When I visited the Po Lin Monastery
in February of 1997, the final legs of the journey required a 45-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong to a quiet and underdeveloped island where a bus would then take you to the top of lush mountain landscape that encircled the remote buddhist temple, shrouding it quite literally in an opaque dense fog that only cleared intermittently on the day of my surreal visit. No one there spoke English—I was the only tourist there that day who could have used it— and the sole lunch option was a monk-cooked vegetarian meal eaten in silence at large round communal tables. This particular monastery was only founded in 1906 and had remained a quiet place of solitude for almost 100 years before they erected the world's largest bronze Buddha statue there in 1993. At 34 meters tall and 250 tonnes, it is a weighty mass on the landscape, lending a deeply thoughtful repose to the figure. At the time, it was one of the most foreign and otherworldly tourist places I could have visited. When I left Hong Kong a few days later though and needed a way to spend the last few bills of foreign currency I had at the airport, I should have seen the future of this place when I found this tacky souvenir—my buddha beer bottle opener key chain. Despite the obvious apostasy and desecration, for years I rubbed its tiny laminated belly whenever I was stuck in traffic, trying to remain calm by repeating the detached buddhist mantra about how pain in life is unavoidable but suffering over that pain is a choice. Meanwhile, a different kind of psychic pain was inflicted on Lantau Island where the 20x larger than life-size statue remained. In late 1997, a bridge was completed that connected the island directly to Hong Kong. In 1998, the new Hong Kong Airport—with its 40 million passengers
per year— was completed on the northern side of the island. In 2005, Hong Kong Disneyland was added to reclaimed land just off the coast of Lantau. And in 2006, a massive cable car gondola system was erected to carry passengers swiftly up to the top of the mountain almost directly from the busy airport 25 minutes below. I don't know the visitor numbers at Po Lin now, but it must number in the millions and the serenity of any spiritual retreat there has surely been lost.
Despite all this commercial despoiling of one religious location, Buddhism in general is still in good shape and from my point of view is likely to remain so for many years to come. To be clear, there are mystical elements to the belief system that I think should be forgotten. Traditional biographies
of the man who found enlightenment under a bodhi tree generally include "numerous miracles, omens, and supernatural events...including: a painless birth conceived without intercourse; no need for sleep, food, medicine, or bathing; omniscience; and the ability to suppress karma" (however that is achieved). In modern times though there has been a more concerted effort to portray a secular picture of Siddhartha Gautama's life by omitting the traditional supernatural elements of his early biographies. In any event, the ancient Indians were generally unconcerned with historical chronologies and were instead more focused on philosophy, so many of the Buddhist texts reflect this tendency and provide a clearer picture of what Gautama may have taught
rather than of the dates and events of his natural (or otherwise purported) life. In sympathy with this modern evolution of Buddhism, I have also focused more on its philosophical beliefs when I evaluated its main tenets against my worldview based on an evolutionary philosophy. Specifically, I had this to say in my Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
section on the Buddha
------------------------------------------------Guatama Buddha (563-483 BCE) spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.SurvivesGautama discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way - a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
We must strike the balances between short-term and long-term, self and society, and competition and cooperation.
Anyone preaching one or the other is overly simple.The Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Nothing wrong here once “right” is understood.Rejection of the infallibility of accepted scripture: Teachings should not be accepted unless they are borne out by our experience and are praised by the wise.
Buddha would have been a strong proponent of the scientific method for discovering truth.There is no intermediary between mankind and the divine; the Buddha is only a guide and teacher for beings who must tread the path of Nirvana themselves to attain spiritual awakening and understand reality.
Buddha would also be a strong opponent of organized religion.
Focus on the secular definition of divine being excellent and delightful.
Think of the path of Nirvana as the path filled with bliss, peace, and enlightenment.
Define your mind and personality as your spirit.
A guide for understanding the reality of these things would be wonderful.Nirvana: It is possible for sentient beings to realize a dimension of awareness that is totally unconstructed and peaceful, and end all suffering due to the mind's interaction with the conditioned world.
Suffering can be alleviated by doing what is possible to live well and accepting the world for what it is when temporary pain is unavoidable.Needs to AdaptThe Four Noble Truths: 1) suffering is an ingrained part of existence; 2) the origin of suffering is craving for sensuality, acquisition of identity, and annihilation; 3) suffering can be ended; 4) following the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to accomplish this.
Suffering does seem unavoidable, but its absolute root cause is the battle between life and death.
Sensuality and identity are necessary for life in the short and long run.
Suffering comes when we are unable to balance the needs of the short-term and the needs of the long-term.
Pain is inflicted when others are unable to strike this balance, or the bodies or environments we inherited fail to provide life.Gone ExtinctRebirth is the doctrine that upon death the evolving consciousness becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new aggregation. The consciousness in the new person is neither identical nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Rebirth is conditioned by the karmas (actions of body, speech, and mind) of previous lives; good karmas will yield a happier rebirth, bad karmas will produce one which is more unhappy. The basic cause for this is the abiding of consciousness in ignorance; when ignorance is uprooted, rebirth ceases.
There is no such thing as reincarnation.
Neither is there any way for learned behaviors or non-genetic changes to the body to be passed on to descendants.
Capabilities can be passed on.
Culture can be passed on.
Focus on realizing your capabilities and contributing to a life-giving culture and you can be happy with the one life you lead.
Please take a moment to share your own thoughts about this tradition if you think I have missed or misrepresented anything crucial to its consideration. As always, your words are welcome.
