can’t see the forest

Well-adjusted Atheism and the Dialog with Theism Reconsidered

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Richard Dawkins (BBC)Prof. Richard Dawkins is a biologist, science popularizer, and advocate of atheism whose positions I tend to support and whose passion I deeply admire. His books, such as The God Delusion, sell quite well, and he can be seen in auditoriums and television studios the world over, patiently and persistently explaining—with more than a touch of righteousness, one feels—the truth of evolutionary theory and the perils of religious belief. I happen to share the Professor’s point of view that religious dogmas and mentalities have in practice been at least as aggregately destructive and divisive as benevolently useful, but there are some things about Dawkins’ approach, or at least what I take to be the most common interpretations of it, that I have always found troublesome. These points, I should stress, are not specific to Dawkins’ thought only, and are not meant as personal criticism. I bring them up because I think they are critical to understanding the nature of atheism and its relationships to science and religion, and I don’t believe they’re adequately developed in the work of Dr. Dawkins and others like him. My goals here are to help clear things up and for us all to get along peacefully, and that takes work. :-)

I know it hurts in a punch-to-the-gut way for some of us to subject ourselves to the voice of Bill O’Reilly for any reason, but take a look at this 5-minute interview with Richard Dawkins that happened on the O’Reilly Factor a couple of years ago. I’d like to use it as a starting point:

Notice Dawkins’ statement near the beginning of the interview that science keeps “piling on the understanding.” The implication here is that an individual adopts an atheist worldview as a result of scientific enlightenment leading to metaphysical revelation—almost invoking the idea of scientist as evangelist.

Now, it is certainly true that a systematic and rigorous understanding of nature, and of ourselves as part of it, does not support theism as fact and indeed presents copious factual evidence against a lot of the basic tenets of theist, creationist systems of metaphysics. But it does not follow that all the scientific knowledge in the world could necessarily compel a person to abandon his or her faith. Many prominent religious figures from various traditions, as Dawkins is always quick to point out, accept the theory of evolution in one version or another, even though it might speak unambiguously against certain aspects of the dogmas they represent.

The Tortoise and AchillesFor me, Dawkins is tilting at windmills in his quest to deconvert the faithful through an overwhelming preponderance of scientific data, and potentially alienating those who might benefit most from his message. First of all, you can’t confront real obstinacy with logic and language. Language just isn’t that powerful. Consider Lewis Carroll’s familiar dialog, ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles,’ in which he demonstrates the futility of using reason to truly force a conclusion. If C is logically supposed to follow from A and B, a person who accepts both A and B as true can find, literally, infinitely many ways of casting into doubt the logical necessity of C. You can lead the mind to logic, but you can’t make it think, if you’ll excuse the poor humor.

The same point is delightfully demonstrated in this anecdote from atheistwiki:

Many years ago, when I was a Psychology student, we had a lecturer who told stories of his own early life as a young clinical psychologist. One story he told was of a psychotic patient who was under his care. This man was quite normal in other ways, but he believed that he (the patient) was dead. So one day my lecturer decided to try some cognitive therapy on him:

Lecturer: You think you’re dead, yes? Well, do dead people bleed?
Patient: No, of course not. How could they?
Lecturer: (Sticking a pin in him) Well, how about that?
Patient: Good God! That’s amazing! I was totally wrong! Dead people do bleed!

In the television interview above, O’Reilly doesn’t really “throw in with Jesus” because he is uncomfortable with the lack of the extent to which science has “figured it all out.” That is pretense, an attempt to take away Dawkins’ intellectual leverage, leverage which I think is probably misplaced to begin with. O’Reilly chooses the Cross at Calvary over the Hubble Space Telescope, so to speak, because of the former’s symbolic power and its central nature to the cognitive guidelines along which so many of his neurons are so steadfastly organized, regardless of the intellectual paradoxes and contradictions endemic to his faith. This subtext no doubt resonated powerfully among his viewership. Expressed in modified terms, it would have resonated powerfully among aboriginal Australians, whirling dervishes, or the tribes of the Amazon, and for much the same reasons.

People aren’t religious because they’re uneducated, inherently illogical, or don’t know anything about astrophysics. Isaac Newton was, after all, a deeply Christian man, and J.S. Bach is only one titanic example among numerous composers and artists whose emotionally compelling and intellectually formidable works were dedicated to the glory of God. No, people are religious because religious belief fills certain psychological—some would even say biological—needs, and serves social purposes deeply entrenched in human interactions with one another and the environment on a pan-cultural basis. This is why, even though I enthusiastically agree with Dawkins in many respects, I take issue with his pointed portrayal of religion as an illness or delusion which must be scientifically educated into oblivion.  I think such a goal is neither clearly profitable nor definitively wholesome. If anything, it seems only to fuel misconceptions, ill will, and defensiveness among believers.

As Joseph Campbell eloquently observes at the outset of Primitive Mythology, the first volume of his epic essay The Masks of God:

Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk. And though many who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others, an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs—variously selected, organized, interpreted, and ritualized, according to local need, but revered by every people on earth.

A fascinating psychological, as well as historical, problem is thus presented. Man, apparently, cannot maintain himself in the universe without belief in some arrangement of the general inheritance of myth. In fact, the fullness of his life would even seem to stand in a direct ratio to the depth and range not of his rational thought but of his local mythology.

NGC 6543 - Hubble imageAnother of my intellectual heroes, the astronomer and author Carl Sagan, once wrote hopefully of a coming time in which the joy of using science and reason to approach the wonders of nature might someday unify nations and cultures in contrast to the various ways in which myth-based approaches have helped to divide them throughout history. This is a noble aspiration, and one full of possibility—for science is at least as capable of building partnerships and enriching humanity as it is of constructing atomic bombs. But science cannot merely take the place of religion any more than one could suddenly impose the Qur’an on heartland America, and, in fact, the latter might be the more feasible possibility. This is because there is something about religious symbolism, ritual, and mystery that is fundamental to the human psyche, and this is, I believe, the main reason that well-meaning free thinkers such as Dawkins and Sagan have sometimes missed the mark in an important sense. As marvelously productive and existentially liberating as the Enlightenment might have been, European philosophers would be ill at ease in a primitive environment where the mystic wisdom of the shaman holds the keys to survival. It was probably not in search of a more rigorous understanding of the cosmos that the Great Pyramids were built, or the Mass in B minor composed.

Ernest Becker, the late anthropologist and psychologist whose writings continue to gain prominence in academia, wrote in The Birth and Death of Meaning an accurate and insightful account of the psycho-social machinery, some of it quite dark, served by religious belief. For example:

No religion gives any easy resolution to its central myth, by which I mean that ideal religion is not for compulsive believers. As psychoanalysis has taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. … To believe that one has a higher reason to take human life, to feel that torture and murder are in the service of a divine cause is the kind of mandate that has always given sadists everywhere the purest fulfillment: they are free to remain on the level of the body, to pillage real flesh and blood creatures, to transact in lives in the service of the highest power. What a delight. … Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions …

Intellectual duality and contradiction lie at the heart of religion, and this has been understood since long before Galileo or Darwin. In Christian apologetics, the problem of theodicy—the existence of evil in the universe of a benevolent and omnipotent creator—has been a central problem for almost as long as Christianity has existed, and there were direct precedents and indirect analogs even before that. This fundamental basis in contradiction and resistance to an objective, rational reality is the crucial strength of religion, not its weakness, as many atheist proselytizers seem to believe. Through the embrace of contradiction, man lives an existence which is defined by his own terms and values, and is able to resolutely justify his actions amid the bloody, pulsating chaos of life, Tennyson’s “Nature red in tooth and claw,” according to an immutable and permanent scheme, which he can conveniently take to be the mandate of the highest and most perfect possible authority. If such a modus operandi is delusional in nature, it is also so deeply central to human cognition that even well-seasoned atheists can be caught invoking the name of God Almighty in moments of real trial or terror.

Celtic tree of lifeThe paradigm of learning via evidence-based thought is immensely powerful and has been astoundingly productive. Like Sagan and many others, I think there is real hope that it can transform humanity and bring people together to solve problems in which we all have a stake. In fact, it already has: consider the ways in which modern medicine is creating new possibilities in spite of the greed of corporations, and how the Internet is creating intercultural exchange on an unprecedented scale despite its role in porncasting. There is, I must profess, no sense in waiting on Jehovah to end hunger, disease, and divinely foster the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence that humankind needs in order to make good on its present situation, and viewing all the ills of the world as divine will to be bravely and humbly accepted is not an attractive solution to the miseries of real organisms, human or otherwise.

But well-adjusted atheists cannot expect to share their viewpoints as long as the strategy is to supplant religion and to bash ages-old and psychologically central beliefs with a club made of scientific theory, because religious belief is not a question of insufficient evidence to the contrary, and is far from a symptom of a faulty mind. Atheism is arrived at not through an understanding of facts, figures, and logical constructions. It arises from one’s consideration that religion may be a cultural phenomenon, the most basic kind of literature, one whose purpose is not entertainment or even instruction so much as the definition of who people are as individuals and as groups in ways that are fundamental to conscious organisms. The historical record combined with the illuminating discoveries of comparative mythology and psychoanalysis provide, for most, ample support of this conception.

