Sunday, March 20, 2011

Supernaturalism in an age of science

By Steve Rensberry   

 The brute facts of existence can be a hard thing to bear for us mere mortals, so much so that throughout nearly every culture and nation on earth there are people who wrap themselves around a set of beliefs that have neither grounding in science nor in simple, everyday common sense. Even in the year 2011, it's fair to say that modern humanity is nearly awash in a sea of supernaturalism, religious ideology, magical thinking and paranormal obsessions--its respective adherents each convinced that there is more than enough evidence to prove as true their own unique set of propositions.
   Of the approximate 6.7 billion people who live on planet earth, a clear minority, about 14 to 16 percent according to some estimates, are considered secular. About 2 billion people adhere to some form of Christianity, 1.5 billion to Islam, 900 million to Hinduism, 400 million to Confucianism or some other type of traditional Chinese religion, and 375 million to Buddhism. Some researchers have estimated the total number of religions in the world at more than 4,000. Some say it is as high as 10,000. Add to this the scores of people who believe in ghosts and other such apparitions, and in such things as alien-piloted UFOs, werewolves, the Loch Ness monster, ESP, reincarnation, astrology, telepathy, clairvoyance, channeling, prophets and psychics. See: Religious facts, Adherents, Paranormal.
   Why the persistence of so many contradictory, other-worldly beliefs? May I suggest that the answer could lie simply in the way the human mind reacts to threats, primarily the threat of death. In the face of near certainty, what else is a mind to do but to attempt to convince itself for comfort's sake that death is only a portal to another life, a better life where justice will prevail and happiness will reign? Belief, as such, is little different than an assertion.
   Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry and former editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine writes: "The domain of the religious, I submit, is evocative, expressive, emotive. It presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, performative ceremonial rituals, which act out and dramatize the human condition and human interests, and seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose. Religions--at least the religions of revelation--deal in parables, narratives metaphors, stories, myths; and they frame the divine in human (anthropomorphic) form. They express the existential yearnings of individuals endeavoring to cope with the world that they encounter and find meaning in the face of death. Religious language in this sense is eschatological. Its primary function is to express hope." (Are Science and Religion Compatible?, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 26.2, March/April 2002).
   On the face of it, supernaturalism represents a profound denial of temporal reality. This world is but a shadow of the real world. The characteristic pattern is one of magical thinking and a host of associative errors pertaining to causation, filtered through and heightened by that wonderful faculty of the human mind known as the imagination. Cause and effect, for the deeply religious and superstitious, is a phenomenally personal experience of unfathomable breadth, dimension and illogic.
   What place is there, really, for cause and effect when the master of all cause an effect is worlds beyond us? What place is there for freedom of thought in a world where an omniscient and omnipresent being called "God" knows all and sees all? None. Apart from the intractable march of biological death, the tyranny of matter itself may provide another clue as to why humanity gravitates toward a belief in the supernatural.
   Former Rand Corporation member and philosopher Emmanuel George Mesthene gives his assessment of the "tyranny of matter."  (Macmillan Publishing Co., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, 1972 edition, eds: John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger.)
   "The consciousness of physical impossibility has had a long and depressing history. One might speculate that it began with early man's awe of the bruteness and recalcitrance of nature. Earth, air, fire, and water -- the eternal, immutable elements of ancient physics--imposed their requirements on men, dwarfed them, outlived them, remained indifferent when not downright hostile to them . . . . From that day to this, only the language has changed as successive ages encountered and tried to come to terms with physical necessity, with the sheer 'rock-bottomness' of nature. It was submitted to as fate in the Athenian drama. It was conceptualized as ignorance by Socrates and as metaphysical matter by his pupils. It was labeled evil by the pre-Christians. It has been exorcized as the Devil, damned as flesh, or condemned as illicit by the Church. It has been the principle of nonreason in modern philosophy, in the form of John Locke's Substance, as Immanual Kant's formless manifold, or as Henri Bergson's pure duration. It has conquered the mystic as nirvana, the psyche as the Id, and recent Frenchmen as the blind object of existential commitment . . . . It would be difficult to overestimate the consequences of this recalcitrance of the physical on the thinking and outlook of men."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Psychotropic drugs and the nature of reality