The Tao Te Ching
is a short text comprising only about 5,000 Chinese characters organised into 81 brief sections. I can't read the original language version, but scholars say
the writing style is "laconic, has few grammatical particles, and encourages varied, even contradictory interpretations. The rhetorical style combines two major strategies: short, declarative statements and intentional contradictions. The first of these strategies creates memorable phrases, while the second forces us to create our own reconciliations of the supposed contradictions." My taoist reaction to that is, 'Yuck! That is only a wisdom of uncertainty.' But let's see some of this style in action to further evaluate these contradictions.IneffableThe Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
These are the famous first lines of the Tao Te Ching,
stating that the Tao is "ineffable, nameless, goes beyond distinctions, and transcends language." We saw last week
in my examination of the Upanishads
that this kind of slipperiness of thought may be useful to keep the critics at bay, and while it can
help to elicit humility, it also lacks the ability to promote necessary progress. While I appreciate this attempt at balance
between black and white (that are really shades of gray) in comparison to the separation
into black and white that is common in Judeo-Christian origins, a la
the 10 Commandments
, I find that these eastern traditions go too far, promoting a "certainty of uncertainty" that is wrong, maddening, and wasteful towards opportunity. This is a common theme among Asian wisdom traditions though, and unfortunately it will come up again in my critiques of Buddhism
. For a sad look at how this has carried through to modern times, suffer through this video
of last week's debate between Richard Dawkins and Deepak Chopra. Contained within the Tao
though is possibly the original and primary example of this philosophical vacuity.EmptinessWe put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
Circumference, area, volume, and space, are not 'things that are not'. Failure to see this should not demean the sight of other worthwhile works. Taking advantage of what there is though, here is what I recognised as what is useful and what is not within the general writings of the Tao
------------------------------------------------------------Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching (~600 BCE) traditionally considered the foundation of philosophical Taoism. According to Chinese traditions, Lao Tzu lived in the 6th century BCE. By the mid-twentieth century a consensus had emerged among scholars that the historicity of Lao Tzu was doubtful or unprovable and that the Tao Te Ching was a compilation of Taoist sayings by many hands.SurvivesAccording to the Tao Te Ching, humans have no special place within the Tao, being just one of its many manifestations. People have desires and free will and thus are able to alter their own nature.
This is correct.Needs to AdaptMany people act "unnaturally," upsetting the natural balance of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching intends to lead students to a return to their natural state, in harmony with Tao. Technology may bring about a false sense of progress. The answer provided by Lao Tzu is not the rejection of technology, but instead seeking the calm state of wu wei. Wu wei, literally "non-action" or "not acting," is a central concept of the Tao Te Ching. The concept is very complex and reflected in the words' multiple meanings; it can mean not doing anything, not forcing, not acting (in the theatrical sense), creating nothingness, acting spontaneously, and flowing with the moment. It includes the concepts that value distinctions are ideological and seeing ambition of all sorts as originating from the same source. Lao Tzu used the term broadly with simplicity and humility as key virtues, often in contrast to selfish action. On a political level, it means avoiding such circumstances as war, harsh laws and heavy taxes. Some Taoists see a connection between wu wei and esoteric practices, such as the "sitting in oblivion," emptying the mind of bodily awareness and thought.
Many people do upset the world with their actions, but the “natural state” of humans and animals is not something that should be returned to.
The natural state was characterized by heavy competition, which required short-term-focused actions just to stay alive.
Humans face little competition anymore except among themselves.
It is time to progress to a cooperative long-term focus.
That is the true way.
That will not look like sitting in oblivion, but it will involve falling into the flow states described by positive psychology.
The political suggestions are correct, but do not go far enough to explain the true purpose of government - the correcting of markets so as to ensure progress towards the survival of the species.Gone ExtinctThe numerous passages of the Tao Te Ching are ambiguous, and topics range from political advice for rulers to practical wisdom for people. Because the variety of interpretation is virtually limitless, not only for different people but for the same person over time, readers do well to avoid making claims of objectivity or superiority.
This kind of ambiguity must be clarified.
The claims of subjectivity over objectivity are the claims of the relativistic nihilist.
As living things, the long-term survival of life is an objective good.
Everything else flows from this.
In 1944, W. Somerset Maugham
published The Razor's Edge,
a book about an American fighter pilot traumatised by his experiences in World War I who sets off to find transcendent meaning in his life and ends up finding some in India. The epigraph to the book—taken from one of the Hindu Upanishads
—reads, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.
" It's a powerful metaphor symbolising the straight and narrow path we must tread in the attempt to lead a good life. A step to the side in either direction can lead to a difficult fall. This is one of the great thoughts from a text and a way of life that has had a long line of influence on the world.
Probably one of the oddest circumstances these ideas were ever to exert an influence over were the events surrounding the 1984 film adaptation of Maugham's book. According to an interview with the movie's director John Byrum, he had wanted to film an adaptation of The Razor's Edge in the early 1980s. Around this time, Byrum brought a copy of the book to his friend Margaret "Mickey" Kelley who was in the hospital after giving birth to her and her husband Bill Murray's child. Byrum said he got a call the next day at four AM, "and it was Mickey's husband, Bill [Murray]. He said, 'This is Larry, Larry Darrell'"—the hero protagonist and main man in search of meaning. Byrum and Murray subsequently drove off across America to write the screenplay.
This was in 1982, right after Murray had ascended to the Mount Olympus of America's comedy gods by following up his three year stint on Saturday Night Live
(1977-1980) with starring roles in Meatballs
(1980), and Stripes
(1981). Thirty years later, after watching Murray's sad clown career unfold, this choice of his makes a bit more sense, but at the time no one was willing to accept this new direction from the golfing groundskeeper nemesis of gophers. While Murray was attached to the project, Byrum could not get a studio to finance The Razor's Edge
. Only later, when Dan Aykroyd suggested that Murray could appear in Ghostbusters
for Columbia Pictures in exchange for the studio greenlighting his passion project, were Murray and Byrum able to cut a deal with Columbia.
