Archive for March, 2008

Understanding Uncertainty

Monday, March 31st, 2008

On nuanced news, suspect psychology and scientific black holes.

Philosophy blog: Secretary Treasury Henry M Paulson plan for regulation of financial marketsWith much fanfare Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. today announced a set of changes to government organizations that regulate and oversee financial markets. Touted by the administration as a sweeping reform that will avoid future mishaps like the sub-prime mortgage mess, it is, upon closer inspection, nothing of the sort. In fact, Paulson’s plan is a market-friendly distraction from the real issues; it has been in the works for a while as part of the Bush administration’s market-friendly momentum toward less regulation. [Since I first drafted this blog entry the NY Times has altered its article to emphasize resistance to Paulson's plan.]

The presentation of Paulson’s plan, however, deliberately aims to make people think that the administration is responding to the current financial crisis by firming up regulation. One has to look twice and read through several sources to uncover the story behind the story. If one just reads the headlines and first paragraph or goes to a less rigorous source, one could be left with the mistaken impression that Paulson is taking swift and effective action.

Philosophy blog: dating by what someone reads literature and partner selectionReporting on the interface between the worlds of literature and dating, Rachel Donadio manages to make me cringe with embarrassment. Not only have I not read and barely heard of Pushkin, but I’ve raved about Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Both dating faux pas for some of those Donadio interviewed. “When a guy tells me [Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance] changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,” says Judy Heiblum, a literary agent. It seems that many people believe quite strongly that we can tell a lot about a person and our compatibility with them from what they read. Fortunately I had the emotional stamina to read on and find that Donadio also talked to those who think that such literary snobbishness is either overblown or wrong-headed. Writer Ariel Levy’s partner doesn’t read and Levy likes it that way.

Philosophy blog: CERN hadron collider hawaii switzerland black-hole stephen hawkingAnd a judge in Hawaii is being asked to put a stop the work on the new large hadron particle collider in Switzerland’s CERN research facility by two men who claim that the experiments being contemplated could result in the destruction of the world. In countering the idea that high energy collisions between protons could lead to a disaster, one scientist who has studied the theoretical work around the artificial generation of black holes, says: “Maybe physics really is so weird as to not have black holes evaporate. But it would really, really have to be weird.” Comforting, perhaps, to some, but not so comforting, I’m sure, to others.

Philosophy blog: uncertainty and doubtThese three diverse stories all raise the matter of uncertainty in life and ideas. We read the news but how can we rely on what we read with any degree of certainty? People tell us how they make judgments, but how do we know that we can rely on their judgment? And important decisions get made about things that may affect our lives, but how do we know what to think of those decisions?

This difficulty seems to be amplified rather than assuaged by the amount of information available to us. Multiple perspectives on government, dating, and scientific research can lead to a situation in which nothing seems certain. If people with more direct access to information or more informed opinions than ours take diametric positions, how can we know what to believe?

In approaching the uncertain rationally, we should begin by exploring the reason for the uncertainty:

1. Insufficient information: Paulson’s plan seems appropriate if we only have a little information about it. But the more we know about the specifics of the plan and the specifics of the crisis it purports to respond to, the more we can feel certain of our judgment of it.

2. Conflicting experience: If we listen to the daters who care about what someone reads, we may think that we should pay close attention to what we read or to the literature of potential partners. If we listen to those who don’t care, we may form the opposite opinion. The answer to conflicting experience is to dig beneath the response to the reactions. What do the opinions tell us? How does that analysis relate to us?

Philosophy blog: uncertainty principle knowing and not knowing3. The real unknown: Even well-informed scientists can’t say for sure that running the hadron colider won’t have unexpected and disastrous consequences. They all speak of the extreme unlikelihood of anything untoward happening. What we face in this kind of situation is a risk analysis. If the risk is infinitesimally small we have, relatively speaking, nothing to worry about. The more renowned scientists examine and discount the risk, the more comfortable we should feel. (But let’s not think too hard about whether we could live without these experiments!!)

We don’t necessarily come any closer to eliminating the uncertainty, but we can rest easier knowing that we know why we don’t know.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Conservative Versus Liberal Philosophy

Friday, March 28th, 2008

On cell phones for Cubans and bailouts for homeowners.

