Friday, October 20, 2017

Eternal Sunshine of the Moral Mind

Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind is mostly a delightful read. It opens you up to the moral matrix we all are guided by. And not necessarily by reason, but by intuition. Yes, we go by the gut and then explain it to ourselves or whoever will listen to us afterwards. Nothing shocking there if you have some self-awareness.

What may surprise some is that genetics probably plays a bigger role than we want to give credit to. Our habits always comes down to this nature/nurture debate, but nature seems to win out (mostly). Certainly you can think of your genetic proclivities more like a first draft of a book. Then we get to live out the re-writes. Some never get past the editor's desk.

So what's guiding our moral intuitions? According to Haidt, it seems our reputations matter: “People are trying harder to look right than to be right.” He goes on to surmise that “Our moral thinking is much more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth.” Hmm, kinda cynical.

Yet, Haidt is a scientist searching for some truth, although like many of his peers I gather he has a materialist orientation. That's not to say he doesn't respect religion — but more from a practical perspective.

“Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.” This bind/blind tension is a repeating theme in all his moral categories: care, fairness (equality or proportionality), loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity.

Haidt gets into his conversion from a lefty to someone more tolerant of the right as he developed his moral matrix. The catalyst for his is when he realized while people of the left tend to prioritize care and fairness, the folks on the right tend to value all five categories. (The caveat here is fairness: where the left sides more with equality and the right with proportionality). As someone on the left may say: “Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.” Haidt counters this conventional thinking with more nuanced consideration.

He goes on to say: “Those bonded groups may care less about outsiders than they did before their bonding—the nature of group selection is to suppress selfishness within groups to make them more effective at competing with other groups. But is that really such a bad thing overall, given how shallow our care for strangers is in the first place? Might the world be a better place if we could greatly increase the care people get within their existing groups and nations while slightly decreasing the care they get from strangers in other groups and nations?” It relates to something I once heard: he cared for humanity so much, he didn't have time for his own family.

Haidt is partial to the Durkheim notion that these moral systems “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” That's all fine and dandy for our secular friends. But there is one exception he grapples with: sanctity. As I was reading this section, I could sense Haidt's struggle as he was trying the fit the pickle in the jar. We know the human endeavor towards the good, true, and beautiful can be quite superfluous when looking at it from a materialist lens. So why do it? 

Haidt makes an ample attempt at showing why we lose ourselves in the transcendent is so we can form stronger in-group bonds. This hive switch gives us a trance-induced state of belonging to something larger than ourselves. It becomes a sort of “transubstantiation of pluribus into unum” where we can satisfy our hunger for deep meaning and deep connection. In coming together around the sacred, we are not alienated individuals without purpose. Our “happiness comes from between.”

Haidt gets into the collective rituals and practices we partake to affirm this posture. I recall reading about this in another book, where the authors talk about the whooshing up of group ecstasy as a relief for isolation in the modern age. It can happen at a religious gathering, a sporting event, and a rock concert. But not a fascist rally — those are merely spectacles than festivals.

And while these communities can be enmeshed in a set of moral norms that bind and protect the group, there is more to consider. Our horizontal relationships are also tied to our vertical relationship of something Higher. We can engage this relationship as an individual endeavor also (albeit prayer, contemplation, and meditation). To this, Haidt does not have much to say. Other than maybe for him, he would see this as the spark to create and/or maintain religious groups. 

Haidt, rightfully, comes to warn about our increasing secular society: “Religions are moral exoskeletons.... We evolved to live, trade, and trust within shared moral matrices. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide, as Durkheim showed more than a hundred years ago.” 

Moreover, the loss of religion allows for more secular values to undermine our sacred values. One such example is our emphasis around group diversity. While groups that cohere need trust as bonding capital, in societies there is also the need for bridging capital — which allows for trust between groups who have different values and identities. Oddly enough, diversity is seen to reduce both kinds of social capital. Haidt states, “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to “hunker down”—that is, to pull in like a turtle.” Par for the times when we also consider our political climate.

It seems there will always be competing moral sentiments that can't be perfectly harmonized, so it will always be more fruitful to understand our limits than to impose our ignorance. But look on the bright side: morally, we've got more than enough to work with in one eternity.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Faithfully Reasonable

This is typical conventional wisdom these days: “Atheists tend more intelligent than religious people because they are able to rise above the natural instinct to believe in a god or gods, scientists have said.”

I once understood this to be true also. After all, there's much positive self-regard to being so intelligent in the secular world. Like most in this sophisticated tribe, I believed reason trumps unreasoning.

But during the western Enlightenment, reason became more limited than originally intended. Kant said we can't know the thing-in-itself, so he made reason all about epistemology in a narrow sense. Reason was no longer rooted in ontology, and anything beyond its boundaries were seen as speculative belief (or an unreasoned faith).

This view is quite contrary to John Henry Newman's quote that “Faith is a reasoning of a religious mind.”

The atheist would most likely retort: “that's the problem: the religious mind is less than adequate.”

And yet, Newman was pointing to a mind that was not dogmatic, but more integrated and whole. Behind all the tools and machinations we do with the mind, there is a pure, unencumbered intelligence (also known as nous) that is in accord with reason, and more than reason. Micheal Polanyi would also call it a tacit knowing.

We can be presented with all the facts about something, but at some point we need to make a choice about things that can't be supported purely by facts. And if we are really thinking and non-thinking for ourselves (as opposed to being indoctrinated), we will eventually intuit something more than pure reason can offer. This deeper unveiling that leads to a choice, is not opposed to reason, but a trusting response to its revelation. We found faith.

It doesn't necessarily mean faith will point us to the Truth, as it can be quite incomplete and distorted. Let's not forget that human psychology is rather complicated. As such, it ultimately depends how awake, coherent, and conforming we are to all the dimensions of the nous. For some, it is latent and for others not so much. While faith can influence our reasoning, reasoning alone will not give us authentic faith.

In a sort of irony, some recent reasoned research is confirming the limits to reason. I'm currently reading this great book by Jonathan Haidt, where he notes that French cognitive scientists reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning. They concluded, “skilled arguers ... are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.” Without the privilege of such research, just a few hundred years earlier Jonathan Swift said, “reasoning will never make a man correct of an ill opinion, which by reason he never acquired.”

The western Enlightenment's version of reason makes no room for the things we know more than we can say reasonably. Such influences also include our sentiments, observations, experience, traditions, imagination, and instincts. While reason can refine our views, we are often rooted in the leaps we make beyond it.

Either intelligence is in principle unlimited, or else it is arbitrary, relative, and illusory, incapable of saying anything with certitude. But the shallow contemporary thinker wants it both ways: the omnipotent ability to know where to place an absolute line between what is knowable and what is not. — Robert Godwin

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Only the Lover Sings (Farewell Joe)

There is a mystery as to why and how some people deeply resonate with us. I've only had these connections a few times in my life. It's not idolatry by any means, but the meeting of tinctures that harmoniously complement each other. I recall how similarly these individuals, who were large-in-life and large-for-life, ennobled the human spirit with the grace and dignity of their time. This was no different with Joe.

It was a relationship of odd pairings with Joe and me. He was a nonagenarian; a gay man who had a 64-year relationship with his life partner; a former modern dancer who studied under Doris Humphrey; a teacher to conductors and theater actors; a student of TM; an authentic Reiki practitioner and master; a mystic; a writer; a cultural connoisseur of the high arts; and a rare Spirit. At times he could be blunt and impatient, and would challenge my rational disposition with his somatic and intuitive sensibility. I would in turn take on his idealism to gain some pragmatic perspective. My shortcomings and gifts would meet his, and together something beautiful would emerge as this friendship.

Our relationship grew slowly and organically. It was completely unexpected, and probably a teaching on to itself Joe would approve of. As he would say, “Be open to what's around the corner, Ted.” It was as if Joe found the mantra I needed. And I rarely experienced him not being open to taking that next turn. He always took an interest in those who would make themselves available to him, while generously giving himself in return. Many times I would go out with him, he would find an opportunity to make an opening quip to a stranger. He would jest, “I never know what is going to come out my mouth.” I knew what Joe meant by this is what came out was not always the point, but where it came from. Here I was with a 90-something year old man, who had remained positive with many age-related ailments, embracing the joys of life in a way that it would seemingly never end. He would explore the arts several times a week, stay on top of current events, write in an exalted state around some new teaching, meet attentively with students, host gatherings and salons at his home, reach out to international friends and travel to them, make dinner for company much younger than he, and always look out for his next creative endeavor. The edges in his corners were not always smooth, but he took them on as exemplary as you will find with anyone at his stage in life. I knew by knowing him, I had a good thing.

