Category Archives: Philosophy

The Pope, You and I. And Gadgets!

In recognition of an event that has not happened in more than half a millennium, the Bishop of Rome abdicating, here is a piece of music composed by Bach and played on a cathedral organ.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense. However, I do recognize history. As much harm has been done in the name of God, so too has much benefit come.

Cathedral organs were, for centuries, the pinnacle of human technological achievement. The complexity, scale, craftsmanship, art and engineering was a major milestone. Cathedrals themselves are astonishing achievements.

While browsing through YouTube for a good video example, I ran across several submissions where the person taking the video within the cathedral could not help but continue panning around the vista continuously. Even today these structures manage to fill us with a sense of awe, whether we believe in any god or not.

The West has Christianity because of the Catholic Church. They brought education. And even today the Catholic Church strongly advocates academic achievement, even in deference to science, particularly amongst the Jesuit order.

I have never been Catholic. But if you are aware of our history in the West, you realize the significance – the impact the Catholic Church has had upon our most fundamental thought processes. It is our legacy, in many ways.

It was the first multinational organization, at a time, much like today, when all people were ruled by a very few individuals who held nearly all the resources and power. The Catholic Church brought a common sense of ethics and morality, and a respect for written law, that all Western nations, despite language differences, share in common. They became a force that dictators and rulers had to heed. And this helped bind Europe with a common identity that eventually transcended the notion of earthly rulers.

And that’s the key here. Transcendence. Moving beyond where we find ourselves. And this can be sad, painful and exhilarating. We look for a rebirth into something new. As individuals, and as nations. A rebirth into something kinder. Something better. Something wiser.

The Pontiff has abdicated his position, calling for someone who will be, perhaps, more open. But perhaps not caught up so much as us in all the fast-paced, momentary and superficial trappings we lap up. Perhaps while even being more open, he will still remind us of the importance – to look within ourselves.

God knows we need some good and big changes for the better. Or perhaps there is no being to know this. Perhaps we have to do this on our own. The harder route. The route where we must take responsibility for all that we say and do. And all that we do not say – and all that we do not do.

It is worth a prayer to something larger than ourselves. If only to our better selves that we aspire. May we all make wise choices in the time to come. And may we find peace and comfort in that.

The Power and Responsibility of Truth in Science and Politics

Mercury MessengerPeople can handle the truth. They may not always want it, and it may be confusing, but eventually they will handle it. As they learn about the world and themselves.

When you present people with disinformation they no longer learn about the world, or themselves in relation to that world. Instead, they learn only the world you present them. In a sense, you have taken away their sight, to be replaced with your own.

Tonight the Mercury Messenger spacecraft will spend almost 70% of its remaining fuel in its final major maneuver, with the goal of reaching orbital insertion around Mercury. No spacecraft has accomplished this feat. Mercury’s mass is very small while the nearby sun is enormous, which means the slightest miscalculation in the elaborately-winding path to Mercury will lose the Messenger to the heavy sun.

Disinformation would mean disaster. Even a small, honest mistake cannot be tolerated. The only chance of success is an almost religious adherence to truth – but not only truth; the accurate communication of information without any bias.

That’s not so difficult in the company of science, and scientists. But moving into the world of politics where exerting influence over large numbers of people is the goal, truth tends to become a tool to be utilized rather than an object of aspiration.

In its best light, disinformation is propagated not through lies, but through the strategic withholding of information. We find a current example in the nuclear radiation leaks at the Fukushima reactor in Japan, where scientists are calling for a release of more information so they might better understand and predict the impact of this disaster upon the Japanese people and the rest of the world.

In a worse light we see budgetary crisis with little or no explanation that are exploited to further political agendas and proffer economic prizes within a small circle, while providing citizenry with little more than sound byte propaganda with few and quite selective empirical facts.

And worst of all, the telling of blatant lies, that everyone is aware of – yet somehow these lies have become expected, tolerated and even considered business as usual.

