Thursday, December 13, 2012

Siddhartha, Tantricism, Environmentalism, Dao

Herman Hesse
I just got finished reading Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha.  For those of you who haven't read it, Siddhartha follows the life of a Brahmin (or religious caste member) who lives at the time of the historic Buddha.  Siddhartha studies with his father to learn the religious lore of the Hindus, then sets out to join a band of ascetics (or Sadhu) to seek wisdom.  Eventually he gives this up and meets with the Buddha.  Instead of taking vows and becoming a monk, however, he decides to cast his study away and learn about "the world".  He becomes enamored with a courtesan, a wealthy businessman and finds himself becoming more and more enmeshed in lust, greed, etc.  Eventually, he becomes disgusted with this life and walks away to live "the simple life" as a ferryman.  He gains real peace here, but eventually his old love, the courtesan, passes by with their son (whom he never knew about.)  She dies from a snake bite, leaving the son with her father.  He tries to be a good father, but they have very different ideas and the son runs away.  Eventually Siddhartha realizes that the son had to leave him just as he left his father years ago.  Realization ensues.
A Sadhu

Stated in bald terms, the plot doesn't seem any more insightful than any other.  And indeed, one of the points that Hesse makes is that all paths can be banal or the road to realization---it depends on the individual.  For Siddhartha, who was always a brilliant "outsider", it was easy to study philosophy, do austerities, and meditate.  What was difficult was to understand ordinary people:  their desires, loves and frustrations.  Indeed, Hesse always describes the young Siddhartha as having a "mocking edge" in his voice.  And the older one describes ordinary folks as "the childish ones".  It is only after he fully enmeshes himself into sex, greed and love that he begins to understand these others and stops seeing them as "childish" but instead as part of the whole of humanity.

When I read this book it occurred to me that what Hesse was really writing was not, as it is often understood, either Buddhism or Hinduism, but rather Tantra.  This is a medieval outgrowth of both Buddhism and Hinduism that suggests that it is important to embrace and understand the world around us instead of rejecting it.  I suppose the best example of this Tantric attitude that I can think of comes from the Daoist popular novel Seven Taoist Masters.  One figure decides that he is too consumed by lustful thoughts, so he creates a bunch of "fairy gold" out of pebbles and goes to live in a brothel.  After doing so for a few years any obsessive interest he may have had in sex has been burnt out of him.

Another aspect of Tantra is the idea of the human Guru.  The idea, expressed very well by Hesse, is that the teaching is pretty much irrelevant compared to how it is applied to day to day life.  And you can only get a feel for how to live the life if you have experience with someone who does a good job.  So Siddhartha meets the Buddha and is far more impressed by how the Buddha walks and interacts with people than with the specific doctrine he is teaching.  Later on, he lives with an old "working class" ferry man who becomes his exemplar of how to live a realized life.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, "religion poisons everything---even enlightenment".    And Tantric religion has often resulted in Guru slavery and sexual exploitation.  That is, gurus stopped being people you choose to emulate because you can see they are superior human beings and instead became tyrants who order you to do whatever crazy thing comes into their minds.  For example, "learning from the senses" becomes "sleep with me because it'll make you enlightened".  The people who publish  Down the Crooked path do a very good job of explaining the excesses of tantra.

What got me thinking about writing a blog about Siddhartha is something else, though.  My wife and I are united in our environmentalism.  We are also people who follow a non-religious Daoist path, although she is much more emotionally repulsed by religion than I am.  I find it interesting to study and believe that there are useful things to learn from that study.  She just finds it a disgusting mess of corruption and filth.

So be it, it's eerie how much we have in common otherwise.

But I have been thinking about Siddhartha and the "childish ones".  I often find myself looking at the people around me, the ones who blithely continue living as if things like climate change do not exist and feel no personal responsibility for it.  I've always found this totally and utterly mystifying.  My wife and I both go through periods of profound concern, anger and even despair over the attitudes of the people we meet.  It's as if they simply don't care.

I recognized myself in Hesse's book in Siddhartha when he looked on the merchants, working people and courtesans as "the childish ones".  The book has got me thinking.  Did Hesse understand something about the human heart that I have missed?  Am I missing out on a critical insight because I have never really felt what it means to be a direct participant in life instead of an observer?  Maybe.  Certainly, being married has really changed some of my attitudes towards life.

And what is that insight that Siddhartha came to?  It was the basic Hindu/Buddhist/Daoist idea that we make a mistake when we see a person as an individual.  This applies both to the idea that there is an atomistic soul that exists from birth to death-----Siddhartha at 5 is not the same man he is at 50.  (Buddhists call this idea anatta.)  Moreover, humanity, biota, the entire universe, are all parts of a big process. The metaphor that is used in the novel is a big river.  Stand on a bank and the river never moves, but the water flows by and disappears.  He's talking about what scientists would call a "homeostatic process".  Our bodies exist through this----old cells die and disappear, new ones come, but I the body still exists.  The flame on a candle is also a homeostatic process----the wax melts, burns off, but the flame continues.
Water Cycle

Human society is a homeostatic process.  The environment is filled with homeostatic processes:  the carbon cycle, the water cycle, etc.  The President retires, another one is elected to office, and so on. A part of wisdom comes from understanding the big picture and accepting that all of us are eventually replaced.  In Hesse's book, this is the wisdom of the Buddha.

Carbon Cycle
I often hear others talk about about this sort of thing by sprinkling in the phrase "I don't give a damn".  I don't give a damn if I die.  I don't give a damn about the future.  I don't give a damn about---.  I always feel really sad and hurt when I hear this.  Now I think I know why.  That phrase "I don't give a damn" means two things to me.  First, I think it is usually not true.  People do give a great deal about the situation but it hurts them so much to admit it that they are in denial about it.  Secondly, it can also mean that they are so angry with people's behaviour (i.e. the "childish ones" of Hesse's novel) that they cannot feel any emotional connection with them.

I think Hesse understood something important.  His character Siddhartha grew to identify with the "childish ones" through experiencing their lives.  He also learned to love them through his son.  At that point, he most certainly did give a damn, for the first time in his life.  But it hurt terribly to do so.  But by accepting the hurt and learning to get through it, he was able to see the wisdom of the River/Dao.  He could begin to love people and still see them as parts of a greater, homeostatic process.  You can see the river and still love the individual drops of water.  And if you allow yourself to do both, I would argue that life becomes bearable again.

I hope that people who do see how badly we are screwing up the environment can learn to love all the people who seem totally oblivious to the harm that they are doing.  And I hope that those people can come to see that their concern, and the actions they do, are part of the Dao----just like the actions of the people who are creating the problem in the first place.  We are all drops of water in the river of life.  The future may or may not come out the way we want, but that is the Dao's concern, not ours.  And this is not something to be sad, angry or happy about.  It is just the background of our lives.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kung Fu of Skepticism

In my last post I laid out my concerns about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Basically, I suggested that they are being developed as a means of propping up an inherently unsustainable agricultural model, one that I think will eventually collapse and be replaced by something that I called "Daoist Agriculture".

But in doing so, I avoided the question that raised the issue in the first place.  That is, the book and movie titled "Genetic Roulette".   I'm going to do something that I try not to do and which I usually criticize others for doing, I am going to pass judgement on something that I have only skimmed over and not actually seen in it's entirety.  If someone thinks that I have been totally unfair, please mention it to me----but please cite an actual place in the book or movie so I can look them up.  I tried to watch the movie, but after 20 minutes I ceased being able to take it seriously.  Similarly, I glanced at the book and had the same response to it.

When I mentioned this response to my wife, who had suggested I watch the film in the first place, she complained that unless one is a scientist it is almost impossible to know whom to trust.   This is a significant problem, so I thought I'd explain why it was that I don't trust this movie and the book that goes with it.  In doing so, I'll illustrate some "rules of thumb" that I rely upon to try and navigate complex issues.

The first thing that I found disconcerting about the film was the way it shamelessly used the rhetoric of film-making to reinforce its message.  It used ominous sounding background music a lot.  The thing about emotional appeals like this is that it is very easy to "short-circuit" the part of our minds that is logical and reasonable.  Once you by-pass people's rationality, you can often stampede them into accepting all sorts of dubious claims.  That is why philosophers and scientists can often seem maddeningly unemotional when you talk to them.  They have consciously chosen to develop one particular style of being that they have found is more reliable than others.

This was the first red flag.

Secondly, the movie introduced the issues in question through the use of rhetorical questions that I found extremely suspicious.  As memory serves me (it is no longer possible to see the movie for free, and I refuse to pay for another viewing), the film starts out with a series of open-ended questions that suggest that things like obesity have been caused by eating GMOs.

When I saw this, I immediately thought about Occam's Razor.  That is the rule of thumb that states that if you see more than one explanation for a phenomenon, you should opt for the simplest one.  In the case of the growth of obesity in North America, it makes a lot more sense to suggest that it is a combination of the change in people's diets and the decline in physical activity that I have personally witnessed over the past 50 years, instead of GMOs.