Philosophy blog: talking on cell phone whil crossing streetAs I walked through Manhattan this morning I watched as some buffoon on a cell phone began to cross the street just as the “don’t walk” sign blinked from flashing to solid. He didn’t realize that he was blocking traffic until he was half way across the street. With his phone still glued to his ear he first stopped in his tracks, then loped ahead to the far corner without so much as looking back.

Oh, to live in a world without cell phones! Even Cuba, my last hope of refuge from the cursed devices, has relented to the cell phone tide. Raul Castro — Raul The Reformer, we may as well call him — has declared that ordinary Cubans will be permitted to get cell phone contracts going forward (a privilege previously reserved for key state employees or workers for foreign firms). But since the cell phone contracts will be too expensive for most Cubans, who earn an average of a little less than $20 per month, perhaps it will take a while until cell phones cause traffic accidents in Havana.

Philosophy blog: Fidel and Raul Castro cell phones now allowed in cubaBut this snippet of communist party friction (Raul’s brother Fidel had held fast to the no cell phone policy for years) got me wondering about whether Raul should be classified as a liberal, allowing for progressive ideas, and Fidel a conservative. And if Fidel is a conservative how does that jive with him being one of the foremost and staunchest communist leaders of all time? Could Fidel Castro and his nemesis George Bush perhaps be sitting on the same side of an ideological fence? And if so, how?

As the current presidential hopefuls put forward their proposals (an odd phenomenon, this, since they’re just running for something, not running something) on fixing or mitigating the mortgage crisis, the stark differences in approach provide a lens through which to examine Democratic ideology versus Republican ideology.

Philosophy blog: liberals conservatives obama clinton mccain differ on bailout of homeownersThis is a subject that fascinates me. For there to be such a clear division along political lines on so many issues, it seems that the roots of these divisions must live in a fundamental philosophical difference of perspective.

With some differences Obama and Clinton endorse proposals that would provide help to homeowners facing forclosure. McCain (and Bush) oppose any plan for homeowner bailout.

To paraphrase the liberal perspective “let’s help people stand on their own two feet.”

To paraphrase the conservative perspective “let people stand on their own two feet.”

As ideologies, both are rational and consistent. Where and why do they differ?

McCain has made it clear that he believes that homeowners deserve some blame if they’ve bought themselves into an unaffordable mortgage. His perspective is founded on personal responsibility, the freedom to succeed comes with the freedom to screw up. You make your choice and live with it. This same perspective underpins the conservative view on all manner of subjects, such as gun ownership and the death penalty (by all means get a gun, but if you shoot someone you shouldn’t you’ll pay for it with your life).

The conservative philosophy rests on the concept that the individual should have more control over his life and that government should not meddle.

The liberal philosophy rests on the concept that for the good of society, and the good of the individual, government should be ready to step in and provide protection or support.

Obama believes that homeowners need protection from banks eager to foreclose to stem their loses, for instance. While some may get help when they don’t deserve it. Many unwitting victims will be spared. And on gun control, a liberal may say that having the right to bear arms is all well and good unless innocent people are getting hurt by that right.

Is this just a difference of perspective without any deeper significance? I think not.

philosophy blog: egyptian sphinx civilization human beings as social creaturesThe roots are evolutionary: As social animals, human beings developed an awareness that while acting for themselves could lead to short term gains, acting for the good of all could lead to long term gains. Sharing your food might make you less well fed in the short term, but when you’re short of food, you’ll be happy for someone to share his food with you.

This is all very rational and common sensical, but even thoughtful people in a well ordered society still feel the pull of self preservation and self-satisfaction. We all experience impulses that lead us to want to act for ourselves, and we all experience impulses that lead us to want to help others. Whether we come out liberal or conservative hinges on the degree to which we believe it’s right and feel the rightness of balancing our own needs with those of others.

(For those who are interested, LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive explores a deeper philosophical basis for this line of reasoning by working from the principles of space and time.)

But what about Fidel and Raul?

Fidel Castro exhibited a deep conflict between his personal feelings about individualism — in which he was a conservative (how could a man who led a revolution and took firm control of a country not be convinced of the power and independence of his individual spirit?) — and his intellectual conviction of the benefits of a collaborative, equalized society, communism after all is liberalism on steroids.

