Does Capitalism always Give us More from Less?

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less.  The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books.  Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope.  While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.

For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here.  I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments.  I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern.  Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use.  With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate.  The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works.  I’ll go into details in a moment.  I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA.  He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force.  Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater.  I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism.  I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.

Image result for turing computerThe technological save for mankind her argues is the computer.  This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand.  After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process.  We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before.   McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste.  Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used.  One example was the aluminum can.  If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now.  Cans today still function perfectly but use less material.  Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies.  Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials.  Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.

His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty.  Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access.  Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people.  Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.

Image result for world population by year

For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same.  We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy.  He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage.  What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.

So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need.  Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us?  Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.

The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years.  Is this prosperity?  Is this a good way to measure prosperity?  The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.  It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources.   Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society?  Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet?  Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was?  It’s not obvious to me that this is the case.  It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population.  If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population.  And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.

Image result for does the end justify the means

Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question:  Does the end justify the means?  Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time.  If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?  Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system.  And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism.  For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems.  There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc.  If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now.  I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values.  If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.

McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that.  I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details.  There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.

He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world.  He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly.  It’s a fair point.  But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue.  And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.

Overall it was a thought provoking interview.  I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now.  On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.

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Has Justice Been Served?

For those of you that have been following the story, Amber Guyger was just found guilty of murder in her trial.  You can read about the incident here.  I’ve been trying to find out some hidden facts about this case, but unable to find anything that convinces me that the jury came to the wrong conclusion.  I guess witnesses get to speak today before the actual sentencing, but Ms. Guyger faces up to life in prison for the killing of Botham Jean.

If you didn’t read the article, the basics of the incident is that Ms. Guyger, for whatever reason went into what she thought was her apartment, but it belonged to Mr. Jean.  She thought there was an intruder, and feared for her life and ended up shooting Mr. Jean dead.  The prosecution rightly proved that Ms. Guyger had other choices available to her that she could have taken, including backing out and taking cover while she called for back up.  The prosecution also showed that she didn’t do enough in medical aid after the incident in trying to save the victim’s life.  She clearly wasn’t thinking very clearly when she walked into the wrong apartment or in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  All this I grant and she made a horrible mistake that cost an innocent person their life.

But is it murder?  There was no motive, and it’s clear that Ms. Guyger is feeling great remorse for what happened.  To the point where she wishes she had been the one killed and not the other way around.  I guess I’m just wondering how putting her away for life in prison is going to make any of this tragedy better?  From the evidence presented from the 911 call, she clearly believed that she was in her apartment, and while she didn’t act like a well-trained cop in the moment, as we’ve seen there are very few cops who might have been cool in that situation.  Ms. Guyger clearly feels a great deal of remorse and pain for the what she has done, is she a danger to society?  I don’t think so. Is she a racist?  Well there was evidence that she definitely saw black people differently.  If she didn’t have this implicit bias would things have gone differently?  Perhaps.  I don’t think she is the poster child for an exemplary police officer, but I also don’t see her as being so racist that she was simply looking for an opportunity to gun down a black person.  I don’t see how this terrible incident is made less terrible by putting her in jail for murder.  It seems clear that many people are only excited by the verdict because a cop is finally being sentenced to murder for killing an unarmed black person.  There have been many of those cases where I’ve been outraged at the police being acquitted by a grand jury.  I don’t think this is case to make up for all those other cases that should have been ruled differently?  I don’t think the law should work like that.  I feel like we aren’t setting a precedent for cops being charged with crimes for killing unarmed people, I feel like we are saying that the verdict for one person’s crime should make up for past injustices.

Ms. Guyger made some bad decisions, but I don’t feel she’s a murderer.  I hope that testimony today will convince the judge that she doesn’t deserve life in prison.  In the end and innocent man was killed, and that is the greater tragedy, I’m just not convinced that the verdict render changes anything other than adding more tragedy.  Maybe Ms. Guyger could do more good to make up for what she’s done instead of just sitting in a cell.

I am also willing to be talked out of this position with some good arguments.  Perhaps my thinking is narrow here.  I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

The Wisdom in the Pages

Although I have a read a good portion of the Bible, I have spent little time reading the holy books of other religions.  I have read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita as for some reason it was sitting around in my doctor’s office waiting room for awhile.  It’s actually kind of an interesting book.  I science fiction book I had recently read made several references to the Upanisads and the Dhammapada and so I’ve been perusing those books.  It has been interesting reading how other ancient cultures viewed the world.  When you read things from the point of view of somebody from those times, when so very little was known about the world, you can appreciate the contents even though from the perspective of today much of it is nonsense.  There is wisdom to be found there as well, and I found many similarities between the Bible and the Upanisads in terms of the moral lessons it was trying to teach.  There are many possible stories that can teach the same lesson, and it seems pretty clear that even when you suspect they are trying to be literally true, it still represents a best guess, and that what they were really trying to do is find a way of communicating impressions and feelings about the universe even if their literal attempt of an explanation was incomplete.