We certainly wouldn’t get to Mercury with practices like that. With such ego-power-centric forces driving us, our Messenger would certainly miss its rendezvous, careening to burn into the sun, or flung out to slowly freeze in deep space.

It is our choice to know and discover truth. It is our choice to withhold what we know, or share it with others. It is our choice to manipulate and deceive people, to suit our own interests. It is our choice, to care or not.

Your Little Soundbites – Education in the Empire

Some people will read Sara Rimmer’s article “Study: Students slog through college, but don’t gain much critical thinking” and use it to justify their feelings that college is a waste of time. Those same people, however, are most likely who this article is talking about.

In question is a person’s ability to achieve “higher order thinking”; a state where you can listen to political, cultural or religious “spin” and easily recognize it as such: an insulting manipulation of people.

Perhaps political, social and religious “spin” isn’t insulting, though. After all, if it works on people, then those people aren’t able to fully recognize it and deal with it – and that means you couldn’t possibly be insulting them. You are just simply manipulating them.

And manipulation is fine, right? As long as you play within the “rules of the game” which are the purview of lawyers and police (and pastors and priests).

Unless, of course, you possess “higher order thinking”, which may lead you to consider people and their situations in the terms of a philosophy of ethics rather than simple mechanics (and who can move the biggest gears).

And if you do possess this “higher order thinking” then you do perceive political, cultural and religious “spin” not only as insulting to people, but also as an act of evil which relies upon ignorance and deception to promote an agenda.

Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately) people who lack “higher order thinking” often distrust those people who do possess “higher order thinking”. As everyone knows, whenever you say something that is not commonly held true, or commonly believed, or commonly known, you are talking crazy talk. And sometimes no matter how much evidence you can bring to the contrary, you remain talking crazy talk to most ears.

And since people with “higher order thinking” usually restrain themselves from participating in the unethical and “evil” acts of political, social or religious “spin”, the only real chance they have of helping people awaken and resist for themselves the never-ending onslaught of manipulations laid upon them is to help them achieve “higher order thinking” for themselves.

But you can’t give someone something they don’t want, unless you force it upon them (almost always an act of evil). Even if you manage to open someone’s eyes to something they did not want to see, they will usually find a way to rationalize it back into a comfort zone that they can safely, subsequently, ignore.

The only way to help is through education where people’s minds can take on their own fires of discovery and questioning that fuel them for a lifetime – and benefit us all through a process of open sharing and collaboration.

Money interests continue trying to convert academic institutions into mere vocational factories that produce graduates with skills complementary only to their money-making desires. Any “higher order thinking” is fine, as long as that higher order thinking is constrained within the boundaries of the money-making interests.

In other words, the trend noticed within this Seattle Times article is not surprising.

So until we collectively rediscover the real and profound value of education and academics, here are some easy pill-popping tidbits:

  • Secrecy is not security, nor is it a path to security. Secrecy is secrecy.
  • Weapons do not make people more secure. Mutual understanding and respect does.
  • Understanding and respect do not come from force. Dominance and submission does.
  • Money and economics are not impartial agents of social evolution and advancement.
  • Money does not care about nations, borders or people. Money cares about money.
  • How anyone appears publicly is rarely anything like their true nature.
  • “Supporting your troops” does not require that you also endorse Empire.
  • Empire exploits troops, supporting them only enough to maintain effectiveness.
  • Empire does not like questions. Empire likes narrow, focused subjects that perpetuate Empire.

Remodeling

Stone fireplace with IBM SelectricI wonder if high schools even teach typing any more. Ours had brand new IBM Selectrics, fabricated of a textured metal, with an alphabet-engraved silver ball whirring atop an engine, waiting to strike paper at a finger’s touch.

I learned before that, though, from my mom, when I was a child, about the home keys. Her typewriter was metallic green. I cannot remember the color of the typewriters in high school. On her old machine, occasionally brought out of its hard case, our fingers sank deeply down with each push — which required force if anything were to be visible. That isn’t easy for a child, nor any adult over time.

