Friday, December 30, 2005
Edit, January 20, 2006: I did receive good input from both the comparative religion forum, as well as ilovephilosophy.com, which can be seen here. The picture now on this entry is an updated one from the original which it replaced (based on that input).
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Over 75 attended the gathering at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Much food, fun, and fellowship was had by all. Our good friend and HCOF Director Art Fay did a good job of organizing and planning as well. It was good to see all our Humanist, Freethinker, and nontheist friends again.
Houston is fortunate to have a thriving community of freethinkers who can share their experiences - we look forward to a new year with them!
Note about this picture: This was a composite image I made from pictures I got from Art Fay. There are a lot of good and important folks not present in the composite, but I was limited by space and didn't have all the pictures when I made this. The goal was just to give a general overview of happy faces - sorry to anyone not present!
Friday, December 23, 2005
If the British government looks at driving in the same way as the U.S. government, then they view driving as a "privilege - not a right". This seemed perfectly reasonable back when cars were first coming out and still fairly rare.
But this perspective has developed over time to have a number of modern consequences that would otherwise be unthinkable in other areas of our life. For example, the government can deny motorists the right to drive in certain areas, can take away driving 'privileges', can monitor and search, conduct roadside checkpoints, demand to see our 'papers' at any time (which we are required to carry) and so on. Many of these activities would be viewed as totalitarian if applied to people walking on the sidewalk.
Unlike the days when motor vehicles were 'special', the ability to drive is now crucial to mobility in many areas of both nations. Evidently, this evolution has happened slowly and insidiously with the growth of automobile use and dependency. That being the case, our very mobility and means of livelihood has now ended up a "privilege" in the eyes of the government.
Given the modern role that driving plays in today’s world, retaining this 'privilege, not a right' policy on driving would be harmful enough to our liberty. But to make matters worse, this entire matter that has evolved concerning automobiles has a degrading and perverting effect on all of our other rights. When you take the unusual as a privilege, and then it becomes usual, it tends to make citizens and government alike start to treat other usual activities as a privilege instead of a right.
For example, once people get accustomed to the privilege-based restrictions and governmental powers associated with their car or their driving, they then think, "what's the difference between having a checkpoint on the road or on the sidewalk?" or "what's the difference between requiring me to carry my ID inside my car, or inside my friend's house?"
You have whole generations of people, myself included, who grew up in a world where cars were not a special privilege, but a common and crucial element to our mobility and freedom of movement. Yet, we also grew up in a world where the government treats that mobility as a privilege. The result is a world the founding fathers would have considered nightmarish, and we go along with it because the mantra of "driving is a privilege" has been such a long-running theme. In the meantime, we grow up accustomed to a government with powers far beyond those intended - all because of the quirky evolution of our perceptions regarding one invention, which later evolved into a necessity of civilization.
Back to the article, here is an example of how clueless even the writer is...
"But others concerned about civil liberties will be worried that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded and kept on a central computer database for years." (bold mine)
They will be "worried" that the movements of millions of law-abiding people will soon be routinely recorded? How do you "worry" about something that you're being told IS happening? There is no "worry" it will happen - it's happening, period.
There's no question that they're going to catch some more bad guys with this. But, in order to circumvent this billion-dollar system, all a criminal has to do is put a fake or stolen license plate on his car right before driving out to commit the crime. Meanwhile, all of the law-abiding people are having their privacy violated and being held to the grindstone over nitty-gritty details such as registration being a day late. "Is the benefit worth the cost?" is rarely a question governments will ask when the cost involves only loss of liberty. It's up to people to ask that question.
When it comes to other uses this system might have in more secretive agencies, Chief Constable Frank Whiteley said,
"The security services will use it for purposes that I frankly don't have access to."One can only imagine.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
CLICK HERE for the Livescience article.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
The article did mention that it might be possible to either increase or repair mirror neurons, but it also mentioned the possibility that other neurons might be able to adapt to that function (the brain tends to be very flexible in that regard).
This made me wonder about those violent criminals who seem to lack a sense of empathy and their reform. While it seems to be successful sometimes, many of them seem so far gone that it is almost a lost cause. Perhaps they should study the mirror neuron activity of such criminals over time as they go through therapy and conditioning to increase their empathy.
Some people get brain injuries that lead to motor function loss and through therapy other parts of the brain slowly take over those functions. Perhaps other neurons similarly taking over mirror functions is what happens when some violent offenders later grow to genuinely regret their former actions?
I was also reminded of my recent and current readings on compassion in Jesus' teachings and Buddhist philosophy. It seems that a healthy development of empathy is an important part of compassion. The very notion of 'mirror neurons' reminds me of the Buddhist and Hindu concept of Indra's Net. It represents the interconnectedness of all things (a key reason why compassion is so important). It is a web and at each intersection is a jewel which reflects (mirrors) all the other jewels, just as our mirror neurons mirror the experiences of others to us.
There goes my metaphor-seeking mirror neurons!
Globe Article: click here
About Indra's Net: click here
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Edit, January 25, 2006: I have since removed this feature after reading about Google assisting the Chinese communist dictatorship with its censorship practices. See here for more detail.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Lately, after reading The Dharma of Star Wars, I've been reading about Buddhism for purposes of comparing how it addresses the passions with how Stoic philosophy handles them. In doing so, I am continuing to find that just about everything I've ever been told about Buddhism is wrong.
What's most interesting is how it was wrong. Having grown up in a Christian culture, it seems that every concept in Buddhism presented to me was summed up with a caricature that made use of Christian models of reality, and then twisted them in a simplistic way.
I was therefore surprised to find that some takes on reincarnation don't involve souls moving between bodies. Some concepts of Karma involve more Natural conceptions of cause-and-effect, rather than a cosmic supernatural bookkeeping system of some sort. Likewise, "Nirvana" is not simply another name for "Heaven", but an entirely different concept altogether.
However, it all makes sense to me now that this is how Christians might misunderstand these things. It reminds me of the common Christian misunderstanding about Humanism, which assumes that other philosophies have a similar structure to Christianity and suggests that Humanists "worship humans". (note: I'm sure other religions and traditions have similar misunderstandings about Christianity too)
Fortunately I wasn't quite this ignorant about Buddhism by the time I came to my recent readings, but I was still lacking a lot of key information that I'm happy to have now. As with Jesus, it seems that the original teachings of Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) were quite pragmatic and down-to-earth. But one must peel away thousands of years of misconception, alteration, and misrepresentations to get at them.
Another interesting thing is that, in both the cases of Christianity and Buddhism, the perversions took the very same form. In both cases, the words of the teacher were pretty much ignored and in there place was a distracting glorification of the teacher himself. This glorification included thoughts of special powers and abilities, and eventually the good sense of the teacher's words were burried under distracting outside fantasies about the supernatural and the afterlife - all enshrined with various rituals, personalities, and power structures.
