Category Archives: Philosophical

All the thinks.

agape ing void

I was going through some of my 200+ tabs of articles and found one that I never quite got to finish reading. I find that it really articulates some things that have been weighing on me heavily lately. My partner has been going through hell trying to get much needed help from support systems, and instead of empathetic response has garnered not only brutal, heartless scrutiny, but in fact further threat to her stability and well being. Only this week did she gain some moderate reprieve, only to have her housing come into crisis.

As difficult as these things have been, I think the deepest part of the struggle has been the isolation and lack of understanding from those you ought to have been most understanding. Were it not for the competition and subsequent isolation this article addresses, I don’t think such broken systems could ever have developed. We would have addressed them much sooner.

To my mind, the article also relates well to the topic of “loving yourself so that others can love you.” I really believe that this discussion is not a completely honest one. There is a level of truth behind having enough awareness so that you are not an emotional vortex who suffocates people. Such people can’t be satisfied or healed simply by giving them attention.

Beyond that however, this discourse becomes a farce. We DO need each other, and needing each other does not deserve the shame we assign to it. In fact I think that shame only deepens the desperation. The assurance required to help someone out, is not absence of need, but merely a willingness of the individual to take ownership of it; to have a dialog of respect where each has room to express and negotiate.

Radically loving each other and engaging in deep struggle, even suffering, is not only beautiful but necessary. In fact, I think that for society to get back to a level of sustainable humanity, it will take a considerable number of people engaging in immense suffering for the greater good, as the momentum of this Great Machine bears down against their resistance.

Counter-intuitively, struggle and suffering done well can gives us deeper meaning if it is in the service of communion; just as intense competition for selfish gain or even simply for personal security, seems to leave us desperately unfulfilled.

What are your thoughts, your experiences?

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Bull’s in your Eye

An article came through the feed today that gave a thought-spasm. 😉

It’s unbelievable to me how a person can actually think that cutting funding to under-performing schools makes even the most ignorant kind of sense. There seems to be a large contingent of people who react this way to just about every issue. Screw them over! Punish them! That’ll teach ’em!

To me it speaks to the colonial, religulous mindset we’ve inherited of punishing the undeserving and rewarding those who are supposedly good, in the name of control. It’s the breeding ground of abuse and the core mechanism of stratification. In fact, it ultimately caters to those who are willing to abuse, cheat or lie and cover their tracks. Such is the case with any and every system that tries to dole out rewards rather than making intrinsic rewards be understood and letting them do their work.

Competition can sometimes garner certain benefits, but usually at great expense. When you build a culture complete with social narratives that teach people to aim at B while trying to trick them into hitting A, you are setting yourself up for failure. What will happen is that they will get ever better at hitting B, and you will be endlessly expending your energy trying to figure out how to get them to hit A again. Eventually they learn not only how to get better at hitting B, but also how to undermine your attempts to reroute them until eventually they are completely out of your control.

With capitalism, B is the acquisition of wealth and A is actual public benefit.

With parenting, B is external rewards of material things or even praise itself, and A is the reward of being a well adjusted person.

With crime, B is the punishment of supposed wrong doers, and A is the society the corrects and heals its own ills.

And, with education, B is both the acquisition of grades by the student or the financial success of a school, and A is the creation of life-long learners with critical thinking skills who are prepared for the future and the existence of institutions that promote them.

In each case we assume that each B is a perfect and nearly identical proxy for A, and in each case it’s plain to see with the slightest critical examination we are dead wrong. Instead of seeing it, we opt for sliding the goal post, justifying and maintaining our current view against brain-shattering cognitive dissonance, usually exemplified by hostile defensiveness.

As Robert A. Heinlein wrote: “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal”

I don’t know all of the hows and whats, and I don’t have a perfectly crafted solution, but it does seem apparent to me that we need to give up all of our “invisible hands” and the “fallen nature of man” notions that we still seem to be unwittingly clinging to.

Morality vs Ethics – Round 1 – Race

There are two concept which I believe are at war in our society. The concepts are of morality versus ethics. In a discussion today about race and privilege a saw an opportunity to show the nature of and contrast between these concepts.

Morality is a process of making lists of rules and managing what I would call a kind of moral portfolio in relation to it. It is a process of self-preservation that only looks are far as one’s own self interest in avoiding judgment and feeling bad or guilty. It also involves a kind of jousting for relative moral position in relation to others. “Oh yeah? Well at least I’m not as bad as that other person!” It is not about investigation or understanding, but about self preservation.

This is why you hear people saying “I’m not racist, I have an ___ friend” or “I love my ___ neighbour”. It’s a desperate attempt to avoid being morally implicated. Doing this misses the point in an epic way. Everything is awash in a battle of aggressively trying to enforce extreme sameness (how come they can criticize but we can’t???), but from a perspective that everyone is starting out on a level playing field when actually it’s not that way.

An ethical view is one based on empathy and understanding. It desires to be as informed as possible, and actively seeks to fully understand someone else’s reality.

“Empathy is about seeing things from another person’s perspective, not imagining yourself in somebody else’s situation. The former is the first step to understanding others; the latter is a kind of naive narcissism that does more harm than good.”

It does not come from a panicky position of self preservation and is engaged in actively listening and personal investigation. It realizes that the idea that I may have something called racial privilege or even lack of race-specific disadvantages isn’t about whether or not I’m a good moral person. It recognizes that being wrong about things is a normal part of human experience, that blame is usually not the point, and even if sometimes is unfair and/or about blame, that it’s still worthwhile to try to understand.

The morality model is far and away the majority model, even among those who have long escaped from other religious ideas. It is the by-product of a society built on competitive and abusive ideologies that convince us that those on the margins are ever ready to sanitize and debilitate we the “normal” (Political Correctness). We feel like we are about to be destroyed while our jackboot is on their throat, yet we can’t understand why they’re angry. I mean before they brought all their snark and anger and everything, things were just fine… right?

Morality says “I’m not guilty, why do I need to feel shame.”

Ethical empathy says “You don’t, but we’ve inherited some responsibility here.”

There’s a brilliant analogy that has been made by a man named Tim Wise:

“I want you to know that this has nothing to do with guilt. I realize that none of the people in this room and none of the people in any of the rooms to which I speak every single week in this country somewhere are the ones who themselves, individually or even collectively, are responsible for the creation of this system of inequality, of privilege, of oppression, of marginalization. And that is not the point. I know we didn’t create it, but we are here now, and we inherit the legacy of that which has come before. If you were to become the chief executor of a company one day, you would not be able to go in and call your chief financial officer on the phone and say, you know what, I want to look at the books I want to know how much we have, what our assets are what’s our revenue stream. I want to know all that because I want to take us to new and greater heights and so you ask the CFO to come in and give you the power point presentation, the spreadsheets, and she comes in with all of this technology and all of this data and gives you the presentation. Here’s our assets, here’s our revenue stream, here’s our outstanding debt. What do you think? You wouldn’t be able to look at that CFO and tell her, you know, I really liked your presentation. It was great to know we have all these assets and some really amazing income coming in, but the next time I ask you to come in and show me that, don’t bring me the debt material, all that stuff about what we owe, because, see, I wasn’t here when you all ran that up. That was that other guy. That was your last CEO. The debts of those older leaders, those are on them. Have them pay them. I am going to make use of the assets, oh yes. I am going to make use of the income, oh yes. But I am not going to pay the debts because they are not mine. You couldn’t do that. You’d be ushered to your car by security. But that is exactly what we do as a society, isn’t it? We say, the debts are not ours. Oh, the glory is ours.”

Corporate Evilution

Seeing a link on Gem Newman‘s wall today I was inspired to comment. He did a critique on a piece of sensational media. I hope that my own sensationalized title isn’t too much of a turn-off for the skeptics out there, but I just like having fun with them 😀

I have to say that I pretty much agree with this article’s basic assertion, which to me seems to be that the article upon which they are making commentary is sensational, misleading and playing logical hop-scotch to the distraction of the reader.

Where I divert is where it calls out the three points which I actually agree are being falsely conflated.

1. The business ethics of Monsanto
2. The safety of Agent Orange
3. The safety of GMO crops

Firstly, both 1. and 2. should absolutely be conflated. How can they not be? However, to leave it there without further reflection is also problematic, which I will try to get to.

Now with regards to the third point, there needs to be some clarification. What do we mean by “safety of GMO crops”? Are we talking about the concept of GMO technology striped of it’s economic and political context? If so, then surely their assertion is correct. This has nothing to do with the other two. The technology should stand or fail on it’s own merits.

Now, what about the relative safety of “GMO” fully contextualized as a technological concept who’s development and application are governed as a product of industry (using scientific methods) which is in turn governed the collective realities of current day North American capitalism?

As a side-note, notice how much text is contained in the previous paragraph simply describing a single concept. That’s how packed our language can be. It is how much we often either take-for-granted or utterly ignore, and often without being aware of it.

I still maintain that the original article is broad-brushing and sensationalistic. I also think that this kind of critical response to it is not only acceptable, but necessary. However, I also think this editorial response to it may be overcompensating in it’s criticism. Moreover, I think this kind of polarized reaction is somewhat prevalent with those who come to the defense of “science”. That’s another word who’s breadth of definition is often ambiguous, but that’s another discussion in itself.

In my opinion the most relevant discussion about GMO as an overall concept must include the full context in which it resides, because that fully realized context will by definition affect it’s fully quantifiable results. This is whether or not we have the tools to fully measure it or even a broad enough understanding of what to measure. For example, what effect will changes in food production have on political power balance in the global economy.

Part of the fully qualified context is the particular brand of capitalism in effect in the U.S. and the global economy and political power balance in the world. This is the “natural world” within which Monsanto and other corporations live.

It is a terrible failure of understanding in my view to think that corporations who do very bad things are simply unethical entities that randomly spring out of an otherwise functioning system that does good things for us as a species. This is magical thinking at it’s finest IMHO. My understanding is that corporations act the way they do necessarily according to the nature of the system they exist within.

Just as with evolution, individual entities in nature succeed or fail according to the physical rules of the natural world within which they exist. It is absurd to speculate that when a particular entity has survived or failed, that it has done so DESPITE the nature of that system rather than BECAUSE of it. The rules of that system have operated against the characteristics of that entity and it has either failed or succeeded. Thus, if a corporation has survived in the system within which it exists, it has done so according to the nature of that system. If the nature of those entities is considered not ideal, then necessarily that system or at least some part of it must also be considered not ideal.

Now before I run off on a tangent about capitalism, the take away for this discussion is that surviving and thriving corporations that exist within their legal and economic context, have a certain amount of predictability. The nature of today’s corporation is not merely strict competition, but the LEGAL MANDATE of its controlling body to produce profits. Profits in the greatest possible magnitude and at pretty much at all costs. Their context also includes governmental, legal restrictions.

But like human beings, one of the traits it has acquired is the ability to change the environment within which it exists. For the corporation this includes abilities like lobbying against these restrictions, and to a greater degree in more recent years, infiltration of the regulatory government agencies who manage these restrictions.

So, it’s perfectly valid to call “logical fallacy” when we hear someone say that this thing is necessarily evil because that other thing they did was evil. *BUT* calling out this logical fallacy doesn’t negate the deduction that Monsanto or any other powerfully situated corporation for that matter, are very likely to engage in unethical behaviour. Not simply because we FEEL that they are evil, but because there are specific characteristics which they are likely to have given the context in which they exist and are successful in.

We are at the very least, justified in being suspicious assuming we are using the right reasoning for being so.

Artificial Dissemination

At a social event with the Winnipeg Skeptics this week we ended up talking about religious people and the religious right among other things. We were marveling at how some of the Republicans in the U.S. can be so far off the deep-end with their beliefs. It reminded me of an article I’d read a couple months ago, for which the connection may not be immediately obvious. Hopefully I can explain.

In my personal obsession with psychology and sociology I’ve tried to understand how people think and why they do what they do. This article describes how we tend to operate by personality archetypes (specifically those relating to gender) and how they affect the way we think about ourselves; and by extension, how we think about others. The focus of this article is arguing against the idea of gender based essentialism, and that most of how we behave is according to how we think about ourselves and is passed on socially. I don’t at all want to undermine the profound revelations to be made on just this issue, but I think that these findings also have vast implications for every arena of our lives.

During that discussion with the Skeptics I was reminded a family member, which I related to the group. I explained how she identifies as a conservative and repeats many of the standard truisms that go with that, yet when I asked to explain her views she actually breaks to the left. How could this be? Most of the extended family is conservative, her local community is very conservative, and lives with a staunchly conservative partner. She even votes conservative! Why is there such a mismatch in her views versus her identity?