That was the second red flag.

The third thing I noticed was the fact that a lot of medical doctors were being interviewed for this documentary, instead of research scientists.  MDs are not scientists.  In fact, the job of being an MD really should select for different types of people than that of scientists.  That's because the role of the MD is to deal with the individual and the specific---this patient who has that particular disease.  Instead, the job of a scientist is to look for the general trend and to try to remove as much as possible, the viewpoint given by one person.   MDs are almost inevitably going to be basing their understanding on anecdotal evidence.  And that can get you into a lot of trouble when you try to make broad generalizations.  That's because human beings are so darned complex that there can be a huge number of variables at work when any given symptom manifests itself.  For example, my joints are aching right now.  Is it because I'm getting a cold?  Because of the change in weather?  Because of food I ate for lunch?  To be totally honest, I don't have a clue, and truth be told, I don't think anyone else with the same sort of symptoms can tell either.  That is why scientists go to enormous lengths to create double-blind experiments with as large a sample of the population as possible.  The hope is that if you don't know who got what (ie "double blind") your personal bias ceases to be an issue.  And if you have a lot of subjects, you can hope that all the other variables (food, weather, etc) will cancel themselves out in the final number count.

This was the third red flag.

Another thing that I was concerned about was the publisher that printed the book that the movie was based upon.  I had never heard of "Yes! Books", and when I did a Google search I couldn't find it.  That makes me a little concerned that the book might be self-published.  If you look carefully on the back cover it says distributed by Chelsea Green Publishing.  I simply cannot find any evidence that "Yes! Books" exists as a corporate entity that publishes anything except books by Jeffrey M. Smith.

This is an issue because publishing houses need to exercise caution when they publish books.  First of all, because they are liable to lawsuits if the books make fraudulent or libelous claims. Secondly, because they can destroy their reputations if they put out a "stinker".  This is why it is generally useful to take more seriously a book from a prestigious publisher than something that is self-published or comes from something like a "New Age" publisher.

Bjorn Lomborg
I admit that exceptions can happen, but when they do people often raise a fuss in response.  A case in point comes from the notorious Skeptical Environmentalist which was published by one of the most prestigious English publishing houses:  Cambridge University Press.  This press was absolutely vilified by the scientific community by lending its name to one of the most notorious examples of "junk science" that has ever blighted public discourse.  The author of this book, Bjorn Lomborg, has been cited for academic misconduct in this book by the body that governs Danish academics and the prestigious journal Scientific American actually devoted an entire issue to debunking the book.

This was the fourth red flag.

Jeffrey M. Smith
After seeing these other items, I decided it would be a good idea to do a Google search for the author, Jeffrey M. Smith.  Low and behold, I came across this website.  It appears that Mr. Smith has a history as a supporter of transcendental meditation and there are actually pictures of him "demonstrating" "yogic flying".  Of course, it is possible that this was a "youthful folly" that he has left in the past.  It is also true that people can have all sorts of eccentricities that have no effect on the soundness of the arguments they put forward.  But as a general rule, people judge people by whether or not they appear to have a shown a sound grasp of reality in their previous life.

This sets out a fifth red flag.

The next stage of my investigation is to do another Google search, this one for "Criticism Genetic Roulette".  And if you do that, you come back to a different part of the same site that produced the above picture.  The site seems to refute every substantive claim made in the book and movie about GMOs being unsafe to eat.  I quickly glanced at the arguments in support of a couple of these assertions (there is a TON of evidence cited on this website), and they seemed to be referring to legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

At this point, I have my sixth red flag.

I admit that something might come along and change my opinion, but until that happens I'm of the opinion my time is better spent doing something else.  And any fears that I might have had that GMOs are poisoning our citizenry have been dissipated.

That is not to say that there is nothing of value in the book and movie.  After all, a stopped clock is still correct twice a day.  But IMHO, neither one has any credibility with me so I would never believe anything they say because they say it.  If I believe any of the issues raised in either has any value, it is because of authorities I have seen outside of it, not because it is raised in the documentary.

And, as I pointed out in the previous post, I do have issues with GMOs.  But the evidence I've seen has to do more with the social implications for farmers rather than anything else.

But I hope that the exercise of explaining why I don't trust Genetic Roulette will help readers walk the minefield of public policy.  To recapitulate, the six tests I put this book and movie through involved answering six questions:

  1. Is the book or movie trying to manipulate our emotions instead of talking to our reason?
  2. Is it trying to suggest a cause for a problem that is more easily explained by a mundane reason?
  3. Are they citing authorities who are outside of their field of expertise?
  4. Is the publisher reputable or is the publisher a company with either no track record or a bad one?
  5. Find out what you can about the author.  Is he someone you can trust?
  6. Look to see if anyone has raised any questions about the book.  Is that person more or less trustworthy than the author?

What I have gone through in the above is a type of "kung fu".  As I've mentioned before, kung fu is not martial arts, but martial arts can be kung fu, which is nothing more than proficiency gained through diligent practice.  Practicing the kung fu of skepticism means that you have made a decision to look at as much of the world through a specific lense that will give you a greater chance of separating truth from fiction.  As my wife's question about understanding things without being a scientist implies, science is a skeptical kung fu, one involves very careful evaluation of all statements in a given field.  But ordinary people can develop the sorts of rules of thumb that I've used above to separate truth from what Jon Stewart calls "Bullshit Mountain".  In fact, the internet makes it a lot easier to identify baloney because of Google searches and the ease with which someone can post evidence that undermines misleading information.  In addition, there are several really good sites devoted to helping people identify baloney.  Here're a few:  

Snopes:  An excellent site that debunks urban legends.  In fact, it's fun to just browse it.
Quackwatch:  This site is devoted to debunking fraudulent medical claims.  
Science Based Medicine:  Another site debunking fraudulent medical claims.
Skeptical Inquirer:  This is great magazine published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).
Skeptoid:  Oops.  Forgot to add this great and very entertaining resource.  Sign up for his weekly podcasts---you'll be glad you did!

Ancient Daoists were able to survive in the wilderness because they understood the way of nature.  But people are part of nature, and human civilization is yet another manifestation of the Dao.  If we live in a technological civilization we need to understand the Dao of science and technology if we are going "ride the dragon" and "fly with the phoenix".  The kung fu of skepticism is a key skill that all Daoists must learn.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dao of Agriculture

My wife recently saw a movie that had her all in a flurry about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), it's title is "Genetic Roulette" and it purports to show how dangerous genetically modified food is to eat.  It started a very heated argument between the two of us.  Since then I've been spending a lot of time thinking on the subject and thought I'd share my ideas with my readers.

Before I get too involved in all of this, let me state clearly what I think about GMOs.   Like in most things, I always stand to be corrected if I see some evidence that supports changing my opinion.  Having said that, I do not like GMOs, because I think that they are destructive to family farms and the environment.  As I see it, there are currently two competing models of agriculture fighting for control of the food supply.

Masanobu Fukuoka
 On one hand there are what I would call "Daoist" models that try to work with nature and mimic the systems were in play before human beings came on the scene.  The great guru of this approach was Masanobu Fukuoka.   He was trained as an agronomist but suffered a physical and mental collapse after the end of WWII.  This resolved itself in an insight that people blind themselves to what is going on around them by thinking that they know more than they actually do.  After wandering around Japan like a crazy person telling people that they didn't know anything, it occurred to him that he should put this insight into practice and use it to work a farm that he had inherited from his father.  He set out to let the plants and trees on his farm to "just be" and see what happened.  The results were disastrous, as the carefully pruned, mulched and fertilized orange trees were destroyed by insect pests.

He didn't give up, however.  Instead, he realized that farming with nature is not the same thing as being a passive observer.  So he carefully observed natural processes at work in nature and developed agricultural techniques that mimicked them.  For example, he realized that the process of tilling the soil to plant seeds also made conditions ideal for weeds too.  After experimentation, he found out that all a seed needs to germinate is a small coating of clay that mimics the effect of being buried in the soil.  So he learned how to create little seed envelopes that covered each seed.  Once he had these, he found he could simply broadcast the clay pellets onto last year's stubble and get consistent germination---but only of the crop he was planting, not the weeds.

Joel Salatin
This type of farming is not a specific technique, but rather a kungfu, which means the example of Fukuoka can inspire similar attitudes in others but cannot be copied and moved all over the world.

