The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Society ... Socrates Cafe ...

Last night the local Socrates Cafe group struggled over the nature of art. The specific question was whether “art” is confined to what artists do when practicing what is generally accepted as an “art form” (i.e., music, painting, sculpture, acting, etc.); or whether it is legitimate to say that “art” applies to other human endeavors, such as a doctor who is so good at what he does as to seem artistic.

One guy thought that using “art” to describe what doctors and scientists and even accountants do when they are at their best is a dilution and corruption of what is meant when we speak of an art. He said that true artists seek to play on the human soul in an evocative manner; they seek to convey something of the true essence of living to others, to make others appreciative of their being and the world around them. And accountants just don’t do that in balancing their books.

That all sounds pretty good. But I still disagree with the guy.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:16 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Friday, November 26, 2010
Personal Reflections ... Socrates Cafe ...

I’ve been hanging out with a Zen sangha since the start of this year (Clear Mountain in Montclair), and it’s pretty cool. But as with all other groups, there is some group-think involved with it. Despite the Buddha’s own warning not to think a particular way just because other people are thinking it, our group –- and really, every other Buddhist group –- espouses the view that meditation is a great thing, and the more the better. One of the senior members recommended that I sit in silence at least 15 minutes each day; 30 minutes would be better.

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that sitting in silence can be a really good thing. And I try to do it on a regular basis. But as to giving up a half hour of my waking life every day . . . I dunno. There are a lot of good things to be awake for in life, if you take a positive attitude. Our days and hours and minutes are numbered; and every minute spent with eyes closed in silent isolation is a minute that could have otherwise gone to seeing, smelling, touching or otherwise experiencing something in our world. Or to doing things, including many things which need to be done in order to live a responsible and caring life. Or to reading, learning things, talking with people, etc.

So, I think that meditation is great. But as to those Zen masters who think it good to spend hours and hours seated on a cushion,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:40 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Philosophy ... Socrates Cafe ...

What is knowing? What does it mean to “know”? What is “knowledge”? How do we know the world? What is the truest nature of the world . . . or of whatever we can know of it?

Yea, it was a night for some deep philosophy at the old Socrates Café, yesterday evening. Here are some notes on what was running through my head. I came up with four points, four ways of seeing the world, based upon four names. Those names are: REALITY; FACT; UNDERSTANDING; and KNOWLEDGE.

REALITY – dynamic; the “judgment of evolution”; but evolution in a broader sense, including all large self-organizing dynamic systems and their drivers, including chaos theory, complexity, emergence; evolution will judge a wide range of differences, both objective (difference between bleach and water) and social-subjective (belief in God); based on reproduction and survival.

FACT – static; western science; empirical, repeatable, cross-subjective; realism; the tree that falls in the forest, even though no one is there to observe it or detect it in any way. A fact is a fact, and stays that way.

UNDERSTANDING (although INTUITION may be the better word here) – personal; locked in each mind; experiential, subjective; idealism. What we would know even without a social system of learning, language and group thinking.

KNOWLEDGE – socially based intelligence; “common knowledge”; as reflected by language, language being the tool and the emergent result of social dynamics; truth evolving thru the social.

OK, but which word and which viewpoint is right? Which one reflects the deepest truth?

We can’t know. But we can try to develop wisdom.

WISDOM – the mix of all of these! The encircling of all of these approaches brings us closest to the true nature of our lives and our world, as a unified whole. They are all correct in the context of all the others. They are all useless fallacies, in isolation. The truth cannot be described without them, and yet none of them describes the truth.

That sounds good, anyway!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:36 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Personal Reflections ... Socrates Cafe ...

Here are two brief scenes from my life from last week.