Recently I was in my local coffee shop working and a group of women sat at the table next to me and they were having a Bible study together.  Although I’d say more than half of the time they were just giggling and talking about things unrelated to the Bible, they did focus on their planned lesson.  Of course this is typical of many Christians in which they have some guide that hand selects of few important verses to focus on so that the entirety of the narrative is not read by the follower.  Like the Upanisads, I expect many church leaders recognize the irrelevance of much of the Bible and would rather not have discussions about many of the passages in the Old testament especially.  Anyway, what was interesting is that when they contemplated the words of a specific verse they would often relate it to experiences in their own life.  As I could not help but overhear, it was fascinating to me how the verses containing some wisdom seemed to be already known by the women, because life lessons had already taught them it was true.  Nevertheless they didn’t seem cognitively aware and put the cart before the horse.  “Look at the wisdom of this book, it is telling me something I already know…genius!”  I think if you are led to believe in the inspiration and greatness of the word of God, it’s hard to think of it as anything but that.  If the wisdom in the pages matches your own experience then this will only give you more respect for the book.

Now it’s not to say that people don’t discover wisdom from holy books.  I am listening to a podcast right now where they are discussing some of the main problems in the field of social psychology in terms of how the work is performed.  One of the main critiques of social psychology is that a field it has actually become too obsessed with the creation of little experiments for the purpose of following the scientific method and almost forcefully trying to demonstrate it’s scientific rigor.  Social psychology is the study of the individual in a societal context and so they ask, why all these experiments, when none of these controlled situations are actually found in a social context?  It’s a valid point.  The hosts of the podcasts were arguing that what is missing from social psychology as compared to other scientific disciplines is scores of observations.  They use the example of Tycho Brahe the famous Dutch astronomer, who really didn’t come up with anything novel on his own, but what he did have was mounds and mounds of careful observations of the stars and planets.  Johannes Kepler was his student and came along and came up with his 3 laws of planetary motion.  It is Kepler’s genius that is recognized today, but he certainly could not have come up his laws without all those observations.  Just as Darwin could not have come up with the theory of evolution without all his observations on the Galapagos.

Astronomy is one of the oldest disciplines because there is little to do at night but look at the stars.  It occurred to me that once you had civilizations and had a certain portion of the population doing the farming, a few who could afford to live a life of leisure had little to do during the day but observe humans.  It seems no surprise to me that wisdom would be found in ancient texts based on many years of observations of people.  Many of us figure things out on our own simply by paying attention to life and taking time to reflect and introspect.  There was no formal scientific method back then, and we certainly aren’t using it in our everyday lives when we come to a conclusion like “Hey, maybe I’m spending too much time worrying about things that are out of my control.  I would be happier if I focused on the moment.”  This is the kind of good stuff we come up with through our experiences, and it seems to me that many of the scholars who wrote religious books were simply story tellers, weaving important moral and ethical lessons into the stories based on their observations of how people behaved and what consequences or rewards befell them.  Whether they were joyful, fulfilled, empty, or anxious.  Most of them I think were simply people who were observing constantly and coming to some conclusions about how to live a better life.

Pay attention, look inward, and talk to others for their stories.  There is wisdom to be found in holy books, but the good news is that you also have a decent chance of figuring it out on your own.

The Unwise and the Immoral

The title of this post is related to another incident of victim blaming that was in the news not too long ago.  The incident involved model Bella Thorne having her computer hacked and the hacker making off with a number of private nude photos.  Bella Thorne, to sort of give a big “fuck you” to the hacker, released the photos herself on Twitter.  On The View, Whoopi Goldberg criticized Thorne saying essentially that one has to know in this day and age that storing such photos on a device connected to the internet (and you are a famous beautiful celebrity) is setting yourself up for this type of theft.  Goldberg then received a ton of backlash including some strong words from Thorne herself for being criticized when it was of course the hacker who was the person who did something wrong and that Goldberg “should know better”.  I suspect Goldberg does know better.  There is nothing about her that makes me think she isn’t a good feminist.  She has always had a no nonsense, blunt style and her comment here I don’t think is meant to give the hacker a pass.  I’ll go so far as to say that I think she makes a good point.  A point we should be able to talk about if framed correctly.  Before I get accused of victim blaming, let me go into more detail about what I mean.

