It’s All About Me

In 2004 I wrote a book in which I sought to discover the roots of the rampant subjectivism that permeates modern culture and indeed the modern (and post-modern) world. It was cumbersomely titled (by the publisher) The Inversion of Consciousness From Dante To Derrida and professed to be a “study in intellectual history.”  In that book I pointed to three main factors that seemed to lead human attention away from the world “out there” and to the subject himself or herself. I noted the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern science, and the philosophy of Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

The Protestant Reformation undermined the absolute authority of the Catholic Church and with it the certainty in the minds of most of those in the Western World that there is an absolute right and wrong, there is Truth, and the soul is immortal. This uncertainty, not to say anxiety, coupled with the Cartesian doubt with which Descartes started his system, resulted in growing uncertainty not only about the authority of the Church but also about the veracity of human faith and the certainties upon which were based the confidence of earlier generations. The invention of Galileo’s telescope exacerbated the situation as it called into question the confidence humans had in their own sense experience: seeing was no longer believing. Jupiter had moons that had never before been seen and this called into question the entire edifice of Ptolemaic astronomy that had been the framework of “science” since the time of the ancient Greeks. Moreover, the Ptolemaic view had the support of the Catholic Church which found Galileo’s discoveries deeply disturbing because they supported the Copernican theory that called into question the certainties on which the Church had rested its guidance of human activities for centuries.

If we ignore the corruption within the Catholic Church itself, including the “grand schism,”  the Protestant Reformation was the final straw in bringing down the tower of certainty that was the medieval church — as I have noted in previous posts. Especially in the writings of John Calvin, the accumulation of great personal wealth was no longer seen as an evil but was welcomed as a sign of God’s favor. And this gave license to human greed which found its home in the economic system of capitalism as put forward in the writings of Adam Smith. For Smith capitalism promised humankind a new world of peace and prosperity; but more than that it encouraged human beings to pay close attention to themselves and to their own well-being. In the end an “invisible hand” would guarantee  benefits to all based on the success of the few.

All of these factors, it seemed to me brought about what I called the “inversion of consciousness,” the turning away from the world to a preoccupation with the self and to personal pleasure and self-indulgence. There can be no question but that modern science and capitalism have brought about many benefits to humankind. Modern medicine and the possibility of financial gains promised by these two factors alone prolonged human life and raised humankind to new heights of ease and comfort. But it was bought at a price and there is a serious question whether or not that price was worth paying.

I recently finished a book by Hannah Arendt that was published almost 50 years before my book. It is titled The Human Condition, and I had not read it when I wrote mine, but I found a great many areas of agreement between the two books, which is most encouraging — surprising even. Arendt characterizes our age as one in which “self-centered and self-indulgent egotism” are prevalent, an age in which the only value is life itself — not the quality of life, but simply life itself. She points to the same three factors as I do in attempting to discover modern man’s preoccupation with himself. But she places a great deal more stress on the doubt of René Descartes than I did. She thinks Descartes’ doubt, with which he begins his systematic journey to rational certainty, places the subject firmly within himself as the final authority about not only right and wrong but, more importantly, about truth. Cartesian doubt even undermines religious faith. The truth is no longer about the world; in the modern world it is about one’s perception of the world.  And thinking is turned away from the world to the subject himself who is thinking about the world. And it is thought, after all, that provides Descartes with the springboard that established the certainty of his own existence and, ultimately, about the world. “I think, therefore I am.”

In the modern world, then, it is all about me. Knowledge is determined by how we reason about what is going on about us and right and wrong collapse — as does virtue — into mere opinion about what might lead to greater personal benefits  in the short term. And while much of this seems remote and of interest only to philosophers and scientists we must note that those ideas have slowly permeated our culture and deeply affected the way we think about our world and about ourselves. All of us. And if we add to the mix the recent explosion of interest in electronic toys that fix the attention to the gadget in hand, it becomes obvious how the world outside the self has simply disappeared. The self is all and the objective world has become lost in the inversion of consciousness.

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How Do We Know?

For the most part inquiring minds embrace the scientific method. They may not know exactly what that method is, but they would swear that this is the only way we really know anything for sure; it is the heart and soul of what we loosely call “common sense.”  That science has advanced civilization in numerous ways is incontrovertible — especially  scientific medicine which has prolonged life and made suffering comparatively rare.

The scientific method relies on empirical testing: seeing is believing. An investigator asks questions, suggests a possible explanation and then devises a test to determine whether the hypothesis they have come up with seems to bear out. If it does, it is regarded as true — at least until at some future date another test disproves the theory. The most reliable theories are those that can not be disproved: if no matter how hard we try we cannot dislodge the theory, it is regarded as the truth. An example of this is the theory of evolution which, while a theory, is still regarded as undeniably true by the scientific community — if not by some zealots on the far right. The same might be said about global warming, or what we euphemistically call “climate change.”

However, a blind commitment to the scientific method that rules out any other way of knowing is called “scientism,” and, strange to say, it suggests a closed mind. It does not simply accept the scientific method, it insists that all knowing must be reached by way of this method, and this method alone. It ignores the possibility that there may well be other ways we can know things that may not be empirically testable or falsifiable, but which may still be true — such as paranormal claims, poetic insights, intuition, and the like. Such truths are rejected by the strict scientist because they are neither testable nor capable of predicting future behavior. Paranormal phenomena, for example, while striking in many known cases, are measured against probabilities, and are not open to strict scientific methods. The ability that a few seem to have  to predict the turn of a card 93% of the time is extraordinary and highly improbable. But it is not predictable. Such phenomena are thus rejected by the scientific community.

None the less, a book entitled Crack In The Cosmic Egg written some years ago recounts innumerable striking examples of strange phenomena that cannot be tested by the scientific method but which still appear to be true — such as the ability of entire groups of people to walk on red-hot coals while in a hypnotic trance and not even feel the pain. Indeed upon further inspection, by disinterested Western observers, their feet showed no signs whatever of any burns! Various other examples are cited by the authors, yet there remain a great many skeptics. Consider the reluctance of Western medical science to accept as legitimate “holistic” medicine, such things as acupuncture or controlled diets which have shown remarkable capacity to cure pain and eliminate its cause. Additionally, it has taken years for many in the medical community to admit that allergies can be a serious health problem. Some medical people in the West, including the Mayo Clinic, are beginning to open their minds to new cures, including dietary changes, since it is impossible to deny that they have been successful for many years in Eastern cultures and among so-called “primitive” people. The same thing can be said for herbal cures, which defy scientific explanation but which work nonetheless. But it is still a major challenge to convince those who have committed themselves to the scientific method as the only possible way to know anything. As Hamlet said to his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy — which in Hamlet’s day meant science.

In any event, there is something to be said for keeping an open mind. The exclusive commitment to scientific ways of knowing is just as stupid as the wholesale rejection of science by such groups as the fundamentalist Christians who see it as the work of the devil. Just as scientific minds were quick to condemn the Catholic Church for forcing Galileo to recant his claims about the heliocentric hypothesis (which we now know to be undeniably true), we should warn those same minds not to be closed to the possibility that science may not be the only way to find our way to truths that may assist us in coming to a deeper understanding of our fellow humans and the mysteries that surround us. In the end, we should always remain open to the possibility that there are questions we simply cannot answer.

One of the fascinating things to question is the limits of human knowing: Just how far can the scientific method take us? How many puzzles are open to rational explanation? How many things must remain a mystery regardless of how precise our methods of research happen to be? and How many things we know for sure cannot be proved in a strict sense?  Where does one draw the line between different ways of knowing? How do we separate truth from mere opinion? and How far we can extend our knowledge before we must simply admit we may never know? Whatever the answers to these questions might happen to be, we should never stop asking them.

