The Continued Influence of Ancient Greece

Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.

So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.

Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.

 

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Some Thoughts About the Left

Never has there been an example in history where an ideology (or a group of ideologues) say to themselves: we’ve gone far enough, no further, e.g. identity politics, political correctness, etc. just like National Socialism or communism in the 20th century have a certain grim logic to them that seems to escape its adherents, e.g. when I use the phrase “Boy, it sure is hot out here” and feminists consider the usage of the word “boy” a form of micro-aggression, I think it’s safe to say we are living in a society that has more in common with Orwell’s “1984” than the Canada Baldwin/Lafontaine’s envisioned or the America Jefferson/Lincoln envisioned.

Watch the video below before continuing on.

I suppose this is what Hegel alluded to when he observed history is composed of paradigm pendulum swings where conservatism is ascendant for a time, then the paradigm swings the other way and liberalism becomes fashionable, and so on and so forth. This new “liberalism” isn’t liberalism though; it’s a pseudo-liberalism that smells more like a secular religion than a political philosophy, e.g. if you go back centuries the Catholic Church tried to engineer society by controlling what thoughts and ideas and expressions its adherents used to help save them from hellfire. The politically correct crowd is equally well-intentioned when it comes to “saving” people from oppression it seems; it is something if not ironic that in an effort to combat oppression the political left has become oppressive itself. I abandoned the left primarily for this reason and gladly occupy the center. I’m hoping more people will join me there going forward.

Take heart: maybe liberals will be reminded that everyone is entitled to intellectual freedom, expression, etc….even those they disagree with or the ones who promote unpopular views. You don’t fight terrible ideas by turning your back and not listening or outlawing them from being expressed; you fight lousy ideas by coming up with better ones and communicating them rationally.

We Are Our Minds

We are our minds and they’re all we can offer to others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are things in life needing improvement, e.g. unrealized goals or relationships in need of attention. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind and every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you’ve become or who is in your life–you won’t enjoy any of it. Not a single thing.

Everything we want to accomplish–to get in better shape, write a book, travel, make a career change–is something that promises if we do it fulfillment; but this is a false hope: most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of such a search: each of us is looking for a path back to the present (we are trying to find reasons to be satisfied now).

Why is it I can appreciate this at an abstract level but fail to implement it at the practical? Given enough time, I suppose, our mental software can be modified to a certain extent (despite the determinism of that blasted limbic system I inherited from my forebears).

Perhaps the most important realization I’ve had in all of this is my need to feel connected and be part of a community (and to contribute to the well being of that community). I learned this when I participated in an urban outreach program while in Washington, D.C. a few years ago but forgot the lesson for some reason. I’ve spent the better part of the last five years pretending to be a human being; it’s time to actually become one in the fullest sense of the word and quit seeing myself through the eyes of others.

So I was Talking to Wittgenstein the Other Day…

I walked up to the great German philosopher Wittgenstein and observed, “What a bunch of morons the people of the Middle Ages must have been to have looked every morning at the dawn and to have thought what they were seeing was the sun going around the earth. But every school kid knows the earth goes around the sun and it doesn’t take too many brains to understand that.”

Wittgenstein responded: “I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun was indeed going around the earth.”

The point is the dawn would have looked exactly the same. We see what our knowledge tells us to see; what you think the universe is, and how you react to that along with everything you do, depends entirely on what you know; and when that knowledge changes, for you the universe changes; and that is as true for the whole of society as it is for the individual—we all are what we know today. What we knew yesterday was different and so were we.

This is humbling if you understand the implications. If you don’t understand, then it’s probably just nonsense.

Do You Need to be Religious to be Moral?

Do you have to believe in God to be a moral person?

No.

