Category Archives: reason

“Hoorah for our Side”/”No monopoly on the route to the divine”

Cultural Relativism: There are many paths to enlightenment

Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s most preeminent anthropologist, has spent years living with and working with indigenous people around the world. This has made him a tireless advocate of understanding traditional cultures around the world. He gave a great talk that was broadcast on CBC’s radio show Ideas. You can  probably hear his entire talk on their archive.

Davis also asserted that anthropology, his field of study, is important. It is important today because “anthropology is the antidote to Trump.” Trump of course is the equally tireless advocate for the doctrine of American triumphalism and superiority over all other cultures. In Trump’s world America is the best of everything. At least it would be if only Americans more uniformly listened to him. Ruth Benedict said that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

As we live in a globalized multi-cultural world “anthropology has never been more important.” Trump of course would never concede that. But that does not make it any less true. America is not the be all and end all. America is one voice among many. We should listen to morevoices. We should listen to many voices.

According to Davis this multi-ethnic world is  “where connectivity is bringing us together into a single human family.” At least if people like Trump are not able to separate us. He wants to deny this connectivity, this solidarity. Too many people fail to see the connections as they look at the differences. People like Trump see “theirpeople” with whatever label you want to use, separate and apart, and superior, from the others.

Davis finds proof for this connectivity in genetics. This is what he said

“Within our lifetimes genetics has shown that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum, race is a fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65 or 75,000 years ago and embarked on this journey that carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world…By definition every culture shares the same genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old 19thcentury idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized in the Strand of London has been absolutely ridiculed by modern science and shown to be an artifact of the 19thcentury, no more relevant to our lives today than the old idea of clergymen that the world was only 6,000 years old.”

 

Davis finds important corroboration of the fundamental insight of anthropology, which is cultural relativism, from the relatively recent science of genetics.  As Davis said, “It is genetics that allows anthropologists to say without doubt that every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.”

Davis eloquently points out that this concept has never been more important than today with the astonishing rise of nativism, nationalism and the worst forms of tribalism.  These nationalistic views are held not just by Trump, but millions of his supporters, and by many dictators and demagogues around the world, and their millions of supporters. Each of these leaders is constantly shouting “hurrah for our side” in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield.

A Better way: Expansive religion

I have been critical of evangelical religion. That is what I am surrounded by here in Steinbach. Some of my friends have suggested that I have criticized a straw man—i.e. a religion that is easy to attack and no one subscribes to any longer.  I disagree.

In North America it a very large religious sector. That is particularly true in the United States, but in other pockets, like Steinbach, as well. It is also rapidly growing. A lot faster than the many more liberal Christian sects. It is also very influential.  Evangelicals were a major source of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential elections, as odd as that sounds. Evangelicals are by no means a “straw man”.

Because I have been critical I don’t want people to think that I believe everything is bad about religion. Far from it. I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity to quote Spiro Agnew. In fact, I think there is a better way. I refer to it as expansive religion, rather than exclusive religion. It is religion that has jettisoned the old beliefs in invincible superiority of our religion over all others. Instead it sees what is held in common by religions.

Religions are so many and so varied it is very difficult (but not impossible) to find what they have in common. Some religions have dogma; others have none. Some religions believe in an afterlife; others don’t. Some religions have a God; others subsist without one. Some religions have beliefs and those that do have beliefs, they  vary widely, if not extravagantly. What then do religions have in common? I think you have to go back to the original meaning of the word “religious” for an answer.

Religion is based on an Indio-Asian word  “religio” which basically meant connection or linkage.  In other words, religion is what connects us or links us.  To what you might ask?  I think that what religion tries to link us to is first of all other people, but also other creatures, and even, ultimately, all life itself.  What connects us is religious; what severs that connection is blasphemy. That is my fundamental religious belief.

My wife once had a pendant  which she wore that said something to the effect that “if religion leads to hate it’s not religion.”  I have likely mangled the exact wording.  Yet the thought I think is clear and very important.  It goes back to that original concept of the word “religion.”

So religion is closely allied to the concept of fellow feeling or empathy.  If we have fellow feeling for others, or other creatures, or other life forms, we are acting religiously.  If we don’t, we are acting irreligiously. That is because without fellow feeling or empathy we are no longer connecting we are dividing  from each other. That is the opposite of religion.

Thus religion is based on fellow feeling.  The most important part of religion is the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In fact, it’s interesting that almost all religions endorse that principle as a fundamental principle.  I think it is the fundamental principle of religion.  All religions!  It is what connects us to others.  Do unto them, as you would have them do unto you. If you do you are acting religiously; if you don’t you are acting irreligiously.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense of the word “religious.” However, I feel that the so-called “religious people” have hijacked this word for their own purposes.  I want to reclaim the word.  I feel that many people have tarnished the word “religion.” They use it to divide people rather than connect people. In  my opinion, they are sacrilegious no matter how many pious words they use.  In fact, I think it is them that are not religious, not I.