Movers and Shakers

Machiavelli (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Machiavelli’s Prince was written in the sixteenth century ostensibly as advice to the rulers of Florence — especially Lorenzo de Medici — about how to achieve and maintain power. Or it may have been written to alert the common folk about what their rulers were up to. It is so vivid and frank that people like Jean Jacques Rousseau have been tempted to insist that it is satirical: surely, politics isn’t that rough and cut-throat! The Catholic Church disagreed with Rousseau and banned the book soon after it appeared.  For my part, I think Machiavelli was being quite honest: politics is, indeed, a matter of doing whatever it takes to achieve the desired objective.  And the “objective” is always to gain and maintain power. In his day, it was the Medici family who pursued that goal. In our day it is the corporations where the CEOs make 475 times as much money as their average employee and “morality” is a word never used.

In fact, there is a most interesting and provocative parallel here that might have missed a great many readers of Machiavelli’s classic. The Medici were the wealthiest family in Florence. Today’s power-brokers are the very wealthy, as was the case in Machiavelli’s day. Money is power. Thus, while we like to delude ourselves about democracy resting upon the power of the people, Machiavelli would insist that the people who have the power are, in fact, those who hold the purse strings. The people simply go through the motions and exercise the very few options open to them.

Thus, while you and I might bemoan the fact that the planet is suffering from severe attacks by greedy people and something must be done and the quicker the better, as long as people like the Koch brothers are the ones who decide what will be done, the planet must suffer.  They hope to stack the political deck with hand-picked puppets and rid the country of restraints on “free enterprise” — by such as agencies as the EPA. To be sure, today’s movers and shakers failed to achieve all they hoped for during the past election, despite the millions of dollars they spent to guarantee that the puppets they had selected for public office were successful in the national elections. But they have sworn that this will not happen again in the mid-term elections. And given their determination together with the money they have at their disposal, success seems inevitable. The vision of the fore-fathers that was framed in the Enlightenment optimism of the eighteenth century, the vision that assured those who embraced their new nation that the people will in fact rule in this Democracy — as reflected in Madison’s statement in Federalist Papers that those in positions of political prominence would be removed if they failed to attend to the voice of those who elected them — turns out to have been a pipe dream. Sad to say.

In then end, then, those of us who care about our planet and our country will have to sit by with hands tied and watch those who rule — who are, in fact if not in principle, the movers and shakers of today. They are the ones who hold the reins of power by means of the amount of monies they have to spend on electing puppets who will respond only to the pull of the strings that are wielded by the power-brokers themselves. And, of course, those same people could care less about the planet or their country. They care only about the bottom line. They are blinded by greed and the love of power and care only about what will bring them what they want. So let’s not fool ourselves. Machiavelli told us all about it centuries ago, and things have not really changed that much since then. Those who have money and power seek only to maintain their positions of strength while the rest of us seek the latest diversion they provide us with.

Does this mean that I, personally, will no longer hope for real change, that I will no longer send in my piddling amounts of money to help support those few politicians who seem to have something resembling a conscience? Certainly not. One must free one’s hands and continue to swim against the tide if it is certain to be heading in the wrong direction. I will continue to hope and I will continue to struggle and raise my shrill voice. But though I am not a pessimist or even a fatalist, I am a realist who has learned from the wisest and brightest of those who have passed before me. I have a pretty good idea how things will turn out.

Cool Heads Prevail

I had coffee with my friend Lloyd the other day and among other things we discussed Goethe’s Faust. We have discussed that book many times over the years as it is one of Lloyd’s favorites — he read it in German, which he taught at the university. I read it in English, and I have taught the first part a number of times in my honors classes: it is also one of my favorite books of all times.  Lloyd is convinced that Faust loved Gretchen while I am convinced he is incapable of love — in the modern parlance he is incapable of “commitment.” He is a narcissist. But we struggled to figure out the second part, which has baffled critics over the years. Goethe spent his entire life writing that book and I daresay he never figured out the second part, either! I do not think Faust is a thoroughly evil man (though Lloyd disagrees with me here as well). He attempts to improve his world and throughout he manages to exhibit a fairly lively conscience; in the first part of the poem Mephistopheles has to drag him away from Gretchen’s prison cell just prior to her execution. He feels terrible about what he has done to her — as well he should.