It suffices one believes their own individual actions are meaningful. You don’t need to appeal to anything other than that. In the context of Christianity (and every other major religion except Buddhism), there exists this assumption one has to be religious to first be moral; and there are plenty of historical examples of secular-minded leaders and thinkers who have accepted this premise: in his Farewell Address, George Washington argued it wasn’t possible for a people to possess a direction if it didn’t first possess a religious anchor. Abraham Lincoln appealed to Providence (a synonym really for God) to demonstrate slavery’s evil. I would argue, though, that there’s no real need to appeal to Providence to demonstrate slavery is wrong: all I need to do is ask the slave a simple question like “Do you want to be a slave?” And if they respond by saying “no” the rightness or wrongness is concrete–in the here and now–well established. No need to appeal to Providence (when in fact Providence was used in the 19th century to justify the continuation of slavery, e.g. See the biblically based and dubious justification called “Curse of Ham“).

In reality, God for the theist acts fundamentally as an anchor or a concrete starting point (providing an internal sense of contrast of what constitutes right behavior from wrong). Human beings crave certainty and if it can be demonstrated concretely that God wants us to do either this or that action then a certain clarity is brought to existence. Yet, if all we need is an anchor, agnostics and atheists and everyone in-between all possess them; they may not all appeal to divine beings, or external measures, as that anchor but the anchors nonetheless exist in mind and motivation. Interestingly, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) argued in his Letters and Papers from Prison that boiling down God, or morality, as immovable anchors or standards was simply no longer an option: in the infancy of humankind we could appeal to the wisdom of following rules; however, in the 20th century, when Bonhoeffer was writing, with all of our advances in both scientific and theological scholarship, we had to grow up and start taking more personal responsibility for living in the world (pages 478-480).

All theists, agnostics, and atheists, believe that what they do and believe is meaningful; the only true difference that exists between these three categories of moralists is the agnostic stresses intellectual integrity and consistency while accepting certain questions are by their very nature unanswerable; atheists abandon any external justifications (other than collective experience and logic) for their actions instead choosing to take personal responsibility for them. For atheists and agnostics, in particular, meaningful action (and by extension morality) comes from a simple act of faith (so to speak) that what they do matters in the here and now (and not “necessarily” in a life that is to come).

The World According to John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck made a pretty nifty observation: he said socialism never took root in America because the poor never saw themselves as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. I suppose this is why so many of them oppose progressive tax reforms that would be in their interest to support.

American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, i.e. Marx was surely right when he called capitalism a “machine for demolishing limits”. It does a pretty bang-up job of demolishing planets, as well.

And now for the obligatory cat picture.

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The Problem With Refugees

We are a nation of immigrants; it’s a fact: go back far enough every single one of us—European, African, Asian, even First Nations and Inuit—can trace their origins to somewhere other than Canada. Humanity explores, it puts down roots and calls wherever it happens to end up home. People attach a lot of importance to their home; this is where they raise their families, form their worldview, worship, work, play and build a life for themselves. Thus, it isn’t terribly surprising when we encounter strangers living among us one of our first instincts is to become defensive as opposed to open.

Canadians might be awfully polite but they certainly aren’t immune to xenophobia or fear. There were three major waves of Irish immigration to British North America: the first came around the time of the American Revolution in the 1780s; the second took place during the 1840s when a potato famine drove approximately 1.5 million Irish Catholics to Canada. My ancestors on my father’s side arrived in the United States during the third wave in the 1890s; they established a farm somewhere in the American Midwest eventually moving north to Canada to take advantage of free land on offer in the Canadian West. In all three cases, the Irish were not generally well-received: in the context of both Canada and the United States, English Protestants felt threatened by the sudden influx of non-English Catholics to their countries.

The Irish were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them by their adoptive countries; nevertheless, inevitably their presence elicited negative reactions among Americans and Canadians alike. Newcomers always force us into uncomfortable spaces by challenging us to re-evaluate ourselves and our priorities; they compel us to ask questions around what it means to be a people and a nation. In the present day, some of us are responding as well as can be expected to Syrian refugees (and, more recently, to others groups escaping to Canada because of an uncertain future in the United States). Most of our problems when it comes to dealing constructively with one another is the result of a certain inability to empathize with one another. The people best responding to the recent influx of refugees are those capable of seeing something of themselves in these new immigrants—people displaced by famine, war, and repression in their home countries; yet, there are others of us who aren’t responding so well: ironically, some Canadians on social media are using the self-same arguments against Syrians that previous generations used against their own Irish, Norwegian, Swedish, German and Ukrainian ancestors, e.g. these people aren’t like us; they didn’t work for what we have; we owe them nothing; they’re wrecking the country; everything was so much better before they came; they’re stealing our jobs; they’re lazy, smell, speak funny, and don’t look like us real Canadians.