Ironically, in both cases the teachers themselves specifically admonished against these things. Buddha was a sort of atheist who would not recommend going to the Brahmins as priests. He had no use for prayer or sacrifices and didn't teach about the universe being infinite (or not) and about the afterlife, because he felt these things were not fundamental to religion. To him salvation was to be found in spiritual self discipline. Jesus, meanwhile, never seemed to claim that he was a half-god or god in human form, or a substitute for sacrificial offerings (this doctrine is basically "Paulianity" and came later). He admonished others who called upon his name but didn't do as he instructed in his teachings.
I think I'll continue to try and uncover what Guatama actually taught, and by that I mean even going back to before Theravada Buddhism as much as possible. Then I can come up with a comparison between this, Jesus, Taoism, and Stoicism. There's just too much good stuff there and I'd like to see what I can mine from each in a comprehensive and consistent manner.
 A History of the Worlds Religions. By David S. Noss.
 The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. By James M. Robinson.
Monday, December 5, 2005
There is a voice that shimmers
in the deep dark light.
It calls me hither,
destroys my sight.
There is a voice that shimmers
in the deep dark light.
It sounds so sweet,
so warm, so right.
It soothes me over
and brings me in
and pierces flesh
and covers sin.
There is a voice that shimmers
in the deep dark light.
it leads me toward
its blinding bright;
its peaceful sword;
its praise of might.
To step away
from deep light dark
would cast me out
of comfort's ark.
T'would set my sail
toward unknown shores
where doubt consumes,
where questions roar;
where fully free,
I'd finally be
from deep dark's bind.
There is a voice that glimmers
in the deep dark light,
that offers hope
through foggy sight.
To lose that hope
and take a breath
of unspoiled air,
of certain death;
to live for life
instead of fear
of deep dark's light
still drawing near
would be worthwhile,
a noble choice,
and silence at last
the shimmering voice.
Saturday, December 3, 2005
Thursday, December 1, 2005
In it, Gilbert explains why people tend to attribute things to a god and several other tangent notions. There are loads of fascinating references to interesting social experiments that make the article a real treat. I especially liked this bit...
"A Necker cube is an ambiguous object, which is to say that there is more than one way to see it, and our brains happily jump between these different views, trying one and then switching to another. But experiments show that if we are rewarded for seeing the cube one way rather than the other — rewarded with a jellybean, a dollar bill, or a friendly pat on the back — our brains begin to hold on to the rewarding view, and the cube stops changing. The lesson here is that things can be viewed in many ways, but human brains like the most rewarding view and thus they search for and hold on to that view whenever they can."
Thanks much to Paul at the International Stoic Forum for making me aware of this.
"A former street-tough kid, Pough was raised by his maternal great-grandparents and never knew his own father. His life changed, however, when he learned at 15 that his then-girlfriend, Charmaine Houston, also 15, was pregnant. Although Pough and Houston drifted apart, Pough pledged to support their child... Pough was determined to find a good job in construction so he could provide greater opportunities for Diamond."
When I saw the arrests reported on television on the morning news, the reporters portrayed the irony of the event and the sense of futility was apparent in their tone. I thought that there must be many people out there struggling in harsh conditions who may be wondering, "what's the point of trying if this sort of thing can happen to people like Terrel?"
While it's true that bad neighborhoods and low-income areas have higher crime rates and are more dangerous, the fact is that any of us can die at any moment, for any number of reasons. There has always been a common frustration at these series of random events beyond our control. It was this which inspired Shakespeare's character Macbeth to bemoan that, unlike films and books, our life is instead "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Many ancient Stoics, like folks today who live under dangerous hardships, lived in a world where life was often short, brutal, and cheap. They too saw life as a tragic hurricane of events larger than ourselves, which we are helpless to control.
But the Stoic response to this fact of life was to first recognize that it is this flow of events which allows us to exist in the first place. All things which we consider good and bad flow from that great flux of events. Other traditions and teachers have noticed this as well. Jesus of Nazareth pointed out that it rains on both the just and the unjust. The Buddhists refer to this tapestry of life as "Indra's Net". They would also note there is no way to win the "if only" game. Stoics would say that everything that is, is because of the Way of Nature, and there is no other way things can be, than how they are.
But secondly, and more importantly, the Stoics go beyond recognizing what we can't control and focus on what we can control. Stoicism teaches us that the only thing we can really control is our inner choices, and the only valuable thing we can ever call truly "good", is our choice to be virtuous. All else (family, friends, possessions, status, career) can be taken from us in a heartbeat.
If folks out there are thinking that all of Terrel's efforts to better himself to provide for his daughter were wasted or futile, then they should consider what effects his virtuous efforts really had, and will continue to have. Consider the support already provided to Diamond. Consider Terrel's inspiration to other young people like himself. Consider the inspiration Terrel's efforts and his fate has had on others to lend a hand to Diamond and her family. Consider what an inspiration Terrel will be to his daughter in years to come. Lastly, consider the fact that Terrel's life, while it lasted, was improved by the joy and pride inherent in doing the right thing and living a good life.
The Stoic Epictetus said that virtue was both necessary and sufficient for happiness. While a lot of events beyond our control can effect our lives, we control how we respond to those events, and that response goes back into that tapestry - usually continuing on to have effects larger than we imagined. Nothing can ever change the fact that we chose virtue when faced with the choice.
I never knew Terrel Pough, but I suspect that his years, obligations, and interests probably kept him from ever learning much about ancient philosophers. Be that as it may, the irony and pain of tragedy is eternal to all human beings and the wisdom found throughout the ages is therefore applicable today as well. Many of these thoughts, I'm certain, Terrel did understand, for as he himself once said, "If something ever happens to me, no one can ever tell her that her dad didn't take care of her."
I happened upon information for making donations on Bloggingbaby.com for those wishing to, and thought it would be a good idea to pass on the info...
Terrell Pough Memorial Fund
YouthBuild Charter School
1231 N. Borad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Diamond Houston Fund
c/o Sovereign Bank
8319 Stenton Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19150
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Thanks much to all the readers of my blog for taking the time to check in once in a while and read! I hope you all have a great holiday.
In the mean time, I'm in the middle of holiday goings on at the moment, but will try to think up some juicy philosophic thoughts soon. :)
Friday, November 11, 2005
With this acclaimed work and its immortal query, "Who is John Galt?", Ayn Rand found the perfect artistic form to express her vision of existence. Atlas Shrugged made Rand not only one of the most popular novelists of the century, but one of its most influential thinkers. Atlas Shrugged is the astounding story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world--and did. Tremendous in scope, breathtaking in its suspense, Atlas Shrugged stretches the boundaries further than any book you have ever read. It is a mystery, not about the murder of a man's body, but about the murder--and rebirth--of man's spirit. Atlas Shrugged is the "second most influential book for Americans today" after the Bible, according to a joint survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club.I'll write back next week with comments so stay clicked!
