Are We Real?

Are We Real?

Easter 26

American author and artist James Thurber once stated: “Philosophy offers the rather cold consolation that perhaps we and our planet do not actually exist; religion presents the contradictory and scarcely more comforting thought that we exist but that we cannot hope to get anywhere until we cease to exist. Alcohol, in attempting to resolve the contradiction, produces vivid patterns of Truth which vanish like snow in the morning sun and cannot be recalled; the revelations of poetry are as wonderful as a comet in the skies, and as mysterious. Love, which was once believed to contain the Answer, we now know to be nothing more than an inherited behavior pattern.”

Thurber would probably not be pleased that I am considering him a philosopher. Born in Ohio and raised in both Virginia and Ohio, Thurber had a rather typical early twentieth century American boy’s childhood. Not so typical was an injury he suffered as a child when an arrow of his brother’s resulted in Thurber being blinded in one eye. He worked as a journalist in Ohio after attending but not graduating Ohio State University and then moved to New York City where he obtained a position on the staff of ”The New Yorker” magazine. Thurber become known for his cartoons of animals and his drawings of dogs soon had their own career on pages of periodicals, newspapers and books, often watching strong-willed women and seemingly weak men.

Thurber once remarked “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people–that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” Many enjoyed both his drawings and his books, of which there were more than just a few. Often people saw themselves on the pages of Thurber’s drawings; always they saw their neighbors. Few took offense, though, knowing that Thurber was pointing his pen not only at them but also himself.

“There but for the grace of God go I” is an idiom attributed to Anglican priest James Bradford. It is also a paraphrase of the scripture found in the New Testament, I Corinthians 15:10. That the quote in English form is also attributed to a Roman Catholic priest is no surprise and quite fitting given Bradford’s life. Ordained an Anglican priest shortly before the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor took the throne as reigning monarch of England, he was later imprisoned and hung for his beliefs. Bradford preached of the connectivity of mankind and saw himself in the face of the lowest of it. Mostly, Bradford saw each man has a reflection of another except for perhaps life’s circumstances. He advocated spreading good will not judgment.

However you might define reality, we are real. If you doubt that, get a hammer and bring it down intensely upon your finger. I really doubt you will question the pain experienced. Life is transitory but the travails we experience are very real to us. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Elie Wiesel was referring to events leading up to World War II specifically but his words ring true for everyday living.

We are not only real, we are connected one to another. Recently Face Book began running a streamer at the top of personal pages giving ways people could contribute to charities helping the victims of the earthquakes in Nepal. Some people have protested this, good people with no motive for malice. “Wouldn’t it be better to help people in our own country?” was a common response people posted on their own pages. “Why do we have to see this ticker about giving to Nepal?” The unspoken meaning here is let the Nepalese help themselves while we help our neighbors.

That is a great thought except for one thing – Nepal was a country in dire straits even before the earthquake. The victim of countless regimes whose only purpose was personal greed, these “live and let live” people were in abject poverty before nature took its revenge on them. How can someone with nothing have their lives and homes literally upturned by seismic events then pull wealth out of their empty pockets to “help themselves”?

Every country has its poor, its disenfranchised societies. For many, these populations are simply uneducated, sometimes on purpose based upon gender, and/or the wrong ethnicity, again the victims of deliberate discrimination. Sometimes these populations suffer from illnesses that are not fully understood or greatly feared. Do these Face Book subscribers donate to these groups within their own countries? No one country has enough money given to completely render all needed assistance to these groups.

Reality may be a word that means different things to different people and sadly, many feel they are invisible and that their lives do not matter. Another thing all countries share is that somewhere today someone will take their own life. In spite of a number of terminal illnesses, accidents, and crimes that will result in death, people will feel their own personal situation has no meaning and is just a riddle too hard to contemplate resolution except by death.

Einstein might have been correct when he said “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” I prefer to believe that human stupidity is reversible, though. Another in common is countries where children and adults wear socks is that, at some point, one will end up with a mismatched sock. Seeming to defeat the laws of physics, one sock will magically disappear. Once during an epic spring cleaning, my spouse and children put all their mismatched socks into bags. The final count was an even one hundred pairless socks. Of course, once the socks were all laid out, pairs were found or someone remembered the puppy tearing a sock up, etc.

Just as our socks were real, the mystery of the disappearance of their matches had resolution. For an hour, said spouse and kids enjoyed making up stories about the disappearances. Their imaginations took flight and they did indeed come up with delightful tales. In fact, I think at least still imagines at least two socks are orbiting the earth as I type today! The reality was far less exciting and entertaining but resolution was found. We did not find all the socks but those that remained single became adorable little snowman figures (comment here and I’ll send you the instructions for this craft!).

Man is real. We have solutions if we but have faith that we can find them. It will not be easy but then, most things seldom are. Pain cannot be seen or even quantified on a scale with weights and balances and yet, pain is all too real for those experiencing. We should not share in another’s blame or guilt but we can and should offer to help. Life is hard but it is not impossible. All we need to do is believe in ourselves. Perhaps that is the hardest problem philosophy has to solve. Today I hope you smile more than you cry and, when you pass another, your eyes are opened to not only see that other person but also your own value. We are real.

The Argument for Being

The Argument for Being – Half or Whole

Easter 25

Today marks the half-way point of the period known as Eastertide. During this period these articles are based loosely upon the study of philosophy, the study of knowledge. An interesting question was raised several days ago. Is the state of gaining knowledge a synonym for being live? “You talk quite a bit about “living” and “everyday living”. Isn’t philosophy or the study of philosophy just … living?”

