October 2016 Archives

Life as a Sack of Potatoes

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potato sack

Reality is a difficult concept to grasp, partly because it has been used in several confusing and even conflicting ways. Difficult or not, reality is one of the most important concepts to keep clear because it is a metaphor for the media, the soup, in which life takes place. Pieces of that reality enter our consciousness through our senses where they become transformed onto meaningful images or processes in the brain. I use a couple of metaphors here because no one knows yet exactly how the brain makes this wondrous move to add meaning to the meaningless objects that enter our consciousness. Without being able to make that step, humans would not be able to engage in intentional actions. We would be just like almost all other life, limited to responses built into our evolutionary cognitive wiring.

But we are different and have employed our unique ability to make meaningful interpretations of reality and, then, to construct ways of living together far more elaborate and richer than any other living species. The actual outcome of whatever we eventually intend and enact is determined by the forces at play in the real world, not by their surrogates in our minds. The closer the mind does mirror that reality, the more likely our plans will be realized. In order to do that, the mind has to put the immediate sensory inputs back in to the context of the real world. This is another way of saying the brain has to add back images (My metaphor for whatever or however the brain keeps things in its neural networks.) from the past. Those images provide a temporal context that identifies the objects and ascribes meaning to them. Spatial context is provided by the senses that capture images beyond those that are held in the attention spotlight. When either of these two aspects of context is missing, the focal object becomes diffuse and one- or two-dimensional.

Does this really matter? Yes, indeed. Our lives are becoming diminished by the dominance of technology and by the pace at which we live. Several articles I have read recently inspire this blog post, but it is a subject about which I have been writing for some years. Andrew Sullivan whose wonderful blog was a regular feature of my day disappeared from the scene some months ago. He reappeared for me in a recent article in the New York Magazine, titled, “I Used to Be a Human Being.” The title tells much of his story in which he recounted how his addiction to the Internet broke his physical and mental health.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

Davis Brooks penned a column with a similar theme, the power of social media and related devices to “change the very nature of the self.” The optimistic prognostications of the early days of social media could be attributed mainly due to a change of the tools used in relationships. This appears to be changing, as he writes:

But recently, people’s views of social media have grown a bit darker. That’s because we seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.

Earlier this year, Jacob Weisberg had a fine essay in The New York Review of Books reporting that, according to a British study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day — about every 4.3 minutes.

A decade ago almost no one had a smartphone. Now the average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. A study of female students at Baylor University found that they spent 10 hours a day on their phones.

No one should be surprised at what is happening. Sherry Turkle wrote in 1995 that the computer was becoming our “Second Self”, the title of her important book. Much earlier, the philosopher, Albert Borgmann, warned against technology’s power to appropriate our humanity. In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984), Borgmann argued that the ubiquitous and transparent use of technology hides context and, thus, meaning from the humans employing it. This process turns the objects being manipulated by technology into commodities: objects with little or no context. While writing before the advent of social media and the devices that enable them, his theory fits the findings of more recent scholars. I haven’t used his work in this context before, but I find his use of the word, commodification, describes quite well my arguments about the impact of Facebook and related media on otherwise meaningful relationships. Sullivan’s personal experience might also be described as the conversion of a meaningful human being into a meaningless or meaning-poor commodity.

A related, but different aspect of technology was discussed in an article concerned about the effects of replacing humans with computers. “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” tells the story of a disastrous airplane tragedy caused, according to the authors, by the deskilling of human pilots by the pervasive use of autopilots. In this case, the human agents were unable to correct deviations in the flight path of an Air France Airbus that crashed into the sea with the loss of 228 lives.

The cockpit record was recovered enabling investigators to reconstruct the events leading up to the tragedy. Autopilots hide the complexity of devices like airplanes and eventually change the mindset and response mechanisms of the human operators. One “solution” offered after the crash was to require pilots to turn off the autopilots from time to time to maintain their skills and appreciation of the complexity of the situation. This same issue will apply to the auto-driving cars now being tried out. Cars are not quite the complex machines as are airplanes, but real situations on crowded roads will surely produce situations as daunting to the human drivers as those for airplanes.

Human life may appear to becoming easier, as what used to be tasks we had to perform are increasingly being done by machines. These stories and others like it tell us that this may be so, but there may also be a kind of Faustian bargain involved without knowing that it is being made for us. Experiencing one’s Being, that is, flourishing, requires removing the filters between the authentic self and the world. The result may not be a pretty sight according to current cultural values and norms, but seeing oneself as a mortal being with all the warts we carry may be just the shock we need to recover and hold on to our authentic self, a mundane equivalent to the ethereal soul of theology, poetry, and philosophy.