For me, being an atheist is a profoundly empowering experience: it represents the ability to construct one’s worldview in the most pure, honest, vulnerable, and nobly independent sense, and the realization that man has always created his gods, by the hundreds and thousands, in man’s own image. It is empowering precisely because I arrived at it through my own volition. People can be either receptive or hostile to the suggestion, but in no case can they be won over to it. To subscribe to atheism is, I maintain, a process of exchanging one manmade contradiction—that of a perfect, divinely ordained order rife with brutality and strife—for another more constructive and intellectually challenging contradiction, that of rational, organizing man amid such beautiful probabilistic chaos. Such an exchange is the result of volition, not of compulsion, and should be treated accordingly. If atheists expect theists to listen with well-adjusted, open minds, we had better lead by a better example.

Perhaps Sir Francis Bacon said it best when he wrote: “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” Scientific thought and achievement certainly conflict with the dogmatic nature of myth-based belief and ritual, but science is not a cure for religion and should not be treated as such. The two are sides of the same coin. Given sufficient time and room and even decently favorable conditions, man’s notion of spirituality will develop in its own way according to his experience of the world around him, just as it always has. And so, atheists and theists alike should move forward in conversation and not in aggravated opposition—a tall order to which we must rise if we are to survive long enough to see our development through.

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High hopes

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In keeping with the holiday spirit of reflection and renewal, I wanted to share with you a few of my hopes for humanity. Some will cry “unabashed idealism.” Others will recognize real solutions that, combined with real attention, just might achieve real results.

  • I hope that people will realize that consumerism is making a tiny percentage of the world’s population wealthy, a slightly less tiny percentage comfortable, and most of the world miserable—while wrecking all that is decent and wholesome in human values and destroying the planet in a blaze of absolutely needless waste.
  • I hope that people will strive to respect and learn from one another by understanding this: the power of myth is necessarily stronger than and prerequisite to the power of divinity.
  • I hope individuals and society will realize that a hungry, active, open mind is the best defense against being manipulated by unseen forces, to quote a popular term from economics—and that those forces are operating in new quarters and new ways all the time, with the singular goal of making money to the exclusion of all other concerns.
  • I hope that people will come to grips with the fact that, if one views our planet as a functioning organic entity and not merely a collection of resources to be exploited, then one must realize that free market capitalism indeed promotes growth—in exactly the same way as does cancer.
  • I hope that people will consider that a society in which obesity is a more pressing problem than hunger is not necessarily on the right track.
  • I hope that the citizens of privileged nations will first realize how privileged they in fact are, and next realize that dissent against establishment corruption and misdirection is the highest form of patriotism and the world’s best shot at peace and harmony.
  • I hope people will realize that science is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope people will realize that religion is only as trustworthy and as productive as the values of the society that guide it.
  • I hope that individuals will come to understand that their relationships with nature define, more than anything else, who they are.
  • I hope that people will spread the message that institutions of authority must be directly challenged if they are to remain responsible.
  • I hope more of us will choose love over fear more of the time.
  • I hope it will become more apparent to more people that, if each of us does a little, together we achieve a lot.

earth-in-hand

Cultures at the far edge of the world

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BlueBear, at his EcoBlog, posted a link back in March to this spellbinding 2003 TED talk by NatGeo anthropologist and explorer-in-residence Wade Davis on “cultures at the far edge of the world.” Davis details a few of his experiences among indigenous peoples in various corners of the planet and makes some interesting points about what these cultures can teach us—apparently sometimes against our will—about the relationship between us and our environment. Davis truly walks the walk, and his storytelling is, if sometimes a little frantically paced, nonetheless unequivocally engaging. The photography is likewise amazing.

Indigenous people are neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia.There’s not a lot of room for either in the malarial swamps of the Asmat or the chilling winds of Tibet. But they have, nevertheless, through time and ritual, forged a traditional mystique of the Earth that is based not on the idea of being self-consciously ‘close’ to it, but on a far subtler intuition: the idea that the Earth itself can only exist because it is breathed into being by human consciousness. Now, what does that mean? It means that a young kid from the Andes who is raised to believe that that mountain is an Apu spirit that will direct his or her destiny will be a profoundly different human being and have a different relationship to that resource, or that place, than a young kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of rock ready to be mined. Whether it’s an abode of spirit or a pile of ore is irrelevant; what’s interesting is the metaphor that defines the relationship between the individual and the natural world.

I will have more thoughts on this relationship between person and planet—which is at the core of human ecology, socioteleology, and personal development—very soon. In my view, few topics are as important and far-reaching, and as neglected in the modern Western/industrial worldview.

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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From the Nidana-Katha, as recounted in Buddhist Birth-Stories (Jataka Tales) translated and compiled by Mr. and Mrs. T. W. Rhys-Davids (Routledge & Sons Ltd, London). It is one of the most beautiful stories I know. I’d be interested to see if it sounds to you rather like any other tales you know:

Now the Bodisat had seen that night five dreams, and on considering their purport he had drawn the conclusion: “Verily this day I shall become a Buddha. And at the end of the night he washed and dressed himself, and waiting till the time should come to go round for his food, he went early, and sat at the foot of that tree, lighting it all up with his glory.

And Punna the slave girl of Sujata, coming there, saw the Bodisat sitting at the foot of the tree and lighting up all the region of the East; and she saw the whole tree in colour like gold from the rays issuing from his body. And she thought: “Today our deva, descending from the tree, is seated to receive our offering in his own hand.” And excited with joy, she returned quickly, and announced this to Sujata. Sujata, delighted at the news, gave her all the ornaments befitting a daughter, saying: “Today, from this time forth, be thou to me in the place of an elder daughter!”

buddha-with-sujataAnd since, on the day of attaining Buddhahood, it is proper to receive a golden vessel worth a hundred thousand, she conceived the idea: “We will put the milk-rice into a vessel of gold.” And sending for a vessel of gold worth a hundred thousand, she poured out the well-cooked food to put it therein. All the rice-milk flowed into the vessel, like water from a lotus leaf, and filled the vessel full. Taking it she covered it with a golden platter, and wrapped it in a cloth. And adorning herself in all her splendour, she put the vessel on her head, and went with great dignity to the Nigrodha-tree. Seeing the Bodisat, she was filled with exceeding joy, taking him for the tree-deva; and advanced bowing from the spot whence she saw him. Taking the vessel from her head, she uncovered it; and fetching sweet-scented water in a golden vase, she approached the Bodisat, and stood by.

The earthenware pot given to him by the deva Ghatikara, which had never till then left him, disappeared at that moment. Not seeing his pot, the Bodisat stretched out his right hand, and took the water. Sujata placed the vessel, with the milk-rice in it, in the hand of the great man. The great man looked at her. Pointing to the food, she said: “O sir! Accept what I have offered thee, and depart whithersoever seemeth to thee good.” And adding: “May there arise to thee as much joy as has come to me!” she went away, valuing her golden vessel, worth a hundred thousand, no more than a dried leaf.

But the Bodisat rising from his seat, and leaving the tree on the right hand, took the vessel and went to the bank of the Neranjara river, down into which on the day of their complete Enlightenment so many thousands Bodisats had gone. The name of that bathing place is the Supatitthita ferry. Putting the vessel on the bank, he descended into the river and bathed.

And having dressed himself again in the manner of the Arahants worn by so many thousand Buddhas, he sat down with his face to the East: and dividing the rice into forty-nine balls of the size of so many single-seeded palmyra fruits, he ate all that sweet milk-rice without any water. Now that was the only food he had for forty-nine days, during the seven times seven days he spent, after he became a Buddha, at the foot of the Tree of Enlightenment. During all that time he had no other food; he did not bathe; nor wash his teeth; nor feel the cravings of nature. He lived on Jhana-joy, on Path-joy, on Fruition-joy.

But when he had finished eating that milk-rice, he took the golden vessel, and said: “If I shall be able today to become a Buddha, let this pot go up the stream: if not, let it go down the stream!” and he threw it into the water. And it went, in spite of the stream, eighty cubits up the river in the middle of the stream, all the way as quickly as a fleet horse. And diving into a whirlpool it went to the palace of Kala Nagaraja (the Black Snake King); and striking against the bowls from which the three previous Buddhas had eaten, it made them sound “killi-killi!” and stopped as the lowest of them. Kala, the snake king, hearing the noise, exclaimed: “Yesterday a Buddha arose, now today another has arisen;” and he stood praising him in many hundred stanzas.

bo-tree1But the Bodisat spent the heat of the day in a grove of sal-trees in full bloom on the bank of the river. And in the evening, when the flowers droop from their stems, he proceeded, like a lion when it is roused, towards the Tree of Enlightenment, along a path five or six hundred yards wide, decked by devas. The Snakes, and Genii, and Winged Creatures, and other superhuman beings, offered him sweet-smelling flowers from heaven, and sang heavenly songs. The ten thousand world-systems became filled with perfumes and garlands and shouts of approval.