What a great question! (I have not mentioned names or initials at the request of the asker.) Aristotle considered philosophy not a study of the parts of reality but a study of reality itself. For example, the parts of reality might be the study of math or music, politics or history. Reality is the existence and properties of things, their changes, causalities, and possibilities; reality is about the time and space of the here and now. He called this “first philosophy” metaphysics as previously discussed based upon the Greek words “meta” meaning beyond and “physica” meaning physical.

The question implies that we gain knowledge just be being alive, by … being. Those struggling to find food and shelter in the aftermath of the earthquakes in Nepal are in a state of being. We learn a great deal from such survivors and marvel at their tenacity and resiliency. Certainly they are giving life their every bit of effort. By doing so, are they also gaining knowledge? Those participating in a second night of riots in Baltimore are also putting energy and effort into their behavior but do we really think they are “learning” just by their doing?

Aristotle maintained that there are five “predictables”, five common ways that we discuss a subject or object. We can define the object very specifically [Aristotle referred to this as the species.] or we can discuss it in general terms [the genus]. We can notate what distinguishes it from other objects [the differentia], what makes it unique or special [propia], or we can discuss it by discussing things that are not like it [accidentals]. Philosophy instructor Dr. Maxwell Taylor illustrates Aristotle’s Predictables with one of my most favorite musical instruments and shapes – the lowly triangle. For instance, a triangle is specifically a three-sided figure or in general terms, a shape. It is different from other shapes by its number of sides and its properties are varied in that the sides can be of differing lengths. Perhaps the easiest way to describe a triangle is by comparing it to shapes it is not like, starting with the fact that it is not a rectangle, square, diamond, or rhombus.

The definition of something is that which makes it what it is. Aristotle called this “horos” which means definition. Porphyry called it “eidos” which means forms and Boethius called it “species” to imply an object’s specific essence. Both the survivors in Nepal and the protestors in Baltimore are living but their manner of form of living is very different. Still, both groups are living and that fact would be classified under the “genus”, that part of the two groups that, although very different, they share in common.

The genus is the general things found in common with other things that are otherwise different. Perhaps an easier illustration or analogy is that flowers would be the genus and roses, daffodils, tulips, and lilies would be the species. Not all species are the same, however. Some roses are climbing vines while others are bushes. Some flowers have specific number of petals while others have fewer or greater number of petals. This would be the differentia.

Things can become a bit involved, however, when we start discussing the “propia” or properties of an object. The general population in Nepal is not accustomed to great wealth or lavish luxuries but the current conditions in which they are living are very different from those of some of the protestors in Baltimore, residents of the area who also live in abject poverty and sometimes deplorable conditions. The destruction of businesses in Baltimore will leave some of the area’s residents homeless, although not homeless like the survivors in Nepal.

It is easier to use our analogy of the triangle; the properties are easier to explain. We’ve already mentioned that a triangle’s form or definition is a three-sided object. The genus would be that it is a shape. The differentia or differences between triangles is determined by the angles within the three-sided shape. Where the three lines of a triangle meet, angles are formed. Those angles differentiate one triangle from another. The specific angles are the properties of the triangle and there are six different types of triangles but do not make the object any more or less a triangle.

As I noted, triangles are one of my most favorite shapes and also musical instruments. The tone of the instrument can be affected y the type of metal used which affects the number of vibrations, the number of overtones and the sound that reaches your ears. The type of beater or mallet used also affects the tone as does the manner in which the triangle is hung or held. Most musical triangles are equilateral triangles, having three equal sides, although they come in varying shapes. Almost all musical triangles have the same basic pitch and skill in playing is determined by physical dexterity in handled in the beater as well as knowledge of acoustics. None of those things change the type of triangle being played or its general properties or its basic definition.

In addition to the equilateral triangle with three equal sides, there are five other types of triangles. An acute triangle is one with an angle less than ninety degrees. A right triangle, fittingly enough, contains a right angle or an angle of exactly ninety degrees while an obtuse triangle has an angle greater than ninety degrees but less than one hundred and eighty degrees. An isosceles triangle has two sides which are equal while a scalene triangle has no sides of equal length. These are all properties of a triangle but there is still yet another way we might describe or refer to a triangle.

Imagine if you will a page of triangles. The can be of varying types and sizes, some alike while others are different colors. I might ask you how many are isosceles triangles or how many are acute triangles. Either one of those questions would be answered by using something specific to the triangle or its classifications. What if I asked how many were black triangles or red or yellow? That response has nothing whatsoever to do with any specific aspect of the triangle but rather its color. Other things have those same colors – a box of crayons, a row of pants or sweaters, or even the flag of the state of Maryland, a flag proudly displayed on the law enforcement vehicles burned and overturned by the protestors in Baltimore. The fact that same of the triangles were red, black, or yellow has nothing to do with the definition of a triangle; it is simply another or accidental part of their description.

How can we apply these “Predictables” in our own philosophy of being, in our own living? Certainly all of mankind shares some things in commons. First of all, we are all mammals… but so are cows and dogs and cats. Man is known as “homo sapiens” or “wise being”. We have two genders, although that is being challenged in both life and the court systems around the world. We also have different ethnicities and races, often noted with adjectives denoting one’s skin color. Some use these latter descriptive types to denote value or worth or even potential. In some countries, cows are more revered than women; people are discriminated against or profiles based upon their skin color or even eye shape.

The study of philosophy gives us an argument for being. With it, hopefully, we can learn that existence is living and living means potential. A triangle is no less a triangle simply because it has three equal sides or no equal sides. A green triangle is just as much a triangle as a red triangle. Lives matter – black, brown, red, or white. The value of living is reason enough for us to give it our very best efforts, to give all of mankind our very best efforts. Aristotle noted: “The value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation rather than upon mere survival.”