I think these things are important.  I resent those who in the name of religion try to disconnect us from others.  I resent those who try to claim that religion is a matter of us against them.  I particularly resent those that think that religion is a means of saying we’re better than them because our religion is better than their religion. That is the original sin. Worst of all are those who say those who believe like me are going to heaven forever, and those who don’t, are going to hell where they will suffer torment forever. That’s not religion at all. That’s the opposite of religion.

I intend to expand on these thoughts.

Faith, Truth, and desire

 

This may be my most controversial post so far. I urge my friends who will be disappointed in me not to think of me as wicked, but as a fallen brother. I also  urge them to point out to me where I went wrong.

A friend sent to me an excerpt from a well-written article by N. T. Wright.  He argues that as a historian there is convincing evidence that Jesus Christ came back to life after dying. This is what he concluded:

The historian’s task is not to force people to believe.  It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Is that true? I accept it as a principle, that the more astonishing the claim the stronger the evidence must be to support it. I would suggest that someone rising from the dead is such an unusual accomplishment that objectively we would never believe that this had happened without very strong evidence indeed that it had in fact occurred. I don’t know about you, but I have never found such a claim about anyone else was ever true or even mildly convincing. Would any of us accept such claims about Mohammed, for example?  I would suggest that Muslims might believe that, but unless one had been indoctrinated to believe from a very early age it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever reach the conclusion that the evidence “points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Mohammed”. Only those who already believed in the faith, would feel that evidence pointed strongly in that direction.

Would anyone say that about the evidence that any person at all  rose from the dead? Can you conceive of any evidence at all that might lead one to believe that? I would submit that any such conclusion is highly unlikely. The reason is that such beliefs are not based on evidence, they are based on inculcation or indoctrination and even highly intelligent people are guided, usually unconsciously, by that indoctrination, not by evidence at all. They don’t even realize their belief is based on indoctrination.

For the same reason it is obvious why most Christians were raised by Christians and most Muslims were raised by Muslims. We tend to believe what our parents teach us, especially what they taught us from a very young age. It is not that the evidence for Christian beliefs is so much more available in Christian countries or evidence for Muslim beliefs is much more available in Muslim countries. The key is indoctrination not evidence

I am no expert–but I have never seen evidence for the resurrection of Christ that would actually convince anyone other than a person who already believed it. The evidence is not strong at all; it is extraordinarily weak. At least I have never seen any.  It is not surprising of course that the evidence is weak. After all millennia have passed since the alleged event.  Finding convincing evidence of such an astoundingly rare event would in fact be miraculous, if not impossible. Of course, that does not mean those who believe in the resurrection are wrong, I am only suggesting that they do so not on the basis of belief, but what I call “indoctrination” and they call “faith.”

Of course millions of people believe that Christ rose from the grave and they are entitled to do that but I don’t believe it is  based on evidence at all but faith.  That really means that such beliefs will be held no matter what the evidence. I think it was John Loftus who said, “You cannot reason people out religious beliefs, because they were not reasoned into them”.

Faith is belief without reason.   If you believe something without there being a reason, then you have faith in it. According to the Bible in Hebrews11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That is precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche objected to about faith.  Hopes are not evidence! The search for truth, he believed, is corrupted by wishes and desires.  If hopes are the “evidence” of truth you know the evidence is tainted. Contrary to the book of Hebrews, it is completely unreliable .

N.T. Wright earlier in the above referenced article said, about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ,

 

“The question divides into four.  First, what did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for?  What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?  Second, what did the early Christians believe on the same subjects?  What did they hope for?  Third, what reasons did the early Christians give for their hope and belief, and what did they mean by the key word ‘resurrection’ which they used of Jesus? Finally, what can the historian say by way of comment on this early Christian claim?”

The fundamental problem I see with an approach like that of N.T. Wright is that it is based on hopes. His method is to find evidence to support beliefs he has probably had since the time of his youth and which ground his hopes for a life after death.  Hopes have no place in historical or scientific inquiry. They have a place in theology of course. Hopes are part of faith–a fundamental part of faith in fact.

That is what made Friedrich Nietzsche say, “Faith” means not wanting to know what is true.” The faithful believe what they want to believe. It is extremely difficult  not to believe what you want to be true. Nietzsche also said,  “The craving for a strong faith, is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skeptics: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that.” In other words, if faith is strong enough, no reasoning will talk one out of it. No evidence, no matter how compelling will dispel the belief.

All of this reminds me of that great 20thcentury deep thinker—Archie  Bunker. Archie Bunker proudly claimed to have faith. He said,  “Faith is something that you believe that no one in his right mind would believe.”

