Blog Site

Monday, October 26, 2009

Responses on natural-objective ethics

Thomas Hobbes (left) and Gautama Buddha
(right). Natural law + Metta is about right.
(cc) Wikipedia.
In his blog, The Tentative Apologist, Randal Rauser claims that within a naturalistic context, there can be no objective measure of ethics, morality, right, or wrong. This is, of course, what the Humanist Contemplative concept I work on is all about, so I will take some time to answer some of his points.

In the post, "The games people play with morality" (October 21, 2009), Rauser is himself responding to the point that, in naturalistic ethics, "we are playing a game called 'human flourishing' or 'human happiness'". This point was made to him in response to his question-begging claim that if we know moral facts as objective, then somehow naturalism cannot be true.

I can't speak for the original person making the point, but in describing the position, Rauser touches only the most base and surface-level aspects of it:

"By cooperating with others, we improve our own lives. I enjoy living in a house that I could never have built by myself, and eating food that I could never have grown by myself, and using a computer that I could never have built on my own, and listening to music I could never have composed, and so forth."

Real happiness is not about materialism. True happiness is about a contentment that comes from other more deep rewards - but these rewards are also based on certain behaviors, which have to do with cooperation and empathy for others.

Next, Rauser questions whether or not humans are similar enough in "fundamental desires and capabilities that a basic 'universal moral framework' is possible":

"For instance, most of us would agree that getting killed and eaten by a cannibal is losing the game. But a few years ago two blokes in Germany made the headlines because they had a pact where one killed and ate the other."

The ethical norms of behavior exist to provide happiness and fulfillment to the vast majority of normal human beings, and are compatible with general human nature. The people he describes above are so aberrant, that an overarching system for human ethics need not take them into account. They clearly have issues, and would have issues within a society of any philosophic or religious persuasion. Aside from that practical point, the fact is that if killing and eating one another were the ethical norm, it would undoubtedly be less effective for the survival and flourishing of humanity as a whole. This alone, by natural definition, makes the act unethical.

Rauser also seems to believe the point of a flourishing-based ethical system is about actions alone. He addresses what he calls "the moral monster problem":

"...But this is consistent with an individual who acts *morally* externally and yet has an inner life where he fantasizes about killing, dismembering and eating infants... Surely however this is wrong: the interior life of a person is as fundamental for their moral character as their exterior actions."

Yes it is, which gets to the point made above. Inner motivation is key to a moral character. Outward moral action may have a general tendency to provide outward material and relational benefits, but usually only if applied consistently in the long-term. However, focusing on outward reaction and material gain, attempting to be moral when it gets us our way and immoral otherwise, is a formula for failure and an unsustainable fantasy. We do not have perfect perception when it comes to the timing of such things, nor a perfect ability to hide misdeeds. Therefore, we are best off, in outward terms, adopting moral action consistently. In order to achieve this requires the development of moral character. It is moral character that makes committing moral action easier and more 'automatic', and committing immoral action harder.

But even then, we have not addressed the ultimate nature of morality or its best rewards. All of the preceding is speaking only of outward statistical material rewards over time. Those things which are moral are not so simply because they engender mutual behaviors that will get us "stuff". Rather, they are moral because they are compatible with the human psyche - the human sense of compassion, self worth, and empathy. These are our natural proclivities as social animals and when we act morally, and build a moral character, we are acting in accordance with our nature as social animals. We are living emotionally and psychologically healthy lives, and we flourish internally for having done so. All of this is objectively true about Homo Sapiens, and the best course of action for members of that species. The truest and deepest rewards of a moral life are not outward but inward, and that reward comes not from any one action, but from a moral, compassionate character of integrity. We know this to be objectively true from first hand experience and the life experience of countless wise human beings over history.

"...there is no objective basis to judge which game is superior or inferior because there is no fact about that. As a result, superiority is wholly relativized to the individual."

Rauser claims there is no objective basis to judge which game is superior. However, there is a difference between no objective basis existing and one existing which Rauser does not prefer. The basis is: which standard of behavior, if made the norm in a human society would be more or less beneficial to human beings in the long haul. This, in fact, is quite likely to be the natural selective standard by which our species evolved its current instinctive social responses to various behaviors, which forms the underlying motivations for our creation of ethical standards and institutions. Not only that, but I submit that this is the true standard currently in use and which has been used by all people and all societies throughout history, including religious ones. Although, certainly the standard has been unspoken and perhaps subconscious - it is apparent in the unstated premise of nearly any specific argument for or against any ethic or behavior, and always has been.