Filmed first, but released after Ghostbusters
, The Razor's Edge
was a commercial and critical failure. Reviews described it as "disjointed", "slow, overlong and ridiculously overproduced." Roger Ebert called it "flawed" and said the hero was "too passive, too contained, too rich in self-irony, to really sweep us along in his quest." Ebert placed the blame on Murray's shoulders, saying he "plays the hero as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man." Meanwhile, Ghostbusters
became the highest-grossing film of 1984. Talk about a precipitous drop in either direction—one towards trivial, supernatural buffoonery that was lapped up by the masses; the other towards an intellectually immature foray that was rejected by the intelligentsia. Poor Bill, just 34 years old at the time, failed to negotiate the narrow path between.
Upset over the failure of Razor's Edge
, Murray took four years off from acting to study philosophy and history at the Sorbonne, and spend time with his family in their upstate New York Home, something akin to a Walden
's Wood retreat. Had Murray followed this trail many years later and randomly come across my own historical and philosophical forays, he would have seen that I had this to say about the Upanishads
and their fitness for survival in today's world:
_________________________________________________________Upanishads (12th century BCE is the best guess for the first Upanishads) are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion. 200 or so are known but the first ten, the Mukhya, are the oldest and most important. The most recent of these were written in the last few centuries BCE.Survives3. Death as Teacher - The preferable and the pleasurable approach man. The intelligent one examines both and separates them. Yea, the intelligent one prefers the preferable to the pleasurable, (whereas) the ignorant one selects the pleasurable. Arise, awake, and learn by approaching the exalted ones, for that path is sharp as a razor’s edge, impassable, and hard to go by, say the wise.
Finding the balance between short-term and long-term, competition and cooperation, self and society, is indeed difficult but necessary for life in the fullest sense.Needs to Adapt1. The Inner Ruler - Protect your Self through detachment. Do not covet, for whose is wealth?
We are part of this world and desires are natural and necessary for the progress that saves us. Recognize the need for flexible detachment.
Covet wisely what is truly needed for oneself and society. The nature of Self is: "That moves, that does not move; that is far off, that is very near; that is inside all this, and that is also outside all this."
This mystical riddle intended to broaden one’s awareness should simply be replaced with the need to recognize that the individual is also part of a larger society and larger ecosystem of life. Theoretical grasp about Self is called Vidya, while to take delusory experiences perceived through the senses as true, constitutes Avidya. He who knows these two - both Vidya and Avidya together - attains immortality by transcending them.
Actual immortality is not reached this way, but you must know your senses, your reason, and discovered knowledge to understand reality.Gone Extinct2. Who Moves the World? - It is the Ear behind the ears, Mind behind the mind, Speech behind speech, Vital Life behind life.
A mystical riddle to try to imply supernatural gods at work in the universe.
There are no such things.
The gravitational pull of the sun moves the world.
Ask a more precise question for a more precise answer.4. Questions - What is the root cause of this world? The union of Spirit and Matter, Spirit being Prana or life force. How many divine elements hold the body? Space, air, fire, water, and earth (matter), and speech, mind, eye, and ear (senses) say they hold the body, but Prana holds them all. How does Prana come into and leave the body? Prana divides himself into five forms. When death comes, life is carried to heaven (if good), hell (if sinful), or the world (if both). Which elements sleep? The way all sunrays go back to the sun at sunset, so all senses go back to their master, the Mind. What do you get from meditating on the holy syllable of Om? One who meditates will merge with the supreme reality. Who is the person with sixteen divine attributes? This is the highest Brahman; there is nothing higher.
Life is the force behind all that is good in the universe.
Modern science has given us a much stronger understanding of the origins, divisions, and complexity of life.
There is no heaven or hell or even souls to go to such places, and reincarnation is certainly impossible in any meaningful way that would transfer individual consciousness.
Whatever life brings together, death destroys forever.
(In this sense, decaying fossils could still be said to be dying.) Sleep is much better understood; some facts about it remain to be discovered, but since rays do not go back to the sun at sunset, this is a poor metaphor for furthering any understanding.
Meditation has been found to relax the mind and body, which has long-term health benefits associated with the reduction in stress, but this does nothing to instruct us about reality other than to make our minds clearer for learning and thinking.
Positive psychology is finding more than 16 attributes that humans have found to be necessary to live the good life.
There is nothing divine about any of this and there will always be higher excellence to attain.
A priesthood (Brahman) teaching falsehoods as truths and claiming to own knowledge through divine revelation has no claims on the highest levels of personal development.5. Two Modes of Knowing - The knowledge that leads to Self Realization is Great or Divine Knowledge and everything else is Knowledge of the Material World. Though Knowledge of the Material World enables one to earn one’s bread and helps one to understand each object of the universe separately, it does not show the Ultimate Reality or Root Cause of this universe. To attain ultimate salvation, knowledge of supreme reality is attained through the practice of monkhood. Desires cause rebirth in the world and one who renounces all desires will have no such rebirth.
There is no reason to separate knowledge into divine or profane categories.
Truth is truth.
No monks own it with a special brand of thinking, and no one gains anything by sitting still and suppressing all desires.
Desires must be understood and channeled into action in this world.6. Consciousness and its Phases - There are three letters in the word aum. The a stands for the state of wakefulness. The u stands for the dream state. In the state of deep sleep, represented by the sound m, there is no desire and consciousness is gathered in upon itself. But there is a fourth, transcendent state, invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the Ātman, the Self; this is to be realized.
Consciousness and brain wave states of wakefulness and sleep are better understood now.
The empty state of meditation is merely another such state, beneficial though it is for small doses of rest.7. From Food to Joy - describes the various degrees of happiness enjoyed by the different beings in creation through many meditations.
Meditation is nice, but it is not the goal of life.
The goal should never be an attempt to remove oneself from life.8. The Microcosm of Man - The Self only was in the beginning. He thought, “Let me now create the worlds." He created water, light rays, death, and elements such as water. He thought, “Here are now the worlds. Let me create their controllers." He brought out man and gave him shape.
Another Genesis-like origin story before science uncovered evolution back to the big bang.9. Song and Sacrifice - Many meditation practices. Also says, “That thou art,” an expression of the equal non-difference and difference between the individual self as a part of the whole.
Again, too much emphasis on meditation instead of learning and action.
Also, we are discrete organisms that act within the universe, not some mystical oneness with everything to be thought about and not thought about.
Know thyself is a much better dictum.10. Great Wilderness - the most detailed and magnificent revelation of the ancient philosopher-seers, which, in its six chapters packed with thought and revelation, provides to the students a practically exhaustive and concentrated teaching on every aspect of life, making it an indispensable guidebook to the student of literature as well as the philosopher, the religious devotee, and the mystical and spiritual seeker engaged in meditation for divine realization.
There is no such thing as divine realization.
Meditation cannot find it.
The lack of scientific knowledge at the time it was written and the premise of mystical divinity make this unworthy of a detailed analysis.
It is dismissed as a whole even though some common sense recommendations are contained within.
I read that now and think that it all comes across as a harsh and disjointed analysis of a scattered and disjointed philosophy. But in my defence, it was ridiculously hard to pin down a tight summary of the Upanishads, and I'm sure I was feeling quite frustrated by the experience. I suspect that like many mystical mounds of mumbo jumbo their slipperiness is what allows them to survive and continue to be explored and closely interpreted by people searching for meaning in this meaningless universe. When Ockham takes his razor to it though, and succinctness and brevity is enforced, very little of it survives the cut.
Quick, can you name the 10 Commandments? I'll give you a minute. … … Ok, time's up. If you're anything like Georgia's Republican Representative Lynn Westmoreland—even though he co-sponsored a bill to place them in public buildings—you probably can't. (Watch his hilariously infuriating interview with Stephen Colbert in the clip on the right.) Why is that? Because they just aren't relevant anymore and, despite what religious people profess, no one actually lives by them.
I watched Chariots of Fire
again a few weeks ago and was struck by the (based on a true) story of one of the British athletes who competed in the1924 Olympics. He decided
that he wouldn't run a heat on a Sunday because that would have gone against his beliefs to keep the sabbath day holy (which is Commandment #4 if you haven't spotted them yet). For that belief, he sacrificed his chance at another gold medal (he won a different one). Can you imagine any footballers—especially the ones who love to thank god for every touchdown he bestows upon them—taking such a principled moral stance today? Of course not. Even though the Olympics was an amateur event back then and the footballers are highly (over)paid professionals today.
As I begin my look at the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
, I recognise that it's questionable even to call Moses and his Ten Commandments
a work of philosophy. Where's the debate? The dissection? The discussion? The nuance? They're just unquestionable rules shouted down from a mountain top and chiseled into stone as if they were rules for eternity. But since these are some of the earliest written forms of our moral beliefs, they are as good a place as any to start my review of thinking through the ages in light of our current understanding. So, let's get to it. In the first edition of my philosophy, I wrote:
__________________________________________ Moses and the Ten Commandments (14th-12th, 7th, or 6th century BCE are the best guesses for their origin) Survives Thou shalt not: 7. Commit adultery; 8. Steal; 9. Bear false witness.
These are required in a trusting, cooperative society. Needs to Adapt Thou shalt: 5. Honor thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt not: 6. Kill; 10. Covet.
Don’t honor people that are wrong.
Killing in self-defense or in defense of a just nation is ok because it leads to the long-term survival of the species.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting things that others have.
Just find your own.
Don’t take theirs.
And make sure you want the right things. Gone Extinct Thou shalt: 1. Have no other gods; 2. Have no graven images or likenesses; 3. Not take the Lord’s name in vain; 4. Remember the Sabbath day.
The first four commandments are clearly not concerned with the survival of the species - they are concerned with the survival of the religion.
They have no relevance anymore.
Basically, I have given these Commandments the same level of respect for nuanced thinking that they have given us. It was a crude start to philosophising, so it gets a quick and dirty analysis. Three survive intact. Three are right some of the time. Four have no bearing on our continued survival. This leaves us with about four and a half of the ten Commandments as still surviving…which is actually 1.5 more than the religious Congressman could remember. Do you agree? How many do you abide by? Think about that the next time you hear a religious demagogue shout about the unerring word of god. He's trying to stand on stone that has already crumbled beneath the marching feet of history.
Hi all! I've been hard at work over the last six weeks putting the finishing touches on several writing and design projects and giving a fresh new look to my website. On evphil.com, there's a new Home
page, new About
page, new arrangement of the Philosophy
pages, new fonts, a new logo, a new tag line (Contemplating the Past. Choosing the Destination.), and maybe best of all, a new page for my Greatest Hits
on the blog so far. On that last one, I've got a couple of fun pictures now mapping out the most important topics I've blogged about so far as I work to expose and adapt the philosophy that sits behind my writing and my life.
Next week, I'll get back into the swing of things by forging on to the Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
section of the philosophy. That promises to be a controversial sweep through history, but before I get to that, take a look around the website and let me know what you think of the redesign. And if you missed any of those greatest blog hits, now's the perfect time to catch up and leave a comment on whatever topic interests you the most. Thanks as always for your support—it's good to be back!
