Posts Tagged 'society'

Organization’s Effects

artguy

If you take a group of people, a subgroup of the larger population, and expose them to focused messages again and again, you will start to change their point of view. If you augment those messages with exposure to other members of the group, the messages will begin to have ever more impact.

We generally tend to align ourselves with those we’re around. We don’t fully understand why. There is a lot of psychology we know, and then other stuff we can’t explain. Yawning, for instance, can be statistically shown to be contagious. It has been studied for years, yet we don’t know why it happens.

Once a group starts to become aligned, and starts acting like a tribe, the messages of the tribe will become self-reinforcing. When someone is born into that tribe, there is a very high probability she will never know the difference. It is simply her common sense about the way the world works.

Programmed.

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The Marketing Drug

marketpharmasl

Every time I see my dentist he tries to sell me stuff. Various services they provide that will in some way (they claim) improve my life by addressing some shortcoming or concern taking place in my mouth. I never knew my mouth had so many problems!

I’m all for selling people on things that can help them take care, even if they are merely for pleasure or aesthetics (vanity), but like everything else, there can be a tipping point where we sometimes take it too far, or are too manipulative.

It reminds me of how food is marketed. The marketing has become so powerful that some of the people being hurt actually are eager for it to continue. This creates a cultural feedback loop, where some aspire to have these respected marketing jobs, to do more marketing of similar items. It creates a society where the owners and leaders of these companies are celebrated as risk-taking, brave businesspeople, not as the modern robber barons that they’ve become.

The cultural feedback loop can’t be denied. The NAACP, which represents a population that is disproportionately impacted by the health costs these products create is actually allied with marketers in the fight to sell ever more and bigger portions to its constituents.

The crime continues because the money taken by corporations that change our culture is used to fund campaigns that conflate the essential concept of ‘freedom’ with the not-clearly-articulated ‘right’ to respond to marketing and consume stuff in quantities that would have been considered literally insane just three generations ago. And we like it.

[I’ll write the previous paragraph’s point again here to be clear: we’ve decided that consumers ought to have the right be manipulated by marketers. So manipulated that we sacrifice our long-term health in the face of its power.]

We ban accounting that misleads, and we don’t let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There’s no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment. Every profession we respect has limits created and enforced by society. These rules make it more likely we don’t race to the bottom as we cut those corners or maximize our profits.

The question is this: are you responsible for the power in your hands? If so, then we need to own the results of our work. If not, someone else needs to step in before it’s too late. No sustainable system can grant power without responsibility.

Just because marketing works doesn’t mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we’re too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.

And don’t even get me started on the marketing of drugs. The pharmaceutical complex is as out of control as anything humanity has ever witnessed. It’s capitalism, and the battle is to win. At all costs.

 

Religion’s Social Reinforcement

2facereligionsocialreinforcement

Once culture or set of behaviors becomes intertwined with our lives for a period of time its distinctiveness fades. In the United States, religion is a part of our way of life. While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of “the American Way of Life,” only recently have many realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.

We celebrate some religiously based holidays in an official (governmental) capacity. Many of us share some fundamental beliefs and values in terms of how our society is organized and operated. They are based on, parallel to, but independent of the the theological tenets of each specific denomination or religious belief. This dates back to the early notions of the nation as religiously diverse by design (free from religious tyranny), but while not being too overtly biased in any one tradition, it clearly was based primarily on the Protestant ethos and set of values.

So here we are, a religious country that while presumably based on freedom of religion, doesn’t necessarily subscribe to freedom from religion, and certainly doesn’t appear to honor its own tenet of separation of church and state. (All of which varies somewhat according to your geographic location in the country.) This produces a bias worth briefly pointing out.

  1. Religious Bias – If your chosen set of beliefs happen to align well with the Protestant framework the country and society was built upon, you have it easy. Things invisibly make sense to you, and you probably don’t even see how biased and gamed it all is. Of course, if you happen to be of some other religion, lots of things stick out and seem to fall somewhere on the continuum from weird to downright unfair or discriminatory.
  2. Anti Religious Bias – In recent decades the pendulum has swung more towards an increasingly forceful resistance to all things in our culture that reek of being driven from a religious notion. The divide has widened. It has at times appeared to reach a point of near irrationality. Unfortunately, the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bathwater here. There is a history of statesmen who happen to fit well within this parallel civil religious state, but who are great and effective leaders first and foremost. They can get tossed aside, which seems to leave even more room for the more dogmatic to get their voices heard and rise into a consciousness of a generation that otherwise would have recognized them as extreme.

