I have not been on this site for a while, but I now may have time to begin posting occasionally – perhaps even regularly – again. Here is a talk I presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale, June 5, 2022. I may also post it on some of my other sites. This is part one of a series. The next post is part two.
ILLUSION NUMBER ONE, PART ONE:
Report from Planet Three
©Dr. Chris Schriner 2022
[Walk to the lectern, wearing antennae.] How very strange and wonderful to be back on my home planet! Two years is a long time to be gone, and it certainly seemed like ten years to me. In case any of you are unfamiliar with my expedition, I should explain that I traveled to Planet Three in Solar System 3079. For two years I lived on that planet among the Northern Californians to study their peculiar humanoid ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.
Now that I am back on our beloved planet Centros with you, my fellow participants, I am ready to report my findings. (But first, if you don’t mind my being a bit casual, I’d like to remove my formal antennae. Ahhh, that’s better.)
This morning I will discuss a concept that is used every day among Earth people, but which is quite difficult for us here on Centros to understand. This concept is expressed by a word that is spelled S-E-L-F, pronounced, “self.” This syllable is combined with other words that refer to persons – myself, yourself, ourselves, and after two years on Earth I will probably lapse into using these terms “myself.” Earthlings use the word self in referring to who they are – to themselves, as they would say. We have translated this word into our term centerspace, because you and I think about who we are in terms of centerspace – we are centers of consciousness, centers of feeling and thinking and activity. Such a translation could not possibly have been more misleading! The term centerspace and the term self, as used on Earth, are totally different.
Center implies that the center is part of something else. If I hold up this paper and say to you, “Show me the center of the page,” you point toward the middle of it. Obviously this central area is continuous with the rest of the paper; it is not something separate. But the Earth idea of self actually implies separateness, as if humans were free from outside influences. One of their most famous poems reads, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul” (From “Invictus,” by William Earnest Henley).
The line of demarcation between the self and the “outside” world is presumed to be the human skin. Seriously! You and I are vividly aware that our skin is interpenetrated as we breathe and eat. Cosmic particles pass through us all the time, and perceptions penetrate us as well. My voice enters you through the ears; your faces enter my eyes. Earth people know this too, because their bodies are quite similar to ours, and just as permeable. Yet they still imagine that whatever is inside of the skin, is them.
Some of their scientists are now questioning this myth of the separate self. While visiting California, I went to a lecture by a minister – his name was Dr. Shiner or Schrimer – who talked about “Family Therapy.” In the past few decades psychotherapists on Earth have discovered that members of a family interpenetrate each other psychologically – imagine that! – and that the best way to change the behavior of one member of a family may be to gather the whole clan and work on the family system. This is an example of what they call “systems thinking,” and Dr. Schrimmer was so charmingly excited about this idea. I endured his little sermon, smiling to think that this is apparently a new insight for Earth people.
Systems thinking seems to be catching on in this fellow’s church, the Contrarian Universalizers I believe it was called. I heard their choir singing about the interdependent web of existence, but I doubt that Schimer and the others really understand this idea.
One Earthling who actually seemed to see through the illusion of separateness was a writer named Alan Watts, now deceased, and I’m going to quote him a lot. Listen to this wonderfully ironic passage from a work of his called, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.
Society … pulls [a] trick on every child from earliest infancy. … the child is taught that he is … a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions – a sort of miniature First Cause. [The child] … accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can’t help accepting it…. (P. 65)
We seldom realize … that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, … We copy emotional reactions from our parents … we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body.
[And Watts concludes:] Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he [or she] is indeed separate! (P. 64)
But – even as some humans are questioning the illusion of the separate self, others are reinforcing and exaggerating this idea. Certain popular psychotherapists not only say that each so-called “individual” is like a little walled city, they imply that our personal walls are tall and strong enough to withstand any outside force. One should take total responsibility for one’s own fate. So obviously if people have financial problems, it must be their fault. If someone catches a cold, a pop-psychologist might ask, “Are you in touch with how you created that cold? Why did you want to get sick?”
Here’s another problem. Since they don’t realize how much they are influenced by outside forces, humans are dismayed that their so-called social media are warping people’s political beliefs, pushing them into extreme camps that are all confident of their own righteousness. Here on Centros, most of us make the default assumption that “I can be manipulated.” This helps us guard against those who want to pull our strings, conning us into feeling fear and anger, fear and anger, warping our ability to look at personal and political issues calmly and compassionately.
So the first key difference between our concept of the personal center, here on the planet Centros, and the human concept of self that I discovered while visiting Earth, is that Earth-people see the self as separate from the rest of reality, whereas you and I know that our personal centers are continuous with everything that surrounds us.
A second remarkable oddity about the Earthling idea of “self” is that the self supposedly continues through the passage of time. When you and I speak of the way we “were” in the past or “will be” in the future, this is just a convenient way of speaking. Obviously I’m not the same person I was five or ten years ago. Earth people dimly realize this, and yet they actually maintain that they’re the same person when they were conceived as when they die. I’m not making this up!
Perhaps this illusion of personal continuity is reinforced by the strange custom of using the same name throughout their lives. On our planet. you and I are identified by a code-cipher. But by adulthood each of us has acquired well over a hundred names, which would be quite confusing to humans with their lower intelligence. We have fun with this diversity, but on Earth, there is one name, and they take that little identifying tag so seriously! If you want to irritate Earthlings, just mis-pronounce their names or make fun of them. They get so upset. And this ties into what I said earlier about their delusion of separateness. As Alan Watts put it, “Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being” (The Book, p. 63).
Because they assume that their identity persists, many humans feel great pride or shame about what they did or did not do in days long gone by. They also obsess about death, wondering whether their continuous stream of personal identity will keep going in an afterlife. Here on Centros we also treat death as a mystery, but it is just one small aspect of the greater mystery of change; we’re changing all the time. But Earth people find it almost impossible to see that all creatures are dying and being reborn every second.
Again Alan Watts tries to help them see the obvious. He writes that,
A human body is like a whirlpool; there seems to be a constant form, called the whirlpool, but it functions for the very reason that no water stays in it. (P. 43)
Watts was influenced by a religion called Buddhism, which declares that “all things are impermanent, all is without a self.” But I wonder how many Buddhists truly grasp this teaching.
So humans think their skin separates them from the rest of the world, and they believe that the contents of this bag of skin persist through time. The third and final difference between our view and theirs is that they conceive of themselves as internally consistent. Inside their skin there is a single united personality. Of course, you and I are keenly aware of having many, many “selves” – hundreds of potential ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. We expect to experience internal conflict and ambivalence, and we set up our lives and our society in ways that reflect this reality. Earth people have even more inner conflict than we do, but they will not admit that this is their natural condition. There’s something wrong with them if they have mixed feelings and contradictory thoughts. They become particularly upset if their government leaders show any sign of inconsistency; they call this flip-flopping. You and I would assume that any leader who is unable to “flip-flop” must be mentally defective.
If humans thought twice about it they would realize that they undergo radical personality shifts from one situation to another. The very same individual may be a doormat at the office, a tyrant at the dinner table, and a whimpering child in the dentist’s chair.
One of their psychologists, Robert Ornstein, seems to realize that each person has many facets, and he cites examples of human inconsistency. He wrote about an experiment in which people role-played guards and prisoners, and took on those roles to an unsettling extent, and also a study in which people made obviously false statements about the length of a line, after several other people – who were actually actors who were lying about how long the line looked – had made such statements. Here’s one more example from his book, Multimind:
Imagine that you are alone in a room and hear someone cry for help … Would you help? Probably. Now, imagine that you are sitting with a few other people when you hear a cry for help. Would you go to help? … No, probably: you are three times less likely to help if there are six people in the room than if you are alone. The group we are in has a profound effect on us, more than we would like to think. … we compare our attitudes with those of the group; we make decisions we never would have made if we had been alone. (P. 88.)
Thinking every person has a single unified personality blinds Earthlings to the possibility that if circumstances change, they may change, and change radically. For example, Americas have a horrible problem with gun violence, and many say the solution is to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those with serious mental illnesses. Of course, that is important. But on our planet we realize that in the right circumstances ordinary individuals may do terrible things. That is also true of humans, and many who kill with guns are not criminals or obviously mentally ill. Even though they were “normal,” they had the potential for violence. Here on Centros, one of our default assumptions is: “I may be dangerous without knowing it.” If normal humans have the potential to become dangerous to others or themselves, should Americans own so many firearms?
We here on the planet Centros also understand that even if someone commits a terrible crime while one aspect of the personality is in control, other aspects of that person may be positive and even compassionate. But some of the most influential religions on Earth teach that God judges each person as either good or bad, and sends the good ones to paradise and the bad ones to eternal damnation – as if each person were consistently good or evil. They sometimes sense that there’s a saint in every sinner and a sinner in every saint, but usually their view of the goodness or badness of each center of consciousness is astonishingly one-dimensional. They then project this limited and ignorant understanding onto their deities.