Positano, Italy and New Lanark, Scotland. The one on the left is the most physically beautiful city I have ever seen. The one on the right was the most beautiful experiment
in idealized communal working and living that I have ever known. These are amazing places, yet they don't hold a candle to the dreams of perfect worlds that mankind has continually invented as both escapes from the real world and inspirations to make ours better. When Thomas Moore described his own perfect society in 1516, he coined the term Utopia to name it—perhaps in a fit of pessimism. The word itself came from the Greek: οὐ
("not") and τόπος
("place"), so it literally means "no place". He may have been playing with irony though as the homonym eutopia
, derived from the Greek εὖ
("good" or "well") and τόπος
("place"), sounds exactly the same and is closer to the sense we mean we think of our ideal "good places". In the rewrite of Evolutionary Philosophy that is coming, I'll adopt this more romantic term of eutopia now that I've thought it over, but in the meantime, here is the sketch of my utopia
that I have added to the cannon that dreamers have built through history. May it inspire all (ola
) places (topias
).Human conceptions of perfection are best captured in the attributes they give to their gods, the most revered of which are omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal. By striving to survive, humans are striving for these goals whether they realize it or not. Progress in computer science and information technology is enabling all people to know all things. Practical omniscience about public facts and theories is sprouting. Connecting inanimate objects through the Internet is enabling us to control our things at the touch of a button or even with just a thought. Progress in politics, business, community organizing, and social networks, is allowing us to spread our influence as far as our ideas will take us. This is what omnipotence for all looks like. Nanotechnology, recycling, and automation have the potential to eliminate scarcity of the goods we need. Renewable energies have the potential to power the world. Aerospace and terraforming technologies have the potential to find us new suitable environments. Biotechnology and gerontology have the potential to eliminate death and disease. At the end of these technologies, human life could become blissful and eternal. If evolution is the term we use to describe the changes that take place during the struggle between life and death, then the end of evolution would be the end of that struggle. If we unite behind this idea, we can reach this goal.
I've come a long way now in the quest to know thyself
. I've considered where I've come from
and where I am
. I looked at what I'm made of: my body
, my mind
, my emotions
, and my personality
, levels of it. I tried to see where I'm headed—through life
and on into death
. I thought about others too—other individuals
, our collective culture
, and our social systems of education
, and justice
. Then I wrapped up by examining things
, and ideas about gods
, and art
. Did I have all the answers? Well, kinda. :-) Or, at least, I had my own answers. But perhaps most importantly, I tried to get all of the questions. If you've followed along on this journey at all, I hope it's given you the chance to ask your own questions about the meaning of your life, to consider deeply the answers you provide for yourself—to live an examined life as it were. Would that more members of society did this thoroughly, openly, and honestly, well, that just might lead to a real eutopia.
Now that this path through the Know Thyself section of Evolutionary Philosophy is complete, I'll be taking a break from blogging for a few weeks to tweak the website a bit and hopefully make it more accessible. I'll be back soon though to continue these weekly essays by interrogating 60 of the most famous philosophers of history to see which of their ideas have gone extinct, need to adapt, or survive today. It'll be a Survival of the Fittest Philosophers
! Please stay tuned.
A floating iceberg, melting under the warm summer sun in an Icelandic lagoon. Beautiful isn't it? The clarity of the light. The uncommonly blue ice that hints at the slow geologic processes grinding away over timescales that far outstrip our short lives. The ephemeral slenderness of that ancient ice disappearing in an arch. The shredded clouds and shrouded mountains that tell of strong winds, high places, and grand vistas too often lacking from our safe, urban, civilized lives. The whole scene evokes strong feelings of awe, humility, and for me, a satisfaction of having worked very hard to see this and capture it. It's an artistic photograph.
In last week's post, I laid down some basic definitions for aesthetics
that described how what is beautiful is what is good
. Now, I want to take that definition of beauty and apply it to the field most concerned with such realms, the field that I have chosen to work in after many practical years in engineering and business—the field of art. So much of my previous work experience revolved around rational decisions: choosing the right structural material; proceeding with construction tasks in a logical order; measuring costs and comparing them to revenues; mapping business processes to look for redundancies or gaps. These were challenging but ultimately straightforward problems to solve. There was always a "right" answer. Increasingly, however, as the complexity of the work I was involved in grew, and the larger and grayer the areas of concern became, rational arguments no longer held total sway. Big decisions, big changes, in areas too complicated for any solution to be perfectly right, were too often discussed or chosen or resisted on more elemental emotional bases. In the face of conflicting evidence and experience, many times it was just easier for people to "go with their guts" than it was for them to buckle down and really calculate what the least worst options were. When I got the opportunity to leave this frustrating world for a mid-career break and a chance at becoming the writer and philosopher I've always wished I could be, I was very cognizant of the need to develop my ability to reach people not just rationally, but emotionally as well if I was going to be successful.
If you want to change the world (and who doesn't?), you have to learn to change individuals. If you want to change individuals, you have to know how people work, you have to know how to change yourself, you have to know thyself
. We are rational and emotional
creatures. To move both of these elements, you have to touch minds and hearts. Obviously, the development of my philosophy required a preponderance of rational thought and it appeals directly to that system in others. But I also knew from my practical experiences that those ideas alone would not carry the day. I needed the complement of moving people emotionally. I needed an artistic touch. This is why I write fiction as a companion to my philosophy. In the hope of seeing better living through better thinking, I want to discuss my philosophy of the world AND I want to tell stories that illustrate this worldview and affect people at levels other than the purely rational ones. Therefore, when discussing the philosophy of aesthetics, the following statements capture, and are consistent with, my belief about the purpose of art:Science is the root method of gathering knowledge. Engineering is knowledge applied to the physical world. Business is knowledge applied to the economic world. Politics is knowledge applied to the realm of government. Medicine is knowledge applied to the body. Art is knowledge applied to the emotions. Science finds knowledge. Art uses knowledge to inspire. (It can also inspire scientists.) Art causes emotional responses so it often draws emotional people to it, but great art is created by rational processes, filled with knowledge, fueled by emotion, and executed with skill. Bad art is blind emotion that purports falsehoods for truth.
The purpose of art is to inspire life. Making bad things known can inspire good living by telling us what to avoid. Showing good things provides aspirations by showing us what to do or strive for. Tolstoy was wrong. Every unhappy family is simply shortsighted in some way. Happy families have an infinite number of interesting and difficult ways to proceed with long and rich lives.