Typing was a skill belonging to the realm of women. I can remember being struck by how uncannily silent computers were, when you typed. They just took it in, and there it was, silently there. I imagine I was not the only person amazed by the silence, since so many early computer keyboards took great pains to loudly click as keys are pressed. Perhaps this brought comfort in change.

Right now my mom is dead. There are no telephone lines connected to the house. There is no cable television. Three days ago, I turned off the satellite feed. Only the Internet connection remains. The Internet, electricity, and natural gas. Water. An underground well waters the yards.

The house, in its mid-century modern design has been cleared upstairs. The interiors of the living space are recolored; the hard wood floors, as I type, are being refinished. The process will be slow. Deliberate. Open to reformation.

Three architectural pieces are in mind, to be built. A soon visitor will be bringing more. The stairs are to be ground down, stained neither darkly, nor left light, and sealed against slipping.

The stone of the focus will remain unchangeable, yet its dominance, strategically lessened through all being created around it, will become a grudging strength. The substance is such that it cannot be removed without destroying the house. It cannot be denied. Instead, it will be embraced, and brought down, into the larger home; not nearly as substantial, yet hopefully beautifully livable in its broader and open space.

This rearrangement is happening, in a most intimate way, with full participation.

There Are Certain Realities

Knowing things can tricky. Ask any scientist in artificial intelligence and they’ll agree. But ask them what it means to actually “know” something, and they’ll find some way to avoid the question. I’m not sure why, but I can guess. Maybe they avoid the question because they know certain stuff, but can’t be bothered to share it. Or maybe they have some theoretical hope they wish to protect – a hope that some day they might build a machine that can know stuff. Their best answer so far is that believing we know something is an illusion; a by-product of our bio-mechanical mind shifting through stored memories using some unknown process, and somehow all this paper shuffling results in us tricking ourselves into believing we have a consciousness, when in reality, our awareness is just some fast and perhaps simultaneous memory trick, all brought together in one place, that, well, isn’t really a place. So really, they reason, we don’t know things. We can only remember things. Or, I suppose, forget them. This they know. Or, don’t, rather. And that’s why they avoid the question altogether, waiving their “get out jail free” cards.

But for the purposes of this essay I will not argue with them. In fact, I will agree with them in large part. Many things we believe we know are simply illusion, a form of self-trickery, where our more evolved and “larger” mind decides to play a subservient role to the more primitive and earlier-stage part of our minds that deals with such issues as survival, hierarchies, aggression (and love). In this way, we can act in accordance with our self-interests, justifying them through claims to a social order, even with our greater mind’s complete understanding of reasonable realities to the contrary. In other words, we can easily keep doing things and believing things even when we know better. This is a byproduct of our evolving mind that is often at odds with itself in an ongoing struggle between our more primitive adaptations and our more recently-evolved, higher cognitive abilities.

Empiricists believe that you must be able to touch something and measure it before it can be true. In other words, for something to be real, it must be able to hit you over the head and raise a lump. This is very convenient within the context of social orders, of all types, large and small. On the other hand, rationalists believe that something only needs to make rational sense, to be true. Of course, you can rationalize all you want that something is not hitting you over the head, but doing so will not keep you from getting a lump. And similarly, you can affirm all you like that being hit over the head, or hitting someone else over the head, is just the way it is – after all, you can feel it and measure it, right? But perhaps that is no longer a reasonable thing to do. Or perhaps other undiscovered and unmeasured clubs have already been pounding away, that will eventually change everything.

We can go clear back to the 1700’s and listen to Immanuel Kant about this issue. He demonstrated, and pretty well, that rationalists, without empiricism, were vulnerable to fooling themselves, while empiricists, without employing reason, can lose all context and meaning in their measurements and constructions. The interplay between empiricism and reason still happens today through the vessels of their adherents, who adhere strictly to varying degrees. But it turns out, the deftness at balance between the two is what separates the men from the boys. And the rest, who are the largest majority, are more akin to that Middle English poem about bulls leaping and farting in the Springtime.