Thoughts of Repentance on Yom Kippur

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yom kippur

Yom Kippur is over and I am left with my thoughts of the day. This day is the culmination of 10 days of reflection on the beyond-the-world, the world, and one’s place in it. It is a trying time for me because of the omnipresence of God, a figure for whom I have little or no belief. I thank Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman for giving me a way to get through this period and other times I spend in my Temple. While he was visiting our Temple a few weeks ago in preparation for the Jewish Holidays, he offered a way for skeptics and non-believers to take in the liturgy and traditions. He said (more or less), “Suspend your disbelief and come as a part of an audience attending a metaphorical drama written over the ages, full of wisdom to be found in its lines and music.”

Our Temple is using a new (two-year old) prayer book that is helpful in this regard. It is full of alternate readings and explanations of the texts that elucidate the drama. The core thoughts I carry away and have been reflecting upon are: gratitude for being alive, facing up to the human failings that come with that life, and confessing and repenting for the acts that come from those very human parts of my body.

Being alive is a miracle that transforms a mess of chemical matter into a living being, in my case, a human being. Being the specific human being I am is another miracle for which I am grateful. No one else of the billions of people alive in the past, today, or in the future is like me. I am unique, shaped by my own biological make-up and unique life experience. I am grateful for all of the other human beings and the non-human world that has created who I am. Some I know well: my parents and family, my wives, my children and step-children, my friends, my teachers, my students, my bosses, my doctors, and on and on. Others who that have entered more silently and indistinctly have also played their parts. I have not always had the most complimentary thoughts about all of these, but I am equally grateful for the presence of all of them in my life.

The new Prayer book has a footnote echoing what our Rabbi always interjects when we come to the part of the service where we confess or recount our “sins.” I put sins in quotes to distinguish it from the notion of sin in other religions. The word in Hebrew, often translated as sin, has a root meaning coming from archery and means something more like “missing the mark.” It has the same meaning that the secular aphorism “To err is human” does, but the context is very different. We throw out that aphorism when we want to excuse our bad actions.

On Yom Kippur, one cannot get away with that; we must confess our misses, repent, and ask forgiveness. God forgives and atones for us unconditionally for all our transgressions directed toward God. I can skip this because, as a disbeliever, this doesn’t apply to me, or, at least, so I say. But for those misses that fall upon other human beings, I must make it right and apologize if I am to move into the New Year with a clean slate. It matters not whether my errant acts were intentional or unintentional. So if I have written anything here that has harmed anyone, I apologize for doing so, and, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, Jewish or not, I ask for your forgiveness.

The central prayer of confession is the Vidui, a series of transgressions in alphabetical order, followed by another series of Hebrew acrostics. Not being a Hebrew reader, this goes right by me, but the impact does not. There are always a handful or more that must have been written just for me. Today, the Vidui had more meaning than usual. The Rabbi must have been reading my (and many others’) minds when he said before his sermon that he was departing from his customary practice and bring politics into the sanctuary. Having just recited the Vidui, I was pretty sure I knew what he was going to say and so it was. He spoke about the importance of being genuine in one’s confessions and apologies for missing the mark, especially when has missed the entire target (my addition).

I add here something he did not say, but surely understands. Living together at any level requires trust and trust requires that we expect others to be responsible for their actions. We expect them to be respectful and to honor every human being as the same miracle they are. Allowance for mistakes is critical as errors are inevitable, but accepting one’s responsibility for them is essential if trust is to be maintained. Little or none of this can be found in the immediate political campaign and in the behavior of office-holding politicians in our Capitols. They have forgotten that you and I are part of their family and we have to live together. My feelings about this run the gamut between sadness and disgust.

I’ll end with a selection of sins I edited down from the very long litany of the Vidui. I need not tell you the criterion I chose to make my selection or to whom my thoughts were inspired by. These are what brought the mess out there into the sanctuary. Rather amazing, isn’t it?