At that time there came from the opposite direction a grass-cutter named Sotthiya, carrying grass; and recognizing the great man, he gave him eight bundles of grass. The Bodisat took the grass : and ascending the rising ground round the Bo-tree, he stood at the South of it, looking towards the North. At that moment the Southern horizon seemed to descend below the level of the lowest hell, and the Northern horizon mounting up seemed to reach above the highest heaven.

The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, methinks, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand, and went to the Western side, and stood facing the East. Then the Western horizon seemed to descend below the lowest hell, and the Eastern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven; and to him, where he was standing, the earth seemed to bend up and down like a great cart wheel lying on its axis when its circumference is trodden on.

The Bodisat, saying : “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Northern side, and stood facing the South. Then the Northern horizon seemed to descend beneath the deepest hell, and the Southern horizon to ascend above the highest heaven.

The Bodisat, saying: “This cannot, I think, be the right place for attaining Buddhahood,” turned round it, keeping it on the right hand; and went to the Western side, and stood facing towards the East. Now in the East is the place where all the Buddhas have sat cross-legged; and that place neither trembles nor shakes.

brass-buddhaThe great being, perceiving : “This is the steadfast spot chosen by all the Buddhas, the spot for the throwing down of the cage of sin,” took hold of the grass by one end, and scattered it there. And immediately there was a seat fourteen cubits long. For those blades of grass arranged themselves in such a form as would be beyond the power of even the ablest painter or carver to design.

The Bodisat turning his back upon the trunk of the Bo-tree, and with his face towards the East, made the firm resolve: “May skin, indeed, and sinews, and bones wilt away, may flesh and blood in my body dry up, but till I attain to complete enlightenment this seat I will not leave!” And he sat himself down in a cross-legged position, firm and immovable, as if welded with a hundred thunderbolts.

At that time the deva Mara, thinking: “Prince Siddhartha wants to free himself from my dominion. I will not let him go free yet!” went to the hosts of his Maras, and told the news. And sounding the drum called Mara-Cry, he led forth the hosts of Mara.

That army of Mara stretched twelve leagues before him, twelve leagues to the right and left of him, behind him it reaches to the rocky limits of the world, above him it is nine leagues in height; and the sound of its war-cry is heard, twelve leagues away, even as the sound of an earthquake.

Then Mara deva mounted his elephant, two hundred and fifty leagues high, named “Girded with Mountains.” And he created for himself a thousand arms, and seized all kinds of weapons. And of the remainder, too, of the company of Mara, no two took the same weapon; but, assuming various colors and various forms, they went on to overwhelm the great being.

But the devas of the ten thousand world-systems continued speaking the praises of the great being. Sakka, the deva-king, stood there blowing his trumpet Vijayuttara. Now that trumpet is a hundred and twenty cubits long, and can itself cause the wind to enter, and thus itself give forth a sound which will resound for four months, when it becomes still. The Great Black One, the king of the Nagas, stood there uttering his praises for many hundred stanzas. The Maha Brahma stood there, holding over him the white canopy of state. But as the army approached and surrounded the seat under the Bo-tree, not one of the hosts of Mara was able to stay, and they fled each one from the spot where the army met them. The Black One, king of the Nagas, dived into the earth, and went to Manjerika, the palace of the Nagas, five hundred leagues in length, and lay down, covering his face with his hands. Maha Brahma, putting the white canopy of state on to the summit of the rocks at the end of the earth, went to the world of Brahma. Not a single deity was able to keep his place. The great man sat there alone.

But Mara said to his company: “Sirs! there is no other man like Siddhartha, the sun of Suddhodana. We cannot give him battle face to face. Let us attack him from behind!” The great man looked round on three sides, and saw that all the devas had fled, and their place was empty. Then beholding the hosts of Mara coming thick upon him from the North, he thought: “Against me this alone this mighty host is putting forth all its energy and strength. No father is here, nor mother, nor brother, nor any other relative to help me. But those Ten Perfections have long been to me as retainers fed from my store. So, making the perfections like a shield, I must strike this host with the sword of perfection, and thus overwhelm it!” And so he sat meditating on the Ten Perfections.

the-armies-of-mara

Then Mara deva, saying: “Thus I will drive away Siddhartha,” caused a whirlwind to blow. And immediately such winds gathered together from the four corners of the earth as could have torn down the peaks of mountains half a league, two leagues, three leagues high—could have rooted up the shrubs and trees of the forest—and could have made of the towns and villages around one heap of ruins. But through the glow of the merit of the great man, they reached him with their power gone, and even the hem of his robe they were unable to shake.

Then saying: “I will overwhelm him with water and so slay him,” he caused a mighty rain to fall. And the clouds gathered, overspreading one another by hundreds and thousands, and poured forth rain; and by the violence of the torrents the earth was saturated; and a great flood, overtopping the trees of the forest, approached the Bodisat. But it was not able to wet on his robe even the space where a dew-drop might fall.

Then he caused a storm of rocks to fall. And mighty, mighty mountain peaks came through the air, spitting forth fire and smoke. But as they reached the Bodisat, they changed into divine garlands.

bodhisattva-flowersThen he raised a storm of deadly weapons. And they came—one-edged and two-edged swords, and spears, and arrows—smoking and flaming through the sky. But as they reached the Bodisat, they became divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of charcoal. But the embers, though they came through the sky like red kimsuka flowers, were scattered at the future Buddha as divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of embers; and the embers came through the air exceeding hot, and in colour like fire; but they fell at the feet of the future Buddha as sandalwood powder.

Then he raised a storm of sand; and the sand, exceeding fine, came smoking and flaming through the sky; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as divine flowers.

Then he raised a storm of mud. And the mud came smoking and flaming through the air; but it fell at the feet of the future Buddha as a divine unguent.

Then saying: “By this I will terrify Siddhartha, and drive him away!” he brought on a thick darkness. And the darkness became fourfold; but when it reached the future Buddha, it disappeared as darkness does before the brightness of the sun.

buddha-mara1Thus was Mara unable by these nine—the wind, and the rain, and the rocks, and the weapons, and the charcoal, and the embers, and the sand, and the mud, and the darkness—to drive away the future Buddha. So he called on his host and said, “Say, why stand you still? Seize, or slay, or drive away this prince!” And he himself mounted the Mountain-girded, and seated on his back, he approached the future Buddha, and cried out: “Get up, Siddhartha, from that seat! It does not belong to thee! It belongs to me!”

The great being listened to his words, and said: “Mara! it is not by you that the Ten Perfections have been perfected, neither the lesser perfections, nor the higher perfections. It is not you who have sacrificed yourself in the five great acts of renunciation, who have perfected the way of knowledge nor the way of good for the world nor the way of understanding. This seat does not belong to thee, it is to me that it belongs.”

Then the enraged Mara, unable to endure the vehemence of his anger, cast at the great man that Sceptre-javelin of his, the barb of which was in shape as a wheel. But it became a wreath of flowers, and remained as a canopy over him, whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.

Now at other times, when that Wicked One throws his Sceptre-javelin, it cleaves asunder a pillar of solid rock as if it were a shoot of bamboo. When, however, it was turned into a wreath-canopy, the entire company of Mara shouted, “Now he will rise from his seat and flee!” and they hurled at him huge masses of rock. But these too fell on the ground as garlands at the feet of him whose mind was bent upon the Ten Perfections.

And the devas stood on the edge of the rocks that encircle the world; and stretching forward in amazement, they looked on, saying: “Lost! lost is the life of Siddhartha the Prince, supremely beautiful! What shall he do?”

Then the great man said, “To me belongs the seat on which sit the Buddhas-to-be when they have fulfilled perfection on the day of their Enlightenment.”

And he said to Mara, standing there before him: “Mara, who is witness that thou hast given alms?”

And Mara stretched forth his hands to the host of his followers, and said: “So many are my witnesses.”

And that moment there arose a shout as the sound of an earthquake from the company of Mara, saying: “I am his witness! I am his witness!”

Then the Tempter addressed the great man, and said: “Siddhartha! who is witness that thou hast given alms?”

And the great man answered: “Thou hast living witnesses that thou hast given alms : and I have in this place no living witnesses at all. But not counting the alms I have given in other births, let this great and solid earth, unconscious though it be, be witness of the seven hundredfold great alms I gave when I was born as Vessantara!”

bodhisattva-touches-earthAnd withdrawing his right hand from beneath his robe, he stretched it forth towards the earth and said: “Art thou, or art thou not witness of the seven hundredfold great gift I gave in my birth as Vessantara?”

And the great Earth uttered a voice, saying: “I am witness to thee of that!” overwhelming as it were the hosts of Mara as with the shout of hundreds of thousands of foes.

Then the mighty elephant “Mount-girded” as he realized what the generosity of Vessantara had been, said: “The great gift, the uttermost gift was given by thee, Siddhartha!” And he fell down on his knees before the great man. And the company of Mara fled this way and that way, so that not even two were left together : throwing off their clothes and their turbans, they fled, each one straight on before him.

