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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Stories and Compassion

From today's article in FP: "'Everything is held together with stories,' the writer Barry Lopez once said, 'that is all that is binding us together, stories and compassion.'"

That quote itself is the story that might hold us together.

The way to empathy and solidarity is not the Big Idea or Great Work or Grand Theory. The way past the bigotry of xenophobia that destroys us all, is revealing, listening to, and hearing our stories. Only then do we feel the sufferings, the joys, the aspirations that create solidarity. Solidarity in the struggle for life, for meaning, and for respect.

I sometimes despair that I cannot communicate the Big Idea or do the Great Work or design the Grand Theory that will save our universe. But now I remember that salvation is simply a matter of sharing my story with the next person I meet and hearing hers. That's it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Get out and play!

Thinking is playing. Playing with words. Playing with ideas. Playing with others in the forum and with our selves in the study. So consider play!

We see the young of many animals playing usually with one another often in imitation of their elders. They run after one another, grab something the other wants and run off, hide, bite and fight, without hurting one another. Though if the play gets too rowdy, mother comes along and cuffs them. They play with balls, pounce on moving objects, swing on ropes, run and jump even by themselves. Sex play, including humping and rolling around, is a part of the fun. Play is the way of learning and growing strong. Then there comes a time when play is over and mother or father takes them on the hunt. Or they go out to find their mate.

Human children play games in which situations are imagined and different roles are assumed in the drama. Playing house sometimes switching roles of mother and father and baby, enjoying mud cake tea parties, enacting cops and robbers, setting up a neighborhood Olympics, creating a town in a sandbox, fighting a war with toy swords or guns are examples. Then they move to soccer, football, hockey and maybe a musical instrument. And board games and now video games. And if they are fortunate they have teachers who know how to have fun by making the classroom a game to extend into a lifetime of learning.

“All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” wrote the bard pretentiously.  Social psychologist Kurt Goldstein notes that we play our roles in relation to the various audiences which are given to us and/or which we choose. Which roles are more approved by people we most care about? Which roles get us the most recognition? Which roles do we like more? We find that some of the roles fit us better or we just decide they do. We use these roles more and more. We exercise and train in them. If we integrate them, they define our selves, our characters, our souls. 

Thinking is role-playing and role-playing is thinking.

But like the Star Trek Enterprise’s holodeck (and some scientists claim the whole universe is a hologram), 1) we bring our evolved organism to the game. And 2) there are many already coded programs we can run or adapt.  And 3) we decide the program we want to run or the games to play. 

We are a nexus of our genes, our memes, and our dreams. All thinking is corporeal, cultural, and intentional. The game of life is sexual, playful, and wishful.

So let’s go out and play!

Monday, January 25, 2016

So which came first?

Do we think ourselves into a way of acting or do we act ourselves into a way of thinking?

The right answer is "yes." At least I think so--or do I act so?

With Flannery O'Connor I write to know what I am thinking. So do I think first and then write or do I carry out the activity of writing in order to think?

Think before you act! is good advice. Unless there is an immediate danger like a car swerving in front of you. Then just act and think later. Right?

Kahneman wrote that there is thinking fast and thinking slow. Thinking fast is acting out of habit (like driving a car) which could be called intuition. Thinking slow is acting after deliberation, checking the evidence and other viewpoints. Need both, he says.

Here is a case for acting first: If you get people to change their behavior (e.g. by making it more in their interest to do so), they then might think this behavior is better which will reinforce their behavior. Sometimes to stop an addiction--smoking, drinking, cheating--we just do it or are forced to, then we realize that its much better not to smoke, drink, cheat. So we act our way into a way of thinking.

Many people vote against their best interests all the time. Then they marshall the evidence to prove they are right and only read and watch those pundits who confirm them in their choices. If they finally change their mind and vote differently, is it because they were pushed into acting first and changed their mind to fit their actions? Or were they converted by preachers who got to their minds and hearts to get them to change their behavior? So they think their way into a way of acting.