Earth people are insightful in some ways, and deluded in other ways, but I think this idea of self is human illusion number one. They imagine that the self is separate from what is not-self, endures through the passage of time, and is internally consistent. And unless one realizes that Earth-people really believe these three ideas, one cannot begin to understand what it is like to dwell on Planet Three of their solar system.
If I could give any gift to the Earthlings, it would be the gift of a multi-dimensional sense of “self.” I’ve even imagined giving this talk where I saw Dr. Schweimer speak, to those University Contrarians, since they seemed rather open-minded. After the talk, I would have asked them to think about these issues for perhaps a week; noticing that the outside world does penetrate their skin, that they do change from moment to moment, and that their minds keep shifting so that various aspects of their personalities take turns running the show. After that we could gather and talk about these ideas further. And now, due to a remarkable breakthrough in intergalactic hyper-zoom, today Dr. Shreener has been listening to my lecture and he will respond to it this time next week. Please come back in seven Earth days to see what he has to say. It should at least be entertaining.
I want to close with a speculation. Perhaps the root of their odd idea of self is just a simplistic desire for neatness and order, a tendency to force reality into tidy little compartments. . But I hope that some humans have flashes of lucidity in which they realize that every conscious moment possesses such open potential and such delicious complexity! For to see through the illusion of the separate, continuous, and consistent self is to expand that little centerspace and join the larger self, the vast interconnected community of all that has breath.
This is a continuation of the above post. I am also posting this entry on some of my other sites.
ILLUSION NUMBER ONE, PART TWO
Your Many Minds
©Rev. Chris Schriner 2022
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale
June 12, 2022
Two weeks ago you and I managed to eavesdrop on a lecture which was presented on another planet. Isn’t wireless technology amazing these days? The space alien who gave that lecture was actually willing to come here today and speak with us for free, but he wanted 50 cents a mile for travel which is an amount somewhat larger than the National Debt.
This space creature was an intergalactic anthropologist who had recently visited Earth to study human beings. He ended up being quite puzzled by the human concept of “self,” for three different reasons. First, he said that Earth people seemed to think each person is separate from the world around them – as if their skin is a wall, with the “self” on the inside and everything else on the outside. Second, humans imagine that they continue through the passage of time, as if there were some personal essence that stays the same from the moment of conception onward. And third, Earthlings believe that each body contains a single personality, even though our inconsistent and even contradictory actions show that there are many, many minds inside every human head.
So do I agree with the spaceman? No – and yes. I do think our human concept of “self” is useful and fits a lot of the time, but sometimes it misleads us and gets us into trouble.
It’s easy to assume that the concepts we use must be either right or wrong. If an idea is right, keep it. If it’s wrong, throw it out. But concepts are only tools for helping us deal with our lives. Our little beliefs about the world do not match its complexity, and reality can be described in many ways. Instead of asking whether we do or do not “have a self,” we should ask in what ways this idea is useful and in what ways it is not.
Sometimes we should actually accept two contradictory beliefs, because each one gives us part of the truth. Think of the way physicists talk about light. In some ways light is like a wave; in some ways it’s like a particle, and neither of these is exactly right. Saying my own personality is separate from yours, endures through time, and is internally consistent is also helpful, but not exactly right. So we can ask in what ways the idea of self is useful or is not.
I mostly agree with the spaceman about the way our supposedly separate selves are interpenetrated by the world around us, especially the social world of culture and relationships. It has been said that the basic unit of humanity is not the individual. The basic unit of humanity is two or more people in relationship. We are born into relationship, and even a long-time hermit cannot live or die alone. Other people will always be inside of us. A rabbi once commented,
“If I am I because you are you, and if you are you because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you” (Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, p. 102).
So I mostly agree with the spaceman that our supposedly separate selves are interpenetrated by the world around us. But I don’t entirely agree with him about continuity and consistency. I’ll talk about these issues now, and then I’ll mention some implications for UU theology.
The speaker from the planet Centros last week claimed that instead of continuing through time, we are actually being born again each moment. I partly agree, but some aspects of us stay the same for long periods of time. Each of us is like a flame, always changing and yet somehow retaining its shape. Or think of a river. A river’s flowing waters never hold still, yet the river is always there. Just like a river, people both are and are not the same from moment to moment. We needn’t argue about which side of the paradox is “correct.” And most all of us have sometimes wished we could change, wishing we could outgrow some old habits or emotional patterns.
My favorite way to picture both personal change and continuity is to imagine myself as a sequence of beads on a string. If you think of this day as a long string of moments, the various states of mind you will experience today are like beads threaded onto your life-string, one at a time. Right now you may be feeling curious, the next minute confused, then interested, then irritated, then amused. Each of these attitudes uses different parts of your brain, as different beads slide into place on the long strand of time. To a great extent, each of us draws upon the same collection of beads, but in various quantities and in varying sequences. Your pattern of beads is different from mine, and therefore it’s a different necklace. Because each of us has a unique pattern of small, transitory minds, each of us is unique. Spiritual growth involves changing the beads on our string so that some of them appear less frequently and others appear more often. When that happens, we have changed.
Becoming aware of our own mind-shifts can help us realize our close kinship with each other. For example, when I’m angry, I am probably much more similar to the way you are when you’re angry than I am to myself when I’m not upset. That’s obvious, but it has important implications. For one thing, it gives us realistic hopes for human progress. If each person contains various sub-personalities, various colors and shapes of beads, we can find ways to call forth the more positive sides of ourselves and each other, calling forth love instead of hate, compassion instead of aggression. And if a destructive sub-personality is currently in control of someone, we may be able to awaken and mobilize a more positive sub-self that is momentarily hidden behind anger or mistrust.
So perhaps the spaceman was a little one-sided in emphasizing our changeability. But I admit that over time many small changes may add up to major transformations, so that we are surprised as we look back at the way we were. And as a psychotherapist I found that people often underestimate the extent of their own positive changes. We should give ourselves credit for these improvements. Sit down some time and think about how you were 20 or 30 years ago. One way to do that is to get out an old photo album and gaze at pictures of yourself. This may remind you of old attitudes and behaviors that you have outgrown.
In one of Ben Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, Calvin is looking through a photo album, and says to Hobbes, “This is a photograph of me when I was two. It’s strange. I know that’s me, but I don’t feel any connection to this image…. Isn’t it weird that one’s own past can seem unreal? This is like looking at a picture of somebody else.”
Hobbes looks at the photo and agrees: “A slobbering nudist with legs like link sausages.”
And Calvin adds: “You know, now I can’t stand to wad a soggy blanket in my mouth.”
Sometimes we find ourselves clearly moving from one phase of life to the next. We have rites of passage for some of these changes–graduations, weddings, retirement parties, religious vows, and coming of age ceremonies. But there are many other transitions that alter personal identity: getting divorced, switching careers, moving to another town, confronting or recovering from a serious illness, seeing our last child leave home, or committing ourselves to breaking free from some addictive behavior. When you enter a new phase of life, why not create your own rite of passage to mark this transition? Unitarian Universalists have full permission to invent their own rituals, and I’ll bet some of you have done that and benefitted.
So last week the spaceman emphasized how humans change, and I would balance that by recognizing our continuity. He also criticized us for thinking we are internally consistent, and I agree that we often underestimate our inconsistency. From moment to moment, we may change so much that it’s as if another personality took charge. I’m not saying we have what psychotherapists call multiple personalities. For one thing, with multiple personalities, the different personalities are often unaware of each other’s existence. But even with “normal” individuals, inside each person’s head is not just one mind, but many. It’s as each of us contains an enormous theater company, performing a drama in which only one character can be on stage at any moment. The various actors keep stepping in and out of the spotlight. And these little selves are so nimble that they can hop on and off stage in just seconds. Listen to this reading, adapted from the writings of a spiritual teacher named P. D. Ouspensky.
A person has no … single, big I, but is divided into a multiplicity of small I’s. And each separate small I is able to call itself by the name of the Whole, to act in the name of the Whole, … to make decisions, with which another I … will have to deal. This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out. Someone decides to get up early beginning from the following day. One I, or a group of I’s, decide this. But getting up is the business of another I who entirely disagrees with the decision and may even know absolutely nothing about it. Of course the person will again go on sleeping in the morning and in the evening will again decide to get up early … it is the tragedy of the human being that any small I has the right to sign checks and promissory notes…. People’s whole lives often consist in paying off the promissory notes of small accidental I’s” (P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, cited in Elizabeth O’Connor, Our Many Selves: A Handbook for Self-Discovery, pp. 36-37).
