May 102006

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Reflections on Values without Religion
Religious people may argue over what values are important, but they can argue there is authority in the scriptures that go with their religion for whatever values they do take seriously. Typically, it is taken to be true that these scriptures were dictated by god or at least by the founder of the religion, a semi-divine personage lost in the mists of time. Since these scriptures also form the basis of regular services and rituals, they have a built-in status that texts that are clearly not taken as divine do not possess.

Thus those of us who are not religious, though we may adhere as strongly to values, have a less direct means to assert the truth of these values or to “derive” them for those who don’t necessarily yet agree with them. It doesn’t matter if, say, some philosopher has worked out a moral system, because there is seemingly no imperative for anyone who disagrees with the system to take the philosopher to be correct. (Of course, it is also true that religious people don’t agree on moral matters; some self-styled Christians are hung up on certain prohibitions found in the Old Testament, whereas others like the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount much more. Still it seems many people find their position strengthened if they can somehow locate it in Scriptures of ancient lineage, rather than in modern secular works.)

Some non-believers still look to religious traditions to justify the values they hold, on the basis, apparently, that these values have stood the test of time. But this must be a highly selective process. After all values commonly accepted today, such as the evil of slavery or women’s rights, are quite new compared to the lifetimes of most religious traditions. Other traditions of great lineage, such as burning heretics at the stake, are equally rejected by most people today.

What these simple reflections force me to conclude is that religion by itself is not the source of currently held values, even for religious people. If we could ascertain the real source or sources, why could we not derive our values from them directly?

Religious people sometimes take the view that a scientific approach, including evolutionary theory, leaves us with the notion that life simply emerged accidentally and therefore is without meaning. That ignores the fact that human actions are normally meaningful. How did meaning arrive in a random sort of world? Quite simply, humans or proto-humans invented meaning, just as we invented gods.

We didn’t invent meaning all in one fell swoop; rather, as social forms change, new kinds of meaning can be invented. Thus, in a hierarchical pre-market economy, it was possible to accept inequality. But because a money-based market economy is fundamentally associated with a notion of equality in the marketplace, the equal status of all humans seems to arise as a clear corollary, at least for some people. Later on the notion of equality itself became a powerful corrective to the market economy that perhaps gave rise to this ideal. Hence such notions as opposition to slavery, feminism, rights for the propertyless, and even socialism may have emerged from the very nature of capitalist markets.

But that story is probably incomplete. Equality as a notion takes more than the existence of markets. One has to recognize that humans are all basically alike. Where does that come from? I think it derives from the experience that different people can understand one another, in other words from the experience of empathy resulting from the ability to translate between different languages, as well as between different conditions in the same culture. The notion of consumer sovereignty that capitalism potentially implies works with the emergence of widespread travel, bi-lingual dictionaries, print, and also notions of biological connection, as well as experiences of empathy between members of close-knit communities to create a broader empathic sense. From that greater empathy, values that previously were confined to narrow communities, such as prohibitions against killing, can now be applied more broadly.

Having started with the assertion that religious people have an easier time asserting values than non-religious ones because they can seemingly derive those values from readings of scripture, I now must assert something in stark contradiction. Values that supposedly arise from scripture actually come from social, technological and scientific developments. Scriptures are red herrings that cannot actually teach values from scratch, because by themselves they could teach absolutely anything.

For what it may be worth, my own remembered story may be an example of this. As a small child, I was read the Ten Commandments. One of them struck me with especial force: “Thou shalt not kill.” Because I liked that one so much, I felt an allegiance to all the rest. But the commandments themselves don’t explain why I liked that particular one so much. Opposition to killing already resonated deeply for me. I would have to say this was partly a result of having been born during WWII and hearing very early about the Holocaust, but also out of some very basic sense of empathy. Anyway, this Commandment always seemed much more important to me than any of the others; it led me to pacifism and opposition to capital punishment, values that have endured far longer than any general allegiance to the other commandments.

If empathy remains the basis of worthwhile values, then what is important is instilling empathy, not instilling religion per se. Bible stories told to small children might help do that under the right circumstances, but other stories and other media are potentially still more potent. Even news stories such as those of the Indian Ocean tsunami can have a very powerful effect.