Certainly the chasm between the different religious groups, not to mention those who do not believe in anything religious being part of our government, stands in stark relief these days, largely due to our ability to consume the media that paints these pictures. Often people on or near the fence are pushed away in the crossfire.

Perhaps we would be better off it it wasn’t so blatant. Things would be a little less cozy and comfortable for those who’s values align with the prevailing values of the society we have now, but if the overall populace were more validated and respected, the chasm could close. I argue that if we’re smart, in a rising tide lifting all boats way, the WASP’s would proactively give up the bias to help produce an environment of better dialog and growth. This is one where meeting half way may not be enough. Things have been too skewed for too long, and aside from arguably not being right, it’s obviously just not going to work effectively anymore.

Civil religion (“civility” being the operative concept) can be a great way to build a society, but in order to work it must walk a well thought-out line between being too biased towards one group versus being too watered down to be meaningful. That’s a big challenge for some capable leadership. Without it, things will continue to degrade.

Ominous.

 

Canned

cannedWhen our desire and need for simplicity and efficiency replaces authentic human interaction we betray ourselves. Of course nobody is fooled. That’s not even the question. The perfunctory gestures of a polite society help connote a mood of civility. But in order to work, we must care enough to make them authentically.

Of course, it is far better for both parties to engage genuinely. Without that it all races to the zero of noise in the background that, given how busy we all are, isn’t only not needed, but actually becomes a nuisance. And transitions to a burden: “do I have to acknowledge these people?” Maybe you could write a subroutine for it. Let the computers talk to each other!

It’s no wonder we feel more alone than ever, even though we have far more input than ever.

Atheism: Instrumental versus Intrinsic

crosshands

I have taken a number of shots at religion, and specifically Christianity over the years, partly because I think there is often an underlying agenda, but mostly because a lot of it seems off-base to some degree: flawed or maybe false, or maybe just incomplete – man’s attempt to make sense out of something we don’t, or can’t, understand – it’s hard to say. But to say I believe nothing is going on is too extreme. Remember, perception is the only reality we have.

Let’s face it – most atheists, theists, agnostics act as though the truth is a good thing. As if it’s intrinsically good (not just instrumentally good). Most people feel morally obligated to spread what is true. However, on atheism (or naturalism), truth only has instrumental value; for one to believe that truth exists intrinsically somewhere out there would make one a Platonist, which would be a position held on faith. (Can you prove that truth exists intrinsically?) I’ve spoken with atheists, and their first reaction has often been that they did not want to believe truth is instrumental only to the person on atheism. After I explained this to them, they usually agreed that truth only has instrumental value (since evolution is about ‘the survival of the fittest’, which would only place instrumental value on things, and intrinsic value would not line up with evolution; and they did not want to hold anything ‘on faith’). The paradox is that nearly all atheists, act as though truth is intrinsically good.

Where do agnostics fall? If you don’t know if God exists, then you would be agnostic that truth is intrinsically or instrumentally good, though you may act as though truth is intrinsically good. Now you have the knowledge that on atheism (naturalism), nothing has intrinsic value, and now you know that truth would only be instrumental to each individual person (how persuasive can someone be trying to persuade others of the truth with that kind of position?), and under atheism (or naturalism), no one is morally obligated to spread the truth.

 

Three Paradoxes of Atheism

Historically, one of the most attractive features of atheism has been its claim to stark realism. No matter how unappealing a godless universe may turn out to be, atheists claim to be committed to adhering to the truth at all costs. However, at the very heart of atheism there are several extremely unexpected paradoxes; areas in which atheism is shown to be in tension with a commitment to realism and a life consistent with truth. The three big ones are: truth-seeking, moral reflection, and moral motivation. Hard to apply any kind of “morality” to atheism, but in this context you will see that it makes sense. Comparisons are drawn against Christianity because it provides a tangible contrast, but they work reasonably well for most religions.

1. Truth-seeking

One of the most interesting paradoxes inherent to atheism involves the intrinsic value of truth-seeking. All of us seem naturally inclined as human beings to seek the truth for its own sake (intrinsic), not merely for what benefits the truth can provide (instrumental). For instance, if someone told us, “Believe this religion not because it is true, but because it will improve your marriage and help your career,” most of us would be unimpressed to say the least. But herein lies the first problem: it is very hard for atheists to explain why seeking the truth is intrinsically good or why we are obligated to seek it.