Friday, November 4, 2005
The Dalai Lama has been promoting communication between Buddhism and neurobiology for some time now. There have been some interesting brain scans and studies regarding meditation and its effects. The Dalai Lama regards this as an indication that Buddhism and science may both be helped by these sorts of interactions.
I have read some of his notions on this, and the Dalai Lama seems very respecting of the proper boundaries of science and religion. At the same time, there is no doubt that studying the brain scans of meditators can't hurt the neurosciences and may help shed some light on brain plasticity (the ability of the brain to reform its architecture). In addition, in the spirit of Einstein's ideal religion of the future, religion that is open to the wonders science reveals, and willing to integrate with those discoveries, can be a positive in my view. It seems that most neuroscientists have enjoyed the cooperation and have had no problem with it.
Strangely, some protesters were present at the Stanford event. I wondered what this might be about, as I had generally thought the Dalai Lama had a favorable reputation around these parts. Looking into it, I found that the protest was instigated by some neurobiologists.
I thought that seemed rather odd to be so opposed to someone even speaking in an open speaking event which was specifically billed as a means of increasing interaction between the public and neuroscience.
In their letter of protest, Yi Rao (a neuroscientist from the Northwestern University of Chicago) claimed to "fully support" promotion of interaction between the public and neuroscientists. The "public" should mean people from all walks of life, even (and perhaps especially) religious figures. But Apparently, Yi Rao's idea of "interaction" is the public sitting quietly while the neuroscientists tell them what's what.
He went on to criticize recent findings on brain activity in meditators to be untested and the research limited. This is probably true, but if this is the case, then most scientists would see that as the very reason why more data needs to be collected and more discussions on the topic explored. Instead, this scientist seemed strangely out of step with the normal reaction of most other scientists.
The letter also pointed out that the basis of the Dalai Lama's position was reincarnation, which is opposed to neuroscience (Dalai Lamas are believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama). While science itself cannot rule out the supernatural, it certainly doesn't support it or assume it exists. So, there is some truth to this point. However, the Dalai Lama's subject matter in this event is not on reincarnation or anything else of a supernatural nature, but simply on meditation and its effects as can be measured by brain scans, and the possible fruits of cooperation between Buddhist meditators and neuroscientists. To exclude a person from the conversation simply because of their religious position and background is madness, and certainly out of step with most scientists. It would be like excluding a Christian pastor or priest that was an educated astronomer from lecturing on astronomy simply because his religious position was based on belief in a deity in human form.
In science (and logic in general) there is an admonition against taking arguments on authority. The inverse of this principle would also be true, which is that we don't outright reject what a person is saying because of who they are either. Each claim should be evaluated on its own merits with the evidence, and this goes for neuroscientists and religious figures alike.
If this were a scientific journal, then certainly any claims outside of rigid science should be excluded simply on the basis of category. But in a conference specifically designed to involve the public (and public figures) all voices should be heard. If there is genuinely something amiss in the Dalai Lama's claims then a true scientist will seek to counter them with superior argument and evidence - not censor them because of the person's position or faith.
Robert Desimone (Director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts), agrees with this line of study on meditation and brain activity, but warns that scientific bodies should "distance" themselves from particular religious beliefs. I certainly agree with this, but this wise notion shouldn't be thought of as requiring that any and all things someone might have to say should be banned, simply because of their religious status.
Thankfully, Yi Rao and others who signed this letter seem to be in the minority and, as I suspected, out of step. Studying a variety of brain behaviors (including mediation) seems a perfectly legitimate scientific endeavor, and having religious people enthusiastically cooperative in these efforts is a bonus. But it's as if they were responding to some sort of pseudo science which had been shown to be bogus or was based on bad science.
Something didn't seem right about this so I did some more digging and, sure enough, both Yi Rao and the protest's organizer, neuroscientist Jianguo Gu (university of Florida) just so happen to be from China!
For those that don't know, the Dalai Lama and China have been at odds for a long time now because of a dispute over the sovereignty of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who would have been Tibet's religious and cultural leader, fled when the Chinese government asserted its control over the region and has been traveling the world, writing books, and nurturing interfaith dialogue while hoping to also get the word out about Tibet's plight. China, needless to say, doesn't like this.
China has been nice enough to invite the Dalai Lama to return many times. But, given that the Chinese government took the Panchen Lama (2nd to the Dalai Lama) into "protective custody" ten years ago and has not been seen since, I can't say I blame the Dalai Lama from declining the invitation.
So, we're left wondering about this Yi Rao, Jianguo Gu, and a few others. Some online have been saying they are paid agents of the Chinese communist government, but far be it from me to claim to know such things. Perhaps they are just sadly warped by China's propaganda. Either way, although the Department of Homeland Security shouldn't bother itself with defending Dalai Lamas against lecture protests, these sorts of activities might be a secondary sign that looking into these folks backgrounds could be a good idea.
San Francisco Independent Media Center:
Original Nature article (should readers wish to subscribe to this fine magazine):
Stanford event webcast:
About the Dalai Lama:
About the Dalai Lamas thoughts on science & neurobiology:
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
(note: if the link above has expired, I've replicated the article here so it isn't lost, but encourage you to read from the source if possible.)
I plan to eventually post my own commentary on this - thanks Paul!
Monday, October 31, 2005
This seems like a great practice and I can understand its appeal. Yet, previous to this I was reading about Taoism in Chuang-Tzu. There, he mentioned the centipede speaking with the walrus. The walrus asks the centipede how he handles so many legs. The centipede responds that he doesn't try to think about it, but lets it flow naturally. If he actually stopped to think about it, he'd trip.
This sort of automatic "flow" as it might be called, also seems to me to be an approach with good potential and application.
But how can I reconcile these two concepts, which seem directly at odds with one another? I know they both come from different traditions, but might there be some philosophy by which we can know when mindfulness is proper and when flow is proper? Both of these traditions seem to be encouraging them exclusively, but this doesn't seem like truth to me.
Sunday, October 30, 2005
People livin' like they ain't got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma
Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism
But we still got terrorists here livin'
In the USA, the big CIA
The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK
But if you only have love for your own race
Then you only leave space to discriminate
And to discriminate only generates hate
And when you hate then you're bound to get irate, yeah
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that's exactly how anger works and operates
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight
Take control of your mind and meditate
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y'all, y'all
It just ain't the same, always unchanged
New days are strange, is the world insane
If love and peace is so strong
Why are there pieces of love that don't belong
Nations droppin' bombs
Chemical gasses fillin' lungs of little ones
With ongoin' sufferin' as the youth die young
So ask yourself is the lovin' really gone
So I could ask myself really what is goin' wrong
In this world that we livin' in people keep on givin' in
Makin' wrong decisions, only visions of them dividends
Not respectin' each other, deny thy brother
A war is goin' on but the reason's undercover
The truth is kept secret, it's swept under the rug
If you never know truth then you never know love
Where's the love, y'all, come on (I don't know)
I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder
As I'm gettin' older, y'all, people gets colder
Most of us only care about money makin'
Selfishness got us followin' our wrong direction
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo', whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness in equality
Instead in spreading love we spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity
That's the reason why sometimes I'm feelin' under
That's the reason why sometimes I'm feelin' down
There's no wonder why sometimes I'm feelin' under
Gotta keep my faith alive till love is found
People killin', people dyin'
Children hurt and you hear them cryin'
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
Where is the love?