Mephistopheles, on the other hand, is without feelings: he has no conscience at all. He is the cold intellectual that Goethe holds up for our examination as a paradigm of the thoroughly evil person. He is without compassion and fellow-feeling. He simply calculates and acts accordingly. I find the same insight in Dostoevsky: the man who lacks compassion and fellow-feeling, who has no conscience is not a man you want to approach. Dostoevsky knew several of that type while he was a political prisoner in Siberia and he knew whereof he spoke. Shakespeare tells us that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” but then Hamlet says that “being a coward” means “doing the right thing.” It leads us away from those actions that would ultimately destroy us. Dostoevsky’s character in Crime and Punishment commits a dreadful crime and in the end he can’t live with his conscience.

But what does this have to do with us? Plenty! In the recent past we have witnessed a country run by men who seem to be lacking in compassion and fellow-feeling. Hannah Arendt describes at great length the psychology of Adolf Eichmann who was a man determined to get the Jews to the gas chambers on time. He was a bureaucrat who worried only about the efficiency of the killing machine. He never lost a moment’s sleep over the thought that he was sending men, women, and children to a grisly death. And the men who commanded him and followed his orders were evil in this same way: they were cold and calculating. Joseph Stalin was cast in the same mold. And history has shown us others of that type — even in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in the form of Torquemada who sent “infidels” to a screaming death in the auto-da-fes in Spain.

And if we are willing to look closer to home we might see these types sitting in a comfortable room somewhere in Washington, D.C. (or North Dakota) ordering drones into crowded city centers in Pakistan to target al-Qaeda leaders. They remain aloof because they don’t actually see the faces of those people thousands of miles away and they brush aside the uncomfortable facts that a mere 2 % of the reported 4500 targets are actually militant leaders and that 881 of those people were almost certainly innocent civilians, 176 of them children. (One suspects that these numbers are on the low side.) By remaining aloof and apart I imagine that those who direct the drones can sleep well at night, because their conscience never enters the picture: they are not killing people, they are killing the “enemy”  — while seeming to play a video game.

How To Die

I have stolen the title of this blog from an op-ed piece in the New York Times that deals with the contrast between the attitude toward dying in this country and the attitude in England. The piece focuses on the case of a man in the East of London who had been told he has a number of inoperable tumors and was subsequently taken off life-support at his own request and moved to a quiet room elsewhere in the hospital to spend his last moments with his family.

. . .  the hospital that treated him offers a protocol called the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient, which was conceived in the 90s at a Liverpool cancer facility as a more humane alternative to the frantic end-of-life assault of desperate measures. “The Hippocratic oath just drives clinicians toward constantly treating the patient, right until the moment they die,” said Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, who was until recently the chief executive of the center where the protocol was designed. English doctors, he said, tell a joke about this imperative: “Why in Ireland do they put screws in coffins? To keep the doctors out.”

The article does give one pause. We don’t like to talk about death and we are committed as a culture to the notion that life in and of itself is of value. We don’t ask whether or not the quality of life may be the central issue, as it assuredly is, we simply insist that no one should have to die.

Further there is a great deal of talk about the “right to life” which tends to focus on an unborn fetus while at the same time tending to ignore the lives of those who have been accused of capital crimes they may not have committed. It also tends to side-step such issues as war and the population explosion which is already overwhelming a planet stressed out from massive and relentless exploitation. But we don’t talk about death or the right to death. We simply assume that prolonging human life is the highest of values. But why do we think this? What about other animal species? And when it comes to humans, why shouldn’t a person be allowed to die if and when he or she has determined that the pain is no longer tolerable, the doctors have done all they can, and the cost to their families will be prohibitive?