One North American who has used a similar attitude to create a very different system is Joel Salatin, who operates Polyface Farm.  His system is not based on fruit and rice, like Fukuoka's, but instead works around livestock production, based on trying to recreate the plant and animal relationships in a prairie.  To simplify, he carefully monitors his pastures to ensure that his cows graze the grass only enough to stimulate new, tender, nutritious growth but not long enough to harm the plants and select for tougher, less valuable types of grass.  When this point is reached, he moves the cows onto another part of the farm----which mimics the way wild grazers constantly migrate to better pasture.  After the cows have left, Salatin then moves in mobile chicken coups that bring in his flock of chickens.  These birds eat the maggots in the cow patties left in the field but in the process also spread the manure evenly so no part of the pasture suffers from being smothered.  This mimics the actions of the birds----like prairie chickens---who used to follow the herds of bison across the great plains.  At this point, it is necessary to monitor the grass so it doesn't start to toughen up or "waste" energy on seed production before the cows are brought back into the field.

Using this principle of "working with nature" or, what I would call, "understanding the dao of the farm", both Salatin and Fukuoka were able to create farms that were more productive than their neighbours while using a fraction of the effort and outside agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, etc.)  At the same time, they also found that they were increasing the value of the soil.  In Salatin's case, he has transformed a farm with the worst soil in the county to one of the best.

Norman Borlaug
In contrast to this "Daoist farming", there is another, dominant type of farming---usually identified as the "Green Revolution", but which I would suggest is better described as "industrial farming".  It is usually associated with the American agronomist Norman Borlaug.  But I would argue that it owes just as much to industrialist thinkers like Henry Ford.

The important things to understand about industrial farming is that it has two key elements:  dependence on fossil fuels, and, integration into a global industrial machine.   And because of those two underlying issues, it invariably follows the dictates of international capitalism.

Fritz Haber
Modern industrial agriculture is based on the assumption that it is possible to cheaply purchase various fertilizers that are energy intensive to create and transport.  Probably the most energy intensive of these is so-called "fixed nitrogen" which is created from nitrogen in the atmosphere.  Traditionally, farms used to be limited to the amount of nitrogen that could be recycled through things like manures or fixed by plants such as legumes.  But during the First World War a system for artificially fixing nitrogen was created by an chemist by the name of Fritz Haber.  It uses a great deal of energy, because it is difficult to get nitrogen gas to bond with the other elements that make it useful for plants.

Green Revolution agriculture not only needs to bring intrinsically expensive inputs, like artificially-created fixed nitrogen, but it also has has to create international markets to ship crops and products all over the world.  For example, another constituent of artificial fertilizer, potash, is only available to be mined in a very few places in the world.  This means that an international potash trade needs to be created that will allow it to be shipped where it is needed.

Once we have these artificial inputs in hand, it became apparent that traditional varieties of crops couldn't maximize the potential from these inputs.  That is because those breeds had been developed in an environment where these types of nutrients were not plentiful.  This meant that once you start using the artificial fertilizer, you also eventually stop saving seeds and start buying them from international corporations.

And once you start purchasing these things from international corporations---like Canada's Potash Corp. and the USA's Monsanto---the farmer no longer can get away with selling his harvest to his neighbours.  He needs hard currency and the best way to get that is to sell on the international market. And because there are inevitable fluctuations between the price he gets paid and fertilizer costs, it is inevitable that the farmer needs to go to a bank to borrow money to tide him over through hard times.
Once they get into the clutches of a bank, many farmers almost inevitably find themselves caught up in a debt spiral that ends up with them losing the land and being bought out by a neighbour.

The same process has occurred in India, Missouri and Ontario.  It happened to my family farm---which had been owned by my ancestors since 1811.  This is why small-scale, mixed family farms are becoming a rare thing.  It is why when I ride the train to St. Louis to visit my wife Illinois appears to be one giant corn field.

So what's the problem?

The issue for me is that we are running out of cheap energy as we enter into Peak Oil .  Measured in terms of output per input, industrial agriculture is grotesquely inefficient.  It isn't that far-fetched to say that modern people eat oil.  In fact, the only way in which industrial agriculture is "efficient" is in terms of output per man-hour of work.  In terms of soil conservation, environmental sustainability and output per input, it is the worst, least efficient system.  As the price of oil continues to ratchet up, this is going to get worse and worse.  This will put more and more stress on farmers and consumers until eventually our farms start to fail catastrophically.  My understanding is that this is already happening, as I have been told that the largest fraction of income for farms in Ontario comes from the off-farm job that farmers and their spouses use to subsidize their operation.  I have also been told that the only farmers who are making money are small-scale producers, predominately organic farms.  (I.e., the guys who are following some approximation of the Daoist system mentioned above.)

A cutworm and the damage it did.
As I see it, GMOs are sort of a "last gasp" technology which are attempting to prop-up the unsustainable industrial agricultural system.  They do not benefit family farms, which have other mechanisms for dealing with the issues that GMOs address.  To cite one example, a specific type of gene has been inserted into GMO corn that renders it resistant to various pests, including cutworm.  On our farm cutworm was controlled through crop rotation and by cultivation.  In mono-cultured areas---like that giant corn field called Illinois---the fields are not cultivated but instead follow "no-till" systems because it is the only way farmers can cultivate such huge fields with giant machines without suffering from severe erosion.  As well, because the only thing being grown is corn, there are no crops that can be rotated with the corn to starve out the pests.  (In our case, we used to grown mixed wheat and mixed oats, which we added to the pig feed.)

It turns out, however, that there seems to be evidence that GMO resistant cutworms are now emerging through natural selection.  If this is true, and I cannot see why it won't eventually happen even if these reports turn out to be false, then industrial farmers will find themselves forced to find some other "magic bullet" to protect themselves from the effects of creating a system of farming that goes against every rule that Mother Nature has created for making a strong eco-system.

The important thing to realize about industrial agriculture is that once it has been created it is damned difficult to switch back to something that is closer to Daoist agriculture.  The old infrastructure of barns, houses, fence rows, the small-sized equipment, etc, are all gone.  Even worse, the old knowledge that informed farmers is totally gone too.   This is really important, as farmers do a lot of things simply because their father did it that way without knowing why.  To cite one example, when I was writing this blog post I mentioned the necessity of tillage to control cutworms.  I didn't know it was important until I looked things up---I thought that crop rotation was the only thing needed.  But if I was still on the land, I would still have been tilling the soil and watching the flocks of seagulls following the tractor, not knowing that they were eating the cutworms that I had unearthed with the discs or cultivators.

New farmers not only don't know a lot of the theory of how to farm, they don't even know how to do small-scale farming from a "monkey see, monkey do" perspective.  This disconnect between the past and the future is going to cause huge problems when it becomes simply too expensive to do Industrial agriculture anymore.  That's why it is so important to try and support Daoist agriculture whichever way we can.  That's why I don't support GMOs, they just allow a dying dinosaur to live a little bit longer and cause even more chaos when it eventually collapses.

Please note, though, the above critique says nothing about GMOs being unhealthy to eat.  But I've written enough already for more than one post.  I'll save that discussion for later.


It became clear to me after responding to some comments that I had not made myself nowhere clear enough about the distinction between what I am calling "Daoist Farming", "Industrial Farming" and old-fashioned "Mixed Farms".   I am not suggesting that our agricultural system needs to return to the way things were done a hundred years ago.  That would result in mass starvation, amongst other things.  But I would suggest that it will be easier to transition from old fashioned Mixed Farms to Daoist Farming than it will be to transition from Industrial Farms to Daoist Farming.  Indeed, Daoist Farming is a much more sophisticated form of Mixed Farming.  But the differences are still profound.

Another point I need to emphasize but didn't in the above post, while Daoist Farming is a type of organic agriculture, all organic agriculture is neither sustainable nor Daoist in nature.  There is a type of "big organic" agriculture right now that is dependent on inputs that simply cannot be sustainably provided.  For example, kelp is used as a feed additive in some organic dairy systems---there simply isn't enough kelp around to do this universally.   In addition, some types of big organic use expensive transportation nets, exploit cheap farm labour, etc.

There is nothing like a head-to-head competition between Industrial and Daoist agriculture:  one is huge, the other microscopic.  But I would suggest that in the long run both environmental issues and peak oil make the universal adoption of Daoist agriculture inevitable.  And the key scientific discipline guiding agriculture during the transition will not be genetic engineering but rather restoration ecology. The business model that will make big bucks for the future will not be holding patents on specific life forms, but rather in offering consulting services for farms that need to be totally changed from the ground (literally) up.  I'm not sure that any farmer will be able to afford to pay for these services, so I see a bright future for open-source farming, too.  I do not predict a sudden collapse of our agricultural system so much as a general increase in stress as farmers flail around desperately as them attempt to get out of the bind they find themselves in.  Biotec firms will offer "silver bullets", but I suggest that they will at best only work for a short period of time and at worst bring their own new set of problems.  The result will be enormous interest in new ways of raising, processing and distributing food.  The new, emerging techniques will be spread over the internet, which will speed up the transition far faster that it would have otherwise.

