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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reader feedback: truth, Sandford, Buddhism

(CC) cindy47452,
It's time to answer reader comments again, this time more on Mark Sandford, the nature of Truth, Buddhism, and more...

I've been thankful for the comments here and from other websites where announcements of my posts are made. Again, please keep in mind that my choice to respond or not respond to a comment isn't based on how much I liked or appreciate the comment, but whether I feel I have anything valuable to add. So, some comments I'm not replying to specifically because they are so well said that nothing needs to be added! I especially enjoyed the robust commenting on "Does spiritual philosophy make us outcasts?"

Absolute truth: does it exist?

Rick B:
I was with you up until your statement about there being absolute truth in ethics. That's quite a stand. You are going beyond merely refuting Hume's assertion that we cannot derive an ought from an is. Indeed, you're saying that there actually ARE no oughts, and that only is's exist in ethics (if not in everything). I am afraid I am one of your Humanist friends who don't buy that.

But... You are one of the most intelligent, articulate and persuasive writers it has been my honor to encounter, so I look forward to hearing your arguments supporting this position. Perhaps you can change my mind, and those like me.

Thanks Rick. I expected my assertion near the end there would be the most contested. I wouldn't phrase it as, "there are no oughts", but rather, there are oughts and they are concrete - they are a subset of "is's". As you point out, convincingly arguing such a position is a tall order so I couldn't do it there, but I do plan to elaborate more on objective ethics in the future. In the meantime, anyone interested in a longer treatment can read my essay: Natural-Objective Ethics.

Mark Sanford: how do we react?

I think your sentiments are well-meant... but this guy is a narcissistic politician (if you'll forgive the redundancy in the phrase). Most likely the only thing he regrets about his infidelity is having been caught... The exception I am taking to your admonition is the result of the high probability that this person is a sociopath. Feeling compassion for him, hoping for his "recovery" (difficult, because in his mind he has nothing to recover from), and wishing him all the best does not make us better people. It makes us naive, gullible people, and ultimately it makes us victims of people like him.

Fortunately Sanford's regret (nor any other attitude internal to him) is not required for the things I wrote about to be the case. He could quite possibly not have a shred of regret for the rest of his life and it would not effect my position on our best response. Sanford may not be deserving of either compassion or pity, but my point is that unless someone is going to pay me to be this man's judge, I don't need to be so concerned with "what Mark deserves". What I'm concerned with is: what disposition toward Mark makes me a better person and benefits me as such? My thoughts and opinions have little effect on Mark. They have great effect on me, so 'deserve's got nothing to do with it' as Clint Eastwood said in "Unforgiven".

As for naivety, we are only naive if we truly think he won't do wrong again. We are only gullible if we believe him when he says he's sorry or that he's changed. We are only victimized again if we trust him to continue in office or 'let him off the hook'. I've advocated none of this. I put no stock in 'what kind of person he is' nor place any wagers or make any risks about who he is or what he will do.

New Stoicism meetup in Houston

Michel Daw:
I have been debating doing this very thing in Canada's Capital area. You have inspired me to reconsider...

That's great to hear Michel! I hope to hear from you about your progress :)

What can we learn from Buddhism?

Looking beyond stoicism and Buddhism to an examination of how humans really function, an essential component is 'will'. The entire thrust of Existentialism is the integration of this element into an understanding of humans... Compassion is 'hard-wired' into humans when and if they are not fearful. In the presence of fear, other mechanisms take over the human personality... so to understand what makes people compassionate one must study the structures of the brain, evolutionary psychology, how emotions arise in the human animal, etc...

I like what you've said about fear. Fear during developmental stages has a direct impact on the growth of neural material and connections in the frontal lobes and other areas responsible for higher reasoning. This literally makes the animalistic parts of the brain physically weigh more as a ratio to the 'higher' parts. Even as adults, capacity for compassion is diminished in those times when the brain is in a fearful state. This is why, both Stoicism and Buddhism are in large part about this: living life without fear.

I also concur on the need to study structures of the brain and such to understand what makes a person mroe or less compassionate. However, I would add that third-person external study is only one kind of observation. Let us not forget that we are not studying some alien species - we happen to have the advantage of being that species we are studying. Therefore, first-person observation is also helpful. This means we must do more than simply study the brain academically. We must even do more than simply study Buddhism and other philosophies academically. We must experiment by engaging in Buddist and other practices personally, exploring consciousness from within, to really understand compassion and its development from the inside. I can study maps of the world, but it will never equate to traveling :)

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