He always had these useful, yet nuanced aphorisms. When I inquired about how to go about a romantic interest I had with a woman, he would say, “Try going through the side door, instead of the front.” When I mentioned why he would be with his former spiritual teacher again: “There's always a deeper place to go... and to be.” And when we talked about the point to life: “It's always about love, and giving back.” And while we may mechanically toss that word around from time to time, with Joe you really sensed he was coming from that place. It's a resonance I can feel in this very moment.

“Only the lover sings,” Josef Pieper once wrote. I understand this more so now. There was always something musical about Joe. He had a melody that vibrated at a higher pitch and gave room for the spaces between the lines. His teachings sang his joy for life and the Eternal. He mostly lived them and delightfully made sure others were aware that he did. This included such gems as coming from a place of unknowingness in everyday experience, embodying a quality of seamless flow, and respecting his body as the envelope of past and present

He used stories in his own life as lessons, drawing on a rich and amazingly sharp memory. With that, he encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, experience the fine arts more, embrace life with passion and ease, and to care for my body with the authentic Reiki practice he once taught me. There was a simplicity (and sometimes repetitiveness) in the way he taught, allowing for the words to gently seep into the residual crustiness around my heart. 

What I enjoyed the most about him is just his wholesome presence. You always felt like you were being seen with Joe. He allowed for the space to unfold and meet you. Simple as this seems, it is often in short supply these days. I would cherish the sweet times when we sat together, and allowed ourselves to improvise about life openly, playfully, and trustingly. There is a blessedness to these moments.

As he would often say: “Life is eternal spring.” (Note to Joe: Yes, and because you were in it.)

He loved life so much, he recently told me he never considered death all that much. Joe passed on Tuesday morning at the age of 97. 

I am a better version of myself for having known him. And I miss him dearly.


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(I am grateful that my friend Jill Uchiyama has forever memorialized Joe in several Music of Life video teachings. In what I can't convey in words, comes through in these visual vignettes. I believe you'll see that my love for Joe and the quality of his essence is not hyperbole if you take the time to view these eight shorts: The Music of Life, The Conductor as Poet, The Quality of Seamlessness, Quest, StillnessThe Conductor as ArchitectClarity of Vision, and Life is Eternal Spring. There is also the Legacy documentary that spans his full and rich life.)

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fixing Death

It will happen to all of us that at some point you get tapped on the shoulder and told, not just that the party is over, but slightly worse: the party’s going on but you have to leave. And it’s going on without you. That’s the reflection I think that most upsets people about their demise. All right then let’s – because it might make us feel better – let’s pretend the opposite. Instead, you’ll get tapped on the shoulder and told: ‘Great news: this party’s going on forever, and you can’t leave. You’ve got to stay. The boss says so and he also insists that you have a good time.’ — Christopher Hitchens

Could it be I'm the type of person who would read a book about being Happy and write a blog post about death? I'm not so morbid. But oddly enough, much of Derren Brown's book is about just that: coming to terms with our finite life in a way that gives us contentment in this anxiety-driven world.

But my point is not about death itself. It doesn't excite me all that much. We all know Woody Allen's classic quip that he wouldn't want to be there when it happens. Me neither (of course, we can also take that from the Buddhist not-self perspective). It's more that we live in a culture that doesn't acknowledge death, and wants to put it off as long as possible. 50 is the new 29. Please.

Transhumanists believe there is no point to life, just more of it. Why not live forever, or as close as we can get to it, because there is no afterlife or God or purpose to the cosmos. It's all frisky bits and atoms, that at best case for the secularist, we will get subsumed as worm food so that pieces of our matter can go on playing in the dirt.

Brown, although a secular humanist himself, offers a tad more nuance. He brings in Irvin Yalom's notion of rippling: where our lives create ripples (or influences) on the surface of water that can go on beyond the span of our life. 

While poetically true, at some point we arrive at our true death: “that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” It would seem all for naught from a deep time perspective, but not as much if we had an eternal perspective.

It's not that ultimate meaning needs to go beyond our life, it has to go beyond life itself. Otherwise, we are just kicking the can down the road. 

Brown doesn't take this leap. But he does offer some practical existential insights. He notes near death some of the top regrets are: 
  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. 
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. 
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. 
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. 
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.
To this, Brown says, “Is it not potentially just as disastrous to live one's life of dying happily and without regret, just to find that our regret is that we did not live for the moment while we could?” And that, “our ultimate aim is maybe not so much to be happy as to live fully and make sure we are moving forward.”

And while living in the moment fully and moving forward are good reminders, we still need our moments and trajectory to be contained by some context. Maybe it is better to say, that we need our to lives to be about one thing while flourishing in the moment fully. 

Lives get meaning by their finitude, and death by the Eternal.

We don't know for sure what happens after we die: float around the bardo until we find a new body to incarnate into, arrive in the subtle realms of spiritual bodies, return to ultimate Source, meet God at the gates, haunt the new tenants that just moved into our old apartment, or it's just beyond our comprehension.

But I suppose I'll want to be there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Free to Be or Slave to the Will?

What does it really mean to be free? It appears to be a new shared value in contrast to mankind's oppressive legacy, but is it?

David Bentley Hart says, “Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose.”

So are we free only because we can choose, or only when we have chosen well? Freedom without order is one hot mess. I've got too many examples to mention, especially when I see my crazy mind at work. If I acted on every thought impression, it wouldn't be pretty.

The problem today is what does it mean to choose well? The demarcation between the ancients and the moderns is that we moderns are lost in our buffered selves (as noted by Charles Taylor). We have no connection to something transcendent, nor are we enchanted by the cosmos. We have come to believe that, “Neither God, then, nor nature, nor reason provides the measure of an act’s true liberty, for an act is free only because it might be done in defiance of all three.” It is our wills that captivate us, or have become our new masters.

But our wills must be informed by some moral center that goes beyond us. The idea that we choose well because we have an inner goodness is just folly. For instance, “There is no such thing as “enlightened” morality, if by that one means an ethics written on the fabric of our nature, which anyone can discover simply by the light of disinterested reason. There are, rather, moral traditions, shaped by events, ideas, inspirations, and experiences; and no morality is devoid of the contingencies of particular cultural histories.” 

To think we can author our own story by ourselves is missing the epic narrative we are all part of. Aristotle brought in the notion of telos to acknowledge that everything has an impulse towards its formal and final cause. “Both the primordial artistic impulses in a people and the most refined expressions of those impulses have always been indissolubly united to visions of eternal order.”  

But most moderns (see Nietzsche) believe such an order can be manifested spontaneously by the individual, personal will. Yet, “As a matter purely of logic, absolute spontaneity is an illusion; all acts of the will are acts toward some real or imagined end, which prompts volition into motion.”

It seems like we've come full circle, doesn't it? Or maybe it's more like full sphere. 

So to be truly free, that is to say, is realize one’s proper essence (informed by our idiom, beauty, truth, virtue, love, creativity, and Being) and to flourish as the kind of being one ultimately is. Or in other words, freedom is to align our existence with God, and in that, our essence is freed to be made manifest. 

(All quotes by David Bentley Hart.)

Friday, August 11, 2017

Imaginal Ways (or Shamanic Postmodern Tantra of Alien Communion)

I recently went on a walk on the wildly Gnostic side with my reading, and took on The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Strieber wrote the seminal Communion many years back, which I never read but was aware of. Although I've always have some fascination with the possibility of alien encounters, I think it had more to do with all my exposure to sci-fi entertainment in my childhood. I am not sure if there are or have ever been alien visitors (but neither are the authors).

As Kripal notes early on, “It all comes down to how one believes, not whether one believes.”

That's the side where Kripal lands. He's a contextualist. As a professor of comparative religion, he brings some rigor by interjecting theories around Strieber's explicit adventures. Yet his take on religion verges on the humorous.

Kripal says, “I do not think it is too much of a simplification to suggest that the entire history of religions can be summed up this way: strange super beings from the sky come down to interact with human beings, provide them with cultural, technological, legal, and ethical knowledge, guide them, scare the crap out of them, demand their submission and obedience, have sex with them (often forcefully), and generally terrorize, awe, baffle, inspire, and use them.”

Hmm, not my God.

But I am a sympathizer for Kripal's approach at times. We often need to make sense of the sporadic mysteries of the cosmos. Yet, as Gödel notes, we are going to be either consistent or complete (not both). Kripal sides with the complete, and throws in some tools to help cultivate our notions. 

As he says, “It is very easy to claim a theory of everything if you get to decide what that everything is.”

Kripal finds Henry Corbin's idea of the imaginal useful in this context. That is, there is the empirical/material world and there is the intelligible/rational world. In between is the imaginal world, and this is the space were imagination and symbols coexist. 

Strieber, on the other hand, is the “ordinary man appearing in the middle of an otherwise completely fantastic narrative.” I can't say for sure what has happened to Strieber, but I came to believe that something has happened. And this is nub of the book. Are such experiences Real or all in the head? As Kripal notes, “Plainly, whatever is happening, it is not "all in the mind." Or, if it is... the mind is not all in us.”

Surprisingly, Strieber's take is more humble than expected. He acknowledges his experiences may not simply be real aliens from another planet: but maybe plasma-like energy, something from another dimension, glowing orbs of spiritual bodies, or possible trauma induced trances. 

But he doesn't dismiss it as all mind-stuff, as he has some empirical evidence to back his experiences: implants, injuries, other witnesses. Something is real, but we are also somehow playing a part in it in a quantum-like way.

(He also notes a story where a military General believed that the US government avoided disclosing their knowledge of UFO sightings because “obscure laws of physics might prevent them from entering our reality without first convincing us that they were real, and that official admission might be the tripwire that would enable them come through.”)

Ultimately Strieber counters Kripal's contextualism with some essentialism. There may be an ontological grounding to all this. We aren't just purely creating our Reality, but possibly co-creating it through our interpretive instruments along with a Creator. And that could be the Real that matters — all else is up for grabs in this mysterious story.

All this leads to Kripal believing we need a new story: one that is aware that it's still a story. He ends with a Philip K. Dick quote that concludes, “we are not the artists but the drawings.” To me, the idea of being drawn seems to look back to some older story that may still have its place in our day.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Random Signals #1

There are times I can't complete a sentence, never mind a full post. There's a distraction of many bits of excitable thoughts that can't completely cohere, but need to be expressed. So here it is that I present to you a piecemeal post of random signals (as opposed to all the noise in my head). 

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There does to appear to be a rejection of Aristotelian logic in many circles these days, especially in regards to the law of non-contradiction. While the orthogonal approach of both/and works in many cases to limit binary thinking, there are time when either/or is unavoidable. Trying to come up with a philosophical system that works for everyone can be manipulative, as it casts aspersions without clarity and accountability.  You are left with no actual principles with which to live by, leaving it difficult to get your arms around anything substantive and concrete.

As I heard recently, when the British Parliament call for a vote, they also say they are calling for a division. Sometimes we need to take a side; hopefully the more logical side, no matter how large our vista, how grey our choices, and how ill-prepared our courage. 

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I've been reminiscing of my past entheogen experience as I recently came across William Wildwood's post on Drugs and Spirituality. I tend to agree with his point that, “the real aim of the spiritual path is not to achieve a higher state of consciousness (if it were, why be born?) but to acquire virtue using that word to encompass all that is involved in the idea of the good, the beautiful and the true.” That's not to say I have any regrets at all. Even he acknowledges that, “experiencing these states could reorient a person to the spiritual but even if that were true (and I don't dismiss the idea) then once is enough.” So maybe I had my once and done experience, and there is no need to get on that wagon again, and instead continue with meditation, prayer, and study. 

Not to mention the downside. One astute facebook poster was commenting as to why some people don't change after indulging in entheogens. His point: while “sure entheogens are strong medicine, no doubt. But, speaking from experience, the powerful impression of great clarity and insight can also be yet another veil and bulwark against utter nakedness.”

I am more convinced that to become utterly naked before the Divine, it may be better to drink from the cup of suffering and joy (over the cup of plant medicine). 

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David Brooks recently took on the notion of coolness. He says, “It emerged specifically within African-American culture, among people who had to withstand the humiliations of racism without losing their temper, and who didn’t see any way to change their political situation. Cool culture in that context said, you can beat me but I am not beaten, you can oppress me but you can’t own me. It became a way of indicting society even if you were powerless, a way of showing your untrammeled dignity. It was then embraced by all those who felt powerless, whether they were dissident intellectuals or random teenagers.”

It certainly does have a Christian ring to it when we refer to the turning of the cheek doctrine. 

While being cool created a stance of moral ambiguity and emotional detachment, it also allowed for mystique of character that would often be admired and emulated. It appears internet culture has brought that all crashing down. Who is really cool today?

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I saw two great films recently: Dunkirk and War for the Planet of the Apes. Dunkirk is a masterpiece in the many ways the critics are raving about. One observation is the chaos of war from many angles and vistas can leave one emotionally detached from the suffering. Maybe Stalin was right: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” We can't surpass the tragedy of one, as the masses just obscure the infinite value of the loss.

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the opposite was true. I found the intimacy and subtle resonance of the film to bring me to tears at times. Oddly, the film's title doesn't do justice to the contemplativeness that underlays the arc of the narrative.