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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Art and Science

Science is not the only way to know the world. We just saw that for everyday life in our most frequent situations, common sense using a look and listen method and ordinary language is the main way we make it in and know the world. Common sense is connected to our evolved survival techniques, wired into our responses to a sometimes hostile and sometimes benign environment. But any anthropologist would tell you it has no claim to universal and objective truth. It is very social, but not really common to all everywhere--though we often pretend it is.

To achieve more lasting truth in the human condition, we go beyond ordinary language and turn to art. Just as common sense indicates the social aspect in our way of approaching and dealing within the world, art shows the role of imagination. Poesis, or image making, whether in poetry, story telling, painting, sculpture, music, dance, and drama brings us to recognize a kind of higher truth within the particular image that is created.

How could we not be moved by the stories of the wanderings of Odysseus, Aeneas, and Rabbit, the plays of Sophicles, Shakespeare, and Woody Allen, the music of Beethoven and Duke Ellington, the sculptures of Da Vinci and Rodin, These express a more permanent formulation about humanity and our condition. No, art does not explain why the sun rises and sets, but it transfixes us on it in the story of Apollo and in the story of the fourth day of creation.

Art leaves the everyday world of getting along for human survival in which we procure, rework, and divide resources for consumption to live. It makes us notice, focus, and single out something or someone. It highlights a matter for importance. It doing this, it serves common sense and its world by giving meaning to what we are seeing, doing, feeling in the world and prepares for our return to that world. If common sense is life, then art is its spice, that which makes it worthwhile to keep on going. And together.

The artist in making the image is telling a truth from a very unique perspective that the critic, aficionado, or audience can only understand by remaking the image with the artist in their own mind. Nevertheless the artist and art piece claims a certain higher and more universal truth.

In classical art, there is an ideal re-presented as though it always existed in the mind of God--the ideal of man or woman or community or of struggle and love. Modern art reveals how light hits the eye of the beholder or how the world is made up of points of perception. Abstract art calls us to hold many perspectives with many dimensions in one here and now. In so doing, art lifts things and the human enterprise of dealing with things out of ordinary life into a higher realm of beauty and meaning.

But where did that desire for beauty and meaning come from?

It became a running joke when I would ask Bernie as we enjoyed national parks, looked up into the night sky, contemplated the David in Florence, or listened to Brubeck at the Monterey Jazz Festival "what makes that so beautiful?" Leave it alone, she would laugh, it just is. But I kept persisting. What's in us that finds all that beautiful. As I kayak the San Joaquin or the Potomac, I don't think the hawk circling overhead looking for a mouse or rabbit finds it all that beautiful. Nor does the mouse or rabbit. The peahen I guess is attracted by the plumage of the peacock enough to mate. And I suppose my appreciation of a beautiful woman can be attributed to sexual drive. This reinforces Freud's theory of art as sublimation. But c'mon, not the David or Mona Lisa or Dave Brubeck or Notre Dame cathedral or Mount Ranier (though maybe the Grands Tetons?).

Some evolutionary psychologists say that the Serengeti Plains of Africa, the birth place of homo sapiens is the deep memory of Eden as home and paradise and so the model of beauty for humanity. That's a stretch for me. I rather hypothesize that the capacity to make and use words to map our environment allows us to re-present past experiences and predict new ones--a tremendous aid to sustaining human life. As we will conjecture, the symbolic act of language is also the source of the sense of consciousness--a self standing with other selves within an unpredictable environment. The sense of beauty and the desire for meaning arise in that sense of our selves making order out of disorder.

Art is the extension of our capacity for language by making images as representations for the beauty and meaning of order emerging in disorder. When we look at a landscape or a city or even a pile of junk our brain makes fractals--patterns in the muddle. And when we tells stories, paint, sculpt, dance, and ritualize we are expanding on our ability to use gestures and words to communicate and place our selves in our world.