A History Repeated

A History Repeated
Easter 24

The sky filled with smoke as sirens wailed and children cried. Faintly a voice was heard asking: “Oh, say, you there; can you see by the dawn’s early light what we proudly called home at the twilight of yesterday? The proud city of the battered neighborhoods which bear the ravages of poverty and time though they still stand and fight the elements gleaming; the glorious broad stripes and stars waving despite all, watches as anger turns to destruction streaming. Does anyone remember we are the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep, where unwanted visitors stood plotting mayhem and chaos, came a breeze, over the towering steep, catching the morning’s first beam, reflected in the stream, the flag of Fort McHenry which bore such promise to Francis Scott Keys: “‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave; O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

And where are those who so vauntingly swore that the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion should leave nothing of value anymore? Patriotism and belief will wash out their foul footsteps’ pollution! Oh thus be it ever, though perfect we are not; men should and can stand for democracy and peaceful assembly rather than hatred desolation. My heart cries for the residents of a beautiful city, Baltimore, Maryland.

No man should ever die in police custody. No demonstration should ever become a riot. No one person should ever use the death of another as an excuse for violence. Quoting again Francis Scott Keys: “Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: “In God is our trust. And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave;
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”

In case you do not know, violent riots erupted Monday evening in Baltimore, Maryland. Despite appeals from the family of a man who died while in police custody, his memory and funeral were overshadowed by heinous acts of vandalism and destruction. These acts are not a fitting memorial for this man. They are, again, the acts of greedy gangs and cults intent upon perpetrating criminal acts. There is no quest for civil liberties when hardworking people see their livelihoods destroyed and children are terrorized.

Equally dangerous, though, are the cries of despondency and propaganda. The lines quoted above are from the national anthem of the United States of America. No American can claim to be American, a true patriot and sing the national anthem “in God is our trust” and speak of such despair. Certainly, the USA is not a perfect nation and there are grave disparities which need correcting. Criminal mischief is not the answer nor is political negativity.

There is no one nation on this planet that is perfect. The recent events in Nepal and surrounding areas are proof that we do not need to create havoc; it will naturally occur. We need to live our creeds of faith and beliefs. We need to withstand the rhetoric that serves no purpose and trust – in our spirituality, in ourselves, and in our neighbors. The greatest enemy we have is ourselves. The greatest hope we have is our belief in tomorrow.

He stood on the bow of the enemy’s ship and watched his city under siege. On the evening of September 13, 1814, Francis Scott Keys penned his words more as a prayer than a journal entry, wondering which flag he would see in the morning light. Amid the” rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting through air”, the dawn’s light revealed an American flag flying over Fort McHenry which sits on the edge of the City of Baltimore. As long as there are Americans who believe, the flag will still be there tomorrow, “o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”.

Translucent Yet Powerful

Translucent Yet Powerful

Easter 23

The 1937 Nobel Prize fo4r Medicine was awarded to a Hungarian biochemist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi. He is noted for a great many things but I think his definition of water is the best. “Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”

Water is necessary for all living things, animal or vegetable and sadly it is not as abundant as the world needs. Water became the answer when on man sought to discover what the world was made of by rational thought. Known as Thales of Miletus, he is considered to be the first philosopher. Because water is essential to all living things, Thales reasoned that everything must be derived from it. Water exists in several forms: solid when cold; a gas when heated; liquid in what most consider its natural state. From this beginning and the reasoning of Thales of Miletus comes the modern theory that all matter can be reduced to energy.

The Tao philosopher Lao Tzu also considered the philosophical properties of water in the sixth century BCE. “Nothing in the world is more flexible and yielding than water. Yet, when it attacks the firm and the strong, none can withstand it, because they have no way to change it. So the flexible overcome the adamant; the yielding overcome the forceful. Everyone knows this, but no one can do it.”

Thales reasoned that the earth grew out of the water that surrounded the land masses. Over seventy-one percent of the earth’s mass is water, after all. His student Anaximander reasoned that the earth must float on air. If water supported the earth, he asked, what supported the water? Anaximander believed everything could be reduced to air. While neither man was correct, their argument/counterargument form of deduction still forms the basis for philosophical thought and discussion today.

OF course, though, philosophy encourages questioning and someone did just that after Thales and Anaximander. Heraclitus proposed a “theory of opposites”. He believed that rather than everything being derived from a single element, there was an underlying principle of change. The world to him consisted of opposing tendencies. His argument to support this theory was the basic fact that the path that went up a mountain was the same path that went down the mountain. Another analogy was the fact the while a river remains constant, the water within it is constantly moving and flowing. Heraclitus proposed that the reality we see as constant is really a reality of processes and changes.

Later Xenophanes would suggest that the knowledge we claim to know is just a hypothesis. Our searches for knowledge start from working hypotheses but the actual ultimate knowledge, the “truth of reality” will always be beyond our grasp to understand. Xenophanes believed in a cosmic composition of life, based upon two extremes – wet and dry. He combined the Milesian ideas of air and water with Heraclitus’ views of opposites and used fossils to support his theories. This was the first evidence-based argument recorded.

Philosophy would not remain in this mode of thinking for long. It would evolve into theories based upon something being everything and nothing being impossible to be something. We’ll save that for another day, though. What we should focus on today as we start Monday is whether or not we are one element or living in a state of contrasting opposites.

Night falls at different times on the earth as the planet revolves through its orbit around the sun. Just as the timing of the night is different so does what nighttime looks like. For the child growing up in a refugee camp, night might be a period of cooler temps but scary flashes of light indicating mortar rounds being fired. For the child snug in their bed in Paris, the City of Lights, nighttime is a warm blanket and a calming bedtime story.