This is perhaps why so many of us have a soft spot for the old guy (Fidel) despite his serious flaws and failings, despite his human rights abuses. We empathize with his internal conflict. We see the numbskull stopping traffic while he gabs on his cell phone and we want him to be delivered a comeuppance not a helping hand. But presented with the intellectual idea of helping those who took on too much mortgage debt (numbskulls, most likely, some of them) we easily fall on the side of assistance.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

The Evolution of Pride: Both Good And Bad

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

How pride evolved as a beneficial trait… with drawbacks.

Philosophy blog: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville Thomas Edison phonautograph phonographOver the years I’ve often landed on a great idea for an invention only to find out after the fact that it has already been invented. Audio historians now acknowledge that an inventor came up with the idea of recording sounds, and succeeded in doing so, more than twenty years before Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph. These same historians claim that this finding doesn’t diminish Thomas Edison’s achievement, because Edison went the extra step of replaying the sound he’d recorded, and because he apparently knew nothing of his predecessor’s work. While this perspective probably wouldn’t wash in a patent court, it certainly gives me a renewed sense of pride in my own innovations.

Philosophy blog: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville phonautogram phonograph thomas edisonÉdouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautogram captured sound in squiggles on a sooty piece of paper. Scott was concerned with visual sound representation rather than sound reproduction, and it wasn’t until a team of researchers unearthed examples of Scott’s recordings and deciphered them with hi-tech wizardry that his phonautogram was proven to have done what he claimed it did. We can now hear some of Scott’s recordings reproduced.

Scott lived to see Edison’s phonograph make a hit, and fumed at the fact that Edison got all the credit. “What are the rights of the discoverer versus the improver?” Scott wrote.

Reference sources differ on the primary meaning of the word ‘pride.’ Dictionary.com prefers to go with the negative connotation first “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.” Whereas the American Heritage dictionary takes a more charitable view, with “a sense of one’s own proper dignity or value; self-respect,” and relegating the sense of an inordinate opinion of one’s self-worth to fifth place in its list of meanings.

Before Edison’s invention, one could say that Scott felt pride in his achievement. After Edison’s famed achievement, Scott’s pride was hurt. He then displayed pride in the negative sense.

I wonder to what extent the two definitions of pride refer to the same philosophical concept revealed under different conditions.

Philosophy blog: Paleontologists jaw fragment europe 1.1 million years old humanPaleontologists have just dated a jaw fragment found in Europe pushing back evidence of the appearance of human ancestors in those parts from 800,000 to 1.1 million years ago. The bone was found along with remnants of stone tools and butchered animals.

The story of human evolution aches with the concept of valuing achievement. Above all others, two things drive us to achieve — the desire for preservation of ourselves and our like, and the drive to achieve for the sake of having achieved.

From an evolutionary perspective, the former motive will more rarely stretch the species into new areas of achievement. Instead, I would say that it follows rationally that we have evolved to feel an intrinsic sense of satisfaction in achievement for the sake of achievement, for the very reason that this would tend to accelerate the selection of this beneficial trait.

Getting back to pride.

We attempt to achieve because we are genetically predisposed to seek to achieve. We feel a sense of satisfaction in having achieved something, again, because we are genetically disposed to feel this. When someone belittles or seems to belittle our achievements we feel an attack and, if we’re sensitive, a diminishment of this sense of achievement, which then results in either a prideful defense of our value or a pained withdrawal from the attack.

Philosophy blog: Thomas Edison phonograph recorded soundWhen Edison received acclaim for his invention, Scott’s pride was hurt for two reasons — firstly, he felt that his invention hadn’t received its due attention, his achievement was retrospectively diminished. And secondly, even after he laid claim to the original idea, people chose to continue to heap praise on Edison, adding insult to injury.

Objectively, of course, it doesn’t really matter who had the idea first. So long as Edison didn’t steal the idea, which, apparently he didn’t. Both men were brilliant and inventive. But one can’t help empathizing with Scott’s sense of hurt pride.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Irony And The Plastic Mind

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

On John McCain’s ironic disposition and rodents using rakes.

Philosophy blog: McCain on campaign trail ironicTimes Op-Ed contributor Neal Gabler proposes that the media likes John McCain because he has an ironic outlook on the political process. McCain, with his candor and his self-deprecation and his broad wink at the distorted rigamarole of politics agrees with the default, liberal journalistic “notion that our system (in fact, life itself) is faintly imbecilic.” Gabler describes McCain, with his gleeful cynicism, as a postmodernist candidate.