People who acquire faith usually do so not because of a convincing argument, or a powerful religious experience, but as a result of deep and persistent inculcation or indoctrination by their parents.  Such a faith is therefore nothing more than a very powerful prejudice.  It is very difficult to divorce oneself from one’s parents. It is actually much more difficult than to divorce a spouse. Nietzsche disdained such faith. He said “To accept a faith just because it is customary, means to be dishonest, to be cowardly, to be lazy.”

Nietzsche contrasted this faith with love of reason. He put it this way,

“A kind of honesty has been alien to founders of religions and others like them:  they have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me then, and around me? Was my reason bright enough?  Was my will turned against all deceptions of the senses and was it courageous in its resistance to the fantastic?—none of them raised such questions;  all the dear religious people still do not raise such questions even now:  rather they have a thirst for things that are against reason, and they do not want to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it.  And so they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear voices of the little angels!  We, however, we others, who thirst for reason, want to look our experience as straight in the eye as if they represented a scientific experiment, hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves want to be our experiments and guinea pigs.”

We have to be “courageous” in “resistance to the fantastic.” I think Wright  lacked that courage. He has instead found convincing evidence where no objective person would have found it. He has been guided not by evidence or “reasoning…tested rigorously” but instead by preconceptions.

Preconceptions are dangerous because they keep us from looking for the truth. After all, if you think you already have the truth why would you search for it? Nietzsche said it was not important to have the courage of one’s convictions. It was much more important to have the courage to attack one’s convictions.” That is what we have to learn to do. That is the basis of critical thinking. This willingness is its most important element.

Nietzsche also said, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” He said, “I am dynamite.” I think he meant to say that he was on this earth to break up encrusted ‘truths.’ He was here to attack them, to expose them.

Nietzsche’s approach is difficult. He does not deny that. He scorns easier positions.  Unlike Nietzsche, most people do what John Kenneth Galbraith talks about when he said, “Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone get busy on the proof.”

It is very difficult to give up our convictions. This is particularly true of those we learn at a very young age from our parents. They seem to be a part of us. To cut them loose is like cutting off an arm. I also like what Albert Pike said, “We believe what we are taught; and those are most fanatical who know least of the evidence on which their creed is based.

Dewitt Jones, the photographer enunciated another  profound concept. He said, “I will see it when I believe it.” Until then our preconceptions or biases can stifle the truth so that we cannot detect it.

Christians keep talking about the importance of belief in Jesus.  I am never sure exactly what that means. Can they mean that we have to believe some particular proposition?  After all why would such a belief be necessary? Or does it mean we should trust him?  Have faith in him. That would make more sense. Is that very different however?

Some Christians even suggest that unless we have some beliefs in Jesus we will be condemned to eternal damnation–whatever that means. Forget about eternal damnation, is it fair to base rewards or punishments of any sort on beliefs–particularly fundamental beliefs that we have had since the time of our extreme youth? In most cases our parents should get the credit or blame for those, not us.

Our parents indoctrinated us–rightly or wrongly–when we were very young. We were so young we had no ability  to resist the indoctrination. We are not good or bad because we accepted the indoctrination. We were vulnerable. There was nothing we could do about it. Just as it is not fair to condemn an accused person of a crime when the person is so mentally ill that he or she cannot resist the impulse to commit the crime, so it is not fair to base any rewards or any punishments, let alone eternal ones, on what we were indoctrinated to believe, or not believe, when we were  young children. I cannot believe any God who would do that. That is why we should never be judged by our beliefs. We should be judged by our actions freely accomplished.

Jonathan Haidt on Moral Humility

I have adopted the notion of moral humility from Jonathan Haidt, one of the speakers at Arizona State University this year as part of their year long series of lectures on free speech. He is  professor of psychology. He had some interesting things to say on a number of topics. One of them was “moral humility.”  He urged all of us to practice more of it.   He contrasted it with extremism.

The classic failure in the 20thcentury to follow modest and humble goals was of course Communism.  They practiced an extreme form of utopianism.   Albert Camus, another of my favorite political thinkers had a similar way of thinking. He opposed thinking without limits. He wanted political leaders to be modest. Humble in other words. The failure to be humble, he thought, is that it leads to an abundance of graves.  That is the problem with utopian zeal or revolutionary terror.

British philosopher John Gray said, “Terror has been used in this way wherever a revolutionary dictatorship has been bent on achieving utopian goals.” Or as he also said, about the Communists, “the scale and intensity of Bolshevik repression, which was the result of attempting to reconstruct society on an unworkable model.” They wanted to create the perfect human—an impossible goal.

Gray finds even more examples of dangerous Utopian thinking. He finds it on the left and he finds it on the right. He finds in religion–in Christianity, and in Islam. He even finds in the Nazis ideology. They wanted to create the pure Aryan race.

Part of the problem with utopian thinking is that it leads to orthodoxy. After all, if you know absolute truth, then there is only one way to the truth and nothing can stand in the way. There is no need to be modest or restrained when you know absolute truth.