Indeed one could argue, as do chaos theorists, that all nature is chaos emerging cosmos or that we stand with all others between disparity and organization, entropy and syntropy. Life is the organization of complexity. The repelling particles of exploding stars join in an arrangement, regularities within confusion. Beauty and meaning are born with life that expresses itself.

Although art exceeds and feeds the common sense language of our everyday world, lifting us up to a higher plain of reality, that of beauty and meaning, it does not explain. It anticipates infinity especially in its religious expression (which we will deal with in a succeeding section), but it does not put us on infinity's path to achieve the meaning of everything. Only science can do that. But science could not be without the commonality of common sense and the imagination, the image-making of art.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Common Sense and Science

We all practice and value common sense. Those who do not we call immature, nutty, foolish, weird. Like the kid who brings a hunting knife to school, the guy on the corner talking loudly to himself (unless he has earphones?), the man who darts out in the street without looking (unless he is in DC or SF?), the motorist who tries to beat a fast train to the crossing, the persons who take off all their clothes in public (Bay to Breakers runners excepted).

Common sense is what is commonly held to be true. It is what wise elders tell their children. It is expressed in our ordinary language. It guides our behavior in our everyday world.

Everyone knows that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that things don't move unless they are pushed or pulled, that if you find a complex object in the woods like a clock that someone must have made it, that sex is between male and female, that people act in their self interest, that something cannot come from nothing, that the strong will overcome the weak, that work makes people strong, that love is a many splendored thing. How do they know? By just looking with their eyes, hearing with their language, and accepting the symbols, judgments, and values of the community they have inherited.

Common sense is self evident to anyone who will just stop, look, and listen. Just take an objective viewpoint and reject bias and you will know what is common sense and how to act with common sense. Of course, it is common sense to realize that there really is no objective viewpoint and that everybody has a bias.

And, yes, common sense formulas are inconsistent. But that's because common sense sayings belong to the particular situation in which you find yourself. Take a look at all these common sense sayings that we often use. We call them truisms, but notice how they contradict each other.

Caution/patience or Boldness/risk
better safe than sorry
discretion is the better part of valor
opportunity only knocks once
everything come to him who waits
fortune favors the bold
he who hesitates is lost
if it ain't broke don't fix it
best to be on the safe side
if you play with fire, you get burned
let sleeping dogs lie
look before you leap
make hay while the sun shines
strike while the iron is hot

Money and Riches
money talks
money isn't everything
money is the root of all evil
money is a good servant but a bad master
money makes money
money doesn't grow on trees
the best things in life are free
nothing ventured, nothing gained
you can't take it with you
a penny saved is a penny earned
carpe diem! eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die

Appearances and Reality
what you see is what you get
appearances can be deceiving
you can't tell a book by its cover
seeing is believing
all that glitters is not gold
all clouds bring not rain
Still waters run deep
garbage in, garbage out
look before you leap

Also common sense is relative not only to particular situations, but also to history and culture. While we use the language of the sun setting and rising, we now are pretty attuned that the earth is going around the sun. Most of us are getting used to emerging complexity in nature without any outside or spiritual agency.  Indeed we think people are not being sensible if they deny these truths. And so we see that scientific discovery has impinged on common sense.

"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Thomas Paine would call that common sense along with his assertion that the rule of many surpasses the rule of kings. But did the founders by "all men" mean white males or would they also include women and people of color? Did they mean by their "Creator" Nature or God; and if they meant God, as in God bless America, did they mean Spinoza's God, which is Nature, or Society, or the Super Agent in the sky? Of course we know that some meant one thing and others meant other things. Yet all were speaking common sense.

Common sense includes real things and substances like books, rocks, people, souls, water, bodies, clouds, things and substances. It also includes force, agency, energy, time and space. Then science comes along with minute particles that act like waves, mass which is energy, invisible strings, eleven dimensions, big bangs and singularities, and force fields to explain those common sense things and substances, agencies and energies, space and time and maybe take the place of them even in our common sense knowledge. Science often contradicts and supplants the common sense of yesterday--or at least adds to it. 