In the interim, I think it is good idea for anyone who can to learn how to grow a few veggies for themselves and to start shopping at the local farmer's market.  Resilience is a key survival mechanism during times of rapid change.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Dao and Wicked Problems

My wife and I have been having discussions lately around a set of different questions that all have one thing in common, they are what I believe are known as "wicked problems".   I'm no expert on these things, but the more I think about them, the more I think that Daoism and Daoists may have a special insight into these problems and have something like a way of coping with them that other folks might find useful.  Consider what follows to me more wild speculation than a fact-based discussion.

People have thought about these sorts of things since the 1970s and have come up with a list of things that describe a "wicked problem".

  • The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'
  • Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

These points are somewhat spare, so let me illustrate them (at least insofar as I understand them) with examples.

The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

This is to say that wicked problems do not allow us the luxury of waiting until we understand everything before we have to take action.   This may be because of simple practical considerations, such as being locked in the room with a ticking time bomb---we have to defuse it before it goes off, whether we know enough to confidently know which wire to cut or not.   Or it might be that we simply cannot know the answer until we attempt a solution---we won't know whether or not we can safely remove the bomb's outer casing until we do so and see if it is attached to a tumbler switch.

Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

A "stopping rule" is some limit that controls how far a problem can go.  If a person with a gambling problem goes to Las Vegas and is only allowed to wager the money in his pocket, the "stopping rule" is that once he has lost that money, he cannot lose any more.  But if he can use a credit card, or borrow against his house, or, even worse, go to a loan shark for money, the lack of a "stopping rule" means that he can end destroying his life and bankrupting his family.

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

It isn't immediately obvious that a solution is "right" or "wrong" for a wicked problem.  Indeed, some solutions might be quite acceptable for some people, but not for others.  Over-population could be solved by government-enforced family planning (e.g. as in China), or, enhancing the role of women in all world societies.  Each of these might theoretically work, but every one would have very sizable opposition from elements of society.  If you are part of that opposition, the problem seems "wrong".  If the opposition is strong enough, then the solution isn't really a solution after all, because it will prove unfeasible in actual practice.

Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'

Wicked problems are the ones that are so big that they tend to be pretty much unique.  Think about things like the environmental crisis, political reform, etc.  Because each of these problems comes with its own set of complex issues, there is no set of problems that can be solved with a generic solution.  This means that each of them has to be solved on its own terms.  So unlike demolition experts who once they've defused one bomb can be sure that the same technique will work with all future examples of the same model, a wicked problem bomb will always be totally unique every time they face it.  Moreover, there is not even any reason to suppose that the same sappers would be involved in defusing the next bomb anyway.  This means that wicked problems never allow people to gain any experience, self-confidence or authority with which to deal with them.

Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Many simple problems come with a limited set of alternatives.  In the classic short-story, you only choose from two doors----each of which has behind it either a lady or a tiger.   But in a wicked problem you usually have a very large---if not infinite---number of solutions, or, ultimately none proposed at all.  (This latter case leaves you to your own devices, which, in a way, is also an implied large number, as you  have to investigate and try to find on your own.  The number being limited by your own knowledge and imagination.)   It isn't a question of cutting the red wire or the blue, but rather of seeing a tangled mass of wires on the bomb and not having a clue of which does what.

As I see it, a great many wicked problems confront us both as members of the human race and as individuals.

The environmental crisis, for example, is a wicked problem because it easily fills all the criteria listed above.  Moreover, it not only presents a wicked problem for the human race as-a-whole, it also presents a wicked problem for any individual who is concerned and wants to "do their bit" to try and become an agent for solving the problem.

Consider, for example, the point of where someone should draw the line on being an exemplar of sustainability.  We can try to have as small a footprint as possible on the earth.  But the act of doing so will inevitably result in diminishing our ability to have any influence on the rest of the human race.  If you try too hard, you run the very real risk of being seen as a "nutcase" by the other people you meet.  And this not only will result in their ignoring whatever it is you have to say to them, it could also "damage the brand" to the point where they dismiss all environmental concerns as being "kooky".  Even if you avoid this problem and become an exemplar of environmental issues, you run into the fact that all the avenues that a person has in our society to have some sort of influence on society-as-a-whole come at some sort of ecological price.  (For example, the server farms that support the internet use a great deal of electricity, and, my laptop uses rare-earth metals that are mined under horrible conditions.  So even this blog post comes at the expense of Mother nature.)  

Even more mundane problems have wicked tendencies.

For example, consider the issue of trying to eat a healthy, balanced diet in harmony with nature while trying to keep within a tight budget and please family members who may not have similar dietary concerns.  Or, think about how one develops an exercise regime that deals with health concerns that come from a person's individual history.  In both cases we don't know enough to even begin to have some sort of simple and easy solution to the complexity.

All sorts of people will offer simple solutions to wicked problems, but IMHO these are pretty much useless.   With regard to the environment, people will suggest that you support a specific political party, purchase some sort of enviro-product, etc.  On the individual level, there are fads such as drinking wheat-grass juice or doing "hot" yoga.

These sorts of things miss the point that wicked problems are invariably the result of systemic crises and cannot be solved by any single remedy.   Indeed, because the crisis is systemic, any given remedy that is offered may actually make things worse rather than better.  Wheat-grass might give you the runs and ruin your food budget.  Hot yoga might make your bad back worse.  Manufacturing the battery on your electric car may poison the water table.     And voting for the Green Party might split the vote and result in the Conservatives getting elected.

The grim fact is that you simply do not know what the results of your actions will be, yet by the mere fact of being alive, you have to act.  That is the essence of a wicked problem.

Traditionally people didn't find themselves confronted by so many problems because they simply didn't have all that much choice in the first place.  Government was controlled by "higher ups", so none of the fretting we do about politics existed.  Food was just what our people always ate and we cooked the way our parents, grandparents, etc, always cooked it.  Again, exercise usually consisted of work.  If it didn't, it usually involved some sort of ritual game or martial exercise that again had been handed down from eons past.

The modern age is very good at sticking people with uninformed choices.  We can choose between different political parties in democratic elections, but things are so darn complicated that only fools think that they understand what's going on.  The same thing with food, exercise, etc.  The free market gives us a myriad of options, but this leaves us wandering in a sea of ignorance that our grandparents would not have even known existed.

When I first started thinking about all of this stuff, it occurred to me that the reason why I have been so attracted to Chinese culture---and Daoism in particular---is because it offers the promise of a complete system that integrates an understanding of how society works, physical exercise, food, and aesthetics all bound together.  This means that once I decided that I was a "Daoist", I had the beginnings of an integrated vision of how to spend my life.  This was very relaxing after spending a life feeling like I'd cast adrift on the cultural vortex that capitalism made of Western civilization.

More to the point, I think that Daoism actually offers a way of looking at and dealing with wicked problems.  Mind you, I don't think it offers anything like a solution.  Instead, it suggests that we look at the world around us as a complex whole, or "Dao" instead of trying to break it up into individual bits.  And it doesn't give us anything like an algorithm for solving problems.  Instead, it suggests that a lot of problems simply need to dealt with through our gut instinct.   And in the process of making those instinctive decisions, we need to "let go" of any hope of understanding or solving the problems that confront us.  Instead, we need to accept that we are simply leaves flowing down the river of life.    

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The War in Man's Soul

I've recently read a fascinating anthropology book about the creation of monarchies as a mode of human organization, and, got married.  The two aren't related, of course, but the former got me thinking about the big picture and the latter introduced me to a lot of new human relationships, which helped me understand the theory better.

Eli Sagan's book, At the Dawn of Tyranny, argues that human societies develop oppressive monarchies in order to break down the instinctive bonds that connect people into kinship---or family-based---societies.  The argument is that it requires a truly ferocious government in order to get people to start thinking about it first instead of parents, cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc.  And until people start thinking that way, the "rules" get bent so often in favour of what the Chinese would call "filial piety" that it is impossible to run anything larger than an tribe or small village.  

The kings in these emerging tyrannies are able to overcome people's commitment to kinship because they are bloodthirsty tyrants who practice large-scale human sacrifice, fight brutal wars, and, break up families through migration.  Sagan argues that this situation is a transitional phase, though, as once the state is firmly established, more "institutional" monarchies emerge who's job is to protect the existing state of affairs by creating a more benevolent style of leadership that gains the support of the population through religious indoctrination rather than fear.  (As I've mentioned before the "God in the Sky" looks an awful lot like the King on his throne.)  Kinship societies do not seem to believe in an Abrahamic God but instead seem to follow the Daoist model of an impersonal force like the Dao plus a multitude of nature spirits.

Getting married shortly after reading this book allowed me the luxury of seeing how kinship actually works.  My wife's family is far smaller than mine, but it is more closely knit.  She lives with and takes care of her mother, who has health issues.  In addition, once the wedding was announced, her sister and brother-in-law moved Heaven-and-Earth to attend the ceremony.  As well, much to my surprise, a couple of my closest friends also made the thousand mile trip to another country to attend.  (Indeed, they absolutely insisted on attending.)  Family matters!   

