God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

I’m a Democratic Socialist – but I repeat myself; Voting as a Socialist Act

In PeaceAble, Politics, Uncategorized on August 8, 2018 at 12:16 pm

In all societies, power moves upward, from the masses of people who individually hold little power to the powerful few who collect and hoard whatever power they can extract from the many.
The core misunderstanding a great many people have about socialism is that it is simply an economic system in which money is redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. But money is just one form of power, and socialism more broadly is a philosophical system that advocates for the redistribution of all forms of power from those who hoard it to those who need to use it for their survival, as a way to guarantee a more equitable distribution of resources.
Every time a democracy holds an election, it is a deliberate act of redistributing power.
When a voter enters the polling both, he brings with him all his power. When he chooses a candidate and casts a vote he gives a small amount of his power to the candidate. That power, combined with the power contained by all those who vote for the candidate becomes the candidate’s power. If the candidate loses the election she can use that collected power as credibility to continue to argue for the policies she supports (and for which people supported her). If she wins the election she can apply the collected power to directly seek to influence policy in her elective position.
It’s important to note that the power the elected official has collected through votes does not obligate her to use that power exactly as the individual voters might have hoped. Each voter is only transferring a small amount of power, and individual voters may have different and conflicting ideas and needs. And, just as spending a few bucks at your favorite store does not give you any ability to tell the store owner how to spend his money, your individual vote doesn’t give you any special power to control the actions of the elected official. When you voted, however, you didn’t give up all your power, only a small piece of it, and that piece will be coming back to you at the next election.
Also, you still retain significant power once you realize that it isn’t about you, but about all of us. You gave your power to a candidate during an election, now you can give it to a cause, a movement, or an idea. Every time you contribute to an organization working for something you believe in, you use your power. Every time you choose to shop at a particular business or to withhold your patronage, you use your power. Every time you get into a discussion with your friends and acquaintances about something happening in the world and find your own mind or someone else’s changing, even a bit, you have used your power. Every time you step up in defense of those who cannot defend themselves, to speak for those whose voices are not being heard, you use your power. If there is a blue wave in November, it won’t just be because a lot of people used their power at the polls, but because a lot of people have been using their power all along in both large and small ways.
Power, like every valuable thing, isn’t dependent on exactly how much one has of it, but how that compares to what others have. You are only as power rich as others are power poor. The powerful few do not, of course, want to give up their power. They will hoard whatever they can of it. Voter suppression is theft of power. Voter apathy is the squandering of power. Fewer people voting means there are fewer people to convince that they should give a candidate their power. If a party sees that a minority of voters agree with them on the issues, but can control which people don’t vote they can make it more likely that those who do vote will be those who will give them power. And if significant numbers of people voluntarily don’t vote, the party or candidate that wins assumes these non-voter’s power as well. It’s like a power tax. If you don’t vote for anything, then it’s assumed that you support those who won. After all, if you didn’t support them, you would have voted against them.
Polls show over and over again that when it comes to some of the most important and most party-line divisive issues this country is facing, issues like abortion and women’s health, income and wealth inequity, gun laws and regulation, health care, Social Security and Medicare, the social safety net, there is significant agreement about what needs to be done, if not how to do it. So, if the people who have been elected aren’t doing those things, then we need to exert our power to elect those who will.
Power is interchangeable, too. Those with a significant amount of one kind of power can use it to acquire and protect other forms power. Thus, political power can provide access to wealth and vice-versa. Someone like David Koch or Sheldon Adelson or, to be fair, George Soros, can exert enormous power all by himself, but the rest of us have to organize, we have to work together, we have to find common ground and common purpose.
We have to vote. Every time. No exceptions.
And we have to stay involved. All the time. In between elections, not just every two or four years, not just about who is going to be President, but who is going to sit on our school boards or decide our zoning or whether the town needs a new pickup truck or some new textbooks.
Doing that doesn’t start after the parties have decided who their candidates are going to be. It doesn’t start by deciding that your only choice is the lesser of two evils. It starts when you understand that you have power and that you are unconsciously giving away that power every day; and you decide to stop doing that.
If this is to be a government of, by, and for the people, then the people have to be involved. Those who represent us are spending our collective power. It is up to us, then, to keep letting them know how we want that power spent, and give our power to those who will listen.

The Learned Hypocrisy of Being Human

In No Particular Path, PeaceAble, Uncategorized on July 30, 2018 at 10:44 am

To be human is to live in contradiction.
Perfect consistency is impossible for us. We think too much; we feel too much; we believe too much. We invented philosophy and science, and art, and morality. And every time we think that these have given us an answer that is final, that is absolute, that we can rely on, that is true, the world changes and we change and the answers have to change as well.
But change is hard, so we cling as long as possible to the old truths, accepting only what in our pain and our grief and our fear we can no longer deny; and contorting ourselves to make everything fit. We shake our heads in disbelief at our own contradictions, and label others’ inconsistencies as hypocrisy.
But it’s really just all of us being human.
I just read something that asked the question, “How could we go so abruptly from Barack Obama to Donald Trump?” How could the same country elect an erudite, scholarly, compassionate and thoughtful leader, then replace him with a crude, anti-intellectual, self-aggrandizing, impulsive one? Which of these very opposite men really represents who we are?
The answer is, of course, that they both do.
We have evolved into creatures who deal with the natural conflicts and dangers of the world by contriving to make them more contentious and more dangerous. There are real solutions to the real problems of the world. There are more than sufficient resources. But we allow our worst traits, our basest instincts, our superstitions and prejudices and fear to rule us; we hoard our resources instead of using them, we reject comprehensive solutions to complex problems in favor of simplistic analyses and short-sighted solutions. We proclaim our desire for peace and understanding, we pray for the relief of suffering and ask why we can’t all just get along; but we refuse to do what is necessary to achieve those things. If we can’t see a way to fix something right now, for all time, without any sacrifice or compromise on our part, we tell ourselves that no solution exists at all.
We are simultaneously all that is good in the world and all that is evil. And every choice we make is a choice to turn in the direction of one or the other. Our moral compass is broken and we have lost our ability to find our way in the wilderness.
We are polarized because we have made a choice to declare ourselves only half of who we are, and to further assert that our chosen half of this bifurcated self is the only acceptable truth, the only reality.
The contradictions remain, of course, but rather than acknowledge them and try to understand how they make us whole, we either deny them or tie ourselves in knots trying to fit them into the incomplete self we cling to.
We do not live linear lives. Our stories are told first in stream of consciousness, and we try to understand who we are by rewriting the stories until they make sense; but each story needs to make sense on its own as well as finding a place in the whole anthology of our lives, and we need to forget so much to make that happen.
I am a man and a male. How can I change the normative misogyny and chauvinism of the culture unless I can acknowledge that it lives within me? I can’t remove it from my experience, from the teachings that shaped me. It’s there. It always will be. But when I allow myself to see it I am better able to see my way forward; so that there may come a time when we will have raised a generation that never learned it in the first place. I’m not a feminist because I have never seen the feminine as less, but because I have, and I am working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I come most directly from pink-skinned European ancestors. How can I change the normative xenophobia and racism of the culture unless I acknowledge that I carry within me the same learned fear of the other, of the different, that I wish to change? I don’t seek racial justice and equality because I have never felt afraid, but because I have, and I’m working to change that in me as well as in the society.
I am cisgender and heterosexual. How can I change the normative homophobia of the culture unless I acknowledge that I have feared and felt shamed by the feminine in myself, that I have questioned my own capacity for intimacy, both emotional and physical, with both women and men? I don’t fight for the humanity of those who are homosexual, or bisexual, or transgendered, or gender non-conforming, or to allow everyone to love whomever they love because I was never told that my feminine was weakness and abomination, but because I was; and I’m trying to change that in myself as well in the society.
If we are going to tell our stories authentically and honestly and make it possible for others to do the same, then we cannot forget, cannot leave out, the parts that make us contradictory, inconsistent, and even sometimes hypocritical.
There is no high road or low road; there is only the path we have walked thus far, with its hills and valleys, its twists and turns and detours, its dark passages and glorious vistas; for there is no way forward except from where we are right now.

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