Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dao of Time

I like to watch cheesy science fiction shows and some of my favourites come from the "Stargate" franchise.  A while back I watched a rerun and found myself thinking about some things.

The plot involved a woman finding an ancient time machine and using it to go back 10,000 years in time to visit an advanced race of people who had built an ancient city.  In her time, she was part of a group of explorers who discovered the abandoned metropolis, but in doing so set in motion a process that resulted in the destruction of said city and the death of everyone else in her group.  In order to prevent this from happening, once she settled in among the original inhabitants she made some changes in the way the city was organized and put herself in slowed-down animation so she could come out and do some maintenance from time to time over the ten thousand year wait.  The plan worked, when the expedition arrived, its members didn't destroy themselves.  Eventually they found the woman in her preservation capsule, but by then she was the equivalent of 120 years old and she died soon after explaining what had happened.

There are two interesting points that the episode brings up.

First of all, the people who built the city were talking to the time traveler and going about their lives just as if the future wasn't known or even of concern.  This makes sense, but jars against my intuitive understanding. If someone comes from the future, then the people in the past are already dead.  Moreover, their lives have already been lived.   But yet they eat, talk, make decisions, have dreams, etc.

Secondly, the woman who lived out her life in a pod that slowed down her aging explained her situation to the younger version of herself that survived because of the work she did to prevent the catastrophe.  This younger expressed regret that the older had lost her life sitting in slowed down animation.  But the older one refused to accept this interpretation.  "No, you are me.  I still get to live a full, rich life.  We just did this thing in order to save everyone else."

What I'm wrestling with here is how we understand "time".  I think that insofar as most people think about time, the see it as some sort of "one damn thing after another".  But when I was at university I came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to think of it as another dimension.  Think of it as something like a ruler with a cursor point that slides up and down the index, like an old-fashioned slide rule.

The line on the transparent piece of plastic is how we experience the "now" of existence.  But that doesn't mean that all the stuff that has happened in the past has ended or the future doesn't exist at all.  Instead, we are just being aware of the "now" at any given point.  

The "nowness" was what the aged woman was getting at when she told her younger self that she was going to live a full rich life through her counter part.  She understood that for everyone----time traveler or not----all we experience is NOW.  The past is a memory and the future is anticipation.  And as modern science tells us, even memory is to a large part as much a created, illusory experience as our anticipation of the future.  So it is literally true that the physically separated body of the time traveler has as much connection to the younger woman before her as if they shared the same body instead of two identical ones.  

I first seriously thought about this issue when I came across some essays by philosophers who were trying to undermine naive assumptions about life.   Two arguments come easily to my memory, so I thought I'd share them.  

The first is a response to the question of "What evidence could we have that time is a spacial dimension?"   Briefly stated, the argument starts out by asking how a being who inhabited in two dimensional space would be able to conceive of three dimensions.  The answer is to think about congruent triangles which look different.   

These two triangles have the same angles at the corners, and could easily have the same length of sides (this was the best example I could easily find), but they are different.  That's because they have been "flipped" through a third dimension.  That is to say, if they were actual pieces of cardboard to make them overlap perfectly (assuming they are the same size), you have to turn one of them over.   This is how someone who lived in just two dimensions might begin to think that there is a third dimension beyond the two he perceives.  In a similar sense, if you look at your two hands---left and right----you know that they are the same.  Yet, they are very different.  One is the mirror image of the other.  The argument is that they are the same but "flipped" through a fourth dimension.

The second argument comes from a question that immediately comes to mind when we think about time as a spacial dimension.  We can easily change our direction and go back in space, why can't we do the same thing with time?  The answer comes from thinking clearly about what we mean when we decided to "reverse our gears" and move backwards.  When I decide to turn around and go backwards I'm actually doing nothing of the sort.  In fact, what I am doing is going forward in a new direction.  Indeed, "backwards" is a totally a subjective definition.  It has to do with what particular direction we arbitrarily describe as where we want to go.  If we look at things this way, it seems to me that our inability to go backwards in time is no more odd than our inability to go backwards in space.  
Nicolas of Cusa

Most people reading this will probably think that what I am talking about is about as important as the old medievalists debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  But a book I was assigned to read at university got me seeing this sort of thing in a different light.  Said book, On Learned Ignorance by Nicolas of Cusa,  (you can read a translation here) goes through a range of confusing questions and suggests that a little humility is a good idea when it comes to understanding the world around us.  I find that when I contemplate things like the nature of time a similar humility presents itself to my consciousness. 

This sense of humility has recently come to light from following various "skeptical" blogs and discussion lists that I spent some time following a while back.  While I've always been interested in organizations that debunk a lot of the bunkum that we can find in everyday life, such as "truthers", anti-vaccination types, etc, I have noticed a really arrogant tendency of various supporters to "dumb down" and dismiss any understanding of the world that doesn't fit into a simple, 19th century materialistic reality.   One example that really got me thinking about his was a blanket dismissal of the whole category of "organic agriculture" that degenerated into a sort of "frat boy pile on" once I suggested that while the term is ambiguous, many important things in life are not easily defined.   One particularly brilliant response to my suggestion was when a fellow suggested that someone once offered him a dog turd which was fine because it was "organic".  Alas, I have come to believe that there is not much difference between many "true believers" in skepticism and those supporting many other dogmatic belief systems.  