As community organizers we were taught not to worry about changing the opponents' (e.g. segregating realtors') minds, just their behaviors. Their minds may or may not follow.

Some of us see thinking and acting as two behaviors reenforcing each other. Scientists think out a solution often because of some action or event which caused a problem. Then they act out an experiment to see if it works. Based on the results of that experiment, they refine the question and think up better solutions. So do successful business persons, political actors, and parents.

Others see thinking and acting as the difference between mind and matter, i.e. action is outside in the world, thinking is inside in consciousness. Some of us are betters contemplators, others better doers. Or we need to do both in their own times and spaces.

I consider human thinking and acting the same behavior. Thinking is always action of the human organism to its environment--or maybe better an interaction between the organism and its environment. Action is always conscious; it is a thinking--whether fast or slow. The inside/outside, mind/matter, consciousness/world, self/body distinction we make is an illusion and fabrication--though often a useful illusion and fabrication.

So who cares? I do because I believe that it is important to recognize our illusions and fabrications lest we take ourselves and our opinions and our reality and all our other fabrications too seriously.

I see our present political discussion doing just that. It is fostering anti-intellectualism by denouncing people who are more educated to think for being members of some impractical, uncommitted elite. It is fostering anti-pragmatism by denouncing people willing to listen, change, and compromise by insisting on unquestioned beliefs and religiously held principles.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Truth is Out There

The entertainment sections of the news channels are awash with the new X-Files TV series. What makes this one different, so they say, is the context of the post 9-11, homeland security, climate change hoax, barbarians at the gate paranoia so evident in the political campaigns.

It would be comforting to think that all our problems were linked in some alien-big-government-big- corporation-socialist conspiracy, e.g. Men in Black + Enemy of the State. It's the modern dream that with the observational skills of good science and correct religious or "spiritual" beliefs and values, we can get to the truth of things. It's out there!

We love mysteries especially when they are solved by industrious, smart, and sexy detectives.

The problem with the postmodern turn (whether in art, religion, science, or conventional wisdom) is that it holds out the possibility that mysteries may not be able to be solved either by reason or by the gods. Randomness and uncertainty are built into the universe. That's why Cormack McCarthy's and Salman Rushdie's works are so troubling. (Not to mention Neitsche and Derrida).

It will be interesting to see if the new X-Files are a resurgence of realistic modernism ("Just the fact's, Ma'am") or tip into postmodern absurdity and ambiguity. Of course, we postmodernists know that all categories are simply made-up devices to call attention to certain traits and qualities in our chaotic experience. Including the categories of "modern" and "postmodern." Distinctions are arbitrary and have limited use--but are helpful in so far as they are helpful.

Nevertheless, I think it is helpful to remind ourselves of our contingency, to recognize the role of our imagination in relating to the universe and each other, and to give up some of our silly expectations that destroy those relations. Expectations like we can know things as they really are, that my questions and worldview are more important than yours, and that "the truth is out there."

Happy viewing.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What makes me truthier than you?

I just finished my book extolling postmodern thinking. If I do say so myself, I think it's pretty good. Now to get it out. I have some help in that. I'll use it for a talk I'm giving and a course I am teaching and so hope to get feedback. I also hope to have an editor and advisor soon. (However, if you want to look it over, I would be glad to send it for your comments.)

I lay out the difference in thinking in the various stages of pre-modern times. Then I show the difference that the modern paradigm makes, beginning with the Enlightenment, scientific revolution, on through the industrial revolution and the technological twentieth century. Postmodernism I attempt to show is a much different way of thinking in art, science, philosophy, religion, and ordinary common sense. I claim that it might be a way our of the conundrums of modernity.

But how can I claim that postmodern thinking is better than modern? And what will make post-postmodern thinking even better. Since I reject absolute criteria for making judgments, how can I claim being better?

I claim it because postmodern thinking can include, understand, and accept the earlier ways of thinking. When I was taking theology, I professed that I could understand and accept the Nicene Creed--even though the propositions I found nonsensical for the modern age. and required a bifurcated brain.

While finding many of the early dogmas of the Church untrue from a modern (much less postmodern) point of view and belief system, nevertheless I could analyze those beliefs in the context in which they were uttered to explain and even defend them. When I did, my professors usually thought I was being heretical. But while they could not understand and accept my propositions, I could understand and accept theirs. So I could say the Apostle's Creed with impunity (though I preferred not to).

To use Stephen Colbert's language, my truthiness was truthier than their truthiness. I wasn't denying their truths, but I was rejecting them as inadequate for me and others in a new context. I think that the same is true for my postmodern language, narrative, understanding, or myth as I describe it in my new book. I doubt that many modern thinkers will understand or be able to accept postmodern thinking. Many will find it nihilistic in philosophy, relativistic in morality, unprincipled in politics, and unrealistic in economics.

Yet I do hope to introduce them to the possibility of seeing that it is modern thinking that is the culprit for these charges and postmodern thinking is the way out. Many, whether righties or lefties or centrists, will see my thinking as heresy in religion and politics and condemn it. The more this happens; the more I will know that I am on the right track.

I've begun to wonder what the next imaginative system for thinking after postmodernism will bring. But I think I am now stuck and need someone else to shock me out of my truthiness.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Postmodern science and religion

In realizing that we are transitioning to a postmodern world, I have tried to describe postmodernism in distinction from modernity. I created a frame to do this:

Here I describe modernity as a moment when science and religion are separated. In fact Karen Armstrong teaches that there was no religion before modernity since the religious was interwoven into the very fabric of pre-modern culture. In modernity we separate the sacred from the secular, religion and the state; and in Weber's words, we witness the "disenchantment of the earth."

In the "original thinking" of pre modern humanity, there was no separation. religion was integrated with every day life including the arts and sciences. According to the myths, original thinking was in touch with the earth, its rituals and all its spirits. Consciousness was not in relation to the world, the spirit not just connected to matter, mind not just entangled in the universe. Consciousness, spirit, mind is world, matter, the universe.

How did the separation of science and religion happen? It happened when religion refused science as threatening to its institutions and control. Religion imprisoned scientists as heretics. Religions sanctified political economies that were in competition for power. Religions fought wars against religion. Religions denied science in the schools as a political effort to destroy religion.

And science rejected religion as standing in the way of human aspirations for meaning, community, and life itself. Science denied transcendence and mystery even while exemplifying it. Scientists denied the gods even as poetic representations of the transcendence of the human spirit. Scientists became religious atheists and dogmatically denounced religious sentiments and beliefs.

Now in postmodern religion and science, the material universe is once again becoming the spiritual universe. Science and religion are accommodating each other and unifying in the postmodern age. What does this mean in the language we speak that is so modern? How can we possibly capture this meaning in a language that pits open faith against careful observation, the desire to discover against the desire to create, the word against the speaking, the objective against the quest?

I think the only way is to recognize the limits as well as the infinite possibilities of our existence in the world through thinking, speaking, acting with imagination through media we collectively create.

And that is what the postmodern turn makes possible. The postmodern affirms both religion and science. It recognizes that humans need to embrace both mystery and faith in order to pursue science--the careful observation of the universe, the transcending of conventional beliefs and doctrines, the opening to the world as it presents itself to us.


There is one more factor that is important to the postmodern reconciliation of religion and science. That is the acceptance of the finality of death. Death must be accepted. True death--not the pretense of everlasting life in some preternatural realm--makes possible the ongoing circle of life. Are we willing to pass on and allow newness into the world? This is difficult for religionists and scientists alike. We have so many expressions of expectations of immortality either by divine assumption into some supernatural realm or by technological cyborgism or uploading of brains.

My own thinking says to both Rick Warren, Christian believer in the soul going to heaven and resurrection at the time of the awakening, and to Ray Kurzweil, AI scientist developing the technology for immortality, give it up. Accept and allow death so that new life can happen.  The courage to live is also the courage to die. Pass on. That is true transcendence and faith.