  1. The Clear Mountain Zendo on a chilly, dark and wet morning at 6:30 AM. It was Thursday, and I got up at 3:45 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I got out of bed a half hour early and did some meditation at the zendo. The zendo was dark but the door was open. In the sitting area, two members of the sangha were sitting, and a lone candle was burning. I joined them for the next 20 minutes. At 7 am, as the sky struggled toward an uninspired dark grey dawn, we exchanged our greetings and headed out for our daily routines.
  2. At the Socrates Cafe meeting on Tuesday night, the topic was . . . rather forgettable. Something about whether there is a plan being the human race and our individual lives. But what was interesting was a little tirade one of the older members made about the evils of a quickly changing, increasingly technology-dependent world. Mr. Jimmy said that he would rather go and live the Native American life of old . . . before the Euro Americans came and spoiled everything. He would like to live in synch with nature, as he images they did; he would rather take his lumps with nature than with health insurance regulations and credit card payment rules and IRS forms and the constant shift of modern life. There was a lady who was of Native American descent there, and she applauded his sentiment.

    Personally, I think they are romanticizing an imagined past. No doubt there was much wisdom to the ways of the Native Americans, but they were not without violence, anger, war, ego, stupidity and obnoxious characters. Both Jimmy and his Native sympathizer were in their sixties; I wonder how many Native Americans reached that age say in the 1500’s. I myself feel that it’s a nice dream, but mostly a waste of time to imagine any sort of “going back”. I believe that we just have slog along in a complex and frustrating techno-capitalist world, and keep trying to sift out what matters from all of the garbage strewn about the modern social landscape (both literally and figuratively).

Oh well, let’s see what November brings (aside from increasingly cold, blustery weather).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:27 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Economics/Business ... Society ... Socrates Cafe ...

At the local Socrates Cafe meeting, the group recently discussed whether honesty is still the best policy. Almost everyone made the point that 100% honesty is not possible. Fine, said the fellow who proposed the topic. But the real question, he said, is whether honesty should be the preferred policy, the general rule to which exceptions will sometimes occur . . .

That idea sounded good to me; if you couldn’t trust anything you heard from anyone, social life would break down; civilized society would eventually collapse. There could be no schools, no economy, no employers, no government, no organizations of any sort (other than bands of thieves who know what to expect of each other).

Someone replied that truth is a luxury of an affluent society; poor people have to lie. What else can you expect?  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:33 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... Socrates Cafe ...

I just didn’t have a lot to say at the Montclair Socrates Café meeting this week. The topic of the evening was suggested by Kon, who always comes up with interesting topics. His topic on Tuesday was whether the US and western Europe have the right to criticize and judge inhumane practices that occur in the Muslim and underdeveloped nations (e.g., stoning adulteresses, chopping off the hands of theifs, female circumcision, criminalizing homosexuality, etc.).

So the topic had potential; a spin-off from the classic tension between relative and absolute views of morality. But after a while the discussion bogged down into a tear-session about how terrible our so-called civilized society is. Let’s just say that the people that attend these meetings are generally educated, well-off, and have a “liberal” political bias; they don’t stray too far from what they read or hear from the Huffington Post, the Nation, and NPR. So they decried our nation’s history of prejudice, poverty, slavery, male dominance, economic inequality and military action. Even today, we make war. We still have soldiers out there shooting bullets and killing people. Our economy distributes wealth, power and privilege in highly unfair ways. One fellow at the meeting decided to lecture us about Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln only issued the Emancipation Proclamation so as to prevent British aid to the Confederacy. He was clearly implying that Lincoln, who has been held up as the American Gandhi, was not against slavery in principle; in fact, our lecturer concluded that if Lincoln could have held the Union together without ensuring African Americans their rights as human beings, he would have taken the lesser path. (There is a more nuanced analysis of this question on Wikipedia).

I usually don’t jump into the conversation at Socrates for the first hour or so;  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:59 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, June 10, 2010
Society ... Socrates Cafe ...

The Socrates Café meeting last Tuesday seemed like a sleeper to me. The topic for the evening was, what is a corporation’s moral responsibility in our society? This was inspired by the on-going BP deepwater oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana. Oh, what a surprise; so original. For the first hour or so, I just couldn’t get interested. Montclair is a town for educated liberals, and most of the people at the meeting are . . . guess what? Educated liberals. Thus, the conversation was peppered with anti-business rants and “I heard on NPR today that . . .” If I wanted that, I could have stayed home and pulled up the Huffington Post. I listen to NPR on my drive home from work, and I had already heard most of what the local wanna-be revolutionaries were talking about.