So those are some thoughts about what the visitor from Centros told us. I also want to say a little about theological aspects of this multi-dimensional view of self. Two weeks ago the spaceman noted that “some … religions … teach that God judges each person as either good or bad … They then project this limited and ignorant understanding onto their gods.” Of course I completely agree. And since we contain many little minds, our philosophies of life may very well contain contradictions. Many believers have doubts, and skeptics may have sub-personalities that pray. But traditional religions often say it’s sinful to have more than one religious viewpoint. That can be a problem, in a mixed-faith marriage. But if both spouses can realize that there are lots of good ways of looking at reality, that may help them become more accepting of each other’s beliefs.
Unitarian Universalism allows theological inconsistency. When I was minister at Mission Peak UU in Fremont one of our members told me, “In other churches I always felt like I had to suppress part of my own spirituality, But here I can talk about all of my religious ideas, even if some of them clash with each other. And if I change my beliefs, no one calls me a heretic or a backslider. I have finally found a place where I can feel at home with every side of my personal philosophy of life.”
So human personality is full of paradoxes. In some ways I am separate from the rest of the cosmos, but in other ways I am part of all that exists. In some respects I persist through time, but I can also imagine myself being born again each moment. Sometimes it helps to think of myself as one organism, but other times it’s better to see myself as a committee, or an entire congress.
One more idea: Self-acceptance is selves-acceptance. And if we learn to notice and welcome and become acquainted with our many minds, guess what happens? Another sub-personality begins to appear more and more frequently, a special sub-personality that sees all the other little minds, noticing them just as they are without judging them. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass called this inner observer the witness. The witness knows that change and multiplicity is our natural condition. We can “turn on” this inner observer when we notice that a destructive part of us has taken control. In most people this meta-viewpoint barely exists, but the more we observe our minds, the more powerful the witness becomes. This enables us to see ourselves more clearly, minimizing self-deception. And as this fair witness watches without judgment, it speaks an impartial and unending benediction of acceptance – “Blessed be, blessed be, blessed be.”
This is an update of an entry from 11/23/16. Items that are unimportant or no longer relevant have been deleted and marked with […]. Updates are colored purple. Everything else is from the 2016 text:
My reaction to the election of Donald Trump is intensely negative, but some people I respect did vote for him. I want to explain to Trump voters why many of us are appalled by this fellow. […] I don’t expect to convince people that I am right. I just want to explain why I feel so strongly. […] I’ll start with a short list of issues, followed by more details in the “footnotes.”
- Donald Trump loves to brutally humiliate people. “She had blood coming out of her wherever.” “Look at that face.”*1
- He brags almost nonstop.*2
- He changes policy stands repeatedly and erratically.*3
- He speaks impulsively without considering the consequences.*4
- He has encouraged violence against protesters.*5
- He has no experience in government, and it shows.*6
- He is prejudiced against people due to their race or religion.*7
- He was taped bragging about being a serial sex offender, and he has been taped many times saying things about women – including those in his own family – that are absolutely creepy. […]*8
- He has accomplished a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. It looks as if the party will keep its name and lose its principles.*9 […] (Update: During his term I have seen three additional problems:)
- Contempt for expertise. This has damaged America in innumerable ways, most of which are invisible to the general public. But in the pandemic the results are obvious. Many medical professionals are astounded and appalled. The highly respected New England Journal of Medicine, for the first time since its founding in 1812, has taken a stand in the presidential election: “This crisis has produced a test of leadership. … Here in the United States, our leaders have failed that test. They have taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy. … although it is impossible to project the precise number of additional American lives lost because of weak and inappropriate government policies, it is at least in the tens of thousands … our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.” https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2029812 *10
- Authoritarian ambitions. Trump makes admiring comments about strong-man leaders like Putin, and despises our constitutional checks and balances. He even thinks he should be allowed to pardon himself for crimes! His current Supreme Court nominee refused to rule that out. That would mean the president is utterly above the law. *11 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-court-barrett/trumps-court-pick-barrett-calls-presidential-self-pardon-an-open-question-idUSKBN26Z1BP
- Encouraging insurrection. Many Americans who are armed to the teeth seriously contemplate attacking political leaders, police, soldiers, or members of some ethnic, political or religious group they despise. For years Trump has hinted that he could use their help.*12
(Back to 2016 text:) Because he is so unpredictable, I have no doubt that Donald Trump will surprise us in some positive ways. Play roulette fifty rounds and sometimes you’ll win big. But overall, what are the odds?
Update: I haven’t seen the dazzling flashes of brilliance I hoped we would occasionally witness. What seems to impress people the most about his presidency is the pre-pandemic economy and the stock market. But the economy was juiced up by cutting taxes without cutting spending, passing on a big national debt increase to our children. Nothing brilliant here. As Trump knows well, you can make yourself look rich by going into debt.
And now, the gory details:
Do we really want a sadistic bully as President? Here’s an example of verbal sadism and erotic aggression. In front of a big audience Trump calls Miss Universe, Jennifer Hawkins on stage and makes a bizarre reference to an orgasm, implying that he’s talking about her. She is obviously and understandably uncomfortable:
I’m amazed that he often publically humiliates his own appointees. For instance, when he thought Fed Chair Jay Powell wasn’t stimulating the economy enough he tweeted, “Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve Fail Again. No ‘guts,’ no sense, no vision! A terrible communicator!” Ironically, in 2016 presidential candidate Trump criticized Fed Chair Janet Yellen, saying she should be “ashamed of herself” for keeping interest rates low! (He feared that would help the economy and make Obama look good.) But when he became Pres, he wanted rates cut to zero to make him look good. He knows most people won’t notice the flaming contradiction.
Trump evidently thinks it’s fine to make his subordinates hate him as long as they’re also terrified of his wrath. No doubt some future politicians will imitate his example.
#2. Here’s part of Garry Trudeau’s list of boasts by Trump.
“No one is more conservative than me!” “No one respects women more than me!” “No one reads the Bible more than me!” “There’s nobody that’s done so much for equality as I have!” “There’s nobody who feels more strongly about women’s health issues!” “Nobody knows more about taxes than me, maybe in the history of the world!” “I have studied the Iran deal in great detail, greater by far than anyone else!” “Nobody’s ever been more successful than me!” “I’m the least racist person you’ll ever meet!” […]
In the Presidential Debate, October 22, 2020, Trump said confidently that he was the “least racist person” in the room, acknowledging that he could not actually see who was out there in the audience. He makes lots of these absurdly grandiose comments, which should tip people off that there’s something wrong upstairs.
#3. For a truly astonishing number of policy flip-flops: http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/full-list-donald-trump-s-rapidly-changing-policy-positions-n547801
#4. (Moved from above): Example: saying the US might not fully repay those who hold US government bonds! An unbelievably irresponsible comment. […]
#5. For many examples of encouragement to violence: http://mashable.com/2016/03/12/trump-rally-incite-violence/#mFJu282Aciqq I did some checking on these quotes encouraging violence, because internet articles can just make things up. Unfortunately it looks as if Trump really did make these statements.
Here’s a recent example, as reported on Foxnews.com: “President Trump continues to mock MSNBC’s Ali Velshi for getting hit with a rubber bullet while covering Minneapolis protests, repeating the story on Tuesday at a Pennsylvania rally after initially calling it a ‘beautiful sight’ last week during a campaign event. ‘That idiot reporter from CNN got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas, right, and he went down,’ Trump said on Tuesday of the reporter who actually works for MSNBC.” Velshi tweeted: “So, @realDonaldTrump , you call my getting hit by authorities in Minneapolis on 5/30/20 (by a rubber bullet, btw, not a tear gas cannister) a “beautiful thing” called “law and order”. What law did I break while covering an entirely peaceful (yes, entirely peaceful) march?” https://www.foxnews.com/media/trump-mocks-msnbc-ali-velshi-rubber-bullet
#6. Just one example: North Korea’s nukes are a gigantic problem. Chinese cooperation in pressuring that country to give up these weapons is incredibly important. […] China props up North Korea’s economy and could force them to disarm if they felt like helping us out, but Trump is busy insulting them about all sorts of things (and some of his gripes are valid). His communications with Kim Jong-un have been peculiar, mocking “little rocket man” and then saying they had fallen in love.
Kim now has many more bombs than four years ago and he unveiled a huge new intercontinental missile a few days ago. It would be awkward if they launched one of these toward us by accident.
#7. Evidence of his prejudice is so widespread and well-known that I won’t bother to repeat it.
#8. For Donald Trump’s sex-abuse admissions see http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/08/politics/trump-on-howard-stern/. Read and listen carefully, because some of these charges against him may be debatable. But there’s plenty of damning evidence in recordings of Trump’s own words. […]
#9. Republicans have emphasized being tough with our adversaries, but now Trump is cuddling up with Russian oligarchs. And Trump tells CEOs how to run their businesses – commanding them, for example, to make their products in the US. In the past Republicans have at least given lip service to free-market capitalism, opposing the idea of a managed economy where government dictates business decisions. If Obama had tried to push CEOs around like Trump does, that would have been “proof” that he’s a Communist. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/01/19/if-obama-did-what-trump-is-doing-hes-be-called-a-communist-nouriel-roubini.html
Although I’m not a Republican, I appreciate intelligent conservatives such as George F. Will, who sometimes correct my biases. Will has long protested Trump’s anti-conservative policies, and finally left the Republican Party to protest Donald Trump’s racism. When Trump tweeted insults in response, Will wrote: “He has an advantage on me, because he can say everything he knows about any subject in 140 characters and I can’t.”