When I crossed the border, however, I ran afoul of the Tyranny that Sagan was writing about.  I have a bad habit of telling the truth to people and when the "Homeland Security" guard asked me where we were going to live after getting married I foolishly started a rambling account of how we were going to have to figure that out.  He cut me off and acted like I'd just spit in his face and called his mother a whore.  I got sent to an office to cool my heels for an hour and another person (who didn't seem to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed) told me that while he believed me when I said I was going back to Canada, I'd better bring a whole portfolio of documents next time I come (it appears that a passport simply isn't enough anymore.)  

In retrospect, it strikes me that that guard with the attitude problem was just doing his bit to reinforce the point that the state is more important than family.  I'm just glad that I don't live in the sort of state that Sagan describes, or else he might have broken my arms and legs and left me at the side of the river for a crocodile to eat.  (One of the numerous unpleasant things that used to happen in the country that existed where modern Uganda now sits.)  

Having digested this bit of anthropological insight, it occurred to me today that there is more than just a war between family and state going on in our souls.  There is also a deep war within that involves a conflict between the household and the economy.

This conflict manifests itself in things like the way the family home has transitioned from being both a source of production and consumption to becoming just a place of consumption.  In my short lifetime I have seen people stop growing their own food and then stop cooking it.  With the younger generation I increasingly see people who no longer know how to sew their own clothes or do household renovation and construction.   In all of these transitions, people have become less and less independent of the economy.  As I see it, this is a very similar process to what has happened when the early monarchies fought against kinship as a means of social organization.  

My wife is getting back on her feet after a very long spell of significant ill health.  One thing that she is trying to figure out is just how much she can do to make money without threatening her recovery.  This is a difficult concept as the demands of the workforce don't really allow a lot of "slack" for people with subtle problems.  She is a very hardworking, intelligent, creative person.  But she finds it very hard to follow the rhythms and schedules of a complex organization.  She needs to be able to work when it suits her instead of when it suits someone else.  

As near as I can see it, this is a purely modern phenomenon.  I grew up on a farm, and in the old family farm system individuals had a great deal of personal autonomy which allowed them to set up their daily work pretty much as they saw fit.  Of course, agriculturalists have to work in harmony with nature, but that is really different from having to follow the dictates of the time clock and the moods of a boss (or a border guard.)  I can sympathize totally with my new bride, because I remember all the struggles I've had in my life trying to accommodate myself to the basic unreality of the workplace.  (In my case I've managed to find work where I had a maximum amount of autonomy----mainly by working night shifts and odd "generalist", "minder" type jobs.)   

It seems to me that anyone who tries to live in harmony with nature instead of human society (and nature includes things like the promptings of our hearts) is going to find herself in the same sort of dilemma that faces my new bride.  

I suspect that is disconnect with the modern world is what fuels a lot of the "back to the land" impulse that has been around as long as I have been alive.  For most people this manifests itself in wanting to move to the countryside, which remains only a pipe dream for most folks.  Personally, I don't find this dream terribly appealing because my experience in the countryside has taught me that in order to live outside of a city you have to either be independently wealthy of drive long distances in order to find employment.  As someone who cares about the environment, I do not see how this is helping save the planet. Moreover, I don't see how locking yourself into long commutes will bring anyone much peace of mind.  

IMHO, the "Hacker" movement is a much more positive development.  This involves people who refuse to be mere passive consumers of technology and instead want to learn how to modify and create.  One example is the "Ifixit" website that allows people to share information and access tools and parts of expensive, high-tech gizmos and work around the "planned obsolescence" that is built into things like IPhones.  Another are the co-operative "Hacker Space" workshops that are sprouting like mushrooms all over North America.  One last example are the "urban sharecroppers" who will grow large vegetable gardens in suburban lots and sell the results in Community Shared Agriculture programs and farmer's markets.

I'm close to retirement so hopefully I will be able to move in with my American wife once I stop having to go to work.  (How's that for alienation----my work forces me to live 1,000 miles from my wife!)   In her case, she thinks that the best option is to try and opt out of the money economy as much as possible by being very frugal and self-sufficient in an urban setting.  To that end, I've been doing some of the "heavy lifting" of setting up a garden for her and showing her how to do some of the food preservation techniques I learned in my childhood.  Hopefully she will eventually be able to find some sort of work that doesn't harm her health.  In the meantime, saving money on the food bill through an intensive garden is a good way to augment the income.  (It was certainly a key component of my family's support when I was young.)

It is hard to live in a cesspool without getting dirty, but it is possible to lesson the disconnect between our hearts and the world around us.  But the first step is understanding that the conflict exists in the first place.  One of the many thousands of things I love about my wife is the fact that she sees the problem.  Most people do not.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Hypocrisy Should be a "Sin"

In my last post I dealt with my suspicion that "conservative", especially people of religious bent, do not see hypocrisy as being nearly as bad a thing as "liberals" do.  Since I posted it, I've done a bit more looking around and it seems like a lot of people blogging from the conservative point of view agree with my analysis.  For example, take a look at this blog post, entitled "Hypocrisy, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Left" .   The author pretty much makes my case, but from the point of view of a conservative Christian.  Take a look at the following quotes.

I am suggesting, then, that hatred of religion is at the root of the Left's excessive and unbalanced animus against hypocrisy. 
 ---in our culture, dominated as it is by liberals and leftists, most of the Seven Deadly Sins are not reckoned sins at all.  Given that sin is a religious concept, there cannot be sins for those who deem religion buncombe from start to finish.  But one can believe in vice without believing in sin.  I think it is safe to say that most Americans today do not consider any of the Seven Deadly Sins to be vices, with the possible exception of sloth interpreted as laziness rather than as acedia.  Take gluttony.  Americans are by and large gluttons as one can observe by going into any public place.  And yet how many speak of gluttony as a vice as opposed to an 'eating disorder' to be treated by stomach stapling, etc?  This is a fit topic for a separate post.
This is an interesting question, "Do liberals no longer believe in 'sin'?   Or 'vice'?"

First, it's important to try and understand the difference.  It would appear, from a quick Google search, that the core concept of "sin" has to do with the relationship between a person and a commandment of God.  A "sin" occurs when someone does something God has told her not to do.

Two interesting points.

First of all, what happens when someone's sense of "right and wrong" conflicts with what God has told him to do? In the Bible the best example comes from the story of Abraham and Isaac. For those of you who don't know the story, God asked Abraham to murder his only son as a sacrifice. Abraham sets out to do the deed and God stops just before the deed is done and says "Just fool'n".

 What would have happened if Abraham had told God the following "I don't care if you are Jehovah.  I don't care if you will torture me for all eternity for saying this.  But I will not kill my own son.  Such a deed would be perverse and evil."   In saying so, Abraham would at the same time be committing a sin, and, acting in a moral manner.

Lest this seem a weird, hypothetical example, consider the bind that religion puts many parents of gays into.   They may very well genuinely love their children, but at the same time, God's commandment tells them to treat them as if they are pariahs who's instincts are the result of demonic influences.  Again, the moral thing to do (e.g. try to understand your child and love them as you would have others love you) conflicts with the dutiful thing to do (e.g. cast them from your home and disown them.)

The second issue that arises comes from the question of how someone actually decides what is and is not a commandment of God.  As I see it, there are four avenues for learning God's will.  Each of them, IMHO, has significant "deal breakers".

First of all, people say that the will of God is revealed in holy scripture, like the Bible.  The problem with that is that if you make the effort to look at scriptures in a disciplined manner, it becomes obvious that they are the result of human activity----with all the contradictions and confusion that that entails. Once you start saying that you read the books in some sort of metaphorical manner and allow for the frailties of the human authors, the authority that says that this is "the word of God" quickly dissipates.

Even if you are the most adamant Biblical literalist, the fact remains that the book is filled with stuff that no one actually believes is the word of God and needs to be followed to the letter. Check out the following image.

It's not totally obvious, but this is a screenshot of a fellow who went to the trouble of tattooing the following quote on his arm:  Leviticus 18:22  “‘Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable."   What makes the picture funny is the fact that this fellow probably didn't read further in the book and come across this text:  Leviticus 19:28  "'Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the LORD."  

If all religious believers don't follow ALL of the commandments of God, but instead pick and choose due to some other criteria, then how is it that they are following the commandments of God instead of that other criteria?  

If we aren't following the revealed scripture as the voice of God, what are we following?  Is it the tradition of whatever denomination we find ourselves in?   If so, why your tradition instead of another's?  And, if you look at the history and internal politics of any religious body you will invariably find that the tradition mutates and changes over time.  Does this mean that the law of God changes over time?   If it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays in 1912, why isn't it still a sin in 2012?  