-- Black Eyed Peas, Elephunk
Friday, October 28, 2005
To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.It looks like a marvelously interesting site. I look forward to checking it out in more detail...
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
At first it sounded a little new agey and spacey, but he makes some points which might be worth serious consideration. As I had previously read of, the philosopher David Chalmers has identified the "hard question" of consciousness which relates to trying to explain the "qualia" of consciousness - in other words, what it feels like to be conscious as opposed to the "easy question" which regards mere neurological function correlated to behavior.
The Dalai Lama suggests that our experience of consciousness is inherently subjective (from a point-of-view), so we may need to employ inherently subjective methods to further understand its nature. Enter meditation. In brain scans, it appears that masters of meditation are capable of directing their brains into some pretty unusual patterns of activity, and this may tell us something about the nature of consciousness.
Then, reading from several different sources, some things seemed to relate to one another and I thought I should post my thoughts on this. In a paper called Buddhism and Cognitive Science, J. Niimi writes:
In another series of studies Newberg and d'Aquili propose that sensations of spiritual connection or transcendence of the self correlate with decreased blood flow to structures in the posterior superior parietal lobe, in a region they refer to as the "orientation association area," the module of the brain that compiles sensory data into a perception of the body's location in its environment.Now, it makes sense that low blood flow in an area of the brain known for handling perception of our body's location would result in out of body feelings. But then later, in an unrelated Wikipedia article on meditation, I come across this:
Predominantly, studies of meditation report positive effects. However, some studies report that meditation may have adverse effects in certain circumstances (Lukoff, Lu & Turner, 1998; Perez-De-Albeniz & Holmes, 2000). If practiced improperly or too intensely, meditation can lead to considerable psychological and physiological problems, such as the symptoms of Kundalini...Looking up Kundalini Syndrome in another article I find (bold mine):
Theorists within the schools of Humanistic psychology, Transpersonal psychology and Near-Death Studies describe a complex pattern of motor, sensory, affective and cognitive/hermeneutic symptoms called The Kundalini Syndrome. This psycho-somatic arousal and excitation is believed to occur in connection with prolonged and intensive spiritual or contemplative practice (such as meditation or yoga)... Cognitive and affective symptoms [among others] are said to include psychological upheaval, stress, depression, depersonalization or derealization, intense mood-swings, altered states of consciousness (trance-like experiences), hallucinations (inner visions or acoustical phenomena), but also moments of bliss and deep peace.
Could it be that intense, long term practices of meditation allow the most skilled of us to direct brain activity to such an extent that blood flow is reduced to certain areas of the brain for long periods? If so, it seems that lack of blood (oxygen) to brain cells tends to kill them. It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that damage to areas like the parietal lobe might result from this and yield the symptoms we see in Kundalini Syndrome.
This is, of course, very rare and not meant as any sort of warning against meditation. I present it merely because it's such a fascinating thought and because it came to me after seeing these bits in different sources and putting them together. Whether I've put together these facts in a way that more knowledgeable people would think is sensible is another matter, of which I'm not certain.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
While many other leaders, legislators, and scholars may have made great strides in promoting the advancement of equality and justice, what made Rosa Parks special to me was that she was not a leader, but an ordinary individual. Her actions would inspire both followers and leaders such as Reverend Martin Luther King. People whose message may have been critical to them in their time, but a one that was essentially applicable to any creed, sect, or era.
Philosophically, her brave actions bring up the question of, when is lawlessness or disobedience ethical? Surely, the rule of law is an important ethic in itself, but laws alone do not dictate what is ethical. In "The Means/Ends Principle" I say that the question of ends and means only arises when there is a conflict of values (2.13.4). The Rosa Parks bus incident is a prime example of a conflict between two values (obeying the law and equality).
So many people, when confronted on their ethics, retreat to legalism: "I was just following orders", "I did nothing illegal", "I followed the law", "I didn't technically lie because of the definitions of my words". Clearly, Mrs. Parks showed us that the principle of dignity and equality for all human beings, far outweighed the principle of obedience to just any sort of law.
Rosa Parks was not a highly educated scholar, but in her own wisdom she reminded us that laws exist to further the imperatives of justice, not to undermine them. To do this, in the dangerous climate she did it in, required enormous courage. For that, she will be remembered.
Update: October 28, 2005
I was pleased to read in an Associated Press news article that Rosa Parks has become the first woman, and one of a select few people (30th), to have her body lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C. In addition to that, the first seat of every city bus in Detroit and Montgomery will be reserved until her funeral.
In an article criticizing Dennett's notion of the "Bright" in the Wall Street Journal, Dinesh D'Souza inexplicably focused on atheism and atheists thinking they're "brighter" than everyone else. Defending belief in the supernatural, D'Souza recalls Kant, saying,
Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?
Kant isn't arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings simply will never know.
I completely agree with Kant, as I have written here. But if that's true, then why does D'Souza claim to know them? Doesn't the above quote of his specifically say he can never do this?
The concept of the Brights and D'Souza's article are summed up here:
The homepage for the Brights is here:
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Biblical scholar James Robinson points out that Jesus understood that to do otherwise was to lead to a never-ending cycle of violence, and the only way to break this cycle was through forgiveness. In my own writings, I have said,
Love your enemies and pray for those persecuting you, so that you may become sons of your Father, for he raises his sun on bad and good and rains on the just and the unjust.
-- Q 6:27-28, 35c-d, Matthew 5:44-45.
And what if they do not return our kindness? Consider how unfortunate they are to be so locked in their views that they cannot even be reasonable or considerate. Let us not return their lack of respect with our own, for this will only cause a downward spiral.Professor Robert Axelrod has run simulations of ethical evolution and found there is actually a logical functionality to forgiveness. In describing a simulation where various behavioral features evolve based on what is most successful, Axelrod says (bold mine),
-- The Noble Conspectus, Chapter 1: Diversity.
What accounts for TIT-FOR-TAT's robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual co-operation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term co-operation.
-- Robert Axelrod, http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/1/1/review1.html
And now to the point of today's post. I have found an excellent short article describing the Dalai Lama's discussions on the subject of forgiveness...
Friday, October 21, 2005
Thursday, October 20, 2005
A poster on Yahoo's forums asked, "Aren't Americans better than this?" To which I responded...
...No - Americans are not "better" than anyone else. In fact, we never claimed to be better than anyone else. We, as a people, are just as flawed and have just as much good potential as any other people - no less, no more.
What we do claim is superior is not we as people or our culture, but the system of democracy, human rights, and free economics that we happen to be a user of.