Snarky, but we get the point. Trumpism is not conservativism and his authoritarian style is the OPPOSITE of libertarianism. For a conservative critique of Trumpism, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/opinion/budget-deficit-republicans.html?searchResultPosition=1
#10. Contempt for expertise. There’s too much ghastly information to include here on politicization of the Pandemic. One analysis of the administration’s interference with the Center for Disease Control concludes:
Some longtime senior scientists at the CDC are grappling with whether they are too tainted to lead the rebuilding of trust.
“Many of us who might be viewed as complicit need to decide whether we need to leave,” one of them said, “Or can we be part of the ‘never again’ so that the agency never gets this kind of political interference again?”
#11. Authoritarian ambitions. Trump is pushing Attorney General Barr to conclude his investigation into Biden, Obama, and others before the election — just one of many examples of bending the power of government to serve his needs. His rhetoric about this issue is astonishing, even for him, accusing them of “the greatest political crime in the history of our country.”
#12. Encouraging insurrection. On August 9, 2015, Trump told a North Carolina rally that “Second Amendment people” could take action if Hillary Clinton were elected. He later said he was referring to their voting power. Sure he was. In a recent presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace implored him to tell violent racists to stand down but the president very clearly and pointedly told them to stand back and stand by.
[…] Back to the original post:
Many voted for Trump so he’d appoint justices who will kill Roe v. Wade. But even if you see this as a high priority, would you vote for absolutely anyone for that reason? Of course not. You wouldn’t vote for Hitler, right? So where do you draw the line? How about a sadistic, impulsive, hostile braggart with no experience in government who makes bizarre policy proposals, encourages violence and bigotry, throws away traditional Republican principles, causes the agonizing deaths of thousands of Americans, encourages violent insurrection, and brags about being a serial molester? […]
Obviously Trump supporters could disagree with some of these points and add arguments of their own. But I hope I’ve made it a little easier to understand why many us are dreading the next four years.
It’s incredibly dangerous to be led by a demagogic genius with a twisted personality. And there’s a boatload of evidence that this is exactly what we’ve got.
This post is based on a talk I gave recently at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos: Learning from Our Losses, to Better Love Our World:
Kermit the frog was right. “It’s not easy being green.” Not on Earth Day, 2018, after all the setbacks suffered by the interdependent web of existence. And on this Earth Day I’m going to focus on the overall political and human context within which Unitarian Universalists try to better love our world. I want to talk about politics because environmental concerns have been swept away in an astonishing political hurricane. And all of this directly ties into our great human journey.
I myself tend to be politically progressive, but I also appreciate moderates and conservatives who support humanitarian values. Sometimes our country has made good progress from a creative tension between liberals and conservatives, as when liberals suggest new programs for helping disadvantaged Americans and conservatives warn us about ways that these programs are poorly designed or even counterproductive. But instead of a creative tension today, we have “my way or the highway.”
And even though I’ll be talking about party politics, I don’t presume to say how you should vote. For one thing, someone I criticize quite sharply might run against someone you think is even worse. But before we turn to that pleasant topic, let’s reflect upon the very big picture, our unique and challenging human condition.
In April of 2013 I preached a sermon here called Graduates of Eden, and it was about human nature. I stated that our mental and physical nature fitted us well for living in small bands of hunter-gatherers. When food was plentiful this was at times a sort of Eden. And we didn’t get kicked out of this Garden of Eden because we were naughty. We did so well in our prehistoric “Eden” that we graduated. We grew into larger, more complicated societies. Our human accomplishments transformed the human world, but human nature is still fitted to the old world that we lost. And I mentioned three crucial mismatches between human nature and the new world we have created. First, we are easily confused by complexity, and our lives are more and more complex. Second, we are tribal creatures, who love those who are on “our team,” but often ignore or attack outsiders. And third, we are generally oblivious to problems that develop slowly – such as climate change.
Today I’ll add one more item to this list: our obsession with dominance. One day while reading about dominance hierarchies among monkeys I had one of those AHA moments like a lightbulb over my head. I suddenly realized that a huge amount of human behavior is strongly shaped by our love of dominance. Dominance involves who wins and who loses, who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” Have you noticed how often people argue about issues that could be resolved without acrimony? But without an argument, how are we going to jockey for position on the ladder of domination?
So we try to oversimplify complexity, we divide ourselves into tribes, we ignore problems that develop slowly, and we make domination a great big deal. In all of these ways, we are being faithful to inner biological imperatives. We humans are not evil or stupid, by and large. But we are dangerously successful.
No wonder it’s not easy being green. No wonder, in 2018, we’re such a long way from Eden. But many of us are trying to correct the mismatch between our biological programming and today’s planetary crises. And we can carry out this good work with positive attitudes, so we don’t get discouraged and give up.
My first suggestion is that we should just assume that humans have huge challenges that we’re not good at solving. Let’s stop being so shocked that people are often clueless and destructive – sometimes including ourselves. OF COURSE we have big troubles. The modern world is too complicated for us. Of course we love it when our leaders feed us solutions that are charmingly simple and ridiculously wrong. And some leaders actually believe there are simple solutions. As one of them said in dismay, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
Recently I received an email mentioning a web site that advocates action to reduce global warming and climate change (https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php). The site lists 197 arguments by those who deny that the climate is changing catastrophically, and refutes each of them with factual information. I appreciate this information, but let’s be careful here. Getting into detailed discussions of issues like whether cosmic rays are warming the Earth may be the wrong approach – because most people either cannot or will not deal with complicated details.
It’s often possible to tell the truth by saying something that’s simple but significant. For example, if you were driving and came to a blind intersection, where buildings blocked your view to the right and to the left, would you zip through at 30 mph or would you slow down and look both ways? Obviously you’d slow down, even if you thought there wasn’t much cross traffic. Even if it’s a small risk, the cost of being wrong is too high. And with issues like global warming and rising sea levels, it takes a long time to “put on the brakes” and stop putting so massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So even if there was only a small chance of disastrous warming, we should reduce these emissions just in case. And since most climate scientists say it is very likely that the Earth is warming, we’d be as foolish to ignore them as we would be to zoom through a blind intersection without slowing down.
By the way, people on both sides of the debate still argue with each other about whether climate change is mainly caused by human activity. That seems completely irrelevant. It’s another example of the way we frame things in terms of dominance. If we caused global warming that implies that we are bad. That brings up feelings we had when we were naughty children and some grownup scolded us. That makes us feel as if our status has gone down a few notches. That sets off our dominance alarms. Therefore we don’t want to face the possibility that we are to blame for climate change – so we deny that it’s happening. But I don’t much care if humans are the main cause. I mostly care about whether we can do something about it, whether human action can make a positive difference. And I’m sure it can.
I also want to suggest that we could stop being shocked that humans are so tribal. They are, they will always tend to be, and we will always have to help our children cope with this natural but often-counterproductive biological programming. Conservative columnist David Brooks recently reported a remarkable example: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade.” Just three years later “they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.” And no doubt this happens with Democrats too.
Cartoonist Dan Piraro lampooned our tribal tendencies in a Bizarro comic strip, in which a pollster asks: “OK last question: If you disagreed with all of your candidate’s positions, he spoke no known language, and he set fire to everything he touched, would you still vote for him?” Well, if he or she is on “our side,” maybe so.
So we can help ourselves stay positive by just assuming that people in general do not deal well with complicated modern problems, and stop being shocked at their ineptitude. I also want to explain how we can stay positive by welcoming painful truths that we have been avoiding. I want to explain how to do that, but I’m not sure I can. It’s tough to welcome disturbing realities, difficult to embrace disillusionment. It may help if we remember that we’ve all had to do that with various life issues, and we became stronger after losing illusions. And in politics, in the past couple of years, some veils of illusion have been ripped away. Certainly anyone who thought we have mostly overcome racism should lose that illusion now that we have elected a chief executive who makes statements that many people interpret as bigoted.
We have also become dis-illusioned about human gullibility. Political leaders have long known that they can get away with lying to the public, but now we see that a brash, confident candidate can lie a hundred times as much as we once thought possible and get away with it. Aleister Crowley:
Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears or passions – he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word.” I think this is also true of people who are far above “average.”
But here’s something hopeful. When the veil of illusion is ripped away so violently, people wake up and mobilize. Think of those bright, passionate, resourceful young people who led the March for Our Lives. Yes, humanitarian and environmental causes have suffered alarming losses, but that can be our alarm clock. It’s time to wake up, and “stay woke.”