The Daoist Zhuangzi obviously connects to this sort of thing.  His book is full of discussions about how little it is we actually know about the world around us and how much humility we should have about what we know.  Some of his analogies have become part of the universal culture of the world, and illustrate the limits of our understanding.  He was the man who said that he didn't know if he was a man who was dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.  He also suggested that what we know about the world around us is as limited as that of a frog who has spent it's entire life at the bottom of a well.  Thinking about time helps me remember this important point.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Life of Dust, or, Zhuangzi and the Turtle

I recently read the book Dead Man Walking by sister Helen Prejean.  For those of you who haven't heard of the movie, the book deals with the capital punishment in the USA as told by a Roman Catholic nun who gets involved in the lives of several prisoners on death row and decides to devote her efforts towards eliminating the death penalty.

Its a gripping book, but a couple small parts of the story really struck home for me.   One involved Prejean meeting with the head of the Louisiana parole board, a Mr. Howard Marsellus.  In this initial meeting, she explained the research that had been done on both the death penalty in general and the case of this particular prisoner.  It is clear that it is imposed in a capricious and racist manner.  For example, murders who kill non-whites almost never get executed, and, wealthy defendants (who can hire competent lawyers) never end up being sentenced to death.  Mr. Marsellus, who is not an ignorant man, readily admits all these things are true and Prejean leaves the meeting feeling that the parole board may recommend clemency to the Governor, who can commute a death sentence to life in prison.

When the verdict comes down, however, it is clear that not only did Marsellus not convince the other members of the board to suggest a pardon, he himself did not vote for one.  Prejean is flabbergasted.

Years later, the nun finds out that Marsellus has been convicted of taking bribes while sitting on the parole board and has been sent to prison.  After he served his time and came out, she contacted him and asked for an interview. He agreed and explained his actions to her.

It turns out that the parole board was never designed to actually deliberate and suggest pardons and paroles for prisoners.  Instead, its purpose was to create "plausible deniability" for the Governor and his political machine.  When Marsellus was hired, he was told that he only had the job as long as he was willing to vote the way he was told to vote.  That meant that the Governor could still make unpopular decisions regarding paroles and pardons, but that he could blame the board for them.

As for the bribery, it turned out that when wealthy convicts wanted to buy a parole, they were asked for large sums of money that were turned over to the political machine, which in turn was used to fund election campaigns.  Some of the money went back down to Marsellus (partially to keep him quiet, but probably more to make sure that he took the fall instead of someone higher up the food chain.)   Money was then used to get members of the state legislature to change their votes on certain bills and put forward the Governor's legislative agenda.

Marsellus went along with all of this because he realized that any hope he would ever have of getting ahead in politics was tied to his ability to show loyalty to the party machine.  If he ever refused to "play ball", he'd just become another "nobody".

Another small part of the puzzle involved a conversation she had with a Major in the guards of a prison she visited.   This fellow had the unenviable job of being the guy who officiated over the mechanics of execution.  He got to know the condemned men and he watched as he was strapped in and electrocuted.  He found the experience intensely distasteful.  He also had serious doubts about the fairness of the system and suspected that he had even killed innocent men.

Prejean asked him about his personal sense of responsibility and he said that he didn't create the laws or make sentence people, he just followed orders.  She suggested that at the very least he could find another job.  He was close to retirement, so he didn't feel that was an option, but he did transfer and died of a heart attack shortly after her talk.

Several ideas come to me from these little stories.

First of all, I suspect that because Prejean is a nun, she has privileged access to people in positions of authority.  I know a few people in authority and none of them would ever have opened up to me, and I suspect anyone else I know, like this.  (She is probably also a remarkable personality, too.)  I've found that one of the key supports of "the system" is the way people become isolated in their own particular little social "bubble".   Managers don't talk openly and honestly with non-managers.  Working class people learn early on that they cannot speak their minds with people in authority---if they ever get a chance to meet them at all---because there will be severe consequences if they do.  People high up the chain also develops habits of conversation that ensure that no one ever does tell them the truth.  This enforces the "distance" necessary for command.   One of the most common is a tendency to bully people lower on the food chain by having an explosive reaction whenever someone says something that doesn't fit into the higher ups view of things.  And people learn early on that many managers are far from fair and will carry a grudge for a long time if they take a dislike to someone.

As a nun, Prejean is in a strange position of being almost part of the elite.  She was also somewhat protected from retribution, which allows her to say honest things to people that they rarely could hear from anyone else without being able to inflict pain on them.

Secondly, Marsellus and the Major were not just isolated individuals.  I suspect that a great many other individuals in the execution machine had similar qualms about what is going on.  But they had that little bit of extra conscience that allowed them to speak more honestly to Prejean.  I also suspect that they had that little extra bit of self-awareness and sensitivity that allowed them to face up to themselves how idiotic and cruel the system truly is.  Probably there are expanding rings of people in any system of power.  Some folks feel that everything is just fine as it is.  Others probably have profound misgivings, but cannot voice them to anyone else.  Others feel that the whole system is a crazy mess, but that the voters (or "powers that be") wouldn't allow anything else so you have to "play the game".  Others still probably think that the system is sick and twisted, but if they don't get involved someone far worse will and ultimately if they amass enough power they can start changing things for the better.

I suspect that all our institutions are filled with people following all these different personal strategies.  They don't honestly talk to each other, because that would make them vulnerable to manipulation.  So collectively they work together to create a system that almost all of them feel is an abomination.