The Buffalo Springfield also got it right when they sang:

“A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side’

There is no need to be humble when your team is cheering you on no matter what you say. That is a license to be extreme. You can call Hillary Clinton “Satan.”  You can compare Donald Trump to Hitler. You can suggest that Justin Trudeau is the devil. Then you can desire to burn the others at the stake. And you will feel joy at the prospect. This is about as far from humility as you can get. No matter what you say, your side will applaud. And if you listen only to your side, you will naturally begin to think that you are a genius. You deserve the applause. It’s hard to be humble when your side gives you a standing ovation.

Donald Trump is of course a perfect example of this. Recently he said at a rally in front of his fans, “Some have asked me, “Did you have anything to do with the Korean leaders getting together?”  He shrugged, grinned mischievously and said, “How about everything.”  Not much humility there.  Then his fans chanted repeatedly “Nobel. Nobel. Nobel.” And Trump grinned again, as if that was a reasonable suggestion. When your side is cheering you on, no matter how absurd, you accept the fawning.

What amazes me is Trump’s fans accept his abject lack of humility. He says he is the smartest. It does not matter how dumb he is. They lap it up. America, it seems to me, has given up on humility. I wish they hadn’t. Many of us could use more of it. Including me.

The Uncertainty Principle

Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain.  People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.

Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.

Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!

I prefer modest goals and modest means.  Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.

 

Moral Humility is not Utopian thinking

Moral humility is the opposite of utopian thinking. It recognizes limits. It recognizes ourlimits, The concept of moral humility is associated with the concept of modesty/pessimism of John Gray one of my favorite modern philosophers.

His concept is a logical consequence of a sceptical attitude.  If one is uncertain then one should be careful about claiming moral superiority over another person. One should hesitate to judge others. That does not mean we can never judge others. It does mean we should not be too quick to judge others. I think I have been too quick in the past.  I yearn to ease up. As Gray said, “ Utopias are dreams of collective deliverance that in waking life are found to be nightmares.”

Utopian projects are by their nature unachievable. As Hume put it: ‘All plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary.’” That is why we must be modest. We must be constrained in our optimism. Too often it leads to dire troubles. That is why Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia—a term he coined—meant both ‘a good place’ and ‘nowhere.’ That was why he set his imagined community in a far-off land.

We are very unlikely to find Utopia and are much more likely to find dystopia when we try.  Just like heaven is an illusion, unless it is here and now, so too with Utopia. That is a fundamental flaw with utopian thinking. It looks for a non-existent heaven and then frequently imposes great misery on us in a hopeless effort to achieve what cannot be achieved. That was why Gray’s advice was to be wary of those who argued for Utopia. Instead, Gray urged, “it is dystopian thinking we most need.”

Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human.  As has often been said, but no often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.

Obama often told his advisors that “better is good.” We can seldom (never?) do the perfect, but we can usually do something that is better or worse. We should always choose the better and we should often be satisfied that this is all we can do.

We can always make things worse. And as Obama also said to himself, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Going to war in Syria would have been stupid. One look at American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan make it clear that is very easy to do stupid stuff by going to war in the Middle East.  And the costs of stupid stuff can be horrendous.

It is always important to think things through before jumping into a fray. It is often very stupid to jump in, no matter how tempting it seems. This takes time. This may make a leader look weak. It actually makes a leader look smart.

Utopian thinking is the opposite of critical thinking. It accepts impossiblegoals so it justifies the most brutal means. Nothing is too extreme when the object is perfection. Or as Bob Dylan said, “For you don’t count the dead with God on your side.” The religious pursuit of perfection should be rejected for exactly the same reasons. Murder is always justified if the goal is a higher form of human. Lets abandon that goal.

Freedom of Thought and Expression: Civic Friendship

This is the third and final part of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George at Arizona State University. They have what they refer to as a civic friendship. That is another important concept. Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, making them what someone called “an ideological odd couple,” they are truly friends. That was obvious by watching them talk. Even more importantly that was obvious by watching them listen–to each other. They really did listen. Clearly they respected each other.

To be civic friends you must have something in common. For example, if one of the two is not interested in seeking truth they will not be able to be friends. The friends must find that something in common to become friends. It can be many things. Truth seeking is just one, but it is a good one. It is hard to find for many of us because our differences today run so deep. After all this is the age of extremes as Eric Hobsbawm called it. Since then the chasm between the extremes has only deepened. The challenge is to find that common ground. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the common ground. Other times it is just below the surface.

It is not enough for two sides to share something. That was proved conclusively in the United States before the differences led to Civil War. They shared a lot, but for awhile forgot what they had in common or rather, perhaps, until they were overwhelmed by their differences. In fact it certainly looks like Americans are being tested right now. Can they find their common ground or will they let their differences overwhelm them again?

George said that to be civic friends, or a nation, we must believe in some substantive fundamental civil rights and liberties that cannot be compromised. That does not mean we must agree on everything. We can have substantive differences. We can even have important disagreements on very important matters. But we must recognize that we each of us have some common fundamental rights that all of must respect–like freedom of thought and discussion for example. If we have a shared belief in the freedom to think and discuss then we have a basis for a democratic discussion. Then we will respect each other even if we disagree. To do that, “we must have a fundamental belief in the dialectical process of truth seeking.”

George and West both agreed on one more important thing. That is that there is such thing as truth. Both reject relativism. That does not mean we will agree on what is true. We may have strong disagreements about what is true. We must remember that even if we think we have discovered truth, we could be wrong. Like John Stuart Mill said, you must listen to the other no matter how unlikely it is that you will agree with anything the other has to say. All of our ‘truths’ must be open to revision. We always have to remember that we are not infallible. We might be wrong. This is not relativism. It is just a recognition of our fallibility.

West always brings it back to music. “Artists are the vanguard of the people, and musicians are the vanguard of music,” West said. He said that we have a choice of indescribable pleasures or deep joy. He chooses deep joy. “It is the job of the artist to radically unsettle us.” It is the same of education. As West said, “if you have never felt your fundamental ideas rested on pudding, you never had any real education.” He also said, “There is no rebirth without dying first.

To that George added, “If at any University experience is constant reaffirmation of what you believe, you are not being challenged and you have not had a real educational experience.” Only if you think your beliefs through and reach the same conclusion as before is that acceptable.

George added, “We need open-mindedness because we seek truth and want to be challenged. George’s position is, I believe, like that of John Stuart Mill who said, we should thank everyone who tries to dislodge us from our settled opinions. They are doing us a big favor. If they persuade us to change our minds that is great. We are better off because we discarded an opinion that was not defensible. If they do not persuade us to change our minds, at least they have made us think about our opinions and how they could be defended. We come to understand our opinions better. We are actually in a better position to defend them in such a case. So again we should thank them. We should never try to shout them down or stop them from arguing with us. For our own sake we should let them speak.

According to George, after a history of having our opinions challenged “we become our own best interrogators. We become our own best critics.” That should be the goal. It should become our goal if we love the truth.

West took this opportunity to argue in defense of scepticism. Scepticism is not relativism. Scepticism is critical thinking. That is what we need. We do not need absolute scepticism that believes in nothing. The scepticism he advocated was exemplified by Malcolm X. In other words a scepticism that is suspicious of received opinions from power. Malcolm X was sceptical–for good reason–about American democracy, which all around him claimed to be an absolute good when it was filled with flaws. He pointed out some of its flaws to others, and that made him very unpopular with much of America. So be it. Some people don’t like to hear the truth.

John Dewey argued in against wholesale scepticism, but in favor of retail scepticism. Retail scepticism can lead to truth. That is what we are seeking. Wholesale scepticism hides from the truth. As West said, “We have to be sceptical about scepticism.”

George added to these remarks. He said, what is vital is questioning. We must be ready and willing to question all opinions. “Scepticism can become a dogma,” George said. Scepticism should never become so pervasive that it leads to indifference and despair. Then we lose all ability to act.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. He called it a land grab. It was colonialism and exploitation at its worst, in his opinion, so he refused to pay and was put in jail for that refusal. Of course, what about the far larger original land grab when Europeans who settled in North America and South America grabbled the hemisphere from the Indigenous people that lived here and in the process caused the death of 95% of the population of the Western Hemisphere? It was the greatest holocaust in history!

West also said we had to leery of micro-suffering. People who take offense at the mere mention of abuse must be challenged. Especially in a University, but not just there, we must be willing to engage in a discussion of all issues, even those that are painful to some people. We must do that with respect and consideration, but we have the right to discuss those issues. No one has the right not to hear offensive things. West said, “As a teacher it is not my responsibility to provide a safe place for learning. In fact, the place of learning should be a place that is unsettling. ” If it is not unsettling it is not doing its job.

As George said, “The point of education is not to show off our learning, or gain prestige, it is to seek the truth. That process should be unsettling even to our most cherished beliefs, even our fundamental beliefs. We must be willing to expose even our religious views to scrutiny. For some of us that will be hard.” West also reminded us, “Education is not indoctrination”.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers. They should put forth both sides of a dispute to their students. In fact, teachers should not tilt the scales in favor of their favored views. This means putting forth best arguments for both sides of an argument. This is what Plato did in his dialogues. Try to figure out ‘why do well informed, intelligent people disagree with me?’ We must each do that. We must each be our best interrogators.

George said that he frequently reads Nietzsche because he does not agree with him. He knows that Nietzsche is a brilliant thinker and writer so he wants to contend with the best arguments on all issues. He frequently tests himself to see if he can still contend with Nietzsche. And you have to be honest with yourself if you do this. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself.