The editorial goes on to mention that end-of-life treatment in England was not without its critics but it also addresses the question whether the attitudes about death in this country are likely to change and whether we might take steps toward a more enlightened approach to the subject. The author thinks not and responds as follows:

The obvious reason, of course, is that advocates of such programs have been demonized. They have been criticized by the Catholic Church in the name of “life,” and vilified by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the pursuit of cheap political gain. “Anything that looks like an official protocol, or guideline — you’re going to get death-paneled,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the bioethicist and expert on end-of-life care who has been a target of the rabble-rousers. . . . Humane end-of-life practices have quietly found their way into cancer treatment, but other specialties lag behind.

Though Mary Tyler Moore tried years ago to teach us how to laugh at death (when appropriate) it does seem that certain topics are taboo and that we shy away from asking pertinent questions and opening doors that might have important answers hidden behind them; we have knee-jerk reactions to certain topics and cultural biases that tie our hands and blind our eyes to unpleasantness. We simply don’t like to talk about death and dying even though they are facts of life.

Hellfire and Brimstone

There is a fascinating three-minute You Tube segment making the circuit on the internet these days. In pitch black, it reveals a blacksmith working on red-hot iron in front of a roaring fire while music beats out a pulsating rhythm and a series of messages appears across the screen. We can only see the blacksmith from the glare of the fire: he is somewhat indistinct, but he yields a heavy hammer with a fierce expression on his face. The message is designed to inform the Catholic audience how they should vote this Fall. As the blacksmith pounds the red-hot metal, sentences appear out of the dark, remain on the screen for a few moments and then disappear.

It begins with a couple of sentences: “The Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. This generation of Catholics must do the same.” Note the oblique reference to the past coupled with strong language, including the words “sacred rights,” “always,” and “must” to dictate behavior. I’m not certain what is being referred to when we are told that the faithful have always stood up and protected “her sacred rights.” But perhaps others know exactly what this means. In any event, the message goes on slowly while the blacksmith pounds away and words appear and disappear into the fire, words like “Marriage,” “Life,” and “Freedom.” Familiar words accompanied by powerful images and relentless, pulsating music. Frightening, really.

We are told that “This November Catholics across the nation will be put to the test. . . Many issues are at stake but some issues are not negotiable. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined.” Again, note the careful choice of words: “not negotiable.” Furthermore, “Forcing the Church to buy insurance that goes against her teachings is a violation of religious freedom.. . .When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental one shudders to think what lies ahead.” Here’s the classic “slippery slope”: one thing leads invariably to another, each worse than its predecessor — assuming we know what “forcing the Church to buy insurance” means. In any event, it is a “fundamental freedom,” and Catholics must resist the government’s attempts to deny religious freedom even though the Church here would deny the freedom of choice to its believers. There’s something afoot. The beat goes on….

We are told “Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity. Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” This is a powerful and, as I say, a frightening (if not threatening) message, complete with the suggestion of eternal damnation accompanied by flames. One wonders what will come next.

Our Constitution defends the right of free speech — which the Supreme Court says extends to corporations. The Catholic Church is a corporation, among other things, and it follows that the Church also has a right to free speech. So there are no sound political grounds for objecting to this message. But there are sound philosophical and even moral reasons why messages should not be geared to the lowest, most base, elements of the human psyche — why a three-minute message should engage in appeals to fear and the threat of eternal damnation should the viewer ignore the commands put forward. As I say, it is precisely the freedom of the viewer that is denied since the message makes it very clear what is to be done without question and in doing so appeals to the baser emotions.

Please note, it is not the message itself that I object to. We all know what the Catholic Church’s stand has been on the issues of marriage, life, and freedom. I respect the right of any person to believe anything they want to believe as long as they don’t interfere with my right to agree or disagree with them. Further, the Church has always seen its role as that of dictating moral choices to the faithful. But fear of eternal damnation is a type of force. And succumbing to force negates freedom. No one is free to do what they must do.

