Tag Archives: philosophy

A Reasonable Doubt (Part One of Three)

There are two groups of people holding their breaths for a definitive resolution to the question of extraterrestrial life: they are, atheists and the religious. They are anxious for the answer to that question for philosophic rather than purely factual reasons. I might add that scientists fall into one of those groups or the other. As far as agnostics are concerned, they are not anxious for the answer to that question unless they allow themselves to fear alien hostility, a non-philosophic anxiety.

The absence or presence of a God is not within the purview of this article. My interest centers on the validity of a philosophic argument posited by both atheists and the religious. Virtually everyone in either group believes that unequivocal evidence of extraterrestrial life would be in itself an answer to the question of whether or not God exists.

On the contrary, I believe that proof of extraterrestrial intelligent life would not provide a conclusive resolution to the question of deity. I base that belief on the premise that if there is an Entity that can create a universe, It can just as well manage an alleged multiverse that includes ETI. If Christians, Jews, Muslims, et al have their details wrong, that doesn’t necessarily prove that there is no God. I am not advocating the existence of God, but I cautiously submit that logic does not sustain the popular argument that ETI precludes the existence of a God.

Coupled with the notion that the discovery of ETI would prove that there is no God, is the argument that a world without religion would release global havoc. That argument is based on the premise that religion is critical as a restraining force against barbaric hedonism. History and logic tell us otherwise. History is replete with religious repression, intolerance, persecution, and wars, and during a purely secular war, religiosity is suspended. Logic goes further by dispelling the notion that news of ETI would inevitably fracture global order (such as it is).

I believe that if ETI is discovered, the overwhelming majority of humanity would go on living as it had before the news of it. Billions of people would not lose their faith in God or cease religious practices. For most people, religion is not at the center of their lives. Those who would lose their faith would not necessarily change the ethic they had derived from religion or some other source. Also (and contrary to popular belief), there are millions of atheists whose non-theological ethic is exquisitely high. They, more than any others, would not make behavioral changes in response to proof of ETI.

But predicting the behavior of masses of people is tricky. For example, if Muslim terrorists were to suddenly lose their faith in God, would they end their Jihad? I think not. I believe they would simply give Jihad another name and continue fighting if only to keep Sharia Law alive. Communists would continue to reinforce their concept of society as a replacement for God. ETI would be good news in atheist North Korea, but not so good for leaders of communist nations where freedom is making some headway, with or without religion.

Religion has taken a big hit in the last century or so. Yet, the global decline of civilization does not appear to be significantly related to the global decline of religion. In the unlikely event that ETI is proved to exist in this corner of the Universe, fear may cause the religious to huddle in places of worship, but I doubt that there’ll be global mayhem then anymore than there is now.

In any case, intergalactic wars are extremely low on my list of potential human catastrophes. There are far more probable and actual events of terrifying hostility to be addressed for the survival of humanity. Arguments about the effect that the discovery of ETI might have on terrestrials pale by comparison.

Please stay tuned for Part Two of Three: When Did Yesterday Happen?   

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A Pinch of Longevity

The BIG questions about consciousness and the universe remain unanswered despite a continuous search for truth since the dawn of civilization. Those questions are asked at every level of human intelligence and intuition. At a formal level, they are distinguished by the category of study in which they are asked. For example, at the scientific level, cosmology asks, “How did the universe come into being?” At the intuitive level, the question is, “Why did the universe come into being?” The former seeks the “God Particle,” the latter seeks “God.” A myriad of studies have developed over the centuries, giving us various disciplines of sciences and religions, each of which is defined by its scope. Philosophy is unique in that its scope is the study of everything.

When I was in my early twenties, I had the ambition to be omniscient as soon as possible. My plan included extensive reading of the works of celebrated philosophers. Most of what I read was shocking. For example, revered philosophers not only condoned slavery but actually believed that slavery was in the natural order of human society. Many of them invented fantastic theories of reality without a shred of evidence. Through the centuries, they heatedly quibbled with each other over every ibid, op cite, vide, and passim.

I soon realized that my research was not entirely in vain, but in a totally unexpected way. I didn’t become omniscient as I had hoped, but to my amazement I realized that I had a better handle on reality than they had! No wonder they weren’t even close to a reasonable answer for any of the big questions. Yet, their voices are still heard, primarily at universities, much to the misfortune of students under the tutelage of professors who at best preserve dusty thoughts as though they are museum pieces.

If you are tired of memorizing tenets of master philosophers and writing papers about their papers, or if you are weary of convoluted arguments held by some of your colleagues, the following tips might be of use to you.

1) Reason is a prerequisite for philosophic discourse. To ‘reason’ that reason is an illusion, is the ultimate contradiction in terms. If you are engaged in a philosophic discussion, and your adversary posits a notion that disavows reason, consider further discourse automatically aborted by the disavowal itself. I mention this axiom only to urge you not to waste your time reading, discussing, or debating that popular non-issue. No matter how tempted you might be to bring the discussion back to reason, don’t waste your time. If reality is defined as some sort of dream, it’s time to wake up.

2) If you find the thoughts of a philosopher convoluted, the chances are that they are convoluted. If you find that his arguments are intrinsically not clear, the chances are that they are unclear. If you are captive to a philosophy instructor that requires you to create labored papers that our memories shred very soon after they have been graded, remember that this too shall pass.