What science shares with common sense is its communal character. As we know, science demands evidence that can falsify or verify its hypotheses through experiments that many can replicate. Communality through professional exchange and peer review that leads to a trans-tribal, trans-cultural or universal viewpoint is both the foundation and sublimation of common sense.

We all know of the eccentric professor or mad scientist who has lost his or her common sense. But in fact science starts with common sense and goes on from there.

As the wise man said: "the one thing about common sense is that it isn't common." And sometimes it doesn't make sense.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ethics and Science

Science and Ethics. Put those two words together and lots of issues pop up. (I write this as part of my ongoing inquiry into the Ethics of Integrity which I have outlined elsewhere.)

  1. Experimentation and its unintended consequences: like nuclear weapons and Frankensteins.
  2. Bad means to good ends: using humans and their parts (embryos, cells) or animals (especially higher conscious ones) for experimentation.
  3. Irreligiousness: proposing solutions that conflict with religious beliefs, Creator God, divine revelation, supernatural.
  4. Science as faith; Scientism, alternative to religion, without transcendence.
The first two are important issues and we do need to attempt to find and/or accept universal standards in dealing with them. And I hope we do this in the course of our inquiry for a human nature foundation for ethics.

The second two I will deal with in a separate section on Ethics and Religion.

Here are two more that I want to deal with in this section:

  1. Scientific Method as insight into the human way of knowing and adapting in and to our environment: i.e. epistemology as part of the universal Model for Ethics.
  2. Biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and information theory as providing evidence to a model of human nature/existence and so a model of a universal ethics.

With respect to number one, I will use Bernard Lonergan's Insight, Karl Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery, David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity among others. Human knowing of reality involves observation, imagination, insight, hypothesis, and verification. The medium (image, idea, concept) does not separate us from the "really real." It is our way to it. Also we will discover what makes a good model--including a model for ethics.

With respect to number two, I will use Steven Pinker's Stuff of Thought, Doug Hoffstadter's I am a Strange Loop, Terrence Deacon's, The Symbolic Species, and Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby among others to show the scientific evidence for our Ethical Model that includes interiority and exteriority, past and future, individuality and communality, real and ideal, existence and transcendence in dialectical relationship.  (As I presented earlier.)

This will then move us to the next section on Ethics and Religion.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Another Philosophical Interlude

My philosophical interlude a couple of days ago was stimulated by Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? He and we wrestled with something from nothing. One of the answers we considered was: you can't have something without nothing--or, as it turns out, nothing without something.

How do we know this? By examining our human existence (Dasein--where Sein or Being appears). Sartre called existence néant, nothing. Things in the world become only through nothing; i.e. in the words of evolutionary psychology, symbolic activity aware of itself cuts the world into things through words, gestures, images and other symbols. But human existence itself is not a thing because it is the objectifying act that denies the objectifying of itself. The thing or being is what has been symbolized, but not the symbolizing act of consciousness--which is not a thing; it is no-thing.

Lonergan makes a distinction that I think is helpful between notion and concept. A concept is an objectification of a thing, the word spoken (parole parlée), the symbol that fashions a reality. A notion is the word-in-the-speaking (parole parlante); it is the symbolic activity transparent to itself in all its intentionality, i.e. as it tends to reality through the use of symbols, words, icons. So you can have a notion of existence, consciousness, spirit, god, but not a concept of them. The concept points to something. The notion points to nothing. The concept if verified explains something. The notion if verified explains nothing.

Ha! Take that in your pipe and smoke it. I promise you a high experience or, better, the experience of a high.

Carry on! Beliefs are in the dimension of concepts. Faith (hope and love, too) is in the dimension of notions. And so with faith, we believe in nothing. Without faith or with bad faith, we believe in things. Let your beliefs go, and you will have faith; you will be more fully conscious; you will be in touch with the nothingness of existence by which you transcend all beliefs and stretch to infinity.

Now I know this sounds pretty weird. Certainly paradoxical in the root meaning of the word: Para=beyond; dox=belief. A Zen koan? Words of mystics? Yes.