The idea of a real Canadian versus a fake one is a strange concept to me; it’s not like we can freeze time and say there, back in the 1820s (November to be exact) during the colonial period, that is what Canadians should strive to be, we should all be white, English Protestant United Empire Loyalists; or wait it’s 1867 and Canadians can be French Catholic now, just not too French, but it’s tolerated; or it’s 1945 and the end of World War II, England is less important to us and out of compassion we’re welcoming Hungarians and other dispossessed persons to Canada because they need our help, we didn’t like them so much in 1905 but times have changed; or it’s 1965 and we have a new flag and First Nations peoples are no longer willing to be second-class citizens and the majority of Canada’s immigrants are from Africa and Asia and, without us even realizing it, we’ve moved from biculturalism to multiculturalism. We didn’t even notice the change (and certainly didn’t plan it). But we are, and will continue to be, a multicultural society whether critics like it or not.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed humanity is in essentially a continuous state of revolution (or paradigm change); we don’t recognize these changes because what once appeared as revolutionary eventually becomes the basis of a new normal. Thus, a Canadian born in 1840 naturally answers the question “What is a Canadian?” differently than say one born in 1867, 1919, 1945, 1965, 1995, or 2017. If there’s a standard definition of what constitutes a true Canadian, it’s a floating one and it definitely isn’t as simple as saying it is someone who is white, English-speaking, and Christian. With that said, the recent wave of Syrian immigration to Canada is taking place during a time of significant stress: the recovery of the global economy from the shock it received during the Great Recession (2009) is still in doubt and we continue living with its legacy, e.g. wealth continues to become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, Canadians and Americans are becoming more and more desperate because of a sense of financial insecurity, and where the economy goes so too goes our seeming capacity to practice tolerance and pluralism; also, we are also confronted by the specter of climate change and an inability to deal with it effectively or its secondary effects, e.g. 21.5 million people are currently displaced worldwide and considered climate change refugees (some of whom are seeking refuge in North America and Europe); this number is bound to grow as climate change’s effects become increasingly severe and ubiquitous; and right wing political movements—secular and religious—are growing in popularity as though we’re taking part in some sort of macabre replay or dress rehearsal for World War III; given all that’s going on it’s little wonder so many people have such mixed feelings about helping strange Syrian refugees when existing Canadians themselves don’t feel secure enough about their own or their children’s futures.[1]

So where does this leave us? I suppose at one of those revolutionary periods Nietzsche mentioned. The great irony is we possess all the knowledge and understanding to solve every single one of our problems; yet, it seems we’re doomed to repeat past mistakes instead of learning from them because of a fundamental lack of collective character or imagination to conceive of new ways of living with and treating one another. There’s not much historical precedent when it comes to nations or societies becoming selfless or other-centered in times of significant economic downturn, political upheaval or when confronted by an existential crisis as significant as climate change. However, I would argue we can use how we eventually decide to treat refugees and immigrants as a litmus test for our future prospects. Some political theorists argue history is on the side of democracy. I like the sentiment but I would add the following caveat: history is on the side of those who want to survive. The great irony is most people think survival means circling our wagons, siding with the tribe and pushing strangers out. The truth is the world is a much smaller place in 2017 than it was in 1917. For this reason, I believe, if we’re going to survive we’re going to have to find ways to do it together; it’ll be cooperation not competition that’ll determine humankind’s direction and whether there’ll be a Canada or a United States for future generations to immigrate to.

 

Notes
[1]
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/syrian-refugees-poll-trump-1.3988716