But the company of devas, when they saw that the hosts of Mara had fled, cried out: “Mara is overcome! Siddhartha the Prince has prevailed! Come, let us honor the victor!” And the Nagas, and the Winged Creatures, and the Devas, and the Brahmas, each urging his comrades on, went up to the great man at the Bo-tree’s foot, and as they came, the other devas, too, in the ten thousand world-systems, offered garlands and perfumes and uttered his praises aloud.

It was while the sun was still above the horizon, that the great man thus put to flight the great hosts of Mara. Then, whilst the Bo-tree paid him homage, as it were, by its shoots like sprigs of red coral falling over his robe, he acquired in the first watch of the night the knowledge of the past, in the middle watch the clairvoyant eye, and in the third watch the knowledge of the chain of causation.

enlightenmentNow on his thus revolving this way and that way, and tracing backwards and forwards, and thoroughly realizing the twelvefold chain of causation, the ten thousand world-systems quaked twelve times even to their ocean boundaries. And again, when the great man, making the ten thousand world-systems to shout for joy, attained at break of day to complete Enlightenment, the whole ten thousand world-systems became glorious as on a festive day. The streamers of the flags and banners raised on the edge of the rocky boundary to the East of the world reached to the very West; and so those on the West and North, and South, reached to the East and South, and North; while in like manner those flags and banners on the surface of the earth reached to the Brahma-world, and those flags and banners in that world swept down upon the earth. Throughout the universe flowering trees put forth their blossoms, and fruit-bearing trees were loaded with clusters of fruit; the trunks and branches of trees, and even the creepers, were covered with bloom; lotus wreaths hung from the sky; and lilies by sevens sprang, one above another, even from the very rocks. The ten thousand world-systems as they revolved seemed like a mass of loosened wreaths, or like a nosegay tastefully arranged : and the world-voids between them, the hells whose darkness the rays of seven suns had never been able to disperse, became filled with light. The sea became sweet water down to its profoundest depths; and the rivers were stayed in their course. The blind from birth received sight; the deaf from birth heard sound; the lame from birth could use their feet; and chains and bonds were loosed, and fell away.

It was thus in surpassing glory and honour, and with many wonders happening around, that he attained all-knowledge, and gave vent to his emotion in the hymn of triumph uttered by all the Buddhas.

This wonderful story of human resolve and endurance teaches, with great extravagance, a relatively simple moral which was famously expressed by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is only through inner knowledge and steadfastness that we can ever hope to make a difference in this place.

Did the story ring any bells to you? Try this one. Or even this one. It goes to show in a grand manner that, in the most relevant possible sense, we all share the same story.

Curt’s Christmas Classics, Vol. 1, or ‘A Philosopher’s Manifesto’

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snow pines Happy holidays to everyone. I hope each of you who celebrate Christmas for any and all reasons is having a marvelous holiday filled with family, friends, and introspection. Let us all remember that there are a great many people around the planet who will not be having Merry Christmases this year, and that, in most cases, there are decisive reasons why this is so.

Introspection. This year, on Christmas afternoon, I decided to re-publish a piece of literature which first appeared in the journal Ethics in 1968. Written by A. Noam Chomsky, it is entitled “Philosophers and Public Philosophy.” There are certain people, to be sure, who will look upon this choice of article as the oblivious pettifoggery of a hopeless hippie liberal–and these are folks who would benefit little, if any, from these extraordinarily wise and still extremely applicable words, so the loss is minimal in any case. But for the discerning patriot and the anarchist thinker alike, Chomsky’s words will still ring largely as true as they did very nearly forty years ago. And so we commence.


PHILOSOPHERS AND PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY
Noam Chomsky

Ethics, Vol. 79 Number 1, October 1968

Chomsky For a number of reasons, I have found it extraordinarily difficult to write about this topic. Perhaps it would help set the stage for a discussion if I were to begin by mentioning some of these, even though to do so, I will have to digress somewhat. The first problem is that I am approaching the topic of the symposium from several premises which themselves require argument and justification, although this is not the place to elaborate them. My response to this topic must naturally be based upon a certain interpretation of the context in which questions of public policy arise in the United States at this particular historical moment, an interpretation which obviously cannot fail to be controversial but which, within the framework of this symposium, I cannot develop but can only formulate as a basis for my own discussion of the topic. One premise is that the country faces a serious crisis and that, because of our international role, our crisis is a world crisis as well. Increasingly, the United States has become both the agent of repression and—to use Howard Zinn’s phrase—“the white-gloved financier of counter-revolution” throughout the world. It is, by any objective standard I can imagine, the most aggressive country in the world, the greatest threat to world peace, and without parallel as a source of violence. In part, this violence is quite overt—I need say little about our behavior in Vietnam. In part it is more subtle, the violence of the status quo, the muted endless terror that we have imposed on vast areas that are under our control or susceptible to our influence. Americans are no more likely to accept such a judgment than were citizens of Japan or Germany thirty years ago. However, an objective analysis seems to me to permit no other evaluation. If we consider governments maintained in power by force or overthrown through subversion or intrigue, or the willingness to use the most awesome killing machine in history to enforce our rule, or the means employed—saturation bombing, free-strike zones, napalm and anti-personnel weapons, chemical warfare—there seems to me no other conclusion: we are simply without rival today as an agent of international criminal violence.fuckthedraft

There is, furthermore, a serious domestic crisis. Again, I need not speak of the problems of racism and poverty, which are all too obvious. What deserves some comment, however, is the callousness with which we react to the misery we impose. This is perhaps most evident in the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is no secret to anyone that the war is highly unpopular. It is also no secret that the opposition to the war is based primarily on its cost. It is a “pragmatic opposition,” motivated by calculations of cost and utility. Many of those who are now most vociferous in expressing their opposition to the war announce—in fact proclaim—that their opposition would cease if our effort to control and organize Vietnamese society were to prove successful. In that case, in the words of one such spokesman, we would “all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” (Arthur Schlesinger), even though, as he is the first to point out, we are turning Vietnam into “a land of ruin and wreck.” This pragmatic opposition holds that we should “take our stand” where the prospects for success are greater, that Vietnam is a lost cause, and, for this reason, that our efforts there should be modified or abandoned.

I do not want to debate the issue here but only to formulate a second premise from which my discussion of the topic of this meeting will begin: namely, that this quite pervasive pragmatic attitude toward the war in Vietnam is a sign of moral degeneration so severe that talk of using the normal channels of protest and dissent becomes meaningless and that various forms of resistance provide the most significant course of political action open to a concerned citizen.

Nothing supports this judgment more clearly, in my opinion, than the recent change in the domestic political climate, dramatized by the President’s announcement that he will not seek reelection. The political commentators would have it that this event demonstrates that our political system is, after all, healthy and functioning. Confronted with the collapse of its war plans, an international economic crisis, and threatening internal conflicts, the Administration has, in effect, resigned—to put it in parliamentary terms. This shows the health of our democratic system. By such standards, an even more viable democratic system was that of Fascist Japan thirty years ago, where more than a dozen cabinets fell under not-dissimilar circumstances. What would have demonstrated the health of our system would have been a change of policy based on the realization that the policy was wrong, not that it was failing—a realization that success in such a policy would have been a tragedy. Nothing could be more remote from the American political consciousness. It is held, rather, that it is the peculiar genius of the American politics of accommodation to exclude moral considerations. How natural, then, and how good that only pragmatic considerations of cost and utility should determine whether we devastate another country, drive its people from their villages, and carry out experiments with “material and human resources control” that so delight the “pacification theorist.”

hiroshima1 Three times in a generation American technology has laid waste a helpless Asian country. This fact should be seared into the consciousness of every American. A person who is not obsessed with this realization is living in a world of fantasy. But we have not, as a nation, learned to face this central fact of contemporary history. The systematic destruction of a virtually defenseless Japan was carried out with a moral rectitude that was then, and remains today, unchallenged—or nearly so. In fact, Secretary of War Henry Stimson said at the time that there was something wrong with a nation that could listen with such equanimity to the reports of the terror bombing of Japanese cities. There were few voices to echo his doubts—which were expressed before the two atom bombs, before the grand finale requested by General Arnold and approved in Washington, a one thousand plane raid on central Japan launched after the surrender had been announced but before it had been officially received, a raid in which, according to the report of the victims, the bombs were interspersed with leaflets announcing that Japan had surrendered. In Korea, the process was repeated, with only a few qualms. It is the amazing resistance of the Vietnamese that has forced us to ask: What have we done? There is little doubt that, were this resistance to collapse, the domestic furor over the war would disappear along with it.