Most atheistic theories of morality appeal to human flourishing as the ultimate good. On this view, what is good is whatever leads to human flourishing. And while that definition does solve some problems, it leads to the very difficult conclusion that truth and truth-seeking are not ultimate goods. Indeed, if seeking the truth on any given subject would diminish human flourishing, then seeking that truth would be evil; we would be morally obligated to avoid or suppress knowledge of that truth. A simple example is an elderly Christian woman on her deathbed who faces death joyfully because she believes she is going to be with God and her dead loved ones. Assuming for the sake of argument that atheism is true, is it good for her to seek to know the truth of atheism? It would seem that the answer is no. Learning that atheism is true would only make her miserable without providing tangible good (i.e. flourishing) to anyone else. Moreover, it seems that if she were to accost a passing atheist with the question,”Is atheism true after all?”, that atheist would be morally obligated either to lie to her or at least to steer her away from the truth of atheism, lest he lead her into misery.

Examples can be easily multiplied, but the essence of the problem is that it would be impossible for an atheist to claim that truth-seeking is an intrinsic good or a moral obligation. A Christian can affirm that truth is good and morally obligatory because God loves the truth and commands us to seek it (though there are numerous exceptions and paradoxes within). But if an atheist were to urge one to throw off religious delusions and embrace the truth of atheism, one could respond, “Why? I am happy as a Christian and Christianity has made me into a more loving, compassionate, and generous person. If Christianity is true, then I understand why I am obligated to seek the truth. But if atheism is true, why am I obligated to find out?”

2. Moral reflection

A trickier paradox has to do with deliberate, sustained moral reflection on injustice and evil in the world. All of us recognize that the world is suffused with human misery. But many of us give relatively little thought to suffering until it forces itself into our consciousness. Why is this? I hope it is more than just a lack of compassion. Self-protection? On some level we may fear that if our hearts were truly moved by every hurt, every loss, and every tragedy that we witnessed, they would break. Although we all recognize that empathy is one of the greatest moral virtues, we recoil at any level of empathy that threatens our own happiness and emotional stability. That is one reason why we vacation in luxury resorts well away from the slums, prefer romantic comedies to documentaries, or inure ourselves to violence until we can shrug off images of the maimed and weeping on television.

The paradox of atheism is that the atheist, while usually committed to living a life consistent with reality, struggles to bear reality as he believes it actually is. If all of the suffering and horror of this world is truly random and pointless, if there will be no redemption, no justice, no healing, and no restoration, then it is emotionally almost impossible to truly stare reality in the face on a daily basis. One possible outcome is to live a life of hopeless, existential despair. But it is far more likely that we will simply build a thick, protective wall of fantasy around us, constructed of hobbies, games, sports, fashion, or romance as a barrier against truths we would rather not face. The atheist will sometimes assert that he lives in that reality and accepts it, but I believe that’s only an academic and dismissive acceptance. It’s not true, deliberate and sustained moral reflection that presumably should accompany a decision about which set of beliefs one buys into.

I am not implying that avoidance of the hard realities of suffering and evil are characteristic only of atheists. Christians face precisely the same temptations. The difference is that Christianity offers resources to face the worst parts of reality with assured hope (discounting that it can manifest as a moral-feeling means to ignore them). Yes, it could be a fantasy, and a way to conveniently avoid things, but if Christianity is true, then even the most devastating horrors of this existence will be redeemed, which, I must be fair to point out, doesn’t justify or explain why some of them were necessary in the first place (one of Christianity’s nasty paradoxes). In fact, Christianity claims that the greatest tragedy ever to occur in human history -the torture and murder of God’s Son- was the very means which God used to save the world. Since I’ve made my take on this clear before, I will not venture down that rabbit hole today.

The point is that while the atheist can instrumentally preserve his emotional stability by either hiding from reality as he believes it actually is or by hardening himself to it, the Christian can gain emotional stability, empathy and hope as he exposes himself to and embraces reality as he believes it actually is. Indeed, Christian spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible study can be seen in this light: reminding themselves of reality as they see it and then seeking to conform their thoughts and behavior to it.

3. Moral motivation

Another paradox has to do with moral motivation: what are the effects of atheistic belief on our desire to behave morally? Most atheists adamantly affirm that they do not need God to do good. In this I agree: we do not need to believe that God exists in order to recognize that love, justice, and compassion are good or to behave morally. These values can be important to virtually anyone. So here, I am not asking whether atheists can do good. Rather, I am focusing only on the impact that atheism has on one’s moral motivation.

If atheism is true, then the universe is one without ultimate moral meaning, significance, and accountability. When you die, your body rots. When everyone you love dies, they rot. Two hundred years hence, no one – not even your own descendants – will remember you. And a few hundred trillion years from now, when the universe undergoes heat death and all the stars burn out, none of your choices will have made even the slightest difference.