Empathy is not everything. Religion is very often called upon for providing strength for dealing with major turning points in life, especially with the most final one — dying. The fundamental horror of death is, I think, the sense of an abrupt end. Many religions attempt to ease that fear by suggesting that there is no end, that life somehow endures in some other plane. But a similar sense of continuity can be gained by reflecting on the fact that we live in a world of shared meanings and empathy, which implies that our minds interpenetrate; to some degree we each continue to live in the minds of others. That awareness can be a balm as much as the notion of an afterlife lived in some weird other world, or even in weird reincarnation in this one.

For now, I will end these reflections. They are highly incomplete, but still I think they point to the possibility of a renewed and strong pride in a non-religious source of values.

# posted by Michael @ 11:30 PM 3 comments
Saturday, January 29, 2005

This is my web site, with a number of texts plus other links.

# posted by Michael @ 5:15 PM 0 comments

Acheulean Hand Axes Ought to Tell Us Something, But What?
An ultimate issue for understanding ourselves is explaining sources of cultural change and how culture is transmitted and organized between people. This makes what archeologists of pre-history say about the so-called Acheulean hand axes so interesting. (I re-developed this interest recently through reading Matt Ridley’s provocative and fascinating Nature via Nurture.) These chipped stone tools apparently were made by proto-humans for well over a million years; then more complex tool sets appeared, and the hand axe was soon no more.

A look at representative hand axes suggest that they may have been altered a bit over this tremendously long time period. But two things seem remarkable. In evolutionary time, a million years is extremely long; most species don’t last so long, and one would imagine culture by its nature (so to speak) to be more variable than biology. In fact, it does seem that quite different proto-human species continued the hand-axe culture. So the sheer survival value apparently imparted by the possession of this one simple tool must have been enormous.

And yet, if this one invention was so valuable, why were creatures who were able to develop it not able fairly soon to go further, to invent more specialized versions?
Some possible explanations:

1. The hand-axe users were not capable of the level of social cooperation that would have made more specialized tools work better.

2. The hand-axe users were very limited in their ability to learn new skills, so that in effect, to develop new tools would require giving up old ones. This seems unlikely since hand-axe users in fact seemed to flourish in a variety of different environments which would have required some specialized learning, though perhaps of a different kind than tool-making.

3. The hand-axe users had a very limited capability of passing on skills. This could have been partly due to cultural limitations, and partly due to genetic limitations. Thus a cultural limitation would simply mean that better modes of cultural transmission, while biologically feasible, simply hadn’t been invented yet. One such limitation might have been that fathers, though nearby during the raising of their offspring, had not yet gotten involved in teaching anything to them, or in effect being directly responsible at all for raising them, except possibly by offering protection and perhaps some nourishment, perhaps indirectly. (Sorry for all the qualifications, which wouldn’t be here if I had more recently in mind what our apish relatives do and what the fossil records might show. Evidently, orangutan males play little role at all in raising the young; male gorillas, from my own zoo observations, do little also, and from what I remember of Jane Goodall’s work, male chimps also do little. On the other hand, also from my own zoo observation, male siamangs seem to play a role equal to that of females in raising their young. Thus it is certainly not beyond the general ape pattern for human males to be involved in raising their young, and in so doing, to pass on culture if any, but it seems very possible that until quite late among proto-humans, this didn’t happen.

4. It is also possible that while the proto-humans in question could have invented more techniques – that is that their brains were complex enough to handle this easily — a kind of conservatism about preserving existing behaviors and not diluting them with new ones prevailed. We know that a strong degree of conservatism prevails among most humans today, and is particularly marked among children of about four(?), at least in certain matters, such as rules of games, gender roles, or eating patterns. And then again among many old people. It could be that the intermediate period of exploration and adventuresomeness was a later development for proto-humans. That would raise the question of how the hand-axe revolution happened in the first place, but one can imagine scenarios in which, for a small group, conservatism broke down, the revolution in tool-making took place, and then through contact or interbreeding with a larger group, the prevailing conservatism was re-established, but now with the hand axe as an exception.

5. But perhaps most likely is that once the hand axe was in use, further innovation would have required a denser population, to permit the necessary division of labor, on the one hand, and on the other to allow enough innovation to occur and be passed on successfully to enough “early adopters.”