This is fascinating both in and of itself and more generally. What would an ironically detached president do with his power? How would his sense of irony, of life’s faint imbecility, help or hinder him in running the country?

Philosophy blog: John McCain on the mortgage crisis blames lenders and borrowersWe get a glimpse perhaps in McCain’s reluctance to support a rigorous bailout of housing lenders and borrowers. McCain lays blame with the lenders for pushing risky loans and with the borrowers for wishful thinking. Bailing them out only rewards their behavior, he says.

His response is aloof, dismissive. He shows a reluctance to engage with the history of the current crisis, the emergence of the shadow banking system to sidestep the kinds of controls that the government put in place as a response to the market crash that precipitated the great depression. Doesn’t the government share a good part of the responsibility for allowing the shadow banking system to emerge without taking steps to regulate it?

Although, this same detachment might be an unusually helpful quality in some situations.

But, more generally, Gabler’s take on McCain points to a philosophical matter of engagement with reality. The ironist perceives the difference between our immediate perception of existence and life, and the larger context of those perceptions. The awareness that ultimately nothing really matters. The central character of Albert Camus’ The Fall (La Chute) comes to realize through a process of self-reflection that everything he’s held dear to him, the whole grand idea of his importance, is nothing but an illusion, an appearance that, ultimately, means nothing. Literature is strewn with such examples of the ironist. Detachment and perspective are essential skills for a novelist, so it is little surprise that this is the case. Hence Gabler’s reference to McCain as a post-modernist candidate.

Gabler surmises that perhaps McCain gained this perspective while a prisoner of war. I would have disagreed with him until I read about the rodents who learned to use a rake.

Philosophy blog: Degu Rodents using a rake as a toolDr. Atshushi Iriki, a neuroscientist at the Riken Institute in Tokyo, has trained degus (sociable, Chilean rodents) to use a rake as a tool. By putting the little fellows out of arms reach of their lunch, Iriki coaxed the rodents to take advantage of small rakes so that they could drag the sunflower seeds close enough to eat them. (You can watch a video of the degus at work here.)

Just in itself, this is fascinating. But even more fascinating is the proposal that this kind of learning may lead to molecular and genetic changes in the brain. When Doctor Iriki conducted a similar experiment with Japanese macaques “their brains showed signs of gene activity in a brain region that integrates vision and touch.”

The latent capability for a particular mental aptitude, when prompted and exercized, can lead to a new organization of brain function. This isn’t spelled out in the article, but one presumes that Iriki believes that the animals have not simply learned a new skill, but developed a new capability, one that allows them to process things differently.

And so perhaps Gabler might be right about McCain. It makes sense that being a prisoner of war might lead to the exercising of the functions of the brain that put our existence into perspective. Held captive, treated as insignificant, denied the power of our own self-determination, I can easily see how one would come away with a more ironic perspective on the world.

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Opinion Versus Action

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

On the difference between holding an opinion and acting in accordance with that opinion. When such dissonance is rational and when not.

Philosophy Blog: Barack Obama Leadership Ideology Doctrine PoliticsThe media and Barack Obama’s opponents have focused a great deal of attention on Obama’s voting record in the senate. Robin Toner publishes a thoughtful piece today on whether Obama’s voting record necessarily gives a clear indicator of his ability to build consensus and lead effectively. As Toner points out, senators Obama and Clinton have voted the same way almost without exception. But whereas Clinton apparently accedes to the traditional doctrine that progressive or overtly liberal politics can’t gain traction, since the country leans right, Obama presents the perspective that good ideas and sensible policy changes can be popular with anyone who isn’t rigid in his or her thinking. Obama believes that one shouldn’t underestimate the desire of the country to reverse some of the poor management of the past eight years through making pragmatic and valuable policy changes.

The critical point seems to that Obama’s personal opinion will be only one part of his thinking when it comes to guiding policy and decision making. As Obama himself expresses it: “I’m interested in solving problems as opposed to imposing doctrine.”

While the concept of opinion versus action has particular relevance to politics, it transcends politics and appears everywhere that one finds opinions.

Philosophy blog: Opinion versus action Brooklyn parkingTo demonstrate this we need only find an example from our own life. Here’s one of mine: My neighbor has a driveway, which, in Brooklyn, is like gold. Unfortunately for him he is so territorial about his driveway that he spends huge amounts of energy and time protecting the driveway entrance — watching out for people who pull up for a minute to load or unload, calling the police when someone parks part way in front of his driveway.

In my opinion, my neighbor’s fixation on his driveway is out of proportion to its real importance. And, in a congested neighborhood, his unwillingness to accept some use of the space for things like loading and unloading by his neighbors strikes me as poor judgment. But, do I act on my opinion? No. I think he’s wrong, but I also know that to oppose his perspective wouldn’t get either of us anywhere. He is firmly entrenched in his opinion. It’s a situation in which any action on my part would be futile or inflammatory.

This kind of dissonance comes up all the time in families, too. We yield. We compromise. We find ways to influence. Or we don’t. If we forever and only acted in accordance with our ideas and opinions we’d soon find ourselves shunned and isolated.

As Obama understands, expressing an opinion is one thing, forcing it on someone is quite another.

There will always be some opinions about which we feel so strongly that we can’t do other than act on them. But there are many times when we can admit that if we insist on imposing our opinion we won’t achieve the best outcome overall. That’s the kind of change Obama seems to be talking about.

 

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Clearing Trash

Monday, March 24th, 2008

On the philosophy of existence as it relates to the idea of ownership and property.

Philosophy blog: trash removal garbageI spent the day getting rid of junk, garbage and unwanted stuff from our basement. (We’re selling our house, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.) Clearing trash makes one reflect on things of moment. We relish the new space, the absence of the piles of crap. We feel a lightness, a sense of freedom. And, conversely, we mourn the time that we spent with those piles of crap when they were, if not cherished possessions, then certainly worth holding onto by putting them in the basement. We’re clearing out old times, in a way.

Are possessions things of the mind? Does a sense of possession require consciousness?

I’ve come across the idea that nomadic people, such as native Americans, don’t have the same sense of property, and certainly not land ownership, as agrarian or industrial societies. This makes some sense, but native Americans surely had a sense of property.

Philosophy blog: possession ownership trash garbage marriageNon-conscious creatures can display a sense of territorial ownership or rights. Animals defend territory and food against interlopers.

Understanding the idea of property seems quite straightforward if we reflect on the idea that survival requires that we ensure that we have food and shelter. If we’ve secured food and shelter, why give it up without a fight, without defending it? Giving up things of importance without a reasonable struggle to keep them would be an act of letting go, of non-living.

This explanation however seems incomplete. It seems that there’s another way in which we feel a sense of ownership, one that’s much more immediate and direct. It’s our sense of our physical being. More than we could say of any other thing, we could be said to own our bodies. We experience the world through the immediate impressions of our physical being. The impulses felt through our body define the us-ness of our being.

Philosophy blog: the meek shall inherit the earth cartoon garbage trashThis, then, is the root of any idea of property. We own our experiences.

Any other sense of property is derivative and non-essential. We can lose everything except our experience and still live. And so, when we’re ridding ourselves of extraneous possessions, we feel a sense of lightness, of paring down. We feel a calmness and sureness that even if we were to get rid of everything we own, we would still retain ownership of ourselves.

The Philosophy of Philanthropy

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Or, how not to be a misanthrope.

Philosophy Blog: Richard Branson, Tony Blair, Larry Page, Jimmy Wales, BVI Global WarmingOK, so Richard Branson owns, among other things, not one but two Caribbean islands. I learned this as I read that he recently brought together a bunch of other wealthy and influential people (Larry Page of Google, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister) to his British Virgin Islands retreat to get them thinking about what can be done to end or control global warming. There’s money in it for them if they can find a commercially viable way to reduce global warming gases or produce an alternate source of greener energy, but the intent also seems to be on some level genuinely philanthropic.

Philosophy Blog: Bill Drayton Social EntrepreneurDavid Brooks writes about the socially conscious entrepreneurs, wealthy, smart venture capital types who have begun to take a hard-nosed business approach to tackling the world’s ills. Brooks proposes that the trend toward disaggregated problem solving and syndicated solutions is not only a sign of the times, but a trend worth fostering. Let them give it a go, he argues. And, by the way, they won’t take no for an answer.

Contrast this with the behavior of the top bankers who have been making money hand over fist profiting from the risky securities that now threaten to bring down the financial markets. They keep the money they’ve made ramping up the risk, even if they share in the losses of the moment. The NY Times proposes that these profiteers should have “more skin in the game,” (Krugman argues that the markets should be better regulated.)

Philosophy blog: Bill Gates Philanthropy Philanthropist FoundationBrooks notes that Microsoft’s Bill Gates “fits neatly” into the category of business-like philanthropists. But Microsoft’s wealth, and therefore Bill Gates’ wealth, it could be argued, has been accumulated through selling overpriced, under-performing software to a captive market. It’s nice that Gates is redistributing this wealth in socially-conscious ways. And he worked hard and demonstrated great skills in getting Microsoft where it is today. All credit to him. But the same single-minded determination to drive profit reveals itself in Gates just as it does in the Wall Street bankers. Microsoft is fiercely competitive, fastidiously greedy and has been sued for it.

All of which is a preamble to the question: Why are we philanthropic? And the counter-question, how do we stop being misanthropic?

Gates and Branson provide interesting studies. Both have turned their talents and accumulated wealth toward helping the world, but neither of them seemed to feel compelled to spread the joy on their way to accumulating that wealth. (Gates developed Windows not Linux, for instance.)

Having vast wealth obviously removes the hurdle of financing one’s philanthropic ideas. But one also needs a charitable mindset, a desire to help people. Surely wealth doesn’t do that for you? Otherwise we’d have far more philanthropists in the world.

A good proportion of us, perhaps most of us, tend toward the non-philanthropic, if not the downright misanthropic. I personally like the concept of helping people, for instance, far more than you would think if you looked at what I actually do for other people.

The answer seems to be insight, vision and belief. Branson, Gates and others of their ilk have taken advantage of the kind of perspective that you get when you’re at the top of the heap. If you’re in that position and choose to take in the view you can see a good deal further than the guy at the bottom of the hill, and you have a sense that since you climbed the hill, if you see something you want to change, you can do that, too.

For us mere mortals, a remedy for misathropy then may be to scramble our way up to the top of a nearby hillock (metaphorically speaking,) and cast about for something we might want to change.

Branson cleverly brought his guests to the Virgin Islands to remove them from the hustle of everyday life. By removing other influences, he allowed them to receive new ideas, to focus on his question about what they could do to save the world.

Seems like a pretty good idea to me, even if we can’t get to the Virgin Islands. And with that thought in mind, since it’s Friday and the second day of Spring, with blue, if cool, skies overhead, I think I’ll head off to my own private island somewhere between the kitchen table and the back door, to contemplate what I can do to solve the problems of humankind.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Get Real: The Concept of Authenticity

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Philosophy blog: great coffee clover starbucks acquisitionRattled by its plunging stock price and by threats from competitive coffee vendors, Starbucks has announced a renewed focus on its roots — brewing and serving good coffee. The gargantuan coffee-store chain plans to install Swiss Mastrena espresso machines at three quarters of its stores in the next couple of years. It’s also rolling out a new coffee blend, Pike Place Roast, and swallowing up the makers of the renowned Clover coffee machine so that it can install them at selected landmark stores. In the words of the NY Times’ reporter, these initiatives are aimed at restoring to Starbucks stores an “authentic coffeehouse experience.”

The use of the word “authentic” jarred me. Whatever its success in delivering the promise of great coffee, well made, it would be impossible for Starbucks to return to its stores the authenticity of a coffeehouse, or for MacDonald’s to restore the authenticity of a burger joint, or for Dunkin Donuts to restore to its stores the authenticity of donut shops. In any such chain or franchise the essentially authentic elements of irreproducibility and oneness with the fundamental aim have been removed.

This is not a criticism of Starbucks’ general aim. Better to have a semblance of authenticity, an attempt to brew wonderful coffee in an attractive environment, than no such attempt. But it got me wondering about authenticity as a concept.

Authenticity equates to the concept of being genuine. An authentic coffee house must be genuine. And in its being genuine it must conform to the essence of the idea of a coffeehouse.

Determining the authenticity of a coffeehouse or a burger joint or a donut shop becomes somewhat straightforward. If the establishment is what it presents itself to be, then it is genuine. When it comes to people, things get a little more tricky.

Philosphy blog: Hillary Rodham Wellesley college 1965The National Archives and the William J. Clinton library has released Hillary Rodham Clinton’s schedule (11,000 pages) for the time that her husband was in office. As the world peruses this record of her appointments one necessarily asks the question: Has Clinton presented herself authentically in her campaigning, or does the schedule of her appointments reveal a different story? We want to know whether she has exaggerated or skewed her involvement in her husband’s administration.

Philosophy blog: Barack Obama race Racism speech reverend wrightLikewise, the salient question presented by Barack Obama’s recent speech on race and racism in America was whether he presented himself, his experience, and his views authentically. We sift through his words to try to determine whether he has stretched a point or shrunk from one.

Authenticity in a person does not equate to telling the truth. One can tell the truth without being authentic. Authenticity in a person requires that he or she act without altering his or her actions in order to present an impression of someone other than that which he or she believes him or herself to be.

This brings us to a very profound question: Does consciousness allow for authenticity, and if so how?

Consciousness requires some degree of awareness of self. Any awareness of self, it could be argued, brings with it an awareness of the impression we present. Any awareness of this impression inevitably affects us and, no matter how minutely, alters our presentation of ourselves.

Even the person who claims no affectation “I am what I am” has affected a particular persona — that of someone indifferent and unaffected — and the disclaimer confirms this.

Consciousness burdens us forever and always with the awareness that we cannot be completely unaware.

So, is it possible that we can we conscious and still authentic?

No… and yes.

And here is the twist. We invest the word “authentic” with a meaning that relates to the idea of an object (an authentic coffeehouse, for instance.) A coffeehouse can be authentic just by being. It is what it is. Since we’re conscious we cannot be like a coffee house. But we can be what we are, complete with apprehensions, egos, weaknesses, desires.

For a conscious being — a person — the concept of authenticity comes to mean something more nuanced. It requires a person to be as honest with themselves and others as they feel they can be. Authenticity becomes equivalent to the concept of humility — whether we are arrogant, egotistical, meek or savage, if we have the humility to embrace and recognize that we are one particular aspect or representation of existence then we can perhaps be said to retain our authenticity.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Preconceived Ideas: Gun Control And The Iraq War

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

On reconciling what we want to think with what logic dictates.

Philosophy blog: Gun Control in America CartoonAfter reading the NY Times editorial on the Supreme Court’s review of gun control laws, and thinking that I generally agreed with the board’s perspective — that some manner of gun control was not only a good thing but constitutional, I glanced down at the readers’ comments and began to question how I’d arrived at my conclusion. Most of the readers’ comments seemed to oppose the board’s analysis. Many of them seemed to have strong, rational views on why the NY Times editorial board was wrong. Had I perhaps sidestepped a thoughtful analysis of the issues? Do I really know where I stand on the effectiveness and desirability of gun control laws, or have I simply adopted a default, liberal stance?

Philosophy blog: President Bush on Iraq Troop WithdrawalAnd to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, President George Bush got back onto his soap box today at the Pentagon to argue against any precipitous move toward troop withdrawal. He warned that if America pulls its forces back too quickly, the result will be “chaos and carnage.” Whereas, “chaos and carnage” would not be valid descriptors of what’s been happening in Iraq for the past five years?

But I’ve long harbored the suspicion that my presumptive position that I would support a withdrawal of troops from Iraq has been founded on ideology, or, perhaps to be more precise, on an opposition to hawkish Republican ideology, rather than logic and reason.

In a nutshell, some things we believe because we want to believe them, not because we’ve thought them through. This is what ideology or partisan thinking is all about, I suppose.

It’s a very appealing way to spilce the issues. It makes things so much easier. We pick an ideology that appeals to us and frame our thinking through that lens. It also seems to be a very common and perhaps inherently human thing to do.

Philosophy blog: Evolution Consciousness Survival ConceptsConsciousness achieved evolutionary success because it allowed us to understand events and act accordingly through an abstract perception of the world around us. The very foundation of conscious thought is the manipulation of ideas. Ideas, by definition, simplify the infinite variations that occur in the real world by lumping things together into useful categories. If one were to measure the height, density and hue of cloud coverage and the time variation of precipitation, for instance, one would quickly conclude that no two rainy days are exactly alike. But the concept “rainy day” is sufficient to cover all of these variations and convey the idea of an abstract rainy day.

Abstract thought has been so successful as an evolutionary advantage that it’s allowed us to find ways to survive in climates that would otherwise kill us, to eat and drink despite local droughts, and to realize such huge efficiencies through industrialization and mechanization that for the most part we don’t have anything to do with the processes that shelter, feed and clothe us.

Philosophy blog: Plato Cave Allegory Ideas ConceptsIdeology is a form of categorization. We lump together into a convenient bucket a whole set of related concepts about our philosophy on life or politics or whatever. And, even better, the bucket has a whole set of rules about what goes in there (sometimes these are a little vague or personal, but for the most part they’re pretty solid). If we’re a liberal, we oppose the war in Iraq, support some manner of gun control, abhor Repulican attempts to dismantle Roe vs. Wade, desire more government investment in healthcare… etc., etc.

Is this a bad thing?

It’s neither an inherently bad thing, nor an inherently good thing. Since we categorize by virtue of our way of thinking, it can hardly be intrinsically bad. And since it leads to so much strife and anguish in the world it can hardly be wholly good.

As with so many things, the awareness that we do it, and being prepared to doubt ourselves when we do it, seems to be the important thing.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.

Stress Relief

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

On personal and public stress.

Philosophy Blog: Stress and Stress Relief Public and PersonalWe tend to regard stress as something inherently bad. Doctors worry about it in their patients. Spouses worry about it in their spouses. Employers sometimes worry about it in their employees. But, as with most things, I would expect that some degree of stress every now and then may not be a bad thing. If we were to react to risky or troublesome situations without any stress, would we respond appropriately?

Researchers have uncovered a connection between the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and particular gene variations. This outcome indicates that the body’s stress responses have evolved over time and worked their way into our DNA.

Stress seems to be of help in its short term effect on our behavior. Stressful situations often require an urgent response. Stress spurs us to focus and act. Stress becomes harmful, perhaps, when it becomes chronic and unaddressed.

Philosophy blog: Stress Relief Anxiety and RelaxationWhen life circumstances lead to recurring or constantly stressful situations the stress response ceases to be beneficial and becomes harmful. If the circumstances don’t change, if we don’t or can’t extricate ourselves from the stressful situation despite focus and action, we begin to suffer. We tend not to recognize this as a problem, because chronic stress works in small bursts over a long period of time and acts on the body gradually.

In an example from recent news stories, Harvard ($35 billion), Yale ($22.5 billion) and many other universities have endowments of over $1 billion dollars. But as the senate begins to ask questions about what this money gets spent on schools have been somewhat tight lipped and not a little affronted. The school administrators are suffering short term stress at the thought of someone poking into their business.

But now that private school tution costs about $50,000 per year, many private school students and alumni (and their parents) face long term stress in figuring out how to repay student loans.

Philosophy blog: work-related stress stress reliefThis brings us to the point that some stress remedies are personal — regular exercise, working to a reasonable household budget, taking time for onesself — and some are societal. The cost of private education seems to be a case in point. Generally speaking, the cost of private education has been going up so dramatically that it looms large in people’s minds for years before a child goes off to college, and then looms large for many years afterward as the debt hangs over them.

Society is saddled with this stress and society, it seems, could and should be able to do something to relieve the stress.

I grew up and went to school in England where this stress is to all intents and purposes absent. College education costs very little unless you’re well to do, and even then it doesn’t cost a great deal.

Harvard, with its huge endowment, has been increasing its financial aid to students, and Harvard Law is now considering tution reduction that could amount to as much as $40,000 for law students who enter public service. This kind of step is aimed at encouraging more law students to enter public service by reducing the prospect of the stress brought on by large debt and small income.

The London University study on work stress indicates that we don’t pay enough attention as a society to the long term impacts of stress. As we learn more about stress I expect that we will find that there are many examples of stress that is inherent in our way of living. Identifying such stresses and deciding upon reasonable ways to reduce that stress strikes me as a worthy and interesting challenge.

Until that time, our only recourse will be to recognize the presence and dangers of stress in our own lives, and work to reduce it.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.