I am nothing. I believe in nothing.
We are nothing. I believe in nothing.
God is nothing. I believe in nothing.
The world and filled with somethings. I believe in some things.
All my beliefs are transitory. I need to transcend them in faith.
In faith, I believe in nothing, not even something.

Well, meditate it. I assure you it makes sense. Or is it nonsense?


Another answer to the mystery of being is the Hindu (and other eastern thought) answer that reality is an illusion. We are all characters in the dream of Vishnu. The more modern scientific parallel to this is that the universe, including us, is a hologram formed by bits of information. The Beatles sang that "we all live on a yellow submarine." Well, maybe "we all play in a rainbow holodeck." Nothing really exists.

So go play and have fun!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

No-Growth and True Conservatism

I just read Al Fritsch's reflections on "no growth" and "true conservatism." (Al is the founder of the Kentucky non-profit Earth Healing whose website I commend to you I certainly agree with his comments which prompted my own following reflection.

In the San Joaquin Valley of California which is threatened by the Bay Area, LA area, and Silicon Valley to become the bedroom community for the businesses of those areas, the issue we always said is not "growth or no-growth."  It's how and towards what we grow. It's how do we preserve farmlands, the great national parks, the water, the air, the earth as we grow.  

And it was recognizing that growth should not be measured by one capital (financial), but by much higher capitals--social, political, educational, and spiritual capitals. When I worked in that conservative heartland, I always told people that I am definitely a capitalist. But I don't think that American capitalism takes the most important capitals into account. 

We need to consume in order to live and that takes money; but it is so sad to see people measuring their success and that of their region and nation by the amount of GDP and accumulated money. 

That's where the Jesus-mind comes in. (Remember, while I don't consider myself a Christian, I do consider myself a companion of Jesus.) The Jesus mind is I think "wired" into our nature by Evolution or God or Nature or Humanity, a higher power more than the individual alone can produce. That mind is the foundation of the revolution in culture, religion, economy, politics that we seek--the revolution that will release us from our homemade destructive economy and the money-mind or religion that sanctifies it. Jesus and the other great-souled persons we have encountered in our history were/are only recalling us to our fundamental consciousness--or, if you want, "Jesus-mind" or "god-given spirit."

That is "true conservatism" to me. It is the recall through contemplation in action to our fundamental consciousness, our existence, our soul, which has been given to us at birth with our em-brained body and our first interaction with parents and others and which we have been charged to grow through "soul-making." 

This is why Jesus and the great-souled persons, who return us to our consciousness and the fundamental structure of our existence, are in their very persons (their way of being/acting in the world) and not necessarily by their words or doctrines or by the institutions that take their name, the Word and Way to truth, full consciousness, infinite love, god or whatever analogy you like to use.

But we have observed earlier that mind or consciousness or existence is itself a tension among various end-points or ideals and can only be expressed in analogy (images, metaphors, parables, stories) which is why I try to reject all absolutes in beliefs, formulas, institutions, or anything else we humans come up with (and why all the great minded souls discouraged idolatry) 

Of course my own habits and those of my society get in the way and I have to keep coming back. Our idolatry today is the American money economy. And we all get caught in it. I need to be reminded often, recalled back to basics, stimulated to practice fundamentals. 

Conscience is nothing more than the awareness of the tensions of my existence and to what it calls me in rebelling against the American and now global idolatry. The old spiritual practice of "examination of conscience" is nothing more than comparing my/our actions with the task of soul-making, contemplation, taking the path of becoming, and creating the place where truth, infinite love, the fullness of consciousness, or God can appear.

It's where true conservatism and growth come together.

Have we failed the human experiment?

Friends: 3 articles came to me today.

Here is a short video that may show a way out:

Here is a beginning spirituality for a way towards:

In two groups in which I participated last week, we discussed that All Souls Church, we, need to stand for something bold. Yes, we need to continue our commitments to housing, environment, youth, the aging, excluded minorities, health care, New Orleans, Haiti, jobs, immigration reform, accountable institutions. But we also discussed that, in doing what we do no matter how small, we have to get behind all these issues with an analysis and strategy that is radical. I think that analysis and strategy has to do with the present money accumulating economy that is starkly dividing rich and poor and consuming our earth and our humanity and with the religious mind that sanctifies that economy. We need to advance a counter culture and new politics that will change the present economy that consumes us. 