My kung fu sifu once said, “you do not sing to cows – it is stupid”. That is when I first lost admiration for him. It has also been suggested, on more than one occasion, that I am “singing to the choir”. Could it be that you, reading this, are a farting, leaping animal in my choir of cows? I doubt it. You are all wildly different, with mostly unique backgrounds and certainly different priorities and beliefs. I would bet you are all farters, though, and that, at least, is comforting.

We’ve traveled a long way in our awareness since Darwin brought us back from Saint Augustine’s purely disembodied esoterics, reuniting us with nature, in all our crazy beastliness. Whether or not we are entirely biological machines changes nothing in our ethical imperatives toward one another. We are alive. We all feel pleasure and pain. We all experience hopes and disappointments. We can behave wrongly toward each other, or rightly.

The world of ideas dictates nearly all our actions. Ideas of ourself, and of others. Ideas of economic and political systems. Ideas of religion. Knowing anything may well be self-deception, just as some scientists claim (somewhat paradoxically). We pass ideas between each other, as surely as we pass them down to our descendants. They shape our ability to examine and understand the world and each other. Even the processes we use that lead to new ideas, are themselves, inherited ideas. How can we know anything true, when our very senses are merely tendrils that extend from that nexus we call our awareness? Not surprisingly, this itself is an idea that tends to appeal to and unsettle younger minds more readily than older. But after a while, we become settled within our experiences, having identified which hammers pound upon us and when, or which hammers we might possess in our arsenal to use. And this settling of our nature is the beginning of decay for any individual, and for any society.

Long before Kant, and long before Christianity, lived Socrates. We can trace the entirety of Western thought, the very basis of our intellectual abilities, both purely rational and scientific, through this line. Pythagoras, the “father of mathematics” had already completed his work in geometry fifty years prior to Socrates’ birth. Plato, who, like Pythagoras, was a lover of geometry, was a student of Socrates. However, Socrates was not entirely convinced that 2+2=4, when you really considered the question. Plato was convinced, however, and was even convinced that the mathematics of geometry were the basis for the atomic nature of the universe. In fact, the dodecahedron was so powerful that its existence was kept top secret, lest other, less worthy people, get it into their heads to play god. In fact, the dodecahedron was considered the “god particle”.

Socrates was more of a rationalist, however. He wanted things to make sense. And mathematics made perfect sense, as long as you remembered the context in which you applied it. Pythagoras, on the other hand, believed we could understand the universe through mathematics. He attributed a physical significance to numbers and gained a large following of his teachings, all of whom were tightly-knit collaborators upon their various mathematical equations and theories. Today, we would consider such a following a cult. At one point they were thrown into disarray and turmoil by the square root of two. You see, the universe likes whole numbers, or even ratios of whole numbers, which represent fractions. But the square root of two, they proved, could not be represented by a ratio of whole numbers, and the number two was far too important to exhibit such disturbing and provocative qualities. So the problem was downplayed, and even suppressed. They did not want this truth, even though they discovered it.

Plato, like Pythagoras, happily believed that the universe could be better understood through reason and mathematics, rather than relying on observations of nature, as Thales had said it must be understood. Most historians attribute Plato’s ideas that mathematics and reason are the best way to access the nature of reality as the primary force that kept science from advancing for well over a thousand years. In the meantime, Socrates, his teacher, who agreed that 2+2 may equal 4, but wanted to know what that really meant, was put to death by the Athenian state for embarrassing the ruling class by exposing their inadequacies as intelligent people who are obligated to lead well.

Some of you will see parallels in this, to the self-referential hallucinations that comprise a great portion of modern theoretical physics in its schism with the more sane disciplines of the observational. Some of you will see parallels with the insistently physical foundations of mind and consciousness, versus the more esoteric. And others will be gritting their teeth, wondering what on earth this has to do with the fleecing of the non-rich and the killing and torture of so many people. Still others will be convinced that this has nothing whatsoever to do with beer drinking.