There is a strain in Daoism that believes that an essential part of being a human involves retaining the ability to make spontaneous decisions outside of constraints of human society.  That is where all the stories of Daoist recluses and eccentrics come from.  But it is important to remember that this was a response to a society that involved wrapping everyone in chains of loyalty to family and empire.  The Daoists couldn't rebel collectively against this sort of thing, because to do so would involve creating an institution that would start the whole process all over again.  Indeed, it probably is a very "human" thing to wrap ourselves up in these sorts of collective fantasies and delusions that lead to things like death houses and prisons.  But there is still inside many of us a subversive, irrepressible element that glows like embers in the forest duff---waiting for a strong wind to burst back into flame.   The following story is a one of those embers.  It still glows after thousands of years.

Chuang Tzu Story - The Turtle

Chuang Tzu with his bamboo pole
was fishing in the Pu river
The prince of Chu sent two vice-chancellors
with a formal document:
We hereby appoint you prime minister
Chuang Tzu held his bamboo pole still.
Watching the Pu river, he said:
“I am told there is a sacred tortoise offered
and canonized three thousand years ago,
venerated by the prince, wrapped in silk,
in a precious shrine on an altar
in the temple.
What do you think?
Is it better to give up one’s life
and leave a sacred shell
as an object of cult
in a cloud of incense
for three thousand years,
or to live as a plain turtle
dragging its tail in the mud?”
“For the turtle”, said the vice-chancellor,
“better to live and drag its tail in the mud!”
“Go home!”, said Chuang Tzu.
“Leave me here
to drag my tail in the mud.”

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Dao and Pessimism

I've always been concerned about the state of the earth.  Frankly, I cannot understand people who are not.  But I think it's very important to think rationally and logically about this.  I raise this point because someone very close to me recently stated that she thought that because of climate change in fifty years there will be no more multicellular life left on the planet earth.

Major Extinction Events
I looked around a bit and tried to figure out whether or not there is any reason to believe such a thing.  Perhaps the best argument against this point of view is to put a little energy into reading up about past extinction events from the geological record.  A good summary, as usual, is on the Wikipedia.   Basically, there have been many extinction events in the past.  Several explanations are offered, including gamma-ray burst from super novas, volcanic activity leading to massive climate change,
asteroid impacts, and so on.   The thing to remember about these is that many of them are far, far more damaging than anything human beings are capable of doing, and none of them came close to killing off all multi-cellular life.  Indeed, the mass extinctions that took place mostly involved elimination of species that were peculiarly adapted to the pre-existing climactic conditions and unable to thrive in the new.  For example, in times of warming, species that were able to survive under tropical conditions thrived and those that had adapted to the cold failed.  As a general rule "weed species" that survive best when a climax ecosystem is disturbed tended to do well.  (Since humanity is the ultimate "weed species", this bodes well for human civilization.)

IMHO, this gets the "science bit" of this discussion out of the way.  That allows me to deal with what I think is the real issue at play.  I think the real problem isn't the environment but rather the existential dread that some sensitive modern people feel when they reject the existence of  God.

As I see it, a fair number of the most intelligent, sensitive and conscientious people that are alive today find themselves in a significant bind.  They can see that the "old way" of being-in-the-world just doesn't work anymore.  Intelligent people can no longer simply believe that God is going to make all things right.  Nor can they believe that some sort of Marxist Utopia is going to arrive because of blind historical laws.  Neither can they believe that science is going to bring some sort of "Star Trek" inter-stellar paradise.  Instead, all they see is the same old stupid human species mucking things up on a greater and greater scale.  This is a profoundly depressing state of affairs.  Given this background, is it any wonder that the human imagination takes the next step and projects that life is not only not going to have any meaning but that it also will no longer exist?

George Orwell
I've just finished reading the collected essays of George Orwell and they serve as an interesting vantage point to think about this problem.  Most people who don't know him well tend to think of him as an ardent anti-communist.  This is accurate up to a point, as he was the author of probably the two most devastating critiques of Communism ever written:  Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.  But if you read his other work, you will see that he was just as hard on Capitalism and Colonialism.  For example, his short essay "Shooting an Elephant" (which you can read here), explains how colonialism forces a class of men, colonial administrators, into doing certain things in order to exploit people in other countries.  His essays about the life of the poor, such as "How the Poor Die" (also available on line), illustrate how badly the poor of England and mainland Europe were being treated under the capitalist system of the day.  In fact, Orwell always described himself as a "democratic socialist".

This put Orwell in a very delicate position during his time.  Most intellectuals had decided that you had to choose one way or the other----either capitalism or communism.  Orwell would not compromise, however, and steadfastly refused to excuse the excesses of either in favour of their supposed benefits.  Indeed, he even refused to "opt out" in favour of the sort of pacifist "third option" that people like Gandhi were offering.  He fought as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil war, for example, and clearly described the vile infighting, the secret police, etc, that riddled the Spanish Republican Forces----yet still argued that the war was just and had to be fought.

I'm sure that George Orwell was a royal and mighty "pain in the ass" to just about every organization that he came into contact with because he adamantly and absolutely refused to avoid seeing uncomfortable and painful realities.  I'm sure that this unwillingness to avert his gaze also caused him personal anguish.  He certainly had a very bleak vision of the future, which he thought was bound to be dominated by totalitarianism.  Think about this quote:  "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face---forever."  Isn't this vision as bleak as my dear friend who contemplates the extinction of all multi-cellular life within fifty years?

I raise the example of Orwell because I want to suggest that the problem that both he and my dear friend face are similar in nature and also come from the same source.  I suggest that they come about because both of them have totally rejected the existence of God, yet hold onto a sort of "ur philosophy" that goes with it.  It seems to me that this places them in an intolerable position and would like to suggest a way of looking at the world that will help them out of their pessimistic outlook.

I mentioned before that this sort of affliction only affects the especially sensitive and intelligent.  This lets almost all people who believe in God off the hook.  After all, if there is an omnipotent "Daddy in the sky" who is totally involved in our day-to-day lives, can't he fix everything?  Even if there is a real apocalypse on the horizon, won't a post-death life in Heaven make everything all right?  I suspect that most atheists also have nothing to worry about, as the overwhelming majority are the type who don't give much thought to the issue one way or the other, but just reject God as "so much bosh" and leave it at that.  Most folks who can just dismiss religion this way have an equal facility to dismiss just about everything else that doesn't relate to them personally and immediately.

So if an intelligent sensitive person rejects God, what is it that I believe they hold onto that makes their life miserable?  There is a Sanskrit saying that sums up the problem succinctly:  "Tat Tvam Asi", or, "That art Thou".   The phrase comes from the Chandogya Upanishad and refers to the idea that in some sense the concept of "self" and/or "soul" is directly linked to the idea of "God".   I think that there are two key issues at work.  Our naive assumptions of life are a:  that there is this single, atomic entity known as the "self" or "soul" that b:  exerts something called "free will" in order for us to choose one action over another.  This is the "ur philosophy" (or, naive common sense view) that just about everyone in our society holds even if they have long since turned their backs on the "daddy in the sky".

The problem with it is that it posits an enormous burden of responsibility on people.  If you are intelligent, you can see just how incredibly bad the state of your world can be.  And again, if you are sensitive, you feel an enormous responsibility to "do your bit" to make the world better.  In Orwell's time this responsibility extended itself for people to fight against the excesses of Capitalism (made manifest during the Great Depression), and, the dangers of Hitler, Fascism and totalitarianism in general.   People devoted their lives to "the party", they went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, they went underground and joined the resistance, they joined radical organizations and suffered real repression.  My experience from reading about people did do good things like organize unions, hide Jews, etc, is that most felt that they were morally obligated to do so.  Indeed, it is also my experience that the various projects I have undertaken over the years as an environmentalist and community organizer also come from a personal sense of obligation to "do the right thing". 

For people in Orwell's generation this sense of obligation came with the added burden of their feeling that often had to make soul-destroying moral compromises based on the principle that "the end justifies the means".   This meant that many people supporting what they thought was a good thing---socialism---had to find ways to justify things like secret police and show trials in the Soviet Union.  During World War Two, they also found themselves having to justify the non-aggression pact that Stalin signed with Hitler after a decade of proclaiming that the Nazis were the worst danger that civilization faced. They did these things because the context they inhabited seemed so absolutely bleak that they were forced to choose between two different options, neither of which seemed terribly appealing.  If you didn't support the Soviet Union, then you were supporting the capitalism that was destroying the working class, exploiting the colonies and building up the Nazi menace. Trying to exist as a sensitive intelligent person in that sort of moral landscape was absolutely degrading because many felt that there was only two choices and you had to choose one or the other.

In the same way, anyone with a well developed social consciousness who lives in the modern Western world has to understand how they are personally participating in a process that is undermining our environmental infrastructure and will result in a great deal of horror for all living things.  We have a direct experience that seems to tell us that we are independent beings with the ability to choose one course of action over another, we see how badly we are abusing the earth----and yet we continue to participate in this abuse through the simple act of living our lives. The feeling is inescapable that the very act of life commits us to killing the future.

The problem with this intense feeling of personal responsibility, however, is that there are devastating arguments, both ancient and modern, against it.  This is because the feelings that we have of as independent "souls" exercising "free will" are fundamentally illusions.

The ancient argument against the soul was developed independently both in the East and the West.  This involved the use of careful self observation which resulted in the insight that there really isn't any single unitary thing that could be called the "soul".  Instead there are just momentary, fleeting thoughts. In the West, David Hume pointed this out.
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic'd reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu'd, which he calls himself; tho' I am certain there is no such principle in me.
In the East, Buddhism came across the same insight, which they described as "anatta", or, "no self".

The modern argument is based on modern research into brain physiology.  Various experiments have shown that what we call "self awareness" is a sort of overlay that exists on a wide variety of different processes.  This can be shown experimentally.  For example, if a person has their brain cut in half (this is done as a last resort to treat a terribly debilitating form of epilepsy----I'm not referring to Nazi medical research here) different parts of her brain will no longer be able to communicate with each other.  This includes the eyes, each of which will each be associated with parts that control different aspects of the body----such as the hands and voice.  So if the eye associated with the hands is given one picture, those hands will pick up one specific object to represent it.  If the eye associated with a different part of the brain, such as the voice, is shown a different object at the same time, the voice will say that the object is something different.  If both are shown at the same time, the conscious mind will attempt to reconcile the incongruity by hypothesizing some sort of special example.  The main point is that what we call the "soul" is not a simple atomic entity, but rather a virtual construct that organizes a collection of different, fundamentally independent activities.

A second important failure of common sense is the idea that we each have some sort of personal freedom to choose one course of action over another in most aspects of our daily life.  The ancient argument against this comes from an analysis of the concepts of "freedom" and "causation".  If we are free to choose one particular act over another, then surely we must also be able to freely choose one idea over another.  That's because if I choose to make a cup of tea, for example, that choice is only "free" if I can choose to have that particular thought (i.e. to have a cup of tea.)  If the thought just "pops into my head", then it hardly seems free as I am constrained by whatever process results in this happening.  But if I can freely choose to have this idea (which is not what, on self-reflection, seems to be happening), then surely for that choice itself to be "free", would I not also have to choose it too?  The ancient argument against free will indicates that the concept either leads to some mysterious agency that simply creates ideas out of nothing, or else some sort of infinite regress where we are forced to believe that we choose to choose to choose to choose, etc, for everything we do. Neither of which seems palatable.

The modern argument against free will comes from modern psychology which shows that a great many of the higher order decisions that people make in their life seem to be strongly influenced by the chemistry of the brain or the environment in which they developed.  For example, it is pretty clear that a certain percentage of people who are given certain types of anti-malaria drugs will exhibit violent behaviour.  In the same way, a significant percentage of people who have traumatic experiences will go on to make very bad life choices while in the grip of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  How free are these "choices" if you can predict their frequency based on the specific chemistry or background of the individual in question?  In fact, I find it pretty hard to continue to believe in the existence of free will when I am confronted by someone suffering from just about any form of mental illness.

How exactly does giving up on the idea of a soul or free will help someone who is upset and pessimistic about the world around them?  Of course, the whole problem with casting doubts on free will is the fact that you could argue that we are constrained to still believe in it.  And the same thing goes for the soul----we still have the feeling that we are a single, atomic person and may be constrained to believe that it actually exists.  As I see it, however, even if we don't have the ability to choose to think one thing or another, the fact that I am thinking that I may not have free will and you are reading about this idea, means that might actually be possible to turn our backs on the idea and develop something of an improvement on the concept.  

 The first thing that occurs to me is that if we discard the idea of a "soul" and instead believe that this is an illusion caused by the integration of a whole range of sense impressions mediated by the brain over a period of time, we could also extend this notion to include culture.  That is, I am not only the sum total of my sense impressions, but also of the concepts that I have been exposed to in conversation with other people and through things like reading books and watching movies. 

Another way of thinking about this is to consider our naive assumptions about "personality".  We assume that the boundary between who we are and all the people that surround us is a very hard shell that cannot be penetrated.  But in actual fact, we are constantly absorbing ideas and feelings from the people around us.  If we didn't, how would culture ever change?  Where would fads and fashion come from?  Would love between people be possible?   I think that this is at least partly what John Donne was on about when he wrote that
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

As I see it, I am not just a single "soul", but am also connected in a real sense to my wife, my family, the guys I work with, and everyone else that I've ever met.   They talk to me and that influences the way I see the world around me.  This interaction flows both ways, so when I talk to them, I influence how they see the world.  And, in a similar way, I'm also connected to people like David Hume and George Orwell, and every other writer that I have ever read and tried to understand.  And, in the same way, anyone who reads this blog is also influenced by by me. 

This interaction is what I see as being a substitute for "free will".  I don't "choose" to have a cup of tea.  Nor do I "choose, to choose, to choose, a cup of tea".  But now, when I make a cup of tea, I make it with loose tea and a tea ball instead of a tea bag, because my wife talked me into doing it this way.  Similarly, she now drinks more tea than she ever did before she met me and had to accommodate her American self to my Canadian ways. 

This is a long way from the extinction of all multicellular life or a future of endless boots grinding endless faces into the mud.  But what it does do for me is take some of the pressure off.  I am not an individual "me" who is watching the human race run like lemmings over a cliff.  Instead, I am part of the human "process" that is working its way through a problem.  And that problem could be described as:  "How does a species gain the wisdom to make the transition from being a passive part of nature to becoming the most important force of nature?"   Another way of saying it would be "How does life make the transition from being unconscious and governed simply by physical natural selection to being conscious and advancing through cultural processes?"

In a sense, what I'm saying is that I'm beginning to see myself as part of the Dao.  This "Dao" isn't some sort of replacement for God, it is not some sort of pantheistic deity.  I am simply referring to the sum of all parts of the universe.  Probably not even all of them, just the relevant bits of my culture, personal history, physical surroundings, etc.  They aren't self aware, they don't have a personality, will or anything else.  But they are what give me the illusion of choice.  And, they are what are calling the shots, not any sort of  "soul". 

The practical upshot is that I when I think of this notion I remind myself not to get too upset with myself for not living up to some sort of ideal.  I do what I do because I am part of the Dao.  When I remember I also remind myself to not get upset with others for what they do.  They do what they do because that is what their part of the Dao is all about.  And when I remember it, it try not to get upset about the future, because that too is just part of the Dao. 

What this looks and feels like is the sort of fatalism that conventionally religious people have.  "It's all in God's hands."   This attitude does allow people to feel better about the future and dissipates enormous amounts of pessimism.  Unfortunately, if it is attached to the notion of "soul", "free will" and a supernatural deity, it brings all sorts of poison into the world.  But if I cut them all away and just think of the Dao as the sum of all the universe, I can have the same sort of freedom. 

Embrace the Dao!   Hold onto this One!   Fast the Mind!


Monday, February 11, 2013

Faith, or, Mind Fasting

In my last post I explored the religious concept of "asceticism" and suggested one way of understanding it that could be of use for modern people, even atheists.  I would like to suggest that another term, "Faith" can be of equal use if given a slightly different understanding.

Let me introduce this idea by suggesting that modern people find themselves in a strange sort of bind, one that probably never existed even 30 years ago.  That is, modern education and media give people the illusion of an almost Olympian view.  Part of this is the 24 hr news cycle that allows someone with cable television or access to the internet the ability to fuss about news all day long.  It also allows someone who is a little more directed the ability to see endless blog postings and journal articles on almost any subject---and from almost every different perspective imaginable.

At the same time, people find themselves living in a huge complex world where we are more and more at the mercy of forces that we have no direct control over.  Our technology is so complex that almost no one understands how some of our most commonly used machines (such as the computer I am writing this blog post with) operate.  Our system of government is so huge, and the laws governing its operation so complex, that almost no one knows how the decisions that govern his or her life come about.  Finally, almost everything we use comes from a complex globalized commercial system that not only means we don't how to make stuff, we don't know how to fix it, or even where it was made in the first place.

The net result is that we can see a lot more stuff going on than we used to while at the same time we feel a lot less control over out life.

Contrast this with the world I grew up in, only forty years ago.

At that time there were only two pipelines for information:  newspapers and the CBC.  A copy of the London Free Press showed up six days at week at the farm.  The mail man also delivered copies of the Winnipeg Free Press and the Family Herald.  In addition, we listened to the CBC radio news at noon.  If we were interested, there was also a CBC television news at night, although I rarely remember seeing it.  (Probably I had to go to bed before it came on.)

There are two things to remember about this.  First, the newspapers and CBC were subject to Editorial control.  That means a person who had a lot of experience in the news business had to make a decision every morning about which stories would or would not make it onto the page or in the newscast.  Space and time was limited, so there was a genuine filtering-out process.  Moreover, there was a belief that certain minimal standards of accuracy had to be met in order to keep the support of the customer.

Secondly, these media were delivered to my family at a set time.  If my parents had wanted to learn more and immediately, it wouldn't have mattered.  They had to wait until the newspaper was delivered or the signal was sent over the airwaves.

Both of these aspects of the news meant that people were able to keep a certain sense of balance and calm in their lives that does not exist with the plugged-in "news junkie" of today.  First, people who are looking for evidence of a preconceived notion weren't able to seek it out.  Editorial control stopped the positive feedback loop of "confirmation bias".   As a result, there were no people living in "echo chambers".   Secondly, because people had to wait between news delivery, there was an imposed period of time where people were able to spend time in reflection and contemplation of a world that had nothing to do with what the media was saying.

This last point deserves special emphasis.

Because the world was a simpler, smaller place people had the experience of having more direct control over their lives.  In a small town, people had more influence over decision-making.  In a simpler time, there were fewer regulations governing what someone could or could not do.  (To cite one example, I just had a hot water tank changed in my home.  You used to be able to turn your tank heat down in order to save gas and prevent burning yourself in the hot water.  Now it seems that the government has found that the bacteria that causes Legionnaires Disease can grow in cooler hot water tanks, so plumbers have to install mixer valves and encourage people to keep their tanks set on "hi".  One more complexity and one less thing the home owner can do for himself.)   Rules and regulations fence us in more and more as the years go by, which gives everyone a sense of increased helplessness and impotency.

So paradoxically, while modern technology has given us the illusion of omniscience, the complex society that supports that technology repeatedly rubs our noses in the fact that we have precious little control over almost everything.  We have the vision of a God and the power of a worm.

Cassandra taken into slavery
The ancient Greeks had a myth that dealt with this sort of situation.  It involved Cassandra.   She was supposedly the daughter of the king and queen of Troy and was so beautiful that Apollo fell in love with her.  As a "gift" he gave her the power of prophecy.  But because she rejected him, he cursed her by ensuring that no one would ever listen to her warnings.  She is the personification of powerless knowledge.   She knew that the Greeks were hiding in the Trojan horse and begged the Trojans not to bring the statue into the city.  But they didn't listen.  She lived to see all her family killed and ended up a slave in the household of the Greek hero Ajax.

Of course, the Greeks weren't the only people who understood this sort of situation.  All through human history wise men and women have been able to see problems that they had no control over.  Roman philosophers no doubt understood that rampant corruption and internal politics would inevitably weaken the army to the point where the barbarians would be able to sack the Empire.  Men of science understood that the church was causing great harm by silencing and murdering men like Galileo and Bruno.  No doubt many people of sensitivity have been consumed by helpless horror while watching holocausts happen to people around them---not just the Jews, but also American Indians, slaves, Armenians, and so on.

There is a famous prayer that directly accesses this issue.  It is attributed to an American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, but he seems to have wondered if he had come across from some other source and forgotten where.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Reinhold Niebuhr
(Variations are often used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.  It is also, I think, sometimes falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.)    A similar viewpoint has been offered again and again in human history.  Consider the following which is supposed to come from a "Mother Goose" rhyme.

For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.