Hacking is a reality of this day and age, and Thorne isn’t the first victim of this type of attack.  This has to be part of our consciousness.  There are laws against hacking, which is invading someone’s privacy and stealing personal property, and their should be.  It is theft and violation, plain and simple.  We can say that the hacker is immoral in his actions.  I think we can say that we all wish we lived in a world in which there were no hackers, and in which a woman’s body wasn’t a commodity that someone could profit on, such that this hacker could ostensibly get leverage over Thorne or other victims of this crime.  As a society we must continue to strive to fix this bigger problem.  Since we don’t live in that kind of society yet, we must also act wisely.  To do so requires us to be able to have conversations about wise and unwise actions to keep people and property from harm.  I am sort of reminded of that old joke where a guy meets a doctor at a social gathering and tries to get some free medical advice and says “Hey doc, my arm hurts whenever I do this. (Imagine whatever arm motion you like).  What should I do?”  And the doctor responds “Don’t move your arm like that.”  Clearly there is a bigger issue to solve Image result for moving arm gifwith that person’s arm, but in the short term, not doing a motion that causes you pain might be wise.  We should be able to simultaneously talk about short term solutions to protect ourselves, while also addressing bigger issues that increase equality and safety for all people rendering this short term acts of caution more irrelevant over time.

If there is a neighborhood where you have an increased chance of being mugged or harmed, all sorts of people will tell you to avoid walking through that neighborhood.  It is not meant to say that they condone violence or theft upon you or anybody else, it is simply meant as advice to keep you out of harms way.  We don’t get all bent out of shape by such advice, but the conversation goes south when women are blamed for their decisions in these types of incidents, or worse crimes like sexual violence.  And I think for good reason.  There have been some criticisms of social media for the fighting that erupted between two women who are likely on the same side of the fight against the patriarchy, but I’m actually not too upset about social media here, because maybe this is a conversation that needs to be had more often.

We have an older and wiser Goldberg, criticizing the wisdom of a younger Thorne.  Perhaps Goldberg feels like she was helping young girls everywhere be wary of putting compromising pictures of themselves in less than secure places based on what can happen to them.  Goldberg’s mistake however was that she also lacked some wisdom here.  As much as I’d like to live in a society where we could have honest conversations about what is a wise or unwise decision when crimes happen, when it comes to crimes against women there is just a long history of the “unwise” decision of a woman being used as an excuse for a man’s immorality and criminal behavior.  If a person is beaten and robbed in that unsafe neighborhood, the police will still arrest and charge the perpetrators, but too many men have gotten off Scot free because of what was deemed a woman’s unwise decision.  Furthermore the basis of what was considered unwise for a woman, does not apply to a man.  In fact very often their unwise decisions are used to further excuse them from wrongdoing.  A woman drinks too much at a party?  Well then of course she kind of Image result for victim blamingdeserves to be raped.  A guy drinks too much at a party? Well clearly he didn’t really mean to rape her, he just had too many beers and didn’t know what he was doing.  Let’s just sentence him to talk about the dangers of drinking.  It’s a huge problem and women have a right to absolutely tired of it.  Goldberg could have said what she said in a much better way that made it clear who the bad actor was in this situation.

Let me also add that the best people in our society are ones who could take advantage but don’t and instead help people be more safe.  Thorne was already punished and probably knows by now what she should have done and doesn’t need Goldberg’s advice after the fact.  So the timing of the comment is also unhelpful.  Like Fareed Zakaria’s advice to Sam Harris after another rant about Islam being the mother lode of bad ideas “Yeah, you’re right, but you’re not helping.”  Being right, and being helpful are often two different things.

Eyes In The Darkness

A picture of darkness. Who knows what might be in there!!?

My 5 year old son is going through a bit of a phase right now where he is scared of being almost anywhere in the house by himself.  Even in the day time.  He wants someone to walk with him to the bathroom, his bedroom, the basement, etc.  He says he’s scared that their might be monsters, while at the same time freely admits that he knows monsters aren’t real.  But how does he know such things, other than the fact that his parents have told him so?  My wife was able to prod the reason for his current phase out of him.  He says that he thought he saw something like a monster in the dark once and since that time is when he’s started being scared going from room to room.  So here there is a clash between something he “knows” because it is has been told to him by authority in his life and something that he has experienced.  Now obviously he is misinterpreting his experience and there aren’t monsters.  There is no way he can be reasoned with through conversation.  It will simply dawn to him at some point after enough time has passed and no monsters have appeared that he might have been just imagining it.  And in between he may see other disturbing shapes in the darkness that might worry him further.  This will take time.