"This game account of the moral life could be taken to be consistent a form of utilitarianism: always act so as to secure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If this were the view, it would beg the question of why we should think that the greatest good for the greatest number is a binding criterion of the moral life."

Because when we say that the greatest good is the criterion for the moral life, we are not stating an "ought" (or a prescriptive). Rather, we are stating an "is" (a descriptive), based on an impartial observation of the human species. When we say "the moral life" this is a concept under the field of ethics, and ethics is a human invention. It is a phenomenon that exists in the human species. No matter where you take humans, how you cut them into different societies, they will always develop "norms of behavior" which they encourage between one another. These norms may vary, but the fact that humans have an inborn inclination to do this is telling. It means that it stems from our deepest instinctive motivations, and instincts are evolved. If they are evolved, then they are likely the result of natural selection. This means that we have a tendancy to form and encourage moral norms among one another because this inclination is beneficial to our survival. Therefore, we don't have to decide whether ethics is based on survival and benefit for humanity - any non-human extra-terrestrial intelligence passing by our planet would impartially observe that to be the fact of the matter about human beings. Knowing the functional purpose of the human ethical impulse, we thus have a standard of moral measurement. Therefore, there *is* a right answer to moral questions, which are as true as 2+2=4. This is based on naturalism alone.

Thomas Hobbes outlined a natural law and believed that people could reach a broad consensus on how to behave for their mutual prosperity. This may have a very Westernized consequentialist tone, but when "prosperity" is more subtly understood to include what is psychologically healthy and befitting our nature as social beings, then the importance of empathy, inner motivation, compassion, and attitude becomes apparent, as Buddha prescribed Metta, or 'loving kindness' and mental/intentional purity as a means to avoid suffering.

Having said that, always knowing what that right answer is - that's the hard part, and where we will unfortunately sometimes make mistakes or willfully distort truth for selfish ends.

Note: For a full essay on this subject, please see my essay: Natural-Objective Ethics

Comment: EH
In general I agree with the idea of there not being an objective right or wrong except based on principles of not harming people, etc. But, like you said, people will use this idea of there not being a right or wrong to justify whatever they want to do.... I know of one person in particular who was using this philosophy to justify stuff like napalming a bunch of people (in theory only). But then again, maybe that is just human nature. Throughout history people have used even the objective morality systems to justify doing whatever they want to do too... like using the Bible to justify going to Jerusalem and killing a bunch of Arabs during the Crusades. So... lol maybe it's inevitable either way.

Comment: DT Strain
True EH, and that brings up another matter I should have included in the article, that being: Even systems claimed to be 'objective' which are based on faith are truly not, because there's the matter of whose faith (or interpretation of a faith) is correct. With no way to prove faith-based claims, whose standard wins out is largely subjective, based on who can yell the loudest or kill the most. So, no matter how you cut it, it's going to boil down to humans trying to figure out how to live with one another and reaching agreements. I say ethics is objective because there is a 'best way' for humans to interact for most efficiency in happiness and prosperity. But knowing what that best way is, is a process of discovery and imperfection.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Singapore to regulate spirit mediums

(cc) ROQUE141,
It seems that the Taoist Federation in Singapore will be regulating spirit mediums soon. Next month it will begin issuing forms to create a registry of mediums. These mediums are believed to channel Chinese deities, and are called tang ki in Hokkien.

This seems to be an effort to weed out what the Federation calls "a few bad apples". I'm not certain by what standards one determines a medium is a bad apple.

In any case, I have long thought it would be a good idea to have psychic licensing here in the U.S. For the sake of consumer protection, you have to be sure the people are getting what they paid for. Just as a doctor or a lawyer have to take a test to prove their proficiency in order to get a license, psychics should be required to have a psychic's license. They would need to pass a series of double-blind carefully conducted tests to determine that they really are psychic before they could be licensed to sell those services. After all, you don't want any fake psychics out there defrauding people out of money. That would only taint the entire industry.