Today I heard a story about a school-aged child whose class went on an over-night field trip to a state camp. The two-day excursion included nature walks and environmental lessons. The child’s class was to be the last to experience such a visit as the camp was deemed inefficient with a delinquent revenue stream. Sitting around the campfire, the children listened to the sounds of the night. Two weeks later, as he closed down the program and prepared for his next job, the director of the program received an envelope of thank-you notes from that last class.

The drawings of the various birds, and other wildlife discussed he had expected but it was the simple handwritten note of a young girl that truly touched him. “Thank you,” she wrote, “for showing me what creation is really about. I liked the walking, the trees, the flowers, and learning how to reuse things. I liked seeing the baby rabbits and although it was scary, even the snake in the grass on the trail. My favorite, though, was learning that nighttime can be nice. At my house I cannot see the stars. I see the restaurant signs. We don’t have quiet on our block. We hear cars and sometimes, gunshots. At camp, I got to see the stars and hear the quiet and then the call of the night animals. What I saw at camp was creation. Bobby next door calls it Allah and my grandma calls it God. I am just going to call it life. Thank you for showing me what life can be.”

We all see life each and every day. Like the water Lao Tzu spoke of, life can sometimes attack us and we might feel we cannot withstand it. With knowledge though, and thought, we can learn to be flexible and by being flexible, gain strength. Knowledge is power when applied properly. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr summed it up: “Science investigates religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control.”

The Existence of Addiction

The Existence of Addiction
Easter 22

Dr. Peg O’Connor is chairperson of the Program Committee for the upcoming Nobel Conference which will convene in October of this year in Minnesota at the college where she is a member of the faculty, Gustavus Adolphus College. Her training is in moral philosophy as well as feminist philosophy. She is eminently qualified to chair the conference, entitled “The Meaning of Addiction”, having written two book and co-edited two others.

Addiction is most properly defined as an existential condition. Existentialism is the branch of philosophy that examines the choices human beings make and how those choices impact their lives. Although not a school of the formally until the nineteenth century, mankind asked questions about his existence from the very beginning. Philosophy began when mankind studied how to live life and live it successfully. Socrates is reputed to have said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The most successful, well-known, and many claim most efficient means of addiction treatment encourages self-examination. Indeed, most therapy is based upon looking at how we exist and the impact of that existence.

The addict is required to accept personal responsibility and liability for his or her actions. Addiction is a condition; some would say it is an illness, one that involves self-deception, an avoidance of responsibility, and living in a false reality. John Locke proposed in the 1600’s that memories create continuity and bind us past to the present but this leaves the addict, many of whom suffer blackouts, living in a no-man’s land, questioning his or her own identity.

Philosophy has always attempted to study the whole person and the human condition – communally and individually. According to Dr. O’Connor, philosophy “embraces the normative/value questions and encourages a deep exploration of them. Humans are social and moral animals, and keeping this fact front and center is one of the roles of philosophy.” Dr. O’Connor is not just a highly-trained philosopher and educator. She is also a recovering addict.

The alcoholic or drug addict is easy to find. What about the person addicted to peer pressure? What about the person addicted to materialism? Descartes’ “I think; therefore I am” has become the battle cry of consumerism with a paraphrase to “I am; therefore I should have.”

This post will be brief today. There are many who need our prayers and donations, given the earthquakes in Nepal yesterday. What if, I wondered as I read the many news stories requesting donations and Facebook postings from various charities, man could be addicted to caring for his/her fellow man? What if instead of hearing or seeing the news, we immediately became thirsty to render aid?

E. H. Spina is the founder of the Energy Center Clearing. He penned the book “Mystic Warrior” and coauthored “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life.” He advises that one does not attempt to help when one is emotionally attached to the outcome. “If you really want to help a person, keep away. If you are emotionally committed to helping, you will fail to help.”

Spina quotes Nisargadatta Maharaj, an Indian considered by many to be a sage or wise man who based his entire philosophy of helping others around his teaching that, “knowing who you truly are” is the single most important thing you can do to help anyone and consequently the world. “The only help worth giving is freeing from the need for further help. Repeated help is no help at all. Do not talk of helping another, unless you can put him beyond all need of help.”

I confess that studying philosophies of helping can be quite confusing. We’ve all heard the adage “Give a man a fish; you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; you feed him for a lifetime.” It is the basis for many nations’ policies on social programs. It is also the basis for the rehabilitation programs that many penal institutions supposedly implement. It is, quite simply, giving someone a helping hand to pick themselves up rather than simply giving them a handout.

Gandhi urged us all to “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Many spiritualists are somewhat hesitant of this, E. H. Spina being one. They encourage we dedicate our energies to becoming rather than helping. They even say that helping while we are still blossoming into our real selves might encourage others to become dependent on us.

I will agree that helping can become an addiction. It is not the actual act of helping that is the problem, however. It is the motivation behind the helping. For instance, one can text a monetary donation to help victims of the earthquake in Nepal. The Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund, UNICEF, and the American Red Cross all have numbers you can text and make such a donation. With a simple text you can save lives. Could that possibly be harmful?

Addiction is the escaping of some aspect of our living, an unresolved past, or perhaps a chemical imbalance within the body. For those who drown their problems in alcohol or the painfully shy person who feels they need the ego boost of drugs to be social, addiction is a road easy to see. For those who need approval, though, by helping, generosity becomes a minefield. Ego can sometimes be the most powerful addiction with which we will ever be tempted.

Philosophy was the first science to encourage questioning that which was held to be true. Instead of students being expected to blindly follow their mentors, philosophy students were encouraged to think for themselves. When we think and act for ourselves, we start the process of becoming ourselves. Maybe today that will mean helping the victims of the Nepal earthquakes. Maybe that will mean helping yourself. Author Shannon Alder summed it up this way: “When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road that can intersect each other several times throughout a person’s life. It’s often hard to recognize one road from another. What makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity.”

Why We Learn… Or Should Learn

Why We Learn… Or Should Learn

Easter 21

Someone asked me?  Why spend fifty days on philosophy?  Why so much time on the science or art of wisdom?  Let’s set aside for the moment that my entire purpose in writing every day is to get people to think and, hopefully, learn something new.  I do not specify what you should learn, just the genre.  Actually, I just want people to use their brains.

I don’t always write from a Christian viewpoint although I am a Christian.  Specifically, I am an Episcopalian although I think I claim the denomination far more enthusiastically then it claims me.  I have been since birth but I have also attended meetings, services, and events/trainings at other denominations and other religions.  I have read the Koran, albeit in English, and for a couple of years gave my business office willingly to a Muslim Imam to pray two or three times a day.  My friends include Buddhists, Muslims, three types of Jews, Hindus, and even Pagans – yes, witches.  I even have agnostic and atheists as friends.

I mention this, in spite of this blog not being about me personally, because I think we are all connected and all learn from one another.  Alexander Theroux stated:  “Hypocrisy is the essence of snobbery, but all snobbery is about the problem of belonging.”  When we think we know it all, we are really saying we are too scared to learn anything else.

In a recent interview Olympic triathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner recently stated “My brain is more female than male.”  Is that even possible?  The brain is a complex organ.  It is made up of more than one hundred billion nerves communicating to trillions of connections called synapses.  Dr. Michael Mosely maintains that our brains, like our bodies, are shaped by exposure to hormones in the womb and this may help explain why males tend to do better at some tasks (3D rotation), while women tend to do better at others (empathy skills), although there is, of course, an awful lot of overlap and social pressure involved.  Professor Alice Roberts believes such differences to be “largely spurious” and fears such opinions might very well discourage girls from going into the sciences and/or mathematics.

Recently the British Broadcasting Corporation asked these two experts to discover who was on the right path, which opinion was closer to the truth.  They were also asked to find any common ground between the brains of males and females.  In his report, released in late 2014, Dr. Mosely reported:  “One of the scientists who has most strongly influenced my beliefs is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University.  He argues that, broadly speaking, there are two different “brain types”. There are empathisers, who are good at identifying how other people are thinking or feeling, and there are systemisers, people who are more interested in trying to take apart and analyse systems i.e. people who are a bit nerdy.  We are all a mix of the two, but most of us are more one than the other. Men tend to sit more along the systemising end of the spectrum, women at the empathising end, though there are plenty of exceptions.  But is this simply the product of social conditioning? Professor Baron-Cohen thinks not.”  Studies done on babies exposed to higher levels of testosterone showed male babies with greater abilities in the commonly-named “male” skills – putting things together, determining how things work, etc.  These same babies, however, also showed delayed verbal skills and had smaller vocabularies.

The BBC report also mentioned a somewhat dubious study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania in which brains of 949 males and females were scanned. Subject participants ranged in age from eight years to twenty-two years.  There were some striking differences.  Researcher Professor Rubin Gurr reported that men showed stronger connections between the front and back of their brains.  “They are better able to connect what they see with what they do, which is what you need to be able to do if you are a hunter. You see something, you need to respond right away.”

The University of PA report indicated that women had “more wiring” between their right and left hemispheres of their brains.  Another researched involved with study, Dr Ragini Verman, explained:  “The fact that you can connect from different regions of the brain means you ought to be good at multi-tasking and you may be better at emotional tasks”.

Every animal you can think, with the exception of sponges, has a brain.  The human brain is not the largest but it is unique.  Whether male or female, it gives us the power to speak, imagine and problem solve.  The brain controls body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, processes all of the information fed to it from our senses, handles all physical movement whether we are sitting, talking, standing, or walking, and even lets us think, dream, reason, and experience emotions.  And all of these things are controlled, coordinated, and regulated by an organ that is about the size of a small head of cauliflower!

I think philosophy is interesting; it is my blog so I get to choose and I chose philosophy.  I have a question for you.  Why ONLY spend fifty days on knowledge?  Recently I delved into two different trains of thought from a friend’s Facebook page.  She always has interesting posts and I confess I envy her ability to be both thought-inspiring and yet relaxingly personal at the same time.

My friend said something about MSG – mono sodium glutamate.  Known as an ingredient in Chinese cooking, MSG has something of a bad reputation and many claim it has detrimental health benefits.  These claims have resulted in many Chinese eateries offering MSG-free foods and those taking advantage walk around something of snobs.  They feel they are a little smarter than the rest of us to avoid this “chemical” in their food.

Another post reposted by my friend concerned the recent launch by a popular retail giant, Target, of a previously exclusive fashion house, Lily Pulitzer.  Fashion mavens on the east coast were downright vilific when they heard the news.  Many claimed the designer had sold out.  They were right, in a manner of speaking, just a few decades late.  Lily Pulitzer, the Florida housewife who sewed her own brightly colored cotton shifts that became resort gold, retired in the 1980’s.  Her company was bought by a larger company and began showing up in retail outlets, not the store fronts Lily had established.

The article my friend reposted was written by someone who thought and did her research.  I will stop for applause here.  The writer also mentioned that Target had partnered with other designers without such an outcry, designers whose clothing lines on the runway sold for three times the highest price ever paid for a Lily Pulitzer.  Apparently, though, those designers were more mainstream and thus did not impact the snobbery of the east coast fashion mavens.

In the interest of honesty I must confess I found the Target ads for Lily Pulitzer disgusting.  The supposed resort party scene had giraffes on the upper patio being used as living lawn ornaments.  Those poolside were served cocktails by monkeys wearing hats that no self-respecting monkey in the wild would ever be seen wearing.  As people dined at the expansive banquet table, flamingos strolled amongst the plates.  I was not made to want to be there; I wanted to cover those plates and rescue those animals.

Lily Pulitzer made a sensible garment for the climate and usage and was widely received.  Kudos to her, in spite of her “female brain”!  Those proudly boasting their MSG-free Chinese cartons need to do some thinking, though.  Their snobbery is based on ignorance.  First of all, MSG is not some laboratory chemical designed to either harm us or make us addicted to food.  It is a natural by-product of the breakdown of certain things.  The name for it was coined by a Japanese chef and scientist who called it “umami”.  First used by a French chef who learned that his dishes had a heightened sense of flavor when he added veal stock,  MSG or umami’s principle is why we add chicken or beef stock to foods when cooking.  MSG is also found in ketchup as well as canned vegetables.  Who goes into a store asking for canned beans without MSG?  Yes, fresh is best, but given the varieties of climates, we need those canned goods.

The fact is that men and women are different.  We do some things differently, like processing pain.  Professor Jeff Mogil of McGill University in Montreal, Canada studies how medications work much better for men than women and notes that most medications are designed for men.  “There’s lots of drug development going on and if any of those drugs ever make it to the market and get approved, my expectation will be that they will work in one sex and simply not work in the other sex”, he says.  Women used far less prescription medication and yet experience more chronic pain, handling that pain much better than men.  Dr. Mogil hopes one day we have medications that work equally for both sexes.

We share so much in common and the ability to think, regardless of how differently we do it, is a necessity for life.  I implore each of you to balance your lives but remember to think and to think thoroughly.  After all, good taste, comfortable and affordable clothing, and good health are not just for the rich.  Whether we have a male or female brain, we can all win the marathon we call life.

Moving On…or Sarcasm?

Moving On… or Sarcasm?
Easter 20

The mind of a two-year-old child is amazing. It questions everything. Any attempt by the parent(s) to get the child to assimilate with others often becomes a call unheeded. The child questions everything with “Why?” being the hallmark of the age. Such characteristics are so common that the age even has its own nickname – the Terrible Two’s.

Yesterday we discussed cynicism. It is one school of thought within philosophy that turns its back on peer pressure and questions everything the general populous does. Sound familiar? Does this mean that those advocates of cynicism are immature?

Proponents of Cynicism advocated one being self-sufficient. When asked about religion, Diogenes of Sinope is said to have replied: “I don’t believe in God but I hope there is one.” The Cynics felt that group or “herd” thinking was dangerous. Indeed, history has proven this theory to be correct. It is precisely that same mob mentality that can turn a protest into a riot. People become influenced by those around them. In teenagers it is called peer pressure but the hallmarks are the same. People are influenced by those with whom they associate. Behavior is contagious, not only in humans but in all animals.

Cynics felt independence was attained by flouting convention. While Aristotle studied the social and political nature of man, cynicism disregarded it and/or considered it to be a shortcoming. The Cynicism philosophy believed that desire, indulgence, and ignorance were the basic causes of all human misery. Certainly indulgence can lead to problems and considering only one’s desires is not a healthy way to live. We do live in a social environment, however. We are social animals and a way of life that denies that cannot be very successful or effective.

A true cynic disallows another person the right to apologize. Not only does the cynic see the one doing the apologizing as weak, it holds the recipient to be weak also. Cynicism maintains “You need nothing other than yourself.” Apologies are tricky, not as plentiful as they should be, but they come in many forms. Yesterday I mentioned my computer had yet to awake. What I did not mention was the back story. My current computer is two weeks old. Its predecessor was almost ten years old and so its demise not that sudden. This computer, however, was really only two weeks old. Its problems were not only unexpected but unacceptable. It is, fortunately, under warranty. A true student of cynicism might feel the warranty a type of apology and my using it a sign of dependency.

The cynics taught not by formal literature or seeking knowledge in books but by example, using illustrated through sarcasm. Sarcasm comes from the word “sarkasmos” meaning to rip apart. There is no use of the word in English literature until 1579 when it appeared in an annotation to “The Shepheardes Calender” by Edmund Spenser: “Tom piper, an ironicall Sarcasmus, spoken in derision of these rude wits …”. Today someone using sarcasm is considered to be clever. I would offer that, as with many things, there is a time and a place for such. As a learning tool, sarcasm has limited uses and even greater chance for misinterpretation. Much of its intended meaning must be derived from tonal inflections and given our proliferate use of online communications, sarcasm is best left as a ways of exchanging thoughts on a one-to-one basis in person. Of course, cultural connotations should also be taken into account. So that what one intends as humorous is not taken as an insult.

Cynicism opened the door for the stoic school of philosophy, a conversation we will have tomorrow. What I find interesting is that cynicism relies on the very presence of society that it disdains. After all, one cannot deny social convention is one does not recognize it exists. I would encourage you to develop beliefs that can stand on their own. Goodness is its own reason for being. Using the inappropriate actions of others to justify your own is not goodness.

Today I will delve further into the repair of my preferred computer system and hope the warranty is really worth the time it took for someone to write it and the resources allocated to print it. Diogenes the Cynic might well view this as me being weak but I prefer to think of it as being accountable. Accepting and giving an apology is also a way of being accountable.