And this 8th century Buddhist text:

 If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,
What reason is there for dejection?
And if there is no help for it,
What use is there in being glum?
(For further info, check out the Wikipedia article on the "Serenity Prayer".)

What I think we are dealing with is a somewhat more sophisticated version of the Christian ideal of "faith".  But the faith in question isn't of the "turn off your brain and believe every stupid thing you are told" variety, but rather of the "this seems so horrible, but we need to believe that somehow God will somehow make it 'all right' in the end".    If it were the former type of faith, then there would be no need at all for the serenity prayer, because people wouldn't get so concerned in the first place.  It's the cognitive dissonance between feeling that God is both just and all powerful, yet there being horror in the world, that leads people to want to appeal to things like the Serenity Prayer in the first place.  

I would suggest that for people of discernment the idea that "Trusting that You will make all things right" just doesn't "make the nut".  I would suggest, however, that the version from Mother Goose and the Buddhist Saint might suffice, but only if they added in some extra bits.  It is logically true that fretting over things you cannot change is simply not worth the effort.  But just telling people that this is so is not sufficient to actually get them to stop fretting. 

The Daoist sage Zhuangzi does offer a practical suggestion to how to deal with this problem, however. He suggests that we adopt a specific meditation technique known as mind fasting.  He introduces this concept in Chapter Four of his book through the mouth of the sage Confucious.  

Confucious said, "Make your will one!  Don't listen with your ears, listen with your mind.  No, don't listen with your mind, listen with your spirit.  Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all things.  The Way gathers in emptiness alone.  Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.  (from Chapter four of the Zhuangzi.  The Google Texts version.) 

 The point he is trying to make is that there is a way of controlling the sorts of things that your mind chooses to fixate upon.  It is a learned skill, however, and only comes about if a person works at learning how to control what his mind does or does not choose to focus upon.  This is just like the ascetic who chooses to do a food fast and control what he put into his mouth.  In the same way, a sage learns how to control what he does or does not put into his conscious mind.

This takes two practical forms.

First, a person can choose to avoid looking at certain types of information that serve no useful purpose but instead cause worthless agitation.  In the case of modern people, this can take the form of a "new fast".  This involves refusing to look at websites, television or listen to radio that is part of the so-called "24 hr news cycle".  If someone chooses to do this, I would suggest that they very quickly realize that almost all the news that they have routinely consumed in the past has almost no real importance.  Indeed, most of it is trivial, sensational crap, much of which is irrelevant and or factually wrong.

Laozi makes a similar point in the Dao De Jing when he says:

Colors blind the eye
Sounds deafen the ear.
Flavors numb the taste.
Thoughts weaken the mind.
Desires wither the heart. 

Secondly, beyond turning off the avalanche of mind churning crap, people can learn to pick and choose what it is that they decide to think about.  This is the process some Daoists call "holding onto the One".  This is a process of reminding yourself that you are alive, that you are a human being and that you have the ability to pick and choose what it is that you are thinking about.  And moreover, that you choose to think about things that are of benefit for you, not things that cause you needless distress.

Please note, this is not the same thing as praying to a non-existent God that all things will be "made right" by some sort of miracle. It is instead, understanding how the human mind operates and refusing to allow it to run wild and make your life miserable.  The Dao is the sum total of "how the world works", not some old guy in the clouds.  But in many ways the end result is similar.  It is possible to live a life of value and worth, a life that benefits your fellow man, but one that doesn't involve constant mental anguish, if you learn to control the mind through fasting.

The similarity comes from the fact that deciding to learn the kung fu of Mind Fasting or Holding onto the One, is very similar to praying to "God" to give you faith.  On a practical level, they are both practices that you have to work at and which you get better doing with experience.  On a theoretical level, however, there is a world of difference.  The Dao as I have described it above, integrates perfectly with the modern worldview whereas the God of the Bible is an absurd holdover from the bronze age.  In doing so, I am trying to separate the practical value that "faith" has offered people for generations from the nasty ways in which the term has been used by ecclesiastic authorities to violate and abuse.

Unfortunately, as long as faith is defined by submission to a non-existent God, the religion leaves believers wide open to manipulation by ecclesiastic authorities who abuse their trust.  The Pope gets to decide what God does or does not want us to take "on faith" (simply because there really is no God who can step in and tell people directly that the Pope---or anyone else---is wrong.)  This means that the emphasis is not on learning how to control how our minds work, but rather on what we do or do not choose to focus upon.  The Daoist version, in contrast, is on learning how to control the mind and leaves what it chooses to focus upon up to the individual.

This is the difference between outside discipline and self-discipline.  It is analogous to the difference between an army recruit who is chased through boot camp by a drill sergeant and ordered to exercise and eat a certain type of food, and, a martial artist who freely chooses to exercise and eat right.  Unfortunately, for many people who would dramatically benefit from mind fasting, the church's attempts to impose their definition of faith on them in their youth has "poisoned the well" and keeps them from benefiting from this useful discipline.  This is why so many people who could really benefit from developing a "faithful" approach to life recoil in horror from the suggestion.  As a result, I would suggest for people who simply cannot accept the ideal of "faith" should instead be exposed to the concepts of "mind fasting" and "holding onto the One" instead.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


I've been thinking a lot about two issues that have enormous bearing on environmental sustainability.  The more I think about them, the more I think that we can learn a lot about them by considering two old religious ideals that have pretty much died out as parts of our shared cultural inheritance.  This blog post will be about "asceticism", the next one "surrender".