George said that each of us needs self-reflection to challenge our most sacred views. We must learn to be our best critics. We should also seek out a good friend to debate issues. This means a friend who is willing to tell us when we are wrong. A deep friendship allows a friend to criticize us. Criticism is always for our own good.

We must expose ourselves to the best counter arguments. This does not show a lack of passion. This allows us to grasp an issue more deeply. And West concluded with this remark, “In the end we talk about living.” Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We want to seek the truth to make our life better. Even if we don’t find the truth, the search for truth improves our life.

A Jazzman in the World of Ideas

 

This is part II of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George that we heard a Arizona State University. Their topic was truth seeking, democracy, and freedom of thought and expression.

Cornel West said that we should revel in our common humanity even when you think the other is wrong. In my opinion that is the beginning and most important part of respectful (and hence useful) dialogue. Name calling and finger wagging are seldom useful.

To be a fundamental searcher for truth, one must begin with piety. By piety he means we should depend on those who came before us. We should learn from their mistakes, and try to gain wisdom from them. “We should try to be truth seekers together.” We should learn from our spiritual, moral and political teachers of excellence who came before us.

West said he came from a long tradition of a great people who had been subjugated for a long time even though his tradition taught love.   Their anthem, West said, was “Lift every voice.” Every jazzman finds his voice. He did not use this expression today, but I have heard West say that he is “A Jazzman in the world of ideas.” This reminds me a bit of my own views: be a meanderer in the world of ideas. There is no straight line to truth. The search for truth moves by twists and turns, steps forward and backward. There is no laid out map. There is no recipe for truth. It would be convenient if there was.

West says that in his classes he tells his students he wants “to teach them to learn to die.” Plato in his dialogues said much the same thing. He said his philosophy was meditation on how to die. Seneca said “he who learns to die learns to give up slavery.” West wants us to “learn how to die, in order to learn how to live.” In the end it is about living.

West wants us to achieve “Deep education, not cheap schooling.” His mentor, Socrates, urged us to respect the other in dialogue. After that empathy is what comes out of his mouth.”

Cornell West also said, “If the kingdom of God is within you, everywhere you go, you will leave a little of heaven behind.” West was blunt about current conditions in America and the west: “We live in a period of spiritual blackout.”

West also commented on the current President of the United States. “Donald Trump has no monopoly on spiritual blackout. Trump also did not cause the spiritual blackout; he is a symptom of it. Donald Trump is as American as cherry pie.” I found this particularly important at this time in America. About 50 million Americans voted for Trump in the last election and he was clearly a racist and a liar, but they voted for him anyway. Donald Trump did not hide anything about himself. He put it out there and millions of people voted for him. Millions liked what they heard. To many of us that is incomprehensible, but not to millions of Americans. Nearly half the American voters voted for Trump. So what Trump is, America is too.

West, like George, and like John Stuart Mill reminded us all said we had to be wary of our own convictions. Convictions can be the enemy of truth. We had to be willing to expose them to criticism and attack. Like Nietzsche said, we must have the courage to attack our convictions. Each of us is only as strong as our critics.

According to West, with spiritual blackout you end up distrusting people. You adopt the morality of much of 19th century capitalism. Do what ever you want; just don’t get caught. This attitude is widespread across the board in all institutions, he said. Not just capitalism. No democracy can survive when this attitude is rampant. In the west, particularly America, this attitude is rampant. That puts democracy in jeopardy.

Both West and George urged us to consider and adopt civic virtues. These result from recognition that all groups of people are precious and human at the deepest level. It is based on the finding of a common humanity in diverse groups. I would say that we discover this by accessing our innate fellow feeling at a deep level. I think West has a deep appreciation of the commons. This is how West and George connect with each other. They embrace their differences and their common humanity. I wish more of us could do that. This is particularly exemplary in this age of extremes, in which it appears most of us can no longer speak softly with others who disagree with us. West and George exemplified what they preached. You could see one listening intently while the other spoke. They did not interrupt each other. They learned from one another.

West is inspired by jazz music in particular and his favorite is John Coltrane. West treats an intellectual discussion as Coltrane and his friends would “a jam session.” He wants to make music by dialogue. That would be a jam session of ideas. West said that Coltrane and his friends would learn not only from each other, but from the dead, when they jammed. They would listen to the playing of the others in the jam session and then show what they had learned from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. The musical ideas would bounce off each other. That is what West wants in intellectual dialogue too. Voices bouncing off each other including voices of the dead like Martin Luther King or William Shakespeare or Friedrich Nietzsche or Jesus Christ. Then we can access something bigger than the parts in the search for truth, whether you are in a jam session or a philosophical discussion.

Even that was not enough, West said. Democracy is exactly this too. Democracy is ideas bouncing off each other when each voice is heard and no voice is shut down. When people respect each other’s voices great things can result. Of course this requires others to want to make music (getting back to the music analogy again). If they are just trying to shut you down you can’t make music. This gets back to freedom of speech.

That does not mean you have the right to say anything at all at any time. You have no right to shout “fire” in a crowded dark theatre. That might cause a stampede and people could get hurt. That does not mean you have the right to defame other people. That causes harm to them. False statements that harm others are not permitted, even though we all want a robust form of freedom of expression. You have no right to walk into a University classroom and call people names, like “the N word,” or other derogatory names. That is not done to engage in free discussion. Such statements are made to end discussion. Therefore they are not permitted. The same goes for hate speech. Hate speech is not made to engage in discussion. If a statement is made for that purpose, I would argue, it is not hate speech. If speech is made to generate hate against others that is not to engage in free thought and discussion either. We do not have the right to make such statements.

West in a very brief comment made a very important point. He said, if you want to make an important argument you have to visit the “chocolate side of town.” You can’t just stay physically and mentally in the comfortable suburbs. You have to visit the ghettos. You have to visit places where poor people hang out; where vulnerable people go. Otherwise your ideas are bound to be inadequate. There is a lot to be learned on the chocolate side of town. For example there is a lot to be learned from jazz, from Black Baptist religion, and from a long tradition of suffering and the enduring of suffering. These were my examples, but I think West would endorse them. We should all learn from that side of town.

An ideological Odd Couple: Truth Seeking, Democracy and Freedom of thought and Expression

Part I–We must love the truth more than our opinions

Chris and I went to hear a pubic dialogue between Robert P. George and Cornell West at Arizona State University. It was one of the best such public events we have ever watched. Since there talk was long and (I think) important I will break it up into 3 portions to make it more palatable. This is part I.

These are two outstanding thinkers who talked about critically important issues particularly in these dangerous times. They disagree with each on many points but do so amicably and respectfully. They learn from each other, every time they speak together, and they do that often. One–Cornell West–is black and a radical democrat. The other Robbie George–is white and conservative. They have been called “an ideological odd couple.” Both are professors and public intellectuals. They teach a course together at Harvard. Both speak from a Christian perspective, though each has a very different interpretation of Christianity. Yet both respect other religious perspectives too. George is a Catholic with Pagan proclivities. He has learned a lot from Plato and Socrates.

The topic of the dialogue was Truth Seeking, Democracy, and Freedom of Thought and Expression.”   The topic is particularly important at this time in our history because of recent events at American and Canadian Universities in which invited speakers were heckled or prevented from speaking altogether, sometimes violently. What are the limits of freedom of thought and expression? That really is the issue. They reject what they call campus illiberalism which they describe as the effort “to immunize from criticism opinions that happen to be dominant in their particular communities” and to exclude certain topics of discussion by “questioning the motives and thus stigmatizing those who dissent from prevailing opinions.”

The two professors made a joint statement on March 14, 2017. Here is part of that statement:

 

The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.

 

George begins with conservative beginnings. Yet he says, he greatly admires Brother West, who begins with strong deeply leftist views, because West exemplifies a man of principle and integrity, both of which today are in too short supply. Listening to George I quickly concluded that he also exemplified principle and integrity. I like how these two brothers–one black and the other white, and one Marxist and the other Conservative–liked and respected each other. That in itself, if we heard nothing else today, was inspirational. In this day of extremism, intolerance, and unwillingness to listen to the other side, was a breath of fresh air.

What brought West and George here today was very important–truth-seeking. That was really the theme of their talk. They both sought the truth. To begin with that of course presupposes that there is such a thing as truth. We can never be sure that we have found it, because we are all fallible. Because we are all fallible we must recognize that we might have something to learn from the other. No matter how unlikely that might seem to us the other might be able to teach us something so we ought to listen to the other with respect and thank the other if we did learn something. If we are corrected in our views then we have learned something and should be grateful for it.

Of course I could not help noticing that there were many people in the crowd who seemed to agree with George and West on this point. Yet nearly 50% of Americans who voted, and more than 50% of Arizonans who voted in the last Presidential election, voted for Donald Trump. I have never heard of anyone less willing to accept criticism or a challenge of his or her ideas than Trump. He is the exact opposite of what West and George advocated for.

Truth seeking is important because it is the foundation of a democratic republic. Without truth seekers we will not have a healthy democratic republic. As George said, “We must love the truth more than our opinions.” He added, “We must love the truth even if this means we have to change our mind. “

A love of truth is essential for a citizen in a democratic society. Democracy needs citizens who can talk to each other despite strong disagreement even over fundamentals. Currently this all but absent in the United States in particular, but in many other places in the world as well. As George said, “Too often those who disagree want to shout each other down instead of speaking to each other respectfully”. That is why society in such countries is suffering from this loss. It was for this reason that West and George issued their joint statement. They wanted to warn people what was at stake and what might be lost.

As George said, “You cannot get at the truth (no matter about what) if you are unable to expose your beliefs and arguments to criticism. That means that you must be open-minded, humble, and willing to listen to the other side.” Obviously such an attitude is the opposite of a dogmatist. And as Tom Robbins said, “It is a dogma eat dogma world.” As George said, “Dogmatists are not truth seekers.” They love their own views more than they love the truth. That is why dogmatists are married to their own opinions. I said that.

We must always recognize that we might be wrong. Dogmatists cannot do that. Such an attitude will lead to the virtues of open-mindedness and a willingness to listen to the other side. Again dogmatists find this difficult.

Such an attitude requires one more very important element–courage. Opening yourself to criticism, especially publicly, is very difficult. Such “openness makes one vulnerable. We don’t like such a state of vulnerability. We do all that we can to avoid it. “It takes a special kind of courage to expose oneself to criticism.” “We must recognize a love of truth that is above our loyalty to tribe, class, group, or ideological soul mates.” “We must always remember that no one has a monopoly on truth.

Everyone has something to learn. Are we really willing to acknowledge flaws on our side when we are accused of being disloyal to our group? This is extremely difficult to do. “We will experience all kinds of pressure to conform to the norms of the group, but if we love truth we must do exactly that.” This requires great courage, because there is a strong tendency for a group to circle the wagon when criticism in encountered. If you admit that the other side has a valid criticism of your group, members of your own group will attack you. You will be treated as a traitor, or a kid who is no longer cool,. This happens in all kinds of groups, not just “other groups.”

As George, said, “We have to make the commitment to save our children from dogmatism or indoctrination and to dedicate themselves to truth seeking, open mindedness, courage, and the love of truth.

Are you Scared Yet?

 

Some of my friends are scared of coming to Arizona. They think that ever since Donald Trump entered on to the political scene, and then shockingly became President, the USA has gone mad and therefore they want to give it a wide berth. I thought that was going a bit far. Is it?

Journalist Michael Wolff, for some strange reason, was allowed to occupy the Whitehouse for weeks. He sat around and interviewed as many people as he could. He had a couple of conversations with President Donald Trump, talked frequently with Trump’s strategic advisor Steven Bannon, and numerous other Whitehouse officials. He learned a lot about Trump and his administration. During this time he gathered enough material for a book that is now on the bestseller lists, because of all that he revealed about that administration and all the people that work inside it.

One of the things that Wolff revealed hardly seems controversial. This is that Trump reads absolutely nothing. He has probably only read one book in his entire adult life and that was his own book, which he co-wrote with his ghost author–The Art of the Deal. No wonder he said this was his favorite book after the Bible of course. Can you imagine naming your own book? Trump has no shortness of ego. To call him a narcissist seems wildly understated.

By itself this is scary. After all one would expect the leader of the richest, most powerful, most influential country in the world to be a person of wide experience and learning. But not only does Trump not read, he does not listen either. He won’t listen to what anyone has to say (except the pundits on Fox News and some other similar thinking Internet sites and blogs.) He only listens to complements about himself. He does not even listen to his own advisors. He has the attention span of a young teenager totally incurious about anything that does not deal with him directly. He loves to learn what others think and say about him. That’s it. That is the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger–and it is “big” and “it works.” Excuse my bad language, but is it surprising that his own Secretary of State called him “a fucking moron?”[1]

He has been President now for a year and has still not appointed a science advisor. The science advisor is the person who gives impartial advice to the President on issues that either affect science or would benefit from scientific input. For example, he has had to deal with what many have called the most important issue of our generation–climate change. If ever there was an issue that cried out for scientific advice this it. Yet President Trump has made the important decision to pull the United States out of the Paris accord without the benefit of independent scientific advice. He is entitled to the best of scientific advice and has chosen not to seek it. Presumably he gets his scientific advice from the media pundits on Fox Channel instead. Can you imagine choosing to follow an empty-headed bombastic political pundit rather than a person of science? That is exactly what Trump has done.

In the meantime in April of 2017 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record 410 parts per million when for decades scientists have known that anything amount beyond 350 parts per million is dangerous. This level is higher than anything the world has experienced in 3&1/2 million years!

What has Trump done about this in one year in office? Nothing positive. Who is advising him? No scientists that’s for sure. He has removed restrictions on coal production when the use of coal is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. He has removed restrictions on transporting bitumen from the Tar Sands of Alberta that were imposed by President Obama who had a first rate science advisor when Tar Sands production is massively worse for the atmosphere than conventional oil production. All of this was done by a man who does not read without the benefit of the best scientific advice.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about what Trump and Kim Jong-un are doing with their nuclear weapons. Are you scared yet? If we are not scared perhaps we “a fucking morons.”

[1] I might apologize for the bad language, but I think the actual words have to be included to give the true flavour of the incident