I shall return in future to the question this raises about why population might have stayed below the innovation limit for so long.

# posted by Michael @ 5:03 PM 0 comments

A Coloring Book Theory of Modern War
New on my website “A Coloring Book Theory of Modern War” to be published in kritikos in Feb. 2005

# posted by Michael @ 3:59 PM 0 comments
Saturday, January 22, 2005

FREEDOM!!! (or bureacracy, or just office buildings?)
According to NPR, W said the word “freedom” 27 times in his 21-minute inaugural speech yesterday — an excellent example of misleading framing.

Even worse, he spoke again of the 9/11 attack as being an attack on “freedom.” This is utterly absurd.

What was attacked were two of the world’s largest office buildings, both, incidentally, built by government, not “free” enterprise. (The Pentagon is obvious, and the WTC was built by the NY Port Authority.) We are usually told the fourth plane was to be aimed at the White House or the Capitol, but for all I know one of the huge office buildings in Washington could have been the target –or maybe another side of the Pentagon was. The previous major al Qaeda attacks were also on government office buildings, at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
The other attacks were on US military targets.

I don’t know why bin Laden has it in for office buildings, but since he cut his teeth in the guerilla war against the soviets in Afghanistan, and since he has made it clear he believes he brought down the USSR through that, it’s quite clear he has now focussed on the remaining “western” superpower. Would Bush say bin Laden attacked the USSR because of opposition to freedom? As for the office-building fetish, possibly bin Laden and his group did attack Soviet office buildings in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan; maybe that even stuck in his mind as a source of success.

Of course 9/11 was heinous, but it was an evil attack on office buildings, not freedom. Let’s reclaim that important fact.

( I have previously speculated that al Qaeda was interested in attacking the World Trade Center because they were confused by the name, and thought that, rather than being rented out with difficulty mainly as back offices for Wall Street, it was, indeed, the center of world trade. If so, this again shows that we should be careful what we name things.)

# posted by Michael @ 1:01 AM 0 comments
Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The 2004 election
Let’s start with the bad news, of which there is plenty:

•The Democratic Party is at a SEVENTY-year low ebb, having now lost the Presidency and both houses of Congress twice in a row.

•The country is sharply divided politically on red-blue lines that begin to look permanent,

• The smaller red states, with their disproportionate share of electoral votes and Congressional representation, suggest a long-term edge for the right.

•The Democratic Party organization hardly exists in much of the old South, and is in decay in many other places.

•Democrats used to vie with Republicans for corporate campaign funds, but now almost all go to Republicans.

•Our all-out efforts with groups like ACT and Move-on were not enough to turn things around.

•The Rumsfeld crew is still in power in the Pentagon.

•American military might has been shown to fail against new capacities for resistance, however gruesome.

•Republicans are presiding over an unprecedented dissipation of American prestige and economic strength.

•The only category of American exports that is rising is trash, scrap and waste.

Each bit of that bad news at least holds out better prospects down the road, for us progressive Democrats —— at least if we have enough vision, imagination, and courage to ride it somewhere good.

First, of course, we did come quite close, even with a lousy candidate, in unseating the slickest, dirtiest Republican machine ever, and in wartime, even after the US mainland itself was attacked for the first time in almost two centuries.

Second, the blue-red tensions keep politics exciting and visible, and make it harder for issues to fade into the background. That makes new, inventive alliances possible, a new form for our old republic.

Third, for anything that goes wrong, at home, in Iraq, or elsewhere, Republican rightists will now be obviously to blame.

Fourth, with Democrats nearly out of the picture, the media, just to remain interesting, have to start scrutinizing Republican missteps more intensely, and have already started

Fifth, without corporate funds to pander for, it will be easier for Democrats to back progressive causes and to stick with them.

Sixth, Where Democratic organizations have fallen apart, there is room for new, more progressive ones to grow up.

Seventh, ACT and Moveon etc. have kinks that need working out, but they’ve gotten off to awfully good starts. We need to help build deeper , better vote-getting strategies, to be activated in still wider regions of the land.

Eighth, while the old world of, say, 1970’s liberal dominance won’t return, as America’s exceptional status in the world diminishes, there will be new opportunities to build a politics that recognizes the humanity we share with all on earth.

# posted by Michael @ 1:31 AM

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