We human beings are not inherently evil, but we are perilously successful. We are so good at creating complexity and so clueless about taming ancient tribal impulses and the drive toward domination. It’s not easy being green, but step by step we can become more skillful in loving Mother Earth. After all, there is no Planet B. I have no doubt that we have what it takes to move forward. Whether we will depends on each of us.
Secretary of State Tillerson reportedly called the President a moron, but he recently passed a cognitive exam with flying colors. So why does he keep making what a sportscaster would call “unforced errors?”
I am frankly surprised to hear that his frequent signs of stupidity are not due to cognitive decline. It certainly seems as if his blunders are getting worse. But by comparison, it may seem as if a pain I’m having now is worse than the pain I had yesterday – because I’m having it, not remembering it.
Trump’s recent insults to Haiti and Africa seemed like a new low, but he has a longstanding reputation for crude gutter language. And of course insulting people, and groups of people, is one of his personal hobbies. Even so, it was clearly stupid to speak of “shithole” or “shithouse” countries when Dick Durbin, a Democrat, was in the room. Did he forget who Durbin was, or not realize the consequences of someone reporting his vicious remarks?
As far as I know Trump has not had his head examined, with an X-ray or MRI. So he could have a brain tumor. But it may just be that deeply rooted personality defects distort his thinking – impulsiveness, arrogance, hostility, cruelty, a short attention span, and a love of risk-taking. Something is clouding his judgment. Continue Reading . . .
I recently read a wonderful column by the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto CA. She compares the behavior of DT, age 71, to the way her daughter acted at age 8. At 10, she’s outgrown it, but it seems very unlikely that DT ever will:
Roger Christan Schriner
I have recently posted a four-part series on the “fine-tuning” controversy on my theological blog, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. Some scientists claim that if the basic physical laws of the universe had been just slightly different, intelligent life could never have existed. Is this true? And if it is, does that show that the universe was designed by God as a home for humans?
The series includes some comments from the Closet Atheist blog and some passages from my book, Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheist and Agnostics. Click here if you’d like to check it out.
Roger Christan Schriner
One of my web sites deals with “Biblical inerrancy,” the idea that a supernatural being essentially dictated the entire Christian Bible so that every word is true. To some of you this may seem like a silly idea. But at least in the United States, Biblical inerrancy or literalism has a big impact on the way people live, think, feel, and vote. Continue Reading . . .
I’ve recently run across a poignant communication from a college-age atheist to her Christian mother. It’s well-expressed and heartfelt, and it ties in with my blog on Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. See:
Roger Christan Schriner
I’ve just been notified that my proposal for a presentation on consciousness has been accepted by organizers of The Science of Consciousness, Shanghai, China, June 5-10, 2017. [Update: The conference has been moved to San Diego, California.]
Here’s the abstract of my paper, Dueling Skepticisms: Strong Fallibilism Versus Illusionism. Continue Reading . . .
My reaction to the election of Donald Trump is intensely negative, but some people I respect did vote for him. I want to explain to Trump voters why many of us are appalled by this fellow, and I hope these comments will also be helpful to those who voted against him. Please forward this post if you find it valuable.
I don’t expect to convince people that I am right. I just want to explain why I feel so strongly.
Some of what I’ll say will be blunt, but if you voted for Trump you probably feel OK about blunt language. I’ll start with a short list of issues, followed by more details in the “footnotes.”
- Donald Trump loves to brutally humiliate people. “She had blood coming out of her wherever.” “Look at that face.”*1
Here’s a recent post on my blog, The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters, https://mysteryofconsciousness.wordpress.com/
I’ve recently read a fascinating book called Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. In this fanciful, rather sobering tale, two Greek gods make a bet with each other about what dogs would experience if they were given human intelligence.
Although this story doesn’t focus on the issues I’ve addressed in this blog, it does highlight the fact that every mind shapes reality in its own way. Their new brain power radically alters their world-view, and this is quite disturbing to some of these canines. In fact one dominant dog named Atticus insists that those in his pack mostly suppress their new intellectual gifts. Continue Reading . . .
I won’t be adding much to this site for a few weeks, due to a busy schedule of writing and attending conferences. I’ll be at an American Philosophical Assn conference in San Francisco 3/30-4/3, and I’m preparing a paper for The Science of Consciousness in Tucson AZ, 4/25-30.
On January 3 I gave a talk at our local Unitarian Universalist congregation. My theme was, roughly, the human condition, so I was painting with a very broad brush. Although this sort of essay inevitably oversimplifies, a big-picture sketch can be useful. I preceded the talk with some centering words:
This day is precious to us, and to all living creatures. This is a day to open ourselves to fulfillment. This is a day to soften the boundaries between ourselves and others, To touch what is real and see through our illusions.
This is a day to welcome life’s gifts, especially those that surprise us. It is a time to extend love and create value. This day will never come again. We can only know this day. It is the day when we live.
And here is the text of my talk:
The Trap, and the Quest
January 3, 2016
The new year is a good time to look at the big picture, and one way to do that is by asking – what are we and where are we?
Well, we are intelligent conscious beings in a vast cosmos that is evidently the home of other intelligent conscious beings. Just in our own galaxy we now estimate that there are at least 50 billion planets and at least 500 million of those planets are in the Goldilocks zone – not too hot, not too cold, just right for life. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe, so if our galaxy is typical and if my math is correct, the number of potentially habitable planets might be not a billion, not a trillion, not even a quadrillion, but 50 quintillion! With 50 quintillion possibilities I have no doubt that there are intelligent beings out there. These unknown aliens are kindred to us – in an achingly poignant way – because they are probably struggling with the same issues that trouble homo sapiens. Another way of saying this is that each of these intelligent life-forms needs a Buddha.
“The Buddha” is a title given to someone who seems enlightened, and it’s often associated with a man named Gautama, who described our situation 2500 years ago in starkly simple terms. He proclaimed “the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; [he said] decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering.” (Just about everything is suffering!) He then traced the problem of suffering back to tanha, a Sanskrit word translated as thirst or craving. He said that if you get rid of this craving, you get rid of suffering, and he presented a program for doing just that. So Gautama realized that we are caught in a trap, and offered a way to be free.
The Buddha’s ideas about our human predicament seem more helpful to me than those of the Middle Eastern religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Now I have a lot of respect for these religions and they have a great deal to offer, but they give us the wrong diagnosis of our basic problem. They say we are trapped in suffering because of sin. Christian theology says Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden and their mistake somehow embroiled the whole human species in a vast smoldering cauldron of collective guilt. But today most people reject the idea that someone’s sin infects that person’s descendants with guilt. I think inherited guilt is a confused and misguided notion, and mainstream Christianity is based on that idea. Now obviously there are many versions of Middle Eastern religion with many different views about inherited guilt, but they do usually emphasize that we suffer because we are sinners. But babies suffer and animals suffer. They do not sin, but they are also caught in the spider-web of craving, frustration, and distress.
Today science helps us see why this is so. Science shows that evolution has been driven by competition between predators and their prey. In a world where animals eat each other, developing higher levels of intelligence is rather helpful. Smarter critters survive. But evolution also injects craving and suffering into animal minds. Creatures are more likely to survive if they strive desperately to have lunch rather than to become lunch. Which reminds me of a story about religion and survival needs: A fellow was being chased by a bear through the woods, and he cried out, “Please God, make this beast into a Christian!” Whereupon the bear fell to its knees in front of the man, clasped its great paws in prayer, and spoke! “Oh Lord, please bless this food I am about to receive.”
Religion is one thing, but we all need to eat. Some philosophers and neuroscientists now believe that the struggle for survival has shaped consciousness itself. What it feels like to be human has been shaped by craving and suffering, attraction and repulsion, approach and avoidance. We are driven forward by rewards and punishments. Desire is the honey and suffering is the whip.
So the battle over teaching evolution in school involves our fundamental understanding of the human condition. And I believe that in our universe the only way that consciousness spontaneously appears is through evolutionary competition, through struggle, driven by craving. If that is true, then intelligent space aliens are just as much trapped by desire as we are.
In the big picture, we are part of an unfolding cosmic journey. The journey begins with unthinking, unfeeling matter. Through the struggle for survival, some of this mindless stuff turns into conscious organisms, caught in the push and pull of pain and pleasure. Some of these animals then become intelligent enough to notice that they are in a trap, and to imagine the possibility of liberation. This leads some of them to rebel against their own biological programming. And this act of rebellion against blind nature turns what had been a mindless journey into a mindful quest.
You and I are creatures of the quest. And we are situated at an awkward spot in our pilgrimage. Even fairly insightful humans are still enslaved by craving much of the time. There are moments of clarity when we slip out of our prison. But when we are enmeshed in an endless series of desires fulfilled and desires frustrated, these obsessions distract us from enjoying our blessings. We have only so much mental bandwidth, and if our heads are full of cravings, we don’t have much space to be free. We can get stuck in mindless melodramas, preoccupied with a dreary laundry list of obsessions that have little to do with anything real and lasting.
