Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Digression And Ethics


     I start with a digression.

     There are probably about a dozen books which I would recommend, none of which have to do with ethics per se.  One of them had ethics as a peripheral concern, and thus I got into that topic a day or two ago.

     This is a digression about books.  It really is a digression because it's not particularly coherent as a whole.  To me, though, there is some internal consistency, which I cannot articulate.  (Why read any particular book, if you can't find some priority among books, so as to select one or some?)  Here are some books that I recommend:


1.   The Bible.  Why would I recommend it?  I'm not religious.  The Bible is important to our culture (the Christian heritage part of our culture).  The claims (or the claim)  made about the Bible (by its adherents) are big claims, they sound very important, and I have heard them often enough (it seems like many times).  One might ignore all such claims, or one might investigate them.  The main claim about the Bible, and perhaps the most important one, is the claim that the Bible is the Word of God.  Other things follow from that claim.

     I started hearing about the Bible at a rather young age, well before I had much cultural perspective.  After that, then, I grew up until I was in my mid-twenties, and a couple of missionaries stopped by my dormitory room (I was in graduate school).  Near the end of the conversation one of them said to me that one needs to read the entire Bible, not just parts of it; because, without reading the whole thing, one cannot understand the contexts of what's said in it.

     That assertion stuck with me for a long time.  It was as though I had been dared to read the whole Bible.

     Meanwhile, as I continued to mature, and got into my fifties, I noticed that some apparently large number of people claim, or appear to believe, that the Bible is the Word of God, but (it seemed to me) a rather lesser number had read more than just parts of it -- well under half of it.  If you ask a preacher about it, he'll agree that it's better to read the Bible first, before committing to it; but meanwhile, millions of people are encouraged to commit to Christianity (with rather less encouragement to read the whole Bible, it seems to me) and they do so without reading the whole Bible first.  I feel there's something wrong about that.  It's kind of like signing contracts without reading them -- which is also something people do a lot in our culture -- but the Christianity and the Bible are, or at least purport to be, far more important than the other contracts we sign on to.

     Another thing I find noticeable is the manner in which people read the Bible -- those who actually get that far with it.  They skip around in it.  By far most of them (I think) never read it straight through.  That's somewhat strange in that virtually all other books would be read straight through; and people are all expected to read them straight through; and hardly anybody would think that to read one of those other millions of books by skipping around in it was equivalent to reading it straight through from start to finish.

     Now what is it about order in language?  Word order within a sentence is obviously important in our language.  See what happens if I mix up that sentence:  "Order a word in language obviously sentence our important is within."  For some sentences you _could_ figure out what it means, but why beat yourself over the head with that task, when you could instead read it straight through like this:  "Word order within a sentence is obviously important in our language."  At that level (words within a sentence), order does matter.  How about at other levels?  If you read a typical book chapter by chapter, would it be the same if you read the chapters in a different order?  No, of course not, not for a typical book, although some relatively few kinds of books do allow for such a reading.

     Large numbers of people read the Bible according to the order prescribed by some other book or pamphlet (which itself is not claimed to be the Word of God).

     Anyway, in my fifties I finally took up the original dare and did read it straight through.  It took me a few years because parts of it are long and boring.  If the size of a task indicates its importance, then I'm justly proud.

     One value of reading the Bible (directly, not as someone else tells you what it means) is that one is then in a better position to evaluate the claims of people about it.  Another value of it is that the Bible has some worthwhile ideas in it, and even if none of them were worthwhile, it helps to know the various references that pop up in everyday life, such as "Judas" (which is a slang word for "traitor"), "an eye for an eye" (meaning either justice or revenge), and more important concepts such as how the world came into being (the Bible has an explanation, taken seriously by some people), what happens when we die, forgiveness, "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and many opportunities to consider the human condition.  You don't have to believe it all, but it's good to read it as preparation for taking part in the grand discussion of what things mean.


2.   Other sacred books (or, other "sacred" books -- each one claimed to be sacred, by its adherents).  The most obvious example, in today's world, is the Koran (QU-RAN).  I have not read it.  I've tried starting it a couple of times but it takes some doing.