Even if we acknowledge that the Church has always spoken ex cathedra regarding the behavior of its followers, the manner in which this particular message is delivered would deny even the most faithful the right to act in accordance with the dictates of the Church by choice or conscience. In a word, it denies their fundamental humanity, which is predicated on a person’s ability to say “no.” As I say the message is frightening; no one should be coerced into action through fear. The end does not justify the means.

Buying Elections

As the dust begins to settle on the failed attempts by the Democrats to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin, it behooves any blogger worth his salt to utter an opinion or two. So here goes. I was asked by a friend if I was surprised by Walker’s win and had to answer that I honestly was not. In many ways it was predictable.

The Republicans are still crowing — if you’re quiet you can hear them. And the Democrats are acting a bit like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis [thank you, Tom Lehrer]. But the fact remains that the Republicans outspent the Democrats 8 to 1 with the Koch machine cranking out most of an estimated $45 million to keep Walker in office and send a message to the Democrats that America really does love its pocketbook above all else. The Hell with teachers and nurses!

The Koch brothers are a big part of what is wrong with this country. Rumors have it that they plan to spend $400 million of their hard-earned money to get Obama out of the White House and keep control of the Congress. They might succeed, of course, because as we all know money talks and after the Citizens United decision the amount of money that will be spent on the upcoming elections could buy a small country — or a large one that’s deep in debt. After all, the family oil business the Koch brothers own rakes in an estimated $100 billion a year! The sky’s the limit!

But note the irony in the fact that people like the Koch brothers will spend millions of dollars to buy politicians who will guarantee that they get to keep most if not all of their wealth in the future. I dare say they see it as an investment. Some of the wealthy 1%, I understand, even buy politicians on both sides of the political aisle. That way they can’t lose.

The interesting question is what on earth the founders would say about the turn of events. So let’s speculate. There are a number of myths rising from the “spiritually certain” about the religious preferences of the founders, insisting that they were all devout Christians. In fact there were some Christians within the group, but most were deists who didn’t attend church or believe in the efficacy of prayer. And they certainly did not want the church (any church) interfering in politics. They knew and hated England which had a state church and they saw the same sort of influence in France and Italy where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. They knew they didn’t want any of that. The recent tie-in between the political right-wing and the spiritually certain would have been bothersome to the founders.

But they were also suspicious of capitalism in its raw forms. A number of the Colonies had restrictions on the unfettered growth of capitalism, such as laws against primogeniture, the passing on of wealth to the first-born son. They saw that as a sure way to aristocracy which they distrusted almost as much as they did the King. Many were still wedded to the comfortable notion of mercantilism, which favored the involvement of the government in the financial affairs of its citizens. These were wise men who, for the most part, knew that humans left to their own wiles would get into a dog-eat-dog fight over wealth and they didn’t want to see that either. People like Jefferson saw the future of this country in terms of an agrarian ideal in which people would remain close to the earth and earn enough money to be content and have whatever they required to live a good life, but no more. “More” was not necessary and it could lead to moral blindness. Initially the founders, especially the Southerners, didn’t even want a Federal bank, though Alexander Hamilton finally persuaded them to go in that direction — as a matter of necessity. And many of the wealthy citizens helped support the young nation (and the revolution) with money out of their own pockets.

The attitude toward money in this country in the eighteenth century was quite different from ours now. For the most part money was seen as a means to an end, simply. There were remnants of a deep-seated medieval distrust of money and what it did to people — ultimately stemming from Christ’s admonitions in the New Testament. Just read Dante’s Inferno and try to figure out how many of those in Hell are there because of their relentless greed. That attitude took centuries to die out, but it is pretty much a thing of the past as, thanks to people like John Calvin, we now think that wealth is a sign of talent, ability and even, perhaps, God’s favor. You cannot have too much. If you do, you can always go out and buy yourself a country — like the Koch brothers.