But finally, finally, someone said something interesting and thoughtful. During the middle of a lecture on corporate greed, a woman stopped and reflected on how complex the world had become. About fifteen minutes later, after an anti-Tea Party speech, she ended with an observation on how frustrated everyone seems to be these days with our leaders. Well, I finally woke up and joined the discussion. The moderator graciously gave me the floor, and I suggested to the previous speaker that perhaps the quandary noted in her second comment stemmed from what she had identified in her first. I.e., perhaps everyone is frustrated with our leadership these days just because our leaders are being overwhelmed by complexity themselves. Our leaders aren’t pushing the right buttons, because no one really knows what buttons should be pushed anymore.

(It’s happened before; see The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter, 1988)

A scary thought.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:07 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 6, 2010
Politics ... Socrates Cafe ...

Last week at the local Socrates Cafe meeting, a very good question was raised for discussion: whether science or religion were the more arrogant in nature. In the end, the group more or less concluded that in their pure, spiritual forms, both science and religion are not arrogant. However, we live in a politically charged society, and both science and religion are social institutions. So, they can’t help but become political; and politics seem to inspire arrogance.

Whenever people get together to assert joint interests, whether as a political party or a labor union or a social activist group, a collection of reasonable and humble individuals often start asserting and believing positions about their righteousness and the wrongness of all who oppose them which go beyond what they might have concluded in isolation. There’s just something about the group dynamic, about the reinforcement dynamic of people interacting in groups.

Thru this “echo chamber amplification” effect,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Aspergers ... Socrates Cafe ...

The Socrates Cafe question of the evening – Is Morality Deeply Rooted in Empathy?

The initial impressions were favorable; morality is strongly tied to empathy. But what is empathy? Most of the group appeared to be conflating empathy, the ability to detect and understand another person’s mindset, with sympathy, which is a positive and favorable feeling towards the other person and their mindset. A late-arriving participant cut thru the fog and made the distinction. I finally threw in my .02, that morality is close to sympathy, but would not necessarily emerge from empathy in and of itself.

This question interests me given that I have certain behavioral and cognitive patterns that can be associated with Asperger Syndrome; mostly regarding my lack of EMPATHY. I am clearly not an “empathic” person; I have a hard time picking up clues about what is going on in another person’s mind. Once I get to know someone, I get a general sense; but for strangers or people that I am just starting to know, I am “mind blind”. So does that make me an immoral person? And thus, does that make all Aspies, people who are mostly “mind blind”, immoral?

I’d like to think not. I may not be a saint  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:45 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, April 30, 2010
Socrates Cafe ...

There was a nice turn-out at Socrates Café last Tuesday evening, with 11 people (including myself) ready for some thoughtful discussion. We had two new faces and nine veterans (or semi-veterans, in my case), and the topic dejure involved ethics and ethical conduct. Specifically, what are the ethics of responding to someone who irks you, who is creating a nuisance in your life. Just how far can you go in responding; just how much do you have to put up with before taking drastic actions to defend your turf and your peace of mind? Just how dramatic can you get?

The group quickly developed three real-life scenarios based upon inconsiderate neighbors. One involved a neighbor who had ten wandering cats; another involved an unchained, unfenced German shepherd; the third involved an apartment parking lot where a rude tenant appropriated another tenant’s space with his boat trailer. Too many people, unfortunately, just don’t seem to care about the misery they impose on those around them. We shared stories regarding angst and frustration in dealing with such people, about how legal remedies and due process seemed to accomplish little when the perpetrator just wants to be obnoxious. So what should be done about such people, from a philosophical perspective regarding government, society and “the good life”?

Actually, we didn’t get into that. After some lamentations  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:02 pm       No Comments Yet / Leave a Comment
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