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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mark Sanford: how do we react?

Governor Mark Sanford. Photo: AP
Governor Mark Sanford yesterday revealed that he has been having an extramarital affair with another woman. As a writer I'm struggling with what, if anything, I should discuss on this. Perhaps we can ask "what should we think of this", "how should we act", and "what can we learn from it?"

My hope for this spot at is to be interesting and helpful, and do it with some degree of dignity. It's therefore with some trepidation that I jump on the bandwagon by writing about the grimy gossip of the day: Gov. Sanford's affair. Here is the contradiction: I hope that philosophy will ennoble us and that I can 'rise above' tawdry things. But, at the same time, these are the sorts of things with which the general population is consumed. How then, can I show the importance and the role of philosophy in real, everyday life without addressing the things that occupy our collective attention? That is the issue that led to my decision to address this event after all.

Humanism is a worldview but also a moral philosophical stance. Inherent in its principles are honesty, integrity, responsibility, fairness, and concern for all people. Virtue is its own reward, as virtue and right reason are one in the same. One might expect, therefore, that in addressing the situation with the Governor, we should spend our time in admonition. Perhaps we should rail on how evil the Governor is and cast him out as an example to others who would similarly misbehave? Or, perhaps we could use this time to bash the Governor's political party as hypocrites to score political points?

To the contrary, our moral oversight - as always - should remain humbly fixed on ourselves. Was Governor Sanford in the wrong for what he's did? Certainly. But if we understand virtue properly, we will know that Sanford cannot escape the causal results of vice. They provide their own consequences.

I have no control over the choices Mark makes. I control one thing, and that is my own choices. Therefore we should not squander the moment with undue focus on Mark's just desserts. We should also not squander it with childish authoritarian appeals to beware Mark's behavior on the grounds that we too will fall from grace.

Instead, we should start with compassion, first for his family and others effected. Then, yes, with compassion for Mark Sanford. That doesn't mean we simply 'let it go' or that there should not be consequences. However, I suspect most readers have no direct power or authority to immediately do anything to the Governor. Those who are his constituents can certainly consider this when they enter the voting booth or write others in office. But if we are to focus on things we control, these are exceptionally minor responsibilities to be focused upon now.

We should have compassion for Mark, not because he deserves it or because he should receive it, but because doing so is good for us. Whatever I can do or not do to the Governor is individually not so significant - however, the attitudes I harbor about him and toward him can have a big impact on who I am, on my character, and on my life experience.

Let us humbly remember that we all have done wrong things in the past. We all have hurt others, have been selfish, etc. And, rather than busying ourselves with placing our misdeeds on scales to see whose is worse, we should instead remember this: when Mark got involved emotionally and intimately with a friend outside of his oath to his wife, behind her back, and disregarded his responsibility to his family - he misjudged what is beneficial to him. His short-sightedness and ignorance allowed his passions to overtake his judgment. What seemed a beneficial course of action before him was truly not. And, isn't this the very same error we all make, with every minor or major misdeed?

I should not try to twist the issue by suggesting that Mark's problem is merely that he "isn't perfect". That would be a distortion offenders often try to promote in their defense. He isn't going through what he is right now because he merely lacks perfection, but because what he did was pointedly gross in its measure - being more than a case of simply lacking perfection. However, while extremes vary, all of us are guilty of the same kind of ignorance and misjudgment as Mark's. Let's be humble and not compound our vice with the addition of self-righteousness, mercilessness, and pride in the face of Mark's unfortunate failures.

Instead, let's take this as an opportunity to be better than we have been and better than Mark has been, by being considerate, fair, and compassionate toward him and his family. Mark has done wrong, and our wish for him should be that he learns from his misdeeds and becomes a better person in the future, perhaps even someday emerging stronger and a good example of reform for others. We don't know if this will happen. As scientifically minded folks, Humanists do not believe that 'wishing makes it so'. But what we wish on others certainly impacts the kind of character we form.

Just as importantly, let's take this as an opportunity to consider our own shortcomings in the face of our passions. That will help us find our way from the screaming hordes surrounding the gallows and place us back on course.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Absolute truth: does it exist?

"You can't handle the truth!" In the film,
A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and
Lt. Cdr. Galloway (Demi Moore) attempt to
uncover the Truth about Col. Jessep's (Jack
Nicholson, pictured) role in the death of a
soldier. Photo: Warner Brothers.
A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of 'absolute truth'. By the term 'absolute truth' I'm assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, "is there absolute truth?" I'd begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer "no" as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way - not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn't get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence[1].

Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any 'truth' we establish changes from moment to moment. While it's true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics 'evolved' in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.

So, it's really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam's Razor. Therefore, I'd have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist - they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.

How do you define what is meant by 'absolute truth'? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It's quite simple: there is one reality that is 'just so'[2]. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.

But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:

People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines "knowledge". He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls 'facts'. Eller imagines that if we use correct 'reason' and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at 'facts' which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from 'opinions' or 'beliefs'.

In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. 'Knowledge' is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true - but this doesn't get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don't know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.

So... there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making - both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one's work, the aforementioned Occam's Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.

What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but "atoms and the void", I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Confronting our delusions

(CC) Victor Nuno,
Ancient philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism both claim delusion and ignorance are the source of our suffering. What is the nature of this delusion and how do we overcome it?

Humanists, lacking supernatural beliefs, often seek wisdom wherever it can be found, and wherever it is based on naturalistic observation and rationality. Aside from many modern sources, I tend to relate to Buddhism and Stoicism. In my last post on non-attachment, I said that in both cases, the central theme and argument of each essentially boils down to the following:

We people harbor a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about ourselves, our worlds, and our condition (delusions). If we had greater understanding, we wouldn't get so worked up or upset about 'the dilemma' (the fact that life often doesn't go as we'd wish). Those who work to understand this deeply and engage in certain practices to transform themselves accordingly, will tend to have happier, more contented lives.

What is the nature of this delusion? This seems to be where Buddhism and Stoicism differ.

The most common summaries of Stoicism suggest that the delusion is that we forget what we control and what we cannot control. We act as though we can control things which are outside of our control, and we forget this. As a result of our mindset not conforming to our true nature, we suffer. We suffer because we have not fully accepted the things which are not within our control. The teachings of Stoicism are designed to help us begin to see the world in these terms. A similar endeavor to let go exists in Christianity, as expressed in the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

However, Buddhism says the delusion has to do with impermanence. Because we do not recognize and accept that all things are in flux and impermanent, we are unhappy. Because we want things to be fixed and unchanging, we suffer when they change. Buddhism offers practices designed to allow us to experience impermanence conceptually and therefore come to terms with it, even seeing it as a beautiful thing that makes possible all of the things we do like.

So, which is it? Is the nature of the delusion about what we control, or is it about impermanence?
At the risk of equivocation, I think some consistency is fairly easy to spot here. I would offer the following solution...

The nature of our delusion is that we do not clearly understand and accept the reality in which we find ourselves - we do not completely comprehend Nature as it is, rather than how our short-sighted impulses would desire it is.

The nature of reality is that it is an impermanent complex system which is interdependent and always in flux. It is because of impermanence and interdependence that there are many things over which we do not have control. So, we fail to appreciate and accept that we lack control because we do not appreciate and perceive the impermanent nature of reality.

To prove the consistency of these concepts, let me quote a Stoic source on impermanence, and a Buddhist source on control:

As the Logos would have it, Michel Daw has just today furnished me a link to daily thoughts on Stoicism from a book he's reading. Today's entry was as follows, from the famous Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, Meditations book x. 36 (bold mine):

SAITH the Poet, "The winds blow upon the trees, and their leaves fall upon the ground. Then do the trees begin to bud again, and by the springtime they put forth new branches. So is the generation of men; some come into the world, and others go out of it." Of these leaves then thy Children are. And they also that applaud thee so gravely, or, that applaud thy speeches, with that their usual acclamation, O wisely spoken! and speak well of thee, as on the other side, they that stick not to curse thee, they that privately and secretly dispraise and deride thee, they also are but leaves. And they also that shall follow, in whose memories the names of men famous after death, is preserved, they are but leaves neither. For even so is it of all these worldly things. Their spring comes, and they are put forth. Then blows the wind, and they go down. And then in lieu of them grow others out of the common matter of all things, like unto them. But, to endure but for a while, is common unto all. Why then shouldst thou so earnestly either seek after these things, or fly from them, as though they should endure for ever? Yet a little while, and thine eyes will be closed up, and for him that carries thee to thy grave shall another mourn within a while after.

Meanwhile, over at, Buddhist monk Venerable Jegaro states (bold mine):

"Happiness in the normal sense means that you always get what you want, when and how you want it. This is very difficult, because so many things are beyond our control: the weather, one's appearance, health, relationships, one's meditation so many things we cannot control... When you are not burdened the mind is at peace. It is naturally joyful and happy. The Buddha was a shining example of this happiness. From my own experiences of having met many great meditation Masters, they share this quality of inner [tranquility], despite the inability to control conditions and events..."

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Meditation states of the Zen of Meditation:

"[Zen Buddhism] teaches us to let go of the people we like to think we own and control in favor of a philosophy that teaches us we can only control our own thoughts, our own actions, and our own reactions."

Thus, the 'delusion' is a complex and fascinating truth that produces a myriad of different consequences. It is understandable that some thinkers have emphasized different aspects of it than other thinkers have. In both cases, the philosophies that sprung from each have fruitful things to teach us about living well in this natural universe.

In the future I plan to get more into the balance of this wisdom with compassion, and widen out to relate this back with Humanism. Until next time, thanks for reading :)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More on intentions, friendships, & compassion: reader feedback

(CC) cindy47452,
I plan to get back to the previous subject soon, but for now it's time to respond to reader feedback! Thanks so much for reading everyone :)

From "Being good: Spock, Obama, Jesus style"

Roderick T. Long - Thanks for the citation -- but I found your critique rather ironic, since I'm an [Aristotelian] virtue ethicist with a slight Kantian spin, much closer to the Stoics than to utilitarianism, and I've long argued that the primary focus of ethics should be on character rather than consequences. The particular paper you cite focuses on consequences, because, well, it's about a specific moral problem having to do with contributing to consequences. I also think a consistent Stoic would have to be an anarchist, thus ruling out Obama, but that's another topic.

Thanks for your response Dr. Long. Gene Mayes has also mentioned this to me, so I should clarify. My main intent was to mention your paper (which I enjoyed, by the way), and then to note how it's subject matter reminded me of the very common approach of consequentialism, which I then moved on to. I did not mean to imply this was the overall philosophy of the author of that paper, but I probably should have mentioned that specifically. My apologies if I've conveyed that impression to anyone. I'm glad you've had the opportunity to make this clear yourself.

As for consistent Stoics being anarchists, I'm not sure. I think they'd agree that in a world full of Sages (the perfect-practitioner of Stoicism) government would be unnecessary, but Stoics are likely practical-minded enough to know that we are not all Sages. That being the case, I would suspect a person could be a consistent Stoic and yet advocate various forms of government. This is not even to mention the iconic Stoic Marcus Aurelius who, as a Roman Emperor, is perhaps about as far from anarchist as one can get. I should also mention that my use of Obama on one point does not necessarily imply agreement with him on all points. Thanks again for reading. I hope you may feel like visiting again! :)

smijer - How are intentions to be judged? I think so much reason that outcomes are a part of ethical thinking is that we cannot judge an intention without evaluating whether the intention is to produce a proper result.

That depends on why this judging is taking place, and who is doing the judging. The only person we can really control is ourselves and, if we are reflective and self-honest, we know what our intentions are. As for judging the intentions of others, in many ways this isn't as necessary as some may imagine in our daily pursuit of living well. The Stoics disregard the need to cast praise and blame on others, and don't seek such for themselves. Rather, because we cannot control what others do, we can view them as a 'force of nature'. We will encounter bad people and good people - and should not be surprised at either. Since knowledge of their intentions, much less the intentions themselves, is not within our power, judgment of them is irrelevant. Of course, when it comes to law enforcement and dealing out punishments and whatnot, well it would only be just to take note of intentions in many cases. But then, we face difficulty in that no matter what philosophy we select. Point being, the endeavor to help the person in the mirror live well is a separate endeavor from dealing out punishments in a court of law. I'm more concerned with the former.

From "When friends attack"

Kathleen - Thanks for another insightful post. The behavior you describe is very common (in a more extreme form) at about 5 years old, when the child, if thwarted in some way, will yell, "I hate you," to a parent or other caregiver. The best response to that is, "I'm sorry to hear that, because I love you." Seems like what you're saying is that in some cases adults need that same reassurance that they are loved even when they are not "being good". I never thought of that applying to adults...

Other readers also noted the behavior described in that post is 'child-like'. I don't know if there is as sharp of a distinction between children and adults as we commonly think. For instance, much of what gets classified as 'teen angst' is nothing more that how any 35 year old adult would act if they found themselves in similarly limiting conditions with regard to where they live, where they can go, what they can do, and so on. I'm not suggesting teens not have those limits, but recognizing they can be frustrating for someone of any age would be helpful I think.

Back to the point, in many ways we are all still those children we were. We're just a little more hardened, and we've just gotten a little better at controlling our tantrums and acting out our frustrations in more creative/disguised ways. Children are reasonable examples of what most adults are, but which haven't learned yet how to cocoon their natures in an outward shell of appearances. Recognizing that 'child' in us is important to self knowledge, and recognizing it in the adults around us is important to understanding others. One of our tasks with philosophy is to bring that inner child a little more wisdom; which we could all use (myself included). The benefits of true wisdom do not come from wrapping our inner child in a social cocoon of 'adultness' (the more common practice), but rather trying to mature the child itself - something which is an internal that can only be accurately known to one's self. In the meantime, it helps to understand struggling with that is a challenge we all face to some degree.

From "Thoughts on compassion"

Nick - I find it interesting that there's this tie-in between humanism and compassion. I just don't see it from a non-theistic perspective. Why should I view compassion as good, especially if I can do otherwise and get away with it? Why not be Machiavelli if it's possible?

When you say, "...if I can do otherwise and get away with it", this underscores a common misconception about ethics and virtue in general (more general than just the virtue of compassion). It is this misconception that is the source of a lot of unhappiness, and also happens to be a big reason why people get suckered into thinking of ethics in authoritarian terms. In their minds, it's all about who deserves what and the dealing out of these just deserts. In this court-like system of rewards and punishments, the authoritarian will suspect that were they removed, people would begin acting in all sorts of terrible ways.

But true ethics and true virtue is not about any of that. Here is the misconception: that ethical behavior is some sort of sacrifice we make, which normally would not be to our benefit, but which we must make in order to avoid some secondary punishment or get some secondary reward. It would be as if I held a gun to your head and told you, "you better not ever wear blue or I'll kill you". This is a poor understanding of ethics.

In the analogy above the wearing of blue, in itself, is not helpful or harmful, outside the threat of being shot. This illustrates that authoritarians do not recognize the very important point that ethical behavior and virtuous character are beneficial to oneself in their own right, and for their own sake. People who think secondary rewards and punishments are necessary do not understand that when we behave virtuously we naturally help ourselves, and when we behave viciously we naturally harm ourselves. No other secondary system or rewards and punishments is necessary because they are already built into the way the world works.

Many are probably now recalling all of the various instances where someone 'got away' with something evil. This is merely short sightedness - not true benefit. In future posts I will explain how there is no such thing as a situation where a person can benefit themselves by being evil, and likewise no such thing as a situation where a person can harm themselves by being good. In fact, when benefit is deeply and accurately understood, it becomes clear that the smart thing and the right thing are not only consistent most of the time, but all of the time - without exception. So much so that, as Seneca said, virtue is nothing more than right reason.

From "Humanism and being Humanist"

Sam - It's interesting that you list Communism and Socialism under your examples of religions. I'm assuming this was a bit of a slip, but it made me remember something. I had a conversation before the elections with a good friend of mine. He's both a staunch Democrat and an atheist. (though not a particularly deep-thinking member of either group) He said something to the effect of... "It's scary to think that religion can play a part in deciding political issues. That's dangerous." I thought to myself... These days, political ideologies might as well BE religions. It's scary to think that a political party can drum up support for one issue simply because 60% of the nation agrees with some OTHER stance on some OTHER issue. I think, in general, people will identify with a group based on a small number of issues and then when they say "We", your left to wonder which sub-set of the group they're really talking about.

Good catch! It was a slip in the sense that I might have written that better, but in grouping those in the list I was making an implication of your very point. Other forms of self identification can easily become like a religion. In Stalinist Russia you had essentially the state serving as the religion. In this country today, I've seen religious-like behavior surrounding various political and economic identities. This is why I don't usually care to criticize 'religion'. Instead, what I criticize are the specific features like: intolerance, superstition, dogmatic thinking, authoritarianism, and so on. These may be found in many religions, but should be criticized as heavily wherever they exist. And, incidentally, religion devoid of these things may be a very healthy thing. It depends on how broad one's definition of 'religion' is.

Thanks much to the readers! Please check back soon :)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Examining non-attachment

Destroying the mandala is a reminder of
non-attachment. (CC) zencat7,
Whether it's the economy, marriage problems, career, self image, or friendships, anyone can have distress over something. How can non-attachment help?

Life isn't always as we wish it was. In fact, it seldom is – and that's even considering that myself and most of my readers are among the luckiest of beings to have creeped and crawled upon the earth over it's 4.5 billion years of life-bearing history. Considering how huge masses of people live today in less fortunate areas of the globe, and how human beings have managed to survive throughout thousands of years of human history, life seems even more harsh and divergent from what we'd wish it to be. Let's call this, the dilemma.

The Humanist Manifesto III states that Humanists ground values in human welfare. This implies we each should seek that which is beneficial (truly beneficial) for others and ourselves. The manifesto also states that knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Even before the advent of modern science, ancient philosophers were observing and rationally analyzing how to cope with the dilemma in order to live well. What many of them have found is that balancing compassion and wisdom are essential to that. In 'Thoughts on compassion' I said, "Compassion must be balanced with wisdom, and by wisdom I mean specifically the wisdom of non-attachment."

Our usual tendency is to have what Eastern philosophy would call a 'small mind', meaning the scope of our perspective is very narrow. We often think in very first-person terms. However, reality is not first-person.

Non-attachment isn't a nihilistic sort of uncaring, but rather the ability to have a bird's eye view of your situation and an awareness of your own feelings (a third-person point of view, or 'big mind'). Rather than being blindly caught up in your passions and led by them, it is the ability to inject your conscious judgment and decision between an external event (or your condition) and your emotional reaction to it.

Now, it's all fine and good to say that - easier said than done - but in order to be good at this it takes practice, and we must know what we are to practice exactly. Buddhism of the East, and Stoicism of the West, are two different yet similar approaches to addressing the dilemma.

We can begin by looking at the core arguments for each of the two philosophies: what is their central argument which outlines their main purpose and function? Essentially, what each boils down to is this:

We people harbor a lot of misunderstandings and misperceptions about ourselves, our worlds, and our condition (delusions). If we had greater understanding, we wouldn't get so worked up or upset about 'the dilemma' (the fact that life often doesn't go as we'd wish). Those who work to understand this deeply and engage in certain practices to transform themselves accordingly, will tend to have happier, more contented lives.

So the wisdom of non-attachment is achieved by truly and deeply understanding the nature of our delusion. What is the delusion from which we all suffer? Investigating that is where I came upon the central crux upon which, it seems to me, the most significant distinction between Buddhism and Stoicism rests.

More to follow soon :)