Category Archives: Philosophy

Spirituality: A Product of the Body

“Body am I, and soul”–thus speaks the child….

But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body.  — Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book 1.

A day after reading what Zarathustra spoke, I saw an article in The Atlantic called The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving. To quote the first few paragraphs:

In the early 1990s, a quiet man named João quit his job running the human-resources department of an insurance company in Rio de Janeiro and began selling french fries from a street cart. The fries quickly proved popular, in part because they were delicious—thin and crisp and golden. Even more enticing, João often served them up for free. All you had to do was ask, and he’d scoop some into a box, no charge. What money he did take in, he frequently gave away to children begging in the street or used to buy them sweets. Day after day, he came home to his wife and son without a single real in his pocket.

In his previous life, João—a chubby man with pointy ears and arched black eyebrows—had been stern and serious, prone to squirreling money away. But after suffering a health crisis in 1990, at age 49, he wanted to live differently. “I saw death from close up,” he would often say. “Now I want to be in high spirits.” And nothing made him happier than giving. To those who didn’t know him well, he must have seemed like the embodiment of selflessness—the Saint Francis of Rio de Janeiro.

He sounds like a very spiritual person, doesn’t he? If anything would indicate that we are animated by more than just chemistry, it is the generosity and love that this man radiated.

But then the article continues,

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. … [He] became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy.

It turns out that one area of our brain gives us a dopamine rush when we do something generous, but another area regulates that impulse so we don’t go broke. João’s stroke knocked out that second area, so his generosity went untempered.

Isn’t it interesting that a purely physical change to the brain can produce such a supposedly spiritual result?

Maybe Zarathustra was right!

Same-Sex Marriage vs Tradition

In the last post, we heard from from John Trandem, interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. If we were to legitimize same-sex marriage, he said, “how would we .. be able to exclude [marriage between] two men and two women or three men or three women…?”

Marriage between one man and one woman, he pointed out, has two things going for it that these other variations do not: biology and tradition.

The last post was about biology. Now let’s talk about tradition.

We can presume that when conservatives in America cite “tradition” they mean Judeo-Christian, or biblical, tradition. This is the tradition on which conservatives like to say our counry was founded. Okay, then.

Like the argument from biology, the argument from biblical tradition has a nasty way of curling back to bite those who trot it out.

For starters, biblical tradition is firmly rooted in polygamy. The Bible mentions two wives of Moses. Abraham had an unkown number of concubines (second-class wives) in addition to his wife, Sarah. I won’t mention Solomon, who had 700 wives, because the Bible does say that kings should not get carried away like that. His father, king David, was a monk by comparison, having only 7 wives, plus maybe a couple of others that are in dispute.

But what could be greater evidence of the polygamous root of Judeo-Christian tradition than the fact that the very 12 tribes of Israel descend from Jacob’s four wives?

The predominantly Mormon state of Utah was not allowed to join the United States until it agreed to outlaw polygamy. Where were God’s culture warriors when this abridgement of biblical norms was being foisted on patriotic Americans?

In addition to wives and concubines, Hebrew men were free to have sex with their slaves. In the chapter of the Bible that immediately follows the Ten Commandments, we find God’s regulations for sex slavery. A man could sell his daughter to a fellow Hebrew, who was then under obligation to continue to have sex with her (presumably so she could have the honor of bearing children) even as he married additional women. Alternatively, he could sell her back if she did not “satisfy him” or he could give her to one of his sons if he chose.

Now there’s a nice family value: Have sex with your servant-girl and then give her to your son for more of the same.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife gave him a hard time for fathering a child by his housekeeper, where was the outcry from conservatives? (The outcry against his wife, I mean.) Why didn’t traditionalists support Arnold as he upheld the proud biblical tradition of impregnating one’s servants? He was even a Republican, for cryin’ out loud! It’s shameful how people won’t stand up for the Bible.

No study of the wondrous variety of marriage arrangements in the Good Book would be complete without mention of the final, glorious act of Moses, the great Law-Giver of Judeo-Christian tradition. This was to direct the distribution of 32,000 virgin war-captives to his soldiers and sundry others. As recorded in Numbers 31, these girls were parceled out exactly like the cattle that were also taken as “plunder and spoils” of war. It is stated at least 4 times in this chapter that Moses did all this in accordance with God’s direct command (verses 25, 31, 41, and 47).