H.G. Wells once wrote “Cynicism is humor in ill health.” I happen to think there is a time and a place to be cynical, to question that which we think we know. Ignorance does not have to be our downfall; it can be the first step to greater living and increased knowledge. Leon Trotsky felt “Life is not an easy matter… You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.” Yoko On believed “The cynicism you have is not your real soul.”

To accept we don’t know everything is not cynical nor is it being weak or a sign one is ignorant. It is a sign of being human. To hold someone accountable for following through is not a sign of insufficiency. I believe it takes courage to apologize and even greater courage to believe you yourself are worth the best someone has to offer. I agree with Twyla Tharp who said “Optimism with some experience behind it is much more energizing than plain old experience with a certain degree of cynicism.” That two-year-old child might drive us crazy with their incessant questioning of “Why?” but they also embrace life at its fullest. Hopefully, today we will do the same.

Life Is Common

Life Is Common
Easter 19

Life is messy. Today began at 3:30 AM. Well, for me it did. For my computer, the day has yet to start. I did post a picture earlier. If you follow me on twitter on Facebook, then you saw the picture yesterday. I took it while waiting in the drive-through of a fast food/drive-in eating establishment. It is hard to tell but the trees in the picture are growing on a steep incline that continually suffers ground erosion and washout. Yet, these ordinary trees, so common in this area, continue to hand on, to defy gravity and logic in order to thrive. They accept their common being and make something amazing out of their existence.

Yes, life is messy. I have stated that fact before and will no doubt continue to say it again in a number of ways with an even greater number of illustrations. Because we are here, because we exist, we often think life should be straightforward. Certainly, I thought so when I turned on my computer. I would push on and it would respond. Many times, because we share so much in common with one another, we think we should have what they have. That’s not really called something in common, though; that’s called entitlement.

Diogenes of Sinope lived in the fourth century of the period known as BCE or Before the Common Era/Time. Known in history as Diogenes the Cynic, he might appear as an odd being to be the father of a school of thought in the field of philosophy but that is exactly what he became – the father of Cynicism. As you might guess, Diogenes of Sinope was not one who answered the proverbial question “Is the glass half full or half empty?” with a positive response. Born in the area of modern Turkey, Diogenes was the son of a wealthy money-changer. He was exiled for minting coins under his father’s dominion with base or lesser metals and went to Athens.

Diogenes made begging his profession. He extolled the virtues of his simple living and rained criticisms on the heads of those who favored worldly possessions and materialism. When asked once why he was walking under a portico or porch backwards, Diogenes replied with a question: “Why do people walk backward through life?” It is a valid question. We all know that person who preaches environmental concern and then gets in their sixty thousand dollar gas-guzzling vehicle. We’ve all had to plan a dinner party around the vegetarian who frowns loudly – very loudly and often – omnivores, all the while wearing a leather jacket which matches their alligator handbag and snakeskin shoes.

Despite the anecdotes which might portray Diogenes as a man with antisocial and/or mental health issues, he encouraged living in harmony and adopted his personal lifestyle to encourage living in harmony with nature, albeit from a negative viewpoint. He saw mankind as being equal with nature, neither above it nor its master which nature served.

Diogenes truly saw all men and women as equals. No one person was better than another. His doctrine of Cynicism, the questioning of everything, maintained that the purpose of life was to life a life of virtue, virtue found in harmony and balance with nature. He encouraged self-sufficiency and dedicated his life to austerity and shamelessness. His lifestyle might seem absurd but he used it to illustrate the needlessness for many accepted conventions in life.

Diogenes saw much of what we devote our living to as being a roadblock to real living. The man or woman who spends half their waking day working and then a third of the remaining half traveling to and from work is left with two-thirds of a half for living, sleeping, interacting with family and friends, exercising, and relaxing. In other words, twelve hours spent working and three to four hours spent commuting leave six or seven hours for getting in three hours to eat, seven to eight hours to sleep, and three hours for personal time, family interaction, and relaxation. Hint: 12 working plus 3 commuting plus 3 eating plus 7 sleeping plus 3 does not equal 24. Of course, most people spend 10 hours working on the clock, another 4 checking work emails at home or studying to prepare for job advancement, three hours commuting, two hours to eat three meals and any snacks, and five hours sleeping; adds up to 24 but personal time has been forgotten. No matter how you add it up, the common man does not live a balanced life. Diogenes foretold our common living long before our current Common Era/Time.

In the city of Boston, a young man is in the sentencing phase of his trial for participating in a bombing that killed three, injured many more, and frightened an entire nation and world. I was almost two thousand miles away, have never been to Boston, will never run a marathon, and yet I had a good friend whose cousin was one of those losing a limb in the bomb blast. Not once, during the course of the trial, has the defendant, a young man of legal age and considered therefore to be responsible for his actions, ever looked any of his victims in the eye. There aren’t any reports of him even looking at their faces, many of whom testified.

The rationalization that encouraged this young man’s behavior is faulty. One might claim it to be faulty on many levels, but I am not referring to moral, ethical, or religious beliefs. It is faulty because it fails to see. It forgets one important thing. We live in the Common Era/Time. Common means shared, mutual, joint, collective, corporate. Whether it was BCE or ACE, mankind lives with mankind. Common Era/Time is the period of man and we are all therefore “common”. We are all one.

We need to see. For almost two years I attended a meeting every Wednesday evening. The meeting was held in a room about sixteen feet by twenty feet so we were sitting in chairs that were very close to each other. Just before a break, the same group of people attending would stand up and greet one another, and often people would hug. For almost two years I went faithfully every week and every week the same man would approach me, greet me, and hug me. However, close to the end of the two years I saw the man at a larger meeting in the same building but in a different room. When someone said “And of course you know each other”, someone who knew we had been at the same meeting on Wednesday evenings for almost two years, he replied: “No. We’ve never met.” I do not want to imply the insincerity of this gentleman but even though he’d touched me, physically greeting me with words and hugs, for almost one hundred and four Wednesdays consecutively, he had never seen me.