Many are obsessed with whether they’re OK, whether they are worthy, lovable, or attractive, whether they have high or low status. And we are so fascinated by conflict. I consider it a tiny step toward freedom that nowadays I find most action movies to be just nauseatingly tedious. Pow, pow, ow, ow, wow, wow, what now? And I hate the way the media focuses on the conflict dimension of politics. I found common ground with Ted Cruz during a debate among Republican presidential candidates when he scolded a CNBC interviewer, and said: “This is not a cage match … How about talking about the substantive issues people care about?” But the media thinks people are more interested in watching a good fight than in thinking hard about hard issues – and they’re probably right.
When our eagerness to fight each other is combined with our cleverness in constructing weapons, then we’ve really got trouble! Just as children cannot be trusted playing with matches, many grownups can’t be trusted with guns – much less with nuclear weapons. Right now the US and Russia still have intercontinental missiles tipped with hydrogen bombs pointed toward each other on hair-trigger alert. That is absolute madness. If any of us need proof that the human race is out of touch with reality, this is it! And if any of you are concerned about this bizarre situation, I’d love to talk with you.
So here we are, singing with Joni Mitchell, “it’s life’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know life at all.” But realizing that we are caught in illusion is a huge step forward. And we are looking for a way out, here on Earth and elsewhere. Perhaps right this minute, in some distant constellation, in some far-off hidden corner of the sky, other self-reflective beings are also asking, “How do we get out of this pickle?”
Now I don’t want to exaggerate how dreadful it is to be trapped in an endless cycle of craving and frustration. Humans have been smart enough to improve our situation through labor-saving devices, comfortable housing, modern medicine, health insurance, and chocolate-covered almonds. And we do get to enjoy magnificent experiences of meaning, wonder, and fulfillment. When we stop taking our cravings so seriously and loosen the grip of our own melodramas, we can savor these amazing human realities. One way to become more conscious of life’s gifts is to ask what we value in itself. What do we cherish for its own sake? It’s so easy to focus on things we do for the sake of other things. Yes, we want financial security, but for what? We want to save time, but what good do we get from the time we save?
The morning prayer I shared earlier reminds me to welcome life’s gifts, to see through my illusions, and to focus on what I treasure for its own sake.
So what do we value in itself? Love, of course. Romantic love, the love of lifetime partners, love for parents, children, family, friends. Love is useful as a means to other ends, but it’s also precious for its own sake. And what else? Music is another mind-boggling human reality we are so privileged to enjoy. Singing, playing an instrument – and dancing to music can put us into Paradise. There is also art and poetry. Enjoying what it’s like to have a physical body. Feeling a sense of accomplishment – fixing things, solving problems, completing projects. Being absorbed in a story, in a book or a movie. There is beauty – painting, sculpture, dance. Playing games. And what about humor? If I wanted to make a case that human consciousness is utterly miraculous and inexplicable I would start with the miracle of laughter, especially shared laughter with those we love. And let’s not forget the quiet, gentle times that can be so dear, like driving around at night looking at holiday lights.
There are many ways to find enough mental freedom to appreciate our blessings. Psychotherapy can help. If our brains have gone off-kilter, medications can be life-saving. And spiritual teachers have said we can find freedom by just observing our own mental machinery. Watch all of that mental stuff cranking repetitiously till we see that it’s just machinery. Nothing to get hung up about. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass suggested that we observe the mind by tuning in to an inner witness, a calm inner observer who watches what’s happening with total objectivity. The witness is a part of us that sees us clearly and does not judge us or get caught up in the drama. It’s like a selfie-stick that shows us from a distance, but that photographs us for accuracy rather than for vanity.
By seeing through the useless distractions of our own illusions, we can focus on what’s meaningful and lasting. For a few minutes now, let’s explore these themes in a meditation, and after the meditation I’ll resume the sermon. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and relax your body. Think about the anti-illusion strategies that work for you. Do spiritual disciplines help you? Counseling? Classes and workshops? Reading good books? Coming to Mission Peak? What helps you set aside distracting frustrations? And for you, what life-experiences are most precious and meaningful? Think back to the experiences I listed earlier, and others as well. What do you treasure for its own sake? If you could become more conscious of one kind of human experience, which one would you choose? And now take a few breaths to bring yourself back to this room, and open your eyes when you’re ready.
And now back to the sermon, but at coffee hour I would love to hear about your strategies for letting go of needless frustrations and focusing on what you value for its own sake. And I want to mention something new that I’ve been doing to set aside what distracts me so as to savor what really matters. I just say three simple words to myself: “Don’t miss this.” Don’t miss this moment of face-to-face communication. Don’t miss the sky on this wonderful winter day. Don’t miss the satisfaction of finishing a difficult project. These three words are brightening my life: Don’t miss this!
I’ve been speaking of the quality of our individual lives, but these ideas are also related to our common human endeavors. If we practice looking at ourselves objectively, using that spiritual selfie-stick, we can become more objective about our own political opinions, and our opinions about religion, culture, and morality – the basic building blocks of human community. Mostly I’m still trapped in my opinions about religion and politics but I have moments of lucidity when I see that my opinions are just … my opinions. No doubt I’m mistaken in some ways and I can learn a lot by being more open-minded. Then I can say, “I disagree with most everything that politician stands for, but she just said something brilliant! Or, “I often criticize Middle Eastern religion, but there is something beautiful in the Jewish faith, that is a fine insight of Christianity, those are helpful teachings from Islam.”
Even at this early stage of our quest, we are already starting to free ourselves from illusion, in both our inner lives and in the larger world. And importantly, the value of life is not determined by comparing the number of moments we feel good with the number of moments we feel bad, the amount of time we’re trapped versus the time we are free. It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. The wonderful times we treasure most dearly can outweigh many boring or unpleasant moments. During these little bits of heaven, we can agree with Robert Frost that “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”
And don’t just practice these principles yourself. Tell others, and especially teach your children. If the stories of the Buddha’s early life are true, I can see why he saw that suffering is a fundamental problem. As a child he was shielded from unhappiness, pampered and protected, and when his illusions were ripped away, it was shattering. I wonder what he would have thought of these words of the poet William Blake: “Joy and woe are woven fine, clothing for the soul divine. … And when this we rightly know, safely through the world we go.” Today we can show our children how to safely move through joys and woes, rolling along with life’s ups and downs. We can do this in our homes and through religious education. Perhaps some day all children will learn these principles in school, and that could change the world.
So that’s how I see the big picture. You and I are minds shaped from matter, speaking our truth from our particular point in a very long journey. Other good minds in other galaxies are on the same great quest. Their skin may be green and their feet may be webbed like ducks. But their deepest challenge is basically the same. We’re all trying to spend less time in the prison of craving and frustration, and more time treasuring life’s gifts. May 2016 be a year when all of us find much more freedom and joy!
On my web site, Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, I am presenting a series of talks in which I debate with myself about whether God exists. It’s called, Is God Real? Pastor Chris Debates Dr. Schriner.
Roger Christan Schriner
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. For more information click the About tab, above.
Here is a new entry from my blog, The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters — http://mysteryofconsciousness.wordpress.com
It seems obvious that consciousness is remarkable and mysterious, but we struggle to say just why it’s so special. In recent decades, however, several philosophers have managed to articulate some of the key features that make consciousness extraordinary. These new insights are intriguing, but they also make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur within a brain. In fact, some of them make it hard to understand how consciousness could occur at all, in any conceivable medium.
In the next few weeks I will explore some of these insights and conundrums. So here is the first of six persistent enigmas about consciousness:
In 1974 Thomas Nagel challenged behaviorism with an essay called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (Philosophical Review, October, 1984, pp. 435-50). According to behaviorists, if we want to learn about bats, we study the way bats behave. But what about knowing how it is to be the bat itself?
Nagel used bats as his example because they use an exotic navigation system called echolocation. They send out high-frequency shrieks and monitor the way these sounds are echoed back. Since we do not typically navigate in this way, we have a hard time guessing what it is like to have this sensory ability.
But Nagel wasn’t really talking about bats. He was using echolocation as a dramatic example. His real point is that for every conscious organism there is something it is like to be that organism. It is this what-it’s-like aspect of experience that is left out by behaviorism – and, some would say, by science itself.
If I knew everything that could possibly be known about you except what it’s like to be you, would my knowledge of you be complete?
Nagel drove home his point by writing that “to form a conception of what it is like to be a bat … one must take up the bat’s point of view” (p. 442). But if we can only understand an organism’s experience from its special vantage point, how can science ever understand consciousness? Science strives for objectivity, and Nagel declares that “any shift to greater objectivity – that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint – does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it” (p. 445).
Nagel’s essay was only 15 pages long, but it has had an enormous impact. The phrase “what it’s like” now permeates consciousness literature. Some think this is an unfortunate development, and in my next entry I’ll consider the strengths and weaknesses of this revolutionary piece of scholarship.