For example, at this time some of us are committed to increasing and maintaining diversity in Columbia Heights and other local communities through affordable housing. But to do that I think it is important to understand the patterns of urbanization in DC which makes specific actions in our communities necessary; and how those urban patterns are part of the wasteful, consumptive, money economy. And we need to understand the underlying spirituality or mind or religion that sanctifies that economy and those patterns. I think we need to go there in any ministry we choose. We need to confront that mind and economy with a new spirituality and experiments in new economy. We can't just be about doing good. We have to stir the pot and make change.

I think these articles are getting to that but we need to grapple in our covenant groups, our committees, and our own reflections with what that means in practice. What do you think?

Friday, May 10, 2013

A Philosophical Interlude

In between my work with the All Souls Housing group and my writing on ethics and society, I received a notice from the library that a book I had reserved was ready for pick up. I couldn't remember what book I had requested. When I went to the library I found it was "Why does the World Exist?" by Jim Holt. I couldn't remember the review that prompted me to get it so I started reading it among the five other books I have going.

This one was fun; and, dropping everything else, I finished it in record time for me. It was definitely written for me, a former Jesuit, a former philosophy major, the writer of a thesis on French Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty who was in dialogue with existentialiste exemplaire Jean Paul Sartre, a frustrated quester of being who has never given up. As the jacket said, the book is an existentialist detective novel with lots of wit.

So after much examination of witnesses, some of the best physics scientists and theoretical philosophers of our time, and after the assemblage of clues gathered in the evidence provided by these witnesses, Detective Holt comes up with the following suspects in his investigation into why the world exists or, in the words of the great philosophers, "why is there something rather than nothing?"

So here are the suspects to interview in solving the mystery of being over nothing:

1) Quantum fluctuations.  0 = -1+1 > BANG (See Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing)
2) Eternal Universe/Multiverse. There always was something. (String theory)
3) It from Bit. There is not something: world is illusion, dream, hologram. (Information theory)
4) Nothing requires Something. No nothing without something.
5) God.  Eternal Being--self-caused and contained. Bonhoeffer and Coulsen's "Gap filler."
6) Invalid Question: unanswerable (Lonergan's inverse insight)
7) Just is: get over and on with it.

And so in the spirit of the last response, let's just accept that things are and get on with it.

If the first philosophic question is "why is there something rather than nothing," the second is "what kind of a being asks such a question?" That is: "What does it mean to be human?" This leads to: "Who am I and who are you?" Which leads to "Who are We?" And then to "Where are we going?"

Here then are levels of rational inquiry in philosophy and in science:

1. Question of Being:    Ontology, Cosmology--Physics, chemistry
2. Question of Human:  Philosophy of Man--Anthropology, Biology
3. Question of Mind:      Epistemology--Psychology, Neuroscience
4. Question of Social:     Epistemology--Social Science
5. Question of Becoming: Ethics, Politics--History, Political Science

Okay, its the second question that is the pivot for the others. Heidegger puts it that we need to question Dasein (human existence) where Sein (Being) is present (Da).  Who am I who am asking the question of Being? Or what is human?


Human is a being that can ask a question; something that can talk, use images, i.e. imagine or make and combine images, therefore a being which finds and explores the world through symbols. Dasein, human existence, is symbolic activity.

Human is a being that experiences a "self" in, but different from the external world; therefore has a sense of interiority, self-awareness, consciousness.

Human is a being that is aware of other interiorities, and being joined with them in approaching the world; therefore we are beings with a sense of others not as objects in the world, but as joined selves engaging the world.

Human is a being that is aware of coming out of the past and going towards a future; therefore aware of itself as a project between nothingness and nothingness thus making Being present--Dasein.