As a parent it is easy to be a bit frustrated with this, especially since it is enough work watching the 15 month old, and to now have to escort a 5 year old everywhere in the house, even when it is bright and sunny is a bit annoying.  But then I remembered back to how I was no different as a child.  One of my first memories, although more like an emotional imprint, is that I remember being scared of the moon.  Apparently this happened around the age of two.  I remember that the moon would sometimes be visible outside my window, and I remember being scared of it.  I don’t remember when I got over that fear, but my dad says they had to move the bed so that I couldn’t see out the window from bed.  Then everything was fine.  Of course now I think the moon is full of romance and beauty and I can think of no logical reason why I would fear the moon.  It

daffy
The menacing Daffy Duck,

was clearly an irrational fear.  When I was older, maybe around 7 I also remember being scared of a stuffed Daffy Duck.  It sat next to my bed and like Daffy should it had big eyes with a fair amount of white.  That white almost glowed in the dark, and so when I would see the Daffy Duck sitting upright near my bed it started to freak me out.  In fact I have recollections of it just appearing to me that way rather suddenly, and not having frightened me prior to that.  Maybe I had some experience that made me worried about eyes in the dark.  I don’t know.  Needless to say I had to hide the Daffy Duck and then everything was fine.

All this made me think about fear.  My friend Esme had a post where she asked her readers to come up with an analogy for fear and mine was “Fear is like water.  We need a little to live, but too much and we drown.”  I think this is a pretty good analogy.  But even if some fear is good, there are rational and irrational fears.  The fact that we would fear things irrationally makes no difference to evolution.  We need to be creatures that feel fear, because there are actually things to fear in this world.  And what we fear can’t be so hardwired into us, because then how would we be able to adapt to new threats and dangers?  So we are just going to feel fear for all sorts of things, whether it is a poisonous snake, or the imagined menace of the eyes of a stuffed duck in the dark.

It seems to me that one of the purposes of our ability to reason (maybe the most important part) is that we can try to sort out the rational from the irrational fears.  And then at a higher level of reasoning we can then try to prioritize those fears to help us make better choices about where we expend our energy to try to mitigate those things which pose the greatest threat.  Anybody who is paying attention in this world knows that we are terrible at both of these things.  One reason we might be terrible at this is that in general, nature really only cares that we live long enough to reproduce.  As social species even if we died shortly after reproduction there would still be people in our community that could potentially raise those young.  So we need to feel fear, and we need to feel it strongly to get us to the point of sexual maturity, but beyond that fear loses its utility.  It seems to me that for most of us we live in a world where making it to the age of sexual maturity isn’t so difficult anymore, but our brains are still going to be wired to feel fear.  And this fear can, and is exploited intentionally, or unintentionally every day.

fear_seneca

But even if we do make a correct decision about something we should rationally fear, if there is nothing we can do about it, how do we as humans deal with such fear?  The example that often comes to mind for me is how humans at the dawn of civilization, after we discovered farming and lived in close proximity to each other and animal feces, is death to diseases we did not have immunities to.  Somewhere around 80% of the aboriginals in North America died of such diseases when the Europeans came.  Things like small pox and influenza.  Of course you can still be killed by such things today, but most of us don’t because we’ve had so many generations of living with these things our bodies have built up an immunity.  Imagine living in those early days of farming and seeing people die in the prime of their lives from the flu.  Not just one person who was already a bit unhealthy but many people.  This would be a reasonable thing to fear.  But T-cell backgroundwhat could one do about it?  The microscope was not invented until 1590.  It’s not that humans didn’t try to combat this reasonable fear, but in the absence of being able to know what germs, viruses, and infections were at that microscopic level, truly doing something about that fear would have been hard to do.  The boon that farming brought would have easily given us a blind spot as to what might be the source of problems.  When I really read the entirety of the Leviticus in the Bible it was clear to me that this was how we went about combating reasonable fears.  Practical advice (for the time) mixed with storytelling.  Science is really also about building a narrative for why things happen the way they do, and how to go about solving those problems.  I do think narratives, and stories, are important for contextualizing fears.  So we can say “Alright well here is a thing that I fear, and here is why it happens, and now I can start taking steps to avoid these things.”  The problem being that when you have the wrong explanation, you can expend a great deal of energy and not really solve the problem, even if you do conquer your fear.  To the local follower of some divine word, it must have been a great surprise to the one who believed and did as they were told that disease still ended their lives.  Leaving those alive to suspect that the only reason the person died couldn’t be because they had an incorrect narrative for the fear, but that the person who died wasn’t following the narrative correctly or worse yet rejected the narrative secretly.