3.   Money and Freedom, by Robert DeFremery.


4.   The Myth Of Male Power, by Warren Farrell.


5.   Don't Think Of An Elephant! by George Lakoff.


and, various other books I don't recall at the moment.

     That last one (by Lakoff) is a small book and is the one I've most recently read.  He's a cognitive scientist and linguist, describing how political discussions are "framed".  A frame is a conceptual framework, normally used subconsciously, by which we understand some arguments and ignore others.

     The main two frames he describes are the "strict father" frame and the "nurturant parent" frame.

     The book resonates (at least with the people closer to the "nurturant parent" frame) because so many of us do care about those political discussions, or are influenced by them, much as we hate to admit it.

     In examining the "strict" father" and "nurturant parent" frames, one delves deeper to find concepts of how God is, or, if not God, then whatever we hold most important or most dear.  It is this search which leads into various topics such as ethics or the Bible.


     ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~


     One is accosted, or confronted, with assertions about morality, God, the Bible (or some other holy book), philosophy, and politics, whether one likes it or not.  I probably would not have begun with morality, God, nor the Bible, except that they have been thrust upon me, at times, from an early age and throughout life, and I cannot deny that they may be important topics.

     Ethics is similar to morality.  Morality is usually connected with some kind of irrationality (not necessarily a bad thing, just different from rationality), such as, may be, faith or religion or God.  Ethics tends to be more associated with rational thought.

     Since I try to find firm thoughts, so that I can connect to something meaningful that lasts, I am attracted to the idea of "ethics", as it is important, kind of like religion, but more amenable to rational thought.

     I have not studied such things, but I can decipher parts of Wikipedia articles.  Wikipedia has a lot of pages about various kinds of philosophy, and ethics is apparently sort of a branch of philosophy.

     Starting with "morality" in Wikipedia, one finds a reference to "ethics", and then references to various forms of ethics, each with its own Wikipedia page.

     I look at each major kind of ethics, in passing.  I eliminate some of them, one by one, as they are not quite the topic I'm looking for.  I go into "meta-ethics" which is "how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong".  Close enough.  I'm interested in that, and also in:  what are the most important things?

     I go to the Meta-ethics page (on Wikipedia).  Within that page, I am attracted to "Moral realism", which holds that moral sentences are about objective features of the world, "not facts about any person or group's subjective opinion".

     Within moral realism, I go to "Ethical naturalism", which "holds that there are objective moral properties ... that ... are reducible ... to entirely non-ethical properties".  The web page "Ethical naturalism" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethical_naturalism ) explains it better.  That appears to be what I'm looking for:  a way to think about important things, which is somehow grounded in (an) objective reality.


     ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~


     I would then flit off to some other airy thoughts, but:

     Last night I was thinking about where I came from (a small town in Oklahoma) and how I relate to that.  I often think of it.  First I imagined relating to it in a subjective way (which is sometimes painful).  But then I thought of this question:  "What happened?".  (That is:  What are the facts, in that time and place, when I was growing up?  What happened in my life?)

     I like that question "What happened?".  It allows a kind of grounding.  This life should have a place to stand.  Archimedes said "Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth".  Oppositely, with no place to stand, one cannot get traction, and is forever moved by others!  I should have a place to stand (or a grounding in objective truth) so that I can act, and not just be acted upon.

     The concept, in the question "What happened?", might move a hitherto emotional or subjective discussion into a realm of more-manageable objective facts.

     Suddenly recalling my previous evening's encounter with ethical naturalism, I realized that there could be a connection between the objective facts and the emotional or subjective discussion.  There could be a _usable_ connection, proceeding from the objective facts, and proceeding to an ethically justified position.

( -jrl, Aug. 9, 2015  --  end of post )
   

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Yes We Have Neglected Syria, And Here Is Why


I originally wrote this, earlier this evening, in response to an Al Jazeera article about Syria.  But when I started to post it in the comments section of the Al Jazeera article, I found that the only way I could do that was to allow various intrusions into my gmail or facebook or other accounts, such as that the "app" would then be able to "manage" my contacts (even after I deselected everything I could deselect).  