If the rules change, then what is the status of someone who works within the church to change the rules? Is an activist who is pushing for the ordination of women a sinner up until he convinces the synod to make the change and then after that a righteous believer?  Is the only criterion for sin whether or not you are successful in convincing the church hierarchy to adopt your point of view?  

One final point of view would be to say that our conscience is the "voice of God".  But if that is so, then what about when different people say that their conscience tells them different things?   And what exactly is a "conscience"?  If I change my mind about something, does that mean that God has changed his mind about something?   Or does it simply mean that I now look at the problem in a different light?

After working through the above, it seems clear to me that I certainly do not "believe" in "sin".  First of all, because the term refers to the will of God---and I don't see any valid evidence for the existence of said God.  Secondly, even if I did believe in the existence of God, I don't see any valid way of divining exactly what his will really is.  Finally, I don't really believe that moral issues should be settled by appeals to authority anyway.   They don't work in math or physics, so I don't see why they should work in ethics either.  If we do accept this point-of-view, isn't uncomfortably like the Nazi "I was just following orders" defense?

But does that mean that I no longer believe in "vice"?   

This is an equally subtle thing to think about.  The author quoted above writes that Americans no longer consider gluttony a vice but instead see it as an "eating disorder".   He even suggests that the remedy is not longer an appeal to morality but rather "stomach stapling".  

I think that this is a significant over-simplification.  First of all, liberals do not lightly dismiss the concept of personal responsibility.  Instead, there has been a great deal of thought aimed at who is responsible for social issues like the current wave of over-eating.  But instead of simply placing all the blame on the individual, which is the attitude involved in the Church teaching about the Seven Deadly Sins, commentators have raised a whole host of complexities.  For example, how much of this epidemic is as a result of marketing strategies aimed at encouraging people to eat too much?


It's all very well to complain about poor people's greed when it comes to eating.  But this is the first society in human history where anyone but the wealthy has had the option to become overweight.  It seems simply mentally lazy (e.g. slothful) to just put the blame on the individual instead of trying to understand the entirety of the issue.  

I think the dividing line comes over free will.   Paradoxically, the theist wants to believe that all people have a radical form of free will that doesn't allow for any significant social or biological influence over people's ability to choose one course of action over another.  But they take away all of this freedom by introducing the idea of "sin" that reduces the entirety of this choice to whether or not one will freely submit to the absurd (in the sense of without rhyme or reason) direction of an unauthenticated authority.  As I've pointed out above, there really isn't any reason why one particular definition of "God" should be followed versus any other, so you end up having to believe whatever religious authority you happen to come across in your life.  

In contrast, the liberal has very little belief in free will.  He knows from scientific study that for all of our sense of freedom, we are tightly constrained by our biological instincts and social conditioning.  But in the midst of that knowledge, he is still willing to allow people to use their intellect to steal as much freedom as they can from the authorities around them by using the tools of inductive and deductive logic.   

And what exactly is happening when someone indulges in hypocrisy?  

I would suggest that what they are doing is experiencing some cognitive dissonance.  In the examples from my previous posts, the anti-abortion crusaders were coming up against some personal experience that should have undermined their previous assumptions about life.  But instead of taking this as a "learning moment" where they could seriously rethink the underpinnings of their moral code, they chose to simply do the mental equivalent of shoving their fingers in their ears while humming loudly.  

From the conservative point of view this is a simple "the mind is willing, but the flesh is weak" moment with very little ultimate consequence.  For the liberal, though, this is the fleeting opportunity for the person in question to exert real free will.  Until reality smacked them in the face, they probably couldn't be expected to understand how reality diverges from what they have been told.  But because they refused to take the opportunity to think things through and change their minds, they threw away their opportunity to be free.  

The reason liberals believe hypocrisy is the ultimate "sin" is because it is the throwing away of the few opportunities we have to grow as human beings.  It is also the process of denying that aspect of ourselves that makes ourselves so unique----the ability to learn and grow.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is Hypocrisy a Sin?

I recently read a blog post that reignited something that I've been thinking about for quite a while.

In a nutshell, Frank Bruni, writes about meeting someone from his college days who has gone through a tremendous transformation from rampaging Roman Catholic to agnostic.  The interesting "kicker" for the piece is that this fellow is a medical doctor who has performed abortions for years because of his experience dealing with women.

The part that is of particular relevance to me is a passage where this fellow told Bruni about his experience performing an abortion for an extremely vocal anti-abortion crusader.

He shared a story about one of the loudest abortion foes he ever encountered, a woman who stood year in and year out on a ladder, so that her head would be above other protesters’ as she shouted “murderer” at him and other doctors and “whore” at every woman who walked into the clinic.

One day she was missing. “I thought, ‘I hope she’s O.K.,’ ” he recalled. He walked into an examining room to find her there. She needed an abortion and had come to him because, she explained, he was a familiar face. After the procedure, she assured him she wasn’t like all those other women: loose, unprincipled.

She told him: “I don’t have the money for a baby right now. And my relationship isn’t where it should be.”

“Nothing like life,” he responded, “to teach you a little more.”

A week later, she was back on her ladder.

This isn't the only time that I've heard about anti-abortion crusaders going in for an abortion.   Here's a page about a study about anti-choice women who have come for abortions offering similar anecdotes.  And here are some of the quotes:

"In 1990, in the Boston area, Operation Rescue and other groups were regularly blockading the clinics, and many of us went every Saturday morning for months to help women and staff get in. As a result, we knew many of the 'antis' by face. One morning, a woman who had been a regular 'sidewalk counselor' went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. When the mother came out about an hour later, I had to go up and ask her if her daughter's situation had caused her to change her mind. 'I don't expect you to understand my daughter's situation!' she angrily replied. The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to 'murder their babies.'" (Clinic escort, Massachusetts)

"We saw a woman recently who after four attempts and many hours of counseling both at the hospital and our clinic, finally, calmly and uneventfully, had her abortion. Four months later, she called me on Christmas Eve to tell me that she was not and never was pro-choice and that we failed to recognize that she was clinically depressed at the time of her abortion. The purpose of her call was to chastise me for not sending her off to the psych unit instead of the procedure room." (Clinic Administrator, Alberta)
 "My first encounter with this phenomenon came when I was doing a 2-week follow-up at a family planning clinic. The woman's anti-choice values spoke indirectly through her expression and body language. She told me that she had been offended by the other women in the abortion clinic waiting room because they were using abortion as a form of birth control, but her condom had broken so she had no choice! I had real difficulty not pointing out that she did have a choice, and she had made it! Just like the other women in the waiting room." (Physician, Ontario)
 "The sister of a Dutch bishop in Limburg once visited the abortion clinic in Beek where I used to work in the seventies. After entering the full waiting room she said to me, 'My dear Lord, what are all those young girls doing here?' 'Same as you', I replied. 'Dirty little dames,' she said." (Physician, The Netherlands)

 Usually I find that people who hear about this sort of thing have some sort of negative emotional reaction towards hypocrisy and leave it there.  But I have the sneaking suspicion that something very important is happening here.  I wonder if people who fall on the "conservative" line of thinking might simply not consider hypocrisy an actual sin.

I have wondered for quite a while if the divide between people often comes from people holding different sets of moral values.  I first noticed this with regard to a controversy in my home town involving the mayor. This woman, who was a neo-conservative absolutely loathed the small and large "g" greens who dominated city council before and after her term of office.  She got caught absolutely red-handed plagiarizing a speech that she delivered at some municipal function.  I remember that many of my friends were absolutely furious about it, but I noticed that most of her supporters seemed to be genuinely surprised that anyone cared one way or the other.

I live in a university town and most of my friends are intellectuals of one stripe or another.  In contrast, most of the people who supported this past mayor were involved in business.  I came to the conclusion that for writers, teachers and scientists, there probably is no greater crime than that of stealing the ideas of someone else, because this is the capital by which they make a living and define their standing in the community.  In contrast, for business people words and ideas are just tools for encouraging people to purchase their products.  In contrast, business people often think that levying any sort of taxation at all is a tremendous sin---perhaps this is because money (or capital) is their stock-in-trade.  Many intellectuals similarly cannot fathom this view that taxation is inherently sinful---since as long as they get value for the money, they consider it just the price of civilization.

Thinking about this example has got me thinking about the abortion one.

People who are pro-choice usually look at the examples I quoted above and see them as examples of complete moral bankruptcy.  But, I would suggest that is because people who are "liberal" in the original sense of the word put an enormous value on the concept of intellectual courage and curiosity.  Conservatives in general, and religious conservatives in particular, do not greatly value either of these qualities.  Instead, they value submission to authority and conformity.

I know that Christianity makes a great pretence about helping the poor, etc.  But if you look at the actual behaviour of the hierarchy of most denominations---especially conservative ones---it becomes obvious that over-riding teaching of the church is "Shut up and do what you are told!"   And the theology of the most rabidly anti-abortion denominations often seems to boil down to some sort of cosmic fascist state.  You must do as the great Fuhrer in the sky demands or else you will be sent to the eternal Auschwitz after your death.

Please note that when an institution is all about submission to authority, actual behaviour is of less importance than the attitude.  Rebels who reject the idea that they should be submitting to authority are far, far more dangerous to the status quo than criminals who, for one reason or another, end up breaking the rules.  (This is why political crimes are punished more severely than all others in totalitarian societies.)

If we understand this point, then it becomes obvious what is going on when someone who is a loud and vocal opponent of abortion has one.  The actual abortion itself is not nearly as bad as the fact that some people refuse to accept that the process is evil or immoral.  Abortion activists are ultimately protesting that women and doctors are putting themselves ahead of the revealed teachings of the church and making their own decisions about what is or is not a "sin".  After all, according to church teaching all people sin and the only route for salvation is through the intercession of grace.  Having an abortion might be worse than stealing a candy bar, but ultimately the Hitler in the Sky considers them both to be worth a ticket to the eternal concentration camp.

Hypocrisy is an homage that vice renders to virtue.  ~Fran├žois, Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 1678

 The quotation above makes the same point.  If we simply understand that the word "virtue" means not some sort of universal or commonly understood truth, but rather the dogma of the institution you support (either the Roman Catholic church or the Republican party, for example), then "Hypocrisy is the homage that people pay to authority."   If you will not be a hypocrite, then you will invariably be a rebel.  And rebels are far more dangerous to authoritarian institutions than people who merely transgress the rules.

Looked at from this way, a lot of conservative behaviour makes a great deal of sense.  When anti-homosexual pastors and politicians get caught hiring gay prostitutes, their willingness to be furtive instead of rebellious means that they still support the hierarchy.  Similarly, when conservatives rail against government spending but wallow in the pork barrel for their constituency, the hypocrisy means that they are "team players" instead of dangerous "socialists" who want to throttle business.

I don't know where this insight leads me, but I have the feeling that it could be harnessed to improve the way people promote a better way of looking at the world.

For one thing.  A lot of people think that it is just enough to point out the hypocrisy and expect people to change.  But that doesn't happen because hypocrisy simply isn't a sin for conservatives.  That woman who got the abortion and then went back up on the stepladder to protest was a dutiful daughter of the church who suffers from original sin.  The real sinners are the "rebel angels" who think that they know better than the church about what is, and is not a sin.  Rubbing this woman or her fellow believers noses in their hypocrisy will not change their minds.

If we want to change people's attitudes about things like abortion, on the other hand, I think we need to go deeper than the issue itself.   Instead, we have to try to do two things.

Ideally, we should be teaching people to be "liberal" in the original sense of the word.  That is, we should be teaching everyone who will listen that they should be intellectually courageous and curious.  They should follow ideas where they go instead of being afraid of the implications.  The social consequence of this is that we need to develop institutions in society that encourage this sort of behaviour.  It isn't just the church that discourages critical thinking, our schools, the workplace, the bureaucracy, etc, all thrive on the model of "shut up and do what you are told".  Of course, none of this can change overnight, but until we understand the problem, it is impossible come up with a solution.

It is impractical to expect all citizens to become Socrates, though.  I would suggest, therefore, that we should also be developing role models and authorities who can counter-balance the authorities that conservatives lean upon.  People of good will often have the mistaken belief if we reject the authority of the Pope to pronounce on moral issues that no one should be able to do so.  But this misses the point that we appeal to authority all the time in life---doctors, mechanics, engineers, plumbers, accountants, etc.  Why should moral issues be any different?

The difference is that a plausible moral authority should be willing to defend her position using logical argument instead of an appeal to force.  The problem isn't that the Pope sets himself up as a moral authority, but rather that he is a bogus authority who's ultimate argument is "if you don't knuckle under, I'm going to kick you out of the church", and "God is going to torture you forever after you die".   In contrast, it might be practically impossible to work through all the complex reasoning that a philosopher goes through to justify a position (after all, how many people do you know who would make the effort to read a monstrous blog post like this one?), but if someone wanted to, the option is open.  We trust our mechanic to do the right thing, but if we wanted to, we know we could do enough research to understand why it is he says he has to do the things he says he needs to do in order to get the engine on your car working.

When I was a child my mother used to tell me to do things and when I asked "why", her response was to whack me and say "because".  The difference in attitude could be as simple as her saying instead, "there's a good reason, but I simply do not have the time to explain it to you right now", or even, "I don't really know how to explain it, but I do believe that this is the best course of action and I have a responsibility to give you direction until you get old enough and have enough experience and knowledge to be able to make choices for yourself."   You don't have to be Einstein to make this substitution.  In fact, it could just be a rote sentence that everyone in our society ends of saying without really understanding.  But the distinction is one that discourages empty submission to authority and hypocrisy, as such I think that we should try it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Environmental Vow 22: Is Practical Philosophy Religion? Spirituality?

       This raises an interesting question, though.  If Christianity felt itself threatened by what I’ve called “practical philosophy”, was it because it is yet another religion?  Is it perhaps what people call “spirituality”?   Or is it something else altogether?   I don’t believe that these are trivial questions, because it highlights a problem that I have found in my own personal pursuit of Daoism.

First of all, it is useful to come up with a definition of “religion”.  The term generally refers to a complex belief system and how it operates within a human culture.  To a great extent, it deals with how a group of people, either at one time or over a long period of history, relate to one another.  The religion of Roman Catholicism, for example, refers to a large group of people who currently live all over the Earth, and also, who have lived from the time of the end of the Western Roman Empire up until the present day.  It includes a body of writings and traditions that govern the behaviour of individual followers of the religion, as well as a large institution that is hierarchically organized from the Pope in Rome to the altar boy in the parish church.

In contrast, “spirituality”, involves the interior life of an individual.  It comes from a person trying to make sense of the experiences of his or her life.  These experiences can arise from random events, from disciplined meditation practice, or they can be the insights and observations that the individual has gleaned from reading texts and/or interacting with other, perhaps more experienced practitioners.  It can be totally idiosyncratic and is sometimes at odds with the teachings and practice of a religion.  Or it can be completely in tune with these traditions and institutions.

Practical philosophy is often described as being from a specific “school”, such as Daoism, Stoicism, Cynicism, and so on.  But, I would argue, these schools are significantly different from religions for several reasons.  

First of all, adherence to a specific school of practical philosophy is a free choice based upon a personal decision that this specific worldview makes the most sense to the individual.  No one is born into something like Stoicism or Cynicism in the same way that someone is born into a Catholic or Muslim family.   In effect, the different tenants of a school of practical philosophy are descriptive instead of being prescriptive or credal.   People who know about such things will often talk to someone and make a decision that a person is a “a Stoic” or “a Cynic”# based on the way they look at the world.   In contrast, people are born and/or baptised as Catholics and they are trained/forced to learn to adhere to a specific definition of what it means to be a Roman Catholic.

Secondly, practical philosophy is taught through the exercise of reason.  This takes place in two ways, deductively and inductively.  The former is the process whereby someone comes to a conclusion through a logical reasoning.

For example, let’s look closely at the quotation I mentioned before from Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

What the philosopher is telling us to do is to think through what exactly it means to say that some particular being is both omnipotent and good.  If a being has both qualities, then why, for example, do children still suffer?  If there is a reason why this has to be and there is nothing he can do about it, then what does it mean to say that the individual in question is “omnipotent”?  If, on the other hand, he is able to stop innocent children from suffering and he simply chooses not to do so, what does it mean to say that he is “good”?  In either case, we would be using the words “omnipotent” and “good”, respectively, in some sort of weird way that meant that we are not using the words as everyone else does.   And if we aren’t using these words in any sort of understandable way, what have we actually learned about what we are calling “God” when we describe him as being both “omnipotent” and “good”?   If saying that God is “omnipotent” and/or “good” really doesn’t mean much of anything at all, then does the word “God” itself mean anything?  If not, then why believe in him?

Inductive reasoning comes from looking at the world you inhabit and attempting to find evidence in favour of one point of view as opposed to another.   Take this example of a pithy Stoic saying by Epictetus:  "Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men's desires, but by the removal of desire."  This is a very different sort of thing in that it is making a statement of fact that cannot be either proved or disproved through logical inference.  Instead, the person who hears or sees this statement is expected to think about their personal life experiences and the people they have met, and try and decide if this statement is in accordance with his or her experience or not.  He might think about the time as a child he desperately wanted some sort of present from his parents, yet found that once he had it, it turned out that it wasn’t all that nice and that he pretty much immediately wanted something else.  He might think the same thing about the promotion he wanted at work or the woman he desired as a lover.