Roger Christan Schriner
I am attempting to explain why philosophers find consciousness puzzling, dealing with this issue in ways that non-philosophers can understand. Last Sunday I tried again:
The Mystery of Consciousness Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Redwood City, August 9, 2015 © Dr. Chris Schriner 2015
“Is there any connection we could imagine to exist between certain movements of certain atoms in my brain on the one hand and, on the other hand, those facts that are basic, indefinable, and undeniable for me: ‘I feel pain, pleasure, I taste something sweet . . .’” – E. Du Bois-Reymond, 1872
“Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious. So much for the philosophy of consciousness.” – philosopher Jerry Fodor, 1992
Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” And of course one of the most mind-boggling mysteries of all is the fact that you and I have conscious experiences, experiences such as thoughts, perceptions, physical sensations, moods, emotions, dreams, and fantasies.
Today we’ll focus mainly on the qualities of sensory experience – the way coffee smells to you, the riveting pain of a toothache, the unique taste of butterscotch, the cool feeling of an ice cube against your skin, the quality of your experience of redness when you look at a ripe strawberry, and so on. Many of those who study consciousness find it very strange that the qualities of experiences would be states of a brain, and for over 20 years I have been obsessed with trying to solve this puzzle. I’ve read hundreds of articles and dozens of books on the subject, I’ve attended numerous conferences and colloquia and sometimes presented papers there, such as the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness just last month. So this morning I want to take you on a sensory and conceptual adventure about mind and body, focusing on the question of whether the qualities of sensory experience could exist within a brain. To prepare for these reflections we can meditate on one kind of sensory quality, the experience of sound. So I invite you to close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and begin focusing on the sounds that you are experiencing, the sound of my voice and anything else that you hear. Notice the quality of each sound just as “a sound.” I’ll make some different noises while you focus on what your mind is doing with the air-waves that are bouncing off of your eardrums. [Rattle, bells, rainstick.]
Now ask yourself, “could these sounds, as I experience them, occur within my brain?” Could they be patterns of neural activity? And now take a few deep breaths and open your eyes when you’re ready.
Woody Allen once remarked, “What a wonderful thing, to be conscious! I wonder what the people in New Jersey do.” But regardless of whether you’re from Manhattan, New Jersey, or anywhere else, it is wonderful to be conscious! Being conscious makes us quite different from teacups, snowflakes, lawnmowers, and those who disagree with us politically – but we struggle to say just what it is that makes consciousness special. What do you and I have that the average rock does not, and how would the rock have to change in order to wake up and have experiences?
This is important because the value of human life involves consciousness. Many of us would agree that it is wrong to needlessly destroy a conscious creature. By contrast, when I drink a glass of water I don’t think anything morally reprehensible happens to this liquid when it plunges into an acid bath in my stomach. I do not think the water is conscious, so I do not imagine it silently screaming, “Ahhhh!” – SSSSS! The difference in value between me and a glass of water involves the fact that I am conscious of pain and pleasure and it is not. Even pan-experientialists, people who believe that everything is conscious, often admit that human beings and other complex animals are conscious in a special way that gives us special value.
It has been maddeningly difficult to reconcile our understanding of consciousness with the way science thinks about the brain, and this has stirred up the old debate about how the mind relates to the body. There are several hotly-debated philosophical arguments that seems to show that consciousness cannot occur within the brain. Today I’m going to share some of these arguments against the idea that the conscious mind is in the brain, and one of them involves the story of Mary.
Imagine that we can peer into the distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now. Science, which today is only a few centuries old, has advanced so far in those millions of years that many fields of study are essentially complete. And biotechnology has expanded our memory and intelligence so that a single individual can understand everything there is to know about some complicated topic. One of these people is Mary, a neuroscientist who knows all that can ever be known about color experiences by studying their physical aspects. Mary has soaked up everything about the physical aspects of color perception that books, teachers, and computers can possibly tell her – but Mary has never seen a color. She grew up in a black-and white room, she was prevented from looking at her own skin, etc. Then one day she is released from her colorless home, free to see the whole range of hues for the very first time.
The story of Mary is a thought experiment proposed by a philosopher named Frank Jackson in 1982. Let’s say that the first colorful thing Mary sees is a garden full of dazzling red roses. So here is the crucial question: When she sees a red rose for the first time, does Mary gain new knowledge? Jackson claimed that she does, and he cooked up the Mary scenario because at that time he was a dualist. Dualists believe that mind and matter are two very different sorts of stuff, and Mary helped Jackson argue that mind is not matter. He claimed that after her release Mary gains new knowledge over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. She learns what colors are as we experience them. So here is Jackson’s argument: If all things are physical, including our visual experiences, and Mary already knew everything about the physical aspects of color perception, then she would not have learned anything new when she walked into that garden. But if she did learn something new when she actually experienced color, then our experiences of color are not physical. They are not made of matter, and do not occur within the brain. And it does seem to many that when Mary saw those roses, she learned something new about the nature of color. In the past 30 years philosophers have responded to Jackson’s provocative one-page thought experiment with over one thousand scholarly papers and several books. Jackson himself eventually decided that his argument was flawed, but many believe he was right the first time and should never have recanted.
About the same time Jackson wrote about Mary, Joseph Levine proposed a puzzle called “The Explanatory Gap.” How could learning about the brain ever explain sensory qualities? They seem so different from patterns of neural activity. And how could we explain the fact that some brain event is one quality of experience instead of another? For instance, how could we ever know why a certain pattern of brain activity would turn out to be a reddish experience instead of a blueish experience? Or the experience of a bell-sound, or the distinctive fragrance of an agitated skunk? So even though Levine thinks experiences do occur within the brain, he doubts that we can ever explain how this is so. That’s the explanatory gap.
It seems as if neural activities and sensory experiences are two entirely different sorts of things, as if they belong in two different universes. Trying to use neuroscience to explain what colors, sounds, and pains are like when we experience them seems like trying to show how you could add up a column of numbers and get letters of the alphabet as your answer.
One more issue I’ll mention is what David Chalmers calls the Hard Problem of consciousness. David claims that even if we completely explained every function related to consciousness, everything that consciousness does, we would still fail to understand why the performance of these functions involves conscious experience. He even says it is conceivable that our brains could carry out all of their functions without having any experiences, and he highlights this problem by talking about an imaginary being that he calls a “philosophical zombie.” A philosophical zombie has a brain that is exactly like a human brain, and it acts just like we do, but the zombie has no experiences. If it screams due to touching fire, it is not actually feeling pain. If it says “yum” while eating ice cream, it does so without any taste-sensations. Even though this creature looks just like a normal human, inside the poor zombie’s brain all is dark, and all is silent. So if a zombie could, hypothetically, do everything we do without having experiences, why are we conscious? What’s the point? Was consciousness merely evolved so we could watch Dancing with the Stars?
So we have the Mary scenario, the explanatory gap, the Hard Problem, and philosophical zombies. After wrestling these problems for over 20 years I’ve come up with answers that give me some satisfaction, ideas about how consciousness could exist within the brain. Today I’ll suggest a way to deal with Mary in the rose garden, and the solution I’ll propose to that mystery also has implications for the other conundrums.
My basic approach is to say that we misjudge some aspects of our own experiences, and some of these misjudgments make us doubt that consciousness could live inside our heads. Because we are so intimately connected to our own sensory experiences, it may seem as if they are the things we know best. But the brain was not primarily evolved to inform us about our own minds. It’s mainly good at telling us what’s happening in the outside world and in our bodies. We do have some ability to detect our own emotions and moods, to know what we are thinking, and to reflect on the qualities of our experiences, but these are recently-evolved abilities and they’re not that well-developed.
I think we need to re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of introspection, and by introspection I just mean paying careful attention to one’s own stream of consciousness. So what is introspection good at, and what does it do badly? Well, we usually do pretty well at detecting sensory perceptions such as the experience of redness and noticing when those perceptions change. We are naturally skillful at monitoring these kinds of things by introspection, by looking within. But many scholars have thought that introspection also reveals the true nature of experiences, how they really are. They speak of having introspective access to the “metaphysical essence” of the color red, or the “ultimate ontology” of a toothache sensation.
I think this is a huge mistake. In fact I think that our own subjective judgments about the ultimate nature of experiences are almost worthless. For example, one might be good at knowing precisely when one’s experience of a toothache intensifies but utterly confused about the fundamental nature of this pain. Is pain a pattern of neural activities? Is it something that happens within an immortal soul? Is it spirit-energy or ectoplasm or who-the-heck-knows-what? Is it just an illusion? I don’t think introspection tells us much about this issue.
Here’s an example of a mistake about the ultimate nature of our own experiences. Based upon introspection, many people have claimed that intense pain always includes unpleasantness, meaning that there is something about the nature of agony that makes us want it to stop. But there’s a rare syndrome caused by strokes called pain asymbolia. “When burnt or pinpricked, asymbolics deny that their experience is unpleasant . . .” They show no sign of wanting to withdraw or cry out, but they say they are experiencing pain. They “experience a sensation which they identify as pain even though it is not intrinsically unpleasant . . .”