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips, with hard-heartedness, with immorality, with deceit, through speech, by deceiving a fellowman, by improper thoughts, by a gathering of lewdness, by verbal [insincere] confession, by impurity of speech, by foolish talk, with the evil inclination, false denial and lying, by a bribe-taking or a bribe-giving hand, by scoffing, by evil talk [about another], in business dealings, by a haughty demeanor, by the prattle of our lips, with proud looks, by scheming against a fellowman, by obduracy, by tale-bearing, by causeless hatred, by embezzlement…

Bigger Is Not Better

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big

Michael Pollan wrote an article, previewed today in the NY Times, about big agriculture and the failure of the Obama administration to act to rein in its excesses. For those interested in the specifics, you should read the article. I am referring to it primarily as an example of a more general problem: the excessive, uneconomic, undemocratic power of the corporate sector. Pollan’s story has a plot that can be found in many cases outside of the food sector: pharmaceuticals, military armaments, commercial banking, retail, drug stores, office supplies, air travel, online retail, online travel accommodations, beer, and more. But here’s one I am sure you never would have included: eyeglass frames. Luxotica provides about 80% of all frames sold in the United States. Not too much political power, perhaps, but, if you have bought glasses recently, you know what economic power they command. Big bucks for a cheap piece of plastic.

Some monopolies are content to squeeze out what the economists call rents, income larger than what they would get if the sector were competitive. That’s what the original trustbusters were after. Today’s problems are much larger and much more threatening. Economic power has been joined by political power. Pollan’s story is one where the use of money to lobby and engage in public relations campaigns stymies attempts to put much needed controls to protect the public. The rise of inequality is due to many causes, but the drive to get bigger and bigger is one of them. The consuming public pays more that they might in a truly competitive market. The rents that result from this go disproportionately to the already wealthy owners and managers.

This disparity is nothing new. It was behind the Occupy Wall Street failed movement and Bernie Sanders’ failed campaign. The argument that bigness brings economies of scale is true only in part. At some level, gains in efficiency are overcome by monopolistic practices. The price gouging attempts, both successful and not, in the pharmaceutical sector are just one example. Have you bought an airline ticket lately? Or, as I noted, a new pair of glasses?

The problem extends far beyond the cost of everything to the choices available to the public. Pollan’s article shows how Big Food controls what we eat, not just how much we pay for it. One thread follows Michelle Obama’s campaign against obesity, which has been tied to the poor eating habits of the American public. When Big Food was threatened by her speaking out for changes, they gathered a pile of money and used it to lobby against any form of regulation and placed what some might say were misleading advertisements to quell public concerns.

I am not a professional economist, but I have enough understanding of the field to know that the current situation and trends are bad news for most of us, poor and not so poor alike. The choices we have are growing smaller and smaller. Some argue that enough competition remains to allow choice. Maybe, but if you want to avoid the hand of Big Food on your dining habits, you are free to go to Whole Foods. Free only in theory because the prices keep all but affluent buyers away. Blackberry, the original smartphone, just has been withdrawn from the market!

I usually don’t write about issues like this. Pollan’s article got to me. My political (small p) juices started to flow. I think this issue should be front and center in the coming election, but the shenanigans of the candidates and the media have focused on trivia. I have no question as to who will get my vote, but am the least engaged this time around than ever before in what has become a pretty long life.

I write, as most of you know, about flourishing. It occurs to me that what I have just written has a lot to do with flourishing or, better about not flourishing. To flourish, one must act authentically, that is, from a source that is owned by the actor. This concept is often hard to fathom because it is so rare today. So let me take the opposite tack. Action today is largely inauthentic, that is, it is driven by the loud, booming voice of society. Most of us, if asked why we did something, would say something like, “Well, they say it is the thing to do.” When choice becomes limited, some agency is in control, metaphorically telling you what you should or can do.

Flourishing as the expression of one’s own self comes, in part, from the nature of the choices one makes. The freer and more self-determined they are, the more possibility of flourishing shows up. The growth of bigness casts a pall over our choices. Their economic power limits the choices we have in the marketplace. In essence, by the nature of the products, certainly in the food sector, we have limited choices. Not only are we not flourishing, we are unhealthy as a result. There is a large irony at play these days. Doctrinaire economists claim the free market and the corporate/private sector that controls it as the way to maximum choice. Nice theory, but a theory only evident in the breech.

The second important place for choice is political; the choices available every time you go into the voting booth. A funny thing happened years ago on the way to the polls. Corporations were found by the US Supreme Court to be a person. Not so good as a principle, but now not at all good in practice. Bigness permits corporations to buy their way into the democratic process of choice. If anyone thinks for a minute that this is a partisan issue, you are wrong. It is an existential issue concerning democracy and, ultimately, the possibility of flourishing.