I don't want to allow any such thing.  So I decided not to post there.  Instead I post here.

The Al Jazeera article is at this link:  http://www.aljazeera.com/blogs/middleeast/2015/03/wont-read-piece-syria-isil-iraq-isis-150317125900133.html  (This is as it was seen on Mar. 17, 2015.)  My response is shown here (below).

-   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   --   -   -

A person can care deeply about only a few things at a time.  Most of us have concerns closer to home, than is Syria for us.  

We in the U.S. have our own big disaster which we have failed to address.  We did not address it early; we did not address it contemporaneously, and we did not address it later.  To wit:  

When it became evident that the reasons given for invading Iraq in 2003 were false, and then the United States Congress failed to impeach Bush and failed to impeach Cheney, to uncover why and how such a disaster was created, and the administration and the mainstream news media started using the same rhetoric in favor of invading Iran, which they had used in favor of invading Iraq, all without seriously examining how the Iraq disaster happened, all of that illustrated a moral bankruptcy and a serious danger to the entire world.  

We know Congress can go through the procedure of impeaching a high official.  It impeached Clinton regarding a sex scandal which had not killed anybody, but it failed utterly to impeach Bush over misdirecting the U.S. into a war in which the U.S. killed a great many innocent people in a country that never attacked us.  

As we in the U.S. have not even begun to address that, which is so close to us and so much our responsibility, how can you expect us to get seriously involved with a country such as Syria on the other side of the world?  

Regarding Syria, at least we can say that our country did not ostentatiously bomb Syria and kill a lot of its innocent civilians, over what amounted to nothing.  We cannot say that about Iraq.  

As a nation we have such a moral bankruptcy, and those of us who try to care feel such a futility thereby, that most of us don't have any foundation from which to care much about something further from us such as conditions in Syria.

-jrl, Mar. 17, 2015

Friday, January 16, 2015

What It Takes To Make A Fair Process


The following was originally written (by me) to be a comment on Al Jazeera (which I am posting there but am still waiting for the website to show that it is posted).  The context was Palestine, Israel, and the ICC (international criminal court).  But if you replace the terms "Palestine", "Israel", and "ICC" with "Party X", "Party Y", and "court", then you have my recipe for a fair proceeding in any context.

To be fair, there should be a proceeding (such as a "court proceeding" or "trial") in which both sides (Palestine and Israel) have equal opportunities to express their cases IN THEIR OWN TERMS, during the SAME proceeding, and the agenda of that proceeding cannot be set by either side.  

Too often, what happens, instead, is that there is an initial proceeding with an agenda set by one side, in which the other side, prevented from presenting a case in its own terms, is forever disadvantaged because of that initial proceeding.

I believe time and length are essential parameters in such a proceeding.  So, rather than allow one side to talk longer, or present longer documents thus flooding the proceeding, both sides must be given MANY turns, alternating with each other, with limits on duration of talking, and with LIMITED lengths of documents presented.  And neither side can get the first turn every day, nor the last word every day.

And the proceeding should be open so that all of us can follow it at will, in current-day technology, which to me means, at a minimum, online text of the proceeding.

If one side elects not to participate in such a proceeding, after being given the fair opportunity to participate, then the court should go ahead without them.  No side should be able, by simply not showing up, to deny the other side the opportunity to be heard and to get justice.

Too often, what happens in a court, instead, is that one side simply refuses to participate in a fair, open proceeding, or postpones its participation indefinitely, and the court meanwhile refuses the other side the chance to present its case, while waiting indefinitely for the one side to cooperate.  Maybe the reader doesn't believe me, but I've seen it happen this way in smaller cases in smaller courts, regardless of how the courts are "supposed" to work.

If the proceeding is truly open as I described above, then it will be demonstrable whether it is fair or not.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Atheism And A Book Review In the Wall Street Journal


The referenced article unduly conflates "secular" and "atheist".