Those last few lines are a reference to the opening sentence of Anna Karenina
, which is widely and justifiably recognized as one of the greatest novels ever written. Tolstoy's opening line though is as famous as it is wrong: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Happy families and happy scenes are not all alike, and the romantic in me wants to see more examples of them held up for inspiration. Those are the emotions I attempt to appeal to with my art, as inspired by my philosophy. (See Draining the Swamp
for my first example, but many more are to come soon.)
As a final note on aesthetics, I mention the field of music in passing, which has long been regarded as a bit of an enigma by philosophers, being such a highly symbolic art form removed from more direct representations of reality. For me though—especially as I have tried to learn how to cope with the solitary writing life—music is a ready companion always there to help me manage my emotions. Accordingly, I had this to say about it:Music seems to affect emotional states quickly and directly - it can change, express, or amplify our moods. It should be composed and consumed with this in mind since it can be a powerful aid to navigating the world while riding the elephant of our emotional unconsciousness. Choose your music as you choose your path. Be energized, thoughtful, purposeful, or calm; don’t wallow or give in to rage, vengeance, or oblivion.
To see what I'm talking about, I thought I would share one of my favorite clips of inspirational music. It was taken during a Ukrainian folk performance in 2003 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chernivtsi. I don't know any of the words, and I doubt many of you will either, but see if you can listen to this 3:47 clip and not feel inspired to march out and do something important to you. Go on. Just give in to the feeling...
What is beauty? In the last two weeks I made the case that morality - our definitions of what is "good" - can ultimately be anchored to the natural world by recognizing that morals must be rules that help all of life survive over the long term
. They could not be anything else or these rules themselves would not survive. Ethics therefore have an objective measure - one that may be difficult to know over a long timescale filled with immense complexity - but an objective measure nonetheless. What about aesthetics
then? The longstanding and pervasive view that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" seems to suggest that aesthetics something different, that aesthetics is a subjective field filled with personal judgments from sensitive souls set inside an influencing landscape of cultural relativism. When you travel around the world or look at the development of art through history, you see very different representations of beauty: Vogue's rail thin models, Gauguin's plump Polynesians, Japanese Zen gardens, Jackson Pollock's paint drippings, a delicate rose, a powerful stallion, a touching novel, an elegant spreadsheet. (Or am I the only one who has ever exclaimed, "That's beautiful!" during an annual budget meeting?) The obvious question arises - how can these beautiful things have anything in common? At its heart though, beauty is just a word we use to name a quality that we like, that moves us, that pleases us. If we've already defined good
as "that which promotes the long term survival of life," how can we really like something that is bad, that is against that? Does beauty, does aesthetics, like morality, like good, have its roots in the natural world? Before I state my case as to why I think this is true, let's look at a few beautiful or ugly pictures.
What does this photo make you think of? Vivid colors? Cool temperatures? The fire of life? Dying leaves? Raking? Shortening daylight? Death and decay? Schmaltzy sentiment? Approaching holidays? Shallow depths of field? Derivative and ubiquitous picture blurring? All of this and more? Now tell me, is this photo beautiful or ugly?
And what about this one? Strong chin? Excellent realism? State propaganda? Revolutionary ideas? Mass murder?
Chaos? Impossible passage? Mangrove swamps as life's nursery? Rich soils dense with plants? Mosquitoes? Sun dappled vistas? Dark corners? Deadly snakes? Tasty fish?
Austere landscapes? Safe views? High ground in the distance? Hot and dry? Tasty minerals? Lack of shade? Nowhere to hide?
All four of these pictures - like most everything in life - have elements of good and bad within them. It is up to us to focus on the beautiful qualities that please us or the ugly characteristics that do not. In my Evolutionary Philosophy though, I point out what these beautiful and ugly things have in common.
What promotes the long-term survival of life? Knowledge. Health. Progress. Stability. Exploration. Efficiency. Brightness. Abundance. Comfort. Security. Fecundity. Clarity. These are beautiful and good. What threatens the long-term survival of life? Ignorance. Disease. Stagnation. Conflict. Chaos. Isolation. Waste. Darkness. Scarcity. Discomfort. Vulnerability. Barrenness. Obscurity. These are ugly and bad. Objects have many qualities. Depending on the context, focus, and cognitive appraisal of the observer, objects can be either beautiful or ugly. This is why the idea of beauty is objective to general reality, but the beauty of an object is subjective to the specific observer.
Just as morals grow in depth as timespans lengthen, beauty can be said to deepen the more it endures. Even if you believe it is better to burn out than to fade away, those are not the only two choices. Best of all is to burn strongly, providing more and more warmth as the decades or centuries roll by.
So ethics and aesthetics are intrinsically linked and objectively based on what promotes our survival. Once again, the evolutionary perspective yields deep understandings about ourselves and the world we live in. Isn't that a beautiful thing?
The iconic kangaroo. I loved seeing and just enjoying the movements of these cute animals when I lived in Australia, but besides their novelty, they always made me think of other themes from our past as well. Their newness to me reminded me of the European discovery of Australia and its strange animals in 1770 by Captain James Cook. When Charles Darwin visited Australia towards the tail end of his five year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle (1831-1836)
, the new branch of mammals found on this isolated continent helped firmly solidify the theory of evolution that Darwin had been contemplating. This would, of course, have major implications on our understanding of the history of the world and our place within it, but for much of Australia, this knowledge came too late after we had already irrevocably altered its giant but fragile ecosystem. Now, our evolutionary and ecological understandings make us tread much more cautiously around endemic species in isolated habitats, but did we care about that at all when red foxes
were introduced in 1845 for the purposes of sport hunting? Or when Thomas Austin
released 24 rabbits, also for the pleasure of hunting, in 1859? Were there any moral attitudes in societies at that time that looked out for anything larger than the tribe? Or was nature still under the dominion of man, something to just be ruled over by a benevolent or iron-fisted outsider? It's hard to say what was in the minds of men at that time, but it is certain that we know better now. Or at least we should.
Last week I discussed how morals are nothing more than rules for survival
. If they contradicted this purpose, if they were rules that encouraged behavior that led to extinctions, then those rules would necessarily die out too. But through trial and error over tens of thousands of years, we've come up with a fairly robust set of rules and norms that have led to the booming survival of our species. We have been so successful at developing rules that work for us that in fact we are now in danger of becoming victims of that success. Our continued survival and expansion now threatens the survival of many other forms of life that we depend on. And luckily, some of us have noticed. Our morals, our beliefs about what is right and wrong, are changing and expanding to include new rules about our behavior towards things like recycling, animal poaching, energy conservation, wetlands protection, national parks, etc. These beliefs, these morals, did not exist 300 years ago. What changed? How do our morals evolve?
The study of life is known as biology. Within that field, like much of the rest of the world, the areas of study have subdivided and subdivided into narrower and narrower points of view. With this division of focus, with this division of the mental labor of academics, two things arose: a great increase in the production of knowledge about life, but also a great decrease in the perspective any one person has about the entire field. This results in the same "mental mutilation
" of the soul of man that Adam Smith warned about in The Wealth of Nations
when he first discussed the division of labor as an economic theory. This doesn't just apply to the knowledge of pin-makers (to use Adam Smith's prime example), but even in the case at hand to knowledge of life in all of its forms. This is a great danger. In his landmark 1998 book Consilience
, the entomologist / zoologist / biologist E.O. Wilson issued a clarion call to find a way to unite these biological sciences, to find a way to bring broad wisdom back into a field that like so many others had become deep and separated into narrow silos. (Really, this consilience is required across all of our human endeavors - that is what an Evolutionary Philosophy strives for - but since we're just discussing ethics and morality
as rules for the survival of life, we can just focus in this essay on joining together knowledge about life.) The disparate fields were at that time generally divided into two camps: the "skin ins" and the "skin outs." The skin ins
look at the biological processes that occur within a single organism - the chemistry, the molecules, and the cells that churn away below the surface. The skin outs
look at individuals as a whole and the interactions between individual organisms - between societies of similar individuals, between separate species who share an ecology, and how species and ecologies adapt over evolutionary timescales. The way E.O. Wilson proposed to unite these fields of biology was simply to recognize their dependence on one another across a continuum of time and space from the smallest of those units to the largest. For me, having recognized that morals are merely rules for the survival of life, this means that when considering a philosophy of morality, you must go hand in hand across this continuum with the actual study of life. Accordingly, I wrote the following piece of philosophy about this new layer of consilience:According to the magnitude of time and space adopted for analysis, the basic divisions of biology from bottom to top are as follows: biochemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, organismic biology, sociobiology, ecology, and evolutionary biology. I believe that morals can also be understood on the same timeline as these biological scales. For example, no real moral judgments are made at the bottom of these timelines at biochemical, molecular, and cellular levels because our bodies just react to stimulus the way they do and there's not much we can do to control or judge reactions such as metabolism, blinking, and neuronal firing. At the scale of the organism though, we have not only instantaneous reactions, but also actions separated by a lifetime, and everything in between. With free will over this time horizon, organisms can act in ways that are dangerous or harmful to themselves. To compensate, we have also developed emotional responses and morals to guide our actions along healthier paths. Some of those responses are immediate and innate - fear of heights, the thrill of the chase, disgust over rotten food, the sadness of loss, the joy of gain. These are understood by simply studying morals at the biological level of the survival of the organism. Some emotional responses take time to develop though and guide actions focused on the longer term, such as empathy, altruism, and justice. These longer-term morals can be seen to come into play over the time horizon of sociobiology. Social species have learned the power of group cooperation to beat out even the best individuals, and how creation of a society requires its own set of emotions - some innate, some taught through culture - and the enforcement of short-term individual sacrifices for the long-term benefit of the group. Animals have developed emotions, morals, hierarchies, and institutions to help reinforce these long-term focused behaviors, but they still face occasional conflict with their short-term desires that were developed earlier in the evolution of the species. How an animal handles that conflict can be said to determine its character and wisdom. While genes and environment combine to mold the personality of any animal, humans have also developed reason, which gives us another way to control our emotions and define our personality. Reason gives us a higher level of free will to choose which emotions guide our moral choices. Because of this, humans are now uniquely in the process of evolving morals for the next steps on the biological scale - the ones of ecology and evolutionary biology. Through the success of our species, we now have unprecedented ability to impact the ecosystems around us and the genes within us. We can also use our scientific tools and historical records to see and understand those impacts over timelines that are far longer than generations can remember. We must cement our sociobiological morals, but the evolution of our morals to understand right and wrong behavior over longer timescales is exactly what is necessary for the species to survive over those timescales. We must learn to keep thinking in the longest of long-terms or face extinction over the short to medium term. As morality evolves, this is where new rules will develop.
This brings us back to the story of the kangaroos and the development of new morals over the last 300 years. We are growing more and more aware of our need to look after and cooperate with all of life for longer and longer timelines if we are to have any hope of survival for ourselves as a species in general or for our successive generations as individuals. The more we can learn from the sciences that fall within the realms of biology, sociology, ecology, and evolution, the more we can inform the norms and rules of society that make up our morality and ethical systems. We will still require great wisdom to learn how to balance the competing needs of individuals, societies, species, and ecosystems over the short term of individual lives and the long term of species evolution. We will still make mistakes balancing these hard choices. But the sooner we recognize that the survival of life is the goal of morality and the life sciences can give us more information about what actions promote that survival, the less mistakes we will make and the more our morals will actually work. This is the answer to how science can, does, and will continue to play a role in morality.