My wife and I obsess about why it is that so many people we know simply will not, indeed seem incapable of comprehending the possibility of, "doing without".  I know people who are very aware of climate change, the necessity of everyone cutting their carbon footprint, who would be considered by most other people to be "radical environmentalists"---yet still jump on a jet plane for a vacation in Paris, Thailand or Iceland.  It's as if the whole idea that someone should try to "live their values" is beyond their ability to comprehend.  In order to understand this problem, I would suggest that it would be useful to consider a religious value that seems to have died out in modern society.

" Asceticism" is very similar to the Daoist principle of "kung fu", or, intense training to develop mastery of some ability.  But the emphasis isn't on learning a particular skill so much as learning to control one's mind or passions through either doing without some normal want or need, or, insisting on doing some particular arduous task.  

Simon Stylites
The first ascetic that I ever heard of was a fellow by the name of Simon Stylites.   This was an early Christian monastic who retreated to the deserts of the Middle East (ie:  he was a "desert father") in order to live a life of contemplation.   He is famous for residing for many years on a pillar.   I remember that the school teacher who mentioned him absolutely dripped condescension.  Obviously, this guy was a poor, foolish person who threw away his life in pursuit of some silly superstition.  (Or at least that was the lesson I learned in my childhood.)

An Anchor Hold
There were other Christian ascetics.  For example, in medieval England it was not unknown for a church to have a resident "anchorite".   These were people---both men and women---who had applied for and been granted the privilege to live in a cell (or "anchor hold") that was attached to the side of the church.  There would be a hole in the wall near the altar called a "hagioscope" or "squint", through which the priest would be able to hand the bread and wine of the Eucharist to the anchorite.  Often, there would also be a window or grate on the outside of the hold, through which the Anchorite would be able to give advice to members of the community who were seeking words of wisdom.  Food and water would be passed in, a chamber pot out, but the anchorite was not supposed to ever leave the anchor hold.  Anchorites took this vow seriously, sometimes to the point of remaining in a burning church or one that was being looted by pirates.

OK.  So what has this got to do with flying to Thailand on a vacation?

The point I want to make is that at one time it was considered---very broadly speaking---a good thing to tame our desires in order to live in accordance with our values.  In itself, living on top of a stone pillar or in a room attached to a church is absurd.  But if you do it as a way of showing your contempt for the things "of this world", it is a heroic statement about the depth of your religious faith.  It was inspiring to other people.  Indeed, Simon initially started living on top of his pillar in order to avoid the mobs of people that went out to see and meet him.  These people found his example to be inspiring, if not perhaps, something that they would emulate themselves.

In contrast, people in our society are taught (just like I was as a child) that this is weird, strange behaviour.  We are taught to "enjoy" our creature comforts.  That "doing without---just because" is weird, strange and even somewhat subversive.  (When I was in university I lived without a television set.  My family thought that this was so strange that they made a point of bringing me one----and ordering me not to give it away.)

Even more so, in some instances, doing without is seen as bad, immoral behaviour.  When I was a teenager I was pretty much indifferent to my personal attire.  I can remember applying for a position with a service club where I would be an exchange student in the USA.  I found out that the reason I didn't get selected was because I didn't wear a set of "good shoes".  As a matter of fact, what I wore---some Adidas sneakers---were the only shoes I owned.  I can also remember my parents complaining about the people who lived on the local Indian reserve.  They said that they knew many of the people made very good money working in the USA building skyscrapers, but they still lived in crappy houses.  I wondered about this for years until it finally dawned on me the the Iroquois weren't materialistic like my parents----they just didn't care what their houses looked like.

Just another bad day in the Middle Ages
I think that it is easier for societies that were less materialistically "advanced" or "rich" than ours to understand that there is more to life than creature comfort.   Indeed, I think that they had their noses rubbed into the fact on a very regular basis.  They knew that famine, disease, war and God only knew what else were always around the corner conspiring to take away everything you owned and loved on a moment's notice.  If the crops failed, you would watch your children starve.  If the Viking's showed up, you could see your parents murdered and yourself sold into slavery.   The plague could arrive and kill off  most of your friends and family within a week.

Pretty brave guys, no?
Ultimately, all you could really call your own was your interior life.  For the Six Nations people I grew up near, their courage was valued much more than their homes.  This is why they make such good warriors before and ironworkers now.  It was also why people of Middle Ages were inspired by Anchorites and Ascetics of all sorts.  They saw in their example a way to transcend the horror that lurked behind everyday life through developing control over the appetites and passions of existence.

Of course, modern people only see kooks who were voluntarily living wretched lives. But I think it only looks that way from the vantage point of someone who has central heating, nice clothes and good food.  If you were living with the livestock, had lice, and had to live on porridge most of the year---and worry about all Hell breaking loose at any moment---you might value the ascetics ability to "rise above" the material elements of life.

I think in a similar way people who really care about the fate of the earth and humanity because of things like climate change should be willing to manifest a little asceticism in their lives.  If you really do care, then you should be willing to avoid unnecessary flying.  If it means taking a few days to travel by train, then so be it.  The discomfort of sleeping in a coach seat or waiting hours for a connection is not nearly as bad as being walled up in a cell or living on a stone pillar for the rest of your life.  But it is showing the people around you that you really do care about Mother Nature, and you have enough control over your body that you can suffer a little bit for it.