The point is, people do have ideas, even if they’re only spouted when they’re drunk, and people do feel that they know things. And all these ideas have come to us, somehow. If we look back to Saint Augustine, we find a man who helped define what Christianity would mean for everyone who came after. He also was a philosopher, living long after the Greeks I’ve mentioned. He lived after Rome was transformed into something resembling civilization, after they conquered Greece. He lived at the time when Rome decided that Christianity was the one and only religion people could have. Saint Augustine was not a Christian then, but saw the light of Christianity while non-Christians were being put to death. One of his many contributions was giving us the concept of a “just war”, that is, a reasonable way to invade other countries, not because they have attacked you, but because they do not believe the right things, or because you would actually be helping them by invading.

Interestingly, it was around the same time that Rome was increasingly beset by the Vandals. No, they weren’t a punk rock band, but rather a very irritable group of Slavic and Germanic people who felt that they, too, were perfectly justified in doing and taking what they wanted. While Rome played their political games of backstabbing and power grabbing, the Vandals ran about pretty much willy-nilly through the empire. Saint Augustine actually died during a siege of Rome by the Vandals, probably from starvation. It’s certainly an interesting story about the power of the hordes.

Just a few nights ago I was talking, late at night, to a store clerk about the helicopters that always seem to fill the sky throughout the night. She told me that earlier that evening the Arco gas station had been robbed, and that her building had been painted with street images by vandals. She was happy the vandals had been apprehended by police. Also, her young daughter stays with her mom while she works at night, and she is worried about her daughter because she is very sick and nobody can tell her why. She had to move back in with her mother because she was trying to pay medical bills. Also, the thick metallic money vault behind the counter will only drop out $20 every hour, which she can use for making change. While I was there, one hooded man came in, buying lighter fluid and cold tablets.

She has trouble trusting people now because her boyfriend, a salesman, used to beat her when she questioned anything he said, and sometimes just when she was being nice to him. She wanted me to tell her that everything would be okay. Yet somehow, I didn’t know where to begin. What I did say was that I was glad she was standing on her own now, and that she was finding her own strength, which looked to me, to be considerable. And that none of that is me – it is all you.

Sometimes there are so many thoughts or ideas, with no obvious place to begin. Sometimes we may drown in them. An interesting thing about Socrates is that he never produced any writings. He believed that philosophy and discourse was meant to be alive, between people. He believed that it was better for people to consider ideas for themselves, reaching their own reasonable conclusions, despite what others might say, or what others might believe, or what any social order or government might compel. The Socratic Dialogue, or dialectic – the examination of ideas we might erroneously hold as truth, discussed and worked out between people. It is no place for the instruments of power and coercion. To the mind of Socrates, the dialectic ennobles people through the revelation of truth that might otherwise be obscured. A dialogue between people, two-way streets, without fear, with open minds, in the interest of all that is greater.

I couldn’t tell her all this, all at once, but only set a little sign. Small moves, Jenny at the store, as we find the little stepping stones. The paths that lead home, and the winding, rocky trails leading out into the world. Desperation, anger, clinging to the one thing that makes sense, the acceptance of a still decline, turning in one place – when there is no voice: it is illusion. All acts have consequences, as certainly as none do. And this is what creates, the entirety of our lives.

The big young man who got out of his car, as I was returning to my own, moved here recently from Texas. He met his wife while he was stationed at Fort Lewis, nearby, and they were married before he left to spend four years fighting in Iraq. He was overly gregarious and disconnected from our surroundings, seeing in the way only those who have known combat do. I walked up to stand in front of him and took his hand, looking him the face, so that I was all that he could see. “Welcome back home,” I said, “I’m very happy you made it through whatever you did.” Then I moved to stand beside him. “You’ll see more clouds here than you’re used to, especially this winter. Look at them, and pay attention to their shape and texture. Be unhappy or happy. And tell other people about them. We all learn, in the strangest ways.”