In 532 AD, Emperor Justinian had Hagia Sofia constructed in Constantinople - the "new" capital of the Roman Empire. It was intended to be "the greatest church in all of Christendom" and it was for almost 1,000 years until Mehmed the Conqueror took the city for the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and changed the building into a mosque. The gold icons of saints were plastered over and arabic inscriptions from the Koran were hung on the walls instead. After a mere 500 years in this condition, the Ottoman Empire fell as a result of World War I. A few years later in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the secular Republic of Turkey, transformed the building into the public museum that it is today with both Christian and Muslim symbols on display side by side. During this entire history, the rules of society as dictated by religion came and went. They also evolved and changed with the times. So if religion, which professes to have the permanent and righteous rules of morality, can come and go over the ages with the ebbs and flows of empires, where does morality really come from? Is there some other more permanent source for it?
In my last three posts (The Evolution of God
, The Arguments for God
, and The World Without Religion
), I covered the stance on religion that I take as part of my Evolutionary Philosophy. To me, religion is clearly something we need to evolve beyond and leave behind as a relic of our superstitious, pre-scientific society. But where do we go next? What rules for morality can we come up with to replace the ancient books written by ignorant ancients? If those rules have lasted this long, shouldn't they be respected? In the ongoing journey to know thyself
, it's time to turn my attention to Ethics and Morality
. Here are a few things I've written about that subject:Morality is a system of ideas about right and wrong conduct. A traditional view of social scientists has been that morality is a construct, and thus culturally relative, but cross-cultural studies of ethical beliefs find six foundations for morality: 1) harm/care; 2) fairness/reciprocity; 3) liberty; 4) ingroup/loyalty; 5) authority/respect; 6) purity/sanctity. These are merely rules to promote survival. How else would these rules survive? In essence, it is immoral to do something that is harmful to the long-term survival of life. Morality is relative simply when different cultures have different beliefs about which actions are right for the long term. Some beliefs are based on traditions and myths, others are based on scientifically discovered knowledge, and others are still being formed as the evidence comes in. We must use rational knowledge to inform our morals; otherwise we risk actions that imperil the species.
This is a key point that I want to reemphasize. If you believe that morals are simply rules that a society has invented either through formal religions or informal customs, then of course moral relativism will be the overarching conclusion you reach about how to evaluate moral systems around the world, and once they become relative, they become ungrounded, meaningless, mere traditions to either follow blindly or subvert. If, on the other hand, you believe morals are universal laws handed down to us from a god, then you either believe your god has the right rules, or you believe that the one true god is basically handing down the same rules to people all over the world and we imperfect humans have just not figured out how to reconcile the differences in their translations (from a god's language or from each other's). As I pointed out in my essays about God and Religion
though, these "universal" rules of religions are at odds with each other. They have been for thousands of years, and they have spawned countless conflicts ranging from personal arguments to international wars.
If, however, we were to step back from these relativistic or religious views of morality and look not just at the rules of morality themselves, but the overall purpose
of what those rules do for us as individuals and as a society, it becomes abundantly clear that systems of morality are just rules to promote cooperation and stay alive as a group in the long run. Thou shalt not kill? Well that's an obvious one. Don't eat pork or shellfish? Prudent advice before refrigeration and cooking temperatures were understood. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca? Bond with our group and cooperate with us. Incest taboos, love thy neighbor, walk a mile in their shoes, don't tread on me, the first rule of fight club, wash your hands after you pee - all of these are rules to help the survival rates of the group that obeys them. They cannot be anything else. Once this basic fact is recognized, the true basis for morality becomes obvious. In fact, we start to see it in other species that are trying to stay alive as well.Field studies show the natural emergence in the animal kingdom of ethics and morality. Animals live in groups because the opportunities for survival and reproduction are much better in groups than alone. All social animals have to modify or restrain their behaviors for group living. Highly social mammals such as primates and elephants have been known to exhibit traits that were once thought to be uniquely human, like empathy and altruism. While other primates may not possess free will over their morality in the human sense, they do possess some traits that would have been necessary for the early stages of the evolution of morality. Anthropologist Barbara King notes that these traits include high intelligence, a capacity for symbolic communication, a sense of social norms, realization of "self," and a concept of continuity. Where these basic personality traits are held in common, the basics of sociobiological morality are also shared. As listed by science historian Michael Shermer, these include: attachment and bonding, cooperation and mutual aid, sympathy and empathy, direct and indirect reciprocity, altruism and reciprocal altruism, conflict resolution and peacemaking, deception and deception detection, community concern and caring about what others think about you, and awareness of and response to the social rules of the group. These pre-moral sentiments evolved in primate societies as a method of restraining individual selfishness and building more cooperative groups. Humans evolved to enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments, and reputation building. We are more successful at cooperation because of this.
Knowing now about these roots of morality - as evidenced by the recent field studies observing other animals exhibiting moral behavior - it becomes quite incontestable that morality predates religion.Religion emerged after morality and built upon our natural needs for self-preservation and cooperation. Religion expanded the social scrutiny of individual behavior to include supernatural gods. By adding all-seeing ancestors, spirits, and gods to the mental world, humans discovered an effective strategy for restraining selfishness and building more cooperative groups. The adaptive value of religion would have enhanced group survival, thus allowing religion itself to survive. Now that we have come to an understanding of the natural basis for our morals, and learned to use reason to control our emotions, we no longer need to teach beliefs in supernatural gods to guide our behavior. Cooperation is its own reward. Transgressions will be punished. We have a fuller, more justifiable belief system for our morality.
What do you think? Is morality just a set of rules to help us survive? What if they weren't? Would they continue to survive? Wouldn't natural selection select out immoral rules of behavior? And if this is all that morals are, can science help us find better rules for morality? Next week, I'll tackle the ways in which I believe science can and will help us do exactly that. These are exciting times to be alive and thinking about philosophy!