Numbers 31 does not tell us whether any of the virgins got to update their Facebook status from “plunder” to “wife.” We can only hope. If they did, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 gave God’s instructions for how the Hebrew men were to arrange the marriage — and terminate it at will if the girl whose parents and brothers had been slaughtered by her new husband’s army does not manage to “please him” sufficiently.

We have all been horrified by ISIS’ enslavement and plunder of women in recent months, or Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and marrying them off to their soldiers. Why won’t advocates of “traditional marriage” speak up and tell the rest of us that ISIS and Boko Haram are acting exactly as God commanded in the Bible?

Never mind; I know the answer to that one. It’s because it’s bad when Muslims do it, but God’s righteous judgment when those in our spiritual tradition do the same thing.

By the time of the New Testament, the Jews were subject to Rome and were in no position to wage war and get wives by capturing them. However, polygamy was still practiced among both Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was pagan Rome that finally outlawed the practice.

So maybe it is Roman tradition that opponents of same-sex marriage really want? Probably not.

Maybe tradition is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe we’re better off thinking for ourselves.

Same-Sex Marriage vs Biology

What do you think of this exchange between NPR host David Greene and John Trandem, who owns an auto body shop in North Dakota?

TRANDEM: I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you legalize same-sex marriage. It’s a matter of whether or not you remove the definition of marriage. You know, if marriage is defined as an institution involving one man and one woman, that’s what it is. If you want to create a union with a man and you’re a man, that’s not marriage. And under the guise of equality, if we were to … amend the definition of marriage to include one man and one man, how would we logically and rationally be able to exclude two men and two women or three men or three women if equality is the endgame?

GREENE: Three men and three women, like three people getting married or…

TRANDEM: I’d say six people getting – well, it doesn’t matter. … The magic behind the number two [man and woman] is biology – which we’re getting rid of that – and tradition. And we’re getting rid of that.

Mr. Trandem is very articulate, isn’t he? If you listen to the audio version, you’ll also discover that he’s an earnest, decent-sounding man. But I think he might be surprised at what can unfold once arguments from “biology” and “tradition” are opened.

In this post, I’ll consider the “biology” argument. The plea to tradition will be the subject of the next post.

The argument from biology, as I’ve usually heard it stated, is not that homosexual behavior is unknown elsewhere in the animal kingdom. It does occur, although bisexuality would better describe what goes on in the vast majority of cases.

Rather, the argument from biology centers on the fact that a homosexual marriage cannot produce children. That alone, the argument goes, should be enough to indicate that such marriages are unnatural and wrong.

Really? Do those who make such arguments say that a fertile man ought not marry an infertile woman? Or that two infertile people should never marry? Of course they don’t. They know that companionship, pleasure and fidelity are justification enough for both sex and marriage. Homosexual couples have all of those.

“But at least sex in a barren heterosexual marriage looks like sex in a fertile one,” they say. “At least they are going through the same motions.”

Are the motions what’s important? If we’re making an argument from biology, isn’t the actual biology what’s important? And isn’t the actual biological result in both cases (homosexual marriage and childless heterosexual marriage) the same?

The argument from biology also turns on those who use it in a way that might strike closer to home. If we want an institution of marriage that favors reproductive success, then, like so many of our mammal cousins, we should push for marriage between one dominant male and several females, leaving the other males out in the cold.

An alpha wolf might look at our society and sneer, “Those awful humans. They let anyone mate! Even the weak get to have children. It just ain’t natural! And it’s not good for the species, either.”

In short, the argument from biology will take its aherents where they don’t want to go. Applied consistently, it will force them to prohibit some heterosexual marriages, and maybe even call the whole idea of monogamy into question.

 

Next time: the argument from tradition.

Are You Afraid of the Singularity?

I was amazed to read this week that Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Tesla inventor Elon Musk are all afraid that artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to the human race. Musk’s warning was the most colorful:

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.

Bill Gates chimes in:

I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.

They are worried that artificial intelligence (AI) will advance until AI machines are able to improve their own designs, and build even smarter, more-capable machines, which will be smart enough to build even better ones, and so on. Although biological evolution has taken billions of years to produce humans, the AI stage of evolution will happen very, very quickly.

When AI has transformed our culture so much that present-day people would not recognize it, we will have passed the Singularity.

Pessimists think the Singularity will be as portrayed in the movie I, Robot or even The Matrix, in which humans are nothing more than power sources for their machine overlords. Hollywood, Hawking, Gates and Musk notwithstanding, I am not afraid of the Singularity. I look forward to it.

Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book on the subject, The Singularity Is Near, is subtitled When Humans Transcend Biology. In his analysis, humans will not be replaced by AI so much as merge with it. At first, the non-biological portion of our intelligence might consist of a specialized module or two. Think of what you could do right now if you only had Wikipedia and a few other reference sources wired directly into your brain. At a minimum, you could win Jeopardy! and make a lot of money to fund your next project.

With our augmented intelligence, we will be able to design even more improvements. Progress will be exponential. Before the midpoint of this century, according to Kurzweil, the biological portion of our intelligence will be insignificant compared to our augmentations. What we now call artificial life will not exterminate us. It will become a major part of us.

Now I ask, “Why is that so bad?” Why should we cling to the form of existence that has given us global warming, the science-deniers to make sure it continues, the Islamic State, violence against LGBT people, lynching of African Americans, World Wars II and I, the subjugation of women, a Civil War fought in part to defend the institution of slavery, the burning of heretics in the name of the Prince of Peace, and other instances of insanity stretching as far back as history can see? Even if a super-smart AI were to have no goal beyond its own survival, could it possibly do any worse?

Beyond that, isn’t there something aesthetically satisfying in letting intelligence bloom? We think we are the bloom, but maybe we’re just the seed.

Ray Kurzweil projects that intelligence will ultimately permeate the universe. Which would be smarter: to embrace that destiny, or to obstruct it? Which would bring more beauty to the cosmos?

The Islamic State, Christianity, and Holy Texts

What sense can you make of this dialog?

JOE: They say, “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

MARY: Why is the Aurora Borealis visible only in the far north?

JOE: I am convinced we will have a Republican president after the next election.

MARY: I should probably have a mammogram.

JOE: Oak trees are strong and brown. Birch trees are weaker, and have white bark.

MARY: Chocolate ice cream is my favorite.

When I took an acting class in college, the professor gave us an exercise based on dialog much like the above. He paired us off and gave each pair a full page of non sequiturs. Each pair was supposed to take a week to figure out how to present the dialog in a way that made sense. We were allowed to repeat words, but not omit or reorder any. When the class met again, we were to act out our interpretations in a convincing way.

My partner was totally stumped, as were most people in the class. However, I took up the challenge and managed to cast the dialog as being about a visit to the dentist, even though dentists were nowhere in the original. (There was a sentence about a proctologist, though!)

I was able to give every syllable an interpretation that made perfect sense. Not only that, but I was sure that I had found the only solution to the puzzle. When other students assigned a different meaning, I had to give them credit for trying, but I thought they had not fit their interpretation to the text as well as I had.

In fact, had I not known that the dialog was designed as nonsense, I might have marveled at how cleverly its true meaning was woven into seemingly unrelated content.

That experience is what came to mind when I read the cover story in the latest issue of The Atlantic: What ISIS Really Wants. To hear American politicians talk, the Islamic State is not Islamic at all. They are just a “death cult.” The Atlantic‘s article argues very effectively for a more sobering view:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Yes, there are alternate interpretations of Islam. As Graeme Wood points out toward the end of the article,

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam.

[The are] committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

In practical terms, then, one fundamentalist group is attempting to take over the world, while the other peacefully devotes itself to a life of prayer and scholarship. Two groups have the same view of their holy text, but reach opposite conclusions about how to live.

It would be easy to laugh at the ridiculous Muslims, but we in the Christian West have not been without diversity of interpretation of our holy text, the Bible.

One thinks of Christian pro-lifers who bomb abortion clinics, while other Christians, equally devoted to the scriptures, decry that practice and focus instead on prayer, asking God to stop abortion by changing people’s hearts.

Or, on a less violent level, one is reminded of Bible-believing Christians who preach that God will heal all who ask in faith for a miracle, even as other Bible-believing Christians caution that such prayers are presumptuous.

How can people who agree on a simple, common-sense, literal method of interpreting a holy text reach opposite conclusions based on it?

Surely part of the answer is that all scriptures have some passages that point one way, while others tend toward the opposite.

However, the acting exercise also taught me that if even a nonsense dialog can be wrestled into meaning something consistent, surely a relatively coherent book like the Bible or the Koran can be made to say things that the original authors did not have in mind.

More than that, it taught me that when someone thinks he has found the only sensible interpretation that takes the entire text into account, it may be because of his cleverness rather than because the text actually speaks with a unified voice.

What if Life is a Joke?

What if the truth about life were horrible? What if, as the ancient Hebrews believed, we are all destined to spend eternity in a shadowy sheol rather than a glorious heaven? Or what if there is no afterlife at all? What if life is absurd — just a cosmic joke played on us by no-one at all?

If you were to discover that any of these propositions is absolutely, undeniably true, how would you feel?

I’ve been rereading Plato at the Googleplex, in which author Rebecca Goldstein imagines Plato on a book tour in modern America. I’d like to share with you a passage that I find very moving. Ms. Goldstein, synthesizing Plato’s writings, has him say this about those who are fit to be the Guardians of his ideal republic.

[An essential character quality is] an inborn horror of being deceived as to the nature of things, and an inborn desire to know the truth… [It] is something different from intelligence and different from knowledge. Those who have this trait love the truth not because it is like this or like that. They love the truth simply because it is the truth and are prepared to love it no matter what it turns out to be. They will stick to a view just so long as it seems to them the truth and will not be seduced away from that view no matter what others are telling them, or what flashier and more attractive options are dangled before them; but they are also the least reluctant among all people to abandon a formerly loved view, if once they become convinced that it is not true. They are always on the scent of the truth, like dogs, who are the most philosophical of animals.

Do you identify with this? I do. During the years that I was in the evangelical church, nothing “seduced me away from that view” — not money, not social opportunities, not fleshly lusts, not even the common decency to see some of its teachings as horrible. I thought I had found the truth; how could anything else matter?

When I became convinced otherwise, I did not mourn the loss of eternal life, a God who loved me, or a sense of eternal purpose. Instead, I felt anger at having been deceived.

I don’t think life is a joke. I’d say it’s more of a game. But if that is the truth of the matter, I am prepared to love it. Delighted, even. How about you?

Voltaire’s Truth-Loving Test in Candide

I’ve been collecting and posting tests of how much one loves truth, as proposed by famous philosophers. So far, we have

  • Plato’s test: Tell children glorious stories. Emphasize that the stories are true when they are, in fact, false. See which children can resist the stories’ appeal, and spontaneously protest as to why they are impossible.
  • C.S. Lewis’ Test: Upon learning that an ugly rumor about one’s enemies is false, is one relieved that even they aren’t as bad as all that, or does one wish to cling to the rumor?

Now for Voltaire’s.

For my entire adult life, this writer of the French Enlightenment was reviled as an enemy of God by every one of my acquaintances who was educated enough to recognize his name. I formed the impression that he was a villain who, entirely unprovoked, spent his bitter life writing polemics against Christianity.

Imagine my curiosity when I read Robert Ingersoll‘s Lecture on Voltaire, and learned that he was exceedingly generous and warm-hearted, a tireless advocate of liberty and justice, and may have done more than anyone else to abolish cruel and unusual punishments in France.

I decided to read the first of his works that I could get my hands on, and that happened to be Candide. In this book, the guileless Candide is raised in a castle and tutored by the philosopher, Pangloss, whose most memorable tenet is that we live in the best of all possible worlds. (“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles.”)

Almost from page 1, bad things begin to happen to Candide and everyone else in the castle, from which they are all driven out. Candide, separated from Pangloss for most of his tribulations, wonders whether the philosopher would maintain his sunny outlook in the face of so much distress.

Pangloss returns at the end of the book, having suffered at least as much as Candide.

Candide asks him, “When You were hanged, dissected, whipped, and tugging at the oar [as a galley slave], did you continue to think that everything in this world happens for the best?”

“I have always abided by my first opinion,” answered Pangloss; “for, after all, I am a philosopher, and it would not become me to retract my sentiments; especially as Leibnitz could not be in the wrong: and that preestablished harmony is the finest thing in the world.”

In the final chapter, Candide and Pangloss are living a quiet life on a small farm. Pangloss tries to convince Candide that Candide’s misfortunes, which were many and severe, are entirely compatible with this being the best of all possible worlds. “For had you not suffered them,” Pangloss says, “you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

Obviously and comically, the pleasures of citrons and pistachio nuts are as nothing compared to what both men have suffered. But they are all Pangloss needs to hold onto his doctrine.

I suppose there are many truth-loving tests one could extract from this book, but I’ll choose this one:

Our love of truth is inversely related to our stubbornness in holding onto our ideas, and the lameness of our rationales, as judged by an impartial, educated observer.