At the end of the article, it hints that the existence or nonexistence of God is important, but I say no.  I'm mostly agnostic but I believe God exists.  If God were gone I'd probably miss him, somewhat like missing a deceased parent.  But life goes on even after one's parents are deceased.  I believe that there are more important things than the existence or nonexistence of God -- things like love, the ability to hope, and a belief in a benign neutrality of the universe.  God is like a friend; but a life could be meaningful enough if one just loves other human beings.

I was not sure when my grandmother died.  I hadn't seen her for a few years and her letters were sometimes months apart anyway.  Whenever she died, wasn't life about the same anyway, because my experience of her was so similar during those few months immediately before and immediately after she died?  And if we feel some way about God, isn't it the same for us whether God really exists outside our imaginations or not?  Most of us never see God in our entire lives, anyway.  Maybe what really matters is the ability to aspire toward some ideal, which some of us have traditionally called God.

Ethics and the existence of the universe can all happen just as well without a god as with one.  One can have all that, without believing in a god.  Even Heaven and Hell, or whatever makes sense in them, could exist without a God and without a Devil.

Some religious people think people would be totally immoral and evil if they didn't have god or religion.  I don't think that at all.  We should behave equally well regardless of whether God exists or not.  Ethical behavior depends more on good sense, intellect, and the love from one's parents, than on a belief in a God.  And some religious people have behaved horribly, as in the Inquisition and as in the Conquest of the New World and as in our society when it had institutionalized slavery, and after that time also.

I share the frustration of some atheists who are tired of hearing religious propaganda and being told what to believe without being asked what they think about it.  Some of these atheists make really snide remarks about religion.  When I remember my friends who are religious, and I remember how they may know some things I don't know, then I try to restrain myself in what I say against religion.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-atheist-awakening-by-richard-cimino-and-christopher-smith-1420408360

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deterministic Or Not (Was: 2nd post re: Essay VIII "Of Liberty and Necessity", "Part I")

I started to title this "2nd post re: Essay VIII "Of Liberty and Necessity", "Part I", but I relinquish the connection to Hume, for this post, as I may have come too far afield from his essay.


 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

In physics, there is an "uncertainty principle" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle ) which to me hints at the possibility that we do not live in a deterministic universe after all.  I don't pretend to know physics, but I'm just suggesting that the deterministic model may not be the only valid model, of the universe.

Be that as it may, I am thinking about the notion that God knows everything that is going to happen.  What if God _didn't_ know what was going to happen?  I am beginning to think that, if there is a God, it's fairly likely that s/he doesn't know what is going to happen.  Why should we suppose that God knows everything that is going to happen?  Just because somebody told us that God was omniscient (even about the future)?  I don't believe everything I'm told.

Next, I wonder, is it _plausible_ that even Nature herself/himself may not have a determined course of events?  I don't know, but I suspect that a nondeterministic theory could be as plausible and as valid as a deterministic theory.

The deterministic theory arose (for me, at least) from the idea that all the atomic particles of the universe are like billiard balls which, once set into motion, will collide at angles and react to their collisions, all determined according to some initial condition of positions and velocities, at some selected instant, after which all their actions and reactions are theoretically absolutely precisely defined forever.

It is wishful thinking on my part that some part of the deterministic argument will prove false, because I don't like the idea of a deterministic universe.  I'd prefer to think there are meaningful opportunities for us to change things.

Having been around a while, in the world, and seeing some unexpected things, and on rare occasions glimpsing the possibility that some theory of mine is false, I can allow the possibility that maybe we don't live in a deterministic universe after all.

If we look at the universe, not as billiard balls, but, instead, as the feelings we have (such as anguish, effort, and satisfaction, which surround what we call our _options_ and _decisions_ and _actions_ ), then a "free will" model of the universe seems fairly appropriate.

Are billiard-ball-like particles more simple and fundamental than some prototype feelings?

I have (elsewhere) said that I prefer an extremely simple and naturalistic model of how the universe came into being.  As a seeker after simple fundamental elements, should I be more satisfied with billiard-ball-like particles, rather than with some prototype feelings, in a model of how the universe works?  One would think so (at least, initially, at first look), because billiard balls seem so much simpler than human feelings; however, if we weigh things according to their _importance_, then feelings seem more _relevant_ than billiard balls.