Like the subjects in the article above, I believe that most people adopt cookie-cutter identities in an attempt to fit in with their social circles. This is something we do in many aspects of our lives, and not just with gender or sexual identity. We do it with our politics, our jobs,  in our romantic relationships, with our families and friends, and with our children. In essence, we wear many different hats. It’s a basic mechanic of social grouping and we apply it to almost everything. With it we sometimes even adopt beliefs that are not our own, though we may wear them loosely.

Now, moving further towards the point embedded in the title: we don’t just do this to ourselves. We do it to others. Often, we do it oppressively. We repeat little truisms about other groups. We make presumptions about who other people are without actually knowing, based on nothing more than a projected and/or perceived group identity. We reinforce our position within some groups by advertising how we treat other groups. Other times it’s simply and subtly implied in our choice of words or the tone of our voice. In all these ways we project on others our subliminal (or overt) message about who they are (especially in comparison to us), and what we think their value and purpose are.

Side-note:
Whenever harsh words like oppression or privilege are used, I think there is something embedded in our neuro-linguistic vocabulary that implies ill-intent. Let me say it explicitly: bad intentions are not required to create oppression. For us it may just be learned patterns and we may not even know the message that we are conveying! As such, sometimes all that is required is ignorance (lack of specific knowledge, not to be confused with stupidity). Language is full of traps like this.

When we operate within the world-view and norms of our social group without bad intentions, and someone comes up to us and tells us that we’re oppressing them with our words and actions, it’s easy to think of them as being deluded. After all, what they’re saying is completely outside of what we know to be normal, natural and obviously true. We know our intentions are good (or at least not intentionally malicious), so obviously they are full of it, right? I mean, it’s not hard to believe. We have so many daily examples of people complaining about things that don’t make any sense to us and some who are indeed obviously deluded.

Here is the birthplace of the concept of “Political Correctness”, where the hidden motif of that other person is to stifle our very being, and sanitize all of existence into rainbows and kittens and everything nice. The belief that their group thinks that way in comparison to ours fits well with our understanding of how things are and they just confirmed it for us. More importantly, they’re in our face telling us we’re bad, and we feel threatened! We need to make it stop, and stop now! Our emotions appeal to our little problem solver upstairs, and it gives us an answer that makes the bad feeling go away.

But why?

Millions of years of evolution have given us this handy fight-or-flight mechanism to protect us from threats, both to our body and to our carefully nurtured, albeit tenuous sense of self. But as we ought to know, evolution is not perfect. Especially when in just a few short years (historically speaking) our world has gone from small communities and tribes with similar values and identities to a global society of remarkable complexity and conflicting values. It’s no surprise that our instincts could misfire. What’s really going on is usually more complex than whatever scenario our brain comes up with in half a second and with almost no meaningful information.

We feel more than we think.

The problem is that many of our socially absorbed views and behaviours are demonstrably false and counter-productive to our proclaimed goals. On the whole, we don’t think to find the truth. We rationalize to preserve our identity. Without deliberate investigation into ourselves and our world, and decoupling from these pre-canned identities (or at least being aware of and working around them), we will continue flying blindly on autopilot, and our greater issues will never be solved.

Won’t evolution fix everything eventually?

Evolution is just the explanation of how we got here. It doesn’t magically give us what we want. It doesn’t deal with our wishes for happiness or camaraderie. It doesn’t deal with things working optimally at all. It is merely “survival of the good enough.”

However, we have a brain that is capable not only of rational thought, but also of deep introspection. We have it because it was the advantage we needed to survive. We can leave our future to the magic of death and suffering to select some better genes, or we can use the tools we have proactively and figure out how to get what we want through greater awareness. Our evolution has not yet brought us to fully rational thinking or conscious social function and as the social world continues expanding through advances in social technology, the pressure to get there will also increase.

So I ask you now, who are you? And more importantly:

Who do you want to be?

Cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics Blog

The Secret Lives of the Possibilians

Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!

So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.

I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:

“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.

Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.

Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:

“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”

Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?

I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.

I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.

Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.

Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism

Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉

It’s OK David, just be like science:

Get up and try again.

*cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics blog*