All nations will have those who break the law and misbehave and America is no different - what is different is that, in some countries the desecration of enemy bodies is the norm, in some countries torture by the military is the norm. With Americans, when it happens, there is a big hoopla (as there is here), the accused are put on trial, and punishments are carried out, and even the accused are afforded rights.
Even in this system, there are problems and flaws from time to time, but it is far superior to a situation where families are routinely slaughtered, where civilians are not just accidentally killed but targeted as a matter of policy, and where brutality is the norm, as is the case under these theocracies, dictatorships, and terrorist organizations.
This is why bringing democracy and freedom to other people is essential. Not because it will make them better people or dissolve cases of criminals among them, but because it is a more noble, humane, and decent system that all humans as dignified beings have an inalienable right to.
I might add to this that this impression that Americans are better, or that they claim to be superior, is harmful to both Americans and others. This is not at all the point in the first place, and whenever these inevitable acts of crime pop up it creates a huge stink, as if something has happened that Americans claim doesn't happen. It is democracy and freedom that is superior - not us.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
“The noblest exercise of the mind within doors, and most befitting a person of quality, is study.”
William Ramsey, Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry, 1904
“Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.”
Carl Sagan, Celebrated Scientist
I once asked a philosophy professor “What is philosophy about?” He said philosophy is “radically critical self-consciousness”. This was 35 years ago. Only in the last five years have I begun to understand that statement
I took a number of courses in philosophy three decades ago but it was not until I began to study and understand Critical Thinking that I began to understand what “radically critical self-consciousness” meant.
I consider CT to be ‘philosophy light’. CT differs from other subject matter such as mathematics and geography in that it requires, for success, that the student develop a significant change in attitude.
Anyone who has been in military service recognizes the significant attitude adjustment introduced into all recruits in the eight weeks of boot camp. During the first eight weeks of military service each recruit is introduced to the proper military attitude. During the eight weeks of basic training there is certain knowledge and skills that the recruit learns but primarily s/he undergoes a significant attitude adjustment.
I would identify the CT attitude adjustment to be a movement from naïve common sense realism to critical self-consciousness. It is necessary to free many words and concepts from the limited meaning attached by normal usage—such a separation requires that the learner hold in abeyance the normal sort of concept associations.
The individual who has made the attitude adjustment recognizes that reality is multilayered and that one can only penetrate those layers through a critical attitude toward both the self and the world. To be critical does not mean to be negative, as is a common misunderstanding.
If we were to follow the cat and the turtle as they make their way through the forest we would observe two fundamentally different ways that a creature might make its way through life.
The turtle withdraws into its shell when it bumps into something new, and remains such until that something new disappears or remains long enough to become familiar to the turtle. The cat is conscious of almost everything within the range of its senses, and studies all it perceives until its curiosity is satisfied.
Formal education teaches by telling so that the graduate is prepared with a sufficient database to get a job. Such an education efficiently prepares one to make a living, but this efficiency is at the cost of curiosity and imagination. Such an education does not prepare an individual to become critically self-conscious.
If we wish to emulate the cat rather than the turtle we must revitalize our curiosity and imagination after formal education. That revitalized curiosity and imagination, together with self directed study prepares each of us for a fulfilling life that includes the ecstasy of understanding.
I think that radically critical self-consciousness combines the attitude adjustment of CT and combines it with the curiosity of the cat and then takes that combination to a radical level.
Sunday, October 16, 2005
This is just the sort of thing one can expect when our society refuses to provide adequate and equitable education. By that, I mean a full education which includes an understanding and respect of the principle that everyone must be allowed to have free speech or else everyone's free speech is in danger.
Such ignorance also leads to the idiocy of neo-Nazism and racism displayed by the original protestors. A lack of knowledge about history and social science leaves a void easily filled with propaganda. Furthermore, these uneducated are more often poor, which results in crime-ridden living conditions, thus fueling animosity...
Above: Ignorance and hatred a common combination.
Not only that, but it is the unequal access to quality education that maintains such class distinctions and alienates impoverished sections of our society. If one wanted to create a group of barbarians, what's being done in this society would be a perfect way to accomplish that...
Above: Barbarians at the gate
There's no doubt that each individual is responsible for his or her actions and should be punished accordingly when breaking the law. But that doesn't change the fact that people are encouraged to take such actions and it behooves us as a society to, at a minimum, not encourage such things by creating these conditions.
You reap what you sow, and it seems it's harvest time in Toledo.
Friday, October 14, 2005
Actually, I pretty much agree with what you say, generally. But a big part of why I agree is, as you point out yourself a few times in the work, is that you are not proposing anything substantially different than what already exists. It seems your goal is to 'objectify' existing ethical trends, not try to reinvent the proverbial wheel.
True. I think what I'm trying to do is call attention to what it is we are really doing in our ethical deliberations, so that we might do it more proficiently and with more focus.
When I use "Objective" I mean things that external to, and independent of, sentient minds (for our purposes, human minds). Things like matter and energy, physical objects, the physical laws of the universe, etc. When I use "Subjective" I mean ideas, ideologies, notions, thoughts, beliefs, etc., that are products of the human mind.That's reasonable. I would tend to agree with this.
But what is your thought about the Pythagorean Theorem (the length of the hypotenuse squared is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides) - is that objectively true?
If not, then do you think that other intelligent extra terrestrials somewhere could invent/discover it? It seems to me that if they can, then it must be a fact that is discovered rather than invented - something that exists and is true apart from our knowledge of it.
If it IS objective, then where does it exist? What atoms, "matter, or energy" is it made out of?
I think our definition of "objective" needs to include certain data about dispositions and inter-relations OF matter in the universe.
Now... Here is a question: Is Mr. Spock from Star Trek objective or subjective? It's a bit tricky.Yes, but I think the 'trickiness' comes from an imprecise definition of "Mr. Spock". If, by that label, you mean an organism of a non-human (actually half human) species, from the planet Vulcan, then Mr. Spock is not objective and does not exist (don't say that at a star trek convention surrounded by people in uniforms).
But if, by the label "Mr. Spock" you mean a bit of data (a "meme") which is a description of a character, then not only does Mr. Spock exist, but it is fully objective - every bit as much as we can say that Windows software (a collection of data) objectively exists. Furthermore, the "Mr. Spock" meme, like Windows, is continuously replicated in multiple formats and mediums, and spread across the planet, having real effects.
I think your take on the objective/subjective issue is too heavily focused on what's inside and what's outside our skulls. What might make it more clear, in my view, is to set that issue aside for a moment and recall that 'everything is atoms' (or particles, strings, whatever).
When it's all said and done - it's all a bunch of particles bouncing around, and everything we think, see, do, describe, philosophize about, and so on ALL boils down to that simple fact. These are all descriptions of one set or subset of interactions of particles in this gigantic universal soup.
(I think, being in the company of Stoics, who are materialists, I can say this without ducking my head!)