And that is the project of ethics and politics with which I am occupied in these blog reflections.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Metaphors for Morality

You may have wondered earlier when I said we think in metaphors or analogies (words I am using synonymously). In my early student years I learned that there were two main theories of cognition and speech: univocal and analogical. Univocal presumes fixed concepts in some Heaven of Ideas or the Mind of God to which the human mind corresponds through some sort of illumination from within (idealists) or without (realists). It's called the "look theory" of knowledge. Plato, Augustine and their realistic or idealistic followers took this way.

Analogical thinking, the second theory, doesn't have fixed ideas out there somewhere, but gathers observations into categories or collective, higher images which become abstractions standing for many images, and then those abstractions link to others through higher abstractions and so on towards a ever wider complex of abstractions that allow us to talk in a sort of code with lots of shortcuts--like "tree," "animal," "planet,""number," "angel," and so on. Aristotle, his followers in the high Islamic period, and then Aquinas and the neo-scholastic tradition pushed the analogical way of knowing. Truth in this theory is not the correspondence of the idea in the human mind with some Platonic or divine idea, but with the reality on the ground, that is, through testing by observational evidence. And so the scientific revolution was a vindication of the analogical over the univocal.

In the mid 20th century, philosophy played a "new key," in the words of Suzanne Langer. And that new key was "symbol" no longer as the sign of something else more real out there, but as the very embodiment of reality. Symbolic behavior is what defines human cognition whether in science, art, architecture, religion, ordinary language, politics, philosophy and all other avenues by which humans deal in and with the world and each other. Symbolic interaction theory is but a further development of the theory of analogical thinking.

Maybe you can find more; but I find five main metaphors that have been used and still are when describing our moral behavior and devising an ethical theory.  1) Foundation, 2) Balance, 3) Tool, 4) Contract, 5) Icon.

Foundation with connecting images "ground," "spring," "principle," envisages a base on which the structure of human behavior is built. It is the metaphor for natural law and divine law ethics, an ethics that is universal and not subject to change or relative to changing conditions. It is sometimes called "deontological" or "virtue" ethics and certainly represents the main ethical tradition with its search for and enumeration of principles grounded in reality or springing from tradition that can guide all human behavior.

Balance was a favorite of the ancient Greeks with their consideration of beauty as proportionality and harmony. But it can also be found in the Yin and Yang of Eastern thinking, the code of Solomon, and carried down in the dialectical tradition from Socrates to Hegel and Marx. "Nothing to excess"; "Find the center between the extremes" are canons of this ethical theory portrayed by the blind goddess of justice and her scales weighing the right from the wrong.

Tool or "instrument" or "utility" is the image of practical reason. What is the usefulness of a behavior? How will it lead to greater happiness for the most people (often interpreted as increasing pleasure and avoiding pain). This is the criteria of an ethic, perhaps going back to the notion of happiness in ancient times, including the pleasure principle of hedonism, but forged above all in the mercantile age when money becomes the gauge of utility and followed up in the industrial age with its rational economy of utility.

Contract (or in Biblical times "covenant") is the foundation for the liberated society--free from Pharoah, free from the King free from the Oligarch. This ethic takes note of humanity as not just natural or rational, but as social in its essence, only able to live and act in the world in relationship with others all of whom are participants in the same venture. There is a implied or formal agreement or constitution that binds us all together and governs our behavior. Besides ancient Athens and Israel, this notion is carried into the Liberalism of Locke and the Progressivism of Rawls.

Icon or "image" or "ideal" can be the metaphor for a Univocal Mind seeking the "absolute" or "real" idea that is not obscured by matter or other people with limited viewpoints. But for the Analogical Mind  it is the notion of metaphor, analogy, symbol itself. In the search for an ethical theory that is universal as foundational thought, proportional as balanced thought, useful as utilitarian thought, and communal as contract thought, we can unite all these metaphors, analogies, symbols in the theory of metaphorical, analogical, symbolic behavior itself.

And what I mean by this, I will explain later.