One woman had a lobotomy as a treatment for extreme chronic pain. When the surgeon followed up with her, years later, she said that the pain was still the same as before, but after the surgery it did not bother her. “In fact, it’s still agonizing” she said, “But I don’t mind.” “Similar experiences of pain without unpleasantness have been also reported by meditators and those in a hypnotic trance, e.g. during dentistry …” It is, of course, difficult to know whether the quality of the pain they experienced after treatment is the same as it was previously. What is clear is that these patients testify that they are experiencing states with a painful quality that is the same as or similar to pain states they have had before, and that these current pain states do not bother them.
(The above quotes are from Bain, D. “The Imperative View of Pain,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, September/October, 2011, Vol. 18, No. 9-10, pp. 164-85; and Fink, S. B. “Independence and Connections of Pain and Suffering,” Journal of Consciousness Studies, September/October, 2011, Vol. 18, No. 9-10, pp. 45-66.)
So introspection may seem to tell us that unpleasantness is obviously part of what pain is, but it is possible to have severe pain without having any impulse to avoid the pain. We thought introspection showed us something obvious about the essential nature of pain, and we were wrong.
Actually, looking within at our own experiences presents very ambiguous evidence about their true nature. Sensory phenomena do not wear little name tags that announce what kind of entity they really are. And it is just pitiful to see brilliant scholars flatly contradict each other about the “obvious” nature of experiences. Based on introspection, people have confidently said that conscious experiences are: non-physical, not located within space, constituted by a spiritual substance, part of a cosmic mind, part of the mind of God, or not divisible into smaller components. But for every scholar who asserts one of these ideas, there’s another who says, “That’s nonsense!” This crazy cacophony of conflicting opinions suggests that evidence from introspection about the nature of consciousness is ambiguous and unreliable.
This is one way to understand the puzzle of Mary. When Mary exclaims, “Aha! That’s what this red color is like,” it may seem as if she has encountered a new kind of reality that books could never have taught her. She experiences what redness IS. But if Mary cannot detect the ultimate nature of experiences by just focusing her mind on them, then she does not know that she has encountered some weird new something-or-other that science can never comprehend. All she can say is that she is now having an experience she has not had before. Her seeing red for the first time is no more discombobulating than if she were still locked in her color-free room and saw some particular shade of gray for the first time. Ho hum.
Perhaps you can see how this idea also applies to the explanatory gap. If we ask why some pattern of neural activity would constitute redness instead of blueness, people tend to think this question means: How can we explain why a certain brain event would be a strange and special something that is an experience of red instead of a strange and special something that is an experience of blue? If we aren’t good at knowing the true nature of our own perceptions, then we do not know that they are strange and special. We just know, “Oh, here’s that experience that I call, ‘seeing red.’ This experience tells me things about what I’m looking at. The traffic light looks red, so I’ll stop.” Since there’s nothing special and mysterious to explain, there was never an explanatory gap to begin with.
I admit that when I see red, hear a harp, or feel a throbbing headache, it sometimes seems as if I know the true nature of these experiences just by having them, but our personal intuitions about the nature of experiences have a miserable track record. One key lesson here is that in some ways we are too close to ourselves to know ourselves well. Trying to understand our own consciousness is like trying to see one’s own eye without using a mirror.
The philosophical puzzles of mind and brain can be solved with a big dose of humility, a willingness to say that how things seem to us may not be the way they really are. Careful reflection and analysis helps me realize this, but I admit that using logic is not always enough. If I want to open up to the possibility that the living human mind is actually embedded in the brain, it can also be helpful to use metaphor and poetry. So after all this philosophizing, I’ll close with some poetic imagery about the possible unity of mind and brain.
Metaphorically speaking, we could think of color experiences as neural narratives about the secrets of surfaces.
Experiences of sound constantly partition the vast vibratory silence that surrounds us.
Tastes and tactile sensations are experiential wizards, conjuring the unity of tongue and tabasco sauce, fusing our skin with the texture of silk.
Scents invisibly decorate the chemistry of air.
And what about light? If we have the gift of sight, we have light in our minds, and those poor philosophical zombies do not. But how can there be light within the darkness of our skulls? Again, poetically speaking, as you and I experience it – light is the brain’s brand of legible darkness – a luminous darkness that guides us through the night.
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. For more information click the About tab, above.
I’ve just revised the About page, so here’s the new version.
About this Web Site
This site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. It includes pages about four books:
Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You
Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics
Feel Better Now: 30 Ways to Handle Frustration in 3 Minutes or Less
Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions.
Each of these four book-pages includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. I’ve also created pages describing my blogs, with sample posts from each.
I have always been fascinated by the Big Issues that puzzle everyone from school-age children to eminent scholars – how we can tell right from wrong, how we can know anything at all, the search for core values, moral rules vs. moral relativism, free will vs. determinism, theism vs. atheism, the mystery of consciousness, puzzles about selfhood, and how to deal with death. These are not just academic issues. They have a subtle but profound impact on the quality of our lives.
I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to consider these questions in depth for several decades. Being an early reader gave me a head start, so that by the time I entered college I was ready to jump into the deep end. I majored in philosophy, religion, and psychology, and went on to earn a doctorate in religion from Claremont School of Theology, a respected seminary in southern California. I became a psychotherapist and a Unitarian Universalist minister. I’ve taken several sabbaticals for further study, and since 2008 I’ve been writing, speaking, and leading workshops about my books, full-time.
After grappling with the Big Questions, do I have any Big Answers? I am far too emotionally involved with my work to be objective about that. But I have been willing to bet my life that if enough of us dive deeply into exploring these perennial enigmas, we will find new insights that move us closer to the truth – insights that help us become both more rational and more humane. I’m doing what I can. It’s up to others to decide whether I’ve had any success.
I would love to know how you respond to what I’ve written.
Roger Christan Schriner
Educational and professional background:
Dr. Roger “Chris” Schriner is a writer, psychotherapist, and Unitarian Universalist minister. He earned a B.A. from the University of Redlands summa cum laude in religion, philosophy, and psychology, a Doctorate in Religion from Claremont School of Theology, and an M.S. in Family Counseling from the University of LaVerne. His Honors Thesis at Redlands examined the ethical thought of theologian Paul Tillich and his dissertation at Claremont School of Theology dealt with nuclear weapons policy. He worked for 25 years as a psychotherapist and he is Minister Emeritus of Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fremont.
He is the author of six books, the most recent of which are:
Bridging the God Gap: Finding Common Ground Among Believers, Atheists and Agnostics, http://www.amazon.com/Bridging-God-Gap-Believers-Agnostics/dp/0984584005/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312308771&sr=1-1
Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You,
The Mystery of Consciousness, and Why It Matters
Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible
Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground
Note: This web site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. When I post a new entry in one of my blogs I will typically include it in this space. Here’s the latest example, from https://theistsandatheists.wordpress.com:
Oversimplifying Theism: An Example from Daniel Dennett
Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, has suggested one reason it’s so hard for theists and atheists to talk with each other: “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”
I have a lot of respect for Dennett. As I wrote in Your Living Mind, I have “sheepishly” come to realize that some of his radical ideas about consciousness are more insightful than they seemed at first. And in Bridging the God Gap I give him credit for being more open-minded about religion than many prominent freethinkers. I think he’s on to something very important in his comment about telling people they’ve lived for an illusion, but I would put the point somewhat differently:
“IF you assume that belief in God is all there is to someone’s religion, then questioning that belief means challenging their whole way of life.”
But that’s a false assumption. Religion is far more than a list of theological doctrines. It involves an incredibly complex array of spoken and written statements and countless hours of worship and fellowship, as well as art and music, moral principles, spiritual practices, spiritual experiences, personal relationships, and involvement with religious institutions.
One can revise or reject theological tenets without invalidating everything else. Atheist Sam Harris, for example, follows many Buddhist teachings without accepting the Buddha’s 2500-year-old worldview. And there are who atheists belong to religious organizations because they value the fellowship, the rituals, and/or their congregation’s ethical commitments (Bridging the God Gap, p. 160).
Because we are drawn to simple stereotypes, we often speak as if we could summarize entire worldviews in a word or a phrase. That makes it very hard to critique someone’s life-stance without seeming to insult and invalidate that person. Our simplistic minds make nuanced dialogue difficult.
Life is strange and our minds are limited. It may be that both religious and secular worldviews are partially right but radically incomplete. I may be correct in claiming that someone is in the grip of illusions. But perhaps my own follies are just as foolish.
Roger Christan Schriner
This site provides information about several of my books, my blogs, and other writings. Each book-page includes most of the first chapter or the Introduction. I’ve also created pages describing my blogs, with sample posts from each. For more information click the About tab, above.
Roger Christan Schriner