  This 2007 video features an award-winning lecture by Canadian researcher and university professor Dr. Michael Persinger on the relationship between psychotropic drugs and consciousness as they impact political and economic realities.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Confucius and the nature of good government

   The world of today is a far different place, both sociologically and technologically, than it was 2,500 years ago. This despite the near-intractableness of human nature. The excerpt that follows, from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BCE) on ethics and politics, is an interesting one for a numbers of reasons. One is because it shows just how ingrained the need is for ethical, self-disciplined leadership in the political sphere. Another is because of its advice that rulers treat those who are under them with genuine love and concern.
   While the teachings of Confucius stood to justify the perpetuation of a feudalistic form of government, they also contained an emphasis on virtue and moral perfection that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing worship of bloodline and the mere following of a formal set of rules to assure social stability.
   The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Confucius, revised on Sept. 5, 2006, states: "Most troubling to Confucius was his perception that the political institutions of his day had completely broken down. He attributed this collapse to the fact t hat those who wielded power as well as those who occupied subordinate positions did so by making claim to titles for which they were not worthy."
   From this writer's perspective, Confucianism has much to offer but borders on naivety in light of the historical record, and in light of our current understanding of the phenomenal but “imperfect complexity” of human nature. This is not so say that other forms of human governance or social teachings are any less free from the curse of naivety, as we are all in some sense blind. Authoritarianism is another demon they all seem to grapple with.
   In an essay entitled simply "Confucianism," attributed to Wu-Chi Liu, professor emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature at Indiana University, the essential elements that set Confucius apart as one of the worlds great social thinkers are apparent.
   "Politically, Confucius advocated a paternalistic government in which the sovereign is benevolent and honorable and the subjects are respectful and obedient. The ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example to the people. In education Confucius upheld the theory, remarkable for the feudal period in which he lived, that 'in education, there is no class distinction,'" Wu-Chi Liu writes.
   Here's an excerpt from Confucius contained in a book of mine on social philosophers in which the copyright has since expired:

Confucius on Ethics and Politics
   Duke Ai (ruler of Lu, Confucius' native state) asked what constituted good government.
   Confucius replied: "The principles of good government of the Emperors Wen and Wu are abundantly illustrated in the records preserved. When the men are there, good government will flourish, but when the men are gone, good government decays and becomes extinct. With the right men, the growth of good government is as rapid as the growth of vegetation is in the right soil. Indeed, good government is like a fast-growing plant. The conduct of government, therefore, depends upon the men. The right men are obtained by the ruler's personal character. To cultivate his personal character, the ruler must use the moral law (tao). To cultivate the moral law, the ruler must use the moral sense (jen, or principles of true manhood).
   "The moral sense is the characteristic attribute of men. To feel natural affection for those nearly related to us is the highest expression of the moral sense. The sense of justice (yi or prosperity) is the recognition of what is right and proper. To honor those who are worthier than ourselves is the highest sense of justice. The relative degrees of natural affection we ought to feel for those who are nearly related to us and the relative grades of honor we ought to show to those worthier than ourselves: these give rise to the forms and distinctions in social life (li, or principles of social order). For unless social inequalities have a true and moral basis (or unless those being ruled feel their proper place with respect to their rulers), government of the people is an impossibility.
   "There is necessary for a man of the governing class to set about regulating his personal conduct and character. In considering how to regulate his personal conduct and characters, it is necessary for him to do his duties toward those nearly related to him. In considering how to do his duties toward those nearly related to him, it is necessary for him to understand the nature and organization of human society. In considering the nature and organization of human society it is necessary for him to understand the laws of God.
   "The duties of universal obligation are five, and the moral qualities by which they are carried out are three. The duties are those between ruler and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger, and those in the intercourse between friends. These are the five duties of universal obligation. Wisdom, compassion and courage--these are the three universally recognized moral qualities of man. It matters not in what way men come to the exercise of these moral qualities, the result is one and the same.
   "Some men are born with the knowledge of these moral qualities; some acquire it as the result education; some acquire it as the result of  hard experience. But when the knowledge is acquired, it comes to one and the same thing. Some exercise these moral qualities naturally and easily; some because they find it advantageous to do so; some with effort and difficulty. But when the achievement is made it comes to one and the same thing."
   Confucius went on to say: "Love of knowledge is akin to wisdom. Strenuous attention to conduct is akin to compassion. Sensitiveness to shame is akin to courage.
   "When a man understands the nature and use of these three moral qualities, he will then understand how to put in order his personal conduct and character. When a man understands how to put in order his personal conduct and character, he will understand how to govern men. When a man understands how to govern men, he will then understand how to govern nations and empires.
   "For every one called to the government of nations and empires there are nine cardinal directions to be attended to:
   1. Cultivating his personal conduct.
   2. Honoring worthy men.
   3. Cherishing affection for, and doing his duty toward, his kindred.
   4. Showing respect to the high ministers of state.
   5. Identifying himself with the interests and welfare of the whole body of public officers.
   6. Showing himself as a father to the common people.
   7. Encouraging himself as a father to the common people.
   8. Showing tenderness to strangers from far countries.
   9. Taking interest in the welfare of the princes of the Empire.
   "When the ruler pays attention to the cultivation of his personal conduct, there will be respect for the moral law. When the ruler honors worthy men, he will not be deceived (by the crafty officials). When the ruler cherishes affection for his kindred, there will be no disaffection among the members of his family. When the ruler shows respect for the high ministers of state, he will not make mistakes. When the ruler identifies himself with the interests and welfare of the body of public officers, there will be a strong spirit of loyalty among the gentlemen of the country. When the ruler becomes a father to the common people, the mass of the people will exert themselves for the good of the state. When the ruler encourages the introduction of all useful arts, there will be sufficiency of wealth and revenue in the country. When the ruler shows kindness to the strangers from far countries, people from all quarters of the world will flock to the country. When the ruler takes interest in the condition and welfare of the princes of the empire, he will inspire awe and respect for his authority throughout the whole world.
   "By attending to the cleanliness and purity of his person and to the propriety and dignity of his dress, and in every word and act permitting nothing which is contrary to good taste and decency; that is how the ruler cultivates his personal conduct. By banishing all flatterers and keeping away from the society of women, holding in low estimation possession of worldly good, but valuing moral qualities in men--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to worthy men. By raising them to high places of honor and bestowing ample emoluments for their maintenance; sharing and sympathizing with their tastes and opinions--that is how the ruler inspires love for his person among the members of his family. By extending the powers of their functions and allowing them discretion in the employment of their subordinates--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to the high ministers of state. By dealing loyally and punctually with them in all engagements which he makes with them and allowing a liberal scale of pay--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to men in the public service. By strictly limiting the time of their service and make all imposts as light as possible--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to the mass of the people. By ordering daily inspection and monthly examination and rewarding each according to the degree of his workmanship--that is how the ruler encourages the artisan class. By welcoming them when they come and giving them protection when they go, commending what is good in them and making allowance for their ignorance--that is how the ruler shows kindness to strangers from far countries. By restoring lines of broken succession and reviving subjugated states, putting down anarchy and disorder wherever they are found, and giving support to the weak against the strong, fixing stated times for their attendance and the attendance of their envoys at court, loading them with presents when they leave, while exacting little from them in the way of contribution when they come--that is how the ruler takes interest in the welfare of the princes of the empire.
   "For every one who is called to the government of nations and empire, these are the nine cardinal directions to be attended to; and there is only one way by which they can be carried out.
   "In all matters success depends on preparation; without preparation there will always be failure. When what is to be said is previously determined, there will be no difficulty in carrying it out. When a line of conduct is previously determined, there will be no occasion for vexation. When general principles are previously determined, there will be no perplexity to know what to do."

   Photos courtesy of Image After

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion