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The Watering Hole - Conversations on 21st. Century religion.

Successful Thinking in College

Dealing successfully with philosophy and the unknown


It's a brave new world. College students today have maximum opportunity ahead of them. Really. We have an economy disastrously close to failing and so complex that hardly anyone understands it, a culture with hardly any idea how to re-establish ethical or moral reasoning and boundaries, legal and legislative systems strangling on their own regurgitations, an educational system that is falling behind third world countries in performance, growing economic disparity, and a country in which the public and legislature are split 50/50, polarized in different directions, and irreconcilable. A sizable part of the country wants to abandon government and all rules, another portion wants to make the government totally responsible for everyone's welfare, and another portion wants to shove a theocracy down everyone's throats. The problem is not "what to think," but "how to think." If there isn't maximum opportunity here to change the world, I don't know what is.

Fifty years of seeking

Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum: "...the technique of reducing an argument or hypothesis to absurdity, by pushing the argument's premises or conclusions to their logical limits and showing how ridiculous the consequences would be, thus disproving or discrediting the argument." - http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum

It is, the Socratic Method pushed to extremes, mischaracterizing something to an extreme degree, a favorite trick.

Some would propound that the US is in decline educationally and economically, and will fail to remain a great nation. There are definite trends. It could happen if we let it. What I see, instead, is opportunity. We have to look not at propaganda and nay-sayers, and look for what is possible. In the end, it's up to us. I want to share with you the result of 50 years of being a seeker of truth. It's a fun quest, and I encourage you to throw yourself into the journey.

I enjoyed college. Those who profess to know certain things, make you think... if you want. If you don't want to think, there are always Cliff notes and copied papers from the Internet. Sadly philosophy has faded in popularity. I enjoyed philosophy and logical thinking. So I'll give you my 50 years of notes on philosophy.

The philosopy of extremism

Philosophy is an intellectual exercise which leads to epistemological (nature of knowledge) dead ends. The natural affinity of philosophers is the logical extreme. The logical extreme is the debater's best friend - it wins arguments. Logical extremes always find something to disprove validity. If you can disprove validity, you can throw the idea out. A deep shade of blue or gray is not black, therefore...

In reality, the logical extremes force logical exceptions with useless conclusions. Most of the time a deep shade of blue, or gray is a perfectly good substitute for black. In any of them you can pee down your leg and nobody notices. Philosophy, notably, can prove nothing in and of itself so it easily goes off on a tangent as an intellectual exercise. What happens in real life is that it causes polarizations that can't be reconciled. Principal: There is no wisdom inherent in philosophical logic - philosophical usage often simply boils down to a quest to disprove everything. Yet from the days of Plato and Aristotle, and into the "enlightenment" period and the scientific revolution, we have ridden a wave of philosophical reasoning that reigned supreme. Principal: The things brought to us by reasoning are light-years better than the horrors brought to us by ignorance and superstition, particularly the kind motivated by power and greed and supported by quasi-reasoning during the Middle Ages.

Unlike in philosophy, exceptions don't disprove the whole in life. Even the Scientific Method doesn't work that way. Exceptions populate scientific theories like potholes in New York City streets. Far from disproving rules, they enable us to explore further while the theory gives us a framework to work within. Science is empirical - it explores cause and effect in reality through experience. Life is the same. Principal: All philosophy must be local, meaning that it must be grounded in experience or it is meaningless.

Next: The value of Postmodernism

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The value of Postmodernism

My trek through Postmodernism was very helpful. (I consider myself a Post-postmodernist.) Postmodernism isn't a philosophy. It is a perspective that views claims of objective certainty with skepticism, particularly cultural meta-narratives. This perspective makes it easier to deconstruct and recognize the relativity of relationships between things. As the antithesis of Modernism, which emphasizes making everything known, even if it's just an adamantly endorsed and wildly popular theory, Postmodernism emphasizes "not knowing." In this it is more like faith. In stripping us of a false sense of knowing, it allows us the freedom to ponder what actually has meaning and relevance in our lives.

I had a very serious look at philosophy - particularly that part about logic and rational thought promoted by philosophers. My favorite was Socrates. Socrates loved to flirt with extremes. The Socratic Method questions everything to death. Can anyone rationally hold onto any belief in the face of relentless questioning? Dark gray is not black - so how can you base any belief on that? Can anything actually have meaning in our lives? Yes, if we have the wisdom to know how to question. Pushing things to their logical end points, out of context, is not wise.

This article isn't about religion, but here is a good example: If you say that "God is all powerful," then you could logically say that God controls all natural processes and evil, so since God doesn't stop earthquakes that kill thousands, nor stop evil people from hurting one to millions of other people, then being "all powerful" logically doesn't fit, therefore there is no God. That ignores that nature may be a process, like humanity, that is not controlled. Similarly, it's believed that God doesn't control individuals - they can go around killing others, or doing good, as they please.

In contrast, if you start with the idea that the Creator God is love, and His primary objective is to unite people to Himself through the loving actions of others, and His main concern is how we treat each other, then the statements about being "all powerful" are seen in a very different context.

Are we smarter and more moral than God that we should tell Him what to do? That's a very conceited perspective. This narrow thinking is typical of Modernism, religious fundamentalism, and religious and political extremists. It doesn't look at things within the context of a wider picture, just a narrow view from the extremes. In reality, instead of blaming God for natural disasters (or thanking Him for rain), we have to live the hand we are dealt and improve it if we can. Principal: Live the hand you are dealt, and change it for the better if you can. This principal is about the same as scientific attitudes.

Rationality versus wisdom

Unlike Kant, I don't worry about philosophy going beyond its limits. I simply don't believe that it is competent within its limits. There is no wisdom inherent in philosophical logic to guide it. Philosophy is no wiser than its practitioner. But it is useful.

Principal: You have to look at how the parts are related. For example, "a" particular philosophy is a body of "operational knowledge" about a subject and its "interrelated parts." It's an authoritative belief about a system. For example, I recently wrote about democracy: "What is 'Philosophy of Democracy?' To me, the philosophy of democracy necessarily resides in the tension between individual freedom, individual responsibility, and consensus - a triangle of competing interests. Consensus necessarily means governing and government. The job of the philosophy of democracy is to provide the trial, proof, and disproof of ideas and ideals that are refined by experience that get us to the most advantageous balance possible in that triangle. It's foundation for us is the US Constitution. It is empirical as much as any human system of attitudes can be. It is often pragmatic. It must be dynamic because the situation is one of continuous change.

Next: Is everything relative?

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Is everything relative?

Some in universities assert that everything is "relative." Early anthropologists, who explored other cultures, were instrumental in this. I really liked anthropology, and the study of early cultures. Exploration of cultures shows us that various cultures emphasize different things. They have their own politics, laws, religions, traditions, and mores (morals/ethics). We certainly should not go around devaluing or destroying other civilizations just because they are different or we think ours is best. That's all very true.

What isn't true is that there aren't important differences or that we should abandon our own culture because everything is "relative." For example, on the one hand, some cultures eat each other, and some sacrifice people to their gods, while keeping people enslaved or suppressing people by gender. In the Western world, we only sacrifice people to capitalism - assigning some to live in poverty, or slums, and some to die from lack of medical care. Democracy is the "Cadillac" of political systems, but it certainly has its challenges. By objective measures, it allows people greater freedom to choose opportunities they want, and it permits selection of an economic system that brings prosperity to a larger number of people.

But is US democracy right for everyone at this time and world situation? Maybe not for China, which is undergoing democratization at a pace that is manageable. Maybe not for tribal areas of countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan where centralized government and justice are out of reach and out of touch. Even in the US, for many years the Congress has had an approval rating in the teens, we are weathering a major recession with unemployment at 10%, medical care is not very available to nearly 10% of US citizens, and financial disparity has reduced the middle class significantly while creating greater poverty, drawing into question the efficacy of both democracy and capitalism. Democratic governments are no guarantee of social panacea, as demonstrated by Haiti. Principal: Instead of swallowing propaganda whole, you have to look at things honestly - recognize the good and try to improve on the not so good.

Everything changes as we learn

Another principal: Everything changes. As we experience and learn, our philosophies about things change. We have to have a framework to work within, whether it is hard science or humanities. Without a framework, we get nowhere. We can become paralyzed in life because of what we don't know. I call this a "Postmodern limbo" when people reach the point where they think everything is "relative" so nothing really means anything. Relative doesn't mean meaningless or irrelevant. It can mean relative to the situation or culture. But relative really means that it fits somewhere in a framework with relation to other things.

For example, in Jewish tradition there was an argument about whether a person should always obey the "law" of God, or whether other matters were more important. The Amos versus Amaziah quarrel revealed that justice is more important than the Law. Things are "relative." But by the time of Christ, many of the Sadducees were still arguing the same thing. Christ confirmed the same thing: love and justice are paramount.

There is much about life that we don't know, I realized as I explored Postmodernism in great depth over several years with a world-wide group of psychologists who were taking this same journey. An example of what we don't know comes from science. We don't know what 2/3 of the universe is made of. Two-thirds is a huge unknown. I don't mean that we haven't sampled it and tested it - we simply can't sense it at all. Scientists have learned to be comfortable with and ignore that huge unknown - they simply assign a constant to the unknown in formulas. Scientists conjecture that this 2/3 unknown is "dark matter" - see, naming it and assigning a constant to it gives us power over it. They make a hypothesis about it and try to find examples. So far (July 2010) "WIMP" detectors have found nothing verifiable. Many scientists doubt that dark matter exists at all, and try to find other explanations for gravitational puzzles. The fact that we can put spacecraft into orbit around the earth, moon, and other planets indicates that scientists are successful in dealing with this unknown. Principal: we can deal with unknowns so we can move forward.

Next: Knowing versus "not knowing"

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Knowing versus "not knowing"

It will be interesting to see if physicists find the "God Particle," using the new Large Hadron Collector. The so far undiscovered Higgs boson is thought to "endow" all other particles with mass. I enjoy reading about nuclear physics, particularly superstring and quantum theories, but I suspect some physicists often have more faith in them than I do.

Science and the scientific method are well established drivers in our world, as they should be. Science and the resulting technology alleviate tremendous suffering and improve our lives in many ways. But the very solid fact about life is, despite all of our miraculous discoveries about life, we probably don't know the half of it. Despite our "hard science," and our methods, and our wish to know, and our inflated egos that say man is supreme and we know everything, we simply don't know.

"Not knowing" is something we have to live with to function and to move forward in life. The lack of knowledge about Dark Matter doesn't stop science from moving forward, nor should it. Lack of knowledge should not bring the rest of life to a halt. We have to embrace not knowing and move forward on our voyage of discovery. That includes our journey of faith. The main tenets of spirituality and religion - faith, hope, and love - all have evidence that is concrete in the behavior of people. We see their power in life every day - they are arguably some of the most powerful forces in the universe outside of nature. They are enough to go forward on.

"Not knowing" describes our journey of faith. Kindergarten children can't yet understand literary interpretation, calculus, the scientific method, and the width and depth of justice and love. But the fact that kindergartners can't comprehend these things, or even know of their existence, doesn't mean that they should stop investigating life and learning. As in science, in faith we learn by trial and error. We don't understand all things, but we have to move forward.

I had a preoccupation with "knowing and not being misled," particularly about religion. Through Postmodernism, this culminated with comfort in knowing that we can't know everything, but knowing that God is love, and justice and love are paramount in God's mind, can help us keep from being misled. Negative experiences, usually caused by our own illusions, are part of the journey of faith, so then any wrong turns we take are worthwhile learning experiences. Experience is essential to understand the width and breadth of justice and love - none of us fully understand, nor is it likely in our lifetimes.

Next: Building a framework - chasing the dream

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Building a framework - chasing the dream

I can say about wisdom that experience is key. Knowledge doesn't make you any smarter than a bookcase - it can hold all the books in the world, but that doesn't make it intelligent or wise. But without knowledge and rational thought, we have no way of evaluating experience. I don't know if I'm wise or not - I do know more about what I don't know - but the wisest thing I can say is that love (concern for and care of others) is most important. Life is clearly not about how much you earn, how much power you have over others, how much you know, your job - while these things can be important, if they are over-emphasized or misused, they give you little in return for your time and effort.

Civilization is built on successful rules. Successful ancient cultures did not thrive in limbo, paralyzed into inactivity and decay. They established standards that enabled society to work. For example, ancient standards would not allow the businessman to cheat everyone into being destitute so he could be wealthy. The politician could not use his position of power to rob from others and have his decisions influenced by power and money. The law and system of justice had to treat people equally and fairly.

The earliest written records we have of these laws of civilization come from Ancient Sumer. (Some would say Egypt, with its legal influence of Ma'at - I won't argue - the point is the same either way.) The Sumerian's King (whose authority supposedly rested in God), priests, and rulers, made rules for them 5000 years ago. They came up with a complex system of laws and rights, and they flourished as a civilization. So did Egypt. After them came Hammurabi and his laws, and his civilization flourished for a time. Solon gave the Ancient Greeks laws (they were very harsh), and they were refined under Ancient Greek democracy. The Ancient Greeks flourished until regional fighting squashed them. The Roman Empire had a very stabilizing system of laws and justice that worked well across cultures, and it flourished until a number of problems opened the gates to the barbarians.

Where you have strong and just rules to guide people, civilization flourishes. Where you have weak rules, and corruption in politics and business, civilization is weak and nearly not as beneficial as it could be. But without justice and love (mercy), the law is just another cruel task-master.

It is excellent that professors challenge people in their thinking, particularly challenging the standards of civilization that we bring to college with us by emphasizing the relativist aspects of it all. But we should all be seekers of truth, not seekers of an empty sense of "relativity" that challenges all meaning. We should leave college with a sense that from ancient times people have sought after guidance, and throughout history many rules have been tested in the fire of experience and shown to be either helpful or useless. College should be a place where you find some of them.

Your earliest experience in college will be with one thing: To think that rules don't matter. You "can" cheat your way through college and come out with a respected diploma. But does it mean that you actually know anything or actually know how to research and formulate effective opinions? And if the reputation of college students is that cheating is the way they get their diploma, does that mean the diploma carries the same respect? You become what you do. You cheat yourself, just as we do by being blind to the illusion that great wealth is there just for the taking.

Seek the truth, but enjoy your college experience, and enjoy life! If you are interested in spirituality and religion, you can find more of my experience and thoughts at www.onespiritresources.com.

- Dorian

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