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Note the “Think! Try Again”

One of the things that I like about the scientific method is that built-in is a self-correction mechanism so that we can constantly question the narrative.  Certainly there have been scientists who have stuck to a particular paradigm, or who let ego override their humility, but I think people who don’t really understand science, underestimate how much self-correction is built in to the methodology.  Maybe that’s also why the biggest religious zealots have a hard time seeing science as fundamentally different from religion.  We see the narrative science builds change;  openly and unabashedly.  Yet books remain unchanged.  Of course, this isn’t strictly true, because narratives evolve, translators change things, and some beliefs fall away from various denominations, but the story that religion often tells is that it is unchanging and forever.  Such is the nature of institutions.

Maybe fear can become addictive in the brain as well.  Maybe this is why it feels like so many people are drowning in it today.  I think that’s what makes me the saddest about religious fundamentalists or conspiracy theorists, because for all their narratives they just seem really afraid and all I can think is “Things aren’t really as fearful as you think.”  This is also what angers me about fear mongering.  It really might be the worst human behavior.

Daily Meditation

I was reading Mak’s recent post this morning questioning how Adam and Eve could fear a punishment of death without having known death and it reminded of this interesting passage from Roger Zelazny’s Hugo Award winning book Lord of Light (I strongly recommend it).  Also just as a bit of trivia, this book was the source for the fake movie they said they were making to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1979.  Anyway these are some words to contemplate.

“Names are not important,” he said. “To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, ‘What is it like, this thing you have seen?’ So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, ‘It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.’ Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it ‘fire.’

“If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, ‘fire’ does not matter, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ and ‘water’ do not matter. ‘I’ do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.”

Discussion: How do we know worshiping the divine is moral?

A recent exchange I had on someone’s blog post about morality and what standards we use to gauge them had me thinking about a question I never really asked before in regards to theism.  In this thread the theist was arguing that God represents an objective standard to what is moral and what isn’t moral, and atheists have no objective standards for morality.  I feel theists are equally subjective and I think atheists can objectively evaluate the morality of actions through non-divine standards.  I honestly couldn’t get through to to this person to convince them, but no matter.  The question that occurred to me that I had asked before is “by what standards to we decide that we should be worshiping Gods and living according to their desires?”

I mean let’s say there is a God, by what basis do we decide that this is somebody we should worship?  If they have a bunch of rules for us to follow do we get to question whether those rules are something we should follow? If we do not it seems following those rules is not based on a decision about the rightness of the rules, but rather a default position to authority.  Are we to follow all those who are more powerful? Is it a duty to a creator to follow rules blindly?  Are we to follow those who promise consequences that make us fearful should we choose not to follow?

Despite the claim by many theists that God represents an objective standard of morality it does not seem that morality plays a role when it comes to following God.  One can’t say, “Following God is the moral thing to do,” unless we are somehow able to evaluate the rules that God wants us to follow.  In which case God is no longer the standard that we judge the morality of the rules.  Can we even say something like “God is good” ? Aren’t we using a separate standard to evaluate God’s goodness.  It seems God is only good because of his power, not his morality.  Thus whatever happens to us or anybody else is because God allows it to be so, making everything simply good.  The punishments, the rewards, the rules, everything.  I guess it’s always bothered me to give anything that much authority.  Even if I had conclusive evidence of God’s existence, I think I would still want to evaluate him.

I mean let’s say God and the Devil stand before you, incarnate in some human form.  How is one able to tell the difference between the two?  How do I measure God’s goodness?  Is it that one sends me to punishment while the other does the punishment?  Surely it’s by one having a greater power over the other.  Because it cannot be by actions of goodness, because according to at least the definition of the Christian God, anything that God does is good.  Because God is the supposed objective standard of morality and my differing is not permissible if I wish to be moral.

It seems to me that what religion then teaches us is that worship is to be given to beings who are more powerful.  If that powerful being is deemed to be the standard good then whatever that being does is by definition good and we cannot question but follow blindly.  The consequences of our actions have no bearing on the situation providing we are following the rules laid out by that being.  What then is the value of our ability to reason?  Isn’t existence then rather empty having to set aside reason to follow blindly that which is defined as the ultimate good?

It still seems to me that someone had to have a pre-defined notion of good to even decide that God met the ultimate definition.  More importantly I think it seems worth asking the question whether the worshiping the divine is even a moral action or an action meant simply to ensure obedience to entities more powerful than ourselves.