So, with that in mind, it pleases me to hypothesize that the fundamental elements of the universe, at its beginning and now, are some simple fundamental _spirit_ things, which (of course) naturally combine to form more complex _spirit_ things, including our human feelings.

I don't pretend there's any science in that; I just hypothesized it because I wanted to.

It seems unconventional; however, I am not deterred.  I know, for a true fact, that what matters to me is more in the realm of human feelings, emotions, and things like that, which I call spiritual rather than material.  Some reflection will show that this is true for all people.  We really are spiritual beings in a significant way.

We seem more accustomed to thinking that the physical reality is the more "substantial", that is, that it has a more durable significance, than a spiritual reality.  However, the opposite could be more true.  Instead of always asking (for example), "Do bodies have spirits?", let's at least occasionally ask "Do spirits have bodies?"  Instead of always thinking:  "I am a body.  Do I have a spirit?" let's sometimes think:  "I am a spirit.  Do I have a body?" After reading philosophy a while, it's easier to do this.  :-)  But even in ordinary day-to-day life, we may notice that what really matters to us is how we feel and how other people feel, more than what is happening with mere physical objects.  So, what's important, relevant, significant, and even fundamental, may be spiritual rather than material.

jrl, with last edit done at 11:18 p.m. California time, Sat. Aug. 23


Re: Essay VIII "Of Liberty and Necessity", "Part I"

I found this one (Part I of Essay VIII) a little more difficult.  When I read these essays and then wait a few days, then I forget my understandings and thoughts about them.  Revisiting Essay VIII now, in Part I of it, I find that the word "Necessity" means that events, even events in the mind, are deterministic.  Hume doesn't say "pre-ordained" or "pre-destined", but I think that's what he means.  "Liberty" in this context is the opposite of Necessity, and means that events, especially exercisings of what we call the human will, are optional and can be chosen by the person.  (Thus will is real.)  And so it is not just a fictitious will in an actually predestined course of events.

I suppose that if we had a complete understanding (of causes and effects of all events, including events within our minds), then all would appear predestined.

Thus, all _is_ predestined.  I hesitate to say it.  I don't _want_ predestination.  But there it is, anyway.

Contrarily, I also hold the notion that there is free will.  To hold both notions (predestination and free will) I can only rationalize them as two different theories or aspects of reality:  like saying, in physics, that light is like a particle and light is also like a wave.  Sometimes one theory is more useful, and other times the other theory is more useful.

While supposing that all things are predestined, I say that we are blessed with an ignorance which allows us to feel we have choices.

It is sure that there is anguish and effort, and satisfaction resulting from what we call decisions and acts of human will.  Thus, I think that almost all people _feel_ that they have free will, though some will deny it in words.

Recall that in Essay VI ("Of Probability"), Hume opens with "Tho' there be no such Thing as _Chance_ in the World; our Ignorance of the real Cause of any Event has the same Influence on the Understanding, and begets a like Species of Belief or Opinion."  Perhaps I can adapt that construction to my purpose here, to wit:

{
Though we can suppose that, hypothetically, there could be a level of understanding of all Causal links, which would illuminate, to our view, a deterministic universe, even so, our actual ignorance, of many of those supposed Causal links, allows us imagine we are making choices of action.  It may be that the predestined course of events actually includes the anguish, effort, and satisfaction we go through while exercising our "choice".  It is all the same to our experience, whether it were predestined or instead really our choice.
}

If we can imagine a God, which could make choices, then we can also imagine a Human, which could make choices.

The above corresponds to Part I of Essay VIII.

A review of Part II looks easier.  I hope to get to that later; possibly tomorrow.


Re: Essay VII "Of the Idea of Power or Necessary Connexion"

While going back and scanning these Essays VI and VII (after having read them several days ago), it occurs to me that science allows us to delve ever deeper into the inner workings of things, such that less is left to the domain of "chance", while more is in the domain of "understanding", as science progresses along.

So, compared to the understanding in Hume's day, now today we might be able to see a "causal" "Connexion" in a thing, which they did not know about in Hume's time.  However, Hume, were he alive, could still forever argue that we don't know the _ultimate_ causes of things.

He says that mathematics has clear ideas and long chains of inferences, while morality has fuzzy ideas and short chains of inferences.  

So, in mathematics, the difficulty is in keeping track of those long chains of reasoning; while, in morality, the difficulty is in even knowing what you're talking about in the first place (i.e., "the Obscurity of the Ideas").

Also, in this essay he compares two things:  On the one hand, we don't know how the gross physical objects work, and on the other hand, we don't know how our own will works.

Then it becomes interesting, as follows.

On pages 75-76 (the 10th & 11th pages of Essay VII), he is discussing how philosophers think that even the workings of our minds, and even our supposed ability to will our limbs to move, is dependent on a God who is interposed into even these details to make them happen, one by one, by God's will.

Then he writes:

[begin quote]

Thus, according to these Philosophers, every Thing is full of God.  Not contented with the Principle, that nothing exists but by his Will, that nothing possesses any Power but by his Concession:  They rob Nature, and all created Beings of every Power, in order to render their Dependance on the Deity still more sensible and immediate.  They consider not, that by this Theory they diminish, instead of magnifying, the Grandeur of those Attributes, which they affect so much to celebrate.  It argues surely more Power in the Deity to delegate a certain Degree of Power to inferior Creatures, than to operate every Thing by his immediate Volition.  It argues more Wisdom to contrive at first the Fabric of the World with such perfect Foresight, that, of itself, and by its own proper Operation, it may serve all the Purposes of Providence, than if the great Creator were oblig'd every Moment to adjust its Parts, and animate by his Breath all the Wheels of that stupendous Machine."

[end quote]

I agree with Hume in that, although I go further in the way shown below.  

I say that there is no complex Creation process by any God; rather, there is the simplest possible Nature from which all things evolve.

A universe which is dependent, ultimately, upon only the most extremely simple beginnings and the most extremely simple principles, can evolve naturally into what appears to be a complex universe with us in it and, may be, with a God in it as well.

In the above quote, Hume imagines God contriving "the Fabric of the World with such perfect Foresight"; but I say there doesn't need to be any Foresight at all.  Rather, the best God and the best Nature are the ones which evolve from something which is infinitely simple, and upon evolving, flow naturally, without any contrivances at all.

(
A side note about awe:

We, in this universe, may fancy there is something special about it; but really it is only that this universe is what we happened to be born into:  it is the only possibility we're familiar with.

If instead the universe were different, then when we got born into that different universe we would have the same thoughts about _it_ as we do about _this_ one.  We would think it such a special universe.  But really there's no reason to suppose that any particular universe were any better than any other one.  The original principle and how it evolved into a universe could be completely arbitrary, and however it turned out, its conscious creatures would feel there were something special about it, but that's really just because that's the one they find themselves in.  And, as conscious beings may feel better when they can describe things as _meaningful_, and, as conscious beings of a certain level of consciousness tend to find meaning in religions and gods, they would ascribe all its supposed wonderfulness to a God, for which they would have a bent to feel awe.
)

Now, regarding that universe, which flows naturally from that infinitely simple principle or object:  Supposing we are in it.  Is it a universe that we shall fear?  Or instead shall we feel happy about it?  Or is it naturally malignant, or instead naturally benign?  On first thought, we don't know.  On second thought, if the universe or our place in it turns out bad, there's a limit to our suffering, and that limit is oblivion by death.  But if, as some people think, there's a God placing us in Hell or Heaven, then I believe that God is benign, and so is Hell if there is a Hell.  Thirdly, in a philosophical way I am optimistic:  I'd rather be here than nowhere; and, I believe, by faith if for no other reason, that our ultimate results are no worse than oblivion by death.  So, in a philosophical way, I am happy to be in this reasonable universe.  If there is a God, then I believe it is a nice God who does not interfere with this reasonable universe.  I believe a God would be godly in that way.