Let us imagine that we spent one hour each day reminding ourselves of this reality. Now let’s imagine we face a moral choice. The opportunity to cheat on a test. The chance to make a little extra money in a slightly dishonest way, or worse. Or, given the last section, let’s imagine making major life decisions. Which career to choose: one that is lucrative or satisfying, or one that will benefit others at our own expense? Which house to buy: one that is large and expensive, or a modest one that would allow us to give generously? If we have spent the previous month reminding ourselves that our choices have no eternal moral consequences, are we more or less likely to resist our temptations? Are we more or less likely to make what society and our programming have deemed the morally right choice?

Let me again emphasize that I am not asking whether the atheist can still value morality or engage in moral behavior. I am taking atheists at their word when they insist that these things are important to them. I am instead asking a purely psychological question: would reflection on the ultimate meaninglessness, transience, and unimportance of your moral actions in a godless universe make you more likely to resist what you believe to be temptation? I think the answer is no, unless perhaps your stance is so pure that you don’t even believe in the concept of temptation, which is not what atheists profess. Hence we have a third paradox. To the atheist who really does value moral behavior, it seems he is obligated to avoid thinking about the implications of his atheism, lest it weaken his moral resolve. The atheist gains moral motivation only by hiding from reality as he actually believes it is. In contrast, the Christian worldview emphasizes that every one of our moral decisions have eternal implications, that every one of our actions can bring joy or grief to the creator, and that we will one day be held accountable for our lives. So the Christian gains moral motivation by reflecting on reality as he believes it actually is.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’ll summarize the three paradoxes into a more bite-sized form.

  1. Truth-seeking. If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.
  2. Moral reflection. Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality as he perceives it.
  3. Moral motivation. If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality as he perceives it, while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally by ignoring reality as he perceives it.

None of these observations imply that atheism is false or that Christianity is true. But I hope that they do cause some serious reflection. At least in these three areas, there is a conflict between the general perception that atheists live a life of realism, facing the truth about reality squarely, and the philosophical and psychological reality of atheism itself. In contrast, Christianity not only provides a basis for the idea that truth is of intrinsic value (though possibly unattainable), but provides resources to enable the Christian to conform his beliefs and behavior to that version of truth. I suggest that those who value truth-seeking and realism should consider whether atheism can justify or support either of these ideals, while I also recognize that the truth of the Christian’s perception may in practice only be of instrumental value.

Though it does take more rigorous work to call out the fallacies of atheism (as opposed to Christianity being a relatively easy target), both concepts are riddled with problems and don’t/can’t hold up well to scrutiny. Unfortunately (if you’re with me so far), that leaves a vast middle ground. The unknown, and unknowable. What to do about that, I am not sure. Beyond some value in always questioning, being immobilized isn’t much better. Most of the same human fallacies and tranquilizing artifacts plague this ground as well.

We’re all in this together. What it is, we do not know.

Yield

Asian culture does a better job of fostering the idea of asymmetrical trades – yielding. Humility.

A maneuverable motor boat yields to a sailboat because it can more easily recover from the turn.

A bicyclist going downhill yields to one struggling uphill, because he can get back up to speed more quickly.

The senior executive invests a little bit of time helping the junior one, because no one else has the skills to do so, not because reciprocation is the goal.

Asymmetrical trades are a key to getting society to work. It starts with giving.

Yield has two meanings, and one leads to the other.

Emotion & Spirituality

spirituality

It is likely spirituality is just an emotion. But…

There are threads throughout this blog that touch on religion. One may not agree with my interpretation, but it’s certainly a valid one. It’s fascinating to observe the ways in which emotion and religion feed off of one another. I question whether religion could succeed without our tendency to be deeply affected by our emotions. Many like to believe religion is driven from spirituality.

  • Religion being based on the belief in and worship of a supernatural being.
  • Spirituality being of or related to the human spirit or soul.

The latter is harder to precisely nail down, and not as well understood. When I label someone as religious, we all know what I mean. A characterization of spiritual means….what exactly? It may conjure images of a Buddhist in a temple in Tibet or a pot-smoking hippie in Haight Ashbury. The former, by the way, is a religion. As a religion, Buddhism seems to get more of a pass as being more spiritual in nature, at least in our western culture.

Some religions do seem to have more of a pure connection to our spirituality than others, but there’s a distinctly subjective component to such an assessment. To a Catholic, her religion may be deeply personal and spiritual, but to a different Catholic, or an outsider who practices another religion, it can seem more like a business. Nice if someone happens to get some spiritual benefit from it, or if it helps society in some way, but the manifestation feels more like a business in its day to day actions. Again, this is subjective – a view I am not declaring as my own, but observe. Don’t mean to pick on Catholics. They are an easy target, but nearly every religion suffers from some of the same. You can think of it as a PR problem, or more.