Such facts as these—and endless details can all too easily be supplied—raise the question whether what is needed in the United States today is dissent or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable men may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a tragedy. I believe myself that what is needed is a kind of denazification. There is, of course, no more powerful force that can call us to account. The change will have to come from within. The fate of millions of poor and oppressed people throughout the world will be determined by our ability to carry out a profound “cultural revolution” in the United States.

china It might be argued that it is naïve to discuss political and moral consciousness as if they were other than a surface manifestation of social institutions and the power structure and that, no matter what individual Americans may think and feel and believe, the American system will continue to try to dominate the earth by force. The inductive argument for the latter thesis is substantial. The Vietnam War is hardly without precedent in our history. It is, for example, distressingly like our colonial venture in the Philippines seventy years ago. What is more, it is remarkably similar to other episodes in the history of colonialism, for example, the Japanese attempt to defend the independence of Manchukuo from the “Communist threat” posed by Russia and the “Chinese bandits.” Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that American society will collapse from its own “internal contradictions” if it does not proceed to dominate the world. The belief that “the American system could survive in America only if it became a world system”—to quote President Truman in 1947—has, indeed, guided our international policy for many years, as has the belief, enunciated by liberal and conservative alike, that access to ever expanding markets and opportunities for investment is necessary for the survival of the American Way of Life. There is, no doubt, a large component of myth in ideology. In any event, the question is somewhat academic. Whether we aim for reform or revolution, the early steps must be the same: an attempt to modify political and moral consciousness and to construct alternative institutional forms that reflect and support this development. Personally, I believe that our present crisis is in some measure, moral or intellectual rather than institutional and that reason and resistance can go a certain way, perhaps a long way, toward ameliorating it.

Cindy Sheehan2 Considerations such as these—which I have not tried to justify but only to formulate—seem to me to provide the framework within which an American should ask himself what is his responsibility as a citizen. About this question there is a great deal to be said, and still more to be done. It is not, however, the question to which this session is addressed, and this is the central fact that causes my difficulty, noted at the outset, in trying to discuss the narrower topic of philosophers and public policy. At a time when we are waging a war of indescribable savagery against Vietnam—in the interests of the Vietnamese, of course, just as the Japanese were merely trying to create an earthly paradise in Manchukuo—at a time when we are preparing for and in part already conducting other “limited wars” at home and abroad, at a time when thousands of young men, many of them our students, are facing jail or political exile because of their conscientious refusal to be agents of criminal violence, at a time when we are once again edging the world toward nuclear war, at such a time it is difficult to restrict oneself to the narrower question: What is one’s responsibility as a philosopher? Nevertheless, I will try to do so.

K8436RAPHAEL-3 I think it is possible to construct a reasonable argument to the effect that one has no particular responsibility, as a philosopher, to take a stand on questions of public policy, whatever one’s duties may be as a citizen. The argument might proceed as follows. To hold that philosophers have some special responsibility in this regard suggests that they have some unique competence to deal with the problems we face or that others—say biologists or mathematicians—are somehow more free to put these problems aside. But neither conclusion is correct. There is no specific competence that one attains through his professional training as a philosopher to deal with the problems of international or domestic repression, or, in general, with critique and implementation of public policy. Similarly, it is absurd to claim that biologists or mathematicians may freely dismiss these problems on the grounds that others have the technical expertise and moral responsibility to confront them. As a professional, one has only the duty of doing his work with integrity. Integrity, both personal and scholarly, demands that we face the questions that arise internally in some particular domain of study, that are on the border of research, and that promise to move the search for truth and understanding forward. It would be a sacrifice of such integrity to allow external factors to determine the course of research. This would represent a kind of “subversion of scholarship.” The most meaningful contribution that an individual can make toward a more decent society is to base his life’s work on an authentic commitment to important values, such as those that underlie serious scholarly or scientific work, in any field. But this demands that, as a professional, he stick to his last.

I think the argument has a good deal of force. I do not doubt that those who pursued their work at the Goethe Institute, in the shadow of Dachau, justified themselves by such considerations as these. Two or three years ago, I would have accepted this line of argument as correct, and it still seems to be persuasive.

There is, of course, an apparent counter-argument: namely, that in a time of crisis one should abandon, or at least restrict, professional concerns and activities that do not adapt themselves in a natural way toward the resolution of this crisis. This argument is actually consistent with the first; and it can, I think, be maintained that this is all there is to the matter.

I think that for many professionals this may well be all that there is to the matter. I do not, for example, see any way to make my work as a linguist relevant, in any serious sense, to the problems of domestic or international society. The only relevance is remote and indirect, through the insight that such work might provide into the nature of human intelligence. But to accept that connection as “relevance” would be hypocrisy. The only solution I can see, in this case, is a schizophrenic existence, which seems to me morally obligatory and not at all impossible, in practice.

Philosophers, however, may be in a somewhat more fortunate position. There is no profession that can claim with greater authenticity that its concern is the intellectual culture of the society or that it possesses the tools for the analysis of ideology and the critique of social knowledge and its use. If it is correct to regard the American and world crisis as in part a cultural one, then philosophical analysis may have a definite contribution to make. Let me consider a few cases in point.

Tomcat

Our society stands in awe of “technical expertise” and gives great prestige and considerable latitude of action to the person who lays claim to it. In fact, it is widely mentioned that we are becoming the first “post-industrial society,” a society in which the dominant figure will be not the entrepreneur but the technical expert or even the scientist, those who create and apply the knowledge that is, for the first time in history, the major motive force for social progress. According to this view, the university and the research institution will be the “creative eye,” the central institutions of this new society, and the academic specialist will be the “new man” whose values will be come dominant and who will himself be at or near the center of power.

There are many who look forward to this prospect with great hope. I am not one of them. It seems to me a prospect that is not appealing and that has many dangers. For one thing, the assumption that the state can be the source of effective social action is highly dubious. Furthermore, what reason is there to believe that those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique—or at least the claim to knowledge and technique—will be more humane and just in the exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic privilege? On the contrary, one might expect such a person to be arrogant, inflexible, incapable of admitting or adjusting to failure, since failure undermines his claim to power. To take just the most obvious instance, consider the Vietnam War, which was in large measure designed by the new breed of “action intellectuals” and which manifests all of these characteristics.

What is more, it is natural to expect that any group with access to power will construct an ideology that justifies its dominance on grounds of the general welfare. When it is the intelligentsia who aspire to power, the danger is even greater than before, since they can capitalize on the prestige of science and technology while, at the same time, now drawn into the mechanism of control, they lose their role as social critics. Perhaps the most important role of the intellectual since the enlightenment has been that of unmasking ideology, exposing the injustice and repression that exists in every society that we know, and seeking the way to a new and higher form of social life that will extend the possibilities for a free and creative life. We can confidently expect this role to be abandoned as the intellectual becomes the administrator of a new society.

These observations are hardly novel. I am simply paraphrasing a classical anarchist critique, of which typical expressions are the following:

Commenting on Marxian doctrine, Bakunin had this to say:

According to the theory of Mr. Marx, the people must not only destroy [the state] but must strengthen it and place it at the complete disposal of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers—the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate [mankind] in their own way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies—under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate.

Or compare the more general remarks by the anarchist historian Rudolph Rocker:

Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are rather forced upon them from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security. They do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace. When this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary opposition to Platonic appeals to the constitution. One compels respect from others when one knows how to defend one’s dignity as a human being. This is not only true in private life; it has always been the same in political life as well.

History has shown the accuracy of this analysis, both with respect to the role of an intellectual elite and with respect to the nature of political rights, whoever may rule. I see little reason to expect the future to show otherwise.

If it is true that the new, “post-industrial” society will be marked by the access to power of an intellectual elite, basing its claim to power on a presumably “value free” technology of social management, then the importance of the social critic becomes more crucial than ever before. This critic must be capable of analyzing the content of the claimed “expertise,” its empirical justification, and its social use. These are typical questions of philosophy. The same analytical approach that seeks to explore the nature of scientific theories in general or the structure of some particular domain of knowledge or to investigate the concept of a human action can be turned to the study of technology of control and manipulation that goes under the name of “behavioral science” and that serves as the basis for the ideology of the “new mandarins.” Furthermore, this task will be of greater human significance, for the foreseeable future, than the investigation of the foundations of physics or the possibility of reducing mental states to brain states—questions that I do not, incidentally, mean to disparage—I hope that is clear.

song_girls1 I think it would be important for the university to provide the framework for critical work of this sort. The matter goes well beyond politics in a narrow sense. There are inherent dangers in professionalization that are not sufficiently recognized in university structure. There is a tendency, as a field becomes truly professionalized, for its problems to be determined less by considerations of intrinsic interest and more by the availability of certain tools that have been developed as the subject matures. Philosophy is not free from this tendency, of course. In part, this is of course not only unavoidable but even essential for scientific progress. But it is important to find a way, in teaching even more than in research, to place the work that is feasible and productive at a certain moment against the background of the general concerns that make some questions, but not some others, worth pursuing. It is easy to give examples to show how certain fields have been seriously distorted by a failure to maintain this perspective. For example, I think it is possible to show that certain simple and very useful experimental ideas in the psychology of learning have for many psychologists taken on the status of conditions that define the subject matter of learning theory, much to the detriment of the field, in the long run. I think that in most academic fields a graduate student would benefit greatly from the experience, rarely offered in any academic program, of defending the significance of the field of work in which he is engaged and facing the challenge of a point of view and a critique that does not automatically accept the premises and limitations of scope that are to be found in any discipline. I am putting this too abstractly, but I think the point is clear, and I think that it indicates a defect of much of university education.

In the specific case of social and behavioral science in a “post-industrial society” with the university as a central institution of innovation and authority, the defect may become a disaster. To put it succinctly, the university requires a conscience, free from the controls that are implicit in any association with the organs of power, from any role in the formation and implementation of public policy. I think that any serious university should be thinking about how it might institute a program of radical social inquiry that would examine the premises of public policy and attempt a critical analysis of the prevailing ideology. Ideally, such a program should, perhaps, not even have a separate faculty associated with it but should, rather, seek to involve as wide a segment of the university community as possible in far-reaching social criticism. A program of this sort would be a natural and valuable outgrowth of the philosopher’s concern for conceptual analysis.

exper10 Again, I would like to stress that the issue is not one of politics in a narrow sense. I think that the applications of behavioral science in education or therapy, to mention just two examples, are as much in need of critical analysis as the applications to counterinsurgency. And the assumptions and values that lie behind the poverty program or urban renewal deserve the same serious analysis as those that lie behind the manipulative diplomacy of the postwar era. A dozen other examples could easily be cited. In the kind of liberal technocracy that we are likely to evolve, repression may be somewhat more masked and the technique of control, more “sophisticated.” A new coercive ideology, professing both humane values and “the scientific ethic,” might easily become the intellectual property of the technical intelligentsia, which is based in the university but moves fairly freely to government and foundations. The fragmentation and professionalization which accompanies the decline of the “free-floating intellectual” who, we are told, is a relic from an earlier stage of society, can itself contribute to new forms of social control and intellectual impoverishment. This is not a necessary development, but it is also not an unlikely one. And it is one that we must find a way to resist, as much as we must find ways to resist other less subtle forms of barbarism. It would be entirely within the tradition of philosophy if it were to regard this task as its own.

More specific problems might be mentioned. Let me bring up just one. We all know that thousands of young men may be found guilty of “civil disobedience” for following the dictates of their conscience in the next few months and may suffer severe penalties for their willingness to live by the values that many of us profess. It would be a serious error to regard this as a merely a matter of the enforcement of law. The substantive content of law is determined, to a significant extent, by the level of intellectual culture and moral perception of the society in general. If philosophers feel that these matters are part of their concern, then they must contribute to shaping the principles and understanding that determine what the interpretation of law will be in concrete instances. To mention simply the most obvious question: Why is it not “civil disobedience” for the President to violate domestic and international law by the use of force in Vietnam, while it is civil disobedience for young men to serve as agents of criminal acts? The answer to this question has little to do with the law, and much to do with the distribution of force in our society. The courts are not capable of deciding that it is illegal to send an American expeditionary force to crush a rebellion in some foreign land, because of the social consequences that would ensue from that decision. When a powerful executive carries out criminal acts with impunity, the concept of “government of laws” erodes beyond recognition, and the entire framework of law disintegrates. Those who would like to believe that their commitment is to truth, not power, cannot remain silent in the face of this travesty. It is too late to create a climate of opinion that will enable the judiciary to function, thus saving men from imprisonment for conscientious resistance to a demand that they be war criminals. It is not too late to work for a reconstruction of values and for the creation of a more healthy intellectual community to which these men can return as welcome and honored members. Surely the university faces no more urgent task, in the coming years, than to regenerate itself as a community worthy of men who make this sacrifice out of a commitment to the moral and intellectual values that the university pretends to honor. And I think it requires no elaborate argument to show that the faculty of philosophy might well be at the forefront of this effort.

us-foreign-policy-flow-chart

The temptation is overwhelming, in a discussion of this issue, to quote Marx’s famous marginal comment of Feuerbach, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point, however, is to change it.” I will not try to resist the temptation; the task that faces the responsible citizen is to work to change the world. But we should not overlook the fact that interpretation and analysis provided by the philosopher, by the intellectual more generally, are essential ingredients in any serious attempt to change the world. If student radicalism often turns to an anti-intellectual direction, the fault in part lies in the deficiencies of scholarship, of our intellectual culture, of the disciplines—such as philosophy—and the institutions—such as the university—that exist only to interpret and advance and defend this culture. Senator Fulbright, in a recent and extremely important speech on the Senate floor, stated that the universities have betrayed a public trust by associating themselves with the government and the corporate system in the military-industrial-academic complex. They have, as he rightly said, largely abandoned the function that they should serve in a free society and have forfeited their right to public support, to a substantial degree, by this retreat—one might say, by this treachery. Only a hypocrite can preach the virtues of non-violence to the Vietnamese or the black community in the United States, while continuing to tolerate the incomparably greater violence to which they are subjected by the society to which he belongs. Similarly, only a hypocrite can condemn the anti-intellectualism of student activists, while tolerating the subversion of scholarship, the impoverishment of intellect, let us be honest—the downright immorality of the academic professions as they support American violence and repression by contributing to weaponry and counterinsurgency, by permitting the social sciences to develop as a technology of control and manipulation, or, more subtly, by helping to create and uphold the system of values that permits us to applaud the pragmatic and responsible attitude shown by those who now oppose the war in Vietnam on grounds of tactics and cost effectiveness. To restore the integrity of intellectual life and cultural values is the most urgent, most crucial task that faces the universities and the professions. Philosophers might take the lead in this effort. If they do not, then they too will have betrayed a responsibility which should be theirs.

– Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Songs in Blue and Green

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Deputy Dog, working from a variety of sources, put together earlier this month a collection of 11 breathtaking photos of the Earth from space. My favorite happens to be this one, a capture of the transit of the moon’s shadow across our planet during the solar eclipse of August 11, 1999, taken from the space station Mir:

Eclipse_from_Mir

It could rightly be said that, in this modern age, our civilization is struggling to come to grips with the achievements of science and the exponential growth of our species in ways personal and societal, in terms of today and of the outlook for the decades and centuries which expand before us in our imaginings of the tapestry of forever. These are disorienting times. It is good for us, then, I think, to spend whiles with images such as these. I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s apt commentary from a 1994 Cornell lecture, which he paired with the following photo, then (and probably still) the most distant photograph of Earth, taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 at a distance of four billion miles:

Long Way Home

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Those are severely illuminating words from one of the greatest of modern minds.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Posted in empiricism, knowledge, philosophy, rationalism, Science by Curtis on 10/7/07

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There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone . . .who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anxious searching? The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.

-Ernest Becker
The Denial of Death, 1973
Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, 1974 (posth.)

“To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images . . . and if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see? . . . When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.”

-Plato

The Republic

PROJECT -ISM, No. 2.

Plato’s rationalism, in essence, is embodied by his Allegory of the Cave from which the quote above is taken. In The Republic, Socrates asks his audience to imagine several men held captive deep inside a cave, chained tightly to a wall so that they can only face forward. Atop this wall behind them, he said, we should imagine a blazing fire; and when the captors of these men pass before the fire, their shadows are projected onto the wall in front of the unlucky inmates. Socrates points out that, eventually, the prisoners would come to regard the shadows as the true forms of that which exists—as things unto themselves and not as shadows. Then he asks us to imagine that one of the prisoners escapes into the sunlight and beholds, for the first time, the dazzlingly illuminated forms of the greater and more majestic cosmic reality. This splendid but laborious emergence was Plato’s way of constructing a metaphor for the progression from a commonsense, practical, but static and incomplete worldview based on experience (represented by the shadows) into a more dynamic, circumspect, and realistic view of the Universe obtainable only through reason (which is represented, of course, by the sunlight).

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is really not as austere as the title might suggest; in fact, I would venture the statement that it is, to modern sensibilities, an indispensable volume for any student of psychology, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. In this book, Becker lovingly dismantles Freud’s psychosexual motivational theories—which he regards as the noteworthy work of a great scientist, but discolored by Freud’s own neuroses and tendencies to perversion—and, enlisting the help of men such as Otto Rank and Norman O. Brown, replaces them with a picture of man as a uniquely rational animal constantly confronted with the knowledge of his own mortality. This “terror of death,” for Becker, is a much more tenable and constructive explanation for human motivation. One implication of Becker’s theory is that an overzealous devotion to rationalism (or, we might say conversely, an overzealous refutation of empiricism) is a tendency to be expected of mortal creatures wishing to escape the preponderance of empirical evidence for their irreversible and permanent mortality.

Encyclopédie Frontispiece The student of philosophy is typically presented with rationalism and empiricism as conflicting epistemological mores which have been unable to peaceably coexist throughout history. In reality, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive, and there has never been a philosopher who has wholeheartedly committed himself or herself to one or the other without exception of any kind. We retrospectively describe David Hume as an “empiricist” and René Descartes as a “rationalist,” and with good reason, but it must be recognized that these terms are more relativistic than categorical.

In this, the second part of Project -ism, I want to discuss the differences between rationalism and empiricism—the strengths and weaknesses of both—and also to divulge their inseparability and their complementary natures.


Epistemology can be defined as the study of knowledge—of what does and does not constitute it, and of its limits and usages. The implicit equivalence of knowledge and truth is an important part of the rationalist/empiricist conflict, as we shall quickly see; it also provides the key through which the issue is disentangled.

Rationalism as an epistemological approach dates back to the pre-Socratics and to Plato, who believed in the self-sufficiency of reason. For these philosophers, sensory information was often deceptive. Consider the apparent size of the moon: there is nothing about the appearance of the moon in the sky which would suggest, in and of itself, that the moon is any larger than a 25-cent piece. For the classical rationalist, one arrives only at the truth through the operation of reason upon sensory data. John Locke

Empiricism, in contrast, is the view that truths are arrived at only through the validation of rational belief through sensory experience. For the empiricist, there is no such thing as the ‘innate idea’ or a priori knowledge. All knowledge is derived from sensory data—otherwise, there is nothing to rationalize in the first place. No matter how self-evident a proposition might seem, the empiricist requires a concrete test against observations of the natural world in order to grant such a proposition the property of truth. British empiricism was founded in large measure upon the ideas of John Locke (pictured), who spoke of the mind as a tabula rasa—a ‘clean slate’ upon which experiences leave their marks. The word ’empiricism’ is derived from the Greek εμπειρισμός (empeirismós), meaning, roughly, “experience.”At this point, it would be wise to say something of the concepts of a priori and a posteriori knowledge:

  • A priori knowledge is most commonly defined as knowledge that is the product of reason alone. As such, all statements which are a priori true are tautologies (self-evident propositions).
  • A posteriori knowledge is most commonly defined as knowledge that can only be gained through sensory experience.

As an example, Jerry Fodor once proposed the following: the statement “King George V reigned from 1910 to 1936” is an example of a posteriori knowledge, because one can only gain this knowledge through experience—it is something of the external world which is learned; but the statement “If George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while” is an example of a priori knowledge, because it is something that can be deduced rationally absent any supporting data.

A priori knowledge can be viewed as the product of deductive reasoning, while a posteriori knowledge is the fruit of inductive reasoning.

With the early modern philosophers, and specifically with Descartes, came a renaissance of the Pythagorean idea that mathematics represents a kind of a priori knowledge or pure reason. The British empiricist David Hume referred to a priori knowledge as ‘Relations of Ideas’ and to a posteriori knowledge as ‘Matters of Fact.’ Consider the following, from Section IV of his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

20. All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstratively certain. . . Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the Universe. Though there never were a circle or triangle in nature, the truths demonstrated by Euclid would for ever retain their certainty and evidence.

21. Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality. That the sun will not rise tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition . . . than the affirmation, that it will rise. . . It may, therefore, be a subject worthy of curiosity, to enquire what is the nature of that evidence which assures us of any real existence and matter of fact, beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory.

Circle - Pi According to Hume, we can imagine, however extraordinarily unlikely we might suppose it to be, waking at 7 a.m. to find that it is still night-time, that our face of the Earth has not yet turned into the sunlight and that the stars are still twinkling in the midst of the great blackness; we cannot imagine a circle whose circumference is not equal to its diameter times the value π.

This is because the relationship between the radius or diameter and the circumference of the circle is part of the definition of a circle, and because the definition of a definition is a description which holds in all cases. Thus, we might encounter a thing in nature which would appear to the senses to be circular; but we could not say without precise measurements and calculations whether or not it actually were circular. The Earth, for example, is not spherical. It is roughly spherical. So, if we are to prove the truth of the statement “This is a circle” with reference to a particular object of scrutiny, we cannot do so without dividing its circumference by its diameter and obtaining an approximation of π, or some equivalent operation. Now, we could communicate with one another about an ostensibly circular object in a way that would be effective for most practical purposes, without ever finding the need to resort to such precision. But if we are to prove that the object is circular, we must show that it conforms to the preconceived definition. Thus, in a majority of like cases, we could well be speaking of something not necessarily circular as if it were, without any appreciable effect upon our experience, because the thing seems circular enough. Thus, for Hume, empirical observation and methodical comparison was the only path to absolute knowledge.

Immanuel Kant The great Immanuel Kant (pictured) credited Hume’s text with “awakening him from his slumber” and causing him to question the tenets of rationalist philosophy. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant attempted to bridge rationalism and empiricism, while refuting Hume’s premise that only the empirically testable is absolutely true. He largely agreed with Locke’s characterization of the mind as tabula rasa, admitting that there can be no knowledge without experience; but he disagreed that all knowledge must arise from experience, noting that, by the comparison of experiences, we gain valid information which is not the result of any particular experience. Kant attempted to define this as synthetic a priori knowledge, and argued that the axioms of geometry are examples of this kind of knowledge in that they logically follow from fundamental truths without having to be proven in relationship to some aspect of the external world, but that they can be empirically proven even though they did not arise from empirical observation. Wasting no time, Kant poses his ideas in considerable detail right at the outset of the right formidable Critique:

There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action did not objects affecting our senses partly of themselves produce representations, partly arouse the activity of our understanding to compare these representations, and, by combining or separating them, work up the raw material of the sensible impressions into that knowledge of objects which is entitled experience? In the order of time, therefore, we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all our knowledge begins. But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience. . .

For it may well be that even our empirical knowledge is made up of what we receive through impressions and of what our own faculty of knowledge (sensible impressions serving merely as the occasion) supplies from itself. If our faculty of knowledge makes any such addition, it may be that we are not in a position to distinguish it from the raw material, until with long practice of attention we have become skilled in separating it. This, then, is a question which at least calls for closer examination, and does not allow any off-hand answer . . .

Kant arrived eventually at the idea which Schopenhauer wrote “produces a fundamental change in every mind that has grasped it” and which I formulated independently—and far less eloquently—in Dualism and Monism, Project -ism No. 1: that we cannot understand the world as something which exists in and of itself (Kant: das Ding-an-Sich) apart from our cognition of it.

We can see, then, that in the most general possible sense of the word ‘knowledge,’ both empirical induction and rational deduction are capable of producing knowledge. But does either type of knowledge represent the truth moreso than the other? If not, what is the purpose of any debate between rationalism and empiricism? Wittgenstein had something further to say of this in his Tractatus from the early 20th Century:

6.37 A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist. There is only logical necessity.

6.371 At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.

6.372 So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they are both right and wrong; but the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained.

Wittgenstein does not postulate that science and empiricism are useless. Indeed, modern medicine and numerous other technologies would seem to adequately demonstrate that, in terms of usefulness, science is far superior to supernatural mysticism. Wittgenstein’s argument is against knowledge as truth, and this argument is in line with his insistence that the greatest philosophical quandaries are, in essence, linguistic quandaries.

MicrochipLet us return to what Kant wrote: “For it may well be that even our empirical knowledge is made up of what we receive through impressions and of what our own faculty of knowledge supplies from itself.”

This is the skeleton of the model of the mind as a computer with I/O capabilities! Observe:

  1. What we receive through impressions – Data which is retrieved from the sensory organs, which function as input devices.
  2. What our own faculty of knowledge supplies from itself – Analytical data which is the output of the mind, which functions as a processor capable of modifying its own software.

Framed within this scaffolding, we begin to conceive of three things which are critical to understanding the complementary natures of empiricism and rationalism:

  1. All knowledge is rational by definition. Knowledge is analytical data which is the product of the processing of raw data or of other analytical data—this processing is what Kant describes as “what our own faculty of knowledge supplies from itself,” which is the process of rationalization.
  2. Empirical methods are required to determine the self-consistency of knowledge, and this property of consistency grants knowledge a character that cannot be imparted through rational activity alone. For instance, philosophers traditionally characterize the formula Cd as an a priori piece of knowledge defining the key formative properties of a circle. But only by drawing numerous circles, taking the appropriate measurements, and performing the necessary calculations can we show the consistency of this piece of knowledge.
  3. Self-consistency of knowledge does not equate to the consistency of knowledge with reality—ergo, there is no “absolute truth.” In order to show that our formula for the circumference of a circle were true in all cases, we would have to draw infinitely many circles. This is not something we are capable of doing, so we choose an arbitrary stopping point. But to state that 10,000 affirmations of the formula is equivalent to the affirmation of the formula in all cases is clearly fallacious. Thus the limitations of rational knowledge and empirical knowledge are intertwined inseparably. There is no truth, only degrees of demonstrable consistency for a given purpose—and that this purpose is in every case given is essential to any meaning that the knowledge might have.

We have said that all a priori knowledge not derived from experience must take the form of tautology, the self-evident proposition. For instance, from the formula C=πd, we can derive a priori the formula 1/2(C)=1/2(πd), but this formulation contains no new information. Likewise, we could show, most unempirically, that π=C/d; but this, also, is merely reiteration, or the manipulation of forms.Therefore, to my mind—and the point at which I depart from Kant and some others—those propositions which are a priori are, in fact, not knowledge. This is the danger of equating the a priori with rationalism and the a posteriori with empiricism, a false equation if ever there was one. Knowledge consists of rationalization, but knowledge based on extant analytical data does not constitute a priori knowledge any more than knowledge based on fresh empirical data. This appears to be a function of neuroarchitecture, of the way in which sensory data is mapped in the mind. We can rewrite our mental software, but we cannot rewrite the firmware or reconstruct the hardware.

Rationalism and empiricism are not competing methods, but necessarily complementary ones. The friction between them arises principally from Quixotic quests to demonstrate the supremacy of one over the other, when the more realistic perspective follows from the acknowledgement of the necessity and inherent inadequacies of each. The conception that either is more adequate than the other as a digging tool for truth has been, I hope, demonstrated to be nonsensical, since the concept of truth as constant and infinite is illusory.

To return to the Platonic Allegory of the Cave, we can see that the escaped prisoner cowering in the sunlight is better off than his enchained peers, but still bound by gravity and the confines of his own skull after all.

Dualism and Monism (mostly Monism)

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I’ve revamped this essay, and I apologize for any inconvenience to those of you who’ve come by in the interim hoping to check it out. Please trust me that the original product . . . lacked panache. The discussion was framed in too-ambiguous terms, and was, in places, enthusiastically circular. To be searingly self-critical, reading that essay was rather like listening to a career sot casually babble himself to sleep.

And, while the perfectionist in me doesn’t like being pinned down to the finished product at any point ever, no way, no how, uh-uh, I feel that this new version is much more representative of my thought and substantially more deserving of your attention. So I’ll leave it, but with the contingency that I may make modifications to correct clumsiness as I spot it or as it is pointed out to me.


ONTOLOGY WE DEFINE as the study of existence, the examination of our conceptions of what constitutes reality. To define reality, we will use any of various terms: the world, the Universe, etc. I want to consider two ways of looking at ontology and at the issues of ontological dualism and monism:

  • Metaphysical – In this sense, we attempt to consider the nature of reality as a thing unto itself—that is, as something independent of our perception and cognition.
  • Epistemological – From this posture, we explore reality in the context of our own knowledge of it, and as inseparable from our experience.

It’s appropriate to engage in a preliminary explication of what is meant by dualism and monism. These terms can be employed in any number of ways, so it is impossible for our discussion to have any meaning unless we are explicit about what these terms mean for our purposes:

  • DualismBy far the most prevalent ontology in contemporary thought, dualism (which, it is to be noted, is really just the simplest form of a more general ontology we might call pluralism) is the position that there is more than one kind of existence or existential substance. Dualism is most frequently entangled with conceptions of mind, i.e. mind-matter or mind-body dualism. To the dualist, mind is not the same thing as matter and cannot be reduced to matter. Cartesian dualism goes so far as to say that the ‘mental’ is a different type of substance than the ‘physical,’ but that both types of substance are more or less equally real (ontologically valid). Dualism is a necessary prerequisite to most conceptions of spirituality (spirit-material dualism). That is, for one to say that one believes in spirit, one must establish that spirit is real in the same or a similar sense that the material world is real. For this reason, one can see that dualism is extremely pervasive in human thought. Consider the concept of the supernatural, for instance. This is an embodiment of dualism in that it supposes there is an existence outside of the space and the rules of natural existence. Dualism, then, is really a given for those who espouse the necessity of an Aquinian “first cause.” Here we do not consider the dualism of opposites (good/evil, light/dark) because it seems so patently obvious that it is a cognitive construct of comparison that can say nothing about the nature of existence.
  • AnaximanderMonism – Monism is the opposite view, the assertion that, by its very nature, the substance of existence is singular in quality. From this, any number of premises of varying extremity can be seen to follow—weak monism we might define as a sort of naturalism, the view that everything is a part of nature and that nothing is outside of it, while strong monism would hold that “all is one” and that there really are no fundamental material divisions, that the whole of the Universe is the only really existent, ontologically valid thing. It is this “strong monism” which I will propound and defend—the view that the Universe is really just one concrete object of tremendous, perhaps recursive complexity but with no genuine, extricable parts. To the logicians among us, that’s: ∃x(Cx & ∀y(Cyy=x)), where C denotes the property of being an object, a concrete thing[1]. Anaximander (likely the figure pictured here in Raphael’s School of Athens), a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and the teacher of Pythagoras, among others, is widely viewed as the father of monism in the Western tradition. Since virtually the whole of Western philosophical literature is in some measure descended from Aristotle’s later attempts at systematic categorization (his “causes,” etc.), one quickly finds that monism is not at all a popular view among “educated” or “traditional” philosophers. The literature is liberally sprinkled with references to monism as “indefensible garbage” or “summarily nonsensical.” And that ticks me off.

(more…)

Project -ism

Posted in knowledge, philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, writing by Curtis on 9/23/07

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Blank Book

There’s grand shenanigans in the works here at Can’t See the Forest, see. I’ve collected my notes, dragged out about a dozen intimidatingly dense nonfiction volumes, opened at least two million Firefox tabs, made a couple of drafts, and am just about ready to begin publishing Project -ism.

What is this nonsense? First, let me lay on you the ToC:

  1. Dualism and Monism (ontology)
  2. Rationalism and Empiricism (epistemology)
  3. Theism and Atheism (cosmology) {in progress}
  4. Nationalism and Globalism (sociology) {belayed, but coming}
  5. Capitalism and Socialism (economy) {belayed, but coming}

Well, you say. There’s a perfectly fine list of false dichotomies if ever I’ve seen one. Not exactly, though—hear me out.

-Isms can be any of numerous things. A wittic -ism is a cheeky remark; nepot -ism is plugging one’s friends and family into positions of power. I’m not talking about those kinds of -isms.

The -isms I’m talking about are, essentially, types of Weltanschauung (Ger., “world view”). I am going to discuss opposing sets of viewpoints on each of five issues which can shape an individual’s or a society’s world view within the applicable domain of thought.

It’s important to realize that, inasmuch as these viewpoints can be interpreted as opposite to one another, there are also certain aspects in which they are complementary. That being said, I have a definite preference in each of these five categories (generally the latter position, as they are listed above), and I intend to make very strong arguments in each case.

This survey of human thought will be cumulative—that is, by my design, each discussion will be critical to the later ones in at least some respects. I’ll be drawing from the works and ideas of notable historical masters, from Pythagoras and Anaximander to Dewey and Chomsky, but a big part of my modus operandi in putting this thing together has been to keep the thought process as clear and as free of presuppositions and undue influences as possible.

So, in the coming weeks, you’ll find these five essays posted here—probably among miscellaneous course-of-the-day posts—and I hope you’ll be able to make time to read and discuss any of these issues which are interesting to you. They are separate quandaries, but there exist important relationships between them, and the vista we’ll be looking down upon from the top of this philosophical mountain-climb might surprise you!

Propaganda and You

Posted in government, mass media, media, philosophy, Politics, Propaganda, sociology, USA by Curtis on 9/22/07

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Do you know who invented the electric light bulb?

Did you know it wasn’t Thomas Edison?

It was an Englishman named Sir Joseph Swan (1828-1914), a physicist who received a British patent for a working lamp and publicly demonstrated it several months before Edison’s bulb first glowed.

Edison had been working with copies of Swan’s patent to make them more efficient, but Swan had already achieved this in some of his early prototypes and had begun installing lamps in private homes by 1881. If, like me, you never had an inkling that the light bulb was as thoroughly British an export as the Beatles, you’ve one man to thank—Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays

Bernays, widely considered the father of modern public relations, was the Viennese-born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He opened for business in New York City in 1919, and became widely known—and lauded—for his innovative use of aspects of his famous uncle’s theories of the subconscious to manipulate mass opinion through the media. It was Bernays, more than any other individual, who defined the playing field and rules of propaganda in mass media culture. The book Propaganda (1928) is a straightforward instruction manual for selling everything from deodorant to political candidates, and goes so far as to elucidate the necessity of such manipulation in a democratic society:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society . . .

. . .In theory, every citizen may vote for whom he pleases . . .invisible government, in the shape of rudimentary political parties, arose almost overnight. Ever since then we have agreed, for the sake of simplicity and practicality, that party machines should narrow down the field of choice . . .

. . .In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything.

So, then, according to the sensible and kindly-hearted Mr. Bernays—whom, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, was considered a perfectly fine Rooseveltian liberal—it would have been too demoralizing and confusing for Americans to have had to consider that the light bulb was not an American invention. Thomas Edison, as it so happened, agreed. A beautiful partnership was born. Later, Bernays was to express “shock” that his writings on the manipulation and distortion of information were found to be cornerstones of the library of Dr. Josef Goebbels.

We can point to any number of Bernays’ specific shenanigans—his diplomatically disastrous campaign with the United Fruit Company, or his show-biz drive to turn smoking into a feminist issue—and recognize the marks of both genius and sociopathy. Some of the techniques he pioneered, such as the multi-advertisement tie-in and bringing celebrities in to promote products, have clearly persisted into the present.

But the most significant aspect of Bernays’ work and legacy is his given raison d’être, this rancid idea that propagandizing a population into submission is somehow necessary to the fundamental order of society. It is all very well to say that propaganda is an “important element of a democratic society,” but let’s not attempt to claim that it is necessary to democracy. It is only necessary to the subjugation of democracy to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, but not to a “smoothly functioning” society as a sine qua non, which is Bernays’ express sentiment. In the United States of America, and elsewhere as well, propaganda is the tool of a smoothly functioning plutarchist aristocracy.

The Last Supper Revisited

Quite naïve are they who still would cling to the belief that centralized mass media outlets are not as much tools of oppression and coercion as of information; and it is upon this belief that any remiss insistence that the ballot box is adequate as the true venue of democracy must be predicated.