We need to see each other. The bombing defendant did not and does not see men and women and children. He failed to see the eight-year-old boy next to whom he placed a backpack with a bomb inside. He saw only the propagandistic words of a greedy, ego-driven leader happy to sacrifice the defendant to gain notoriety and fame. There was no religious tenet involved; no admonition of faith in the action of destruction and terror. The defendant needed to “see” those standing there. He needs to “see” what his admittedly has done. The lives he has forever changed.

We need to recognize that we need to truly “see” each other, recognize our commonalities, the corporation of our beings. The man or woman sitting beside you may be a beloved companion or an unknown entity. That doesn’t matter. We are all a part of each other. We share this world. We are connected in the fabric of the life of the world, in the weaving of lives past and present and future. We are life and life is common. We need to walk forward and see the beauty of creation, not retreat backward into perceived social requirements or because of fear.

Life is messy and that is what we all have in common. I am certain I am not the only one experiencing computer frustration today. I have that in common with others. We all feel, love, cry, hunger, want, and yes, live. Walk forward in your living today and let yourself experience the beauty of creation. Give a smile; receive a smile. Share a laugh; hug and share a tear. Life may be common but living… Living is extraordinary!

Here, There, Nowhere, and Everywhere

Here and There, Nowhere and Everywhere
Easter 18

There was an old vaudeville routine that went something like this: Speaker 1: “you are nowhere!” Speaker 2: “What are you talking about? I am here.” Speaker 1: “No. I am here. You are there.” Speaker 2: I can’t be there. You are there.” Speaker 1: “That’s what I mean. If you aren’t here or there, then you are nowhere!” Speaker 2: “Wow! I gotta go find myself!”

We’ve all had those days where we felt lost, like we were neither here or there. It is not a modern-day problem. The philosopher Anaximander proposed the philosophical theory known as infinite regress. At the time he lived, it was believed that the world was supported by a body of water. Anaximander asked: “If the world is supported by water, what supports the water?” In challenging religious and spiritual beliefs, the same question is often asked. “If God (or a group of gods) created the world, what was the origin of God?”

It is a similar argument found in discussions of cause and effect. If an action causes a reaction, what created the initial action? A much more common way of expressing this is the age old question: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” The chicken lays an egg which in turn hatches to become a chicken which lays another egg which hatches to become another chicken which lays an egg, etc. This unending chain of events which create more events is called infinite regress.

For many, infinite regress was proof of eternity. For others, it posed greater questions. Aristotle was not one who believed in the theory. “Some hold that, owing to the necessity of knowing the primary premises, there is no scientific knowledge. Others think there is, but that all truths are demonstrable. Neither doctrine is either true or a necessary deduction from the premises. The first school, assuming that there is no way of knowing other than by demonstration, maintain that an infinite regress is involved, on the ground that if behind the prior stands no primary, we could not know the posterior through the prior (wherein they are right, for one cannot traverse an infinite series): if on the other hand – they say – the series terminates and there are primary premises, yet these are unknowable because incapable of demonstration, which according to them is the only form of knowledge. And since thus one cannot know the primary premises, knowledge of the conclusions which follow from them is not pure scientific knowledge nor properly knowing at all, but rests on the mere supposition that the premises are true. The other party agrees with them as regards knowing, holding that it is only possible by demonstration, but they see no difficulty in holding that all truths are demonstrated, on the ground that demonstration may be circular and reciprocal. Our own doctrine is that not all knowledge is demonstrative: on the contrary, knowledge of the immediate premises is independent of demonstration. (The necessity of this is obvious; for since we must know the prior premises from which the demonstration is drawn, and since the regress must end in immediate truths, those truths must be indemonstrable.) Such, then, is our doctrine, and in addition we maintain that besides scientific knowledge there is its original source which enables us to recognize the definitions.”

Aristotle believed that some knowledge was acquired without demonstration; therefore, it had no cause and no resulting effect. It would be many centuries before Isaac Newton proclaimed that for every action there was an equal and just reaction but the theory of infinite regress did lead to greater schools of thought. For some it was the beginning of the so-called big bang theory regarding the beginning of the universe. For others, like Thomas Aquinas , it became a cosmological argument defending the existence of God, the one who created the first reason or cause.

Plato asked what knowledge really was. He called it justified true belief but the key word there was ‘justified”. In justifying the reasons given forth as proof or propositions, one would become caught in the infinite regression. This would give rise to the school of skepticism which we will discuss at a no too distant future time. For many, the battle over what knowledge was and how it could be proven or justified has led many to give up on philosophy all together. It is the same with the concept of peace.

For many people, peace is the absence of violence. For others, it is freedom. And for still more, it is simply the opportunity to live. They seek peace here, there, and everywhere, having been the chance to live it anywhere. The skeptics and naysayers often create the difficulties in achieving peace instead of supporting it. What is the point of our living if it is not to support life itself for all that lives?

I offer the words of Vincent Van Gogh regarding this. “If one feels the need of something grand, something infinite, something that makes one feel aware of God, one need not go far to find it. I think that I see something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than the ocean in the expression of the eyes of a little baby when it wakes in the morning and coos or laughs because it sees the sun shining on its cradle.” Life is all around us. It is, perhaps, the supreme example of an infinite regress. The potential life offers, the love and peace and future, is there, ours for the taking and living. We ourselves create the life in the here, the there… for everyone, everywhere.