People who declare themselves as spiritual often have a sort of almost condescending disdain for “organized religion.” They believe those organizations aren’t pure – tainted by hypocrisy and human agendas, not to mention the unsustainable science (not that science is infallible) – and while they can be helpful, they are just as often harmful to society and the world. We all know there is ample evidence to support this claim, which is one reason why it prevails. (Other reasons are that we sometimes believe what we want to believe and what’s convenient for us, and often look at and only “see” evidence that validates those desires or already held beliefs. This debate will likely rage until the end of time, and I have little to no ambition of resolving it here.)

So spirituality seems to exist on some moral high ground in our linguistic interpretation. It is almost by definition pure, and so one who is very spiritual, or connected spiritually, not only doesn’t “need” religion, but is thought to be operating on a higher plane, even if that person happens to also practice a religion. When viewed this way, it sure does start to sound like religion is frivolous. Like a bunch of rules stapled to the real or true underpinnings that are supposedly what make it viable in the first place.

But what is spirituality really? Once we get past the linguistic interpretations and visual images that concept conjures, what actually is it really all about? The human spirit is often thought about outside of the confines of spirituality, even though they’re presumably based on the same thing. Again, our linguistic interpretations get fuzzy, making meanings soft, and able to shift around in different contexts.

Is spirituality just a manifestation of whatever our human spirit happens to be, or is it some mystical quality – or even a force – that we don’t/can’t fully understand, but can only hope to tap into through disciplined practice? Spirituality doesn’t require a God, but it does seem to require…something. Something not part of us, at least biologically.

Several years ago I told a dear friend that I speculate God is in each of us (as opposed to some metaphorical king on a throne in heaven). Sounds kind of “spiritual,” eh? We have a very respectful disagreement about religion, but it hasn’t included me fleshing out this idea of what I meant by that. The depths of what I’d have to go through to do it here aren’t practical, unless the reader is seeking a treatment for insomnia, but I can summarize a couple of options.

  1. Some abstract manifestation of the Holy Spirit. 1/3 of the Trinity (even if you don’t believe in the other two parts). Not something separate from our spirit, or something that influences our spirit, but it actually is our spirit. Or our spirit is it. Whichever way you want to look at it. It is this quality that is in us that gives rise to everything we ultimately associate with spirituality and religion. I don’t necessarily mean this to indicate it is false, and we made the rest up (though that is a distinct possibility). Taking it a step further (than I would), it could even be that this quality is a part of a greater whole in some capacity that connects us on a very deep, unconscious level, or acts as a sort of force that directs us in subtle yet profound ways. Taken far enough, that interpretation could get us pretty close to conventional wisdom about religion – right up to that greater whole being God, or part of God.
  2. It’s emotions. Our body chemistry doing what it does, and our mind applying all sorts of deep significance and meaning to it. On the surface this makes it seem like something that only manifests within us – chemistry and cognition combine to produce something psychologically, which implies it isn’t real in a conventional spiritual (and certainly religious) sense. That’s possible, but it’s also possible those things are real, and do in fact connect us in very deep and profound ways that we may only be beginning to have the understanding to leave room for. One possibility here is to view it in a quantum context. At the quantum level, things that don’t seem like they even could be connected, are. We do not understand how or why it works, but it is demonstrable. In other words, there are forces (and I use that term loosely) at work that we cannot pinpoint to a cause, or understand how they work. (Sorry, but a whole treatise on quantum theory is well beyond the scope of this writing. To get you started with the tip of the iceberg, look up quantum superposition and quantum entanglement. Then work from there). When things are mysterious to us – can’t be explained – they tend to get assigned all sorts of mystic qualities because in our linear/cartesian (non-quantum) way of generally perceiving the world, we assume there has to be a “force” (in our limited linguistic definition of force) that is acting on them. For example: before humans understood weather, we knew storms were driven by a force, but couldn’t explain it, so it was mysterious and became tied to everything else that was mysterious about the world. It’s easy to see how this would give rise to the concept of a master controller, and how we might still be doing that in other domains today. But I digress. Anyway…

1 & 2 have a lot of potential overlap between them in a sort of Chicken and Egg way, though they can each stand on their own as well.

Or, it’s really just purely emotion, and chemistry, and nothing else.

But there’s that nagging feeling (emotion) that there is something else going on.

Yeah, it’s probably just emotion that becomes a belief.



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