Now, that includes brains and it includes the activity of brains. And, just as much as data on a computer disk, it includes thoughts, memories, emotions, etc. These are all names we give to certain arrangements and activities of sets of particles.
The key, like our defining of what we mean by "Mr. Spock" is in defining what we mean by terms.
When I say that ethics is objective, the earlier portions in which I define exactly what is meant by "ethics" is absolutely essential to making that statement meaningful and true. If even a slightly different notion of the word is substituted, then the sentence "ethics is objective" may not mean the same thing, and may not even be something I agree with.
But, if we are to approach anything rationally, I think a precise definition is important. I also give my reasons WHY I have defined 'ethics' as I have, and this would be another matter to debate in its own right.
So, ethics are like the Pythagorean theorem. They are objective because they describe something that is true and objective about the interaction of Homo Sapiens individuals and their effects. Furthermore, similar species on other worlds (if they are similar in their natures) could discover (not invent) true ethics themselves, and this overlap would illustrate the objective nature of these "rules of efficient interaction".
Now, with "Mr. Spock" (the meme), it is not the case that other worlds would "discover" this concept independently (apart from amazing coincidence). This meme/bit of data doesn't refer to anything objectively true in the universe. Many of the principles embodied WITHIN the character may, however, and these are generally principles of rationality and ethics. For example, aliens might generate a fictional character that believed "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few".
Anyway, I think a similar type of ambiguity creeps into ethics. As you astutely pointed out in your work, ethics come from humans and cannot exist without humans.True, but the Pythagorean Theorem cannot exist without triangles, to which it references. The fact is that humans objectively exist, and they exist in this universe. So, because of this, human ethics, which describes very real and objective things about how humans can most efficiently interact, is also objective.
Let me look again at space aliens, but this time a hypothetical example of one with vastly different instinctive responses, biological life cycles, and so on. Let's call them the "bleebs". The bleebs would have their own set of ethics, which define the set of moral norms that, if accepted, would generate the greatest level of survival and prosperity for that species. Now, maybe because of bleeb anatomy or psychology, one of these sub-ethics might be eating your children at some point. For the bleebs, this would be ethical, and it would be objectively so. Because the bleebs WOULD exist, and bleeb ethics would be as true as rules about how to build the strongest bridge or the fastest sail boat.
For those species capable of consciously molding their own behavior to learned norms (not just acting off immediate instinct) ethics *IS* tied to that species. But this doesn't render it subjective because the species isn't subjective. They are made out of matter and interact in certain ways. Therefore, the most "ideal" set of procedures for them to interact is *literally* a matter of engineering.
...But I do not believe that ethics are some 'force' in the universe that exists independent of the human mind and will, such as in gravity.Consider that, if you ignore gravity, you will fall. In addition, if you ignore ethics, there will be an objective effect and you will similarly bring harm to yourself. It's just that the effect is much more complicated because of the intricate web of interactions among so many people and factors.
So, while I wouldn't call ethics a "force", I would say that it defines something as true and as objective as the formulas describing gravity and the Pythagorean Theorem.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
Like many others throughout history, Robinson thinks he knows what Jesus really preached. But considering his credentials, he just may have a good head start. The former director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, he was the intimately involved in making the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Gnostic gospels became part of the public discourse. He also organized the Internal Q Project that reconstructs the original sayings of Jesus, and it is this analysis in particular that has helped shaped his thesis. According to Robinson, Jesus' original gospel is now obscured by the canonized literature. The message is intense and simple: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them. It is a "radical trust in and responsiveness to God" that can make society function as God's kingdom.
The book really does highlight the remarkable differences between what most modern Christians think of as their faith, and what Jesus actually (most likely) taught and said. After reading, I found what I hope is a current email of the author's and sent him this letter...
I have just finished reading, The Gospel of Jesus, and wanted to thank you for this wonderful book. It will go on my "special shelf" for certain.
I was raised in a Conservative Protestant home in the southern United States, and related to what you said about Jesus' message being overlooked by a nearly exclusive focus on supernatural salvation through him as a human sacrifice.
For many years I have been (and still am) a Humanist with an entirely scientific and non-supernatural view of the world. Recently I have been discovering new ways of thinking about a more naturalistic concept of "God" than the personified conception of conservative Christianity and other major religions. This, mainly through my explorations of Taoism, the materialist-but-sacred Logos concept in Stoicism, and the correlation between Heraclitus' Divine Fire and modern Complex Systems theory. Although, I still prefer not to use the term "God" so as not to mislead people into thinking I believe something I don't.
Your book, therefore, came at a perfect time for me. Jesus' thoughts on 'seeing God in Nature' struck a cord. While my concept here may be far more impersonal and naturalistic (perhaps pantheistic) than even Jesus intended, it makes many of his conclusions fit for me in ways never before possible.
I enjoyed learning about the history of the development of the synoptic gospels. I also enjoyed reading of Jesus' notions concerning how we treat our enemies. Of course, I have heard his teachings before, but the pragmatic "cycle breaking" way you (and originally he) framed these values truly related to me as a Humanist.
Thank you for showing religious conservatives a more true and rational path that can still be spiritual and fulfilling, while at the same time showing secular folks like me the value in Jesus' original gospel. Your approach and aim in this book was truly noble.
Update, October 20, 2005:
I've just read Professor Robinson's email reply to my letter! Because it was an email to me and there was no understanding between us that it would be public, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to post it here. But he was very gracious, personable, and pleased that I liked the book. I thought it was nice of him to return fan mail so I figured I should mention it.
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
1. Move away from pathos. Work to reduce and eliminate those emotions that we can readily identify as counter productive to our peace of mind. We can do this without accepting the eradication of all pathos idea, if we view that as an extreme. Just start with hitting the high spots, the most obvious problems.
2. Get some paper and pencil, take some time, and make a list. On one side list roles such as father, student, member of my neighbourhood, citizen of my country, friend, etc. On the other side list what we think are appropriate duties for all those roles (affection shown to my children might be an appropriate duty, for example). And don’t forget duty to oneself (sleep, exercise, the right food, taking a break from other duty, all that stuff). Next prioritise and integrate. Resolve conflicts. Do this beforehand and on a regular basis. Being ready for the day and the week will eliminate a lot of potential for pathos right out the gate.
3. Make another list. Identify those that you know that you respect for aspects of their character. Seek to emulate. If it is appropriate, open a discussion with them about how they got where they are.
4. Seek to habituate critical thinking. Take a class if that is possible. Learn to be more objective and carful in making decisions and less flippant.
5. Integrate (all of the above). Moving one’s reasoning process from a local in the moment concern to the week to the year and finally to ones life as a whole will stabilize the whole thing and give one that all-seeing perspective that trivializes the small setbacks and results in quiet confidence.
6. Be honest with yourself. This is different than 5. Inner harmony (ie, integrity, the lack of internal conflict) requires self-honesty to be achieved but the two are not synonymous.
7. Consider the cardinal virtues of wisdom / prudence (critical thinking with moral purpose is how I see it), moderation (with respect to desire), courage (with respect to aversion), and justice (the harmonious interplay of the parts, either one’s own integrity or that of a community). There is a lot that can be made from applying these four practically. These virtues are utilized in bridging the gap between what we have reasoned we ‘ought’ to do (from 1, 2, and 3 above as normative propositions) from what we are inclined to do.
8. Try to be more aware of the moment. If we are not paying attention we miss all the opportunities to apply our hard work. Attention will automatically go up as pathos is reduced.
Now, when you’re done with all the above come back and ask what virtue is. You won’t have to, will you, for you will know what it is.
Thursday, August 25, 2005
People often do believe that they are choosing good for themselves at the expense of society. What they are unaware of is that they are harming themselves. Sometimes the harm is obvious and direct, and other times the harm is subtle and insidious. But it is only because of ignorance that they do this. If they could see the truth, they would understand that they are harming themselves.
It should be noted here that people who live vice-filled lives of evil are unhappy - including those who may have riches or fame and appear happy to others. They may not know why they are unhappy. Furthermore, some people's entire lives are this way and it is all they know, so they may not even realize they could be happier. They just toss it up as "that's how life is". So, it is not necessary for them to realize it in order for them to be worse off because of their vice. In this way, the evil are naive of the good life completely. They imagine good people to be dupes who are as miserable as themselves, only more so because they lack their material wealth or perceived freedom. When good people tell them they aren't happy they laugh and wonder what foolishness the dupe is talking about.
Potentially innocent people may be fooled into following evil people because they can often be naive and ignorant enough to think that the evil person really is happy. I know of a woman who doesn't take care of her children, has no responsibility, is deep into drugs, lives with various low-lifes, in and out of prison, and is basically alienated from her family. She is quite obviously miserable because every time you see her, you see she is upset or ashamed or fighting. This cannot be a happy life.
Yet, her young teen daughter, when told that her mother is miserable said, "What do you mean? Her life seems happy?" Because her mother was always "doing whatever she wanted to do" the poor girl actually thought that her mother was having an enjoyable life. She hasn't learned yet what constitutes a good life and doesn't know the misery her mother lives with.
It is true that virtue is what's good for society. I only add that, it is therefore good for the individual as well.
It works the same in reverse. Some rulers have thought that they could do what was good for society while harming the individuals that make up that society. But this always comes back to haunt them in the end.
A society is made up of individuals, and you cannot impose something on a system that is opposed to the nature of its components. It is the nature of human beings to want protected rights and fair treatment. When a social system is imposed on individuals that is abhorrent to them, they will not function well in society and the society suffers. It is like thinking that we can have something which harms individual cells without it harming us.
This is why oppressive societies eventually crumble into violent rebellion, or simply stagnate due to the lost efficiencies inherent in an oppressed people.
A society is a system, and there is no such thing as a prosperous society made up of unprosperous individuals.
Addendum / Illustration:
As an illustration of the concept, imagine a needle gauge measuring the degree to which a society is more supportive of the individual (when the needle is far right) and the degree to which a society is more supportive of the collective (when the needle is far left).
Now imagine the needle balanced in the middle. If the needle begins to veer left, we imagine the society passing laws for the 'sake of the collective', which necessarily infringe upon individual rights to some degree. As the needle moves further and further left, the people become more and more oppressed, disgruntled, unproductive, and unsupportive of the society. Thus, the further left the needle moves, the greater the harm to the society because it's constituent components (individuals) are not optimal.
In the opposite situation, with the needle moving right, we see individuals are given greater and greater liberties such that they are allowed to pollute the environment, scam people, and eventually even assault others. Thus, the individual is harmed the further right the needle moves.
On the whole, we see that, if the needle moves left the society and the individual are harmed. If the needle moves right the individual and society are harmed. There is no way to harm one without harming the other. This, makes perfect sense when we understand that 'society' is just a term for a 'bunch of individuals', and when we understand the nature of inter connectedness.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
concept of autopoiesis. I've written here about
complex systems quite a bit, and as most would know,
all life forms are complex systems, but obviously, not
all complex systems are life in the conventional
understanding of the word. So what makes come complex
systems "life" while others are not?
Autopoiesis is a trait that some complex systems have
(but not all), whereby they are constantly remaking
themselves. They take in new material and use that to
rebuild themselves as they function so that, over
time, they are made up of completely new matter, and
yet the pattern, form, and function has remained
This seems like a wonderful way to parse out which
complex systems are life and which are not. It
obviously includes all living things.
The problem is that it also includes things like the
red spot on Jupiter, which has been around far longer
than the time any one particle of gas has spent within
it. It also might be said to include corporations,
which are constantly changing out individual workers,
buildings, etc. but maintain their organizational form
Furthermore, it includes the entire planet earth - and
not just the life forms or ecology of planet earth,
but all of the non-biological material, from
volcanoes, to weather, all interacting in one complete
Many would take this as a failure of the endeavor to
use autopoiesis as a definitional marker of life.
However, there are many who seem undaunted and
maintain the integrity of the definition. As I will
explain, I remain uncertain about this.
These folks say that we might be more accurate in
seeing that the earth and other autopoiesetic complex
systems really are examples of life, even if different
from purely biological life. They maintain that there
can be great advantages to seeing life in this manner.
Unfortunately, this concept (called Gaia when
referring to the earth as a life form) has been
misrepresented by many New Age groups who take it to
mean there's some vital life force of 'mother earth'
and so on.
When I pointed out to my wife how the processes of the
earth and those of a life form are identical in a
complex systems sense, both being autopoiesetic, she
simply said, "I don't like that". I asked her why and
what the difference was and she couldn't say. She
just said, "I don't know but I don't like it".
I think we all have a sense that lizards and people
and cats and trees are alive and rocks and clouds and
rivers are not. It seems like it's almost self
evident and there's something extremely intuitive
about it. So much so that we figure there MUST be
some rational and logical formula that should clearly
delineate why one is alive and the other not.
But that got me thinking, is it really self evident?
Is it really intuitive or obvious even? Or, might the
difference between what is alive and what is not
simply be a cultural convention?
As the biological sciences developed, it seems we've
been told since elementary school that x is alive and
y is not. That's a very early viewpoint that's
explained to kids if memory serves. But in many
primal cultures, the idea of other moving systems
being alive (or perhaps they might say, being infused
with spirits) seems commonsensical and intuitive to
them. While I don't believe in spirits and vital life
"forces", the fact that these cultures saw such
systems as intuitively alive makes me question our own
intuitions in that regard; especially now that
complexity science is having trouble finding real
concretely measurable validation of our conceptions.
Maybe the only reason we "don't like" the idea of
other autopoiesetic complex systems being alive is
simply due to an ingrained cultural predisposition
concerning what is thought to be alive and what isn't.
As I said, I am a strict materialist with no notions
of spirits, souls, the supernatural, or even natural
vitalism (life forces). But when we look at life as a
process of Complexity involving natural elements
interacting according to natural laws, it is a
two-sided proposition, for it inherently begs the
question of why other such systems are NOT to be
considered alive. Maybe they should?
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
You've mentioned [Complex-Systems Theory] in the past and obviously consider it useful. It's new to me. Could you give a brief outline of the Theory so that others can possibly see its use or potential, in the same way you clearly do. :-)
This was my response (more or less)...
Complexity is a fairly new field that has brought together professionals from a multitude of vastly different disciplines.
It seeks to study what are called "complex adaptive systems", which as it turns out, tends to be just about everything that is interesting about the universe. Furthermore, I believe the study of complex systems theory, mathematical and scientific though it may be, is exactly what Heraclitus was referring to in his descriptions of the Divine Fire, and exactly what the Taoists were referring to with their concept of organic pattern or “Li”. And, unlike retrofits where some religious folks sometimes take the latest scientific theories and say, “hey that’s what x is in my religion”, I think that in this case, the thing being discussed by the ancients and that which Complexity addresses really are the same phenomena. So much so, that I consider Complex Systems Theory to be the modern continuation of the Stoic investigation into the Nature of the Logos.
A complex system is one where you have multiple agents interacting according to their own individual rules and, as a result, this large system operates in a very ornate and even “intelligent” way without orchestration from a top-down hierarchy. Complex systems include things like: the economy, the ecology, individual biological organisms, the weather, some computer networks, flocks of birds, and our brains. Complex systems even include the ebb and flow of cultural traits and other meme-based intellectual concepts which interact with one another over time.
Something that is completely orderly is inert and static, and something that is completely chaotic is random and haphazard. But complex systems lie in balance between these two extremes, maintaining an order that is dynamic.
The fascinating thing about Complexity, and why there can be a single field at all, is that all of these systems operate by the same fundamental principles. It’s all much more mathematical than I as a layman can really appreciate fully, but as these various equations and laws are discovered, we find that they can be applied to both neurons in the brain, as well as organisms in an ecology or corporations in an economy. What this suggests is that Complexity is not merely pointing out analogies, but that all of these manifestations portray an underlying order that governs how matter in our universe organizes itself. Traits of complex systems include:
• They undergo spontaneous self organization.
• They are adaptive to the environment around them.
• They are dynamic, unlike snowflakes and computer chips, which are merely complicated but static.
• They result in emergent properties.
• Once they reach sufficient complexity, there is no way to mathematically deduce their behavior from the base rules by which the individual agents operate, even using every particle of the universe as a bit in a computer that runs for the lifetime of the universe. The quickest and only way to see how they will perform is to simply run and observe the system. They are effectively "indeterminate".
• The smallest of changes in initial starting conditions can lead to enormous differences in behavior of the system.
• They tend to bifurcate into layers of organization, where module-like systems work as single agents in larger, more complex structures.
What Complexity teaches us is how simple components acting on just a few basic rules of interaction, can lead upwards to greater levels of complexity. This addresses divergent questions such as:
• Why and how did the Soviet Union collapse overnight?
• Why did the stock market crash more than 500 points on a single Monday in 1987?
• Why do ancient species and ecosystems remain stable for millions of years and then transform or die out in a geologic instant?
• Why do rural families in a nation such as Bangladesh still produce an average of 7 children, even when the villagers are aware of the ill to society and birth control is freely available?
• How did the primordial soup of amino acids emerge into the first cells?
• Why did individual cells form an alliance into the first multi-cellular organisms?
• How can Darwinian natural selection lead to intricate structures such as an eye, whose components require simultaneous development?
• What is “life” exactly?
• What is a “mind” exactly, and how does a 3 pound lump of matter give rise to one?
• Why is there something rather than nothing?
• How is the cosmic compulsion for disorder matched by an equal compulsion for order?
In fact, Complexity science is now having an impact not only in multiple previously unrelated scientific fields such as artificial intelligence, sociology, and economics, but also in several new business and corporate concepts. Some people think this is all about math and science, and don’t see the enormous philosophic implications of what’s actually being addressed here. Consider the following, from “Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos” by Mitchell M. Waldrop (from which I have been paraphrasing, and by the way, will change the way you look at the universe)...
“I’m of the school of thought that life and organization are inexorable,” he says, “just as inexorable as the increase in entropy. They just seem more fluky because they proceed in fits and starts, and they build on themselves. Life is a reflection of a more general phenomenon that I’d like to believe is described by some counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics – some law that would describe the tendency of matter to organize itself, and that would predict the general properties of organization we’d expect to see in the universe.”
Now, when we consider the words of Heraclitus, who originated the concept of the Divine Fire, he tells us of a process that never rests; an everliving fire in an unceasing process of eternal flux. He speaks of the way upwards (order/peace/harmony) and the way downwards (entropy/chaos/disorder). Paradoxically, the everliving fire which creates this flux also secures its stability. This eternal exchange is the same for both microcosm and macrocosm alike (layers of organization).
Nearly every feature of complex systems is spoken of by Heraclitus and I find it impossible not to think that Heraclitus was observing the very same sort of activity in Nature that Complexity scientists study today, although not as nearly refined or informed. Even his famous statement that one cannot step twice into the same river, is essentially a description of Autopoiesis (a process where some complex systems are constantly remaking themselves with new material, while keeping the same form).
This everliving fire, the creative force in the universe, seems to me to a description of what Complexity scientists call the counterpart to the second law of thermodynamics. The Taoist Li, or organic form, are those structures in nature which the artist thinks about in his compositions, and which we all appreciate the beauty of. These are forms that are not completely orderly but you know them when you see them. They have an order to them and include cloud formations, and the structures and tissues of living creatures. This is how the Taoists described Li.
My recent investigation into the Taoist Chuang-Tzu was for a very specific reason. I was trying to think of just how these incredibly interesting notions of Complexity can or should play a role in our approach to life. So, since Complexity seems to be the modern incarnation of the Logos and Li (and in some ways the Tao itself), then I wondered how knowledge of the Li and/or Tao in Taoism lead to conclusions of how we live our daily lives. I was informed that Chuang-Tzu addressed this very issue.
After making some notes on it, I came to see that the arguments he makes for how we approach life, based on the Nature of the Li and the Tao, hold up quite well and, incidentally, are incredibly Stoic in nature. Most fascinating though, I found that they DO indeed apply in connecting Complexity-based perspectives to our approach to life, just as I had suspected.
I have not yet formulated the Chuang-Tzu arguments into a presentable Complexity-based form yet (working on it). However, it is my belief that, if we are to look at Stoicism as segmented into Physics, Logic, and Ethics, that for modern Stoics, Complexity Theory IS the Physics branch of Stoicism.
Here are some good links for learning more about complex systems:
Note to all on a similar topic:
Especially look at the section on Autopoiesis on the prototista site below, as it relates to the definition of life, and references to the nature of consciousness: