Posts Tagged ‘society’

The Philosophy of Self

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

On work and self: Wesley Snipes, Tom Daley, Anna Quindlen, Rene Descartes

I’ve spent the past eleven years and ten months — more than half my working life — at the same firm. Today was my last day. I’m going to be writing more, and making more music, and probably a whole lot of things that I have no clue about just yet.

As I said goodbye to my colleagues this afternoon I was aware of how much the experience of working with them and doing what I’d been doing had changed me, how much I’d learned, how much I’d unlearned, and how much I’d grown and shifted. I was moving on, but not without taking the experience with me.

Philosophy blog: Wesley Snipes tax evasion fraud prison jail self actorActor Wesley Snipes, convicted on tax charges, has been sentenced to the maximum of three years in jail. As I read the story I was fascinated by the extent to which a movie star’s life must be affected by his or her sense of self as reflected by public opinion. Denzel Washington had written a letter of character reference to the court. I found myself sad for Snipes; excerpts from the letter seemed to describe the image of a man rather than the man himself.

Philosophy blog: Tom Daley british diver ten meter beijing olympics youngest championThirteen year old Tom Daley, a British diver who will compete in the Beijing Olympics, explained his approach to maintaining a balanced perspective like this: “I try and keep it all separate because when I’m not diving and doing media stuff I’m just a normal kid.”

And as I rode on the elevator in the office today, I saw this quote from Anna Quindlen:

“Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first.”

It read like a personal message.

The philosophy of self is as old as the phenomenon of consciousness. It took several million years for this idea to be neatly framed and attributed to Descartes who coined the famous phrase: “Cogito ergo sum” trans. “I think therefore I am.”

To twist this idea into a framing of the concept of self we can say: “I am what I think.”

Philosophy blog: self Rene Descartes cogito ergo sum I think therefore I amSome would immediately argue that we do many things without reflection, without thinking them through. Which is true. But the concept of “self” requires reflection. Once I have acted, my acts affect my sense of self according to the way that I process them.

I could have walked away from my job thinking that I was unchanged by it. Had I done so, my sense of self would have been quite different.

Actor Wesley Snipes (and others in the public eye) must process his immediate thoughts about himself as well as processing the opinions expressed by the world at large. Public opinion must place a tremendous strain on one’s ability to maintain a consistent and accurate sense of self.

Young diver Tom Daley demonstrates an admirable compartmentalization of private and public space. (It seems perhaps that children often have a greater aptitude for this than adults.) Daley prefigures Quindlen’s advice in years if not in time.

We can achieve great things. We can inspire great respect or admiration. We can, likewise, achieve little, or inspire no one. But we captain our sense of self over these waters as if it were the QE2, or a tug boat, or a kayak. We might never know or care that the QE2 is really a kayak, or vice versa.

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 Philosophy of Cordiality

Friday, April 11th, 2008

On the rules for being nice.

Today we brought our newborn son home from the hospital. It’s been a week of intense emotion, both joy and anxiety, and not a little tension as a result of stress: I had a run in with another driver (he wanted me to back up so he could park; I wanted him to pull forward so I could get by), a few uncivil words with a nurse (she scolded me because she found the baby uncovered; I felt affronted by her accusation and its tone), and an altercation with a traffic cop (I was sitting in the car when she came up and gave me a ticket; I asked her why she couldn’t have just moved me along).

I like to think of myself as, generally speaking, an easy-going guy, inclined to smooth over difficult situations and defer to others rather than engage. But I guess when I’m tense or pushed past a certain point I do engage.

Philosophy blog: NY Post John Clifford acuitted for bullying fellow passengersThe NY Times dedicates an editorial to the need for the courts to enforce civility. The Times laments that John Clifford, a commuter and frequent vigilante abuser of his fellow passengers, has once again been acquitted of “assault, disorderly conduct and other charges” after an ugly encounter on a train. The editorial makes a case for better enforcement of good etiquette , but finds Clifford’s bullying policing of his fellow passengers inexcusable.

And in the aftermath of the very public and unsightly divorce of Paul McCartney from Heather Mills, Mills seems to feel no need to apologize for pouring a jug of water over her exes lawyer in court. Mills argues that the lawyer muttered something insulting under her breath and that the dowsing probably did her good.Philosophy blog: Heather Mills pours jug of water over Paul McCartney lawyer

Society can be defined as a collection of people, but it is really a collection of rules that govern human interactions, some explicit, some implicit. One could say that the degree to which people comply with these rules determines whether the society is functional or dysfunctional, but I would argue otherwise. Rules are fluid, not fixed. A rule that is flouted by the majority or by a significant minority ceases to be absolute. Many commuters talk loudly on cell phones, for instance; they either don’t think about it, or somehow think that they’re not being obnoxious and annoying.

The degree to which a society is functional or dysfunctional depends rather on the quality of respect and empathy that infuses the working rules that govern the society. By working rules I mean the rules that people actually live by, not the ones that people officially agree to. (If a belligerent commuter gets away with abusing his fellow passengers, it matters not what the rule books say.)

New York presents an interesting case study. A place with millions thrust in upon one another, where just getting from A to B can raise the blood pressure and tax one’s patience, a place where people have a hundred opportunities in a day to feel imposed upon or delayed or hard done by in some way. And yet, cordiality tends, most of the time, to win out over rudeness even here. When I’m not stressed I enjoy doing things that New Yorkers don’t expect from their fellow citizens — letting someone pull into traffic, holding a door, offering change, stopping to give directions… I think many others do the same.

But how should we react when others don’t behave well? I’d agree with the Times that behaving rudely and aggressively doesn’t improve matters, but I’d also argue a firm rebuke of rude behavior can only serve to swing the pendulum back toward a more civil society.

Science and Progress

Friday, April 4th, 2008

I was once involved in a philosophy discussion with someone who questioned whether we truly make progress through quantitative or rational analysis. Specifically, she questioned whether one could say that science has made progress. The perspective she argued took issue with the idea that progress can be defined and measured rationally. Or, put another way, that if you define progress rationally, you will inevitably end up with the conclusion that rational analysis leads to progress.

My wife gave birth to our second child this morning (my third). He was born at full term, but in some distress, having taken amniotic fluid into his lungs. The doctor also needed to cut the umbilical cord as it was wrapped around the baby’s neck. Later, as my new son recovered under the careful watch of the NICU doctors and nurses, my wife and I reflected on the way that modern medicine had affected our lives. The son who was born today may well not have made it without the supremely skilled and sophisticated medical care that the hospital provided. Similarly, my first son, at the same hospital, was saved from a life-threatening trachial infection two years ago, and my daughter, who has had an underdeveloped thyroid gland since birth, would have been plagued by poor development and ill-health if her condition had gone undiagnosed and untreated when she was a newborn.

As my wife pointed out, we’re not alone. Many children who thrive today would not have thrived a hundred or more years ago.

Is this progress?

Well, in one way I agree with the rebuke that this is progress only if you define progress as a relative success in one area over time. We’ve also slurried up rivers and lakes. We’ve depleted the fish in the oceans. We’ve unleashed terrible warfare and pollution. And we’ve changed the world’s climate so that species are threatened or wiped out and so that many millions of people and animals may be in danger in the future.

At the moment we’re very good at making specific, focused improvements. For the sake of our children and their children, I hope we get better at making general, far reaching and balanced improvements.

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.

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.

Power, ‘Sin,’ and Judgment

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

What response to public wrongdoing?

Philosophy blog: political power sex corruption eliot spitzerIn his chronical of Eliot Spitzer’s predecessors in doing wrong, N. R. Kleinfield makes a compeling case for a connection between power and irrational risk-taking. The piece focuses on sex scandals, but could just as easily have included bribery and corruption. Kleinfield draws on the opinions of experts in psychology to underscore the logic behind the link — people who seek power typically have an appetite for high stakes and pushing the envelope.

We gasp in surprise when we learn of each new scandal, but perhaps we should not really be surprised. Abuse of power, sexual extravagance, and a sense of being above the law have been with us all through history. The difference is that these days there’s generally more accountability, and more publicity.

Philosophy blog: public and media focus on acts of indiscretionIn his initial announcement, Spitzer apologized to his family and said that his connection to the prostitution ring was a private matter (although he did apologize to the public, too). This echoes previous scandaleers who have either explicitly or implicitly sought to separate their private actions from their public role.

Unless we’re to compound the abuse of power, any illegal actions should be appropriately prosecuted. But what about immoral or inappropriate acts, things that are not illegal or wouldn’t typically be subject to prosecution.

As members of society we can ask ourselves two questions:

1. How much do we care to let the private actions of public figures reflect upon their public roles?

2. How do we action upon that answer?

Philosophy blog: Emperor Claudius unwanted power that corrupted even himIn America in recent years it has begun to seem that the intense scrutiny of the private lives of candidates for public office has gone beyond the point of appropriateness and good sense. After all, if we accept that those who seek public office must be prepared to tolerate risk, and to gain or lose a great deal, shouldn’t we tolerate the idea that this personality type won’t be happy with slippers and a pipe in the evening (at least not a tobacco pipe)? I’m not saying we should excuse or overlook illegal activity, nor turn a blind eye to serious character flaws, but the important thing is that the person can do the job he or she is elected to do.

If the politician can maintain a rational and exemplary record of public service, why should we care, or even need to be aware, that he or she has a personal pecadillo or two?

Which brings me to the definition of flaws. On moral matters we define a sin as something that, from our perspective, we would judge immoral. As I outline in my book (LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do to Survive), it’s possible to point to a rational origin for our sense of morality, thereby lending it an objectivity, but as morality reveals itself in the world, it tends not to be rational.

Let’s cut the politicians a break and allow them their private lives, flaws or no flaws, moral or immoral. Let’s not dig if we’re only digging for private dirt. When society expects its leaders be not just effective and law-abiding, but also irreproachable in mind and body, society loses.

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.

Lies And Consequences

Monday, March 10th, 2008

On truth and lies: and their effect on society and how we live.

Philosophy blog: truth and lies for sale signMy wife and I are selling our house. One man made a good offer, insinuated his keenness to move quickly, and then promptly became impossible to pin down. After a roller-coaster of promised inspections and contract signings, reneged upon for reasons of his workload or ill health, we have been forced to conclude that he’s either completely full of it, or extremely busy and unfortunate. We don’t know which. Nor does it seem likely that we will ever know. While I’m curious for curiosity’s sake to know the real story, my overriding concern has a practical base — is he a legitimate buyer?

Philosophy Blog: Love and ConsequencesI’d been wanting to write about fake memoirs (the latest being Peggy Seltzer’s Love and Consequence, her (fictitious) account of her young life in the LA drug wars) and Daniel Mendelsohn helped me find a way in. Mendelsohn has been gathering life histories of family members who survived the holocaust for a book he’s working on. Mendelsohn has a very personal take on those who lie about their experiences in order to tell an amazing story. He thinks it is repellent. He goes further and questions whether it is a good thing to go through the process of trying to imagine the pain of others, to put ourselves in their shoes. Our presumption to be able to imagine what others go through “debases the anguish” that they suffer, he claims.

Mendelsohn spares no one in his assault on induced empathy. A holocaust museum that recreates the experience of riding in a cattle car “encourage[s] not true sympathy or understanding, but a slick “identification” that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror.” (Mendelsohn goes on to implicate the Internet, “which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic.”)

Apart from his skepticism about manufactured, the real crime, according to Mendelsohn, is that when people lie about their experiences, they make us less trustful of such accounts generally. “How tragic if, because of the false ones, those amazing tales are never read — or believed.”

All of which made me wonder — is he right?

I concluded that Mendelsohn takes an essentially irrational position. That his response is mostly emotion wrapped in rationale.

Philosophy Blog: Holocaust Museum Empathy QuestionRationally, Mendelsohn’s empathy hypothesis would lead us to suspect any form of empathy. But if we read, watch or listen to a true story of oppression or suffering, the story has impact and affects us only if we can feel some sort of empathy. If we were to be able to tell ourselves that we had no place imagining ourselves in a similar set of circumstances, the story would be emotionally meaningless to us.

Mendelsohn’s actions also don’t concur with his rhetoric. He is compiling a list of true stories because he believes they should be heard. Does he want them heard but not to affect people?

Sure, some empathy ploys are cheap, ineffective, devaluing and insulting. But to damn empathy generally is short-sighted.

Mendelsohn’s other target is trickier to unravel. I share his desire for less fabrication, for greater honesty and candor. But wanting won’t make it happen. And I don’t immediately come to the same conclusion that modern society has become a catchall for lies and misstatements, with the Internet as its most effective web.

I wrote recently that we each have an obligation of skepticism. That we can’t simply accept everything we read or see at face value. Mendelsohn seems to hanker for a world where everything is believed because it is all truth. But truth is an elusive quality. Even in the true stories that Mendelsohn gathers for his book there will be elements that become highlighted, brought to greater intensity by the use of a particular word or phrase or literary technique, as well as aspects that get excluded or diminished in the telling. That’s the whole point of the telling — to get it told, to bring out the essence.

For as long as there has been language there have been lies and liars. As human beings we process the stories we hear, some we know to be truth, some we know to be lies, and some we either must take at face value or not. Ultimately, we each reach our own level of skepticism. Without a certain level of honesty and truthfulness, society begins to crumble, because society relies on contracts of reliability in human relationships. Society rightly places a great value on honesty. I therefore feel less pessimistic than Mendelsohn seems to feel about the future of truth.

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.

Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Kosovo’s independence, Serbia’s reaction.

Kosovo Independence Mitrovica, Serbia, BelgradeDo the roots of ethnic and national identification run particularly deep in the Balkans? Reading the latest news from Kosovo and Serbia, it seems so, but I guess not. No more deeply than in Chechnya, for instance, or Northern Ireland, or Darfur, or any of the many other flash-points around the world. But why do people feel so strongly about their ethnic and national identification that they’re willing to hate so deeply, fight so forcefully, and suffer so greatly to protect the concept of ethnic and political autonomy?

I’m not saying that people should not feel so strongly. They do, so there must be reasons. But what are those reasons and could we learn anything useful from understanding them?

social animals bonobo enhance survival by life living in groupsEvolution rewards species and groups that survive. Social animals enhance their chances of survival by living together, protecting one another, and competing against other groups for the necessities of survival such as food and shelter. The stronger the group identification, the stronger the cooperation, and the greater the chances of group survival.

But, in people, the process of forming and belonging to groups has evolved into a highly complex and, from a biological and micro-social perspective, largely artificial (because it is a mental rather than tangible) trait. An Albanian living in the north of Kosovo consciously connects his or her allegiance to Albanians in the south of Kosovo, but while this conceptual grouping feels intensely related to his or her survival, it in fact bears no resemblance to the cooperation of a tight-knit group living in close proximity with its members contributing materially to one another’s well-being… Or, to be more exact, it resembles that tight-knit group only in as much as the Albanian in the north invests his allegiance with the Albanian in the south with the same kind of significance.

angry serbs burn border posts in kosovo against independence of albanian kosovaOur identification along lines of ethnicity and demography can’t be defended as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Ethnic conflicts deplete the world’s resources by commiting them to weaponry and defense forces and result in the deaths of millions.

A Serb in Mitrovica wishes to remain Serbian because he identifies with the concept of being a Serb; Kosovo independence does not necessarily reflect a change in his or her chances of living a healthy, happy and prosperous life. Likewise, the lot of an Albanian living in Mitrovica doesn’t necessarily improve because he is no longer part of Serbia. I’m stressing the word necessarily because obviously when people define themselves along ethnic lines there are indeed practical implications of a change in the majority ethnicity of the ruling body.

By reflecting upon the processes of evolution and its translation into concepts and feelings we immediately see that our minds fool us into drawing unnecessary divisions between ourselves and others, divisions that ultimately hurt us all.

From a practical perspective, what can be done?

We need to teach practical philosophy in school. By drawing up curricula that examine these kinds of connections between the nature of existence and its impact on our world of concepts we can begin to teach children how to see the world for what it is rather than for what it seems to be. This suggestion is no more radical than saying that children should be taught that the earth revolves around the sun even though it seems that the sun revolves around the earth.

For 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.

 

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Free Will; Free Markets; Free Bags

Monday, February 4th, 2008

On the notions of free will and government influence in society.

tax on plastic bags in ireland leads to change in behaviorIn Ireland, back in 2002, the government imposed a hefty tax (33 cents) on plastic shopping bags. Supermarkets and stores resisted the change at first, anticipating that it would be unpopular with customers. But as the NY Times reports, avoiding the use of plastic bags has become not just an accepted fact of life but a mark of personal commitment to environmental change. “When my roommate brings one in the flat it annoys the hell out of me,” said one Dubliner.

glacier in patagonia argentinaDominique Browning writes in an op-ed piece that she saw plenty of plastic bags and other refuse on her visit Patagonian glaciers. Dominique laments the self-absorption of many of her fellow eco-tourists. If we can’t check ourselves when faced with of the decline of such monumental beauty close up, Dominique’s piece asks, how can we check ourselves when global warming and environmental protection are simply abstract concepts?

Bush unveils budget package for 2008In unveiling his proposed $3.1 trillion budget package, President Bush speaks of “the hard work of the American people and spending discipline in Washington.” His formula for achieving a balanced budget? “Simple: Create the conditions for economic growth, keep taxes low, and spend taxpayer dollars wisely or not at all.” Meanwhile, as White House budget documents reveal, the accumulated total of all federal borrowing will grow from $3.3 trillion in 2001, when President Bush took office, to $5.4 trillion this year and $5.9 trillion in 2009. Even if we’re giving Bush the benefit of the doubt, it’s clear that his economic policies haven’t met with great success.

Like many people, I tend to dislike any overt external influence on what I do. This applies just as well to my wife’s influence as it does to the government’s. When my wife told me I should be taking a canvas bag to the grocery store to cart our groceries, I bridled and ignored her. If the government told me I should be taking a canvas bag to pick up my groceries I would probably ignore it, too. I don’t like irrational parking regulations, or jay-walking laws, or prohibitions against buying alcohol on Sunday. But I was struck by the report of the sea-change against the use of plastic bags in Ireland that began with a very pointed and determined government initiative to raise people’s awareness.

The success of Ireland’s plastic bag tax shows us is that if a government attaches a societal cost to something, publicizes that cost, and acts on it (levies a charge to offset or avoid the cost,) the result can be an improved awareness of the right thing to do. As a result, the Irish don’t resent the tax, they resent those who don’t respect the underlying impetus for the tax.

It strikes me that this translates into something akin to a free will for society or societal free will. Armed with an awareness and a perspective on its behavior, society can choose to do things that don’t necessarily come naturally or easily.

Raising society’s awareness of global warming has been a major challenge in the United States since we’ve had a government that refused to acknowledge that global warming was really a problem related to society’s actions. When other forces began to raise US society’s awareness, though, even a recalcitrant government couldn’t prevent a change in society’s will to change.

But what does any of this have to do with Bush’s budget package? Implicit in Bush’s budget package and explicit in his statements is an argument for the free market, and for hands off government. But since inaction is another form of action, hands-off government isn’t really hands-off. What we don’t do can have just as much impact as what we do do. And when we think about the role that government can play in raising awareness of the populace and championing policies that foster and catalyze people to act in ways that help improve society and the world we live in we realize just what a flawed governing philosophy the free-market, hands-off mantra makes.

Monitoring and Adjustment

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

On systems that respond to feedback; home energy, Google, balance, and depression.

use of feedback in controlling energy useI woke up this morning at 4:30am and spent the best part of an hour awake before falling back to sleep. I’ve been groggy and tired all day, and feeling less productive than usual. My body is telling me to rest. But I’m telling it to keep going.

I’ve come across several stories today that refer to the value of monitoring a system in order to optimize it. The Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, for instance, conducted a research study in which it equipped over 100 homes with power montoring and control systems, allowing the home-owners to trade off their energy use and expense with their habits and comfort (e.g., choosing to maintain the house at a slightly less comfortable temperature during periods of peak energy demand). The study found that people typically reduced their energy bills, and thereby the demand on the local power grid, by around 10%.

GoogleAnother story tells about Google’s experiment on its own employees, letting them engage in speculative trading for modest prize money in order to derive information about its office culture and communication patterns. Google found that people who sit close together speculate similarly, showing that they communicate better than friends or coworkers. Google is using this information to help it plan its seating arrangements to foster valuable communication.

Balancing on one footIn the NY Times Health section, we read about one of the human body’s built-in feedback mechanisms — our sense of balance — and how it tends to deteriorate with age. Fortunately we can exercize it, improving our balance as we age, and reducing our risk of falling (the article tells us how).

All living organisms represent complex, complementary feedback systems. The organism responds to external and internal stimuli and adjusts accordingly, aiming to balance the system. Hungry? Eat. Full? Stop eating. Tired? Rest.

As human beings, being conscious, we can override or undermine our feedback mechanisms. Sometimes we don’t eat because we don’t want to get fat. Or we jump out of a plane, despite our fear, because we want to experience the thrill of sky-diving. Or we push on through tiredness because we don’t have the time or opportunity to rest.

therapy and therapist couchAll of which is getting me somewhere. Our mood is another feedback mechanism; whether or not we feel happy or depressed feeds back into our thoughts, actions and feelings. But it’s a confusing and sometimes dysfunctional mechanism.

I didn’t figure this out until my life-coach / therapist helped me see the pattern. Over several years of working with him I would go through periods of depression. He would help me root out the cause of the depression and, inevitably, coming to grips with the cause would leave me feeling happier and with more self-insight. The pattern showed that depression provided much needed downtime for introspection and gave me a sign that I was grappling with something.

And I’m writing about therapy because… of the debate about a NY Times “PsychCentral” posting. The comments, and their passion, made me realize just what a difficult subject therapy can be. I felt the need to add my own feedback on the subject.

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