end of the movie Inception, did the spin wheel (the tool to distinguish the dream from reality) stop spinning?

Truth (reality) is contrasted with fallacy (unreality). A fallacy is when and where a person argues a point as logical when it is not. A few days ago I watched a video of recently deceased Gore Vidal and William Buckley with great wit pointing out each other's fallacies. Elsewhere I have discussed various fallacies based on confusing in thought the object or expression with the subject or the act of expressing or in action the world as we would like it to be with the world as it is. But, still, don't we acknowledge that error is the way to truth in science and failure the way to success in politics?

Maybe truth, happiness, and health which we identify with our search for reality are also somewhat illogical, involve dreams and illusions, and are achieved through our ability to imagine and make up things. Maybe reality is not so different from its opposites.

Think about it.