If you think I have just made a huge leap connecting democracy and flourishing, you are mistaken. I haven’t got space to go into great details but the inherent idea of democracy, of choosing the government that will guide the polity where you live bears on the ability to care, to live authentically, to avoid domination, and more. For those who have been following me, I think you understand where I am going. For any new readers, there are about 20 recent blog posts on the right-hand side of the webpage. Pick a few at random, and you will begin to find the reasons I tie democracy and flourishing together. My cynical side has broken out today, but pay no heed and make sure you vote in November.

Care and Politics

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new year symbols

The Jewish New Year is upon me. It is a propitious time to restart writing posts to this blog. I have finished a draft of my book and now have recovered some time to do this. I have thought about what would be the most appropriate subject to begin again with. The main book themes are flourishing, complexity, and care. Care, or, better, the lack of it, in the immediate political campaign strikes me as most relevant at this moment.

Care for both worldly and transcendent phenomena is central as part of any movement toward flourishing. Care, as I write, is a way of acting that focuses, as does human consciousness, on some object and acts accordingly. The substance of a caring act takes into account what is going on at the object instead of the needs of the actor, unless the object of care is also the actor. If this system works, everyone’s needs do get taken care of, similarly to the outcome of the actions of the self-interested human being of Adam Smith, but with a huge difference. To keep these two very difference ways of being, let me call actions of care, relational, and acts of need, transactional.

The context of care is connectedness and relationship; that of need is independence and transactional. In the latter, the others involved take on only instrumental features; their own essences fade from view. Caring requires a sense of the targets and, consequently, a sense of their essential features. People, who are involved show up as other humans, just like the actor. Other living beings also carry a sense of the wonder of life itself. Whatever artifacts are involved are employed transparently and serve as tools, not masters of the situation.

An invisible hand is at work here just as in Smith’s economic model. He wrote about it earlier when he coined the phrase, invisible hand, but it was about a different model of human being. It was relational, not transactional. Years earlier he saw the essence of humans as sympathy, but used in the same sense as we use empathy. I try to picture the difference. Hugs instead of e-cards. Conversation instead of text messages. Cooperation instead of competition. Not always, but a world where the balance has shifted toward the first action, not the second. A world where flourishing for all can come forth.

That is the world I write about, a world of possibility, but what about the world of the present. Hardly. I cannot dredge from my memory a more opposing image. What I am about to write transcends my particular position. I am and have acted as a liberal Democrat all my life, but that’s not the base of the following comments. I find the political rhetoric of today completely lacking in any sense of care. Care is completely absent from Trump’s talk and promises. There is not much evidence either in Clinton’s. Bill Clinton is remembered for many things, but one was this utterance “I feel your pain.” Making America great again is devoid of any sense of the humanity of our citizens.

We always will need new policies because the world is always changing, but policies based on some set of metrics, usually economic in nature, can never incorporate pain or any other human quality. Hillary represents policy wonkdom, whose ways are the ways of numbers. It is possible that both candidates are caring humans, but, if so, that sense is missing. I could go on with many more examples, but I can turn to my real concern without them.

Our political campaigns have always served to paint pictures of the great currents of beliefs about what is against what should be. The “what is” is not a pretty picture if one looks at the sweep of American history. The “what should be” has been the centerpiece of American politics from the get-go. It served as a rallying cry even before the nation was constituted, but it needs to be questioned, something that is missing.

A right to life is indeed very clear and inalienable, but rights to liberty and happiness are not so clear. That makes their inevitability equally unclear. Worse, it makes their meaning in practice the result of power differences, instead of some coming to an agreement that works for all citizens. Liberty as complete autonomy aligns with Smith’s needy individual. So does happiness when measured in any quantitative factor. Means to acquire either are transactional, not relational. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of politics springs from just this reading of the declaration of independence.

I have no easy answers, not even complicated ones. I do know, however, that until and unless top-level political rhetoric changes its tune toward the inclusion of the language of care, the amount of pain, real and metaphorical, will continue to increase. Whether some difference exists or not in the caring hearts of the candidates, what matters is what they say and how we interpret the words as signals of what they will do. Neither has been effective in their appearances in the media is conveying any sense of care. People are hurting all over the world. They need a hug as well as a hand.

For all who read this, “L’shana tovah.” Have a good year. This is an abbreviated use of the real phrase in the liturgy, but the meaning is the same. Here is the whole: “l’shana tovha tikateyvu,” which means literally, “May you be written [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”