3) Academic debates are often designed to sharpen argumentation skills. If you are required to argue on the side of your convictions, remember that you may lose the debate only because of your opponent’s rhetorical skills. Conversely, you may win a debate on either side of an issue only because of your superior rhetoric. In either case, superior rhetoric is not a substitute for truth. When someone is required to suspend his convictions in order to win a debate, he is forced to be dishonest even though that kind of ‘debate’ is just an exercise. There is an unequivocal standard when opposing views are debated: both sides may be wrong, but they cannot both be correct. A debater must be free to express what she believes is the correct side in an authentic debate.

Losing a debate does not invalidate your conviction unless you change your mind as a direct result of the debate. Even so, think beyond the debate so that you may be sure that your change of mind is not the result of persuasion, but of conviction.

4) Whenever you are confronted by a conflict between a newly learned fact and your overall philosophy, troubleshoot your mind as you would a home appliance. The analogy differs in only one respect. When troubleshooting an appliance, we check the plug first as a possible source of the problem (deductive reasoning). When faced with a philosophic conflict, we should trace its source to our fundamental philosophic tenets (inductive reasoning). Trust your judgment.

Simultaneous analysis and synthesis has always worked for me. Every new fact, concept, or experience I encounter is run through a mental process of ‘checks and balances’ that guarantees an integral philosophy at all times. I follow a simple discipline. If an irrefutable fact conflicts with any part of my philosophy, I don’t hesitate to carefully make fundamental adjustments in order to maintain the overall integrity of my philosophy.

5) Contemplating big questions and a myriad of answers to them has always been a source of pleasure for me as far back as I can remember. I’ve never understood the need for esoteric exercises, body positions, chanting, or the need for the right atmosphere to meditate. Meditation is an on-going experience. It’s always there for me: while at dinner, riding the subway, or watching a sunset.

If you are currently force-fed philosophy at college and expected to regurgitate it via meaningless papers, be comforted by the fact that there are lots of sunsets ahead for you. All you have to do is open your eyes to them and let the rays fill you with wisdom. Aging has a way of surprising us with a clarity about life we never dreamed was possible in our youth. If you develop and maintain an integrated philosophy, you’ll find that your later years are at least as vibrant as those of your youth.

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Lifeboats, Trolleys, and Ethics

My first encounter with formal ethics included the virtually obligatory paradigm of the ultimate dilemma associated with human behavior. More often than not, that dilemma is presented at the very beginning of a discourse on ethics. Its threadbare description takes the form of a ‘loaded’ question: If there are six fishermen on a sinking vessel with a single lifeboat that can stay afloat with only five of them, what ethical course of action should the fishermen take? Stripped to its core, the question asks, “Which one of the six men should die so the others may live?” From there, ethicists proceed to open Pandora’s Jar. Complex and ponderous arguments chase after each other in a maze of circular reasoning in quest of an answer.

But back on the sinking vessel, the fishermen have a simple answer: they draw sticks. Fishermen know what to do when confronted with a life-or-death situation before they set out to sea. A sinking vessel is not conducive to a discussion on ethics.

More recently, the lifeboat riddle has been replaced by that of a racing trolley which will kill lots of’ people unless a switch is pulled that veers it into another path, thereby exposing only one track worker to certain death. Do you pull the switch or do nothing? Oh…and there’s still another popular scenario…the one where six people can be saved if six vital organs of one healthy man were to be distributed among them. Do we proceed with the transplants? The dilemmas remind me of an aunt I had who, being poor, would give each of her daughters the same doll as a gift, birthday after birthday, as though the doll were new, by sewing a new dress onto it each year.

Like the dolls, ethics has had new dresses sewn onto it through the centuries but its study had always been in the realm of the humanities, not the sciences. The study of ethics, widely considered a branch of philosophy, included an enormous range of issues, of course, but its scope was limited to the behavior of humans as issued by nature, i.e., the behavior of a whole human being.

Enter neuroscience. There are neuroscientists who reduce the very concept of ethics to the level of automatic reflexes. They ascribe moral behavior to automatic activity in specific regions of the brain as the source of ethics. To paraphrase a Biblical passage, if your neurons, dendrites, and axons offend you, desensitize them. Of course neuroscientists are not required to shed light on the source of ethics, but their brain research tends to equate thought processes with involuntary bodily functions.

As technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses by synapses, the fundamental source of ethics is paradoxically illusive. Add to that the fashionable philosophic current that denies any substantive difference between humans and animals, and the source of ethics becomes more illusive than ever. In place of a conflict between right and wrong (or good and evil) we have a conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. Whole human beings are lost in the laboratory.

Since I have only one life to live, knowledge of the source of ethics is not nearly as important to me as how I choose to live my life. Perhaps I’m simplistic, but morality is not as complicated to me as most ethicists make it out to be. In any case…

  1. Contrary to the notion that morality is tested during the direst of circumstances as depicted by morality riddles, the quality of an individual’s behavior is determined by calm reason and its application to everyday living, not on board a sinking vessel.
  1. As laudable as the scholarship of the best ethicists may be, there is really no need for the categorization of ethics. ‘Personal Ethics’ as distinguished from ‘Business Ethics’ is a contradiction in terms.
  1. I’m not troubled with an afterlife. I live as I do, not to avoid being a beetle next time around,” or for the approval of others or of a personal God, or in anticipation of rewards or in fear of punishment in this or any other life. If I were provided with absolute proof that either death ends me or that there is an afterlife, I would continue perfecting my moral behavior as an end in itself. That includes ‘doing unto others’ and maintaining my integrity even when no one is watching.

Ethics is an art, an exquisite blend of knowledge, wisdom, and empathy. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.

Best of all, I live as I do because I enjoy an ethically integrated life. 

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