One important thing that should be understood about the deductive and inductive methods employed by practical philosophy is that neither one is a source of authoritative, revealed “Truth” with a capital “T”.  Instead, what the insight and wisdom that comes from this process is accumulated piece by piece as different people in a culture communicate and discuss their insights.  Eventually, a consensus emerges about what is and is not a good way of understanding the world around us.  In contrast, religious teachings are invariably “revealed” by the authority of religious prophets and sacred texts.  This is not to say that innovation and change doesn’t happen within religious traditions, but rather that those traditions will not admit that there is a process of innovation and change because to do so would weaken their authority in the eyes of believers.

To cite one example, consider the case of celibacy in the clergy.  In the New Testament most of the key figures were married and the only unambiguous statement on the matter is as follows:  “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife---” (1 Timothy, 3:2).   Various branches of the Roman Catholic church allowed marriage, until the assertion of Papal Authority in the high Middle Ages.  To this day, the Orthodox Church of Greece and Eastern Europe, which is every bit as old as the Roman Catholic church, allows its clergy to marry.   Knowledge of these facts are not widely promoted within the Catholic body, but instead, the clear suggestion is that celibacy is something that “comes from God” instead of being the result of historical political struggles within the Church power structure for practical reasons (i.e. to stop the priesthood from becoming an inherited position and to allow the Church to reassign a parish held by a priest on his death.)

The value of hiding behind the coat-tails of God comes from the fact that decisions that are made by man can be undone by man.  But if a political decision can be effectively sold as coming straight from God himself, any attempt to change a specific state of affairs ceases to be ordinary political activity and instead becomes an act of blasphemy.  This means that people who are unhappy with any specific element of the church either “suck it up” and accept that “God is mysterious”, or, leave the church altogether because they’ve “lost their faith”.  This second option is only recently available to people, as in times past this option would have led to being tortured to death as a “heretic”.  This gives whomever is in charge an enormous increase in their power.

Add together a lot of these different politically-arrived at decisions that hide behind the coat-tails of God, and you have what is known as a “creed”, or statement of faith for a religion.

Since many readers probably haven’t seen a creed, here is the “Nicene Creed”.  It was the result of a lot of wrangling and compromise at a conference (or “Council”) that was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine the First.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen

 English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC)

The importance of a Creed is as a yardstick or dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy.  As such, it is a tool for asserting dominance and control by an ecclesiastic authority over the rank-and-file membership of a religious group.  This particular creed was developed as a method for differentiating the official or orthodox church from the so-called “Arian heresy”, which taught that Jesus was not originally a part of God, but was instead created as a divine creation of God.#  As such, it was intended as deadly serious and had the effect of consigning many men and women to very painful deaths.    Not only was it intended to separate out heretics from orthodox believers, it serves as a form of thought control.  Orthodox believers who fall under the sway of a creed, are expected to live in an Orwellian world where they must learn to conform their thoughts to an official version of reality instead of following their ideas where they may lead them.

Practical philosophy is very different.  It involves thinking things through and following your insights where they lead you.   There is no physical compulsion involved.  If for some reason you simply cannot accept a specific idea, you are free to go your own way.  And people often do, which is why there are so many schools of practical philosophy.  There are many different religions and sects, too.  But they usually had to fight wars in order to gain the freedom to practice their religions.  In contrast, schools of philosophy have debates.  And success doesn’t come from winning battles and killing anyone who disagrees with you, but rather by having your ideas survive from generation to generation.  The existence of different schools of philosophy isn’t seen as proof of the devil’s ability to confuse people, but rather that life is very complex, people have very different life experience,  and people know very little.  As a result, even though people have gained hard-fought insights we know too little to assume that any of use really know any sort of “ultimate Truth”.  In contrast, even though religious believers will often make statements of humility towards the vastness of their God, they act as if they have a “lock” on absolute Truth.

So, if practical philosophy isn’t a religion, could it be a form of “spirituality”?  

It might be, but it depends on how you define the term.  As commonly used, “spirituality” refers to the individual, interior experience.  Often it is associated with strongly emotional experiences that can be called “mystical”, but at the very least are deeply meaningful to the individual.  This puts the realm of the spiritual at odds with the religious, in that as I explained above, the religious realm tends to deal with creeds and institutions.  I am willing to admit that the inductive and deductive reasoning that practical philosophy follows is ultimately grounded in the intuitions of individual people.  As such, both have some similarity to other experiences of human beings that are meaning-filled.

This might seem like a strange statement to people who assume that logic has some sort of priority over other intuitions in the realm of human experience.  But it simply is the case that the validity of statements such as “A cannot equal not A”, or “Socrates is a man, all men are mammals, therefore Socrates is a mammal” ultimately comes down to an intuition that a great many other people also share.#  And it is also the case that some people simply seem to be oblivious to logic.  For example, I have met people who argue that the Bible is totally without error and literally true.  When asked how they came to that opinion, they will argue that it says so in the Bible.  When I point out that this is circular reasoning, they do not seem to be able to understand the point I am making.#

Where what I am calling practical philosophy diverges from spirituality is that ultimately it is a collective process.   People who make decisions about the world not only think their ideas through using the process of inductive and deductive reasoning, they also express these ideas to others and enter into a dialogue about both their truthfulness and their meaning.  Authority figures in religious institutions also express their ideas to others, but they do not enter into a dialogue.  Instead, they use force to impose their viewpoint on others.  People who are following a spiritual path may not have the option of imposing their views on others, but they are not entering into a dialogue with others either.

A dialogue is a very specific sort of relationship between people.  It is based on a willingness by two people to entire into a conversation where each is willing to discard their previous beliefs if the other person can come up with a better argument.   The attitude that is brought to bear in a true dialogue makes it very different from some other things that may bear superficial similarity----such as political debates or court trials.   In these cases the parties involve may use inductive and deductive logic, but these are just two elements of a much larger arsenal of rhetoric that are designed to sway audiences to support their position.  People debating outside the “community of the dialogue”, routinely try to confuse people with complex and misleading arguments, appeal to their prejudice and feel that they have no responsibility to admit an error in reasoning when it is pointed out to them.    No political debate ends with one candidate saying about the other “He’s made the better argument and shown me the flaws in my thinking----vote for him instead of me.”   It is, however, sometimes the case that a dialogue does end with the following sort of statements by one side “You’ve got me there.   You are right.”  or “I hadn’t thought about that point.  It does make my side of the issue seem wrong, doesn’t it?”

The dividing line over whether or not someone is willing to admit error and move on has tremendous social implications.  It allows practical philosophy to be accumulative. That is to say, as human society moves through history, people are able to slowly accumulate more and more knowledge about the world around us, and build up on the work of previous generations.  This is most obvious in the realm of science and technology where experimentation can disprove a given hypothesis.  But even in the realm of something more nebulous, like philosophy, it is also true.  Almost all of the arguments that I have used in this essay originated in the minds of other people, which I have found out by reading the books that have been written on various subjects.  Because each and everyone of these arguments has been subjected to a rigorous debate whether or not they “make sense”, there has been a collective “sifting out” of the ones that are found to be false, and, a “polishing up” of others so that we end up with the very best explanations.

This essay is standing on the shoulders of giants.  And that is the big difference between practical philosophy and spirituality.  Because philosophy allows itself to enter into the community of the dialogue, and submit to rigorous appraisal based on both inductive and deductive reasoning, it offers the hope of slowly adding to the sum total of humanity’s wisdom.

In contrast, when I talk to a great many people who hold “spiritual beliefs”, I find instead a tremendous unwillingness to submit their “insights” to any sort of rigorous analysis.  They either get angry that anyone would question them, or, they simply assume an air of moral superiority and refuse to communicate at all.  Often an assertion is made that it is just “too ineffable to describe”.  But the person who makes these sorts of statements almost invariably use these experiences to make further claims that certainly do require some public discussion, such as, for example, that God exists.

Oddly enough, several philosophers have expressed that they too have had various uncanny, perhaps “mystical” experiences (for example, Socrates’ “Daemon voice” and Descartes “three dreams”.)#   But the difference between the philosophical point of view and the spiritual is that the philosopher doesn’t simply assume that nothing relevant can be said about the experience, but instead tries to figure out exactly what the experience meant.  In effect, I am asserting the when a spiritual person says that they are having an “ineffable” mystical experience, they simply aren’t trying very hard to explain exactly what the experience was like or to understand what it signifies.

I would also suggest that there is a very strong reason why many people would want to refrain from carefully exploring their spiritual experiences, one that bears close resemblance to institutional religions development of creeds.  If someone has an experience that is “ineffable”, it means that the person who has had it has attained some level of spiritual authority gives them a greater status than someone else who has not had it.  It stops people flat in their tracks when you can say “Well, if you’d had the experience yourself, you’d know I am right.”  An appeal to a special type of authority, one that by definition cannot be scrutinized for authenticity or relevance is one of the easiest ways to opt out of the “community of the dialogue”.