On another side note, I visited the Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science last weekend. It was a wonderful experience walking in the contained tropical environment with all kinds of butterflies twirling around you. Really a nice way to feel the touch of nature. I would love to go in there sometime in clothing suitable to the warm wet atmosphere, and when there are few visitors, and just sit and meditate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Li Chen sculpture inspires tranquility and strength at once

All in One. (c) Li Chen, 1998.
I've come across the work of an artist whose work intrigues me. Li Chen is a sculptor who produces figures such as the one pictured here. His website features many more like this, in various poses with names such as Cultivated by Mist and Cloud. The one pictured here is called All in One.

I admire the husky bulk of his forms, combined with a smooth graceful texture. It summons the feeling of strength and gentility in one. There is a sense of wisdom and compassion in the faces, mixed with a sense of whimsy. Li Chen perfectly communicates the contemplative demeanor.

His website gives some more information:

"Artist, Li Chen was born in central Taiwan... Li Chen takes 'Emptiness'’ as the important concept in his creative aesthetics. 'Emptiness' and “Void” are important ideologies of Buddhism and Taoism in Chinese culture. 'Emptiness' in Buddhism does not mean 'Nothing', but a huge and quiet wisdom state of birth and death... the sculptures convey sweet, romantic, happy and satisfied spiritual concepts. Just because of this, even though some of his works are very huge, they don’t appear oppressive and heavy... Furthermore, Li Chen even can make breakthrough on the existing style of Buddhist sculptures over thousands of years. He changes the thick and full Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907) style Buddhist sculptures and the pretty and elegant spiritual and image characteristics of Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) and makes the faces and lines of his sculptures extremely simple. He extracts the elements of China’s five thousand years of history and culture... He successfully combines classical and contemporary perspectives and makes his works have unprecedented unique models and shapes and endows new life to the oriental sculptures." 

This mix of strength and kindness, wisdom and play, traditional and contemporary exhibits many of the qualities I aim for in the Humanist Contemplative concept. Meaning, I try to mine the best of Human cultural and philosophical history with a modern naturalistic view.
Li Chen has shown all over the world, and it seems his work was shown here in Houston at the International Fine Art Fair in 2002. I hope I'll have the chance to see it sometime in the future. I recommend checking out his website at to see more of his work.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama in company of Humanists as Nobel Prize recipient

(c) AP Photo/Gerald Herbert.
It was announced today that President Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year "for efforts to solve complex global problems including working toward a world free of nuclear weapons". The vote was unanimous in the Nobel Committee, which said, "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future..."

Barack Obama is a Christian, but in his inaugural speech he was the first U.S. President to acknowledge non-believers, and was later the first U.S. President to mention Humanists. In the national prayer breakfast on February 5, 2009 Obama said:

"We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Torah commands, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow." In Islam, there is a hadith that reads "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule - the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

In being awarded the Nobel Prize, Obama joins with people of many beliefs, and recipients include several Humanists. Here are some Humanists who have also been awarded the Nobel Prize...

Nobel Prize Winning Humanists

Albert Einstein - Physics (1921)
for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect

John Boyd Orr - Peace (1949)
for his scientific research into nutrition and his work as the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

Linus Pauling - Chemisty (1954)
for research with X-ray crystallography and modeling in crystal and protein structures, (later used by Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick to discover the double helix structure of the DNA molecule)

Linus Pauling - Peace (1962)
(only one of four individuals who have received more than one Nobel Prize) for his campaign against above ground nuclear testing

James Watson - Physiology or Medicine (1962)
for discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material

Francis Crick - Physiology or Medicine (1962)
for discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material

Andrei Sakharov - Peace (1975)
for advocacy of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Invention of Lying vs. Paranormal Activity

The Invention of Lying. (c) Warner Bros.
I saw two movies this past week: The Invention of Lying and Paranormal Activity. Both very different films yet both have something to say about the supernatural in their own ways.

While I don't hold any beliefs in demons, I have to say that Paranormal Activity is about the scariest movie you are likely to see in a while. An independently produced film made with a tiny budget in one location, the job of scaring the crap out of you is done with minimal special effects, no soundtrack, and very good acting. Thankfully, no simple reaction-based "gotcha" moments were used to illicit fear in the audience. Yet, there were scenes where the tensions built to such a level that when events unfold on the screen the audience was literally screaming in terror.

Of course, supernatural entities are assumed to be real in Paranormal Activity, or else you'd have no movie. It makes for wonderfully frightening content, but sometimes I wonder how much more intense a film like this must be for people who really believe such entities exist. I often like to flippantly point out that, even if all the ghost stories ever told were absolutely true, statistically you'd still have much more to fear from the random (living) human murderer than you would a supernatural entity.

Why do so many people believe that supernatural beings exist? That question is explored to some degree in the other film I saw this week: The Invention of Lying. *alert: minor spoilers ahead*

In that film, Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) lives in a world where lying simply doesn't exist. People can't even conceive of it, even when you try to explain it to them. One day something sparks in Mark's brain and he tells the world's first lie. Having invented it, he soon realizes the power it brings him in an unsuspecting world where they don't even check your ID at the bank. But we also get to see him use lying to inspire others and make life more cheerful and friendly. Then there is an incredible and sad scene with his terminally sick mother that is absolutely gut wrenching - especially appearing in what was such a lighthearted comedy up to that point. From then on, the film takes on an element of commentary on the nature of faith and religion.

In Mark's world, there simply is no such thing as religion (or, to clarify, faith-based supernatural religion). Even the concept of things happening after you die is foreign to them. The obvious statement of the film on that topic is that religion is a lie, and it wouldn't even exist without lying. Here the film gets it wrong in several ways.

It seems to make sense that, if people's lives are like mine, and like all the people I've ever known, it's pretty likely they've never "known" anything about the supernatural. Strange unexplained experiences are not really a good way to define "knowledge" - especially the detailed sorts of renditions about supernatural mechanics we can find in the Bible and many other writings about the beyond. By 'supernatural mechanics' I mean things like how blood is supposed to pay for sin, or how certain potions are supposed to harness certain powers, that praying is real communion with another entity, or the nature of various realms and how you get to them. These things are certainly a lot more elaborate and detailed than the vague sorts of 'feelings' and weird unexplained events people tend to report.

So, in that respect, it seems like someone, somewhere, had to do a lot of lying to get religions up and going - unless we want to accept that people who claimed to have had detailed conversations with these entities really aren't as unstable as we'd assume they were if we met them on a subway instead of in Sunday School.

The writers seem to be promoting an atheist/skeptical viewpoint, yet they themselves fall into two misconceptions about belief in the supernatural commonly held by believers. The first of these is that anyone claiming belief in the supernatural must be either a liar or a fool - this is an atheist stereotype about believers that doesn't measure up to reality. Even in a world where (a) we assume no supernatural events truly took place and (b) no one ever lied, you'd still have supernatural beliefs.

In reality, believers are largely honest, well intentioned, sane people who can be very intelligent. People believe what they do because they have had a certain set of experiences which have lead them to certain perspectives on the world and certain ways of "weighing up the facts" on various subjects. I'm not saying that belief in unfounded claims isn't an error in logic or rationally unsound. I believe it is. Yet, the point is: believers in the supernatural are not some 'special class' of person or thinker. They are simply human beings just like those who do not have supernatural beliefs.

When told their beliefs aren't rationally sound, many believers will respond negatively and attempt to defend themselves against being crazy or a liar. But all human beings are imperfect and limited in their perceptions, their feelings, and their understanding. These aren't cases of anything unusual or anything that we aren't all prone to. We are all wrong about a certain percentage of things. It is we who decide on which things we're going to draw our lines and make labels for people. It is important to understand the many ways that reasoning can go wrong, and that applies to all subjects, be they topics of transcendence or the mundane everyday things we think about. The only difference is that a lot of emotions run high around the topic of the supernatural on both sides.

By suggesting that all belief in the supernatural comes from lying (the intentional distortion of facts), the film makers overlook the larger bulk of subtle and fascinating reasons behind beliefs. The books How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich and Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer do an excellent job of outlining the shortcomings in reasoning and perception that effect us all.

The second misconception the film's makers fall for, is the notion that there is no reason to be good without some belief in a reward or punishment after death. The film shows people wondering about how they should behave, suddenly caring more than they seemed to care before they thought there was an afterlife. One newspaper reads, "reason found to be good". Instead, in a world such as this, people would have been more likely to find such commandments extraneous at best, extortion at worst.

Nevertheless, I'd still recommend The Invention of Lying. It definitely scores high for creativity and has some excellent scenes and funny moments. And, any film that uses fascinating hypothetical to get people thinking deeply deserves some attention. Paranormal Activity is also recommended as a good scary Halloween viewing experience!

Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins gets spiritual

Billy Corgan. (CC) joshb_md,
The Smashing Pumpkins is an alternative rock band best known for song such as "Tonight, Tonight", "Today", "1979", "Bullet with Butterfly Wings", and "Disarm". Lead singer Billy Corgan has recently started a new blog called, Everything from Here to There.

He describes the purpose of his new blog as follows:

"The purpose of this website is to discuss openly and without fear concepts of Mind-Body-Soul integration. If you are drawn to the Hidden Truths, drawn to God as something beyond limitation, and drawn to Love as the greatest force in the Universe, then you have come to the right place at the right time. This is a place of Love."

What Corgan calls "Mind-Body-Soul integration" is described further in a later post:

"Mind is the faculty of how we process information, our tool of perception... Body is the vehicle we are in, the alchemical mystery that we drive... Soul is the spark of God, the flame within that is Eternal and cannot be destroyed by man... So the idea of Mind-Body-Soul integration takes those 3 pieces of you and melds them in harmony, to assist You into bringing God-Spirit-All There Is into this reality. To make this reality at One with God."
Googling about the web, it seems that this integration concept is big in alternative medicine among other spheres. Like many practices, it no doubt has some root in some things about human psychology that are helpful. Corgan seems to be exploring his own take on the concept, and his views seem to be inspired by Christianity, Buddhism, and perhaps several other philosophies and religions.

I myself am a philosophical alchemist of sorts, mixing various 'good ideas' together in recipies that seem conducive to growth and happiness, so I can therefore relate to what Corgan is pursuing. However as a Humanist I, of course, have very different epistemology and thoughts about nature and supernature. As I say in The Humanist Contemplative:

"Humanist Contemplatives try to form their thoughts and beliefs about the world rationally, carefully, and with the utmost humility... Humility comes into play first, in recognizing our limitations. Human beings are not omniscient (all-knowing) and our senses and ability to know are imperfect and limited. Because of this, we do not attempt to make claims or hold beliefs in things of which we have no verifiable evidence. Humanist Contemplatives have a strong respect for... the principles of logic, the scientific method, a good understanding of what constitutes reliable evidence, and a healthy skepticism regarding unproved or unprovable claims... credulousness, unthinking dogma, unfounded ideology, mysticism, faith-based conclusions, and superstition... obstruct our ability to use reason effectively and compassionately for the benefit of others and ourselves."
So, Corgan's strong use of God and other supernatural and paranormal claims presents a lot of material to which many Humanists would find difficult to relate. Nevertheless, the foundation of Humanism is Compassion, and in that respect Corgan seems well placed. He says, "This is a place of Love... ALL are welcome here." He praises people such as Walt Disney for conquering cynicism and promoting "humanity's greater good". In another post he speaks of the everyday people who promote love and make a positive difference in the world. He promotes other positive examples and his heart seems to be in the right place. While his beliefs include a lot of paranormal and supernatural ideas about the world, for those that can be forgiving of differences in worldview, Corgan's approach is at least tolerant, inclusive, compassionate, and has a flavor of exploration to it.

I mention Corgan's blog here, not to endorse the views presented in it, but because it might be of interest to spiritually-minded fans of his - and to give a thumbs up to an effort to search for Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and promote love in the world.

I'd like to thank David Sadof, who writes the 'Houston Music Examiner' spot here at, for informing me of Corgan's blog. David's blog can be read at

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wise words from Seneca

Luca Giordano, The Death of Seneca (1864)
I'm going to be officiating a funeral service this week, and was recently reviewing the service program. The last time I performed a funeral service, was before my current interest in Stoicism, so it didn't occur to me that one such program included words from Seneca the Younger. In retrospect is makes perfect sense to seek out the counsel of Stoics at a time of loss. Here are some words of Seneca on death which I felt would be helpful to share here:

"In the presence of death, we must continue to sing the song of life. We must be able to accept death and go from its presence better able to bear our burdens and to lighten the load of others. Out of our sorrows should come understanding. Through our sorrows, we join with all of those before who have had to suffer and all of those who will yet have to do so. Let us not be gripped by the fear of death. If another day be added to our lives, let us joyfully receive it, but let us not anxiously depend on our tomorrows. Though we grieve the deaths of our loved ones, we accept them and hold on to our memories as precious gifts. Let us make the best of our loved ones while they are with us, and let us not bury our love with death."